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We Are Flying Solo

October 14, 2009

Success And Failure

Yes, you caught me, I am back! Momentarily refreshed by a beautiful trip to the Outer Banks. Got Solo moved to a new farm yesterday, which is heaven...but that's a story for another day.

Now where was I?

Oh yes, we crashed and burned. Solo had lost his confidence and I mine. We went home and undertook tarp training.

It wasn't hard -- a little grain bribery and patience soon had him standing in the center of the blue tarp without much fuss. Then we gradually added it to jumps in scarier and scarier setups and jumped over it.

Sweet, problem solved!

So we went back to the next show in the series.


It took us two tries to get over the first jump. The second jump was a huge white picket fence oxer. To which Solo responded by bugging out his eyeballs and running sideways out of the (unfenced) arena at warp speed at which point we were whistled off course for ungentlemanly behaviour (Solo doing his best to gallop sidepass and me hanging on begging him to turn).

Problem NOT solved. Obviously, Solo remembered the Scene of the Crime. And there was no way I was going to get him around that course that day.

I went and talked to the farm owner and asked if they would be leaving the course up that night and if I could return the next day to school these obviously Horse-Destroying Obstacles. She of Infinite Kindness said sure.

The next day, we returned, alone this time (with a friend for ground support) to face our demons.

Solo was nervous and refused the first jump. We got over it the second time with a little kicking, but it didn't feel good. We had the Blue Tarp of Doom set up too. Farm owner showed up, she was schooling her horse XC that day, to see how we were doing. She offered to give us a lead over the Doom Tarp and after a moment, I accepted. Lead given. Solo jumped it like a champ.

It was like a switch flipped. We continued around and all of a sudden, we were back in business. We jumped everything twice and called it a day.

I was happy, but cautious. I knew I needed to keep him set up for success. His newfound confidence was fragile and keeping goals small and achievable would be paramount for recovery.

It was time to go back home and start rebuilding the framework for our future jump by careful jump. We started at 2' courses. We worked on the exercises that the Woff had given me, insisting on a calm NORMAL canter on course before proceeding to the next jump, keeping in mind his instruction to BE FIRM and not accept doing it wrong.

I was thinking. Solo was responding. And things were beginning to change.

October 6, 2009

And We All Fall Down

PhotobucketWe seemed to be going along ok. I tried hard to practice what Jim had shown me, especially one exercise in which you take one jump, then put your horse on a circle until he has a nice canter rhythm and THEN go to the next jump. Do not pass Go until rhythm accomplished. In typical fashion, I think I did it about 8 or 10 times and then went "Ok, fixed!" *snort*

We had a canter, sort of. It still got rushy and unbalanced easily, especially on a jump course. Solo resembled a giraffe while executing leaning, on-the-forehand turns, but there was no bucking or bolting so I considered that problem solved too!

*brushes off hands*  There, my horse is finished! (snorts even louder)

So we entered the first in a local jumper show series. No problem, right? We can jump, Solo always jumps clean, I hang on and point with gritted teeth, we'll be champions!

PhotobucketIt began ok. The plan was to warm up in 2'6" and go to 2'9".

Then we got to jump #5. It was an option: (a) a skinny skinny with blue wavy planks or (b) a vertical over a liverpool. Solo had pretty much never refused anything so I went for the liverpool -- it's just a vertical right? And it had more room for error!


It went like this:

Approach, approach, me staring at liverpool like an idiot.
Solo begins to stare at liverpool, informing me that there may indeed be hoof-feeding sharks in there.
I tell myself, Look up, you idiot!, while at that same time staring down at Solo staring in horror at that Blue Tarp of Doom.

End result -- at the last possible second, as I kick, Solo plants his front feet. I'm thrown off balance, but no big deal...oh wait, then he drops a shoulder and spins away. Depositing me neatly on the top rail while he gallops back towards the trailer wailing, "No freaking way!" over his shoulder.

I wish I had a picture!

A kind ring steward caught my horse and returned him to me. Solo's eye rolled at me, going, "OMG, you are supposed to stay on me! WTF are you doing down there??! What just happened??"

I glared at him silently as I climbed back on and in one of my (not) finer moments, growled under my breath, I don't like you very much right now, horse.

Hosting trainer kindly lowered the jump so we could school it. I tried again. Solo planted his feet again and jumped sideways again. I stayed on this time, but caught him in the face as he jumped and his front feet popped up a little in surprise. There nothing like hearing onlookers gasp while you are riding. It pretty much makes you want to slink under your trailer like a dog that just got whacked in the butt with a newspaper.

Judge suggested maybe we just jump something else to end on a positive note. Solo suggested that maybe I go f@ck myself instead. There was nothing left to do but retire gracefully.

PhotobucketWe went and schooled the XC course there instead, I couldn't stand the thought of going home without SOMETHING positive. Of course, as soon as he saw THOSE obstacles, Solo was quite happy to gallop and leap over anything I pointed him at.Photobucket

We loaded up and went home, my head hung in shame. Both of us with shattered confidence. I had never fallen off Solo before and it made his world fall apart.

My plan: stare blankly out the windshield wondering, Now what the hell do I do?

October 5, 2009

And Then There Was The Woff

Unless you live in some kind of cave, Jim Wofford is a household name in the horse world. And in eventing-land, he is synonymous with God. Only funnier and less likely to smite.

For over a decade I had longed to ride with "The Woff," (that's right guys, it's skill, humility, & humour that make thousands of women long for you) but considered it about as likely as being recruited to the Olympic team (read: probability = zero). Until I got a flyer about a Wofford jumping clinic being held about two hours from me.

Oh yeah, baby, I pounced. That check got written so fast that the pen burned a hole through the register. And on a cool fall morning in 2008, we trailered up to the mountains for two days of immersion in The World According To Jim.

Each day started with a sit down lecture for about an hour in a room with a whiteboard where Jim drew diagrams, answered questions, and postulated his great theories on how eventing should be done. Just like his writing, it was steeped in experience, insight, humour, and a passion for the horse. I mostly sat there with a stupid look on my face, staring in awe.

Then we'd go get horses ready and move out to the understated little arena at the hosting farm.

It was freaking gorgeous.

I started out so excited -- jumping is our strong suit, so I was sure we were just going to blow Jim away with Solo's boundless heart and enthusiasm coupled with his easy going and calm demeanor. We started to warm up as Jim set up his gymnastics. Then I asked for the canter.

Then my horse vanished into thin air and was replaced by a hopping, bucking, bolting, snorting beast of an animal to whom I claimed no ownership. I was mortified. And Solo -- I mean SatanSpawn, bless his heart, was kind enough to keep it up for the entire clinic.

I dealt with it as best I could, namely, 40,000 half halts, swearing under my breath, getting left behind half the time, and perfecting the leaning circle at terminal velocity. And Jim, in his infinite patience and kindness, refrained from laughing.

Each day started with progressive gymnastics, with an emphasis on a soft, quiet rhythmic approach (which we failed, mostly dismally) and letting the horse work out problems for themselves, as they would be REQUIRED to do on a XC course, where, when the rubber hit the road, the ability of the horse to think for itself was critical!

Then we'd string a few fences together in exercises that varied each day. One of my biggest problems when jumping is that my mind tends to go blank as soon as I start a course. I walk it, I analyze it, I get all prepared, then I get on my horse, and as soon as the whistle blows, all my planning coalesces into an internal monologue like this:

Ok, canter, OMG JUMP, ahhhhh, SLOW DOWN, dammit another jump, AHHH TURN TURN TURN, OMG, no we have to jump THAT ONE!

Yeah, the picture of composure. So as we were doing several exercises, I could hear Jim calmly asking, "Where are you going? The jump is over here?" But he was able to give me some great tips on being a THINKING rider, instead of a reacting one.

Getting tips from the Master

We didn't leave out our dressage either of course -- my lovely mount, SatanSpawn, decided to practice his levade mid-lesson over a terrifying blue jump.

We worked it out in the end.

We left that weekend with a LOT to think about. Jim really changed my approach to riding and training, building on what I had learned from Ian Stark and reinforcing the fact that as riders, we really need to be thoughtful about what we are teaching our horses. A horse can learn something with as little as ONE repetition. So lessons like "you WILL be on the correct lead every time" and "you WILL have a calm, rhythmic canter before proceeding to the next jump" are ones that we are teaching (or UNteaching) every day by insisting that these things WILL occur and not proceeding until they do.

There was much much more of course, but in the interest of moving forward, I will leave you with that. Next time: Tales Of The Blue Lagoon And Confidence Lost.

September 30, 2009

There's A First Time For Everything...

Big Horse, Little ArenaIncluding horse trials!

It was summer 2008 & the time had come to GET OUT THERE and do it. 

A local farm does a nice little greenie horse trial smack in the middle of their pecan groves, making it a beautiful shady spot to try your hand at eventing in a welcoming setting with obstacles that are simple & inviting to the horse and rider just starting out.

We left our farm somewhere around the butt-crack of dawn but I was hardly brain was churning all the way there: Do I know my dressage test? Have I forgotten my girth? Will our horrible Race Canter surface? What if Solo limps?

You see, my genius of a red horse had given himself a stone bruise several weeks before.  I had outfitted him with a set of EasyBoots Epics (love 'em!) & pads & he was floating around in comfort, but the worry was still there....

Arriving, I parked under a spreading pecan canopy & walked out the grounds. The XC course was small with one tiny bank & a puddle to splash through.   The only thing "looky" was a set of lighthouses framing one jump, but I thought we could handle it.  Everything else looked quite manageable & I had my game face on.


Big horse in a little arena.  This was only our second time in the 20 x 40 m arena & Solo's easy strides swallowed up the lines faster than I could comprehend. 

We did stay on course though & while not exactly a picture of roundness, we managed to put in a calm, accurate performance for what remains our best score to date, a 41 (I am still convinced the judge was just eminently kind & forgiving!).

Airborne Over Hay WagonCross Country

It was a very short course, but we LOVED it. Solo was thrilled to have at it & was quite forward, leaping in exuberant style over every obstacle.  I am sure people could hear my giggling as we cantered past, occasionally sideways as I had to convince Solo that we REALLY didn't need to gallop a baby baby course!

Turning to approach the lighthouses, he went, "Agghhh!!! WTF is that?" accompanied by a leap sideways, but we corrected & cleared it with room to spare.

Our only shortcoming was the inability to trot, so we ended with 12 speed penalties. Oops (if I pretend to feel guilty does that count?).

Mini Bank

Scary Lighthouses

Stadium Jumping

We finished it off easily in the stadium round.   One boot came off mid-course, I thought I heard it but by the time I was sure, Solo had finished the course with it flapping around his ankle, bless his willing heart.   I leaped off & removed it as soon as I could get him stopped & there was no damage to horse or boot, whew!

All in all, we ended up in fourth place with a clear stadium round.  It was a heady beginning that only further fed the event-hungry beast inside me!

September 25, 2009

Aaaaall By Myseeeeeeeelf.....

Sing it with me!

I'm sure you've figured it out on your own, but there are several layers to this blog title. One is blatantly obvious, being that Solo loves to fly! The other is that Solo and I, up until very recently, are on this journey by ourselves. We are, in essence, thanks to my awesomely miniscule excuse for a salary, flying solo. No trainers, no lessons, just the 20-odd years of my own experience and whoever I can annoy enough to answer questions, along with any books, websites, or articles I can get my hands on.

I took dressage lessons for about 7 or 8 years growing up, then three years of hunter lessons in college. I still read everything that stops moving long enough for me to absorb it and actively seek out as much information about horse training and care as I can possibly find. And then of course, there is practical knowledge I've accumulated from just schooling other people's horses and finding what works and what doesn't.

This odd mish-mash of skills and lack thereof were all I had to bring to the table for Solo and as a result, our progress (yes, let's call it that, it sounds so much better than what ACTUALLY occurred) was halting at best. I was in the process of learning that there is a HUGE difference between schooling a horse and training a horse. The former is pretty easy and simply requires a solid base of riding skills. The latter is akin to a hybrid between art and science and requires the patience of a saint, the ingenuity of an inventor, and the discipline of...something really disciplined.

What I was doing at that time and leading up to it, was mostly schooling. I'd get on, Solo and I would ride some trails, we'd work in the ring. We'd school maybe 10-20 jumps, do some walk/trot/canter. I'd do a few circles, serpentines, change direction. I did pick up the book 101 Arena Exercises and it gave some some great ideas for exercises, but...there was no real direction to what we did.

I knew I wanted to event. I knew what our weak points were, at least generally (bending, roundness, pretty much anything dressage). I knew what our strong points were (jumping and speed). But I didn't have a clear idea or plan of how to get there.

I kept practicing things, schooling over and over, but it never really resulted in things getting all that much better. We were floating adrift in a sea of mediocrity. Everything was ok, but nothing was great. 2008 was supposed to be our big year to break out onto the eventing scene, but given the disastrous turn of spring and early summer, things weren't looking promising. Don't get me wrong, I was having a blast riding my horse -- but looking back now, I can see that we were doing a whole lot of moving without really going anywhere.