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We Are Flying Solo

March 23, 2010

Up And Down

In a small feat of willpower (and no small amount of ibuprofen) after Saturday morning's hullaballoo (which also set off a burgeoning migraine, oh fun fun fun), I gritted my teeth and hooked up the trailer that afternoon. I was NOT about to let a little pain (ok, a LOT of pain) get between me and a camping trip on a beautiful weekend!!

I met our bestest riding buddy, lifeshighway and we settled into camp on the northern end of the Uwharrie National Forest. Even the worst day can be redeemed sitting in a recliner chair nursing a good beer on a gorgeous spring evening, serenaded by the soft sounds of settling horses and the squeak of bats fluttering overhead at dusk.

Lifeshighway and I have a dream. We dream of a day when we go on a riding trip and NOTHING HAPPENS. While we enjoy the fact that there is always a good story to come home with, it really would be great if we could have a whole trip where no one gets a traumatic brain injury or no horses get sucked into cypress bottom bogs (oh yes, we've done that one) or we don't get hopelessly lost and end up trying to race the sunset out of the woods.

Here's the thing: normally, I have an excellent sense of direction. I am great at reading maps. My job relies on this ability, as I am routinely navigating teeny rural dirt roads and using only GPS and terrain clues to find field sites in rivers. However, something happens when I ride with lifeshighway. I think she is my kryptonite. You know when you take a compass to a place with strong magnetic activity and it just spins in circles? Yeah, it's like that -- I think she actually has a spinning core of molten iron and as a result, my compass needle spins wildly and uselessly as we blunder about the Carolina piedmont.

Last time we rode Uwharrie, we ended up traversing the same 1/2 mile section of trail approximately 6 times, as we'd go one way, panic, turn around and go the other way, panic again, turn and go the other way, panic...Pete (lifeshighway's awesome little endurance Arab) and Solo were ready to toss us in the river and hightail it home on their own.

Sunday, we rode out with not only two different maps, but a GPS unit as well. And had a gorgeous ride on beautiful trails, up one side of each mountain and down the other. The trails there can entail some technical riding, which I enjoy, including some steep rocky sections where I quickly dismount and walk down, letting Solo find his own way without my hindrance. And if you go before the leaves come out, you can get great views from the summits, as Pete and lifeshighway demonstrate below.

In fact, I can say that the entire ride was completely without event. Ok, lifeshighway may have enjoyed a giggle or two every time I dismounted and got back on, going Owwwwwwww! Ow ow ow! but hey, I live to entertain. We spent about three hours exploring the highs and lows, the ridges and streams, and traversing the rocks and logs of the woods at a slow, steady pace. All in all, pretty much a perfect ride! Until we got back to camp...

The big red man enjoys the view. Possibly thinking Dear god, I have to walk back to the trailer through all THAT?!

March 22, 2010

Always Listen To Your Gut. And Your Horse.

This one is for all y'all out there like me -- trying to bring a horse along without 50 gazillion dollars, reading articles about all these successful riders who never seem to have any real issues, and getting worn out from constantly smacking yourself in the forehead wondering why your horse endeavors just can't seem to progress that smoothly.

So Saturday was a gorgeous 75 degree, sunny, low humidity, dream of a spring day. I thought since we were leaving Saturday evening to head down to the mountains to camp, it would be nice to get another light jump school in. I hesitated a little (here's that smart lil' gut chiming in) -- I just jumped Solo on Wednesday so I thought, hmmm, is that overdoing it? But I convinced myself I wouldn't work him that hard, it would be fine.

We'd been working pretty hard on our dressage Thurs and Fri, practicing those canter transitions (still improving nicely, yay!) and some lateral work. As I warmed up Saturday morning, Solo stepped out nicely, but I could tell over our warm-up crossrail, he was feeling a bit tired and maybe a little sore. I pointed him at our gymnastic line of four jumps. And he stoppped soundly in front of the first one -- which from him I KNOW is a clear statement of No, thank you ma'am, I am tired and sore and not up to the hard work that is this gymnastic.

Ah, but I should have listened. Folks, it really IS ok, to do something else and come back another day sometimes. But instead, I stubbornly clung to some rhetoric that said I had to do this RIGHT NOW.

We came back to it again, he jumped the first X but stopped at the bounce vertical after it. Again, clearly telling me Lady, I have warned you that I am not up to this today. Again, I do not listen -- I lower the jumps and insist on being stubbon.

It should come as no surprise that the next time through, he jumped the first two in a sort of lurching fashion which threw me a little off balance, then spun out at the third one, neatly depositing me on the ground. Which by the way, also reinforced why I am the helmet nazi as I landed on my back and felt my head hit the ground with a soft thunk. Woulda hurt a lot more without that helmet on there. As Courtney King-Dye can tell you, if she ever gets to tell anyone anything again -- she is STILL in need of all the good karma you can send and still unable to speak or do much after fracturing her skull when a horse fell in the dressage ring with her. Like many dressage riders, she wore no helmet. Being a beautiful, talented rider sadly cannot save you from the fact that falls and horses are inevitable partners.

I grumbled and cursed but climbed back on, mostly unhurt aside from a few pulled muscles. However, it appeared I was still unable to learn even after being whacked on the head, so I tried that stupid gymnastic AGAIN. Pretty much same result, including landing on the ground AGAIN, despite some fairly impressive dangling and clawing in attempt to stay on that really only resulted in MORE pulled muscles.

At this point, I am more stubborn and idiotic than Satan's own mule, so I climb back on again and do the damn gymnastic again. This time, we do make it through, although Solo is jumping flat and hard, which means he is definitely tired. We do a couple single jumps, to make it positive and quit there.

Did I accomplish anything aside from making sure that Sunday and today, I limp around in astonishment that I cannot use any of my extremities without pain? No, I doubt it.

I did finally manage to learn something from it though: ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR HORSE. Solo is honest and generous but his body has limits and he tried hard to tell me that I was asking for too much. Even my gut knew that I should take it easy that day. Fortunately, pulled muscles and bruised bums will heal fairly quickly (but dear God, they sure hurt more as you get older, owwwwwww....) and I have no ego to bruise, so we'll be back on track shortly.

So don't feel alone next time you have a REALLY BAD riding day -- we all fall down and we all make bad calls and the best we can do is examine them and learn what NOT to do next time!

March 19, 2010

How To Blanket A Horse

I bet you thought you knew how to perform this simple skill, didn't you? Well, around our place, some technique modification is required.

1. Enter pasture with blanket wadded under one arm so you can open the gate with the other.
2. Unwind blanket straps from around legs as horses trot up to investigate whether mysterious bundle under your arm is stuffed with carrots.
3. Place blanket on Jeff's (Solo's pasture mate who is body clipped, hence the blanket) back.
4. Remove Solo's nose from Jeff's back so you can smooth out blanket before beginning to attach straps.
5. Buckle chest straps.
6. Remove Solo's nose from your back pocket so you can walk around to do leg straps.
7. Fasten Jeff's leg strap on near side.
8. Remove Solo's nose from underneath Jeff's blanket on off side so you can also fasten that leg strap.
9. Remove Solo's nose from your shoulder so you can walk back around to Jeff's near side to fasten belly straps.
10. Fasten front belly strap.
11. Remove Solo's nose from your side pocket so you can fasten rear belly strap.
12. Pat Jeff on the bum so he knows he is free to go.
13. Extricate Solo from your lap so you can open pasture gate and exit.

March 17, 2010

Yes, Yes It DID Work

Because I know you have been up all night DID it really stick?  Did the draw rein lesson actually teach Solo what I wanted him to do during his transitions?  Would it carry over to a draw-rein-less ride, where there is no possibility of backup should the head flinging return?

Because I know the DQ's were waiting eagerly for a report once I removed the evil, awful, horse-ruining, shortcut-producing, bad-rider-indicating draw reins of torture and incorrectness.  (Was that melodramatic enough for ya?)


Blogger editor, on the other hand is not. Working. By choosing to ignore my keystrokes half the time, which may result in my hurling my laptop while screaming curses at a program that does not give one whit for my mental anguish.

The same, happily, cannot be said of our ride, where, after doing some brief trot work (at a pace closely equivalent to that of a sleeping snail, for some reason), I asked, with a deep breath and a lot of hope, for a canter. The transition was a little bit sloppy, but Solo definitely was concentrating on trying to do it right and did not AT ANY TIME offer to fling his nose in the air to make things easier!

Just to make sure, I changed directions and tried again and practically giggled while praising him as he kept his nose down on the bit and stepped into a balanced canter!

Oh, happiness IS a successful horsey breakthrough moment!

March 14, 2010

Tools Bring Success

Solo's always had a habit, when picking up the canter, of flinging his head in the air and lurching into it.  It's annoying.  And dressage judges don't really seem to go gaga for it either.

Right before I got sick last week, I decided it was time for said habit to go bye-bye.  I talked with P and we decided that we would dust off the draw reins for a ride or two, using them to show Solo what I was asking of him.

Oh I know right this very moment the purist DQ's are shrieking in horror that I am ruining my horse to all eternity by "cheating" with gadgets and blah blah blah.  Well, they can get over it.  I know my horse.  I know myself as a rider.  And this circumstance was perfect for the application of the draw reins as a tool to make the right thing easy and wrong thing hard.  As long as Solo was round and moving forward, draw rein effect is ZERO.  Only when he chooses to fling his nose in the air like a fruit loop do they come into play.

So, we enter the arena theatre last week.  We warm up and get back muscles loose and warm.  I then ask Solo to step up into a shorter frame and come into a working outline.  I cue for canter.  Predictably, Solo flings his nose up and hits the end of the draw reins.  And reacts roughly as if I had jammed a cattle prod into his eyeball.  Jumping sideways with eyes rolling, he promptly loses his mind.  I maintain my calm, doing nothing but breathe softly and give, encouraging him back into working trot.  We repeat this overly dramatic routine about four times before he finally canters.  Did I mention he can be overly dramatic?  But the key here was for me to stay soft and patient until he chose the easy thing and gave me the right answer.  And lo and behold, on ask number five, his head came up a little, but did not engage the draw rein and he stepped lightly into canter.  GOOD BOY!  We repeated the same sequence in the opposite direction and as soon as he picked up the canter without hitting my hand, we quit for the day.  Solo chomped on the bit, going hmmmmmm, was that all she wanted??

Well, time out for horrid disease which has left me with pretty much no energy.  But I was determined to get back on the horse today and at least do a light ride.  Pathetically, I could only trot about twice around the small arena until I was exhausted, but it was something.  I had put the draw reins on for the second and final time to check and see if canter transition message had been received and processed.  We picked up a working trot and Solo stepped forward nice and round.  In the corner, I sat down, bent him, and asked for the canter.  And I'll be damned if that horse didn't chew down onto the bit and step over his back into canter.  EXCELLENT BOY!!!  We repeated it three times in each direction and without missing a beat he gave me a correct transition staying quiet in the bridle each time.  I was ecstatic!  At this point I was also thoroughly drained and exhausted so I slid off and gave him a big hug.

The draw reins will go back on their hook in the trailer now, having done their job as my assistant physical therapist, showing my horse very clearly what I needed him to do.  Hopefully, we can carry this forward in the coming weeks and pop into the dressage ring at the end of the month with this new trick up our sleeve!