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We Are Flying Solo

January 30, 2011

Back To Basics

I was hard at work last night, whining about how I couldn't ride my horse and throwing myself about the house in true adult fashion.  Lifeshighway had the audacity (the nerve!) to break into said whining fit and suggest just doing something fun with Solo on the ground so at least I wouldn't just be staring at him with sad puppy eyes.

She is a very smart friend.

Add to that it was 60 degrees and sunny; it was simply not possible to stay in the house and pout, so I rolled over to the farm and decided to blow the dust off our groundwork, something I'd not done for probably two years.

Ground exercises are so very simple, yet they can be vital underpinnings to not only our relationship with our horses, but our ability to handle them safely. But in their very simplicity lies the ease with which we neglect them. I believe it is vital that every horse we own should have these basic cues thoughtfully installed for two reasons: (1) It allows us to control their body movements from the ground. (2) It helps to establish our role as a leader in our horses' mind. (3 - ok, I thought of another one) It lets our horses engage their minds through communication in a language they understand: pressure/release and body language.

Here is what I consider the basics:

-Yield the hindquarters to pressure behind the girth area on both sides. This includes a proper cross-over step with the hind legs.

-Step back from pressure either on the bridge of the nose or the chest.

-Lower the head from pressure on the poll.

-Walk in a circle around me in both directions, maintaining the motion unprompted until I say whoa.

-Lead quietly next to me. Stop when I stop. Back up when I back up. Wait patiently when we are standing still.

It's not rocket science. I use a rope halter from our good friends at Sunset Halters (Solo is even on their photo page in his halter/bridle they made for him!), a 10' lead rope, and a dressage whip. Solo models his custom halter, below. And as a side note, these halters are fantastic; it still looks as great as it did five years ago and you can wash it in your washing machine! They never fade, stretch, or break.

This picture is so old, Solo has a mane!

I use the butt of the dressage whip to give pressure cues on the chest and rib cage. I use my fingers for pressure on the poll or nose. I use body language to control the whoa and backing up at a distance. And I ALWAYS maintain a relaxed, calm, patient demeanor so that Solo is at ease too.

It usually works like this:

I hold the lead rope in one hand and standing next to Solo's left shoulder, I ask him to yield his hindquarters to right using the butt of my whip against his ribs. I use the lightest pressure possible, only increasing if he does not respond and releasing as soon as he does. I repeat three times. I have no idea why three. It feels good. I repeat standing on his right side.

I place the fingers of one hand on the bridge of his nose and ask him to back four or five steps. I then put three fingers on his poll and ask him to lower his head.

Next, I ask him to walk three circles around me in each direction. I just like three, ok. After three circles, I lean slightly to one side, fix my eyes on his hip and ask him to swing around and face me squarely at the halt. Eyes are powerful, so he does.

I walk up, pat him, then tie the lead rope around his neck, so he is now at liberty. I walk off, he follows with his nose at my elbow. We circle and loop at the walk, turning both directions, some big loops, some smaller. Then I stop. He stops. I take four deliberate steps backwards. So does he. I have not touched him since tying up the lead. I start forwards again and now I trot. He trots. I stop and back up quickly and he does the same.

Now, I turn and face him straight on and raise my arms above my head, square my chest and ask him to back up two steps. He does and I lower my arms and relax. I count to ten, then move into him and rub his forehead, he licks and chews and we are done. Maybe fifteen minutes has elapsed.

He is now re-tuned into my body and my energy, he is attentive to me and when I untie the lead from his neck, he follows me quietly back to the barn. Even though it's been a while, he remembers his exercises well and I am satisfied.

So, fellow horse-folks, how are your basics? Rusty? Polished to a spit-shine? Not yet installed?  Can you complete each task on the list?  Do you have other favourites that you insist your horses know?  Do share!

January 29, 2011

Despondency Is No Fun At All

All bummed out and nowhere to go.

Solo did not feel any better on our test ride today. Which means our problems are probably not inflammation, since the bute had little to no effect. He still won't lift his back and push from behind. He still locks down the left side of his jaw HARD. So I am still miserable.

Next step: he is due for a chiropractic adjustment anyway, so I'll call the vet on Monday. If I'm lucky, they can adjust and inspect our mysterious problem.  If I'm really lucky, that will SOLVE our problem.  The hard part will be detecting something that causes no limping, swelling, or heat.

Till then, Mr. Shiny will be hanging out with his buddy, Pete, waiting for dinner and getting fat. *sniff*

January 28, 2011

Me So Handy

I am hoping the warming weekends mean that winter is moving on out. If it's not, I may use the pitchfork in a forceful manner to encourage it to do so.

Solo is finishing up his bute regimen and I will attempt to get on him tomorrow to see what I have under me. Keep your hooves crossed please!

Since one must keep oneself busy in winter to avoid assuming the shape of an eggplant, I decided to load all my power tools in the truck last weekend and attack some crippled jump standards we'd been storing. Yay, power tools! Music to a girl's ears...

There were four gate wing standards.  Two had legs rotted off and several of the middle boards were, well, held together by duct tape.

I'm on it!! Just give me an extension cord and I'm entertained for hours! Ok, at least an hour till I get impatient and figure out some shortcut that won't look quite as good but hey, it's fixed! Check out the prowess in action! Thank god I am better at building things than I am at dressage.

I know, it's amazing I didn't saw a finger off. Solo and I share accident-prone genes. We make up for it with, uh, our charmingness, of course!

Voila! One of my newly patched masterpieces. Mad skillz, baby, mad skillz.

January 26, 2011

Big Red Fire

I spoke to Dr. Bob again on Tuesday.  We agreed given the sudden onset of Solo's discomfort and the fact that he wasn't "warming up out of it," he's probably tweaked something while leaping around in the pasture on the crappy winter ground.  So now it's a week of bute and no work for him and a week of staring despondently for me, while I hope fervently every day that this is just a passing ache and that I'll soon have my horse back.

As a consolation prize, I had the DVD release of the 2010 film "Secretariat" in hand, eager to revisit the magnificent horse I met long ago (left). Since it was the Disney version, I braced myself for historical inaccuracy and cheesiness. Turns out, they should have named it "The Penny Chenery Story," as Secretariat seemed to play a minor supporting role. And the horse who played Red could not capture the legend's incredibly regal eye and proud soul. But it was a fair introduction to this mind-blowing athlete for people who may not have grown up with his story and included Big Red's bitter rivalry with Sham, a brave bay (ironically, bred and owned by Claiborne farm, where Secretariat retired) who never raced again after his defeat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

But the redemption of the film is in watching beautiful horses run; it never fails to make me catch my breath and go still. Because I know how it feels to sit on top of 1200 pounds of red fire. I know the sound of each foot as it hits the ground and pushes off, propelling a chestnut rocket to ever greater speed. I know the chug of air that rushes into two flared nostrils to fuel the flame stoked within. I know the incredible surge of muscle as a burnished copper back and hindquarter coils and releases immense energy in the name of the gallop. And I know the electricity of sitting on top of the unadulterated joy of running, the flaming of a soul who lives to stretch out well-muscled legs and eat up the earth in quickening strides.

I have been lucky. I have been blessed. And I will never forget it.


January 23, 2011

Hamsters On Drugs

This is how my brain operates: (1) Imagine a hamster's feet while he is running on a wheel. (2) Put that hamster on speed. (3) Now put him in a hurricane.  And the hamster may at any time leap completely off that wheel and shoot into a different one that you didn't even know was there.

That's the general idea. Fast and crazed and completely unpredictable. 

There's a lot going on. I spoke with Dr. Bob as I mentioned in my previous post. Ok, by "spoke," I may mean "I called and blabbered my general freaked-out state in some nutty horse-woman fashion, convinced that I had ruined my horse forever." He says I am a crazy person (well, I don't see how that is relevant!). But he feels that Solo's stiffness is rather due to the prolonged and bitter cold and the frozen ground (Mr. Shiny does enjoy airs above the ground in his pasture on a regular basis), not any changes in management. However, since he is the lovely Dr. Bob, he had already faxed in a new Adequan Rx for us and hoped that I was right anyway and after a few shots, I'd have my horse back. Otherwise, I just have to wait for it to get warmer and hopefully, the stiffness will subside. It better, because wouldn't you know I just planned out our spring season...

On Saturday, I also attended the USEA Area II Annual Meeting in Leesburg, VA. A whole day of sitting around just talking about horses and eventing -- what could be better than that (aside from actually riding said horses)? It was a great time with some really well-done presentations (and OMG, Eventing Nation actually reported on something I went to!!). We have a new Adult Rider chairperson and she has loads of fantastic ideas. A local physical therapist talked to us about human biomechanics in relation to riding and how we should shape our fitness accordingly (this one had a lot of surprises). John DeSilva of Ecogold gave a hilarious and informative presentation on their boots and saddle pads. He just made me want to buy his stuff because he was awesome! A geneticist/breeder also talked about equine conformation on a skeletal level and had quite a few fascinating illustrations. It was well worth the drive north (and freezing my ass off up there)!

Today, BO and I took our boys out XC schooling. It was her young TB's first time out, so Solo was needed for "lead" duty. Solo was still stiff so we didn't do as much as I would have liked, but we did tackle a few of the big things out there and, though he wavered a bit, I kept my leg on, DIDN'T CHICKEN OUT, and we had ZERO refusals, which is a big BIG step up for us in the "Quest To Jump Big Scary Jumps." You might remember this giant (2010 photo below) from last year. Last February, it took me three tries and some serious gulping to get over it. Today, I sat down, wrapped my legs around that horse, and we leaped it (not pretty, but hey, it was clean) in one go.