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We Are Flying Solo

November 13, 2011

Higher And Faster: A Night At The Grand Prix

Last night, a packed crowd gasped and cheered 23 horses around the course and through the jumpoff at the 2011 Duke Children's Benefit Grand Prix in Raleigh.  When I attended a Grand Prix last year, my experience was one of mass flying pole carnage and horses whose jumps made me close my eyes in fear.  Not so, this time; the caliber of equines had obviously made a massive leap in the upwards direction.

This was a 1.5 meter course (4.92 feet for you non-scientific people), as demonstrated by this brave competitor.  I can only imagine such a course walk:  "Ok, jump is at eyeball level.  Fine, no problem.  Next!"

Quite thoughtfully and appropriately, the venue saw fit to pay tribute to Solo and all his contributions to horsedom.  As they should.  Ha.

And it began.  Meagan Nusz, a young rider from The Woodlands, TX, stole much of the show with her four phenomenal horses.  I think she is all of 24 years old and has been winning Grands Prix at least since she was 17, which leads me to believe that apparently I should have been born in a parallel universe that she obviously lives in.  Ridiculous!  But fun to watch and she rode the pants off those horses.  If horses had pants.  Each of her horses was more fantastic-moving than the last and they all had HUGE, lofty jumps, like 1.5 m was a walk in the park. 

A beautiful moving liver chestnut named Why Not.

Our favourite, a gorgeous grey named Cilantro.  The name is all charm.

We were a bit confused when she brought this one in, a bit of a chestnut named Dynamo.  Compared to the instant "wow" factor of the other 3, this little guy looked like just your average horse.  Then he lofted the first jump.

Another show stopper was 5x Olympic rider Manuel Torres, a Columbian rider with a butt tossing stallion named Chambucanero. WARNING: do not Google this rider's name without some sort of equine qualifier! Apparently, an identically named actor is quite famous for films of the pornographic genre. What has been seen cannot be unseen. Yeah, I know you are googling it right now. Nonetheless, Manuel and Chambucanero rode at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although it looks like they had an unfortunate 21 fault round there.  Not so on this night!

We had some local favourites, too; like veteranarian Fernando Cardenaz, of 3H, a Raleigh-based clinic which specializes in lamenesses.  His horse, Orphan Car, is a regular in this ring.

Harold Chopping competed for the Canadians in the past, but now trains hunters in NC.  He rode two and I did not get video of the witchy, but talented mare on which he won 3rd place for the night.  This was his other horse, Big Air.

I also really liked this grey horse, Wattesson, even if he didn't go clean.

Then it was time for the jumpoff, which was a surprisingly large field, with 11 or 12 riders.

Thaise Erwin, an Australian rider based locally, and her mare, Matilda, set the pace.

Then Manuel Torres and Chambucanero blew it wide open.

The next 8 riders couldn't touch him, although Harold came very close. Until Meagan and Dynamo came back.

It was impossible to restrain oneself from yelling, "Go, pony, go!" and more than one of us leaped out of our chairs as Dynamo shot through the finish timers like a rocket. The atmosphere was electric (unless you were Manuel Torres) and even the horses fed off of the energy. What a fantastic way to spend an evening! And so much more relaxing when YOU are not the one picking stalls and cleaning feet and shining tack and walking courses....whew!

November 11, 2011

Gymnastics (Not The Kind I Sucked At When I Was Seven)

The sound of winter blowing in is the clink of blanket buckles against a stall front and the rustle of dead leaves under hooves. It's a bite to the wind that sneaks under your helmet and belies the bright sun.

But you're still sweating after you set 10 jumps with ground lines and complete your warmup trot circles.

Indeed, it was jump school day for Encore, with the help of his peanut bribery accomplice friend, Cindy, who graciously picked up poles AND shot video.

We began with just a few single jumps; straw bales between some barrels, single verticals, a plank oxer. Encore took me readily to each jump and lofted over, clean and clear. He felt good, confident, and we even had a modicum of steering to the fence!

Then it was time to tackle the gymnastic lines. And how exactly DO we tackle them?

I am a big believer in letting the horse work things out -- you have to allow him to make mistakes to teach him to solve problems and think for himself. Unless you can ride an entire cross country course without making a single rider mistake (superhuman, are you?), your horse MUST learn to find the solutions on his own while you stay out of the way.

Now, I'm not suggesting you sit up there like a dead toad (although sometimes I feel like that is my approximate level of usefulness); it is your job to set him up for success. You give him rhythm and balance and then you sit back and let your partner navigate the obstacle. Your reactions are not fast enough and you are not strong enough to do anything more over a jump than pull him off balance and invite disaster. Therefore, it's up to you to lay the groundwork beforehand so he is equipped save your sorry butt later!

So when riding a gymnastic, you should be balanced, with your legs wrapped around the horse, your butt off his back, your shoulder up, and a soft, preferably loopy reins. Your horse should have complete freedom to navigate the line.

"But, OMG, he will rush!" Probably so. The first time. That is why I use placing poles every stride to direct his footfalls. If he screws up, well, he's going to step on a lot of poles and bang himself on the rails while he's at it and that's just uncomfortable. A smart horse will only make that mistake once. Don't feel cruel -- the jumps are set low so he has a healthy margin for error. Far better he make a mistake and bang a shin now and learn from it then at full gallop on course where it might flip him over on you.

I set up three trot poles to a crossrail-bounce-vertical-one stride-oxer. We started with just the trot poles to the crossrail and the rest were ground poles so he could feel it out.

No problem. So we continue with the sequence -- ideally, you want to add a new element each time they go through successfully. The lesson is "always pay attention, stay quick with your feet, don't rush, and be ready for anything." The only thing constant is change. You are encouraging proper form, careful jumping, and quick thinking.

The trot poles stayed put for the entire school to set the pace. The second time, the exercise became a crossrail with a bounce to a low vertical. Then crossrail-vertical and one stride to a second vertical. Then the last vertical became an oxer.

Oh, and look who learned how to canter trot poles without stepping on them. Cheater.

Then we raised the first vertical one hole to up the ante. Surprise!  Someone forgot they had back legs...

It's ok to mess up, everyone will -- but the crux is, what happens AFTER you mess up. Since Encore's a clever boy, second time is the charm.

Just to finish off the day, with the help of some guide poles, we also conquered two slumbering trolls who have received much hairy eyeball from Encore. I'd been able to get him over the tire after about six tries a couple weeks ago, but only in one direction and he did. not. like it. Today, however, a gamer, more confident pony conquered his worries with ease.

November 7, 2011

Just A Thought

In the quiet just before bed, there is lots of time for thinking.

Always thinking.

I used to just ride. Get on horse, squeeze legs, make some circles, follow the trail. Riding.

Nothing wrong with riding. It's good for the soul. It stills my clamouring heart.

But I grew some sport goals. Only I didn't know how to get there.

Then someone whose name starts with a "W" and ends with a "d" and has "offor" in the middle taught me about being a thinking rider. Not just thinking about riding, but Thinking about Riding.

I discovered possibly the most powerful tool in the arsenal. I began asking "how" and "why" and "when" and "what's another way" and the momentum began to build.

There are always speed bumps, of course, but I analyzed them too and even those had something to teach me.

The Thinking Rider watches every step, feels every breath and adjusts, listens, waits, plans, and adjusts again. And that is all before the next step. They've thought an entire essay by jump #2.

I am only a Thinking Rider padi-wan but I can feel the power of the Force waiting for full realization.

(Is that one geeky enough for you?)

One problem, though. Once you kick-start the Thinking, you can't turn it off. Lying on the pillow at night, looking out the office window before lunch, driving home in the afternoon, even dreaming.

You are adjusting, listening, waiting, planning, all to the rhythm of hoofbeats in your time for sleeping, working, or eating.

It's a double-edged sword. And I gladly hold out my hand every day for another cut. Because I think tomorrow I can ride a better jump.

November 5, 2011

Crazy, Scary, and David

Crazy:  We had a XC lesson scheduled today with David O. down in Southern Pines.  The plan was to ride with BO in the big farm trailer.  Except when I got there this morning, her truck was sitting in the garage, hood up like a baby bird's mouth, sipping electricity from her husband's hybrid.

Uh oh.

Unsurprisingly, that little battery failed to start the truck, so we hooked it up to my heavy duty diesel batteries.  Dead as a doornail.

Sadly, I cannot haul the farm trailer because my truck does not (yet) have a gooseneck hitch, so we threw everything into my trailer and begged and pleaded with BO's finicky horse to please get on a new trailer nicely.  I crossed my fingers, horses seem to really like my trailer, and lo and behold, he loaded right up and we were saved.  We even got to the lesson a bit early.  Whew.

Scary:  About halfway through the lesson, one of the other women was simply cantering her horse around a turn in the field.  I watched as his feet shot out from under him and he slammed to the ground on his side, sliding across the pine needles.  He was wearing a standing martingale (please do not do this, my eventer friends!) which he snapped in two trying to get his head up to balance himself, but he could not do so in time.  His unlucky rider stayed in the saddle all the way down and hit hard, ending with a solid blow to the head and helmet.

All my first aid alarms went off, but I stayed put and let David check on her.  I had no doubt she had a concussion, a fact confirmed by the hospital later.  She is very fortunate it rained all day yesterday -- the ground was soft, saving her from a certain smushed leg otherwise.  Luckily, it looked like nothing else was seriously injured and her husband picked her up and took her horse home.  WEAR YOUR HELMETS PEOPLE; SHIT HAPPENS.

Later in the lesson, ANOTHER horse pulled a dirty stop at a log, flipping another friend over his head.  Happily, she landed softly and clambered right back on to finish the line.  No harm, but definitely pony foul.  Bad pony.  Poor David.

We're finding some stretchy trot!
David:  Unfortunate spill notwithstanding, the lesson was full of excellent reminders for myself and Encore.  The Unicorn's foster mom, Suzanne, came to see him go for a bit -- she was the one who got him restarted under saddle so wonderfully and she had a new CANTER pony who was just as nicely built!  But I had to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

(1) Do NOT get ahead of him, no matter how slow he gets at the base of the jump; weighting his forehand by moving your body forward only prevents him from rocking back on his hocks and jumping up.  Wait wait WAIT. This is particularly true up a bank. Stay behind him, stay upright, and let him jump up the bank to you. If you lean forward as he goes up the bank, he'll jump flat and out and that will bite you in the butt.

(2) Encore is a methodical, careful horse -- when he starts analyzing a problem, his feet slow down and he wants to figure it out before he tackles it. I like careful, it will keep us out of trouble, but I need to use a lot of leg and keep his feet moving while he thinks. He must learn to go forward and analyze at the same time. I admit, this surprised me a bit, as he is quite forward-thinking and I never have to use a lot of leg, but as we tackled harder questions, I saw that David was definitely right!

(3) If he offers to canter, let him. It is him offering forward and that is a good thing; stay soft and go with it.

(4) Go jump stuff. Lots of stuff. It doesn't matter how he jumps it right now, just jump it. Give him jump miles so he can figure out what to do with his body. David: "People worry about too much technical BS too early when we just need to get them out there and JUMP. Technical comes later.  This horse wants to do it, he's just not quite sure of the details yet."

Encore did VERY well on all the fly jumps, the baby sunken road, plenty of ditches, banks into and out of water, and he LOVED cantering across the water and jumping a fair-sized log out. We tried jumping the log back into the water, but he just did not get it, so we let it be and will come back to it later.

We're tucked in our respective blankets tonight, digesting dinner and nuggets of information.  I've got to figure out the most efficient way to get said mileage -- David is two hours from us and no longer teaches at my friend's farm nearby, so I'm going to have to get creative (or find a money tree in the woods to pay for diesel).  There are definitely more gymnastics in Encore's future as well, to show him where his feet are supposed to go.  I am chomping at the, if this silly job would just stop getting in the way.

November 1, 2011

Do Equine Epiphanies Have Giant Lightbulbs?

I've made a warmup routine for Encore -- since we don't yet have much of a bend button or a leg yield button yet, I use circles to soften his body and regulate his rhythm.  We work in a figure 8 of two 20-meter circles at the trot, first thing, every time.  I want him to recognize that ok, it's time to soften and bend through my body and pick up a quiet rhythm.

I think the unicorn horn grows out of his star.  See it??
We change directions back and forth until he begins to soften and lower his head, offering moments of pliability each way. Tracking left is markedly harder, I can feel the tightness on the right side of his body, resisting the stretch. Then we spiral the circles in and leg yield back out (in a fakey sort of way) and take a walk break.

Tonight, after our walk break, I thought, let's start some transition work. I put Encore in the bridle at the walk and asked for a trot. I'll be damned if that little horse didn't lift his back, soften his jaw, and step into the softest little trot, perfectly on the bridle -- and stay there. Perhaps you heard my squeaks of glee as we figure-eighted around the arena in this delightful gait. What took Solo a year and a half, this horse just got, CLICK, in six weeks.

And just like that, he had it. We did a few transitions back and forth to walk, a couple of which were lovely and balanced. It took all my willpower to end the session with some brief canter work and not just trot around in that blissful shape for the rest of the night.

Ohhhh, this winter is going to be fun.