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We Are Flying Solo

December 27, 2011

Just Relax

Sadly, I shall be away from blogland for the rest of the week, as far as I know.  This renders me unable to share my dorkiness genius and impeccable humour with all of you for a whole five days.  It's ok, just let your sobs out.

So I leave you with this:  when one does not clamp down, grit teeth, obsess, nitpick, nag and expect instant perfection during training rides, when instead you relax, keep goals simple, realistic, and light, those rides go 1000x times better.

Thank you, Master Of The Obvious. 

You'd think that after enough years, a person would not need to be reminded of this.  You'd think.

So ponder away, enjoy your rides, have a wonderful week, and prepare for next week's posts, which will include detailed instructions on how to buy a unicorn and some more totally awesome Stuff Saturated With Solo Karma for sale! 


December 22, 2011

Is It A Coincidence That "Saddle" And "Satan" Begin With The Same Two Letters?

I don't think I can describe saddle fitting any better than I did herea form of torture akin to holding one's hands in a campfire while being poked in the eyeballs with sharp sticks. If you have any special needs whatsoever, it adds an extra layer of "fun," like a rabbit slowly chewing off your toes while your hands roast.

Encore and I got to spend three hours with the fitter today.  Oh, did I not mention that he's a different shape than Solo?  Of course he is.

It's not so much width -- comparing their tracings shows that Encore is only a bit narrower than Solo, which will no doubt change as the former continues to gain muscle and weight.  It's the longitudinal profile, withers to hips.  Solo is very scoopy, with a big dip in his back and hollows behind the withers.  This is a saddle fitting nightmare.  Don't buy a horse like that!  Encore is fairly flat and short-coupled.  Saddle fitters love horses like him, lots of saddles can sit there nicely with relatively little effort.

In case you didn't figure out the nightmarish part yet, it's the fact that I bought saddles, especially my beautiful dressage saddle, to fit curvacious Solo, with obligingly scoopy tree.  That doesn't work so well with flat horse.  Naturally.

The jumping saddle wasn't too bad, we switched to the medium-narrow gullet (Encore's giant withers!) with the understanding that as he develops more, he will probably end up in the medium by spring (Solo was medium-wide, just for reference).  I'm not a fan of the changey gullet trees anymore, the tree points are so short, they made lots of pressure points on Solo, plus, we can't quite get the wither clearance we want, but it's what I have, the saddle fits me well, and it rides well, so I wanted to try and work it out.  I've just ordered an Ecogold half pad and we think it will provide enough lift and cushion to tide us over till his back develops enough to lift the saddle a bit more.  We think.  Only way to know is by doing, so once the box arrives, the moment of truth shall come!

My beautiful, wonderful dressage saddle that fits me perfectly?  It will probably need to be replaced at some point, but I'm not willing to let it go yet.  Not only does it fit me perfectly, I still need to ride Solo in something and he sure as shootin' isn't going in a medium-narrow jumping saddle, LOL!  So, I told fitter to see if she can buy me some time.

Turns out even time has a price.  $130 to be exact.  Apparently there is some worldwide sheep shortage that has driven up prices (I am not kidding, she actually told me this).  Perhaps I should invest in some Merino lambs?

At any rate, between flocking shifts and front and rear shims in our fancy new pad #2, we were able to flatten out the saddle enough that it no longer rocked on Encore's back and he was once again willing to lift and come round.

As my horse is now the proud owner of a small fortune's worth of saddle pads, I fully expect him have mastered at least the Beginner Novice dressage tests by the end of the week.  Since they also had a Herm Springer Duo bit (which I've been dying to try on Encore) on super bargain sale, I further expect extended gaits and shoulder-in by next Tuesday.  Little bugger better get cracking.  

December 18, 2011

Weekend Update


No, I didn't fall off again. Damn, I hate that I have to put "again" at the end of that sentence. The cloud of "fall-down-go-boom" still lingers over my shoulder. Or is that behind my knee...

But today, the reason my whole body hurts has a name. And that name is David. Now, before your mind goes slinking off to the gutter (don't go there, I'm pretty sure his wife, Lauren, can beat me up six ways to Sunday), let me elaborate.

I like to torture my horses with clippers.
Saturday saw a bleary-eyed me pointing Encore into the trailer at o-dark-hundred to tromp down to SoPines and meet David for a XC school. I wasn't quite awake when we arrived, but once that cold wind blew down the back of my vest I found a new level of alertness.

The next 45 minutes were...wonderfabulubulous. One word wouldn't cover it, so I had to smash a few together.

We were the only lessoners that morning, which means David had us at his mercy. When you are alone with him, this encompasses your breaks to catch your breath:

David: Ok, let him walk for a minute.

Me (mentally): Whew.

One and a half walk strides later --

David: Ok, let's canter to the log then turn to this ditch and canter back to the stone wall...

Me: So much for breathing.

I didn't realize how hard I was working until I got up this morning.   Or rather, until I tried to stand up this morning and my legs screamed for mercy. 

Encore, on the other hand, was a professional phenom.  So much so that by the end of the lesson, David was really excited about him, labeling him, "a really lovely package, with an incredible mind and a wonderful eye."

Mm'kay, when a four-star rider gets psyched about my horse, well, this is new to me, so it makes my brain skip in circles like a happy little clapping bunny.  Yes, a bunny, roll with it.

I don't see David get really excited very often -- encouraging, yes, but very calm and easy-going. 

"Do you know what I have to do to have him canter along in a great, perfect little rhythm like that?" I asked him.

"What's that?"  He humoured me.

"NOTHING!"  I shouted with glee.  "He just gives it to me!"  David giggled with me and it was great to share this step in Encore's education with someone else who knew just how special that kind of horse is.

Once he masters some details, like, uh, bending and canter transitions, this guy is going to be unstoppable.  I can't wait until spring!

PS: Dear Universe, please do not take my enthusiasm as an invitation to smite me.  Your lessons in humility, pain tolerance, and patience have been well-learned, I promise.  Please please please let Encore just be a happy, healthy horse who gets to go have fun with me and run and jump things.  It makes him happy and it makes me happy and there's really no harm in that.  Thank you.

December 13, 2011

Someone Slap Me!

Encore has discovered his jump.  His big, powerful, sit-on-your-butt-and-leap jump.  Holy mother of cod, I had a lot more horse under me than I expected on Sunday!  But it felt really REALLY good -- he saw a jump, locked on, came up in front of my leg in a strong, balanced canter (where I sat up VERY tall so he was not tempted to dash at it), found his distance, and soared.

His confidence was just plain fun and we even tackled a couple skinny brush boxes, about four feet wide each.  It took a couple tries for him to understand, but we got the light bulb and finished with a very proud pony.  He is jumping regularly at about 2'4" to 2'7" these days, which is mind-boggling to me since he jumped his first vertical in September.

It was a welcome relief for me, as I had found myself unexpectedly frustrated the last few weeks.  Starting out with Encore, I knew he was green, so I expected little and just rolled with it.  I was relaxed, it was fun, all was good.  Then he made great progress, I started making plans, I got an agenda, and I pushed.  It didn't help that stress from other areas of my life piled on.  And on and on and on. 

Of course, this did not become clear to me until we had a dressage lesson on Saturday, during which Priscilla was forced to give me a mental slap in the head.  Everyone should get smacked in the head from time to time, it does a world of good.  I felt like I just remembered to breathe again.  As Priscilla reminded me, when I am wound up tighter than a tick's belly and trying to shape my horse with sheer willpower, I will only make things worse.  For me, I have to take a deep breath and tell myself, "It just doesn't matter, it just doesn't matter, RELAX, IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER."  Obsessing over the little things, fixating on details, wanting problems fixed now, can put my brain on overdrive.  Fail.   

I also watched a session from last week's USEA convention, ever-so-helpfully uploaded by John over at Eventing Nation and one section in particular brought everything back into focus.  The videos encompass a Q&A session with 4-star riders, open to any audience inquiries.  Someone asked how much correctness they should demand from a young horse; does everything have to be right right now or do you just focus on one thing at a time?

If I obey the Law, will my horse do that?
This is my problem, I epiphanied (it's a word now, baby) to myself.  This is where I need to refine my approach to youngsters.  Buck Davidson summarized it best:  make a goal for the day and when you achieve it, be done.  Even if it only took ten minutes.  Don't go out and do your transitions and then do your ten meter circles and then do your canter work and then do your lateral exercises.  You will overwhelm a young mind if you just keep piling on.  Leslie Law (at right) agreed and elaborated that, if pony "loses his fizz" after 15 minutes, that's ok, do some hacking instead and just relax.

Clayton Fredericks, Phillip Dutton, and Karen O'Connor also reminded me of the cardinal rule:  ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS KEEP HIM IN FRONT OF YOUR LEG.  He can be counterbent, he can be hollowed out, he can be cross-firing and swinging his head and swishing his tail, but he better be in front of your leg.

For us, that means picking our goal for the day and sticking to it, resisting the temptation to practice everything at once.  That means overlooking what is not-quite-right and keeping my eyes instead on the incremental progress.  That means not letting Encore get lazy and behind the leg (not much of a problem with that one, who still transitions to canter like he's leaping out of starting gate, ha!).  I feel calmer, more focused, and better prepared to go forward from here.

Now if it will just stop being dark all the damn time...

December 7, 2011

Me Vs. Me: The Internal Monologue Of An Inveterate Self-Critic

If I ride him just right, he will get it.

This is the thought that runs over and over through my head as I worked with Encore last night. If my position could just be a little better, if my aids were just a little more accurate, if my balance was just a little more consistent, then Encore would succeed in doing the right thing.

Self-flagellation is, of course, default mode after a ride that had some very frustrating moments. There was a section of the most incredible stretching at the trot, where Encore's whole body was an upside-down U of supple, lifted, connected engagement, with his nose down to his knees and elastic springs in his legs. I thought, just, WOW.

Statler: Well, that was different.
Waldorf: Yep. Lousy...but different!
But then there was a period of tension, rushing, and falling in through the shoulder. My irritation mounted as I thought, What am I doing wrong? If I was just a better rider, I could get my horse to do this. I am just going to end up with a crooked horse pointing the wrong way because I can't seem to communicate this correctly.

I was bone-tired, I've gotten far too much bad news this week, it was dark, and my temper was short. I will never let that out to Encore of course, but it still wreaked havoc in my head (a confusing, scary place at best).  Over and over, I wondered why I couldn't just be better

None of this actually improves one's riding, naturally, but it seems to be an inevitable destination for us at some point or another.  Perhaps there are people who can remain eternally cheerful, but I suspect that we all have our moments of exhaustion and weakness.  I remember when I didn't canter Solo for months on end, as I could get nothing but an unbalanced gallop out of him.  I told myself, you should just sell this horse, you have no business owning something you are not even capable of riding a basic gait on.  Dejected does not even begin to sum up how I felt then.

Looking back, I can see that I was wrong, of course, and those months were simply something we needed to both work through and learn from.  With the help of one very good clinician, we found our canter again and went on to many triumphs.  Objectively, I know that the journey with Encore will progress in the same way, but it can be hard to trust in that view of the forest when you keep banging your head on the tree in front of you.

My point to this musing is simply to share with you the internal argument between two of the voices in my head aspects of my brain.  So that when you are in your own dark, frustrated, jaw-clenching throes of a not-so-smooth training phase, you can remember that you are not alone.  If horse training was easy, everyone would win Rolex, but alas, it entails an indescribably complex lifetime of lessons that would probably take ten actual lifetimes to absorb. 

I have two choices:  I can (a) give up or (b) give Encore a treat for trying (he also did some big, voluntary stretching in the left lead canter, good boy), take a nap, and come back another day.  After that nap, it only takes one look into big, kind, innocent brown eyes to choose option b.