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We Are Flying Solo

January 31, 2012

An Event Horse Isn't A One Trick Pony

It's no secret I'm a firm believer that an event horse MUST NOT be an arena baby.  They need to learn balance on uneven terrain, surefootedness, confidence in new situations, problem solving, and endurance.  They must be able to deal with mud, rocks, sticks, water, brush, dogs, crazed animals running around, golf carts, ATVs, weird buildings, rustling leaves, holes, and any kind of footing you can imagine.  I don't believe in manicured footing everywhere and I don't believe in protecting your horse from distractions; I think this makes a weaker athlete with a weaker mind and I believe it does a disservice to our partners.

It is well established in the world of physiological science that in order to strengthen a system, you must challenge it.  This goes for bone, tissue, respiration and brain.  So I take my horses everywhere and I welcome umbrellas and terriers and strollers and bicycles and rocky mazes and steep, muddy hills because all of these things are tools to to shape the animal that an event horse should be.  And I shouldn't have to make this disclaimer, but I will:  always handle yourself and your horse with SAFETY in mind.  Just...don't be a dumbass.

So I present to you, the "wild, hot, crazed" OTTB who at 6 years old goes on his first "off-road" experience (our trails at home are, shall we say, a bit tamer) and I actually remembered to turn on the helmet cam.  With us are Louie, a big chestnut Irish TB who is an ex-steeplechaser turned Training Level eventer; a gorgeous mover who has just come back from a suspensory injury at 22 (or somewhere around there).  We also have Buck, a 15-ish-year-old bay OTTB who also competes a Training Level (although I heard a rumour he may give Prelim a shot) who can rack like a Saddlebred -- who says TB's aren't versatile?

PS I am not responsible for the helmet habits of my friends.  The rider's names shall not be mentioned for the sake of privacy and avoidance of public shaming.  That includes you, commenters.  

PPS The videos are in HD but I can't get YouTube to default to that.  So after you push play, click the little button on the bottom video bar that looks like a gear and you can increase the resolution/video quality to it's HD awesomeness.  And if you want to hear the inane commentary, you have to turn your volume all the way up.  I'm still messing with mic levels on the helmet cam.

Encore goes all-terrain and Louie reluctantly follows.  Encore actually loves water but he does NOT like super soft squishy mud, which is why he has so much hesitation on the bank.  He is not a fan of his hoofies sinking!

Our canine companions.  Oh yes, the terriers really are named Jack, Russell, and Pumpkin.  I kid you  not.


Louie and Encore jump a massive log.  Louie does a very amusing dance when he gets excited, like when horses pass him.  Or trot in front of him.  Or when it's Wednesday.  But I never did really capture it, dangit.

Just a nice canter in a beautiful field.

January 29, 2012

A Little Promotion For A Really Big Project

You may not know who Steuart Pittman is, but let me introduce you.  He owns and runs his family's farm, Dodon Farm, which dates back to the 18th or 19th century.  But today, not only does it produce eventing Thoroughbreds, it's also stands Steuart's amazing Jockey Club Throughbred stallion, Salute the Truth, who took Steuart to the advanced level and is highly sought after by mare owners across the country for his propensity to pass on incredible bone and athletic talent to his progeny.  His website also has a great series of essays on, well, just about anything.  I dare you to click "Steuart Says!"

But while all that is great in and of itself, that's not what I'm really here to talk about.  You see, Steuart is passionate about the off-the-track Thoroughbred and is a major force working to promote these horses for second careers in sport, as he is more than familiar with their heart, agility, intelligence, and try.  I HIGHLY encourage you to take the time to read a paper he put together for the National Throughbred Racing Association on expanding the ex-racehorse market.  He and his wife (Sorry, Erin, if I got that wrong, but I'm going to go with that) have started an incredible force in motion.  Titled, "The Retired Racehorse Training Project," it creates a place where owners and buyers can search bloodlines of horses competing today for trends (enter YOUR TB in the Bloodline Brag, I put Encore in there!), where people can contact trainers who work with the OTTB, and where, perhaps most fun of all, you can follow the "RRTP Trainer Challenge." 

Much like the Mustang Makeover, this challenge takes four horses, fresh from the track, and pairs them with three trainers:  Eric Dierks, Terry Blackmer and Tiffany Catledge.  They have just chosen their horses from the pool late last week and from the drop down menu on the RRTP page under "Programs," you can follow the blog of each one as they bring these horses along.  Each horse will be for sale at the end of the challenge, which lasts five weeks. 

Steuart designed the program to be a showcase for the OTTB and to educate the public about just how wonderful these horses can be.  They are not bolting, spooking, fire-breathing dragons, fit for only the hardiest pro.  They are often, in fact, kind, willing horses who go on to perform with all their heart as amateur hunters, eventers, dressage horses, and even western and trail horses. 

So I encourage you to go check it out and follow along -- I can't wait to read more from each trainer and see how each horse develops in what, to them, in a whole new world.

January 25, 2012

Up Down Up Down Up Down

I am thinking hard about transitions right now.  They are the key to so many things and can also reveal all of your weaknesses in one step.  Maintaining contact, keeping your horse's energy coming forward and through the transition, bringing his hocks underneath him, all of these things are incredibly difficult to package and deliver at exactly the right moment.

I wanted to share with you some passages I have been reading and re-reading from Dressage in Harmony, by Walter Zettl (an excellent book by the way, and not terribly expensive).  He has great sympathy for the horse and stresses fairness and patience above all else.  He is a Czech trained in Germany under Col. Aust, a master of German classical dressage.  After coaching many successful students in Munich for decades, he became the Canadian eventing coach for the 1984 LA Olympics.  In this book, he makes some vital points to ponder (excerpts in italics).

The stages of any upward transition:
Preparation through improvement of the lower gait, a clearly given signal, and then allowing the horse to move freely into the new gait.

From walk to trot:
First, the walk must be engaged enough so that at any point the rider is condfident that the next step can be a trot step...The transition can only be as good as the walk before it. Every gait should be ridden not for itself, but as preparation for the next transition...The key problem is to give forward with the hand without losing the contact...If the rider gives with the reins too much, the horse can fall onto the forehand or raise up the head and hollow the back.

From trot to walk:
The downward transitions are always more difficult, because the rider...thinks he must pull back to get the downward transition. In fact, in the moment when the rider is closing and holding with the hand for the half halt, he must already be thinking of giving, and riding his horse forward into the walk. After the transition, the rider should keep the horse on the aids in the walk so that he could immediately ride a transition back to trot...As in all of riding, the rider must constantly change between active and passive aids: active when the horse tries to escape the aids and immediately passive to show the horse everything is OK.

Walk to Halt to Walk:
The weight aids for the halt are often misunderstood. Lowering of the heels brings the correct amount of weight into the horse's back in the correct, vertical position. Leaning back drives the seat into the saddle too much and sends the horse forward because of the pain the horse feels in his back...One should not expect that the horse will come to an immediate, perfect halt...Never lose the patience. When the horse comes to a very good halt, the rider should praise the horse so the horse knows he did well. One should praise the horse a lot.
One often sees riders fooling around with the hands, both at the halt, and through the transition. When the rider tries to keep the horse round at the halt with too much hand than a correct transition is not possible--the horse is afraid to go freely forward because he expects to get holding aids in his mouth.

Trot to Canter:
The preparation for the canter depart...holds the secret for success. The quieter and softer the depart, the quieter and softer the horse will stay in the canter. A wrong lead, aids given in the wrong moment, or aids given too strongly are the most common mistakes. 

When asking for the canter from the trot, the rider should collect the trot very slightly--almost unnoticeably. The correct moment for the depart is when the outside shoulder goes forward. The reins should not be thrown away. As soon as the horse lifts himself into the canter, the rider needs to let the stride out with the hand slightly. Through the forward driving aids of the seat and leg, the rider brings the canter strides into a steady flow. Each stride of the canter should be ridden as if it is a new departure stride.

I'm going to keep reading. And re-reading. And reading again. There is so much contained in these passages and the paragraphs around them to think about and to process. I visualize my body doing each thing, sitting calmly centered and creating a shape for my horse to fill. Now we just need to add smidge more patience.....

What do you think? What do you read in these passages? Revalations? Old hat? Blindingly obvious? Complete insanity? Are there pieces you would like to add to your schooling or things you can adapt to the peculiarities of your horse? Share your impressions, I have been reading and absorbing like an obsessed little sponge lately and I've not filled up yet!

January 23, 2012

We Won Stuff!

As my sidebar declares, I am very proud to be a member of the USEA Area II Adult Rider Program.  You should go and join yours today -- not only do you stay abreast of clinics, horses for sale in the "network," and reports of the most recent horse trials, you meet wonderful, generous, knowledgeable people who are just as crazy about this sport as you are!  I can tell you without a doubt, Solo and I would not have had some of the opportunities we did without the support and generosity of this group.

This past Saturday was our Area II Annual Meeting in Virginia.  Sadly, there was no room in my budget to go and I was sorry to miss it, because I drove up with a neighbour last year and learned a great deal.  Also at the meeting is our Annual Awards Luncheon, although I have not been to that because it is also out of my budget range.  BUT, the point is, our Adult Riders group gives out a host of awards every year that are not based on racking up competitive points, but instead on contributions to the group and to the sport.  Started by eventer Yvonne Lucas of Red Moon Farm and honouring our smurf heritage inspired by Captain Mark Phillips distaste for the adult amateur rider, which we adopted with great pride, these awards single out eventers with heart!

Now I never win anything.  I am not that person.  I'm a very good clapper though.  So just imagine my surprise when one of my fellow Adult Riders informed me....

I had won the Indian Smurf award, for "great personal strength against adversity, showing toughness, heart, and perseverance!"  I admit, I remain slightly bemused that I won the award for bad things happening to you, it truly could be no other way!

But that was not enough excitement, because I was also named...

Area II Adult Rider Member of the Year!

I am floored, stunned, honoured, and frankly terrified that I have so much to live up to!

I don't feel like these awards are really for me though.  Because I would be nothing and nowhere without Solo, who, even as we crashed to the bottom of the heap, believed in me and never stopped greeting me at the door with that look that forever connects us.  The word "partner" cannot even encompass what he has been to me and cannot describe the strength of spirit and forgiveness and patience he continues to offer me.

And my world would be darker indeed without the bright hope that Encore brought into my life.  We are certainly a work in progress, but if he will just bear with me, I think we can have a lot of fun together.

So it is really the horses.  It is always the horses.  The reason for trying, the air to keep breathing, the passion to tackle the next course.

To Solo & Encore & to all our partners who do more for us than we can say, as well as to my fellow Adult Riders who nominated and supported me...

Thank you.

January 20, 2012

Don't Forget To Not Ride

I spent this evening in the aisle with Encore.  A mild rain tap-tap-tapped the metal roof as I ran my hands over his neck, back, and hindquarters, seeking out knots and tension to ease away.  Each time my thumbs dug into a hard burl of muscle, Encore's lower lip quivered and his head dropped lower...and lower...and lower.  He licked his lips and sighed in thanks.

Remember that our partners are athletes.  It is hard work, especially as they are building muscle, learning new skills, and adjusting their bodies to sport.  Tendon, muscle, and joint each need time to rest and recover from micro-injury and stress.  It is our responsibility to respect that need and to ensure that we are not asking our horses to work in pain or discomfort.

We finished with some carrot stretches to each side -- I make him stretch his nose at least to his flank (no cheating and moving his feet!) in each direction, which was very difficult for him a few months ago, so we have progress.  Upon recheck, his back muscles are softer, his withers no longer sore and the knots in his neck are smaller.  It's a continuous process, but one I need to be sure not to forget in the race to have a better ride.  Happy body = happy horse.  Happy horse = happy me.  It's that simple.