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We Are Flying Solo

December 28, 2010

Headless Horsemen (And Horses)

I certainly hope this is not a harbinger of our coming season.  My sticker appears not to have survived the salt slush grind that was West Virginia mountain interstates yesterday.  Good thing USEA sees fit to send you a new one every year.

I hope Santa (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whoever) has graced you all with holiday pony hugs and treats.  I want to offer a congratulations to Allison who is the new owner of a dressage saddle!  Once worn by the legendary Solo, it is sure to bring greatness to any pair of equine shoulders beneath it.

If no one brought you a saddle for Christmas, our BO still has her two jumping saddles available.  I am sure she is open to offers as well, as the ponies always need hay!

Solo and I are plopping around in what's left of the snow, meeting some new neighbours, and scheming of a spring season (ok, maybe that last one is just me).  The days are getting longer (wahhooooo!) and with any luck, evil white precipitation will go back up north where it belongs!

December 25, 2010

Horses Love Candy Canes Too!

So take one out to Dobbin if you get a chance.  Happy holidays to all of you and give the ponies a smooch for me, as well.  I cannot smooch my pony at present as I am three states away, sigh. 

I hope you enjoyed our foray into equine nutrtion.  Some disclaimers:

(1) This was not intended to be an end-all discussion of nutrition.  My posts only cover a fraction of the variables which exist.  Google is your friend.

(2)  My perspective applies to the performance horse and specifically, to the eventer.  Please do not give a fat supplement to Fatty McFatPony who lounges around in the backyard and gets toodled around on once a week.  Both Fatty (in the long run, he will, anyway) and I thank you.

(3) I am fully supportive of fat supplements for people.  Especially if they appear in the form of brownies or other heavily frosted items.  If you cannot possibly bring yourself to eat them, please send them to me and I will be happy to take one for the team. 

Lastly, please send a kind thought to our wonderful dressage instructor, P.  She has laid to rest the mighty Reitz yesterday with a broken heart.  This giant white mare was phenomenal, trained through Grand Prix dressage, and noble of heart and spirit.  I was truly honoured to have sat on her and to have been tolerated by her.  She is buried in her favourite paddock where she thoroughly enjoyed retirement until her aging legs could no longer hold her up.  She joins our very special Ben in perfect freedom from pain forever.  
 

December 22, 2010

Filling And Refueling The Tank

Now we are all experts on equine metabolism, right?  And I am rolling in the glee of all my fellow science nerds who have come out of the woodwork!

We know that the horse must also be fit if he is going to do his job well. We know that he needs fat and glycogen stores in place in order to answer the energy demands of his muscles. He needs carbohydrates and fats in order to stock his larders and replenish his stores after a workout.

So should we stuff him full of fat and sugar so he will have fuel busting out his ears? Only if you want him to die of colic and laminitis at the same time. Equine digestive systems cannot handle "loading" of substances the way a human system would. Studies have demonstrated that it will take 24-48 hours for a horse to completely refill his glycogen tanks after a hard workout, so it's best to offer him a meal 60-90 minutes after he's tapped them and then, if he has really drained the well, a second meal can be offered about three hours later.

How much fat he will need on a daily basis will depend on your horse. I like to at least top dress feed during heavy work/competition with something that is around 22-26% fat. Fat supplies 2.5 times more energy pound for pound than starches. Solo's normal food (SafeChoice) is 7% fat and I can tell you, that even with 14% protein, it does not give him a big "bang" of energy. This is because protein cannot be stored and any that is not immediately used is just peed out. So I will add something like rice bran pellets or Empower at 22% fat on top of his meals in the spring and fall.

Here's another interesting little tidbit -- if you supplement a horse's diet with fat, he uses less energy for heat production in his body. He then has more energy available to do other stuff with. Like a lot more. Like up to 60% more.

OMG, fat is awesome!

But you don't want to go overboard -- if the fat content of the diet gets too high, you can actually inhibit the storage of muscle glycogen (that's that thing we really need for anaerobic activities like galloping and jumping, remember?). Which is basically shooting yourself in the foot.

So, in the end, it comes back to common sense -- all things in moderation. But if we understand WHY, we can better tweak the details of our management programs. Because it's just not as much fun when you are kicking your horse's guts out just to stumble across the finish line in cross country and slide off while he gasps in exhaustion. It's not very satisfying to try to pilot him around a challenging stadium course when he's got no gas in the tank and you wonder if the next set of jump poles might end up in your face. But if you give Dobbin the resources he needs to get the job done and condition his body so that he can maximize the energy you put in, then you'll still have plenty of gas left for that victory gallop at the end of the day.

December 18, 2010

Oxygen Optional

We were talking about nutrition. And you've been up for days waiting for the secret to growing that unicorn horn (don't lie, own it).

Too bad.

Here's another, possibly equally as important tidbit, though. Different athletic disciplines make different demands on a horse's body. I know, thank you Captain Obvious, right?

But here's the breakdown: there are two basic types of metabolism. (1) aerobic (the muscles use oxygen while generating energy; a slow process) and (2) anaerobic (yes, you guessed it, genius; the muscles generate energy without oxygen; much speedier).

A horse who is working in a long, steady fashion (think endurance racing or your dressage school) gets to create energy aerobically. He has an advantage because this is a much easier and longer-lasting method of working. You see, fat is a horse's go-to fuel and in order to burn it, his body must use oxygen (just like your fireplace must have a flow of oxygen to burn up your firewood and create heat).

However, if Dobbin has to work hard and fast (think sprinting or jumping), he cannot get oxygen into his body and burn fat fast enough to create the energy he needs. So his muscles turn to his glycogen stores, which can be burned anaerobically. In short, glycogen is a carbohydrate stored in the liver and in muscles that the body can convert to glucose (muscle fuel).

Glycogen is a finite resource, though, and stores are smaller than his fat supply. Burning it also produces lactic acid, which fatigues muscles. So, you, as pilot, want to save that glycogen until you really really need it. You want to save that hard sprint or gallop, which burns up those precious reserves, for your horse trial or other vital moment. And once he burns it up, you have to make sure to give him time to replenish the storehouse before you ask for it again. The more glycogen he has stored up, the longer he can go in a demanding situation before he fatigues.

If he gets really desperate, Dobbin can also turn to blood glucose for energy. His nervous system needs this to function, though, and there isn't much of it (about 1% of the body's fuel supply), so we don't really want to push him this far.

Is your brain fried by science-geekness yet? I could go into ATP and muscle cell pH, so be grateful...

Why the heck should we care about all this anyway? In my opinion, knowledge is ALWAYS power when it comes to horse management. If I understand what my horse's body needs to do his job and how it uses what I give him, I am better able to meet his needs and maximize his performance safely.

Because you need to understand all of that to understand this, the point we act on: the more fit your horse is, the better he is able to utilize his fat stores first. The unfit horse may have to get up to 40% of his energy from his glycogen reserves during even light exercise. When you fit him up, he can drop that percentage dramatically even during moderate exercise, meaning his body won't quit on him for much longer.

So should we stuff our horses full of lard? How do we refill his glycogen tanks? All this and more, tonight at 11. Ok, not actually at 11, but you clever ones out there got it...

December 16, 2010

Saddle Pictures

Ok, I'm really late, but here are the pictures of the sale saddles!

Phillipe Fontaine:

Crosby XL:
Shows the rip -- you can't feel it when you ride in it.

December 12, 2010

Want A Saddle For Christmas?

I have two more for sale (owned by my lovely BO).  They are looking for new homes.  I will upload pictures soon.  I have ridden in both, so I can add my impressions of each. I can ask for measurements if anyone is interested. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have any questions.

(1) Philippe Fontaine jumping saddle
BO says 17" seat. (I have ridden in it, feels more like 17.5 to me?)
Excellent condition -- and I will tell you this is a very comfy saddle, quite lovely, dark brown, very well cared for, beautiful shape.
I would call the tree a MW leaning heavily towards a W -- it's too wide up front for Solo, was bought for a very big Oldenburg.

$650.00


(2) Crosby XL jumping saddle
BO says 16.5" seat. I'd agree, it felt small for me.
Needs seat repair, rip in leather, but rides fine. If you have a local saddler or leather working place, they can do it, or you can send it off to someplace like Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop, the rest of the saddle is in good shape. Also very comfy. A great deal.
Looks like a M tree to me.

$150.00

December 9, 2010

Rocket Fuel And Other Stories

So I have been reading about nutrition (the horse's, not mine, who cares about that?).  Why?  Well, because I don't want to do the actual work I am SUPPOSED to do, so why not. And if it has the word "horse" in it, then it is a pre-ordained given that I must read it. Who am I to argue with those that ordain??

Lots of interesting things to share with you. How horses use their feed, what different types of feed items offer, and what magical food will make your horse grow a unicorn horn (calm down, lifeshighway, one of these items may or may not be fictional).

Those of us who grew up obsessed with horses learned many important horse-keeping rules that have been passed down through generations. One of those things that I always heard was that you never worked your horse hard right after he ate. Much like nagging Aunt Margaret told you never to swim right after you ate or else you'd surely get a cramp and drown. I always held equal skepticism for both. Turns out, I was partly justified.

After your horse eats, his body begins to metabolize his food. This means that his blood insulin will spike, which reduces the efficiency with which the body burns fat (fat is generally the go-to energy resource for horses). So, if they need energy when insulin levels are high, their bodies will instead turn to stored glycogen reserves first. While this is hardly deadly, glycogen is something you want to save until you really need it (I'll explore why in the next post).

So, what's a rider to do? Well, you have two choices. It takes about four hours for that insulin spike to return to baseline. So you can (a) wait four hours (Suck! Who wants to do that?!) or (b) ride immediately. That's right, the spike doesn't really get up there for about two hours, so if you hop on within thirty minutes, you can have your ride and then put Dobbin away before he has to switch over from fat metabolism. What you want to try to avoid is hitting it right on that two hour mark, when insulin levels are highest and burning fat is the most difficult.

Now, obviously, we're not going to get this right every single ride, but it's something to shoot for as a general trend and a handy bit of info you can toss out if someone tries to give you crap for riding your horse right after he ate.

Scorecard: Science, 1, Naysayers, 0!

December 7, 2010

Words To Live Up To

Today I sat down and read Kevin Baumgardner's last letter as sitting president of USEA.  His term ends on December 11th and Brian Sabo will take his place.  Normally, I don't spend too much time worrying about what the heads of our sport ramble about, but I was curious, as I have previously been impressed with Baumgardner's eloquence and thoughtfulness (and I give him kudos for his strong support of the long format events).  He wanted to share his thoughts on what he'd seen and where he felt the sport of eventing stood today.  And did he ever.

I wasn't sure whether to nod my head in agreement or cry at the passion bubbling out of it.  So I did both.  Then, I copied the link so I could share it with you, those of you who haven't already seen my link on Facebook.  Go.  Read.  Absorb.

It is not enough to turn in a technically flawless performance.  Our sport is about joy.  Joy in the partnership between horse and rider.  Joy in the freedom of riding across country.  Joy in the simplest sense of celebrating each day. 

THAT is why I get on my horse and THAT is why I love this sport so deeply. Thank you, Kevin, for putting it into words so well.

December 6, 2010

Just Call Me Snow Plow

Although I'm not sure that would have been Solo's choice of moniker, it became so when lifeshighway and I attempted to ride yesterday.  Final score:  snow-dumping trees:  257, eventer79:  0

December 4, 2010

1.5 Years + Magical Dressage Trainer = Whole New Solo

This is what our barn looks like right now. Wunderground.com promised me light flurries with no accumulation. Me no happy.

We never saw it coming. This morning, we had a wonderful dressage lesson with P in the sunshine. Warmup started with a marching walk, bending and arcing around cones and jump standards, bringing Solo's respiration up slowly in the cold winter air to avoid the lung burning effects of sudden exertion on a chilly day. As his back and neck softened, we moved to a forward trot and it soon became obvious that my horse, already made more sensitive by the weather change, strongly objected to my spur-wearage today and I shed them after he skittered forward on his butt during a canter transition.

Suppled up, we stopped for a contact response check. A year and a half ago, when P asked Solo to give to the bit on the ground, it took some finangling and a full minute of persuasion. Today, it was instantaneous and I couldn't hide my grin.

Then it was time to move to the next step. Forward was good, now we needed to be clear that half-halt meant half-halt NOW, not half-halt in five strides after you express your own opinion and we argue about it. So we worked transitions within the trot -- lengthening and compressing the stride.

Solo made it clear that since we had stopped earlier, we CLEARLY were supposed to be done and expressed his dissatisfactiion by throwing his head about in protest as we trotted. P mollified my laughing reprimands by letting me know that even though he threw tantrums, his ab and back muscles were flexed, engaged, and correct in their work. A year and a half ago, he didn't have ab muscles.

We finished with some transitions between gaits. Walk/trot/walk, trot/canter/trot.

"Well, look at him, he's starting to become quite the little warmblood. Why don't you try some walk/canter transitions?" P suggested.

"I don't know..." I responded, "We've left those alone because he'd just run onto the forehand and fall into it."

"Give it a try, get a nice marching walk, be soft, sit tall, and visualize your canter."

So I did. And in two steps, he was there. Not only was he there, but he came forward through the transition, soft and on the bit, stepping under into a lovely canter that made me feel like I was sitting on my own version of Ravel.

I couldn't help it, I grinned like a fool. A year and a half ago, "on the bit" was not even in my horse's repertoire.

And Solo, my dressage-hating shiny beast, was even enjoying his canters and I think his solace came in finally beginning to understand what I was asking him to do. He finally was comprehending the structure I was asking him to fit into and with his comprehension came security and appreciation of a job description he figured out how to read.

I thought to my red horse, "We've come a long way, baby."

I hope we still get to go a lot further.

December 2, 2010

Adventures In Hack Land

I've always wondered if Solo would jump well in a hackamore.  They seem to work really well for a lot of jumpers and eventers, so it's been on my "Things To Try" list for some time.  Some things on that list happen more quickly than others; for example, "ride a whale shark" is rather opportunity driven.

Well, since we are now in a barn where all of us are horse accessory junkies (the SO says "hoarders" but if he owned a horse, he would totally get it), I borrowed an English hackamore last night and buckled it onto a bridle.  It is usually worn by an Oldenburg mare with a head the size of a Tyrannosaurus, but thankfully, it is highly adjustable and I got it into approximately the right place.

So, how did it go?

Solo: Ok, time to trot, let me come down onto the bit. Hey, WTF, where is the bit. Mom, I am trying to do the right thing. Mom....? How about stretching? Ok, I can still stretch, now let me return to the bit...what the...where is it, what the heck am I supposed to do?

Me: Trotting. Now I will just...uh...well, I can't keep pressure on this thing so I will use leg and...uh...WTF, I hate this.

Lifeshighway (riding in the ring with us): *laughing* Solo doesn't look like he is too thrilled about this experiment.

Pete (lifeshighway's horse): Arrrrr, I am going to bite Solo! (he never can stay on topic)

Apparently, the hack is not for us.

December 1, 2010

Discover Eventing

First off, I must say THANK YOU!!!!! to everyone who voted for us in the Life's Highway Fantasy Yard Art contest -- WE WON! Which means not only does Solo owe you dressage karma, I also owe you fantastic photos of Solo leaping flamingo shaped obstacles. Ahhh, the possibilities.

I also wanted to share with you a fantastic resource USEA has made available in the form of DiscoverEventing.com. Have you ever wondered just what the heck is three-day eventing? Needed a checklist for braiding or a first aid kit? Curious about what to expect at your first event? Well, it's all there and more in a well-organized introduction to the sport and all its rules and terms. I highly encourage giving it a good browse, especially if you are new to the sport or just curious about how it all works.  If there are any questions you can't get answered there, feel free to shoot them this way and I'll be glad to make up carefully research an answer for you!

November 30, 2010

It's Good To Be Home

Yes, I am back from the family vacation. And of course, the first thing I did when dropped off at my house was to drop the suitcase on the floor, feed the cats, then leap in the truck and hightail it to the farm. Where Solo consequently got hugged to within an inch of his life and stuffed with treats in my effort to reverse my advanced case of Equine Withdrawal Syndrome.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with EWS. It strikes down the horse owner during any extended period of separation from equine company. Symptoms include headache, nausea, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, excessive sighing, rampant daydreaming, and moon blindness. Or at least most of those. The only treatment is deep breaths of horse ambiance.

Last night was my first ride back in the game. Also my first ride post-hock-injections, which Dr. Bob brought out to us on the 17th.

Damn, that horse felt good. I always question whether I am doing the right thing pre-injections, but then, when I feel the change, I KNOW I did the right thing and it becomes worth every penny.

And you know what? He was so excited that I was back playing with him. It was pretty darn cute. As soon as I asked for trot, he pushed off with his back end into a forward, swinging trot, came down onto the bit with his little ears working like mad, and I could just feel glee (no, he did not sing any Top 40 hits). I laughed out loud when I asked for a bigger trot and he popped into a big, rolling canter. I let him grab a nice rhythm and rode it while we both giggled.

I have never before felt him just enjoy a dressage school so much. He was nearly bursting at the seams with try and energy and it was quite simply joyous.

What a lovely homecoming gift from my most beloved friend.

Do you have any Thanksgiving horsey adventure tales to tell?

November 29, 2010

No, Actually I Have No Shame Whatsoever

None, none at all, really.  I want a glowy yard flamingo.  It calls me with its glowiness and sparkle.  So....

Vote for me!

I am entry #3 with the purple unicorn. All you have to do is click the little link below the thumbnail pic.

If you vote for me, you will automatically get a better dressage score at your next horse show. Solo promises. And you will get to see a picture of Solo and a glowing flamingo. Because what could be cooler than that???

November 21, 2010

Longer And Harder

That's what she said.

Ahhahaha, I crack myself up. But moving on...

Tonight, Flying Solo is coming to you live from the beaches of Maui, Hawaii! I only get to go on vacations when other people pay for them (thanks, mum!!!). But even in Maui, my thoughts always wander back to the rhythm of hoofbeats.

Because I was totally talking about eventing in the title. I don't know what you were thinking about, but that's just wrong. ;-P I am talking about the long format, i.e. what events USED to be and what USEA is trying to help us hold on to.  There is even a group (logo at left), formulated in the brackish depths of the Chronicle of the Horse forums, dedicated to just this cause.

I had several folks write in and ask just what do all the phases of a classic (long) format event entail? Well, tonight (ok, it's probably morning back home right now) your life's deep burning questions shall be answered.

I won't go into the detailed and controversial change from long to short format. That would be far too long a post for me tackle mid-jet-lag. But here's what the classic has that the short format doesn't:

Endurance day.

The true test of your horse's conditioning that I wrote about briefly here. So, here's what happens.

You get a ride time for each phase (A through D). Phase A is your first roads and tracks. It's basically a mapped trail ride over rolling terrain, where you follow a marked route. This should be done mostly as a nice, brisk trot, maybe a little canter -- you are warming your horse up for Phase B, the steeplechase. Phase B usually consists of 6-8 brush jumps taken from a gallop that is faster than your cross country pace.

Once you and your horse have both reached the top of your adrenaline peak on Phase B, you move on to Phase C, another roads and tracks. Much like A, it's a trail, but you go slower, cooling your horse out from his gallop on B. You need to bring his pulse and respiration back down because when you cross the finish flags of C, you enter the 10 minute box.

Once in the box, the vets take your horse's TPR (temp, pulse, respiration) and make sure he drops quickly back to normal levels (this is where your conditioning tattles on you). If all goes according to plan, your horse recovers and then hits the start box of Phase D, the cross country course.

Here, of course, you gallop your heart out, collect the bugs in your grin, and cross the finish line and know that you successfully tackled the true challenge of eventing and are all that much richer for it.

A summary then:

Phase A: Roads and Tracks I, warmup for steeplechase
Phase B: Steeplechase at speed
Phase C: Roads and Tracks II, cool down for XC
10-Minute Box
Phase D: XC

Sum Total: Complete Awesomeness (yes, I make up stupid words when my brain can't figure out what time zone I'm in)

November 18, 2010

OMG, Something Actually Worked!

Red blood cells:  found!
Remember August?  Yeah, well, neither do I.  But that is when I started Solo on his SmartVite in hopes of boosting his hematocrit back to normal levels (for geek-out explanation of hematocrit, click here).

Our much-loved Dr. Bob was out yesterday to do our hock injections for the winter and so I had him pull a blood sample and run a CBC to check our progress.

Result: Success!!! Solo's back up to healthy red blood cell levels and ready to carry on. I have noticed that his respiratory recovery times had improved and Dr. Bob observed that he carried significantly more muscle yesterday, so I think we're looking good!

Thank you, SmartPak!

November 15, 2010

Committing

They say that saying something out loud makes it real.  Well then, let me make real the overarching goal that has been driving me to bring Solo along and making the fire in my belly.

It started a year ago when I drove north to volunteer at Waredaca's Training 3 Day Event (T3DE) in Maryland. The 3DE series is one that is steadily growing with support of USEA. These are full, long-format, "classic" events, the way Rolex used to be before FEI and the Olympic committee had their way with the sport.

This means you not only do your three phases, but cross country day is a TRUE endurance day, starting with Phase A, Roads and Tracks, Phase B, Steeplechase, Phase C, Roads and Tracks II, and Phase D, Cross Country.

I spent my Waredaca weekend running scores, setting up arenas, running the start box on Phase D, and keeping the jog up running smoothly. The cross country course blew my mind, it was so amazing and the grins I saw at the end of endurance day were unmatched at any I have been to.

I was also watching and learning and participating in all the educational stuff that was offered for competitors and volunteers alike. As I drove home that Sunday evening, one thought burned in my mind:

I WANT TO DO THIS. This, this one incredible event, this will be MY Rolex, MY endgame, and my goal for Solo.

So here we are a year later. Solo has made fantastic strides this year, progressing far more than I could have imagined. After our jumping lesson on Saturday, I was talking with a friend and suddenly, it dawned on me:

"I think I have a Training Level horse," I murmured. "Excuse me, I have to go throw up."

The problem with T3DE though, is that you can't just sign up; you have to qualify. This sport has no mercy for poor people like me. If the soundness gods smile upon us, we somehow scrape funding together, and I stay on my horse, my goal is to qualify for Waredaca in 2012. Solo will be 16 and I don't want to push my luck any farther than that.

So, to qualify, here is what we have to complete in the next two years:

Four recognized Training Level events (we take donations of any type, thank you!), with "Nationally Qualifying Rides:"  
  • Dressage score under 50
  • NO jumping penalties on cross country (yes, this means no run outs, no refusals, no falling off)
  • 12 or less stadium penalties (4 rails, no refusals).
What could possibly go wrong???

November 13, 2010

Best Mail Day. Ever.

OMG OMG OMG!  So I get home from the conference today and pull a handful out of the mailbox.  The first envelope I opened had...THIS!  Beautimous giant purple ribbon, apparently our final placing in the Adult Team Challenge was 7th (I like purple better than green anyway!) so hooray for all of us on Team Nuts To You!



Yes, I got it, the special surprise I warned you about earlier. This completely totally awesome awesomeness is brought to you thanks to Heads Up! Helmet Cams, who hooked us UP at VHT so I could finally get video to share with you! So hang on, gang, you are now...

Flying Solo!!!
video

November 9, 2010

Photographic Proof!

Or proofs, should I say.  Yes, the evidence is up!  All your favourite ridiculous faces and moments from Mr. Shiny are displayed, thanks to the handiwork of the always-fantastic Brant Gamma. Thirty-one shots, to be precise, of our stadium and cross country performance at the 2010 Virginia Horse Trials. I may just have to order a digital copy of our trakehner jump. Oh, and the definitive evidence that Solo is Jesus (can you spot it?).

I will take it as a good sign for the future that looking at the cross country pictures, all the Novice jumps look so, well, little...

November 7, 2010

Saddle For Sale!

Wintec Dressage Pro.  Excellent condition.  Kept cleaned and covered at all times.  Wool flocked!  NO CAIR. I had my saddle fitter rip out the CAIR and replace with the wool.

18" seat with changeable gullet system.  Wide, Medium Wide, and Medium gullets included (or any one of your choice if you don't want all three).   

60" black stirrup leathers included.  Leather with nylon lining to prevent stretch.  Also in excellent condition, nice heavy duty leather looks new.

Cotton saddle cover included.

This saddle has a nice balance and comfortable seat.  Great for schooling and easy to clean up for shows.  Want to try out dressage?  Want to trail ride in comfort but don't like Western saddles?  Have a young horse or one who changes shape often?  Drop me an email!

I am asking $350 + $25 shipping/handling. I am sorry, I cannot do trials, I am only shipping this saddle once. But Wintecs are extremely easy to resell, especially these rare wool flocked ones, so don't worry about getting stuck with something you can't unload.

November 4, 2010

The Anticlimactic Climax

As Friday evening staggered to a close, two things came along that vastly improved my mood.

(1) Margaritas. What's not to love!

(2) I checked the leaderboard.

While sadly, my four jumping faults did NOT evaporate into thin air, I learned that despite a psychotic rider and a stiff back end, the judge was kind enough to grace Solo with a 34.5, which left us tied for 11th place out of about 30.

Ok, maybe this wasn't the worst horse trial ever.

So when Saturday dawned and I carefully arranged all our gear for our cross country run, I actually had a smile on my face. I had walked the course three times. Normally, I only walk once, but this course was VERY hilly, VERY turny, and I wanted to feel 100% confident about not only where I was going, but how I was going to ride there.

Saturday also came with a fun bonus surprise, but I am not revealing it yet, I am just going to let you suffer and wonder until it is ready to unveil. No, it is not a free prospect for me to train. I wish.

When 11:50 am rolled around, we were locked and ready to run. Our warmup jumps felt fantastic. The grass was dry and the sky was blue and my timer was set. The starter nodded his head and said my favourite sentence.

"5...4...3...2...1...have a great ride."

Solo rolled forward and I whispered our startbox launch code: "Go get 'em, buddy!"

Once the course takes over, you stop thinking and you just DO. The first few jumps were simple, positioned on steeply rolling terrain to test your balance. There was a sharp left turn and a downhill takeoff to a set of whiskey barrels. I focused hard, remembering to STAY OFF THE BRIDLE and use shoulders and body to balance Solo back.

He tore across the next series of single jumps and didn't blink at the offset two-stride coops. After jump 11, I remembered the all important half-halt-almost-totally-halt so you can make the tight rollback turn in a shallow, cramped grassy bowl to a low rail at 12. Drop and bank to open table to a bold water combination came next.

I glanced at my watch and we were good on time, but still a bit close to speed faults for comfort. The course had been set at 400 mpm, which is a good open canter, but not an all-out gallop, so I slowed Solo's pace a bit.

18 was the open trakehner at the base of a slope and I mentally heard David's voice telling me to close my leg, just ride forward, keep your eyes up, and don't touch the reins. Then up the hill to the final big brush jump at 19 and we were home free.

We rolled to a stop, double clear with big gasping grins and that was it. Time to pack up our toys and go home.

The end of the weekend saw us tied for a surprising 8th place. Without my choke-rail in stadium, it would have been a 5th. Not to shabby for a couple of goofballs trying to cobble it together on their own. Our team finished in a tidy 6th. No pretty ribbons to take home, but many lessons learned. And a well-earned rest for Solo as this would be his last horse trial of 2010.

However, there was one unexpected development. I found myself thinking about all the challenges of the weekend and realized that they were merely logistical ones. The courses themselves had ridden well and I felt good about them. All at once, I heard these words on my head:

You know, I don't think there was anything they could have thrown at us at this level that we couldn't have tackled with confidence and solved.

My eyes, more than once, had wandered thoughtfully over the Training level cross country jumps. I had walked the Training level stadium course, thinking, you know, we've been jumping stuff this big at home...

I just might be hatching a plan, a scheme that just might involve taking Solo up to Training level during our next season.

Don't tell Solo.

November 3, 2010

Downs And Ups

By the time I made it back to Solo's stall, my blood pressure had well passed healthy levels.  As I surveyed all the gear that needed to be applied to the horse, my eyes rolled and I turned in deperation to my teammate stabled next-door and shamelessly begged for help.  As any good eventer would, she sprang into action without hesitation.

I now had approximately twenty minutes left in which to tack up my horse, redress myself, warm Solo up, and be ready to parade through the coliseum gates. I arranged pad layers and set my jumping saddle on top and whipped off the fleecy cover.

Fuuuuuuuu..........!!!!

Teammate: "What are you missing??"

"I HAVE NO $#@%! STIRRUPS!" I recalled they were on my dressage saddle, which sat in my trailer at the other end of the complex, well out of range of retrieval in time.

Dear, wonderful teammate: "It's ok, take my dressage stirrups."

Stirrups applied (and leathers rolled like I am six years old since they are long).

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.......!!!!

It was like a curse. I discovered several other things which sat in the trailer that I could not possibly continue without. Teammate calmly handed over everything we needed to get by and stuffed me up on the horse. Eventers rock, y'all.

Lesson 7: Don't put anything away until the end of the day.

We scurried over to the warmup ring Indy 500 track attached to the coliseum and started to trot around. And by trot around, I mean picking our way through horses cantering in both directions about three deep along the rail around the warmup jumps. People would randomly peel off and weave around to a jump with a warning yell. It was utter chaos and no place for the faint of heart, be it human or equine. Amazingly, even though there was more than one set of rider eyeballs bugging out, the horses calmly went about their jobs with not even a squeal of protest at the close quarters.

At this point, I discovered that not only were the stirrups set at jockey length, they were uneven to boot. So I swept out the gate and in desperation, asked a random couple to hold Solo for me while I fixed the leathers (horse people in a panic seem to have no qualms about harnessing the labour of innocent bystanders).

My state of emotional meltdown must have been written all over me like a billboard as the kind gentlemen readily stepped up and took Solo's head. As I fumbled with the buckles with shaking hands, he gently said, "Relaaax. Take it easy. Remember, sometimes when we try to do things faster, they just take us longer." Bless him, whoever he was. It was enough to get me to draw in a shaky breath or two and get things sorted. I jammed my feet home and with profuse thanks, returned to warmup.

With my brain now focused on riding forward to the jumps, keeping legs and core strong and supporting and the hands soft, we took crossrail, vertical, and oxer on. I could hear David and Becky in my head on each approach, reminding me to keep my shoulders back, leg on, and wait wait wait...

Our number was called, I rode through the white swinging gate, and then it was just us; one red horse and one determined me alone with ten jumps and the laser eye of the timers. I felt the ripple of a thrill as I heard our names being announced by the voice of eventing, Brian O'Connor. Then everything else disappeared and all I heard was hoofbeats and my own voice in my head: They're just poles. It's only an arena. Ride each jump and keep your eyes locked on target and LET GO OF THE DAMN REINS.

So when I got to the first jump, I completely choked, overrode it, and pulled the top rail.

Lesson 8: Let go of the damn reins.

Then I got mad at myself. And that makes me sit down and ride. I put a supporting leg on to each jump. I carefully remembered and used the tips we'd gotten earlier from an Advanced friend. I waited for the waiting jumps and rode up to the oxers. And the rest of the round was clean and under time, despite a few bobbles along the way.

There were many pats and much praise for Solo and a giant sigh of relief for me. I still had no idea what our score was, only that it had just increased by four. The rest of the day was ours to collapse and recover from this chaos and tomorrow...

Cross country awaited.

November 2, 2010

Dressage Is For Haters

The warmup arena closest to my ring was on a slight slant. I knew as soon as we took our first few trot strides downhill that I should have done the hock injections sooner.

Lesson 5: Always listen to your gut.

Solo wasn't off, but I could feel that he just wasn't as willing to really push from behind and support his weight like he had been doing. Thank you, universe, for making sure that, so far, we never get to compete recognized at 100% capacity.

I worked on suppling and transitions, but perhaps we have been doing the transition thing too much -- Solo anticipated all of the upward transitions and flung his head around in annoyance. I threw my dressage whip in the grass, which improved matters a little. All the while, I boiled with frustration inside. In true adult fashion, I mentally screamed at innocent bystanders: Stop looking at me! I am a psycho.

His dressage work has been beautiful at home. Even 80% of what he has been doing would have been great. But the confines of the stall and the cold snap were too much for Friday morning's Adequan shot to overcome.

A steward trotted down to the ring, loudly looking for 241.

"That's me," I said.

"We have been looking for you!" she called. This girl was about 15 or so.

WTF? Again?? Am I doomed to never actually get a helpful warmup steward who does their job and lines up people on deck???! "I'm sorry," I replied, "but no one is giving us information down here."

"Oh," she says, "there is no steward because this is not an official warmup area."

I look blankly back over my shoulder at where we had been warming up: a harrowed, watered, PREPARED surface with about six or seven horses and riders prepping for their tests. Sure as hell looks like a warmup area to me.

I shake my head and walk up to the ring. I greet the judge and enter after she rings the bell.

We put down our test. It doesn't feel very good. Solo is a bit resistant, especially since the first half of the test tracks left, his weak side. Once we go right, he softens a bit. I try to keep up the energy but he is dead slow in medium walk and breaks to trot several times in anticipation, the bugger. I salute at the end, thank the judge and leave.

I am near tears of frustration and fury, not all of which is completely explainable. There might have been a hormone surge in there somewhere too. But I am so angry that all of our hard work with such positive results seems to disappear as soon as we step in a warm up arena.

As I put Solo back in his stall to rest for a bit before show jumping, I am overwhelmed by hopelessness.

I want to just pack up and go home. I hate this. Why do I do this? This is ridiculous -- I am here by myself, trying to do forty jobs at the same time and I am failing at all of them in this huge place. What is the freaking point?

Lesson 6: Don't skip breakfast. It then means I have low blood sugar, which means that I am crabby, impatient, and moody.

I resolve to go watch a few stadium rounds before I get ready to show jump. I need to calm the heck down. As I settle into the bleachers to watch the first round, I glance at my watch. It is 1:20 pm. I am a five minute walk from my barn and I am supposed to ride my stadium round at 2:02 pm. Like, in 40 minutes.

My head explodes anew and I slam through the auditorium doors in a mad race for stabling.

This is not going well.

November 1, 2010

Virginia Is For (Horse) Lovers

How do I even begin? How do I encapsulate the ride from fury and hopelessness to joy and satisfaction? What can convey such an unexpected experience?

If you've never been to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I can firmly assure you that you have missed out. I spent three of my undergraduate years there and its smoky vistas and brilliantly coloured hillsides still catch me with their effortless beauty. Nestled in the western foothills on the north side of Lexington (yes, there are two Lexingtons) is the Virginia Horse Center, home of the Virginia Horse Trials for at least the past ten years. Solo and I pulled into the gravel drive on Friday afternoon around one o'clock. I settled him into a stall and walked to the top of the hill near the cross country field and turned around.


Spread behind me were the huge colliseum (on left) with the attached covered warmup (front), SIX stabling barns, each the size of a warehouse lined up behind, with the foothills resting in the background.  Perfectly groomed warmup areas (six or seven of them) hid around every corner.  There were four dressage arenas scattered in a half moon behind this vantage point.  Oh, and inside the colliseum was our stadium course (half of it is pictured at left).  At this point, my jaw unhinged.  I am not really used to riding my jump courses in Madison Square Freaking Garden.  I was a very tiny minnow in a very massive ocean full of sharks.  I slunk back to my horse to hide out.  Only it was a really long slink because this place is HUUUUGE.

Oh, and did I mention that there were about 300 other competitors there for this august event?  So this massive facility is buzzing with duallys, bobcats, trailers, leaping horses, wheelbarrows, golfcarts, motorbikes, people, loudspeakers, vendors, and dumptrucks from about 7:00 each morning until about 8:00 each night.  The ocean is bloody enormous.

My intention had been to camp in the back of my truck, since I have a cap on it. I had a ton of blankets and a heating pad. But when an Area II acquaintence offered the pullout bed in her (very warm) fancy trailer, I grabbed my sleeping bag and never looked back. It was 31 degrees on Friday night and my windshield held 1/2 an inch of ice Saturday morning. I love you, Cindy.

Lesson 1: If camping in the truck, don't be too damn lazy to go up in the attic and break out the full fledged space heater.

I was up around 7:00 Saturday morning to feed and handwalk Solo. He was already about a month overdue for his hock injections. Since he lives in a pasture 23 hours a day, normally, this is not a huge issue. Since he'd spent the night in a stall, however, I wanted him OUT and moving as much as possible.

I walked back to the campsite (down three huge barns and across a massive parking area) to get my food and video camera and watch some morning rides.

Lesson 2: If you are unfamiliar with the facility and there is any chance it might be the size of, say, a county, bring a damn bike!

We were slated to ride at 12:56 pm. At approximately 12:02 pm, I discovered that in my drug-clouded packing attempts, I had failed to include a shirt and stock tie for dressage show jumping. Shit-fire. In a panic, I ran to the next barn to find Cindy, one of the few people I knew there, praying that against all odds she would be at her horse's stall.

"OMG OMG OMG, I need help!"

Cindy stares at me like I have two heads. "What's wrong with you?"

"I have a clothing crisis!!"

"What kind of crisis?"

"I have no shirt and no stock tie! I was on drugs and I thought they were on the same hanger as my coat and and and..." I wailed in despair.

In veteran Cindy fashion, she calmly said, "Go in my trailer and look in the closet, you will find what you need."

Lesson 3: Do not consume opiates or other consciousness-altering substances while preparing for an important event. This goes hand in hand with

Lesson 4: Keep your horse show crap together. On the same hanger. Always.

I hope I squeaked a thank you as I dashed to my truck (oh yeah, I'd already given up on the walking unless someone figured out a way to clone me), got to the campsite as fast as I dared, shoved on shirt, assembled the stock tie so it appeared that white linen had been vomited in a pile at my throat, pinned it into a ghastly mess, and bolted back to the barns.

Solo, bless his calm and patient heart, waited for me to stuff the bridle over his ears and climb on before making his way out into the sun and back to a warmup ring. As we crunched down the gravel path to the area designated for our division (Novice Rider), I took deep gulps of Blue Ridge air and tried desperately to calm the lightning storm in my skull. Hooves hit harrowed dirt and it was time to warm up for our test and time to see what I had underneath me that day. The next 30 minutes would probably decide, to a large degree, how we would place, if at all, in this humongous machine of a horse trial.

October 28, 2010

Time To Go

Tomorrow morning sees my rig pointed at the Virginia Horse Center.  I would feel a lot better about it if we hadn't had a CRAP ride tonight.  I blame the fact that I have been on Vicadin and muscle relaxers for two days due to neck pain.  But Solo was a BEAST, argghh. I can only hope that means the next ride will be great.

Our ride times:

Dressage: Saturday at 12:56 pm
Show Jumping: Saturday at 2:02 pm
Cross Country: Sunday at 11:50 am

Our team for the Adult Team Challenge is called "Nuts To You." We had to have a little name change after some registration confusion, but hopefully that is worked out now.

Live scoring may be available here. A link to the horse trials webpage is listed on our calendar.

October 24, 2010

Cross Country With Becky OR Why You Should Never Take A Jump For Granted

Cross country day promised to be many things.  Solo & I didn't run till after lunch, so that meant I got to spend all morning watching the Training & Prelim folks go (which means I got to spy on them to see what I'd have to force my aching legs to do).  So I limped up the long sandy path from the stabling which led through the woods & around the field to the steeplechase area.  As the group moved on to the cross country course, I quickly discerned my goal for the day:

WANT TO JUMP THIS! (double stairstep bank that Jammie & Rocky demonstrate effortlessly)


Like, want so bad I can't stand still.  Want so bad that I tell everyone around me how much I want it.  Want so bad I work myself up into a frenzy of want.

Note to you non-eventers out there: this is one of the classic signs of a terminal case of eventing fever. The twitching, the frothing of the mouth, the hopping motions all indicate an incurable eventer who has spied a new obstacle to attempt. Do not try & stop her, it is pointless to intercede. Just stay out of the range of any limbs that may be thrashing with excitement, I wouldn't want you to get hurt.

Moving on...

(It's going to be a long story, but if you stick with it, I promise great entertainment.)

At one o'clock, I head up the path again, only this time on my horse. One member of our group has never really schooled cross country; I caution her that once she gallops through that water at the end, she will no longer be able to think about anything else for the rest of her riding days.

To begin, Becky wants us all to gallop the steeplechase loop sans jumps so she can watch our galloping position & our gallop rhythm. Solo is more than happy to oblige with the galloping through a field bit, but I have to remind him about every 0.2 seconds about the rhythm bit. I choose to ignore the burn of my thighs, what do thigh muscles know about what is important anyway?

After our circuit, Becky offers effusive praise for our rhythm & position & my ego shoots up about 25 points. Which is probably about 30 points higher than it should be.

"Okay," she says, "Now do the circuit again, but include the small steeplechase jump."

This jump is maybe a 2' or 2'3" wooden coop with fake plastic sticky "brush" coming out of the top. No problem, a simple fly jump. Solo's already sniffed the brush anyway.

I gallop off with a smug little smile, thinking, We're so awesome. My horse is awesome. I am awesome. Everyone is going to watch us do this jump so easily & they will wish that they were us!

Ha.

We roll around the turn & I put my eye on the jump. I half halt, balance my horse, & casually gallop up to it. I'm so busy thinking about how easy it all is, I only barely notice Solo's front feet tap the ground for takeoff & I lean forward for his jump.

Only there is no jump.

The next thing I know, I have cartwheeled over Solo's head as he ducked & spun to the right as he is wailing, "OMG, HORSE SPEARING STICKS OF HORRIBLE DOOM!!!!" I am flat on my back on top of the jump with a hearty whack & I think, Cool, this vest is awesome, I can't feel a thing! Then I slither backwards & land conk! on the nice baked clay on top of my head (that helmet's pretty sweet, too).  Finally, I am sitting on the ground with a bridle in one hand (I always wondered how people did that) & a fly bonnet in the other. Damn, I wish there were pictures.  Oh besides that one on the right.  Yeah, that's what I totally looked like.

I look to the right & I see a shiny chestnut butt & tail hightailing it into the woods back to the stabling. I think I can hear a distinctly equine snicker.

I look to the left & I see Becky walking towards me. "Well," I say, "that was unexpected."

"Now do you understand why we emphasize staying back before the jump?" she admonishes.

"Yes, ma'am, yes I do!"

Unfortunately, now I must do the Walk of Shame with bridle in hand to fetch my very naughty horse. It's a long way to stabling (remember that sandy path I mentioned), so they are kind enough to give me a Gator ride. A few minutes later, Solo ambles up to me as I exit the Gator with pricked ears. Hey, mom, whatchyou been up to? I just had a great gallop!

I resist the urge to call him a very nasty name. Or at least I resist saying it out loud.

He has a bloody mouth & it appears he has either bitten his tongue or hit his nose on the jump.

I don't feel very sorry for him right now.

The bloodflow has stopped though & he cheerily accepts the bit, so I swing back up & we trot down the path (again) to rejoin our group.

With my ego thoroughly deflated back down to proper levels, we gear up to have at it again.  We must do the little jump & we are given our choice whether or not to do the Big Kids' jump.  This time, I am sitting on the back of my saddle & my legs are well-wrapped in place.

And the shiny bastard refuses it, clearly terrified that the plastic sticks will stretch up & grab his little wussy hooves in mid-air. I am ready this time though & we whip around with a snarl.

Now I am seated approximately on Solo's tail & the spurs are fully engaged. There is no option; he WILL go over or go through, these are his choices. Wisely, he opts for the former with all the grace & beauty of an orange goat.


And damn straight, we are DOING the Big Kids' jump!!  Solo considers & finds this aligns with his best interests.


And after that...things went smooth as warm butter.  I most certainly did NOT get ahead of my horse (funny how I had zero further temptation to lean forwards) & Solo took everything as old hat (it's amazing what proper riding can do).



As we work the bank complex, I hear Becky telling our newly-converted classmate to watch how we go up the bank because "she's riding great now."  Ha.  Ok, that was pretty funny... 

Oh yeah, & that second picture? That's us going up the DOUBLE BANK. WAHOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

The Red Machine gets a well-earned drink after we finish at the water complex.
As always, we ride back to the stable with a big stupid grin on our faces (well, at least mine).  Oh, & our classmate whom I warned about the habit-forming properties of cross country?  Yeah, she can't wipe that shit-eating smile off her face, I'm afraid her cheeks will pop.  We have a new convert!

The Wisdom Of Becky With Respect To The Ego-Maintenance Tool That Is Solo:

-STAY BACK when jumping at speed.  Sit down on his tail & push him forward with your seat & leg, especially at slower gaits. Stay very strong in your core & don't let the horse pull you forward & compromise your position.

-If you keep your position, when that stutter step in front of the fence happens (you know which one I mean), you just wait & let him jump up in front of you.

-When galloping, put your hands down on his withers & keep them quiet until you need to make a correction; don't carry them up.

And I must add a huge thanks to Morgan, for all the pictures!! She worked hard all weekend to get some shots of everyone enjoying this fantastic opportunity & we are so grateful for it. Great job, kiddo, & thanks again!

October 23, 2010

I Love Fall

It really is the best time of year.  Too bad the gun season for deer starts next week and ruins it all.  Today, though, priceless.

Cross country is fantastic, a rush like none other I have known.  But it will still never fill me up the way a day in the autumn woods alone with my horse does.  His quiet hoofbeats through leaves and pine needles complement the swing of his head and tail and the rhythmic notes of our bell.  The cool air of fall is tempered by the warm afternoon sun, spattering through the changing leaves across the trail.  Solo eats up the trail with a long, swinging trot and brightly pricked ears.  The rise and fall of his back muscles echoes the beat of my pulse.  Every stress, every worry, every tension falls away with the passing breeze and my universe narrows to this, one strong horse and one winding trail.

What makes your soul settle and sigh in contentment? 

October 21, 2010

Gymnastic Jumping: In Which I Fail To Successfully Coordinate Body Parts

I don't feel like I rode that well on the clinic's show jumping day. I couldn't get my hand and my body and my legs and my head to all work properly at the same time. It was like I tried to get everything to listen at once and as a result, NOTHING listened.

But we tried.

Becky explained that today was more about balance and riding a jump safely than what you would really do in a stadium jumping ring. So we focused on gymnastic exercises, keeping your body strong and defensive and controlling your horse's stride length and rhythm.

Exercise 1 was a simple one stride of cavaletti about six inches off the ground. I forgot to upload the video last night, so maybe you'll get lucky and I will remember to do it tonight. The goal was to get the horse smoothly through in a bouncy, compact stride. I mostly kept forgetting to let go of Solo's face and moved my body forward too much. Fail. Now with video!



Exercise 2 was a small bounce with a placing pole out front. I mostly kept forgetting to let go of Solo's face, again. But we were successful in convincing him that he needed to not dive on his forehand before the jump and hurl himself through the line like a rhino.










OMG, don't jump ahead, you idiot!
Oh ok, that's better.





From there we moved on to two bending lines from the bounce to a two stride oxer line or a two stride panel combination. I ride so much better then the jumps get bigger...





Then there was a really interesting exercise (that I also forgot to upload the video to, dammit.  I have some work to do tonight.) to emphasize keeping your body back and waiting for your horse. You rode downhill to a skinny two-rail vertical at a slightly-faster-then-comfortable pace. The fence was purposely innocuous enough to NOT back your horse off so most of us pulled a rail the first time. Then you turn and go to a line of two barrels where again, you use a faster pace and WAIT for the horse.




At the end of the day, the sum total was me = excruciatingly sore from balancing Solo with my leg and seat, Solo = so annoyed at having to stay balanced for the SECOND DAY IN A ROW, Becky = possibly questioning my abilities to ride a stadium course without pissing off my horse.

BUT, Becky did re-emphasize some important points that we have been working on with David and she also added a couple new exercises to make Solo a more adjustable horse.

The Wisdom Of Becky With Respect To The Enthusiastic But Balance-Challenged Jumper That Is Solo:

-Keep his front end up with your core, do NOT let him pull you down his neck.

-Keep your hands down closer to the withers so your corrections are more subtle and really press them into the neck when jumping.

-Practice compressing the stride, making a slow and bouncy canter coming into the line. Sit down lightly on his back to collect with your seat, letting it do the work instead of the reins.

-Solo has a big "booty bump" over the fences; slip the reins to him and stay back during the jumping effort.

I also really liked this thought:
Remember that there are moments in the ground and moments in the air; the moments in the air belong to your horse.

October 19, 2010

Dressage With Becky

There is so much to tell of late -- the new saddle came in this weekend (YEEHAW!) and is currently in Phase Break-In. We are busy prepping for VA Horse Trials and still trying to finish photo processing from Ecuador. However, I cannot go any longer without talking about the phenomenal experience that was our recent clinic.

About three hours south of us, a guy has been hard at work building an eventing facility for the adult amateur. He already has one farm in Connecticut (why oh why was I not born to these people!! Sorry mom, I still love you!) and decided apparently that warmth was better (of course, I agree!). So he has created Southern Eights Farm just over the border in South Carolina.

This place is exquisite. Designed for and by the adult rider passionate about the true form of our sport, the long format, everything about it is top of the line. Parts are still under construction, but there is a full cross country course with one of the loveliest water complexes I have ever ridden, beautiful guest stabling, a roads and tracks course and steeplechase galloping track and barns that *I* would happily live in. There is no skimping and I have to give a shout out to Brad and his manager, Shelley, who runs Classic Eventing, their training business. I wish I had remembered to take pictures of the place...

The scene is set then and Solo and I march our way up for our dressage lesson (in our jumping saddle no less) with Becky Holder. We are longtime fans of her and her fantastic OTTB partner of eight years, Courageous Comet (left), and have watched them ascend through Rolex to the Olympic Games and two weeks ago, to a beautiful performance at the World Equestrian Games. So I may have been a weeeee bit star-struck as we rode into that arena.

I did laugh when Becky walked up to us and said, "Hi! I'm Becky!" Just in case we had any doubts that she might be an imposter? But I quickly briefed her on Solo's history and his Quarter Horse tendencies to prefer lazing along on his forehand to actually pushing uphill into the bridle. 

Solo and Rocky meet Becky. Solo is fascinated by arena pole, ambivalent to equestrian superstar.


She watched us warm up and then said, "Ok, stop! Now, trot again, but this time shorten your reins about five inches, double-time it and stop being such a nice little student and get bossy."

Solo did display some nice stretching during warm-up though. No, our reins were not always THIS long.


I say, "Yes, ma'am!" Solo says, "Aw, crap." And then I said, "Trot! Now! For real! From your butt! No more Nice Mom from me, buster!" And holy hell, did he trot.

Becky: "Look at that! That's not Quarter Horse-y; that's a mini-warmblood!"

Me: (out loud) "Wheee!" (in head) Hey, don't call my horse a warmblood, that's an eventer insult! (then head argues with self) But I guess it's ok to have warmblood trot...

Becky: "I can see his face when you ask him to work, I can see the twinkle in his eye as he pulls you down forwards trying to get out of really using himself."


Me: (in head) Ohhhh, you have no idea how good he is at that, you get an A+ for horse telepathy...

So we got to work. And wow, did my horse feel different. His back was up and active; his hind end pushed up into transitions like a piston coming up through the saddle; I could sit down on his trot and lift and shorten it with my seat and leg. We stepped up into canter. Becky caught him immediately in his classic antics of grabbing the bit for the first four steps. "Don't let him snatch those steps as his own," she admonished. "Be strong and insistent and make him be where you want him IMMEDIATELY." I did it over and it WORKED. And Solo was pissed. They always hate it when you take their cheats away.

We did get a few pictures from a co-clinic-er. I am kind of stunned -- not only is my horse pushing up into the bridle, but I am SITTING UP STRAIGHT. No hunter perch!!! Do I have any idea how I did that? Absolutely not. But now I have evidence that it is possible...



A summary of the Wisdom Of Becky In Respect To The Dressage Slacker That Is Solo:

-Be strong in your core and back (I cannot tell you how hard this is!), really use your legs to push the trot up into the bridle. Set yourself up where he needs to be and make him work up into that place.

-Be fair, but demanding about when and where transitions happen; get tough, it doesn't matter if he pitches a fit about it, ride it through. Make him give you the awesome trot right away, don't let him shuffle a few steps into it. Never accept mediocre.

-If he tries to come up and brace, especially in transitions, use bend and leg yield to soften him through it.

-For downward transitions, wrap your legs around him and squeeze him in two so he goes forward into the walk.

-In the walk, sit back on his back legs even if they are sticky off the ground. Don't let your body get ahead of them, wait and let them come through under you.

-When asking for the canter, demand the good canter immediately and really stay solid and strong. Don't let him seize any steps away from you. Lift your hands and really "show off" the horse, lifting his poll.

Is any of this new information? No -- but it was a good series of reminders, in the right place, at the right time, that I need to NOT let him get away with slacker moments. Needless to say, it was a very tired and sore me that trooped back to the barn. But I was excited about what we'd accomplished and very much looking forward to Stadium Jumping Saturday.

October 12, 2010

Can't. Keep. Up.

My time and energy to write is failing to keep up with all the things that are happening! So here is my cop-out with a list and teaser of coming attractions:

We finish our Ecuador trip with the most spectacular day that it is possible to experience inside the wild, amazing Cotopaxi National Park. The expanses of high grass and beautiful silence are simply beyond imagination.

Solo and I choose our new dressage saddle. We do not have it in hand yet, but there are some little English elves hard at work in a factory right now!

We also completed an amazing long format clinic with Becky Holder this weekend, fresh off her beautiful performance with Comet at the WEG's a week ago. Important lessons were learned: (1) Becky Holder has the cutest dog in the world. (2) If one leans forward during steeplechase jumps, carnage ensues (oh, this is a good story, you'll like this one). (3) Solo's booty CAN be engaged to great effect. Thanks to some VERY kind and generous co-clinic-ers, we even have pictures!!


Now, all I need is an eensy bit of free time to write all that in. Waiting....waiting....

October 6, 2010

Day 6.1: The Running Of The Bulls

I also learned that Sam loved one thing more than anything else: running. And he loved something else even more than that: running while chasing bovines. So when the bulls were turned loose after a vaccinating session, his ears about popped off with excitement. You can almost hear him gasping Want, waaaaaaaantttt....

October 5, 2010

Day 6: A New Landscape

When we left, I was tucking myself in at the Hacienda San Francisco. In the morning, we had to meet the van again to connect with Sally, who owns the outfitting company, and make our way to our new horses. We bumped around the edge of the valley and through the tinted window, I caught the first glance of what was to be a constant companion and undefinable presence for the next three days: Cotopaxi, which at 5,897 m (19,347 ft) towers as the second highest volcano in Ecuador (Chimborazo is the highest at 20,560 ft and just for reference, the summit of Everest sits at 29,035 ft).


In front of a chapel on a rutted road awaited our partners. I was introduced to Sam, a striking buckskin around 15.3 or so with a keen attitude and a strong will. One part English Thoroughbred, one part freight train, one part friendly companion, and one part enthusiasm.



Mum was paired with a very solid citizen named Jalisco.  (Yeah, it's HARD taking pictures from the back of a horse.  You try documenting nine days while never standing still!)


Anna found herself with a little liver chestnut named Alverito who was the very definition of his breed, a Peruvian Paso.  Although apparently from the back of Sam, he is the size of a Shetland pony.


An English volunteer, Hannah, brought up the rear with Caesar, who would be our chagra for the remainder of the trip. Hannah started out with one of Sally's experiments, a dark bay Hanoverian who Sally had brought down to see if the heavier horses did well at altitude (they don't). She led Anamike, a dappled grey Arab mare, while Caesar, riding the improbably named grey, General Pintag (it's a bus route in town apparently), ponied our familiar other-grey friend, Gitano (Anna rode him on the first half of the trip -- Gitano, not Caesar).


Our goal for the day was to ride south towards Cotopaxi, where we would arrive at the night's lodgings. It soon became apparent that we were in a whole 'nother world from what we experienced north of Quito. There was much more vegetation and livestock had flesh on their bones. It was greener and fresher and felt more...enriched, and yet at the same time, more wild. And Cotopaxi itself peeked out at us, flirting from behind the rolling hills.




Soon, we passed through a gate into a private hacienda. And by hacienda, I mean a massive ranch that sprawled across what was probably square miles. The owner bred (of course) Spanish fighting bulls and grazed them on the high meadows around Cotopaxi. Check out that pasture view.


Then, suddenly, we are on a high, tawny meadow. And I canter on, the snowy cone of Cotopaxi ahead of me, an entire alley of volcanoes, some extinct, some merely sleeping, surrounding me. It is almost pure bliss (if I didn't have to use every dressage muscle in my body to half halt Sam and convince him this was NOT a horse race), tinged only by the realization that I can only truly capture it in memory. Nothing else could hold its grandeur.



General Pintag really likes his job today. Gitano is just happy that no one is riding him!


Mum and I pose for posterity with Sam and Jalisco. One cannot pass by a Kodak vista!!  But I don't know why the volcano looks all weird behind us.  Perhaps the spirits are angry...


Anna and Alverito want some camera time too!


Caesar and the grey boys only make the landscape look even better.


We are getting close to the national park now and the land betrays its own past. Dirt becomes pumice and boulder fields are strewn across the slopes from the last lava flow that Cotopaxi threw into the skies.



The mountain over Anna's shoulder is Cincilagua. Which I have probably spelled wrong. We could never remember its name, so I called it Chinchilla instead. I longed to see a wild chincilla, but apparently they do not live this far north in the Andes. I had to settle for hungry puppies. Not quite as heartwarming.

The road in the last picture is the road down to our lodge, a sort of chalet called Chilcabamba. And what it lacked in facilities, it did manage to make up for in scenery...which you now have to wait for the next post to see.