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January 13, 2019

Bridging The Space Between Us

Echo & I had physical & mental assignments to tackle.  Both would take time, but that was a resource I had available, particularly that first winter, when you don't feel like you're missing out if you can't ride in the cold/dark/wind. 

Welcome Home To Prison

As mentioned, Echo had some sesamoiditis in one ankle.  This was a new one for me.  You can google it, but as I quickly learned after diving into vet textbooks & scientific literature, there are many uncertainties around this condition.  In brief, it's an inflammation within the bone itself which creates mysterious channels (unknown exactly how they form), usually related to excessive concussion (so not uncommon in racehorses).  The sesamoid bones are strange free-floating bones at the back of the fetlock (under the yellow bulge in the graphic), wrapped in the suspensory branches where they split to go around the ankle.  As such, they have a poor blood supply & are among the slowest in the body to heal.

Of course. 

It's often separated into two grades of severity, based on whether or not there is associated soft tissue involvement (i.e. suspensory branch desmitis).  The prognosis is better if it is caught early & there is no ligament damage.  Echo had a clean ultrasound of the suspensory ligament in that leg, so the prescription was rest.  And no more racing.

Love his white dot
I was ok with both.  I needed to put several hundred pounds on him, so it's not like we were going anywhere in a hurry anyway.  I conferred with Dr. Bob:  his radiograph showed the bone channels were more pronounced than originally thought & he had a little chunk of cartilage floating around.  He's a lucky horse:  he was raced by his breeder & retired just in time.  From what I saw on the rad, his next race could have ended with a sesamoid fracture across that weakened channel & his story would be very different.

Fortunately for us both, the cartilage would be re-absorbed by the body, causing no concern, & soft tissues still all looked good, so Dr. Bob agreed we still had a good prognosis.  And it was already becoming apparent to me, even in the first few weeks, that this horse was going to be well worth some effort.

Echo had developed some minor fill & warmth in the ankle around these stressed structures, so Dr. Bob prescribed 6-8 weeks of small pen rest with wrapping as needed.  He injected it to help bring down the inflammation, preventing joint damage.  He wanted to take the most conservative approach to ensure we protected those critical tissues & I was grateful for it.  We also had the advantage of a young horse body which was still developing & still had all those healing powers my own body has long since forgotten.

The cutest prisoner
Inmate Development & Rehab Programs

While I didn't love pen-cleaning or trying to figure out how to prevent a bored young horse from eating plywood (tip: you can't), or the inherent anxiety that comes with waiting for anything to heal, this time did turn into an opportunity.  Echo had enough space to not feel trapped (approximately 3x the length of that picture...the space in the picture...not the actual picture...you get it), but not enough to say, elude me across 2-3 acres.  We had nothing to juggle on the schedule but "eat & relax," & this intelligent kid needed something to engage him.  I began what I call Operation Farm-Breaking.

A racehorse knows how to lead, how to be groomed, how to be tacked up.  He's used to baths & farriers & (often) clippers & loud equipment.  He's not Farm Broke.  A Farm Broke horse gets blanketed at liberty in the dark after the headlamp-wearing owner trips over the fence wire.  He is approached & haltered in a large field by a woman wearing 7 different colours & a noisy, hooded rain jacket.  His rump is used for draping said noisy jackets or jangly girths, which often slide off & land under his feet.  His owner drops ropes, tosses brushes, splashes water, drags weird-shaped objects, & moves things without permission.

This monster may approach at any time & will definitely trip on something
I started small miniscule:  the lead-rope-touching skittishness.  After making sure he would let me touch every part of his body with my hands (he did), I began by draping the rope over his neck, about midway & sliding it back towards his withers, just until he started to get uncomfortable.  I'd pause for just a moment there, pet & praise (he didn't yet understand how to eat treats, also common with OTTBs), then move it back up to the "safe" zone as a release.  Rinse & repeat ad nauseum for a few minutes every time I caught him.  Eventually, I could swing the end of the rope all the way back to his butt (this is one of the many reasons I only buy 10' leads, plenty to work with). 

This was also the base of my pledge to him on which I was to build everything else:  I will never unfairly hurt you & I will never ask you to do something you can't do.

Over the following days & weeks, we learned plenty, using the same gradual approach, including:
  • Blankets cause no actual physical harm, despite sliding across your rump like a two-dimensional cougar.  Same goes for rain jackets, plastic bags, & other loud crinkly things.  You don't have to love it, you just have to accept it.
  • Headlamp-wearing human is not a disembodied orb seeking to extract your soul; in fact, she often produces delicious morsels
  • Small objects presented under nose by owner's hand are actually delicious morsels for nomming.  Except apples, we still don't understand apples.
  • No human parts go in your mouth unless the human puts them there herself.  This includes clothing.  Owner may dress like a homeless person, but the clothes are not actually disposable.
  • Strange human presents no real threat & does speak rudimentary Horse.  Should always be investigated for morsels & can generally be counted on to provide some form of entertainment.
April: Learning is exhausting. Also, he is not a graceful sleeper.
Along with this went Bodywork By Me.  I had wanted Dr. Bob to do a chiro adjustment with spring shots in February, but he recommended waiting until fall:  Echo's body was so tight that any adjustments would probably just get pulled right back out until we retrained that muscle memory.  I re-toned my forearms with liberal application of massage to all those tight tissues & slathered SoreNoMore on that pulled butt.  Producing many sighs, drooping ears, lip licking, & reinforcing that most of the time, contact with Weird Human is a good thing.

Awakenings

As days became weeks became months, I began to see the returns on my investment.  Echo's initial guardedness melted away into an enormous, gregarious personality who wanted his nose in the middle of everything.  I didn't have to walk up to him in the pasture because he came to me as soon as he spotted me (which Solo has rarely done, he maintains that the world should proceed on his terms).  Each barrier we conquered made the next one easier as I gained his trust.

July 2018:  I can haz morsel?
His body made progress too.  That ankle was cool & quiet & we graduated back to normal turnout.  Butt muscle healed uneventfully.  The feet, well, I think that will have to be a whole 'nother post.  But they were stuttering forwards (and backwards...and forwards...and backwards) too.   His rangy frame began to fill out, drifting from "whippet-shaped" to "horse-shaped."  I'm not sure if it's because he's dark brown, but he has more substance to him than first appears.  He has nice big cannon bones & roomy joints & his head is FULL full-sized.  It was very obvious that there was going to be plenty more "filling out" in our future, but at least I could brush him without feeling like I was going break the edge off some sticky-out-y part! 

Feb vs Sept:  please don't ever make me add up that feed bill
My favourite part, though, & the most rewarding by far, was the change in his expression & overall demeanor.  As I've said before, he was always friendly, always curious, but you could feel a reserve there, as if he was withholding judgement pending further review.  I felt like he was filing away experiences in labeled boxes or making a pro & con list on me:  "Hmmm, the blanket thing ended up fine & I got lots of morsels, file that under 'pro!'  But she occasionally has sparks on her fingers (winter static is begrudged), NOT COOL, that is a 'con!'"

After nearly 13 years with emotionally intuitive Solo, I am sensitive to (or try to be) the nuances of horses' personalities & reactions.  No, they aren't human (thank goodness), but they absolutely have both emotions, intuition, & intent, along with the ability to read that of other animals -- a necessary skill for a prey animal living in a herd.  Pondering how to reach across Echo's moat of reserve & knock on the door meant also examining myself & the signals I was sending.  The more I observed him, it felt like he was waiting.  But for what?

Cautious reservation
I realized I was withholding too.  In my fear of "something bad" happening, in my compensatory attempt to protect my battered self from more disappointment, more sadness, I was keeping my own heart at a distance & trying not to get too attached to this fragile animal, just in case it didn't work out.  I enjoyed Echo, I was kind to him, but in a rather businesslike manner.  And I think this very intelligent, very sensitive horse, who was already responding to my purposeful changes in projected mental energy in groundwork, also picked up on that distance. 

He was waiting for me.

With a deep & shaky breath, I leaned my shoulder to the heavy lid of the box around my heart.  I haven't gotten it all the way open, I don't think that setting exists anymore.  After all, Solo is already in the box, so I can't let him escape.  But as Johnathan Safran Foer sagely wrote, "You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness."  With some metaphorical & actual fresh air & sunlight, I am making some tentative forays into the edges of hope & trust.   

As I do so, Echo is lowering the drawbridge & opening the door to reveal a cool, confident exuberance paired with a desire to please & venturesome spirit that I can't wait to keep exploring.  And it's written all over his face.

The world?  Bring it.
     

January 3, 2019

Buy A Horse, Lose Your Mind

I got ahead of myself a bit, but I've had "young horse ponderings" on my mind a lot.  I will backtrack now, though, because I can't leave out the past 11 months of madness.

I certainly can't skip the story of how Echo hurt himself after less than 24 hours of being owned by me.  Actually, it was more like 16 hours.  You can't make these things up.

Benchmark had told me that this was one extremely body-tight baby.  I expected a certain amount of knotted-up muscles - even though Echo only shambled though four races in his short career, he still went through training & gate-breaking. 
What do I do with this?
What I saw as soon as he walked off the trailer was that every muscle in his rail-thin body was strung so taut that it made me sore & a little tired just watching him move.  It's hard to describe, but it was apparent even in the way he held himself that everything was just TIGHT, like all the muscles just contracted at once & then never let go.

But he didn't limp (yet...) & he was still brightly curious about this new world.  And I planned to make exactly zero demands on him in the near future other than that he stuff his (rather large) face & entertain Solo.

Upon arriving home after our walk through the woods, I led Echo into the run-in shed (where Solo had followed us along the fenceline).  I took it slow since I have a collection of possibly scary things just inside the shed including a blue shopping cart for holding brushes & flapping black tarp over hay.  He couldn't have cared less.

I have my central paddocks & run-in set up so I can divide each horse into their own space when I want to, so I put Echo in one half while Solo craned across the tape from his side.  The divider in the shed isn't hot, it's just a visual barrier.

Who're you??
What have you done, mom??
The rest of the tape is hot though.  I left it on because Echo needed to learn that tape should be respected & he had already lived in electric fencing for the ten days he was at Benchmark's farm.  Enter young horse curiosity. 
More sniffing of the new not-orange interloper
Right after I took the above picture, Echo decided to see if this new fence was interesting.  So he sniffed it & put his nose on it.  As it zapped him, he jumped back & sideways.

And then he took a few hobbling steps on 3 legs, with one hind leg barely touching the ground.

And I melted into a puddle, wailing faintly, on the ground right there & ceased to exist.

At least, that's what it felt like.  After inspecting now-even-more-pathetic baby, I surmised that said ridiculously tight muscles, when introduced to sudden contraction & loading, had more than they could take.  As soon as I placed my hand on his hamstring, he winced & I could feel the rippling spasms of a muscle flipping out.  Echo said he would like me not to touch that please.  I appreciated that he said it very politely.

What IS this place?
I didn't see any issues anywhere else, so I decided to apply a tincture of SoreNoMore & rest & leave it be.  This horse had just gone from a racetrack in Florida to a snowy farm in Delaware to a paddock in North Carolina in less than two weeks.  He'd gotten on a trailer around 3 am the day before & spent the night surrounded by horses he'd never met.  That's a lot for anyone.

In addition, even though he was polite & friendly, he was rather stand-offish about his space, which would continue for the first week or so.  He seemed concerned that I was going to try to trap him in the shed, so he would make a quick exit if I came in.  He was very sensitive to any ropes & skittered off like a deer if they even hinted at touching him, especially any farther back then about mid-neck.

I was caught a little off-guard by this.  Encore had been an in-your-lap Labrador from day 1.  With Echo, I had to leave a halter on him in turnout, which I hate (yes, it was a breakaway, but still).  But while he'd let me come up & pet him out in the open, he'd scoot away backwards if I tried to put a halter or rope over his head.  Once I had one on him though, he was perfectly fine to lead & cross-tie.
Eating his first snack with grave suspicion about the new human
I persisted in tiny increments.  I wasn't asking for any work, not even real groundwork.  But it was January/Februrary - I needed to put blankets on this skinny thing (which he thought were terrifyingly loud & offensively touched him ALL OVER, the horror), I needed to check his feet, apply more layers of SoreNoMore.  And I wanted to teach him that I brought good feelings, warmth, comfort, &  food.  Lots & lots of food. 

I also wanted to teach him that I respected his needs & that his space was indeed safe & he was guaranteed to get it back after he tolerated my brief ministrations.

Part of that Look I saw in the first pictures became even clearer that first week:  this was a very intelligent & very sensitive horse.  He watched every move I made & responded to shifts so small that I hadn't been previously aware I was making them. 

We had a lot of work ahead of us.  Not least of which included the manifestation of four equally functional legs.
Echo:  I don't know what we're looking at, but I'm looking at it

December 27, 2018

A 4 Yr Old Is Not The Same As A 6 Yr Old

Y'all.  Not even close.

You are permitted to laugh.  I do.

Encore was halfway through his sixth year when I got him.  He was a sensible creature with plenty of life experience, having put in three solid years on the track, but his brain didn't really completely mature until he was eight.  Only then did I feel like I had an adult horse along for the ride.

Shortly after bringing Echo home, I remembered that I had repeatedly muttered to myself during those two Encore years, "I'm never getting a horse younger than this."

Oops.

Don't get me wrong, Echo has a brain just as phenomenal as Encore (I'm just going to go ahead & apologize if the two 'E' names get confusing, I tried to find a different letter, nothing fit as well).  Quite possibly even better.  A prime example:

Because the shipper delivered Echo at dusk, I borrowed a stall from Trainer Neighbour for the night.  I didn't want to throw him out in a field where he didn't know the fencelines in the dark.  And to the shipper's credit, they had a rule that they would not unload a horse at night to pasture, for the safety of the horse.

The next morning, I walked over to lead Echo home.  This involved taking him through Trainer Neighbour's arena, past the chickens, guineas, mirrors, gravel piles, ground poles, lawn chairs, then on a short trail through woods along my back fenceline to my gate.
Echo discovers mirrors:  "Is that a new friend??"
I got about halfway home before it occurred to me that I was leading a still-technically-3-yr-old, who had just raced two weeks ago, who I didn't know, who didn't know me, through the woods full of crunchy leaves (had he ever seen woods with crunchy leaves?)...alone.

I had at least waited until Neighbour was home & she knew what I was doing, so she could come look for my body if I didn't text her within a certain time.

Fortunately for us all, Echo never put a foot wrong.  He was alert & curious, but perfectly mannered.  We arrived home without event. 
...alone...with a new baby racehorse

PSA:  Be smarter than me.  Bring a friend (employ bribery if needed).  I was lucky.

Echo has continued to impress me ever since with his intelligence, sensibility, & surprising level of self-assuredness in such a  young horse.  However, it is also VERY clear to me that he is still...such a young horse!

I've worked with young horses before.  But in my head, I guess I had these age bins or categories in which I expected horses to be roughly similar in terms of maturity.  As if there was some magical line where what I might expect from a 1 to 3 yr old changed to what I apparently expected from a 4 to 6 yr old.  

Who're you calling goofy?
All of you who have owned youngsters may now laugh even louder.

Surprise (to no one but me, probably):  a 4 yr old is still a BABY horse.  A very large, goofy, exasperating, hilarious baby. 

Just like every other creature, horses do vary as individuals.  I've certainly met 4 yr olds who were physically & mentally "filled out" enough to do grown-up things like be in riding lessons & go to horse shows.  It quickly became apparent that I had not purchased one of those.  Which was fine because my budget for horse activities is precisely $0.00.

So what's the difference?  These are a few things which stand out to me:

1)  His attention span for work maxes out around 25 minutes.

And it is surprisingly consistent.  Recently, I have been sneakily asking him to stretch that to 30 minutes.  You wouldn't expect 5 minutes to be a big deal, but it is, I can definitely feel that he gets mentally (& physically depending on the activity) tired at that point.

Walking AND trotting...IN A STRAIGHT LINE...is exhausting
Because he is an incredibly honest & intelligent try-er, I am always very careful not to push too hard.  I want to keep things feeling pleasant so he doesn't get sour & more importantly, so he never learns that he can't do something.  One of my core training philosophies is that I want my horses to think they are super-heroes:  I am always setting them up to succeed in training so that when we are faced with an especially challenging situation in the future, they will always try, because it will never occur to them that they might fail. 

If we accomplish an accomplishment in less than 25 minutes, no problem, we stop early.  He gave what I asked for & I want to keep that bright, fresh edge to his energy.  Nothing dulls an intelligent, generous horse more than drilling.
Narrow as a board in January

2)  Equipment sizes are not final. 

Part of the reason I shopped with a horse size range is that I don't want (& can't afford) to buy all new stuff.  But even though Echo is adult-sized height-wise, I have definitely seen changes over 11 months & I can tell that he has yet to fill out horizontally.

He already had a bigger head than Encore when I got him, but I've still had to let out his bridle another hole this fall.  His butt is now sticking out of the spare 78" sheet that was a dress on him last winter.  Solo's old medium splint boots no longer fit & his feet have gone up almost 2 sizes.  Fortunately, my beloved HS Duo bit was a little big on him to start, it now fits just right.  No way could I afford to buy another one of those!
Ran out of sheet before we ran out of horse
3)  EVERYTHING GOES IN THE MOUTH! 

Everything:  Leaves.  Sticks.  Solo (this is not well-received).  My hair.  Sleeves.  Blankets.  Shed walls.  Broom handles.  Lead ropes.  Cross-ties.  Leg boots.  Brushes.  Any tangible object that can be reached.  Except apples.  Apples remain mysterious objects which smell really good but have an unexpected level of crunchiness & so cannot be trusted enough to chew.  Even when a human cuts them into pieces & rubs them on the side of his tongue to tempt him.  Also, humans are weird. 
IN MY MOUF!!
Along with that goes an insatiable curiosity.  Everything MUST be investigated, now!  That can be a really good thing, I like a horse who wants to inspect things that startle him.  I far prefer that over one who just tries to run away.  But there have been times where I'd like Echo to be a little LESS curious.
It appears you may need some help...
One day, I needed to trim off some plywood edges (which had been chewed by a certain Baby Monster) with the reciprocating saw.  Which is a very loud & very powerful tool.  Solo is used to loud tools, but I waited until the horses were done eating & had moved out of the shed.  After they left, I fired up the saw & started cutting.

I focus very intently when using this particular saw, as it has so much power that it could easily slip or jump if you wavered, leading to serious injury.  Did I mention it's also very loud?  And it echoes off the metal shed roof.  Flies were out, including many bitey ones, & I felt a particularly tickly one on my elbow.  I took my finger off the saw trigger & turned to brush off the fly...

AI HELPS U!!!
...to find that Echo was standing right behind me, nose on my elbow, fascinated to explore what the weird noisy human was doing with his chew wall.  I nearly had a cardiac event on the spot.  Aside from the fact that his face was so close to the saw blade, he did NOT have handy safety glasses.

He lived.  I lived.  And overall, I am finding this bright, inquisitive creature a pleasure to work with.  He is sensitive in all the good ways & attentive to even a slight change in energy, showing me there is yet another level of training finesse in which to challenge myself.  

A question for YOU, those of you who have spent time around young'uns:  do you have a favourite resource that deals specifically with bringing along babies in their own time?  How do you keep things varied & fun?  Are there things you wish you'd done differently?  Are there things you are so glad you did?  What would you add to the list of "notable baby differences?"  Please share in comments!

December 23, 2018

Somebody Bet On The Bay: Solo Finds A New Friend

This time of year is hard for me: ghosts do not respect pleas for quiet or mercy.  I mostly just hunker down & grit my teeth until it's over.  To help pass the time, I want to share the next (and mostly happy) part of the story...

I needed to find a more permanent friend for Solo & a project for me.  There was so much I liked about the OTTB experience that was Encore that I wanted to do it again.  My budget demanded that it had to be very green, but that was ok; my job is always getting more complex & I was in a mental & emotional place where I needed said project to involve small, slow steps.

Maybe it's just me, but horse shopping seems to get harder as you gain experience?  Could be that I get pickier, but I noticed the market has become tougher as well.  Prices were up significantly - when I got Encore, the OTTB resurgence wasn't quite under full steam yet.  It is now, which is great for these horses & their sellers, just more difficult for me.
I guess they can't all be this amazing
I looked at a LOT of horses.  Stories to share there too, that probably need their own space.  Finances & time meant I couldn't travel very far either.  Because I think quite a few people face these challenges, I'll offer this advice:

You can still find good horses out there for not-huge prices, but if you are working with extremely limited resources, like me, just prepare ahead of time that it's going to take a lot longer & require a lot of extra energy to hunt them down.  A lot.  It also helps to be naturally lucky.  I am not naturally lucky.

I wish I had a better understanding of that beforehand.  It was probably unreasonable of me to expect anything different, but if I was entirely reasonable all the time, well, how much easier boring would that be?
But I met a lot of super cute horses, like this one
I'll skip ahead to the "fun" part.  I say "fun" because I don't think it is possible to buy a horse without a hearty side helping of stress.  Which makes it doubly important to choose a horse that you REALLY REALLY like, because that will help you survive said stress.

After scouring both the real & virtual worlds, seeing some very nice but not quite what I wanted prospects, which even included bringing a horse home on trial (alas, we found an ankle chip & he was returned, but he later found a great home), my eye caught on a young gelding who'd just arrived at Benchmark Sporthorses.

It was funny because Benchmark is owned & run by the person, formerly of CANTER Mid-Atlantic, who saw Encore at Delaware Park & was involved in his let-down.  I had emailed her when I started shopping, even though her prices (which are very fair & well-deserved!) were a stretch, & often beyond, for me.  The tradeoff was that I knew her & trusted her, she knew what kind of horse I liked, her stellar eye & reputation are, well, stellar, & she has built a network of high-quality contacts in the racing world which means the horses she gets are nice nice nice horses.  Those things have a lot of value, especially if something Just Right comes along.

My checklist looked like this:
  • MUST HAVE
    • Gelding (Solo turns into an unbelievable jerk if he falls in love)
    • 16 - 16.2 h (damn my freaky long legs, I wish I could fit ponies but also don't want giant)
    • No greys (I like low-maintenance, but am also afraid of melanomas)
    • Excellent brain with sense (priority A1A for both happiness & safety)
    • Correct conformation with 3 correct gaits
    • Age 3-10 (but would consider older, unlikely in my budget)
  • WOULD REALLY LIKE
    • I liked something with mileage on the track, I think that can show durability
    • I loved my AP Indy horse (Encore's grandsire) & a lot of horses who have caught my eye since have been AP Indy horses, with that combination of sport horse build with sweet, good mind
The photo that snagged my attention belonged to a 2014 model who appeared to check all but one; he'd only raced 4 times (terribly).  I decided I could live with that, at least he had made it through training & out the gate without disaster (so was trainable & probably not homicidal) & he had completed his last race with no known significant injuries.  And it just so happened that he had AP Indy on BOTH sides of his pedigree - some things are good in double doses.   He wasn't orange, but he was still dirt-colored.

And I saw A Look in his eye, an undefinable something that spoke to something in me.  It said he might be Just Right.
Not original sale photo, but it is the original face
What came next can only be described as insanity.  Unsurprisingly, I'm not the only person who knows Benchmark's qualities, which means that many of her horses are purchased sight unseen.  Sometimes within 30 minutes.  For that reason, she has an excellent set of well-spelled-out rules on her website.  Essentially, the first person who either pays or sets up a vetting has dibs on the horse.

The short version is this:  I decide to take an enormous leap of faith & set up a vetting for this horse.  Whom I have not met.  Someone was faster than me.  Which was fair, but I'm only human, I cried anyway.

Benchmark reached out in kind pity & told me about another 4 year old just in she thought I might like, who'd been vetted clean by someone else, but they decided not to buy him for non-veterinary personal reasons.  He was stunning, amazing lines for sport, a beautiful mover in a short video.  He didn't have A Look, but I saw an incredible potential that could take me farther & higher than I could ever afford.  Even if he didn't work out forever, I could train him to sell later.

I planned a trip, hooked up my trailer.  Then I got a message from Benchmark:  the first horse had been vetted by an Advanced event rider, but she decided not to buy him.  Was I still interested?

We had a conversation.  He had some sesamoiditis in one ankle, but soft tissues were good, all his other parts looked good.  I was never ever ever going to want to do Advanced or anything close.  He needed rest & several hundred pounds of groceries.  She assured me he was sweet as pie & didn't seem the type who would beat up Solo (an important consideration).  She also just so happened to be shipping another horse to NC, so he could be delivered the next day for a very reasonable price (which would save me 13 hrs of driving, diesel & miles on my old-enough-to-vote truck, & stress of hauling a baby horse by himself).

Yes, yes, I was irretrievably interested.

I made the largest Paypal transaction of my lifeIn more funny-ness, aforementioned Advanced rider ended up purchasing the other horse I nearly purchased.  Which I think actually worked out perfectly, because I definitely saw upper levels (of anything you wanted) in that horse.               

24 hours later, I met Intensive Harmony.  A big shoutout to Scott Norris Horse Transport for excellent service.  As this still-technically-3-year-old stepped off the trailer, all legs & curiosity, 24 hours of oh-my-cod-what-have-I-done melted away.  He was everything Benchmark had said:  kind, calm, brave, beautiful...and his eye, that Look was real.
Fresh off the trailer, checking out new world from borrowed stall
In a burst of eloquence, I texted her:  OMG, I LOVE HIM!!!

It took me two weeks to come up with a barn name.  I have also kept his Jockey Club name for now; he is still very much a baby & we're taking it slow, we have time to try out "official" names.  But I'd like to introduce you to Echo (continued musical theme not intentional, it just happens, I swear), the newest member of Team Flying Solo. 
First day in my paddock - yes, he was super thin
He arrived at the end of January.  There are already many stories & naturally, vet bills to go with them.  As I often remind him, though, he is fortunate to be extremely adorable, which makes it difficult to stay in a bad mood even when things do not go according to the backup standby reserve backup plan.

He still has weight to gain & we're just working on basics under saddle.  But we are (occasionally) under saddle.  Feet are a big project, but progress is progressing in fits & spurts. 
First meeting
Echo: He seems neat! Solo: Great, another kid to train.
At a dark time of year (literally & figuratively at present), he is adding his own brand of light to Solo's steady beam.  The road isn't smooth or straight (is it ever?), but it's not a dead-end.

I'm not sure where this chapter will lead.  And I confess that part of the reason you haven't heard about Echo before now is that I really didn't know if there would be much of a story to tell. 

And once again, I was afraid to break any fragile shards of hope with the weight of naming them aloud.

It's a little...less brave, perhaps, to tell the story afterwards, less risky than sharing it in real time.  But he's a horse & I still own him, so there's plenty of risk still to come.  And I have missed this community of blog-land, even though I was lurk-reading. 

So I'm going to work on filling in the past year of lessons learned from this bold & ridiculously adorable dark bay who I've come to call my Baby Monster. 

I think he just may be something really special.
Because this face..

December 7, 2018

Encore Moves On

A lot can change in a year.

Longtime readers know that Encore's sport career was declared officially over in March of 2016, with the diagnosis of a cruciate ligament tear.  It's an irreparable injury in horses, as they are simply too big & the stifle is the most complex joint in their body.  No more jumping, no circles, no lateral work.

He was 11.  I was heartbroken.

What to do with my big, sexy TB who still had a lot to give in the prime of his life? 
Encore: making my farm more beautiful
I spent more than a year agonizing over it.

He was good for Solo:  despite the bite marks Encore constantly accumulated, the two boys honestly loved each other & played astonishingly athletic games of "No, I'M The Wildest Mustang Stallion.

I could still ride him some, he was ok on straight lines if I kept some muscle on him & he remained a fantastic trail horse.

But as time went on, I felt more & more that things weren't really fair to either of us.  The nature of my job means that I'm often home late, but the one thing Encore couldn't do was ride in circles in the field in the dark.  And it became clear to me that at this point in my life, I'm not content with just moseying down the trail on a Saturday as my only equine activity.  I don't have to compete (which is good, because my sport has priced me out, but that's another topic), but I do need a project.

Formulating the next Terrible Idea
I looked at this goofy, overgrown labrador of a horse who was bursting with vitality, a horse who likes a job & who, if you don't give him something to do, will invent something that involves much poorer judgement.  And who, frankly, I trained the snot out of for five years & has a considerable skillset.

I realized that for us, nothing was going to change unless I changed it.  And I finally came to terms with re-homing him as the awesome trail horse that he is.  I can't afford to have three, nor can I be a bottomless retirement home for everything.  Not when he could do a lot more in a different situation.   

The trick lay in finding the right place for him.  A well-trained, good-minded horse who has gone Training Level eventing presents a lot of temptation for people to try to pull off a "magical" recovery & compete him again; that would not be acceptable. 
I'd be tempted...  Photo by High Time Photography
 And a 16.2 h puppy who sometimes forgot how big his body was isn't for everyone.  I wasn't going to ask a lot of money for him, as he was clearly limited, I would never get back what I put in, & my priority was for him to be safe & happy.  And of course, to honour the terms of the contract I signed with CANTER when I bought him.

So I didn't list him online, just shared his information word-of-mouth.  Long story short, we both got incredibly lucky.

Encore:  I'll climb ALL those mtns!
Trainer Neighbour just so happened to have a new client who was looking for a trail horse for his husband.  I told him to come over & meet us, where I cautioned him that, while Encore IS a great trail horse who learns a trail in one visit, spooks in place (if at all), will bushwhack through anything, wait while you flail around with a plastic poncho in an ice storm, neck reins or rides off your seat, & doesn't give a flying flip who rides him or what kind of saddle is on him...if they were looking for a 20-yr-old QH ride, they should look elsewhere, because he is still a 12-yr-old TB with a big stride & a motor.

Client loved Encore at first sight & they already owned another TB.  So we scheduled a 2nd meeting for the husband to come out & ride him on the trails.  Husband (who I was shocked to see had even longer legs than me) liked him & Encore liked that husband was a very casual rider.

Still miss this
Encore now lives 3 miles from me, on a beautiful farm with a restored southern plantation house.  That has a name.  And flooring that probably costs more than my salary.  The barn is behind the tennis court.  No lie.  His friends include a darling 13 h jenny donkey & a positively enormous Belgian, both rescues.  They even use the same farrier as I do.  I suspect he looks back & wonders why he was "slumming" it with me! 

Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't sob after the trailer pulled away.  I felt, however irrationally, that I'd let him down, that I'd betrayed him somehow.

Emotion is never rational, I suppose.

It was even harder to watch Solo look for his best friend.  I made sure that he saw Encore get on the trailer & go down the driveway.  I didn't want him to spend the next month convinced that his buddy was next door.

Encore & Solo's first meeting in 2011
Trainer Neighbour generously loaned me a retired gelding to keep Solo company.  Solo accepted the Temporary Friend as enough to not run the fence in dismay, but tolerance was all he was willing to give.  I could tell he missed his buddy.

We both did.

A bit of Solo's light dimmed in the following days.  He ate his food & remained calm.  But he kept a vigil for his big little brother, systematically watching & listening at each fenceline for a hint of Encore's ridiculously girlish nicker.  Every day he didn't find it, he seemed to grow a little sadder.

Every day, I missed seeing that heart-shaped star under surfer bangs, hanging over the shed wall.  Honestly, I still get a little sniffly thinking about it.  I was grateful to have Solo to hug.  He didn't protest it as much as usual. 

Encore made me a better rider & a better horsewoman.  He challenged me to be softer, to respond more quickly, to be lighter, be stronger.  He dared me to aim higher, be bolder, go faster, go slower, be more creative.  He brought the caliber of my skillset up several notches while still being so honest & forgiving every time I screwed up.  He made me laugh & he always brought me home safely.  He was a gift from my mother who bestowed gifts of his own.  I am so grateful to, and for, both.   

We dared. Photo by High Time Photography.
I visit him on occasion & I know he is happy & has great care.  I know how fortunate I am that he is so close, in a place where they can afford to indulge him on the management details that keep him comfortable (special hind shoes, Adequan/Legend, summer fans so nature dare not touch his anointed hide).  I think of him as a Team Flying Solo alumnus - still very much a part of us, but graduated to a new chapter in life.   

As for Solo, like many intelligent, intuitive animals, his loss took some time to heal.  His Temporary Friend was a little bit of an asshole when it came to hay, but Solo did finally break down & play with him on a sunny winter day.  That made us both smile.

Temporary Friend, though, was exactly that:  temporary.  Because another big change was yet to come.

That story comes next...