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We Are Flying Solo

August 31, 2009

A Tale Of Two Trailers

As I intimated in my clinic post, trailering had suddenly become an issue in the winter of 2006. At the time, I had my cherry red 1987 WW which stood at a whopping interior height of 6'6". As I mentioned, Solo technically fit in it. As long as he did not raise his head or want to move. At all. It had mangers and a solid divider too, so his feet had to STAY PUT. But he'd ridden in it quietly the three hours up when we moved and we had gone on a trail trip or two.

When I went to load him up for our PNH clinic, his reaction went something like this:

Walk walk walk walk, oh, the trailer, hmmmmmm, I don't really want to OHMYGODHELLNO I AM NOT GETTING IN THAT THING SCREWYOUI'MOUTTAHERE!!!!!!!

Yes, he stood up on his hind legs (I had put a butt rope on him for gentle encouragement), hopped over the rope and galloped off down a fenceline.

Leaving me standing with a longeline and ropeburn in one hand (note to self: gloves are a good invention) and a dumbfounded look on my face. Well, crap, now what?

I went and got my horse again and recruited two helpers from the barn and with a little coercion (which included me smacking my head on the escape door, gah!) we got him in and slammed the door. It would get us there.

At the end of the clinic, dear, wonderful Carol spent two hours with me and Solo showing how to properly load a horse onto a trailer. I use that method to this day: keep their feet moving forward. Life outside the trailer SUCKS REALLY BAD and life inside the trailer is awesome and full of pets and treats.

My conclusion: 6'6" trailers are for cows and small ponies. Not for 16 h beefcake horses. It had to go. AND since my Expedition had broken down on the way home from the clinic and was quickly revealing itself to be a problem ridden BEAST, it HAD to go, I was tired of fixing it.

New rig requirements:

-7' tall!!!!!!!!!!
-stock sides (Horses need ventilation! If they are sweaty when you pull them off the trailer, "ur doin' it rong!"
-straight load (My horse just didn't fit in any slants I tried, he was too long)
-bumper pull (I still wanted an SUV)
-steel steel steel (I like my horse haulers heavy and strong)
-dressing room (I am a charter member of the club I Have Too Much Crap Even Though I Only Have One Horse )

It had 150,000 miles but it purred like a kitten and had a brand new transmission. I <3'ed the Tahoe!

2007 Adam Special 15' -- brand new on the lot!

Open, airy, inviting, just the way I wanted it!

August 30, 2009

Gratuitous Photos

I have been hard at work this weekend! Ok, ok, I have been sitting in the barn, soaking up the aura into every fiber of my being. The Solo Saga shall continue but this evening finds me to tired to write. However, that doesn't mean I can't share a few of my favourite pictures from that period of time. We had moments, mere moments of improved movement, but we had to WORK for each one. There were HOURS of saddle time for each brief SECOND of yessssssss. It was HARD! And I couldn't string the seconds together, I couldn't find any consistency in it. But all the same, I was riding MY horse and that was enough for me! Winter 2006 and spring 2007, practicing, relaxing, and just plain horsing around...

Photobucket Photobucket

Taking a drink

It's hard to focus when that cold wind hits.

I'm too sexy for my pasture...


August 27, 2009

Work, work, work, OOO CLINIC!

We kept practicing. Slowly longeing became less about torture and Solo became less convinced that I would beat him to death. We could walk and trot in both directions, with and without side reins!! He was still reduced to a quivering, blowing mess by the sight of a longe whip and canter was out of the question steps.

Oh yeah, I'm still watching you closely, lady...
I also stumbled upon, of all things, a Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinic not too far from me. Yes, yes, I hear your groans, but just wait a moment. All these programs have, at their heart, some very useful tools. I also thoroughly investigated the instructor, Carol Coppinger -- the only female four star Parelli instructor in the country -- and she came with GLOWING reviews, even from the skeptics.

It was my first winter with Solo -- we were getting to know each other but I still felt like something was missing. So I sent in my check, loaded up (with some difficulty to be discussed later) the trailer and drove out.

IT WAS FREAKING FREEZING-ASS COLD. On the way home afterward, my truck blew a radiator and broke down late on a Sunday night in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention it was FREEZING-ASS COLD??? But it was also an invaluable experience. Carol first had us team up to play horse and get a feel for how the horses view our cues and some feedback from other participants on how clear our cues actually were.

Look, honey, I'm a prancing pony!
The next day and a half were spent putting it into practice both on the ground and in the saddle with our horses. What impressed me most about Carol is that she truly understood what the POINT of it all was, which is clear communication and a good baseline partnership with your horse, on which you can build other training. She emphasized multiple times that "I don't give a damn if your horse can do a perfect Sideways or Circle, what I care about is that he understands what you are asking of him, i.e. moving his feet as directed. Once he gets it, MOVE ON."

We both listen intently.
It was REALLY neat and rewarding to see Solo watching me, thinking, trying. You could almost hear him going, "OH! You finally figured out how to talk to me!" I, on the other hand, really struggled at first with being clear with my body language. My signals were muddled and as a result, my horse was muddled. Carol wasted no time taking me in hand and showing me how to be clear, fair and consistent to my horse!

Not that way, THIS way!
And what a difference it made. Those two days did more to cement the relationship that Solo and I were building than anything I had ever encountered before. I saw little value in the higher levels of the program, they just had no application to what my goals were. BUT that initial level of effective groundwork really changed the way I looked at horse training, at communication with our partners, and would stick with me forever. I still use the exercises today as a refresher of "hey, yield your hindquarters" or "please keep moving until I tell you to stop."

So thank you, Carol, for your insight and patience! And for all you Parelli-haters out there, just remember, hate the playa, not the game. Because at the core of the game, there is much truth. And that truth is a good many useful tools I keep in my horsey toolbox that came to me in an easily accessible format!

August 25, 2009

Jumping Clinic With...Me

And it was finally time: here I had bought this horse to supposedly be a hunter, perhaps it would be fitting if I actually tried to jump him?  Ya think?  This is our first jump together -- (and to get the feel of what it was like to be there, you must envision me whooping, "He DOES jump, WOOHOO!!!"  I have no idea what I would have done had he tripped & fallen on his face or spun & run away.)


*AHEM* (I prepare my best crotchedy George Morris voice)

This rider is pinching with her knee, raising her seat too far out of the saddle. She needs to shorten her stirrups several holes to achieve the perfect 110 degree angle & then drop her heel in the stirrup so she is not flung over her horse's head should he chip or stop. She should go back to jumping small crossrails...oh wait. Never mind, hope is probably lost. I also cannot tell if she has properly washed the soles of her boots -- I suspect they are dusty, at which point you might as well write "F@ck you, judge!" on the back of her shirt. Her back is flat & her eyes are up. She appears to be attempting some version of a long crest release to give her horse plenty of rein. 

Her big horse is...uh, shiny. His knees are even but he is so loose below he might as well be a marionette. With an unpulled, unbraided mane, unpolished hooves & unwiped butt, I'm not sure how he even dares appear in public?! Add to that this rider's mismatched tack, travesty of a green saddle pad, gloves the colour of the devil-who-hath-no-hairnets, I'd really rather gouge my eyes out then look at this picture.

Sorry, George, a full time job & poverty's a bitch.

August 24, 2009

New Digs

Facilities! You name it -- we had it! Full jump course, stadium arena, TWO covered arenas, 15 miles of trails on 900 acres, even a little cross country course. Oh yes, I was in full honeymoon period. There could be no wrong and fairies and butterflies danced down the barn aisles. Solo even had the largest stall ever built by mankind!

The mega stall
And that's only about 2/3 of it!

Slowly slowly slowly we were beginning to make some progress. At that point in time, I was shooting for local hunter schooling shows. My last "real" riding had been IHSA hunter equitation in college, so that was where I felt most comfortable. A nice canter around the ring with some jumps added for fun: that didn't seem too bad. Solo's movement was improving; I stumbled upon a PHENOMENAL chiropractor at N's place and miracle upon miracles, she agreed to continue working with us even after we moved away. He had consistent soreness in his SI, although within the first few adjustments, the hock-buckling pain left him. He still required adjustments every few months though to keep him comfortable in work. The first picture below is his trot in early summer of '06. The second, four months later in October. Yeah, she was good and that was just the beginning. (Also note exciting reversal of neck muscle mass.)

7/18/06 10/8/06

Moving On

I LOVED our farm.  We were the only boarders there aside from one retirement boardee.  N, the owner, took impeccable & customized care of Solo for me, adjusting his food as needed, giving him daily showers in hot weather, picking inappropriate weeds out of his paddock, & scratching his itchy spots.   It was a very satisfied horse who would canter up to the gate to meet me every day.

And I was in heaven. I couldn't brush/clean up/polish tack/comb mane/buy accessories fast enough to work out 25 years of pent-up horse possession.

I had new goals: (1) Teach Solo to longe without near-death experiences. I'm not addicted to longeing but I find a very useful tool both for strength & balance building & exercise on days that I am too tired or too hot to ride. (2) Rehab his feet. They were a flakey, cracky, nasty mess. We were loading him up on Super Bio-Zin & leaving him barefoot & N's farrier was a gifted worker of magic. (3) Create muscle tone. See previous description of hill work.

The two great loves of my life.

But nothing lasts forever. My job changed & I had to move three hours away. Much as it broke my heart to leave N's place behind, I was working for an agency I had spent years trying to get into & the new job was exactly what I wanted to do.

And it was the perfect opportunity to buy a truck & trailer! My current vehicle (2-door Explorer) was obviously not suitable for pulling a horse, so the search began.

Things I know now that I wish I had known then:
  • You can get a clean title for ANYTHING in Georgia, no matter what has happened to it.
  • When a truck is lifted, the wiring often gets majorly screwed up.
  • People often lift trucks to hide front-end problems.
  • You should always check to make sure the cloth pattern on all the seats matches, indicating original seats.
  • Always check trailer hitch wiring BEFORE purchase.
  • The overflow container for coolant should ALWAYS have some coolant in it.
  • CARFAX is a joke. There's a LOT that doesn't show up on there.

Oh well.  It pulled great!  And I found an '88 WW 2-horse trailer that had just been reconditioned for a steal.  It had a full dressing room & was just what I needed.  It also happened to be 6'6" tall, but technically, Solo fit.  As long as he didn't want to raise his head very high.  I added some mats, did some patching on the inside lining with some plywood, fixed the window leaks with duct tape for that final redneck flourish...

And we were mobile!

And here is where I was going to post a picture of our first rig -- 98 Expedition in shockingly boring white with bright red little trailer behind.  But dammit if I can't find the picture, I swore I kept one. *sigh*  Well, if I can't find that, then you get the next best thing: Solo in his cute little outfit for riding IN said trailer:


August 22, 2009

Circles of Doom

I had been told by the seller that Solo "didn't longe" because she had let another girl work with him and she had spun him in circles and hit him with the longe whip. How you could hit this horse, I had no idea.

(Sexy halter courtesy of Sunset Halters, you can make any colour you want!)

Ok, it's just a fear issue, I'll just take it slow then. This was my oh-so-confident assessment.

I merrily snapped the longe line onto our (awesome) new rope halter to keep things simple. We started out in a rough semblance of a circle-ish-like shape at a walk to the left. It was ugly, but it seemed ok.

"How about a little trot?" I asked.

"Mmmm, ok, I guess maybe, but I'm keeping my eye on you, lady," he replied.

"Ok, how about we switch directions and track right?"

"Unggghhh, I'm not so sure about this," he warned me with a look.

"It's ok, it's just going in a circle-ish-like oblong shape!" I assured him.

I asked him to trot. My calm, quiet, placid horse suddenly reared up and back at the same time, ripped the longe line out of my hands and ran off to the other side of the paddock, where he stopped, trembling, in the corner.

Oh shit. I had just discovered that we had our work cut out for us.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsiblity

I hung on the fence for hours, my chin on the top board, just watching My Horse. He grazed, he rolled, he "talked" to his pasture neighbours (he was in his own paddock). And every second was mine.

And then it occurred to me: OMG, HE IS MINE! Like an anvil from the sky, the weight of that responsibility slammed into me so hard it left me reeling. I found myself slightly short of breath at the prospect of being completely in charge of this huge and complex life standing in front of me. Dear god, what had I gotten myself into?! I thought 20 years of riding, working, being around horses would pretty much prepare me but all of a sudden I felt like I knew nothing. What if he got sick? How would I know? I didn't even know what a horse's baseline vitals were supposed to be. Sure I could ride, but I had never learned MANAGEMENT. What was his weight supposed to be? What kind of wormer did I need? How often did he need shots? I was going to kill him, I just knew it....

After nearly giving myself an aneurysm out of sheer panic, I had to swallow it all -- there was no turning back now! At least I had that tool without which all horse people would be lost: Google. There I could get so much information that I was in danger of being paralyzed into inaction, but dammit, I WOULD educate myself!

So I got to work. And I rode.



And I rode and I rode and I rode. And then I rode some more. With glee. There was no arena, but it didn't matter at this point. We needed conditioning. So we trotted up hills and walked down them. We walked up hills and trotted down them. We cantered across hills and circled up them.


It wasn't pretty, we were both out of shape and I couldn't afford lessons. I had purchased him with the lofty goal of "some messing around and maybe some 2'6" hunters." Of course, first we had to be able to trot for more than five minutes without being out of breath... But it was all about saddle time and that, at least, I knew how to do!

August 21, 2009

Home At Last

It was Memorial Day weekend 2006. S.O. was away on business, so I could not drag him with me, but at least I had something to do now! I found a friend (N) to board him with. She generously drove with me to pick him up in her trailer. All the way there, I was buzzing with excitement, anticipation, and fear. What if the horse didn't like me? What if he turned out to be secretly crazy? What if he had some mysterious ailment/injury/handicap that would kill him six months from now? The horrible possibilities spun choking webs in my brain. I was stark-raving nuts.

When we turned up at the seller's farm, I turned over my envelope stuffed with a wild array of cash and money orders that I had pulled together the night before. I signed the bill of sale and collected a Coggins certificate. Naturally, Benson had stepped on his own hind foot that day and ripped open his coronet band on his white hind foot. It was bloody with a chunk missing. I choked inside, I think my eyes rolled back in my head as I thought, "See, I told you he would be hurt!" I just wanted him on the trailer and out of there.

After a brief period of uncertainty, Benson agreed to step on the trailer. The seller proceeded to turn out the mare that was his best friend, who then ran up and down the fence calling for him as rocked the trailer in a sudden panic. My heart broke for him and N was in tears for his distress as we pulled out. This wasn't starting well.

But we got him home with no further event, settled into his paddock, and let him inspect the place. "What do you want to feed him," N asked? "Ummmmmmmmm..." I knew nothing about horse feed, aside from the sweet feed we had when I worked at a boarding stable in the mid-90's. N, bless her heart, took over. Feed, amounts, hay, all taken care of. Farrier visit set up to rid us of those terrible shoes.

I was helpless to do anything but hang on the fence and stare. He was mine. Mine mine mine. Finally, no one could stop me from riding him whenever I wanted. I already had a shiny new halter and lead rope.


Grazing on the first day home.

I just needed a new name because "Benson" was horrendous and untenable for this shining hunk of a horse. So he became "Solaris" and in my star-struck eyes, he shone brighter than his namesake and his nickname, "Solo," carried its own hidden meaning: he was and is the cumulation of a lifetime of longing, my one true dream, my sole hope and goal come to fruition.

I drove home to write a name on my brush bucket.

August 20, 2009

A Meeting of the Minds

I was tired of driving around, but one final ad caught my eye: a chestnut Appendix QH named "Benson," with a little chrome. The pictures weren't great, but he looked to have decent conformation and he was a good age (10). I decided what the heck, I wasn't doing anything else, and I drove two hours from to check him out.

I pulled into one of the million Carolina sandhills hobby farms and hopped out to meet the owner in the barn. As I walked in, Benson stood in quietly in the crossties awaiting my inspection. I looked at him. He looked at me. And something settled inside me.

I patted him on the neck and proceeded to look him over. He had the worst shoeing job I had ever seen with uneven gaps between hoof and shoe. Zero muscle tone. As I rubbed his lopsided white blaze his owner commented, "Huh, he trusts you. He doesn't do that for many people." So I asked to see him go and to ride him. A young European girl had been schooling him on the trails, said he didn't know a lot but seemed agreeable. She did a couple of circles at the trot and canter in the middle of the pasture (this is my actual video from that day, below) and then I threw my leg over.

He was crooked. He leaned hard on my left leg. He picked up the wrong canter lead. But he didn't fuss. And I felt safe. Which is a big deal to me -- due to aforementioned runaway Paint horse, I don't do bolters. Ever.

I loved him.

I brought a vet out a week later to do a Pre-Purchase Exam. Turned out not only was Benson criminally out of shape, he had bone spurs on his front coffin bones and if you pressed down on the right side of his SI, his back legs would buckle. His stifles popped and his back was lopsided.

I think I can fix that, I thought. "I'll take him," I said.

Mission Impossible

I flipped the switch.   I gave myself permission to horse shop.  I searched, I visited, I tried.  A 3 year old black Percheron who was greenbroke (What was I thinking? Helloooo, I wanted to JUMP!).  A beautifully built tri-coloured Appy (and I don't even go for Appies usually) who had learned to rear to dethrone his rider.  A conformational trainwreck of a TB with uneven heels, mile-long pasterns & a limp but the heart of a saint.


A few months earlier, I had coincidentally started dating this guy (yeah, you know who you are!).  This guy who in about four days I knew would change my life forever.  And it turned out that this guy could make my life's only sure dream of horse ownership come true. He gave me a check & said, "Go find what makes you happy."  Hell, if you ever want to make a girl love you forever, that'll do it!

I revised my search with renewed hope of finding a horse that didn't limp & didn't have a death wish for humans.

The Real Beginning

All girls dream of ponies.  For at least a brief time in their lives.  Some girls never stop dreaming.

That's me.

When I was growing up, every Christmas morning I would lie still in my bed, eyes scrunched tight shut, holding my breath, firmly believing that if I was just still enough & wished hard enough, the sheer power of my longing would make a horse wearing a big red bow appear in my window when I looked out.

Alas, it appears I was unable to keep my eyes closed long enough, for the horse never apppeared.

As a result, I begged & borrowed rides where I could.  My mother did half-lease me a pony when I was 7 (that's Sassy below, circa mid-80's, half Welsh Mountain Pony & what you see is the grand total sum of tack that we had) & she bought me riding lessons from age 8-15.  After that, I cleaned stalls, exercised what I could, schooled a backyard prospect or two.


And every day I dreamed of when I would be able to write my OWN horse's name on a bucket of brushes.

There were many gentle teachers & loving hearts along the way.

There was the headstrong paint dressage gelding who ran away with me & knocked me out but taught me triumph when I could finally control him.

There was the quiet chestnut who gave my my first real canter & jumped a faithful straight line while my arms were outstretched & eyes closed.

There was the leggy thoroughbred who won me my first blue ribbon, when I was in college riding hunter equitation.

The black quarter horse who met my truck at the gate every day & despite his age & (unbeknownst to me then) intestinal cancer, always made me smile with his joie de vivre & finely tuned cues.

But none of them were mine & each I had to give up as owners changed their minds & life moved inexorably on.  There were years when I couldn't even touch a horse; then I would pull my truck into random horse barn parking lots & sit there absorbing that special barn atmosphere with tears in my eyes because I missed it so much.

I was 26 years old & I finally couldn't take it anymore; that horse-shaped hole in my heart had sat empty for too long. I didn't have any money -- I worked (and still do) as a state biologist & rented a house in a "transitional neighbourhood."  But dammit, sometimes, it's just TIME.  I wasn't going to get any younger, no CHANCE of getting richer, & I wasn't going to miss out on it any more.

August 19, 2009

Why Not Start At The Beginning?

I'm going to tell the story of us. Of me and Solo. Because I think it might help me to clarify not only where we need to go next in our training, but also because it might help me understand where we are right now by reexamining where we have been.