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We Are Flying Solo

September 29, 2010

A Brief Update

I will interject again with a brief Solo update!  Because this is the Solo blog!  So I must talk about Solo!

Hmmm, I think my blood sugar is too low and it makes me crazy(er than normal).

So, since we have a ton of stuff coming up in October, including big horse trial, our dressage saddle decided to enter the phase of catastrophic-failure-to-fit-at-all. Fitter (#4) tried valiantly for a total of about five hours. Bless her. It is now to the phase of adequate-but-still-kinda-sucky (these are scientifically verified phases, I swear). To my dismay and horror, we must (a) replace saddle or (b) not ride.

Since (b) will result in descent into never-ending despair that terminates only with inability to keep breathing, I am forced to choose (a).

Now I must find the perfect dressage saddle before October 28th. And in all, likelihood, I will have to ride in the sucky one at our clinic coming up next weekend. Argh. The timing on these things...

Other than that, Operation Belly Burner has been 95% completed with success. Our hemoglobin problem is under construction, Dr. Bob has declared our supplement choice an excellent one after reading the ingredients and we are due to check blood count in late October. Solo's feet are hanging in there, surviving a dry Carolina late summer by the grace of Keratex.

I still think we are going to need fairy dust to get October to go off the way I'd like it to!

September 26, 2010

Day 5: Halfway And A Goodbye

It was a slow start this morning, so I spent it wandering out to the breeding stock paddocks and petting the faces of the young stallions.  Eventually, though, we made it out the gate and I began my last ride with Capuli.  The track today would lead us over the mountains to the town of Olmedo.  We wound up and down the mountainsides and took a lovely canter weaving and darting through lines of planted gum trees and up a switchback road bordering more grasslands.  In the distance, we could see the snow-covered dome of Cayambe.  As we came down towards Olmedo, more and more agriculture sprung up as well, from wheat and potatoes to lupine.

Lunchtime found us in the central park of Olmeda -- right during the school recess. Swarms of giggling children engulf the horses in wide-eyed delight. With my non-existent repertoire of conversational Spanish, I can only smile at them blankly.

Then it's time to hug goodbye to the horses who have become our friends. They, however, look relieved to be rid of us and ready for a good nap.

Now it's time to pile into the van and cross the Equator on the way to the Hacienda San Francisco, where we will spend the night. I am surprised that the woman manning the facilities at the equatorial display has a very good presentation when we stop off to check things out. I learn that here, just across the valley on the shoulders of Cayambe, is the only place in the world where the equator crosses a glacier. It's certainly the most interesting line I have ever visited.

Late in the afternoon, we pull into the San Francisco. It's a lovely place, as they all are. Lots of interesting things to look at tucked into nooks and crannies. We are heart-broken when no hot water bottles appear though, we have been so spoiled! I opt to sleep in my fleece. We also bid goodbye to Gaspar and Christian -- tomorrow we will meet Sally, who owns the outfit and who will guide us for the rest of the trip.

September 25, 2010

Day 4: The Roof Of The World

Horses are universal, really. Horse people, no matter what our language or culture, can suddenly slip into sync when discussing our passion. Oswaldo and Diana, the wonderfully gracious owners of the beautiful Merced Baja, were no different and we spent a long dinner talking of horses and breeding and shows celebrating the animals that brought us together.

The morning dawned bright and promising and today we were going to do a loop ride, ending up back at La Merced Baja for a second night. Capuli and I rode out with a ready step and quickly began to climb. Imbabura had snow on its wrinkled top from the previous night.

We climb and climb and climb. Gaspar points to a long, misty valley behind us and tells us that Andean condors like to live up there, where there is a hidden lake and shelter from the wind.  We all peer hopefully into its depths, trying to call one out with sheer willpower.

Black volcanic soil contrasts with golden wheat, green mountains, and purple lupine.

Suddenly, we are in a heavy, dark pine forest. All is quiet and still except for the muffled footfalls of horses on pine needles. We wind out soon onto a road cut into the side of the mountain. Gaspar and Christian are passing the time as if we are strolling through a city park.

I, on the other hand, have just turned around. All I can think is "the roof of the world."  It's kind of like witnessing a miracle -- you can't quite believe you are awake or that any of it is real. The camera fails to capture it and the eyes are not big enough for this scale. But it is absolutely, piercingly real and you still try to find a way to hold it all inside of you.

All there is left to do is slide back down the hard, slick volcanic dirt back to the village of Zuleta. It feels like you are going down forever. And it's good half-halt practice! Once in the village, we jog down cobbled streets and stop at the shop of a seamstress that Gaspar knows. We walk into a world of exquisite artistry. She embroiders in rich colours on shirts, tablecloths, pillowcases, napkins. And the back of each piece is just as perfect and tightly stitched as the front. She brings out all her pieces with glee, her eyes crinkling with her smile of pride as she unfolds fabric in front of us, each work more beautiful than the last. I am caught by a table runner, its round pattern sewn in shades of blue. I ask her how long it took; she says about 10 days, working on it around four hours a day. I gladly pay her price, she earned every penny.

The hacienda is just down the road and we head home to give the horses the afternoon off to roll in the mud and nap. Tomorrow will be my last day with Capuli, the eager youngster who walks with his entire body and has impeccable balance in every conceivable footing. I hope he gets a good holiday after this -- these rides are HARD HARD work for the horses, yet they take it all without complaint or undue fuss.

September 22, 2010

Day 3.1: La Merced Baja

After we passed under the gate, the horses had only one thing in mind. Capuli, my hardy little horse named after a tart native cherry, made a beeline for relief!

You can also hear Gaspar in the background discussing the farm's stallions. Oh, did I not mention they had stallions? Well, guess what, La Merced Baja (I can't read their website, I just look at the pretty pictures) breeds wonderful Pure Spanish Horses (PRE; Pura Raza Espanola). This baroque breed is subject to much inspection and regulation, as we learn at dinner, and you can see the results in their pastures. I also learn that "Andalusian" is just a generic term that marketers in the US love -- we think it's a special special breed, but in reality, it can refer to any number of thick-necked hairy horses of European origin and doesn't mean much at all. And by the way, should you want a hairy, thick-necked horse with a talent for collection and suspension, importing one from South America is wayyyyyyyyy cheaper than getting one from Europe. And this farm, at least, is breeding quality, nestled in this beautiful valley.

Their prize stallion is Kilimanyaro (but pronounce the "y" like a "j", like the mountain in Africa). He is 20 but he looks 13. To get to Ecuador from Spain, as a 3 year old, he spent 8 days on a ship, locked in a container without moving. They were heartbroken when they picked him up at the dock, he could barely move. It's a testament to the toughness of these horses that he survived!

And you know what's cool?  He gets to be a horse.  All their stock are used, working the farm.  There are 125 head of dairy cattle and a herd of Spanish fighting bulls to tend to daily.  The breeding goal:  to produce a beautiful-moving horse that also has a good brain and a solid, working temperament.  Their oldest son is even showing one of their youngsters in the show jumping ring (I tried to convince them that they needed to give me one so I could teach it to event and expand their market.  For some reason, they laughed at me...) over serious jumps and doing well!  But each horse is out in the pasture all day, muddy and happy and snarfing down grass.  Kilimayaro, of course, gets his own pasture next to the mares, where he can keep a watchful eye on goings-on.

 There are also two older stallions enjoying retirement with great dignity.

The yearlings get their own pasture. Manes and tails are kept cut short until the horses are four years old so it's easy to see conformation and movement unfolding. Each horse must be inspected three times if it will be used for breeding, so it's important to keep a sharp eye on what's growing out there.

Then there are this year's babies. Because who doesn't love baby horses! The littlest one is just starting his halter training and he is all sass and vigor. I measure his legs with eyes, trying to figure out how to best fit him in my suitcase.

As with most grey horses, the foals are born dark and lighten to white by about age 6 or so. A rare few do stay dark though, like this mare.

I think my favourites though, were a pair of two year old stallions who always came running to the fence if a person walked by. Absolute love bugs they were and if you stopped scratching their heads and tried to walk away, they would follow you down the fenceline, nickering for more. The darker one was my favourite and his is the pride of the farm, as Kilimanyaro's son. He has absolutely exquisite movement and when he sits down and trots, he looks like he belongs in the ring at Devon with a blue ribbon on his neck.

More scritches, please! His name is Kilimanyaro MB (for "Merced Baja"). And there are even more! They've also imported two young 5-6 year old stallions from Spain to bring fresh blood to the program. Of course, they are lovely too. This one is Falcon IV -- a bit into the video, he brings his head up and you can see quality just oozing out of him.

Needless to say, I went to bed tired that night, worn out from staring at so many beautiful horses at once. I built a big fire in our room (no small feat in Ecuador, where fires sputter and go out in the low-oxygen air), snuggled up with the hot water bottle and passed out.

September 21, 2010

Day 3: Traversing Imbabura

Today is our first ride from one hacienda to another. All told, we will ride for six hours. We will traverse the side of the volcano Imbabura and cross a high saddle, then descend into the valley of Zuleta to spend two nights there. It's a beautiful day and we climb quickly.

The landscape changes often. We break away from crumbling villages and move higher into a green zone. Rich volcanic soil is hemmed by neat stone walls. Mountain summits are wreathed in clouds; it is said that when they are not, when the skies are clear, the volcanoes are flirting with each other.  I guess when they erupt, that means someone got turned on.

The horses have already been going for several hours when we come to a spring in a rocky meadow and they eagerly dive in for water.

HaHA! I caught mum smiling when she wasn't looking! And Anna is riding a new horse today.  Gitano is tagging along in the rear as spare pony and the bay she has now is Cuchofito, a 26 year old purebred Criollo.  He is very proud and confident (and a cryptorchid so must steer clear of mares!) and a well put together horse.  It's easy to see why he is still sound.  Later, I learned that Sally, the company's owner, bought him literally off of a slaughter truck, starving and half-wild with fear.  It took her two years to get his feet back into shape.  Looks pretty dangerous now, eh?

As we cross to the next mountain, we pass through a small village full of children playing in the streets. Many are excited to see the horses and we are followed by shouts of "Hola, caballo!"

We must continue on and now we are in a clean, soft pine forest. Even the air smells high. As we move out of the shadows, we break out into a high, beautiful grassland and suddenly I am cantering across the breadth of the Andes.

I can tie many things around my torso at once!! Capuli and Antares just want to know when the next snack stop is.  Many people graze sheep on these high slopes and entire groups of month-old lambs spring in surprise across the trails in front of us. They freeze, then bolt back to the ewes, bleating in chaos. Slowly, we wind our way down into the valley, even passing a riotous party. Two men are completely passed out on the road, one sprawled in the pothole where he fell. Capuli and I almost step on the other, as he is huddled under a blanket, but at the last second I see feet(!!!) sticking out!

Heading down the switchback, the scenery begins to change yet again. Hillsides are a patchwork of greens, browns, and golds, fields climbing in graceful curves as far as people are willing to carry things uphill (if it were me, they'd all be within ten steps of the bottom).

Heading down a walled road, it becomes obvious that there is more money nearby. Round hay bales are wrapped in white plastic (the first hay I've seen since arriving) and green fields are serenaded by high irrigation systems. Then we see a hanging sign and we are here: La Merced Baja, and some very beautiful suprises are in store.