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We Are Flying Solo

March 29, 2012

In Which Robin Is Just As Awesome As Batman

Right before the final jump on the Southern Pines XC course, I felt Encore crossfire as he did a 90 degree turn while I tried to convince him to balance.  I felt something tweak beneath me.  It wasn't quite a pop, it wasn't a stumble, but something changed.  He cantered on unchanged and showed no signs of distress, so I let him jump the jump and we stopped.

I hopped off, felt tendons, joints, checked shoes, feet, all were intact and perfectly normal.  I continued to watch them over the next few days, but to my great relief everything remained at baseline levels.

Then I saw it:  a wayward vertebrae sticking up in Encore's SI area, jutting up like a mini K2 along his spine.  There seemed to be no pain around it, but I felt certain that was what I felt on that turn.  I made an appointment with my vet and kept riding.

Encore slowly began to develop pain in his loin on the right side and his hip on the left side.  I, of course, freaked out, having not had the best history with back sore horses.  But I held my breath and tried to contain my panic.

Dr. Bob is always very busy and only does farm calls on certain days, so his sidekick, Dr. Brian, came out to fix my broken unicorn.  I showed him the hip and loin pain, and showed him the vertebrae I had found (as if he couldn't find it himself) and told him about the weird step on course.  I then said Encore had to be perfect by April 21st and he was in charge of making him fixed or else he owed me $350 of a missed event, ha!

He nodded and assured me that all made sense -- when the front end is doing one thing and the back end is doing the opposite, it basically jams the spine in the middle together and then you get things popping out.  Ow.

Then he promptly went to Encore's head and started feeling around his neck.  I watched, puzzled.  His neck didn't hurt, his back hurt.

But I have already witnessed that Dr. Brian knows A LOT about feet and is very thorough with his bodywork, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

"Do you have a hard time flexing him right?" he asked.


"Is it hard for him to bend right and he falls in?"

Yep.  I just figured his muscles were a bit tight or I just wasn't training him well enough.

"Nope," the Boy Wonder said, "the right side of his poll is all jammed up and he cannot flex it to the right at all."

Well, I'll be gee-whilikers.  I never even thought about that.  I bow before my new guru of bodywork.

Dr. Brian spent a fair amount of time loosening up his poll, then put his spine back where it belonged and told me to assess over the next 4-5 days.  I was to ride him lightly and stretchily the next day and then resume work.  If, after 5 days, he was still tight in the poll, he can work on it some more and do some acupuncture.


So I rode him last night as instructed.  His back felt great -- he was steady in the bridle and stretched and rounded his little heart out, it was lovely.  He did have improved motion in his poll to the right but was still a bit tight.  Some may be muscle habit, so I'll continue coaxing it over the next few days and then see where we stand.

Encore's body has changed a LOT in the seven (??!!) months I have had him -- the way he moves, his musculature, it's all different, so there is bound to be some adjustment needed.  I am so grateful that I have Batman and Robin on my team to make sure my little buddy stays healthy when I miss a detail!

March 24, 2012

Tantrums And Tree Sex

I bet a get a lot of google hits off that title.  If I add the word "cat" I might be able to garner the entire internet to this blog!

It was hot yesterday evening as we rode Solo and Pete, the dynamic duo, into woods stained yellow in a tree-orgy of pollen.  Oh yes, it's that time of year. 

I had turned Encore out in his paddock, content to let him rest and eat another day while I took my Shiny Man out for what had always been his favourite, a romp in the woods with our best friends.

Turns out, a particular redhead had been enjoying doing not much at all much more than I thought.  He slowed and stalled and nipped at my toes and paused at every puddle we crossed, ostensibly to "drink" but I knew that old trick too well -- it was really an excuse to get me to let go of the reins and let him stand still. 

I had to be a little sympathetic, we'd taken the hilly trail and it was no doubt akin to forcing an obese man to run bleacher stairs for the first time in months.  Poor hippo pony.  I told him it was pretty pathetic that the six year old gave me a better trail ride than his opinionated butt that day.

It was quite the miracle though, once we turned for home, suddenly, he was all red fire again, charged with energy, bare feet no longer tender and delicate, but rather charging full blast down the trail.  It still made me laugh.

Sorry, buddy, I haven't forgotten a single one of your tricks or tantrums.

A trademark Solo-tantrum moment.
As we came to a big puddle that crossed most of the trail, we approached at the walk, but it was deep and wide enough, I KNEW he would jump it.  And when that red horse makes up his mind, you just get ready.  What I didn't know is that he would jump it, kick out, leap sideways, half rear, fling his head in the air, and make his bid for galloping freeeeeeeedommmmmm.  Right at a giant tree.  Umm.

The Solo trantrums never do give you any warning.

I yanked the right rein back towards the middle of the trail and kicked him forward out of the "up," my primary thought being, damn, if I run into a tree, I can no longer make fun of lifeshighway (Pete's mom) for running into a tree!  But we missed it and instead did a long, swinging trot up the hill, even after fatty got tired and begged to stop.

All walked home uneventfully after that, got a good hosedown, and were returned to their appropriate pastures.  Solo made me work a lot harder than I wanted to, but I felt like we at least burned some calories.  Someone also DEFINITELY needs to get a bit of a work ethic back!   

March 20, 2012

Horses Make Life Suck Less

SprinklerBandit wrote this in the last posts' comments and I had to steal it because it was hilarious, yet so apt.  I cannot think of a better way to lead in to the Tales of Day Two.

After leaving Carolina Horse Park, we followed a long and complicated set of directions which ended up at a place I had been before -- only now I actually knew what it was!  It was our fellow Adult Rider Alison's farm, where Encore, mum, and I were graciously allowed to spend the night.

I was a bit concerned about Encore because he was going to have to stay in this horrible pasture overnight, but he seemed to decide he could make do with the conditions.

Just awful, isn't it?
There, I also discovered the cutest pony of all time.  Don't argue with me, because there can be no comparison.
Meet Ponytail.  100% purebred Pony.
Yes, yes, she seems all innocence and preciousness, but I got the eerie sense that Ponytail KNOWS things, that she merely allowed the humans to think they were running the show.  I caught her, for just a moment, during breakfast, watching us with superior expression.

Heh.  Those humans.  They think they're soooo smart...
Ponytail and her mini horse companion (minion?), whose name I missed.
The minions wonder why I am not preparing pony breakfast immediately.
After a lovely night, it was time to load up and head back to CHP!
Whoa.  Mom.  Check it -- shrunken hairy horses.  What's up with that?  And why do we look like blueberries?
It was hard to leave such an idyllic retreat, but we had a hot date with a XC course that I couldn't wait to run.

Fun while you wait:  put Russell the russell in my bicycle basket.  How can you not??!
He always rides around on his mom's scooter, I think he secretly liked my awesome milk crate...
Our time came though and we took the long hike back to the start box and warm up area.  As I let Encore trot out the kinks, I realized he was actually TIRED from the day before.  This horse never gets tired -- maybe I wouldn't have to do a wrestling match to avoid speed penalties after all!  He immediately locked on to the warm up jumps, took them all beautifully, and we were ready to go.  I already posted the helmet cam here, so I'll leave you with a few snapshots of a course that was fun, inviting, and as I always feel at the finish flags, far too short -- I want that feeling to last forever! 

Check out his new muscle-butt!
Sigh.  Really, mum, this is the hardest you can come up with? 
Yay, galloping, NOW you're talking!
Wait, what?  Gallop slow?  Why do you ruin everything!?
And then it was over.  But I was thrilled with my horse; he'd run double clear XC and the only problem we had was that the jumps were so small, he barrelled right up to them!  Had I not missed my turn in SJ, he would have jumped clean (he is quite careful and hates knocking rails) and we would have finished on our dressage score -- putting us in 5th place in OPEN Beginner Novice in a division of 18 at his very first recognized horse trial.  Just knowing that was enough for me!  Even with the real results (rider error included), he finished 11th, middle of the pack, and had a healthy row of zeros across the most important phase (XC) and came in just 18 seconds under optimum time, so we were pretty close to smack on the pace.  Not bad for an ex-racehorse who just got back under saddle late last summer. 

I can't wait to see what happens a month from now...

March 19, 2012

A House Divided

It is hard when great joy and soul-wrenching grief co-exist in your heart.  On one hand, a person I love deeply is gravely ill and it will be some time before a resolution is reached or even in view.  I am a fixer; I like to repair people, problems, jump standards...but here, there is nothing I can do.  I am helpless to fix what is so much bigger than either of us.  I can wish that I was a doctor, or perhaps even better, a wizard, so I could wave a wand, cast a spell, and dismiss the dark cloud overhead.  As it is, the only things I can do are love deeply every single day, treasure each shared word and rare moment, and give all the emotional and moral support I have in me plus a little bit more.  But that love and support never falters nor wavers, even though I cannot be as close as I would, given my choice.  One day at a time has become my mantra. 

At the same time, in the same emotional space, there is great joy for the unexpected gift that a young horse brings to the same battered heart.  He cannot take the pain away, but what he does offer me is a bright spot in each day, a kind face that always makes me smile, that I can lose myself in for a period of time in the evenings, a balm for the open wounds and a therapy for a mind in turmoil.

Each one abates the other, in small pieces.

Yes, in a roundabout way, you are getting your event report.

It was a gift of a weekend when I towed that bright-eyed young thing into the organized chaos of the Carolina Horse Park on a Trial weekend.  Warm, blue, with perfect sandhills footing, the stage was set and we were even lucky enough to have the Amazing Mum with us to capture pictures and help with the endless tasks of shifting things about that events inevitably involve.  Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll let them tell the story instead.

Please feel free to admire and comment on my cuteness at any time, thank you.
Quiiiit, I'm not a stinking barbie!

I is workin' on my mohawk.  Check it.
Correct leads!  Both ways!  No starting gate leap!
All 10's, right??!  Look how cute I was!!
He was actually quite obedient.  If he didn't have a rider handicap of an oaf hanging on the right rein who would instead just let him flow through the bridle, he would have done very well indeed.  There were some lovely trot moments across the diagonal and his rider is slowwwwly learning to sit up straight.  All in all, a quite respectable 38.6, not bad for his first recognized show where I ran out of time in warm up and didn't even get to canter.

Encore, of course, thought he was done after what he felt was a brilliant performance.  To say he was surprised when the jumping saddle went on is an understatement.   So his ears were swiveling twelve ways at once when we got to warm up, leaving me concerned that he would be a bit wild over the jumps.

Arrrrrrggh!  I am ready to jump sweet jumps!!!
Er...your jumps do not impress me.

Ok, fine, I suppose I'll put some effort into it.
Then it was time to breach the ingate and start the show.  The first 2/3 of the course were like a dream.  I kept the rhythm, I re-balanced him, I softened my hand and closed my leg in front of the jump, letting him find each jump and arc over it perfectly.

It didn't last.  You see, they had opened the course for walking while I was doing my dressage test.  I hopped straight off when I finished and went into walk my stadium course.  I knew the course in my head and I had walked up to jump 7 when they kicked me out of the ring to put it back in play.  It became our epic fail.

I watched the riders before me, but apparently not closely enough.  Jumps 6 and 7 were a line down the far wall, then you made a sweeping rollback to 8.  I missed the turn.  My eyes frantically searched for the numbers and found it, but we had already passed our line.  I sat back and did a desperate, frantic detour and Encore gamely dug in and we found our way back to the jump.  Flustered, I lost my focus, and we pulled rails at both 9 and 10 and our detour cost us 8 time penalites as well.  But the fault was entirely mine and I still patted Encore for a job well and bravely done.

But can you ask for better engagement than that?  As I apparently attempt to climb to his ears?
It was time to pack up and go.  We had a sleepover date for the night at a friend's farm.  Who also owns the cutest pony you have ever seen.  But you'll have to wait for the next post to see the evidence.

March 15, 2012

I'm Trying!

I am not holding out on you on purpose, I swear to you.  I am so swamped this week, am completely booked solid for the weekend, I don't even have time to eat!  I managed to get Encore out for a great hack last night (THANK YOU, TIME CHANGE) complete with deer and turkeys and streams and very large puddles and he proved once again that I bought the right brain.  Hopefully, we will be back in work next week and things will settle down a little.  Of course, my field season for work will start soon so that will mess everything up again!  Argh, work really gets in the way of my eventing!!!

As a consolation prize, I offer you this, Encore's XC run from Sunday.  He DEFINITELY needs some bigger jumps to back him off.  His only real hesitation was a pause of a bulge at 3, with the logs and brush, but I kept my left leg on, touched his shoulder with the stick, and he went boldly on.  I thought the log and drop at 5 and 6 were a fairly significant question for BN, but the more I thought about it, it made a lot of sense -- for most of them, the momentum of going over the log at 5 would carry them the stride or two to the drop at six and they wouldn't have time to think about stopping.  Encore, of course, took it like a pro, we've diligently practiced our banks and I make him walk through every puddle we see, much to his annoyance.


5...4...3...2...1...Have a great ride!

And get this:  he was quite tired from Saturday, so we actually got within 18 seconds of optimum time, something I NEVER managed with Solo.  At BN and N, I was always frantically trying to slow that train down so we didn't get speed faults.  And I can't believe I finally found something that makes Encore tired....but it was a big mental AND physical day Saturday with dressage and stadium to deal with, so everyone slept well that night.

March 12, 2012

I'll Almost Fill You In

My entire body and brain is tired, but I promise many media are coming.  There are photos to be cropped and videos to be uploaded and it all takes time.

I do want to say one thing immediately:  THANK YOU.

Thank you to the volunteers -- I try to be one whenever I can and I think it's a fantastic job, but it's also a long day(s).  I was happy to see some of the jump judges chowing down on a really good lunch, so good job, CHP, for taking care of your peeps.

Thank you to mum -- none if it would be possible without you.  Having an extra pair of hands for the weekend was an extra bonus!

Thank you to everyone who stopped and said hi, sent a text, or wrote a note of encouragement.  Each one is so special and unexpected to me, it makes it all that much more fun to know that Encore is sharing his journey.  A shout-out to Alana and Ryan, I wish I could have had more time to talk!

Thank you to the atmosphere, which gave us two perfect, Carolina blue days in the sandhills. 

As for the event itself, well, you will just have to be a little patient with me.  I'll give you some hints:

Our dressage test was much better than two weeks ago, but would have been even better if I had listened to a friend...

Our stadium round was nearly flawless, until...

Our cross country run was, as it always is for me, an exercise in pure awesomeness, but there's a funny story about a ditch....

I will say that I was THRILLED with the way Encore handled himself, it's amazing to watch a horse who spent three years racing take in a whole new scene so professionally.  Any and all mistakes were rider error, we crossed the finish flags on XC clean and clear within 18 seconds of optimum time, and a month from'll see us back at the Horse Novice.

For now, it's all between Encore and the giraffe...

March 9, 2012

Encore Premiers!

I only have a million things to do today and not enough time to do them all.

Encore's first recognized event, ahhh!  Wonderful mum is here to hold all media devices.

In brief, you can find your favourite riders' times here.  Besides me, of course.

Encore:  Sat, Dressage at 3:04 pm, Show Jumping at 5:18 pm // Sunday, XC at 3:20 pm.

You should be able to find live scoring here.

Off we go!

March 4, 2012

Goldilocks And The 14 Saddles

I'm used to having a difficult to fit horse.  Solo, with his curvy back and hollows behind the withers, is enough to give any saddle fitter a case of the shakes.  When I saw Encore, with his textbook TB-flattish back and high withers, I thought, sweet, I finally have something normal.  Even if it is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE SHAPE FROM SOLO.  Ha.

I got a copy of his tracings and sent them off to the lovely Jay at Trumbull Mtn, as they are always helpful and very experienced, dealing with hundreds of horses and saddles a year, trying to find the perfect for for equine and human.  I also worked with my saddle fitter here at home.

This is where we started, my beloved Black Country Eden MW.  A more wonderful saddle to ride in was never made, I swear it.

However, the tree was a "banana" shaped tree longitudinally, as I talked about here, so it rocked like a grandaddy on a Southern front porch.  You can see that Solo's special wither gussets didn't sit quite right on Encore either, so it was off to the "tasting room" to try and find the porridge that was just right.

Behind door #1:  A Verhan Odyssey, complete bliss to sit in on "Bucky," our tack shop's patient plastic mount.  On Encore, however...

I can see already that the tree is too curvy.
The shape doesn't match his back and look at the upsweep of those back panels.  Their shape side to side isn't bad, but the back 1/3 doesn't even touch the horse!

We want full contact, not "some" contact!
On the plus side wither clearance was lovely, so I rode in it anyway, just for one go, since it felt so amazing on the shop.  Turns out, on Encore, it felt like C.R.A.P.  It was hard, it pitched me forward and was generally the most unpleasant, unbalanced ride I've had in a while.  It ended quickly.

We moved on to door #2:  A Passier Nicole Grand Gilbert.  I heard so many folks rave about their Passiers and their TBs, I had to try it.

Sitting on him, it was not terrible, although still more upsweep at the back of the panel than I'd like -- you really want your panels resting evenly on the horse's back to distribute weight and avoid pressure points.  But then I hit the deal killer:

AHHHHHH!  Wither doom imminent!
Yes, it was nearly touching his withers with no weight on it.  Needless to say, I did not test ride this one and it moved to the "REJECTED" pile with the Verhan.

Perhaps door #3 would be kinder?  It held a Prestige 2000D.  I've never been the biggest Prestige fan; they have always seemed overpriced and of variable fit and quality to me, but I gave it a shot.

The balance was...not bad!  And look at those panels, perfectly following his back!  Wither clearance was lovely and, even though I have a general hatred of external thigh blocks, perhaps I could learn to live with it? 

I took it out for a couple rides.  My balance felt steady and Encore felt comfortable.  But I couldn't get away from the fact that the whole saddle was just...uncomfortable...for me.  The seat was rock hard, the thigh blocks were maddening and awkward, and I just didn't feel the love.  So even though fit was decent, I rejected it too because for several thousand dollars, a girl needs to have a little bit of love for her butt (yeah, I know your brain went there too).

Door #4 (how many freaking doors am I going to have to open already?):  An Arthur Kottas (made by KLM) sent to me to trial by Trumbull Mtn (the others I had borrowed from local shop).  It was a lovely saddle and it had a...wait for it...subtle blue pinstripe around the seat that EXACTLY matched my eventing colours.  WANT.

Good balance, nice panel contact

Width is ok, maybe a bit narrow at the top, but not horrible and withers are CLEAR.
Hmmm, panels look like the stuffing fairy got a little too excited, but perhaps with some softening, we could un-sausage them?
It was quite comfy to sit in and rode well.  My hopes were rising that I would get to keep my beloved blue stripe (oh, how shallow I can be).  However, on the second ride, Encore made it clear that it was too narrow and he was being pinched.  He was unhappy and the sides of his withers were quite sore after the ride, so I had to send it back.  I asked Trumbull if perhaps just getting the next size up might fix all of our problems, but she was very cautious and said don't do it if you can't trial it first.

With a heavy heart, I called local fitter to see if she had any other suggestions.  She offered a saddle from a new line -- the folks who make Thorowgood (synthetic and leather) and Fairfax (all leather version) saddles had come out with a new leather model called the Kent & Masters (all are made in Walsall, England, just like the Black Countries, so my heart rose cautiously).  My BO had a Fairfax that fit very well on her TB, but had the external thigh blocks that I hate.  The K&M was essentially the same saddle, but specifically redesigned for the many folks who had complained about the blocks.  So we gave it a go.

The balance...was perfect.  Wither clearance lovely, panels sat on his back perfectly.  It rode very nicely and seemed designed for the TB back.  It was even reasonably priced for an English built, decently made saddle, at $1595 (which I will note is cheaper than all the consignment saddles I tried except for the Kottas).  I could find no complaints (other than it wasn't the complete hiney bliss of my Black Country, but it was still quite comfortable and I didn't have another $3000 lying around to satisfy my BC longing) so I said "ORDER IT!"

I've now had three rides on new saddle.  Encore seems to like the fit.  It doesn't have the instantly broken in magic of my BC so I'm still working on getting the flaps to lay nicely.  I'm carefully watching some flap wear, but my fitter assures me that if there are any problems, the company has been fantastic about service and any warranty issues should they arise.  So while it may need a flocking tweak in a couple places, I think we have found the right tree for Goldilocks and can end (for now!) the horror that is the saddle hunt.

Thus endeth Saddle Wars 2012 (at least Round 1 - I am far too experienced to think they ever really stop!) and hopefully we can have some peace for a while!

March 2, 2012

More Exciting Tidbits!

Tomorrow is forecast to be very wet and stormy, so perhaps I will get a chance to put together a real post then, but until that time --

Encore's fabulousness is featured on Eventing Nation!  I hope in a couple of years, I can send John the video of a certain little redhead running a Training Level course!

Also fabulousness -- we received Encore's new dressage saddle!  He had decided to be difficult and be exactly the opposite shape from Solo so even though we shimmed and jury-rigged, he really wasn't that comfortable with my beloved Black Country.  After many trials, which perhaps I will get a chance to write about tomorrow, we found the Kent & Masters dressage saddle.  The same company who makes Thorowgood and Fairfax saddles, located in Walsall England (hmmm, I seem to like all saddles made there), build this dark horse of a saddle.

This tree (the same one that resides in the Thorowgood T8 line) seems perfectly built for the OTTB shape -- gorgeous wither clearance and a fairly flat profile with panels which have lots of bearing surface.  It's even comfortable for the rider, although it is not the sigh-inducing butt candy of my Black Country, oh how it spoiled me.  It also does not come with the same gorgeous leather that you just want to rub against your cheek, so the flaps will take some breaking in to shape them.  But as soon as we stepped into trot, Encore stretched down his neck and lifted his back, as if to say, Finally!  Thank you! 

Sorry, buddy, not my fault it takes those English guys five weeks to build your tack. 

Once again, I must thank the generosity of my wonderful mother, for the perfect birthday present for what I hope will be an exciting spring season!!  Here we go...