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We Are Flying Solo

March 29, 2013

Happy Happy Happy Sad

I have a few more Becky insights to share with you, but to share the most recent reason why only crazy people own horses:

I did our first home long lining session on Saturday and although it took a bit for me to get sorted out, I got some REALLY nice trot work from Encore!  Happy!

Solo and I warm up at Tamarack in 2009.
Monday, after being very patient and positive and ignoring all his silly head flinging and eye-bugging on a cold, windy day, we finally settled into a dressage school and he was connected, moving over his back, and just generally awesome!  Happy!

I noticed on Monday that his left lead canter felt quite disjointed, but I attributed it to post-training muscle soreness and gave him some bute and a few days off.  No problem, a little rest and we can still go visit the Emersons' lovely farm in Southern Pines, Tamarack Hill, for their fantastic schooling HT series (if you haven't, you should go, EXCELLENT courses, Denny and his wife, May really make it a welcoming, educational experience for the horses).  Still sticking with happy...

Today I got on for an evaluation ride so I could make sure he was ok before spending diesel money and getting up at 4 am.  NOT ok.  I have the horse I had a year ago and my gut says he needs his back re-injected.  He is stiff, running around on his forehand, stumbling behind, and very anxious about his back.  Naturally...because we have already entered Longleaf.  And we definitely won't be heading south tomorrow, I will not run him when I know he is uncomfortable; it's a waste of time and money and will only jeopardize future outings.  Sad.

Post-XC Tamarack 2009 -- yeah, it was that good.
On the plus side, I called Tamarack to scratch him and May was very, very kind and generous and has offered to send us some entry money back, which is unheard of in eventingland, yet is like water in a desert to this house of poverty!  Thank you, Emerson peoples!  I am very sorry that I won't get to run their course but I hope we'll get to support their efforts in the future and oh, did I mention, YOU SHOULD GO!  There is another one on April 13th. 

Countdown to Monday morning and call Dr. Bob.  Already emailed the NCSU vet school orthopedist who worked on Encore almost a year ago.  Of course I did.  Sigh.  I don't mind the maintenance at all, but it would be a little less brain-exploding if it had been mentioned that we might need to repeat when there are big changes in strength and fitness...

March 25, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 10: Stadium Jumping

It was time to put it all together.  Adjustability, focus, position, balance, and accuracy.  All without running over Scrappy.  Yeah, I think you get kicked out for that.

We started out as we do with David -- a simple, tiny pole you canter in both directions.  Your goal is to be in a consistent rhythm, be steady in your position, soft with your hand, and have your horse in front of your leg without galloping around like a nutball.

Although apparently, you are supposed to approach jumps with a straight horse.  Sheesh.  So picky.

Next, we find our rhythm and pace to another single jump.  Keeping the straight approach and your position, settle and commit to your canter rhythm and just. ride. it. no. matter. what.  I was apparently confused by being in the XC field so I decided that we still needed to gallop fences.  Tiny show jumping fences. 

Becky, however, did not see any need for a 15' stride to a 2'3" fence (I wanted to be REALLY sure we cleared it!) and had us bring it down a notch to, say, a show jumping canter.  Crazy woman.

Then came something new for Encore:  a short bending line.  The first time through took some seat-of-my-pants steering (what, leaning doesn't help?) and he did some greenie foot-shuffling, but it improved each time until we finally got my eyes and both our bodies on the same page and he understood the question being asked.


With our eyes tuned up, it was time to put a few jumps together and NOT lose the rhythm, focus, and balance by thinking ahead and preparing.  No celebrating what you just jumped, no sigh of relief, no worrying, simply, ok, next this.  I honestly thought I would have to work hard to steer from a wide triple bar to a skinny vertical and that my horse would fall apart and rush after the wide first jump.  Colour me pleasantly surprised.

THREE jumps, with Becky emphasizing planning and waiting for your turn after the skinny to give you the squarest possible approach to the oxer, ENSURING your horse's hips are lined up just as we'd worked on over the warmup pole.

Finally, we get to our course.  Encore was very good; the hardest thing for me was staying mentally focused -- my tendency is to lose my brain about halfway through the course.  Becky made an excellent suggestion of picking the points on your course where there is some space between the jumps and bring your horse back like you were starting a whole new course with the next jump being your first.  It was a really effective mental exercise for, erm, ADD overthinkers like me.  *guilty*

We were given the option to be done at that point, but I wanted to fix our messy bit of the first four jumps.  I resettled my brain, promised my mentally tired pony we were nearly done and fixed it.  Well, the second time.

I think that is actually the first time Encore has ever bucked!  To be fair, I was trying one link tighter on the Pelham chain since he'd nearly ripped my shoulders out in the snaffle the day before.  It worked VERY well and I needed to be lighter on it than I was.  My leg strength is getting much better in PT, but we are still working on lateral muscles and I am just starting on rebuilding my abs so I do not fall back in the saddle as much after the apex of the jump.  *more guilty*

But to say I am proud of Encore does not even begin to cover it.  He came to the paddock gate and loaded on the trailer 20 times in 10 days without a single protest.  He tried so hard every day and never once tried to purposefully evade work; his protests were limited to explaining to me when things were hard, which is fair enough.  That horse knows how to WORK and caught me a little off guard by bringing it at a whole new level of pressure.  All I can say is...


March 21, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Homecoming

Day 10 IS forthcoming; I was able to trap an unsuspecting mom and get some great video of our final lesson -- a show jumping challenge for Encore and I that really put our focus and body control to the test!

But until then, is there anything cuter than this?

The BO didn't think Solo would miss his brother, but I know that mellow orange exterior holds an enormous heart...

March 20, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 9: Adjustability

It is the end times.  *insert ominous music here*  Tomorrow will be just washing linens and throwing things back in the truck and hauling our butts back to what I'm sure will be a very excited Solo!

After a quiet Tuesday morning watching the girls long line Comet and RJ (Becky was off in Aiken Mon/Tues for the USET High Performance Training Sessions -- I wanted to creep there soooo badly, but figured that might be pushing it) and helping set up a new stadium course, I fetched a rested Encore and Becky was kind enough to squeeze us in at the end of the day when she returned.

It's springy!!!!!  Just like my horse.  Or is that jumpy?
By "rested," I mean completely refilled with insane amounts of energy and with renewed conviction that large, hilly fields are only for galloping and avoiding large predators.

I knew I should have put the Pelham on.  I won't make that mistake twice.

Shoulders ow.

But it was time to install some new gears, or rather put controls on pre-existing gears so they appear when I ask for them, rather than at Encore's whim.  I quickly discovered it was NOT going to be a soft and round day, try as I might and I cursed myself for not rebuilding those core muscles faster after surgery.

Exercise 1:  Working in a circle, establish teeny tiny canter, as close to cantering in place as possible.
Key points:  Wrap your calves around the horse and use your core/thighs to (as my dressage trainer put it) "suction cup" his back and ribcage up underneath you without losing the hind leg energy.  It's ok if he breaks or loses stride, he just needs more strength.  Think of making a transition to walk, but do NOT lean back; this will only dig your seat into his back and hollow him out.  Keep hands low, connect your elbows to your hips, and ride through his assertion that he can surely go no slower.

Teddy watches big bro Comet give Dad a lesson.
Exercise 2:  Push him forward into a big, giant canter for about 6-8 strides, then come immediately back to teeny canter.  Stay on circle.
Key points:  Don't give up your position and seat when going to big canter or else he'll just get strung out.  When coming back to teeny canter, GET IT NOW -- don't fight about it for ten strides.  If you are not getting a change, you might have to get in his face a time or two.  Again, don't lean back, make an elastic wall of core, elbows, thigh, and butt suction him back up to that tiny stride.  Rinse and repeat a billion times and only do each (big, teeny) for a short time, maybe half the circle.

Exercise 3:  Get soft, round walk, pick up teeny canter for 5 strides, walk, reverse direction, repeat ad nauseum.
Key points:  Don't ask for the canter until you have a moment of topline softness in the walk, then lead with your inside hip.  Accept the first few tiny canter strides that you might feel like are just him being stuck; don't push him too far out of that, those are him really sitting on his butt.  Come back to the walk quickly and as you reverse direction, use the turn to unlock him.  Soften him, then get canter back. 

I have been a wuss and avoided exercises like these so far because even though I knew it was time to take this step, I was dodging getting him riled up.  Encore really did a lot better with then I thought, however, given that we had thusfar not played much with adjustability.  As Becky said, you might just start out the exercises going through the motions, but give them a chance to relax into it through repetition and it will get better.

Solo demonstrates the barrel in 2010.
Exercise 4:  Use a small jump (we had a single barrel on its side with two vee rails resting on it) and use all your canters in approach and landing.  For example, approach in big canter, land in teeny canter.  Approach in teeny canter, land in big canter.  Approach in medium canter, land in teeny canter.
Key points:  Approach is easy, landing is HARD.  Hold your position and committment to the gait you chose all the way to the base of the jump.  Get the new pace as quickly as possible on landing.  Even though this one was difficult, I really liked and could see its utility for a variety of training goals.  I'm not sure Encore completely got it yet, but he did very well at holding the rhythm I picked and not pulling me to the fence.

Hopefully, we can build on this work today when we finally tackle show jumping.  I tend to fall apart in the second half of courses, so I will be trying to improve my focus and slow things down.  Which will, please universe, be a bit easier with some brakes not provided by the snaffle -- Encore is really very good about understanding that arenas are for work now.  This is great news for, say, competing at the horse park.  He just needs to get the memo (which has not failed due to lack of sending, believe me!) that work can happen anywhere, gasp!

March 19, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 8: Gratitude

Since on the 8th day, almost everyone rested, I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you.

The experience has been very different from what I expected; it's not about jumping bigger jumps or doing fancier moves.  Instead, it's about teaching me to ride my horse more correctly, to communicate with him more clearly, and to send me home with more tools than I arrived with.  It took me a while to figure this out, but when I did, I quickly saw how much more valuable it was.  Since I don't take lessons regularly, the more effective and educated a rider I can be, the better equipped I am to bring Encore along once I am home alone again.

So thank you, Becky, for giving me what I really needed instead of what I thought I wanted -- anyone can raise a pole, but it takes good eyes and good instruction to get me and my horse to approach that pole rounder, softer, stronger, and more adjustably.

Laura is studying mechanical engineering.
Thank you to Sara, Laura, Sara Beth, and Nobie for showing me what awesome working students actually are.  Three girls are in college at the same time as they are working from sunup to sundown, keeping a steady stream of horses groomed and tacked and ready for Becky, as well as riding their own.  They take summer courses, online courses, and courses to get ahead in school so there is a bit of time for the horses.  I'm pretty sure these four are your "top of the line" students; I feel like I need to take a nap for them, they work so hard!  There is no "I must have the latest fashion" or any other fooling around -- it's all workmanlike, no drama, yet friendly and generous teamwork.  If any of y'all happen to read this, I'm impressed, ladies, and thank you for letting me creep around like the wide-eyed dork that I am.

Mr. Shiny's favourite minion:  she's awesome.
Thank you to Amber, who drove down from Raleigh for the weekend to be media manager and great friend.  She was able to capture possibly the most valuable part, our long lining session, so I can study it 100 times later, and was a collaborating witness to large-scale white-girl dancing at the farm party!

Thank you to Encore for trying so hard and showing up to work every day.  Solo, bless his heart, would not have made it through this; his back would have been sore by day three and he would have been flat wore out well before Sunday, even at his fittest.  Encore is lucky enough to have the young TB magic and has been tougher and sounder than even I thought he might.

The mom hangs out with the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador
Most of all, thank you to my wonderful mother for this amazing gift, which I never could have achieved on my own.  All of you may have some assumptions, but I can tell you, she is not wealthy either; she has given us this gift anyway out of love and it makes it mean that much more to us (well, I don't know if Encore has any feelings about it one way or another).  None of the wonderful presents she has given us come from some bottomless pit of money or leisure; we have yet to discover the fabled money tree which solves all woes!

As I've said so many times before, nothing we do happens in a vacuum and that is why (ok, aside from it's just fun) I refer to our venture as TEAM Flying Solo.  Without ALL of the people who teach and vet and shoe and support and even send us well wishes, we would be nowhere and I never for one second forget or take that for granted.  I work very hard, but I am also very lucky to be able to take even this crazy version of the journey that is reaching for your goals with a powerful, game, kind, yet ever-so-fragile partner galloping along with you.

March 18, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 7: Dressage

Monday is break day.  Well timed, as a windy, cloudy sky settles over us and makes for a good day to sit by the fire.

But Sunday was time to put together what we'd shown Encore during our first lesson and during his long lining session and see what we had.

The grey wunderkinds look on bemused.  Who is who??
The wind had changed direction and was blowing the fresh scent of the neighbouring cattle our way, so Encore was on high alert.  Add to that, the previous horse had dumped her rider (rider was unhurt) and hightailed it at Mach 10 back to the barn.  We tried to head her off but she gave us the finger and roared by, leaving Encore puzzled as to what the fuss was about.  I was left wondering if there was any chance I'd get a soft, round horse out of this.

Determined to stay focused, I started with our turn on forehand exercises we'd learned earlier in the week -- we've been practicing them before our lessons every day and Encore is getting much quicker at giving to them and I am getting better at keeping him moving forward into that give.  Suddenly, I had this lovely round walk beneath me and I began to feel a little hope for our afternoon!

Becky did not have us perform any special technical exercises this time; we just worked on creating quality within the gaits and enforcing the new Dressage World Order, since Encore had shown us he was perfectly capable in his long lining work.

Within the trot and canter, we just kept asking him three things:  (1) Move off thy inside spur.  (2) Go forward with thy hind legs.  (3) Give to thine contact.  Three commandments of dressage.

The tricksy part was knowing when to push for more and when to give and move with him.  Becky would have me sit, collect him into an eensy jog trot, leg yield him out and apply contact, pushing him into both to soften him.  Then, when his topline opened and relaxed, post and start pushing him forward over that line.  All while keeping your hands very steady, NOT throwing the contact away, and finding that hair-thin zone between riding into contact through resistance and just pulling his head around

At the canter, keeping him slow, again, I would sit, apply leg and contact, engage the core and thigh, and compress him, then immediately when his balance shifted and/or he softened, to relax and follow his motion forward.

Sara (working student) and Winston have more fun than Encore!
He was trying very very hard, but he still opined that the new rules seemed rather demanding.  He quickly figured out though, that life in compliance was much easier and less annoying and produced some VERY nice work.

I am so sad I was unable to get video of it; I guess I will have to reproduce it at home, ha.  But we were putting together elements -- Becky had fine-tuned my aids in our first lesson, then showed Encore the correct response on the long lines.  Now we were adding them up to equal more productive and successful work.  Building blocks were beginning to make a structure, one that is hopefully portable and doesn't blow out through the trailer slats!

March 17, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 6: Cross Country

What could possibly be wrong with that?

A warm beautiful Saturday meant it was time to revisit our XC skills and work on some drops.  Apparently, my signature zombie move when dropping off a bank is neither correct nor effective.  Colour me shocked.  *sarcasm font*

I had expected to mount a very tired pony after his attitude in the long lining pen yesterday, so I hopped on with the intention of doing just a little lateral yielding to get his hind legs moving.  Instead, when I asked for trot, I discovered someone had slept well indeed and I was sitting on a rocket, ready for launch!

A little N table on the ridge
The exercises were basic -- a few simple warmup lines, small down-banks, some accuracy questions, and a drop into water.  But the theme throughout was optimizing my position and eradicating the zombie.

Upon approaching a drop question, the horse needs to lower his head to examine the jump and then execute it, so my challenge was to make sure I let out the reins upon approach so when he needed to lower his head, the space was already there.  As he jumped, I was to focus on keeping those hands down, shoulder back, and give him freedom to do his job.  

Drop it like it's hot...with lower hands.
A few skinnies asked a similar question -- keeping Encore straight, as soft as possible, and keeping my hands on his withers the entire time.  The drop into water carried it one step further, making sure I did not choke up on him, which would then have him approaching the drop with his head in the air instead of down and ready to stretch over the edge.

Although we often took about 1/2 a mile to stop after each jump, it was great fun to have another go at XC when he wasn't fearing wild beasts (I'm sure having a schooling buddy helped!) and he put on his best bold, clever hat for the day and worked through it all like a pro.

It was a nice way to spend the afternoon before chilling the beer and readying the food for the annual farm party -- yes, live band included!  All I can say is that eventers of all ages have no issues with climbing up on those picnic tables and showing off their mad body control, shaking what their mommas gave 'em!

Our last lesson before his day off will revisit our dressage.  I have no idea WHAT to expect from him at this point as far as energy level is concerned.  It's very warm today and the wind has FINALLY taken a break, so hopefully I won't have quite the brick-mouthed machine of XC inside the little white fences!

It's hard to believe we only have three lessons left.  I have no words to encompass what an amazing opportunity and what a good, hard-working, hilarious, and genuine group of people I've met.  The real world doesn't seem to appealing; I'm in no rush to go back!

March 16, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 5: Long Lining

With each day of surreally amazing experience & knowledge streaming in front of me, my brain gets progressively more loopy (a terrifying thought, that it becomes more loopy than normal).  It feels a bit like Cookie Monster with a funnel down his throat -- "me love cookies, but me can hold no moooorreee..."

Friday morning brought several not-to-be-missed items on the schedule, so I mashed real-world duties together quickly & scurried out to resume dutiful creeping.

Up first was a 5 year old mare, a lovely dapple grey named Greta who had come with severe contact avoidance issues, including backing & signature mare fits like mini-rears & insistence that such feats were simply not possible.  She was assigned to long lines & then a short schooling ride, so I had particular interest in watching the process again, given that Encore & I would perform it later this afternoon.

Suffice it to say, Mme. Greta does not appear to have contact issues anymore!  She did a lovely job & Becky was kind enough to talk me through as she worked.  The long lines had helped her along to a real horse breakthrough; in the pen & the consequent ride, she looked steady, duly educated, & confident in her new abilities.  Becky helped her figure out the right choices by many kind words & pats along the way.  I got even more excited about our later lesson.

Up next, I volunteered to be "pole bitch" for two gymnastic rides.  First was RJ, whom Becky described a rogue novice horse that she was beginning to consider keeping, as he reminded her of a young Comet!  I'd met him in the barn a few days earlier -- an adorable chestnut gelding with a white blaze & a huge, goofy personality.  I am sure that whoever grooms for her would be THRILLED if she finally brought along a brown horse...

I don't think he's a rogue anymore...

Then came Teddy (Can't Fire Me).  He is such a neat horse to watch, with a very professional attitude & a "what would you like from me?" demeanor.  Oh, and he can jump a little too.

Standing a foot & a half from the line, I really got a feel of how much power & pace you have to bring to a 5' jump.  Watching, it often appears as if the horses are just rocking nicely along.  When you are close enough to feel the breeze as they pass, it becomes clear that a massive amount of energy has been created, compacted, & channeled to fuel these big jumping efforts...and make them look easy.

Much to a tired Encore's dismay, his moment had arrived.  Becky watched me longe him briefly to get a feel for how he responded to my body language & how he worked on the line (thanks, buddy, for throwing in that belligerent kick; your opinion has been noted...and ignored).  Then I turned him over.

She started him on a straight line setup to get him use to the line contact.  Her system is not dissimilar to vienna reins, but allowed you to push them up into a steady contact & "ride" them with a live connection from the ground.

The warmup setup.

He quickly figured out what was being asked (although not without some comments of his own) & it was time to move on to the real work by adding a bit of leverage to help him find his shoulders & open his topline.  Junior was trying very very hard the whole time; I was really quite proud of his efforts!

Working setup.

After Becky worked him a bit, she handed the lines over to me, at which point I proved that I can even hang on the left rein while on the ground -- hey, we all have to have skillz.  It was surprisingly difficult (look, uncoordinated people can own it) but I was amazed at how much softer & "rounder" he felt in the contact.  No more brick mouth!  Becky felt confident that this would really help him understand the contact & how to relax & really swing through his back & body, so we will DEFINITELY be taking this one home (and practicing where no one can see me trip & fall).

It took a lot of focus to balance the feel on both reins & not crowd him too much in the bridle all while pushing his hind legs ever forward.  As we finished, he gave both Becky & I quite the look as he stood immobile, praying that if he just didn't move, it would be over:  THIS is my easy day???  Bless his golden heart, he got many pats & snacks & went home early to nap.

Next we'll have another XC school, only this time, we'll be riding with a lovely friend of Teddy's part-owners who I've had a blast talking to the past few days.  She has a gorgeous, catty little firecracker of a mare & I look forward to the fun!  It will also give Encore a buddy out in the tiger field, which will help him immensely, & give him plenty of breaks so he only has to work in short spurts.  Monday will be his day off; hang in there, buddy, we are almost to sleep day!

March 15, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 4: Cross Country

You FB peeps already guessed who this snoozer is!
It was Pi Day!  But I forgot to get pie to celebrate, sigh.

The days seem too short, even as they technically get longer!  Although I am determined to catch more morning schools now, to heck with real world duties!

Today was a mini XC school -- we've gone through the three disciplines I think so Becky can get a feel for Encore and where he is and how he ticks.  Simple exercises to establish and focus on the basics.

It all began well enough, with Encore cruising in a lovely, round rhythm through yesterday's cavaletti bounce.  I could feel he had definitely used some energy in the past two days (haven't we both!?) but I'd stretched him in warmup and he still felt solid.

It was a short loveliness.

I felt his body stiffen as we paused to listen to Becky and his head whipped towards the barn up the hill.  It was the "OMG WARNING DANGER CONCERN!" body language and his ears (and brain) trained like a laser away from me to whatever silent menace he perceived.

I moved on to a simple jump series of BN bench/cabin-types, then added a N table.  He jumped but his focus remained elsewhere.  We were a hot mess the first time through and required some putting back together.

Two mares at the same time!  Lesson in leg yield.
Normally, it is not difficult to keep him up and in front of my leg as long as I concentrate, but now, I was riding Solo -- pushing him up into the contact and having to work for it.  No fair spoiling me then taking it away, horse!

We moved down to a wide ditch, but at this point, his brain had hit rolling boil and it appeared we were being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger.  He probably did not appreciate us laughing at him, but sorry buddy, work trumps invisible tigers.

So it took some coaxing to cross the ditch, but cross he did, although by braille a few times.  We continued to walk across it until he jumped it with some semblence of order.  Since he remained intent on his perceived predator, I had to compete hard for his attention to bring him back to walk each time.  It was extremely helpful when Becky had me lower my "whoa" hands from my shoulders (I know I'm not the only one whose hands come up when trying to stop the mildly desperate horse) to Encore's withers.  It helped lower his energy as well and bring him down more quietly as I kept my hands low and quiet and he finally began to relax a little.

A few exercises through the water and surrounding mounds and cavaletti followed, all very easy for Encore, but my job was to keep my position solid and still and my hands low over the rolling mounds and jumps.

We've all enjoyed this streak of Carolina blue skies!
Whatever it was he saw, he remained certain of its need for attention the entire time, so the lesson itself did not involve as much complexity as I might have thought.  However, it was a VERY valuable opportunity to have Becky there on a rare occassion when he does mentally vacate (I can probably count the times he has done this on my hands), as she was able to tweak my body language through my hands and core to help quiet him instead of ending up in a fight with him.  Because he is not trying to avoid work and he is a very honest tryer in all things; he simply got sucked into the horse parallel mental universe where invisible monsters live.

And now I am laughing because I bet to any horse owner, that insane-sounding place description elicits a completely blase, "Oh yeah, I totally know that universe."

Next on the syllabus:  long lining - the magical Holder way.

March 14, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 3: Gymnastics

The porch view of the Windhaven dressage and gynmastic work area.
I did not get to do much creeping watching today; since I had to fetch Encore late morning and he had become so disgusting I decided to bathe him following our lesson, it was more of a day for peeks here and there.

Since it was another gorgeous, sunny morning, I ambled to the front porch to watch Teddy (Can't Fire Me) execute his gallop sets, which Becky mixed with cavaletti and ground pole work.  He really is a fantastic horse with a powerful gallop and Becky makes him look super rideable.  Watching him surge up the hills and then settle back into tiny rollback turns to the rails made me feel like I had a very privileged box seat indeed!

As I packed up to head to So8ths, I was also able to catch a few minutes of Comet's dressage school as he practiced his tempi changes, moving from fours to threes to twos.  He still has his signature aura of something very special and it's easy to see why he is Becky's Solo.

Junior horse in his hotel room.
Encore and I were the first lesson after the daily break, so we were alone warming up at the top of the hill, leaving Encore convinced that all the world's horses had deserted him to an uncertain fate.  I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before due to a loudly snoring temporary roommate, so I struggled to be patient and breathe and decided to stop and work on the turns-on-forehand from yesterday.

Becky and Scrappy arrived, the latter to supervise all parties, and our turns were pronounced much improved from the day before (it must have been all the practice I'm sure Encore did overnight).  Then we revisited the trot and canter work from the day before, alternating large circles with ~15m circles.

So8ths hovel of a barn.  Poor horses.
It was as if I had brought a different horse.  More likely, my horse was relieved that I was finally starting to use the aids properly.  But Encore was so much softer and willing in the bridle, trying hard to keep his withers up and push from behind and, miracle of miracles, staying focused on the work at hand!

Key points:  Stay even on both reins (I was caught multiple times with my trademark hang on the left rein, dangit).  When he is moving in a good rhythm and wants to stretch down, let him have the rein as long as he is not falling down the hill and then push him a little bit forward over that newly stretched topline.  Really focus on keeping the rhythm of trot and canter very pure (Encore can sneak a disconnected tranter in to try and avoid pushing at the canter).  Alternating very small circles at the canter, swing your hips to push his hind legs forward forward forward through the tight turns you make with your outside aids (this felt amazing).

They have a tiny dressage arena over there too.
Exercise 1:  Jumping a single cavaletti, alternate the approach on a small circle from the left and right.
Key points:  Use an opening rein and new outside leg over the jump to show him where we are going.  The primary focus is holding the rhythm and my position consistent the whole time (woohoo, something I am successful at!), not letting him fall apart or get strung out.

Exercise 2:  Jump single cavaletti to bounce cavaletti series to single to low gymnastic line.  I've drawn you a masterpiece of a diagram.  The low line is not pictured.  Because I was too lazy to redo it when I realized I'd run out of room.  Deal with it.
Key points:  Rhythm, hold position over jumps, use outside aids and really push him forward through the tight turns.  All of these are on the side of an incline, so you MUST stay balanced and not let him just fall on his face.

Nope, always got lost after 3rd jump.
Exercise 3:  Jump larger gymnastic line of vertical-two strides-wide oxer, then do 10 rollback turns over cavaletti (ok, it may have been slightly less than 10, all I know is I got lost every time).  If you get lost, just turn and jump something.  And yes, all of the turns were as tight as they look.
Key points:  Keep his hind legs swinging in the turns.  REALLY stay solid with your position over the jumps; be still and let him jump beneath you while you stay in the center.  Hold him together with your core and thigh between jumps so he doesn't get so strung out.

The last green arrow leads back to the low gymnastic line.  The goal was to alternate direction with each turn, which my confused self didn't do, but I did turn and jump SOMETHING each time and I started and ended in the right place, so was given the ok on execution, ha.

One of four beautiful wood sculptures at So8ths.
We did several variations on this exercise, but the goals and design were the same.  The turns continued to improve; I was quite excited to discover the Encore was much stronger than I thought and as he figured out how to sit down and pivot, it became easier and easier for him.

He retains his tendency to slow down when he is thinking about the question in front of him or if he needs to sort out his feet, so he would fade a bit in front of both gymnastics.  I heard David in my head upon approach saying, "go forward now!" but still could not get enough impulsion through the first line.  Becky recognized the effort and reminded me which piece I was missing:  since the line is built for a forward, powerful canter, build that in front of it by not just applying more leg, but keeping him balanced in front with your core so his rhythm does not get faster, but that power keeps building beneath the saddle.  Aha, got it! 

So now I just need to build cavaletti when I get home.  Oh, and a place to put them.  Next up for us:  XC!

March 13, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 2: Dressage-ish

What have you done in the last 10 years?
Mind blown.

Also, you might as well start calling me Wrong Turn Reba; all these tiny SC roads around Encore's hotel look the same and as I'm driving along, lost in thought about all I saw in one day, apparently I decide to just randomly turn down one.  It doesn't help that you have to go by SR numbers...which are tiny on dark brown signs.  I think Encore is getting dizzy.

But you wanted to hear about horsey things.  As everyone else here seems to think this is a normal, day-to-day activity, I am the solitary creeper, following Becky around like a stray dog gathering scraps.  I should have brought all black clothing so I would be a ninja and no one would see me.  But she hasn't run me off with the longe whip yet.  I think Scrappy is rooting for me, I keep his ears well-scratched!

After finishing some work duties (it sucks being an adult sometimes -- an ancient old lady by comparison to the rest of the girls in the house, ha!), I spent the late morning filling the wide open creeper niche, stalking and watching.

One owner brought her gorgeous bay mare (when I asked Becky what type of horse she was, I was told "Eh, some warmblood thing or another"), who would throw enormous rearing mare tantrums when asked to connect, reportedly.  Becky got on and immediately began engaging her hind end at the walk, keeping her moving sideways, crossing her hind legs beneath her and pushing her neck forward and down.  Exaggerated turns on the forehand led to big leg yields, constantly pushing the inside leg over into the outside rein.  Yeah yeah yeah, I need to do that, I thought.  She did similar work in a stunning trot, which fancy mare tried to using passage.  Encore tries that evasion too, it's so annoying.  I mean, doesn't yours?  A similar evasion presented in the canter, where the horse would just bounce up and down in a teeny four-beat canter to avoid moving forward into the contact with the outside rein.  But no one beats Becky, so she was soon rocking along, being a very impressive little workhorse.

The staple diet of the horsewoman.  Creeping takes energy!
Next was a long-lining session with a younger gelding, a big, strong-looking WB/TB ("some warmblood thing crossed with a TB" -- there seems to be a trend in broad categories, much to my amusement) who was quite the tryer and had just come back from SoPines I at Novice.  Now I have long-lined Solo, but never like this.  I drew a picture of the line setup to try as soon as I get home -- it was certainly much more effective than mine!  In short, the inside line ran from high on the ribcage, through the bit, and back to the top ring on the surcingle.  A side rein was connected on the outside to block his outside shoulder and teach him to accept the outside rein.  With his brain whirling a mile a minute, he put the pieces together and then Becky showed his young owner how to work the lines (Becky used an outside long-line but simplified it with the side rein for owner). 

I already had to run back to the house to write things down and then a quick calculation showed I still had time to watch a few lessons before I had to go fetch Encore.  Students were working on some fun (ok, probably fun for me to watch, less fun for them to ride) canter/counter-canter/10-m circle diagrams for the Prelim dressage test.  I confess I was happy to see the rider before me was a woman on a (mohawked!) stocky bay appropriately named Sofa who was working on outside rein connection and stretching over the topline -- woohoo, my level!

Has anyone picked up today's theme yet?

This afternoon, 5:00 pm was not beer-thirty, instead it was go-time.  I'd warmed up Encore on top of the hill and thought I had him fairly supple and ready.  I was instructed to put Encore through his paces quickly, at which point he did his best prancy, carriage-horse trot on the side of the hill.

The Becky Assessment:  He has a huge step behind and comes very far up under himself, really using his hind end and back, but then it gets to the front and nothing is going on there.  Correct again.  I will never cease to be amazed at people like she and David and Jimmy who can assess everything in five minutes and one sentence!  Actually, I think she got Solo in about three minutes.

Exercise 1:  Execute turns on the forehand (oh, I knew I needed more of those!) at the walk.
Key points:  Don't worry about keeping the front feet immobile.  Focus on the hind legs crossing over beneath him.  Keep the outside hand in a steady contact with the pinky almost touching the saddle.  The inside hand is an OPENING REIN ONLY, no direct rein, no pulling back with it, EVER (this was very difficult for me, I was scolded many times).  Then push ribcage over into the solid outside rein, softening when he crosses over and gives in the bridle.  Every time he gives, it's "money in the bank," each step a training investment in your future performance.

Exercise 2:  Turn these into half circles at the walk and trot.
Key points:  Ride them the same way.  Don't move that outside hand.  STOP PULLING HIS HEAD AROUND WITH THE INSIDE REIN (this is where I have been going wrong!); simply use your inside leg on his ribcage, keep asking, and wait for him to find the right answer.

Exercise 3:  Graduate to full circles at the trot and canter.
Key points.  Ride them the same way, hahahaha.  Outside hand, STAY!  Opening rein, NO PULL.  Be patient and let him find the right place to be.  At the canter, you can make the circle smaller by pushing him in with the outside leg and feel him shift up and over under you.  Try not to pass out and fall off in front of Becky. 

Encore tried very very hard and was excellent; he had "read the book" but his rider had missed some important parts!  Her explanation of HOW to establish the outside rein first, then apply inside leg, then open inside rein was the one that finally made breakthrough sense to me and my little lightbulb nearly blinded me.  But after years of hearing that to supple the jaw, we must "give and take" or "vibrate the rein," it was extremely hard for me to just open that rein as a guide and then do nothing with it.

As the hamster wheel in my head spun like mad on the way back to Chateau So8ths, I realized that the circle exercise was the same as the one David has us do and the aid requests are the same.  Becky just nitpicked the details of my aids in a new way that allowed me to finally bridge the two.  Which is why clinics are valuable -- a fresh pair of eyes and a different vocabulary works as a complement to the trainers that know you well, giving your overthinking brain a new angle to gnaw on, because in this game, sometimes you have to throw a lot of noodles at the wall before one sticks!  

So, a month's worth of homework from my 30 minutes on Day 1.  This afternoon, we are to show up for cavaletti and gymnastic work after lunch and I will NOT forget my protein bar today (idiot) and I will NOT throw myself up my horse's neck/hold my breath/clench the reins/all the other things I do when I am out of practice and get nervous.

For now...I have some important creeping to do:  Comet gets schooled at 11:15!

March 12, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 1: Arrival

Before I begin, I want to encourage everyone within reach of our beloved Southern Pines to check out and send in your entries to Denny Emerson's Tamarack Hill schooling horse trials!  Ok, I may have an ulterior motive...the last one got canceled due to lack of entries and I've already sent my check in, so enable us!  The show itself isn't advertised very many places, so I'm hoping we can give it a boost because Denny's courses are fun to ride (ok, the one time I was able to take Solo) on nice terrain with a great variety in stadium as well!

Nevah stop the pettingz!
As for the Grand Holder Event Team Training Adventure 2013 -- at the moment, I'm sitting on Becky's couch next to a poster from the Beijing 2008 Olympics looking at a picture of the one and only Comet.  Scrappy, the world's cutest dog, has already put wet paws on my lap and I keep pinching myself to see if this can possibly be real.  I am not in the demographic of "those who send horses to training" or "those who frolic at farms for days on end in the winter with no office to worry about."  But since Becky just came into the kitchen with a friendly hello to collect Scrappy for the days rides, either it's the best hallucination ever or I'm here!

After a marathon day yesterday of an oil change apparently performed by sloths, a UPS truck stalking to nab my SmartPaks before I left town, and a missed turn which required a trailer direction reversal on a tiny SC back road in a crooked driveway, we FINALLY arrived at the Southern Eighths Farm grandeur.  Encore was installed in his own paddock to stretch his legs and eat his dinner and I squealed with glee when the BO issued a dinner invitation.  Yes, I am a shameless food whore -- you can call me anything, just don't call me late for dinner!

I had to pry myself away from wine-induced stories in order to make it back to Becky's before 9 pm, as the rules stated this is when quiet hours begin and I didn't want to get in trouble on my first day!  Finding things in the dark is not my strong suit, but the plus side of SC highways just west of nowhere is that when you miss a turn, you can just stop and back up; it's not like anyone else is out there.

I crawled up the long dirt driveway, realizing that when Becky told me where to park by her house, I forgot to ask which house was hers (there are four farms which share facilities on the 70-acre property).  All I had to go on was "park by the white truck."  As I crawled across a narrow dam with pond water lapping disconcertingly close to my truck, I fervently hoped there were not multiple white trucks lurking in the woods.

To my relief, there was only one and I was able to sneak into the quiet little house and find my room with the help the resident working students.  I was happy to find it simple and pleasant, in the style of normal people, so I didn't have to tiptoe around in fear of touching (and naturally breaking) something worth more than my annual salary! 

This morning, I will catch my breath and as this edge of drizzle moves out, I will head out to watch the master at work before I go pick up Encore for our first lesson at 5 pm (when it will be much sunnier!).  Here goes nothing...

March 10, 2013

Flat Out Flat Walkin'

Oh yeah, he really wanted to work.  Great pillow, dude.
"Are you riding Solo today?"

The BO's question came as I finished a surprisingly nice ride on Encore and was basking in the t-shirt worthy sunshine before heading up the hill.

"If you want, I have another one for you to ride otherwise," he said hopefully.     

My curiosity was piqued.  My horses are quite the exception at our farm, which is a training and breeding facility for flat-shod TN Walking Horses and Spotted Saddle Horses.  BO and his clients show the pleasure and versatility (yes, with gaited dressage and jumping!) circuit around the southeast -- or as he calls it, "the sound horse circuit," having long since gotten fed up with the unethical training and sored horses of the padded horse world.

I was in the mood to try something new, as long as it didn't try to buck me off.  BO rides many training horses a day and I knew he'd also welcome some help between teaching and riding.  So I slipped a halter on the curiously named Treat (which due to a sharpie slip on his stall card, is now jokingly called least I hoped it was a joke), a rangy little seven-year-old light chestnut with big eyes and a wide blaze, and led him up to my trailer.

I grew up in Saddlebred country, although I did not ride them, so gaited horses are hardly a mystery.  But since they are generally discouraged from trotting and, after 30 years, I find posting akin to breathing, they're just not my thing.  But both the Saddlebreds and TWHs always impressed me with their tolerance, patience, good-mindedness, and heart, even in questionable situations.

Naturally, as I picked up a brush, Threat spotted his pasture friends, ripped the rope of the side of the trailer and took off at a stunning elevated trot, complete with flagged tail, leaving me slightly less excited about this experiment.

Our 30+ crowd, Wildfire and Mama Donkey, were unimpressed by hijinks.
Let's just skip ahead 15 minutes, past the part where he managed to wedge his lead rope between a hind shoe and his foot and I had to cut/vice-grip it out after finally cornering him in an alley so I could even catch him and take his fun away.  Well, he did have some VERY impressive movement...

I put him in Solo's dressage saddle and spare bridle, with a Happy Mouth boucher, as BO said he was fine with anything (to my great relief, I would not have to ride in a Western saddle, as they leave me sore, off-balance, and apologizing to my knees).  Then I got on, took a soft feel of his mouth, and said, "Erm.  Go, horsey."

All I really knew is what I have observed.  BO trains all his horses and students very well, encouraging riding the horse from his hind end to create impulsion, connecting the inside hind leg to the outside rein, balancing with a half halt so the horse cannot lean on you, and moving the hips and shoulders laterally to lift and connect the horse through his body.  Sound familiar?

So off horsey went.  Still enthusiastic from his romp, he stepped off at a smart flat walk.  Still annoyed at his naughtiness, I said, "Fine, but you're going to work at it," and asked him to stay soft and connected in the bridle and moving up with his hind legs.

Within a minute, I could tell he was very educated and light to the hand and leg.  We transitioned among walk, flat walk, and canter (I couldn't figure out how to find running walk) and while he preferred to cheat and lean on me when he could, it was merely because he was quite out of shape and lacking muscle in his topline and butt due to lolling about in his pasture.  When I sat down and informed him he would move up and connect, he did.

He was bright and fun to ride as I explored his buttons.  I ran out of things to do as my brain got tired and gave him lots of breaks when he got winded, although, holy cow, he recovered his breath in about two minutes each time! 

It was a fun romp on "the other side of the fence," and I had to giggle when BO said, "Hey, good job!" --  I replied, "I'm just letting him do whatever it is he's doing, he's the trained one," and BO exclaimed, "Well, that's how you learn!"  If he has a secret plot to convert me, I'm afraid it's destined for failure; my big orange trotting, leaping horses captured my heart forever.   

However, I always relish learning more and developing as a horseman.  Every horse we sit on has something to teach and I thrive on variety.  BO himself is a tactful rider with an excellent seat, impeccable timing, and a soft hand -- I envy his consistency on the horse and will never pass up a chance to develop that! 

Will there be more four-beating in my future?  Well, I hope not on my horses (naughty!) but on those long, sunny weekends where I'm searching for excuses not to go home?  You won't find me saying no to a catch ride.
It was just the right kind of day for...

...synchronized sleeping.

March 7, 2013

A Run-By News-ing

Encore appears to be back to pretty much normal, eating and behaving like himself.  If I pinch his neck skin, recovery still seems a tiny bit slower than Solo's, but I only put about half-credence in that as I've done plenty of tests on that procedure in that past and found it wildly variable.  At least everything seems to be functioning normally and he doesn't appear to have any immediate plans to drop dead on me moments before we leave town.  Although he is still a horse...

What's everyone stressing about?  Chill, peeps.
I've gotten, mmmm, pretty much nothing done on my "to do" list, given aforementioned horse paranoia and driving about the state for work.  It has rained, snowed, sleeted, and blown my truck nearly into the ditch this week, although of course, at the moment, it is sunny and quiet.  Till I leave the office, I am sure...

A beautiful weekend awaits, however, so I will be cleaning and packing and shopping and staring and scratching my head trying to put together the puzzle of ten days worth of food/gear/clothes/whatever.  At least if I get desperate, we will only be two hours away.  Diesel prices are crushing, but it can be done!

Solo is busy shedding, so despite what the atmosphere tells me, it is apparently spring.  Are you getting ready?  Daydreaming counts...

March 5, 2013

The C Word

No, not that word.  Although I hate that one too.  But I have now officially decided I hate this one more:


It sends a shudder down any horse owner's spine, that unpredictable monster hidden deep in your horse's guts which can twist and cramp and snatch his life away from you in a matter of hours.

Yeah, it scares the living bejeezus out of me.

Sunday night, I was on feeding duty and noticed Encore had stopped eating mid-meal and walked out of his shed.  He stood making funny faces for a minute and I watched with concern, as he is a steady, if slow, eater who works his way through the meal, then goes and gets a drink.  He returned to eating and I continued my rounds, but with a yellow warning light in my head.

As I finished turning out the herds, I returned to my pasture and found Encore standing rather pitifully by the shed divider next to Solo, with a sad eye and a half-finished meal.  He peed and it appeared he was dehydrated.  Now that light turned to red.

I led him down the barn, his head hanging, his feet dragging at a slow walk, which hardly helped as this TB usually takes a big swinging step that I can't keep up with.

I called the vet on the way down and put him in stall with warm water while I simultaneously crouched in the dark with my ear against Encore's belly and tried to carry on a conversation with Dr. Bob's junior vet.  He got some very mushy food with bute mixed in and I went to hang out in the BO's house for an hour to see what happened.

I was kindly fed a delicious dinner while I worried, but I came out to find my horse perky, with good gut sounds, and when I led him up to his pasture, he took a drink from his trough and wandered off to comfort an annoyed Solo.  Driving home, I breathed a sigh of relief and assumed an "all clear" text from the BO Monday morning.

Yeah right.  Never worked for him either.
So you can imagine my blood pressure when instead, my phone rang at 10 am and I answered it to a, "Well...."

Encore had eaten his breakfast, but was laying down in the field.  He may have wanted to nap in the sun, but BO put him on the hotwalker to keep him in sight for easy monitoring just in case (Encore's owner may or may not have a reputation for being the crazy lady...).  The horse got some more bute and mushy alfalfa pellets, but no more dry hay, and he was relegated to a prison cell for water and poop monitoring.  His owner was forced to drive to Southern Pines for a work presentation, a fine chance to work on her stomach ulcers.

After flying back north following work, I arrived to find Encore pouting quite noisily in his cell, demanding release after knocking one water bucket over, although hopefully at least drinking part of it.  I stirred a possibly illegal amount of salt and electrolytes into an alfalfa pellet mush and confess to being slightly shocked that he actually ate it, albeit stopping and slapping his tongue out after every bite at the brine component.

Oh, because we have a really important thing in 5 days!
He was left in his prison last night, in hopes that the salt would force his mouth to eventually shrivel up and force him to drink.  His guts were moving so he is allowed to be pardoned pending empty buckets.  I await my notification this morning with guarded optimism.  He will certainly be kept on electrolytes for the rest of the week.

Our insanely bipolar weather is no doubt to blame, although the biologist in me finds it completely nonsensical that weather should have any effect on a endothermic animal's digestive system.  But Dr. Bob and his junior sidekick were all over the place tending to moaning horses, so it wasn't just us.  When it is 60-20-50-30-70-20-55-20-30 all of us are just damn confused.  It will be 70 today and then 42 again tomorrow.  I curse they bones, climate change...

March 3, 2013

To Do

Apologies for fisheries conference-induced hiatus, but ONE WEEK TILL THIS RIG HEADS SOUTH TO BECKY'S!!!!!!!!

It will fit!
-Calculate how to fit gargantuan amounts of horse feed into limited space.
-Come up with room that doesn't exist to store five bales of hay.
-Remove archaeology-worthy layers from backseat of truck.

-Ride Encore 57 times in 7 days (I feel so behind!).
-Make note not to ride on four hours of sleep and half a hangover.  (But I had a great time and THANK YOU Amber for your thoughtfulness of taking me out for an awesome birthday dinner.  It was my own fault that I failed at high gravity beer math.)

-Change out leaky trailer tire for spare.  Why is there always one leaky one?
-Break down and buy a trailer tire jack.  I mean, really, with my luck?
-Clean shipping boots so Encore can poop on them again.  Repeatedly.
-Seam seal repaired spare rain sheet in case SmartPak replacement sheet doesn't get back in time (another story)

Yeah, horse, get to work!!!
-Clean your freaking tack, how 'bout it?
-Clean excessive collection of leg boots which is even more amusing now that I am a boot minimalist.
-Wash pile of breeches and attempt to pack riding clothes that don't make you look like a homeless person (barn clothes are barn clothes!).
-Find stupid girth extender for Mr. Belly Puffer that I bought and promptly put in a safe place.  A really really really safe place.

-Charge every recording media device in possession.
-Posit ways to casually hand strangers recording devices (although Amber is going to come down and take pics for us next weekend, yayyyy!).
-Create space on crowded hard drive for (hopefully) many new files.

-Bring carrots for Comet.  Try not to embarrass self in fangirl paroxysms.

Did I forget anything?