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We Are Flying Solo

September 12, 2009

He Changed The Course Of Things To Come, Pt. I

It was a humiliating ride.

I had just spent an hour watching the group before me with lovely, springy round horses and a sinking feeling in my chest. Looking around me, there wasn't a horse to be seen that wasn't trained to the nines and not a one looked like it would sell for less than $10K. I was the only person there with a rattly stock-side trailer and a backyard horse. Most folks were friendly -- a few gave me The Look, that one wealthy people give their staff. Yeah, you know the one.

A bit of background: I actually grew up riding dressage on school horses, German trainer and all. It turns out dressage is easy when you are a 10 year old with no bad habits. It's a bitch when you are 27 and lopsided. Plus four years of college riding hunter eq...well, that dressage seat was so far gone it was like it never existed.

Looks like a 10 trot to me!
As I entered the ring with the others in my group, I was, as mentioned, slightly petrified. Solo obliged by being stiff, crooked, and notably uncooperative. Note the chestnut in the background on above. That's what we were supposed to look like. Also note Solo turning around going, You've got to be freaking kidding me.

We looked more like, well, the backyard pair that we were, sigh. And our canter, true to form, went something like this:  

Me:  Solo, for the love of god, please oh please canter nicely in front of Mr. Olympics!

Solo's response: buck-buck-buck-bolt-transition-sidestep-ugly-strung-out-canter-at-high-speed.

The man hides his face in agony - let's pretend there was a fly...
Awesome, thanks, buddy.

Then came the charming, lilting Scot words I was hoping for from Ian: "If you don't mind, I'd like to have a sit on him." I couldn't slide off fast enough and hoped he didn't really hear my effusive begging oh-please-please-fix-us!

Now Solo is a very gentle, loving horse. But he is very cautious with his trust -- he will pack around a dead beginner oh-so-sweetly, but if the person on his back knows a thing or two, Solo worries that they might hit him or rough-house him (he is NOT a horse you can force into things).

Ian Stark is an exceptionally strong rider who likes hot, talented horses like the legendary Murphy Himself, the talented Irish-bred grey. So he gets on Solo and wraps those legs around my stiff red horse and says, "Excuse me, but you WILL move forward into contact." It progressed just like this:

I don't think I like you
Who the hell are you?
You shall receive one warning only.
Get off, bossy man!
Get the f@ck off, devil man!

Looking back, I wish I had stepped in a little. Ian gave him a mighty crack with the dressage whip (accompanied by an exclamation of "Bloody horse!"), which, given some past incidents of abuse, Solo did NOT receive well and I can't blame him. Hindsight...

But overall, Ian gave him a fair and consistent ride and they ended up looking like THIS:

I never got that trot!!
And I drooled. And then I had to get back on and feel what a dressage horse is SUPPOSED to feel like. And it was amazing: I could feel Solo's back up and swinging and he was THERE, in my hands. And he was FORWARD. It felt like super-speed, but I was informed, no, that was where we SHOULD be.

Oh and all of a sudden, our canter reappeared. So apparently all we needed was a world-class rider to climb up and find it for us again. Good to know.

We can do the bendy thingz!
I left the ring that day deep in thought -- I needed to ride my horse FORWARD. I needed to bend him, I needed to sit up, I needed to change, well, everything.

I also left that day with my jaw set, DETERMINED to redeem our poor showing in the two days of jumping to follow. I knew this was where our strengths lay and I was going to show the doubters why we did indeed deserve to be part of all this.

September 8, 2009

The Man, The Legend

A sexy Solo, 11 yrs old & no idea of what lay ahead
It was the summer of 2007. Things were going ok.

My horse no longer resembled the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man; there was some actual muscle definition and his feet had grown back in strong and solid.

I was getting (a little) braver. I had learned that he would jump (just about) anything and I was experimenting out on our "cross country" course (which sadly is no more).

Feeling pretty awesome in the XC field
Most importantly, my horse was (I think) having fun. Even though we still had no controlled canter to speak of. I was successfully avoiding that particular issue.


At the same time, I was getting more and more frustrated with this whole hunter thing. Solo was fast, he had a big stride and to say he was a stylist, well, that would be a flat lie. The courses were all the same and the jumps all looked the same. Your class might start at 9 am or it might start at 2 pm and you'd better be ready for both. George Morris had failed to call and recognize our developing genius. It was frankly, bloody annoying and I wanted out.

Yeah, things were stalled in a serious rut.

An online friend gave me a tip on an upcoming Ian Stark clinic in Aiken, SC. I would love it, she insisted. He's a phenomenal teacher, she claimed.

But! I protested, What if your horse doesn't know anything and you ride like you haven't taken a lesson in years? (which Solo didn't and I hadn't)

She swore to me it would be worth it.

A bit of background: I grew up watching 3-day eventing. We were yearly attendees at Rolex in the late 80's and early-mid 90's. I loved it. But it was what REALLY AWESOME riders on MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME horses did and I was too chicken to even jump downhill. At a trot.

My then eventing aspirations: zero.

Ian Stark competing Full Circle II in 2006
Besides, Ian Stark was...well, look at him! The man had four Olympic freaking medals, he won Badminton three times, took 18 horses to the 4* level (when riders were Riders and eventing was Long Format!) and he coached the Brazilian eventing team. I was, OMG, so not worthy!

C'mon, take a leap! So my foolhardy subconscious told me. You can go ride with Ian bloody Stark, how often does the opportunity come around? You'll regret it forever if you don't.

I couldn't argue with that kind of logic. I sent in my check. Solo, quite cooperatively, blew an abscess two weeks before the clinic. I crapped myself in desperate panic and soaked his foot 400 times a day. I then packed everything I owned, borrowed a few more things, shoehorned my dog and my ever-patient S.O. into the Tahoe (a '96 model with 170k & no A/C) and drove to Aiken at the end of July.

It was only 105 degrees and we were scheduled to ride for three days: dressage, stadium, and then cross country.

As I rode into the dressage arena, for the first time in my equestrian life, my hands were shaking, my mouth was dry, and I was very seriously ill with a case of starstruck terror.

September 6, 2009

Showtime, Pt. II

PhotobucketShow number two in our home farm hunter series approached rapidly. There could be no more excuses. We were going to be hunter champions, dammit! I was going to ride come hell or high water.

The day came. I put on my black wool coat that hot morning, shined my boots and swallowed my fear as I saddled my (once more immaculately clean) horse. And ride I did, soaring over the massive fences in the finest style.

Well, ok they looked bigger at the time... You can see my intense focus. Ok, you're right, it was just my jaw clenching in trepidation.

No sweat, mom, I GOT this.

And my boy DID IT! On course, on time, on cue. And we got ribbons!

Yes, that is me about to bust with pride because my horse just won ribbons over 18" fences. I never win ANYTHING!

Not only that, he ended up grand champion in the Training Hunter division. I couldn't have been prouder of him that day, he took it all in stride like a pro and never flinched. Our previous day of exposure had indeed paid off in spades.


There was never a more well-deserved shower...

Oh yeah, we were headed to the BIG TIME now. Any day now, George Morris himself was going to come knocking on our door...

September 3, 2009

Lights, Camera, SHOWTIME! Pt I

Well, I had no manageable canter but that did not deter me: our farm had a schooling hunter show coming up and danged if I wasn't going to enter! Surely I could canter in a circle, even if Solo WAS falling all over himself I could at least control him by staying in tighter circles at all times.

So another dream was about to come true, to show my very own glowing steed and gallop a victory lap, blue ribbons streaming from our bridle as the crowd roared.....or at least a couple show moms clapped halfheartedly?

About three days before the show, you could feel the atmosphere as the farm change. The ring was dragged, jumps were moved and decorated, lessons intensified as we all prepped. Tack was cleaned and horses bathed. Solo felt it too. By Friday night, his barely controlled canter had disintegrated into a half-bucking bolt of a transition that became a haul at Mach 7. Brakes? What brakes? My quiet, mostly obedient horse had been overtaken by his TB half and become a hot, snorting, running ball of fire. Basically, he was unrideable.

I scoff in the general direction of your show-related aspirations!
My heart crumpled Friday night as I was forced to admit to myself that there was NO WAY I could navigate him safely around a hunter course the next day. Here I was, with a perfectly good, immaculately clean horse that I couldn't even freaking ride. I sat in front of his stall with my chin in my hands in utter dejection with doubt and depression battling it out in my head.

You should just sell him, you can't even ride him properly, you've completely messed him up, just give up." (Doubt can be cruel and quite persuasive.)

Now wait just a minute! I said.This is Solo's farm -- all he knows is that tension is in the air, trailers are coming in, I can't really blame him for being nervous. After all, he's never been to show before as far as I know.

And then it hit me. He'd never been to a show as far as I knew. Well, duh, of COURSE he was spooky and nervous and crazy, he had no idea what was going on. I had a new plan.

Saturday morning, instead of putting on my breeches and saddling up, I took my (immaculately clean!) horse out of his stall, put on his halter, and proceeded to spend the day leading him around the warm up area and arena, just taking in the sights.

Yes, he was spooky. Yes, he was jumpy. But I just let him stand and stare and blow and examine it all. I had learned by that point that he was the kind of horse who needed to look at things and think about them. Once allowed to do that, he would be fine. And by the end of the day, he was relaxed, grazing near the arena, nostrils returned to normal size and whites of eyes put away for another, more worthy occasion.

That day, I learned the value of mileage. I learned that we cannot expect our horses to fearlessly forge right into everything like a seasoned pro. A seasoned pro gets that way by seasoning and not just with paprika (oh, I crack myself up!). What at first seemed like a lost day, on examination afterwards turned out to be a priceless training opportunity. Solo had just learned that all the hustle and bustle and noise and dust and speakers and trailers and pennants were harmless. Now we could take that positive experience and use it as a stepping stone to the next one. And that, my friends is mileage!

Next goal: to actually RIDE my horse in the show!

September 1, 2009

I'm Looking For My Missing Piece

PhotobucketClearly, I was a genius.

I had just put together a rig for less than $12,000 TOTAL. It was safe, sturdy, reliable and even PRETTY! I had a newfound foolproof method for communicating with my horse and now had him self-loading onto the trailer with a tap of my finger. He was going well barefoot as we practiced enormous jumps*.

He developed better condition every day and I was sure nothing would stop our meteoric rise to stardom. Even my helmet acquired its own cocky tilt of confidence, see?


The only eensy weesy teeny tiny miniscule problem was we could no longer canter. It was gone; we had lost it, misplaced it somewhere along the way. We could pick up the canter, just fine, but within five strides or so, it disintegrated into a front-heavy, hauling, freight train of a speed demon mad rush. Not so much fun really and I feared my shoulders might actually separate from their sockets sometime in the very near future.

And it scared me a little -- as a child, I'd been thrown from a runaway horse and knocked out for a bit (even though I WAS wearing a helmet, if I hadn't, I'd be dead!) and as a result, any hint of loss of control still got me a bit short of breath and twitchy.

Discouragement began to lurk in the corners of the arena, whispering in its nasty lilting voice, "Look at you, Ms. Fancy Awesome Rider, can't even canter your own horse can you? 25 years of riding and you are afraid to canter around the arena? Nice work, genius."

Ok, maybe I wasn't a genius. I had somehow lost an entire GAIT. Who does that?

Clearly, I was an idiot.

*I promise very soon the pictures get better as a new camera made an appearance!