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We Are Flying Solo

September 30, 2009

There's A First Time For Everything...

Big Horse, Little ArenaIncluding horse trials!

It was summer 2008 & the time had come to GET OUT THERE and do it. 

A local farm does a nice little greenie horse trial smack in the middle of their pecan groves, making it a beautiful shady spot to try your hand at eventing in a welcoming setting with obstacles that are simple & inviting to the horse and rider just starting out.

We left our farm somewhere around the butt-crack of dawn but I was hardly brain was churning all the way there: Do I know my dressage test? Have I forgotten my girth? Will our horrible Race Canter surface? What if Solo limps?

You see, my genius of a red horse had given himself a stone bruise several weeks before.  I had outfitted him with a set of EasyBoots Epics (love 'em!) & pads & he was floating around in comfort, but the worry was still there....

Arriving, I parked under a spreading pecan canopy & walked out the grounds. The XC course was small with one tiny bank & a puddle to splash through.   The only thing "looky" was a set of lighthouses framing one jump, but I thought we could handle it.  Everything else looked quite manageable & I had my game face on.


Big horse in a little arena.  This was only our second time in the 20 x 40 m arena & Solo's easy strides swallowed up the lines faster than I could comprehend. 

We did stay on course though & while not exactly a picture of roundness, we managed to put in a calm, accurate performance for what remains our best score to date, a 41 (I am still convinced the judge was just eminently kind & forgiving!).

Airborne Over Hay WagonCross Country

It was a very short course, but we LOVED it. Solo was thrilled to have at it & was quite forward, leaping in exuberant style over every obstacle.  I am sure people could hear my giggling as we cantered past, occasionally sideways as I had to convince Solo that we REALLY didn't need to gallop a baby baby course!

Turning to approach the lighthouses, he went, "Agghhh!!! WTF is that?" accompanied by a leap sideways, but we corrected & cleared it with room to spare.

Our only shortcoming was the inability to trot, so we ended with 12 speed penalties. Oops (if I pretend to feel guilty does that count?).

Mini Bank

Scary Lighthouses

Stadium Jumping

We finished it off easily in the stadium round.   One boot came off mid-course, I thought I heard it but by the time I was sure, Solo had finished the course with it flapping around his ankle, bless his willing heart.   I leaped off & removed it as soon as I could get him stopped & there was no damage to horse or boot, whew!

All in all, we ended up in fourth place with a clear stadium round.  It was a heady beginning that only further fed the event-hungry beast inside me!

September 25, 2009

Aaaaall By Myseeeeeeeelf.....

Sing it with me!

I'm sure you've figured it out on your own, but there are several layers to this blog title. One is blatantly obvious, being that Solo loves to fly! The other is that Solo and I, up until very recently, are on this journey by ourselves. We are, in essence, thanks to my awesomely miniscule excuse for a salary, flying solo. No trainers, no lessons, just the 20-odd years of my own experience and whoever I can annoy enough to answer questions, along with any books, websites, or articles I can get my hands on.

I took dressage lessons for about 7 or 8 years growing up, then three years of hunter lessons in college. I still read everything that stops moving long enough for me to absorb it and actively seek out as much information about horse training and care as I can possibly find. And then of course, there is practical knowledge I've accumulated from just schooling other people's horses and finding what works and what doesn't.

This odd mish-mash of skills and lack thereof were all I had to bring to the table for Solo and as a result, our progress (yes, let's call it that, it sounds so much better than what ACTUALLY occurred) was halting at best. I was in the process of learning that there is a HUGE difference between schooling a horse and training a horse. The former is pretty easy and simply requires a solid base of riding skills. The latter is akin to a hybrid between art and science and requires the patience of a saint, the ingenuity of an inventor, and the discipline of...something really disciplined.

What I was doing at that time and leading up to it, was mostly schooling. I'd get on, Solo and I would ride some trails, we'd work in the ring. We'd school maybe 10-20 jumps, do some walk/trot/canter. I'd do a few circles, serpentines, change direction. I did pick up the book 101 Arena Exercises and it gave some some great ideas for exercises, but...there was no real direction to what we did.

I knew I wanted to event. I knew what our weak points were, at least generally (bending, roundness, pretty much anything dressage). I knew what our strong points were (jumping and speed). But I didn't have a clear idea or plan of how to get there.

I kept practicing things, schooling over and over, but it never really resulted in things getting all that much better. We were floating adrift in a sea of mediocrity. Everything was ok, but nothing was great. 2008 was supposed to be our big year to break out onto the eventing scene, but given the disastrous turn of spring and early summer, things weren't looking promising. Don't get me wrong, I was having a blast riding my horse -- but looking back now, I can see that we were doing a whole lot of moving without really going anywhere.

September 23, 2009

How To Make A Nun Cuss

Tell her to fit a saddle to a horse and rider.

It'll work, I promise.

As I mentioned, after the failure of SF#1 to satisfy, I moved on to the saddle shopping phase. And let me tell you how much fun THAT was. I needed to keep it less than $1500. But it had to fit my freaky long thighs, Solo's big rib cage, be flocked with wool, be 18" and well-made. Doesn't seem to hard, does it? WRONG. Might as well have searched for the Holy Grail (We've already got one!).

Everything was too big, too small, too narrow, too expensive, flocked with foam or air (a big NO, I wanted adjustable!), too crappy, too deep-seated, didn't fit my was like being freaking Goldilocks.

Well, I finally found something that met all my criteria after about a month of pulling my hair out and ordered a Collegiate Convertible Diploma. Took it to (highly recommended and locally very well known) SF#2. He poked and prodded my horse, digging his fingers in everywhere, making tracings and pronounced my horse very sore but fixable. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about and everyone used him so he must be good, right? He added point billets and a crupper bar, took out lumpy factory wool and put in some new stuff and sent us off.

Right off the bat, it fit much better and Solo MOVED much better. Aha! I thought, Our problems are over!

Then after a couple weeks, it started listing to the right. Bad. So we went back, SF#2 fixed it up. Only now when we went home, Solo was resisting lifting his back. SF#2 came out to farm and did a group of horses and fixed ours again. This time, Solo got even more resistant and then came the death knell -- he developed dreaded White Spots behind his withers on either side.

To make things even more obviously wrong, two friends' horses developed the same symptom at the same time. Both had been worked on by SF#2 as well.

So I called, left a terse voicemail and never went back. $400 and three visits later, the saddle fit worse than it did off the shelf.

Then I called SF#3. She came up to the farm, flipped my saddle over and showed me obvious unevenness in the panels. She then showed me how the point billets had only been forcing the metal parts of the tree down into Solo's poor back and generally doing more harm than good.


Point billets removed. Wool reflocked. Saddle rebalanced. And OMG, now my horse could lift his back without being punished by the saddle.

Good thing I'm not a nun.

September 21, 2009

One Month Of Bending Does Not A Dressage Horse Make

Let me clarify my ambivalence
Or how about "My Horse Is A Doofus."  Or “The Near Explosion of My Head & Subsequent Murder of My Horse (But I Love Him, I Swear!)”  Yeah, that one’s a bit too long.

[Warning, if the following was on television, there would be a lot of bleeping.]

For some idiotic reason, I decide to enter Solo in a dressage show in mid-April of '09.  Two tests, Beginner Novice A & B.  We'd been doing great at home, lots of work on suppling & transitions, he's going much softer & listening well.  For like a whole 30 days!  No problem, right?

Bloody #$#%@! horse rider.

Arrival & Omens

Our ride time is 8:42 am, so I get on about 8:20 & proceed to warmup.  Little Steward Girl (LSG) informs me that I ride next. My head explodes & I stare at her with the bloody stump that remains. Huh?!  She says "oh, but you don't HAVE to go, we just started early.  Ummm, then I'll warm up first thanks, ok?  LSG says sure.

Speed Warmup & Execution

Things seem to be fine:  Solo's looking around, but moving ok, so we head into the 'on-deck' spot at A. He immediately goes all tense, ignoring all my aids.  I do my best to use circles to get him bending again.  The judge whistles us in.  

Probably a little like this lovely moment in '08...
As we begin our test, all semblance of order vanishes & Solo reverts to gaping-mouthed, iron-necked giraffe.  My hypothesis is that he believed the little tiny white dressage arena fence was some kind of horrifying little jump & he had no idea what to do with it.

Oh, & the photographer at M was also apparently bent on evil.

The Test In My Mind:

"You bloody @#$#!! horse, slow down and relax, #%&*! Bend, dammit, bend!! I really really hate you right now."

 [I interject at this point to share, by the way, clamping down & mumbling curses at your horse STILL does not cause them to either slow down OR relax. You know, just in case we don't have enough data on that one.]

Can't you just see the devil lying in wait?
The Test In Solo's Mind


Yes, it was, I'm sure, poetry in motion.  *rolling eyes*

It seemed easier in 1990
No Worries, We Get To Do It Again!

Back to warmup.  I put Solo in trot figure 8's hoping to soften him & get him to relax more before test B.  DEAR COD, PLEASE LET THERE BE MERCY!  Did I mention I don't so much enjoy dressage these days?   I was praying for a jump course, praying.

I love the discipline, but dang, why was it so easy when I was 12?  Oh yeah, I rode trained horses...and 12-year-olds haven't learned to overthink breathing.  Who knew it could be so hard to teach a horse to trot & canter in a circle...calmly.  Even with terrifying tiny white fences.

Test B

We enter the ring.  Much more acceptably.  Yet in a Moment of Universal Horror, as we made the turn off centreline, I become that person at shows I always pity but generally never am:   She Who Goes Off-Course.  AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Well, what I actually said to the judge, with my typical grace & forethought, was, "OH SH!T!  I mean, uh, sorry, uh, can we have a Do-Over?"  There was mercy:  the judge had a sense of humour.  Her laughter was kind while she replied, "Sure!"

It wasn't great, but Solo was mostly listening, though still fussing with his head & insisting on a counterbent method of travel in which his nose is sideways.  Apparently he must keep an eye on that Tiny White Fence.  We complete.  I am happier.  BUT OUR SCORE IS WORSE.   

I'd have preferred THIS Solo to show up!
We Did "Win" Ribbons...In A Manner Of Speaking

We ended up 2nd for test A -- by default the organizer helpfully tells me (ouch!).   I don't know what happened, everyone else must either have not shown up or had their horses leap out of the ring & galloped away.  They were pretty ribbons....the kind judge gave us a 41 & was even nice enough not to laugh or gasp in horror (audibly).

4th for test B with a 49.  Out of four!  *insert 'We Are The Champions' chorus*  Most of the judges' comments were as expected for Stiff Crooked Bad Horse Rider.   One collective mark read "must sit the canter."  Hmmm, I felt certain that by age 30, I might have mastered that one?  Alas...

The Adult Solution

I decided to go eat brownies & sulk.  Perhaps I should take up competitive trail riding -- you don't have to bend OR go in circles for that!

Perfect illustration of dressage by

September 20, 2009

Winter Woebegone

So the Dark Times began.

I was convinced my saddle didn't fit. Solo was fighting me tooth and nail against lifting his back and it's just not in his nature to not do something like that "just because." It looked pinchy, it felt pinchy. I brought out Saddle Fitter #1 (ah yes, the fact that he has a number is indeed an indication of future insanity...). SF #1 bring a couple other saddles to try but says, "Oh no, yours fits fine, really." I try to go with it for a few weeks, but get ticked off and sell it because it's not cutting the mustard. It was a great saddle, the first I'd owned, an old Crosby event saddle that fit almost everything. Except the horse I owned of course.

I think I'll need an entire 'nother post to tell the SF Stories, I'll save that...

Because, oh there were lots of other woes.

It was WAY deeper than it looks
February 2008 -- I'd now resorted to riding bareback while training, but well, it's good for me right? (Maybe less good for my girl parts, but we all gotta cowgirl up, right?) A couple more winter shows were coming up and we were getting ready. And then our lovely farm "trainer" brought strangles back with her from a hunter show. One of our ponies came home with the sniffles. We begged to have pony quarantined because it looked like strangles, but the Powers That Be (PTB) were in staunch denial. Till about six other horses got sick. Then the whole barn was shut down in quarantine for several months. No horses in. Even worse, no horses out. We were in prison.

Solo happily escaped the strangles outbreak with nothing more than 1/2 day of fever, but we still couldn't go anywhere. As the quarantine was finally lifted after months of boredom, Mr. Genius, decided he still didn't want to go anywhere and attempted self-amputation of his foot in the pasture.

Oh let me just tell you how long it takes to heal a pastern cut on skin that is constantly stretching and moving, no matter how tight you wrap your standing wraps. Months.

Oh AND our farrier (now EX farrier) had managed to mash his poor feet into some unholy shape of crampedness to where the poor horse couldn't even walk properly, so we pulled his shoes and began foot transformation back to healthiness.


I'm sure there was some other crap going on too, but mostly I was throwing myself about my house moping and pouting because I couldn't go anywhere, I couldn't get the saddle just right, my horse was sucked!