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We Are Flying Solo

December 29, 2009

Pop Quiz, Hotshot

A holiday visit to the parent's house found me sorting through pictures of days past. So now, lucky you get to be regaled by my finds in posts to come!

Can you name these Thoroughbred legends I visited as an awestruck kid? Here are your hints:

Both were living in sweet muddy retirement at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in the late 80's.

One, a brilliant chestnut with three white socks, built like a quarter horse but fast enough to have run his way into the history books. (One more hint: it's not Solo ;-)

The other a grey with a noble eye (whoever can ID this one gets MAJOR kudos).

December 24, 2009

Canter Counts

My horse is awesome this week, I just have to say. I think perhaps he was abducted by aliens. All of a sudden, he is light in the bridle and staying on the bit. He is stretching out and down into the bit of his own free will during warmup, even at the canter *gasp*! And yesterday...we schooled a course that ranged from 3' to 3'3" -- successfully!!!

I've had a couple of changes of strategy in my rides.

(1) Solo knows where he is supposed to be now, on the bit, so I no longer show him where that is. He has two choices: to either (a) cooperate and be there, or (b) not cooperate and stick his nose up in the air and invert his neck. Should he choose option b, which of course, they always have to periodically try, I simply and quietly close my leg and close my hand at the same time, providing rather irritating resistant contact. I don't say anything, it's not a jerk, just a steady, increased pressure. He is, as intended, quite annoyed by this and decides in a few strides to give and go back down softly to the bit. At which point, I soften (NOT drop the contact) and we return to a light feel. It's working. The basic principle: right thing easy, wrong thing hard and annoying.

(2) I now incorporate a LOT more canter. I don't know why I wasn't before, it just didn't really happen. I'd ask for it, be annoyed with it's lack of bendiness, cadence, and just not do it for that long. It was part of every ride, but was never very satisfactory.

Inspired by my BO, whose horse prefers to warm up at the canter, I decided to start every ride with some forward trot with very light contact, letting Solo stretch down of his own accord (which he enjoys), then, on the same super light stretchy contact, ask for canter, get up off his back and let him just canter around on a loopy rein for a little. I don't care if he's perfectly straight, just that he maintains a rhythm.

Revolutionary approach: warm up the canter before you expect anything from it. Duh. But the result is, he is now offering me wayyyy more stretching down at the canter on that light contact, which he didn't used to be strong enough to do. He can reach down, opening his back, and still maintain a quiet rhythm. Go figure -- you can't improve a gait you don't put any thought into working on!

(3) Solo, true to his QH half, is hard to really get moving forward with impulsion at the walk and trot. But, as is true for many horses, right after he canters, we get a really nice swinging trot. I had BO watch us practice the Novice dressage test today and new strategy quickly became obvious. Before beginning a test, we are going to canter almost up to ring entry, then come back to trot and use that nice, forward trot to come down centerline.

Watch out, Novice-levelers, we are coming for you!

December 21, 2009

Foot Fanatical

As you can see, Solo is spending his days like any smart horse in winter -- curled up snug, basking in the sun! Complete with neon blue Lycra club-tail, always an "in" look for the colder seasons.

Me, on the other hand, I am busy being over-the-top-OCD (as usual) about Solo's feet. In short, I'm not satisfied. Ok, he is moving great. BUT. But, over the last couple trims, he has begun to forge so much he tears up the front of his back feet and I have to keep four bell boots on him (he is prone to a little forging, but usually just light and occasional). Plus the back shoes are squooshing his back heels back together again, narrowing the frog and narrowing my eyes.

Momma ain't happy.

My farrier, bless his heart, has been wonderful answering all of my questions and being open to anything and is working with my vet. But he sucks at returning phone calls. I have a call in to him now asking about the forging, if there is anything we can do before the next reset.

I just HATE HAVING STUPID SHOES ON MY HORSE. There. I said it. It's true. They are always a fuss (if you pay attention to them) and it seems no matter what, his foot will never look as good as it does bare. Ignorance was bliss, before I began learning all about feet when Solo was barefoot.

His heels are looking a TINY bit better on the front and he is definitely more comfortable up there, that is undeniable, and we are keeping his toes nice and short and the angles are good. And he's not parking out when standing still to take weight off the back heels. So I guess that is a good thing too.

But I still don't like the trend and am just tapping my foot for farrier to call me back! I am wondering if we can pull his back shoes, if there is enough heel yet for that? But I don't want to make him uncomfortable. But now is the time to do it as we have some breathing space away from any big comps coming up.

Ah, universe, why must you torment my foot obsessed mind with so many variables???

December 19, 2009

Because You Can't Ride On Ice

The temperature hovers around a balmy 32 F today. You will have to excuse me if I am less than enthusiastic, but seeing as I moved to the South to ESCAPE winter, I become rather whiny and crabby when it pursues me despite my best efforts.

But Solo has been performing well this week. His canter work gets better every day as I figure out how to stay soft and patient for longer periods. I could go over the indoor, but I just dislike riding in those things. So he can just hang out in the pasture today and enjoy the snowy companionship of Jeff, his TB buddy. I stopped by to wrap up Solo's tail to keep it up out of the mud, just another step to reduce maintenance.

Since the onset of this lovely season, I've been perusing a DVD lent to me in my downtime: Jane Savoie's "Program Your Position." Defintely plenty of giggle-worthy parts; Savoie is a great teacher, but she is always so darn cheerful about the MOST random things, it makes me laugh. It's a series of both five audio CD's and three DVD's which use visual keywords to help you develop a better position. Given that I am a steadfast visual learner, I find several of these to be helpful additions to the mental rolodex. Many are things that P has already incorporated into our dressage lessons, but a few are new to me and will address nasty little habitses of mine.

(1) Imagine holding a full bucket of water nestled down in the pelvic girdle, keeping the bucket perfectly upright so it doesn't spill out water forward (as I have a tendency to tip forward and spill my water right over that front lip!).

(2) Visualize sitting on a bullseye with a level on the hips and lifting legs out laterally to make sure weight in seatbones is even on both sides and weight is centered.

(3) Instead of the common "toes in", think instead "heel out" to straighten foot and drape leg. I've already tried this one and it WORKS.

(4) Rolling both the shoulders and the head and neck during the walk warmup to loosen stiff muscles and encourage the shoulders to open and the head and neck to rest back against the back of your collar.

There is also one whole DVD in the collection just about sitting trot, so that is the next one I'm putting in the player. I'm starting to get a feel for the sitting trot but I figure every viewpoint I can get can't hurt!

December 17, 2009

A Love Story

All girls dream of ponies. For at least a brief time in their lives. Some girls never stop dreaming.

That's me.

When I was growing up, every Christmas morning I would lie still in my bed, eyes scrunched tight shut, holding my breath, firmly believing that if I was just still enough & wished hard enough, the sheer power of my longing would make a horse wearing a big red bow appear in my window when I looked out.

Alas, it appears I was unable to keep my eyes closed long enough, for the horse never appeared.

Yeahhhh, they didn't really have helmets back then.  Oops.
As a result, I begged & borrowed rides where I could. My mother did half-lease me a pony when I was 7 (that's Sassy below, circa mid-80's, half Welsh Mountain Pony & what you see is the grand total sum of tack that we had) & she bought me riding lessons from age 8-15. After that, I cleaned stalls, exercised what I could, schooled a backyard prospect or two.

And every day I dreamed of when I would be able to write my OWN horse's name on a bucket of brushes.

There were many gentle teachers & loving hearts along the way. There was the headstrong paint dressage gelding who ran away with me & knocked me out but taught me triumph when I could finally control him. There was the quiet chestnut who gave me my first real canter & jumped a faithful straight line while my arms were outstretched & eyes closed. There was the leggy thoroughbred who won me my first blue ribbon, when I was in college riding hunter equitation. The black ex-Rolex quarter horse who met my truck at the gate every day & despite his age & (unbeknownst to me then) intestinal cancer, always made me smile with his joie de vivre & finely tuned cues.

But none of them were mine & each I had to give up as owners changed their minds & life moved inexorably on. There were years when I couldn't even touch a horse; then I would pull my truck into random horse barn parking lots & sit there absorbing that special barn atmosphere with tears in my eyes because I missed it so much. I was 26 years old & I finally couldn't take it anymore; that horse-shaped hole in my heart had sat empty for too long. I didn't have any money -- I worked (and still do) as a state biologist & rented a house in a "transitional neighbourhood." But dammit, sometimes, it's just TIME. I wasn't going to get any younger, no CHANCE of getting richer, & I wasn't going to miss out on it any more.

I flipped the switch. I gave myself permission to horse shop. I gave myself a budget & started looking. I searched, I visited, I tried. A 3 year old black Percheron who was greenbroke (What was I thinking? Helloooo, I wanted to JUMP!). A beautifully built tri-coloured Appy (and I don't even go for Appies usually) who had learned to rear to dethrone his rider. A conformational trainwreck of a TB with uneven heels, mile-long pasterns & a limp but the heart of a saint.


A few months earlier, I had coincidentally started dating this guy. This guy who in about four days I knew would change my life forever. And it turned out that this guy could make my life's only sure dream of horse ownership come true. He gave me a check & said, "Go find what you need." Hell, if you ever want to make a girl love you, that'll do it!

I revised my search with renewed hope of finding a horse that didn't limp & didn't have a death wish for humans.

Solo's first day - 6 June 2006
I was tired of driving around, but one final ad caught my eye: a chestnut Appendix QH named "Benson," with a little chrome. The pictures weren't great, but he looked to have decent conformation & he was a good age (10). I decided what the heck, I wasn't doing anything else, & I drove two hours to check him out.

I pulled into one of the million Carolina sandhills hobby farms & hopped out to meet the owner in the barn. As I walked in, Benson stood in quietly in the crossties awaiting my inspection. I looked at him. He looked at me. And something settled inside me.

I patted him on the neck & proceeded to look him over. He had the worst shoeing job I had ever seen with uneven gaps between hoof & shoe. Zero muscle tone. As I rubbed his lopsided white blaze his owner commented, "Huh, he trusts you. He doesn't do that for many people." So I asked to see him go & to ride him. A young European girl had been schooling him on the trails, said he didn't know a lot but seemed agreeable. She did a couple of circles at the trot & canter in the middle of the pasture (this is my actual video from that day, below) & then I threw my leg over.

He was crooked. He leaned hard on my left leg. He picked up the wrong canter lead. But he didn't fuss. And I felt safe. Which is a big deal to me -- due to aforementioned runaway Paint horse, I don't do bolters. Ever.

I loved him.

I brought a vet out a week later to do a Pre-Purchase Exam. Turned out not only was Benson criminally out of shape, he had bone spurs on his front coffin bones & if you pressed down on the right side of his SI, his back legs would buckle. His stifles popped & his back was lopsided.

I think I can fix that, I thought. "I'll take him," I said.

It was Memorial Day weekend 2006. I found a friend (N) to board him with. She generously drove with me to pick him up in her trailer. All the way there, I was buzzing with excitement, anticipation, & fear. What if the horse didn't like me? What if he turned out to be secretly crazy? What if he had some mysterious ailment/injury/handicap that would kill him six months from now? The horrible possibilities spun choking webs in my brain. I was stark-raving nuts.

He always knew he was sexy!
When we turned up at the seller's farm, I turned over my envelope stuffed with a wild array of cash & money orders that I had pulled together the night before. I signed the bill of sale & collected a Coggins certificate. Naturally, Benson had stepped on his own hind foot that day & ripped open his coronet band on his white hind foot. It was bloody with a chunk missing. I choked inside, I think my eyes rolled back in my head as I thought, "See, I told you he would be hurt!" I just wanted him on the trailer & out of there.

After a brief period of uncertainty, Benson agreed to step on the trailer. The seller proceeded to turn out the mare that was his best friend, who then ran up & down the fence calling for him as he rocked the trailer in a sudden panic. My heart broke for him & N was in tears for his distress as we pulled out. This wasn't starting well.

But we got him home with no further event, settled into his paddock, & let him inspect the place. "What do you want to feed him," N asked? "Ummmmmmmmm..." I knew nothing about horse feed, aside from the sweet feed we had when I worked at a boarding stable in the mid-90's. N, bless her heart, took over. Feed, amounts, hay, all taken care of. Farrier visit set up to rid us of those terrible shoes.

Grazing on the first day home.
I was helpless to do anything but hang on the fence & stare. He was mine. Mine mine mine. Finally, no one could stop me from riding him whenever I wanted. I already had a shiny new halter & lead rope.

I just needed a new name because "Benson" was horrendous & untenable for this shining hunk of a horse. So he became "Solaris" & in my star-struck eyes, he shone brighter than his namesake. His nickname, "Solo," carried its own hidden meaning: he was & is the culmination of a lifetime of longing, my one true dream, my sole hope & goal come to fruition.

I drove home to write a name on my brush bucket.