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We Are Flying Solo

March 17, 2010

Yes, Yes It DID Work

Because I know you have been up all night DID it really stick?  Did the draw rein lesson actually teach Solo what I wanted him to do during his transitions?  Would it carry over to a draw-rein-less ride, where there is no possibility of backup should the head flinging return?

Because I know the DQ's were waiting eagerly for a report once I removed the evil, awful, horse-ruining, shortcut-producing, bad-rider-indicating draw reins of torture and incorrectness.  (Was that melodramatic enough for ya?)


Blogger editor, on the other hand is not. Working. By choosing to ignore my keystrokes half the time, which may result in my hurling my laptop while screaming curses at a program that does not give one whit for my mental anguish.

The same, happily, cannot be said of our ride, where, after doing some brief trot work (at a pace closely equivalent to that of a sleeping snail, for some reason), I asked, with a deep breath and a lot of hope, for a canter. The transition was a little bit sloppy, but Solo definitely was concentrating on trying to do it right and did not AT ANY TIME offer to fling his nose in the air to make things easier!

Just to make sure, I changed directions and tried again and practically giggled while praising him as he kept his nose down on the bit and stepped into a balanced canter!

Oh, happiness IS a successful horsey breakthrough moment!

March 14, 2010

Tools Bring Success

Solo's always had a habit, when picking up the canter, of flinging his head in the air and lurching into it.  It's annoying.  And dressage judges don't really seem to go gaga for it either.

Right before I got sick last week, I decided it was time for said habit to go bye-bye.  I talked with P and we decided that we would dust off the draw reins for a ride or two, using them to show Solo what I was asking of him.

Oh I know right this very moment the purist DQ's are shrieking in horror that I am ruining my horse to all eternity by "cheating" with gadgets and blah blah blah.  Well, they can get over it.  I know my horse.  I know myself as a rider.  And this circumstance was perfect for the application of the draw reins as a tool to make the right thing easy and wrong thing hard.  As long as Solo was round and moving forward, draw rein effect is ZERO.  Only when he chooses to fling his nose in the air like a fruit loop do they come into play.

So, we enter the arena theatre last week.  We warm up and get back muscles loose and warm.  I then ask Solo to step up into a shorter frame and come into a working outline.  I cue for canter.  Predictably, Solo flings his nose up and hits the end of the draw reins.  And reacts roughly as if I had jammed a cattle prod into his eyeball.  Jumping sideways with eyes rolling, he promptly loses his mind.  I maintain my calm, doing nothing but breathe softly and give, encouraging him back into working trot.  We repeat this overly dramatic routine about four times before he finally canters.  Did I mention he can be overly dramatic?  But the key here was for me to stay soft and patient until he chose the easy thing and gave me the right answer.  And lo and behold, on ask number five, his head came up a little, but did not engage the draw rein and he stepped lightly into canter.  GOOD BOY!  We repeated the same sequence in the opposite direction and as soon as he picked up the canter without hitting my hand, we quit for the day.  Solo chomped on the bit, going hmmmmmm, was that all she wanted??

Well, time out for horrid disease which has left me with pretty much no energy.  But I was determined to get back on the horse today and at least do a light ride.  Pathetically, I could only trot about twice around the small arena until I was exhausted, but it was something.  I had put the draw reins on for the second and final time to check and see if canter transition message had been received and processed.  We picked up a working trot and Solo stepped forward nice and round.  In the corner, I sat down, bent him, and asked for the canter.  And I'll be damned if that horse didn't chew down onto the bit and step over his back into canter.  EXCELLENT BOY!!!  We repeated it three times in each direction and without missing a beat he gave me a correct transition staying quiet in the bridle each time.  I was ecstatic!  At this point I was also thoroughly drained and exhausted so I slid off and gave him a big hug.

The draw reins will go back on their hook in the trailer now, having done their job as my assistant physical therapist, showing my horse very clearly what I needed him to do.  Hopefully, we can carry this forward in the coming weeks and pop into the dressage ring at the end of the month with this new trick up our sleeve!

March 11, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Good news:  very successful dressage lesson on Saturday.  Did a bit of lateral work and turns out that leg yields are SO much easier when you do them properly.  What I thought was straight turns out to have been me asking Solo to lead the leg yield with his haunches, which explains why it was so hard.  P says, "how about you let the shoulder lead like it's supposed to?" and pop, it just flowed forward so much more easily!  Assignments:  keep working on those leg yields and shoulder in to build strength and suppleness.  And we WILL learn how to transition to canter without throwing our head in the air (Solo: NOOOOOOOOOO!).

Good news: FABULOUS XC lesson with David on Sunday.  It was an exquisitely perfect day, 70 degrees and a farm that looked as if it belonged to royalty.  We started out with a few stutters when I rode poor Solo so far to the base of the jump he couldn't take off and once again, a ditch threatened to eat his head.  David calmly led Solo over the ditch and proceeded to have us jump it 37 times until Mr. Red Butt worked it out.  We proceeded to have loads of fun, even conquering a Training level question up a bank, one stride, then over a log.  Reverse it to ride over the log, one stride, then down the bank.  It felt great and we finished off with a mini course that included one of those Novice coop jumps that terrify me so and it all went without a hitch.  So thanks to David, I feel 300% better as does, I believe, my horse, about our upcoming trials!

Good news:  I have sent in entries for both an unrecognized event which will be our first go at Novice at the end of this month as well as our first EVER recognized event in April (ahhhhhhhhh!! I will be looking for a crew member if anyone wants a fun weekend watching my eyes roll).

Bad news:  I am currently under doctor's house arrest for the entire week for some horrid respiratory flu from god knows where.  After I finish typing this, I am going to go renew my dosage of hydrocodone and sink blissfully into the trippy pleasure zone it provides, yeahhhhhhh...  But I can't ride my horse because my lungs are on fire.  Boo.  But the only reason I finally broke down and went to the doctor (besides the shrieking pain) was that I want this virus to have its ass well and truly kicked by horse trial time!

March 8, 2010

Little Melodies

I often feel sorry for people who don't spend time outside, who never know the companionship of animals.  They always have the iThingies plugged in, television on, accelerator down.  Their senses are dulled, drowned in the meaningless cacophony that our culture hurls at us daily.  And they are missing the sweetest music I have ever heard.

Just today, I am struck with the notes:  in a peaceful, sunny barn aisle, my left hand rests on warm, red hair while my right guides a soft brush in its particular rhythmic chord over Solo's side.  Pay attention to that sound next time you groom your horse, there is a real, earthy caress in its tone.  In the stall next to us, there is the ever-present, ever-pleasant undertone of another gelding munching grass hay.  The burbling arpeggio of a bluebird wafts in the open doorway.  I can almost feel my heartbeat slowing and the aching tension slowly begins to leak out of my muscles.

It's a quiet symphony that continues as I sit bareback, Solo's head stretched down to some early spring grass along the fenceline.  He keeps up a steady rhythm of pull and chew while his tail makes a gentle, slow, swishing counterpoint at a few early stray gnats.  The soft breaths of an inquisitive mare through the fence boards add a higher harmony.

You may never hear it on the radio, although it's not because such peaceful music is rare.  It will never win a Grammy, but that is not because it is poorly arranged.  But drinking it in doesn't cost a thing other than allowing it an opening of silence through which to enter your life.  Take a sip; you may find yourself enriched in ways you never knew existed.  Maybe you too will know the joy of feeling your pulse hum in tune to the ancient song of horse, of nature, of life that persists beyond the edge of any attempts to drown it out.  It is always there, just waiting for you to listen.  

March 3, 2010

Challenges Are Challenging

One of the things I did once I decided to event Solo was to read. Everything. I know, shocking, right? Nerd girl who reads everything read about her newly proclaimed hobby?! Any article I could google, follow a link to, or find in a magazine, I voraciously devoured. I read about conditioning, riding XC obstacles, about dressage for the eventer, about trainers, tack, rules, and training.

A primary question you are faced with when entering a discipline is (a) what level should I be at and (b) how do I know when to move up a level? In eventing today, this has become a particularly prickly question as we all want to make sure that when we DO move up, both we and our horses are truly ready to face the new challenges safely.

Oh, don't worry, there are even articles about this!

In all horsey things, even though I have spent decades on the back of horses, I have always competed at the lowest levels. Training and First Level dressage, 2'6" and lower hunters. So logically, I entered the Beginner Novice level in eventing (since I was pretty comfortable jumping a 2'6" vertical, I thought Maiden was a bit too small for me and Solo snorted disdainfully in agreement, citing that 8" logs weren't really worth his effort, TYVM.).

According to the experts, it's time to move up when, to put it most simply, your current level bores you. Of course, it's not actually that simple, because there are plenty of people who THINK they are bored at their level but they really still have a lot to learn. Another trap is people who think they have to be perfect at a level before moving up. You don't have to win a blue ribbon every trip out -- really, you don't have to win a blue ribbon ever, you just need to be able to safely, confidently, and competently navigate your level and finish feeling just as confident as when you started.

Of course, this is not to say that I have learned everything, but this was my thought process: the dressage test was easy. No, we did not get perfect, or even awesome scores as there are certainly things we needed to work on, but it was basically W/T/C with a few circles.

By last winter, I found the XC courses were very easy for both Solo and I, no obstacles were problematic, everything always went smoothly and I was often disappointed that the obstacles, to me, were too small and things like banks (I LOVE BANKS!) were often omitted.

Once we figured out how to go forward, the stadium courses were very simple -- all we had to do was not forget where we were going and I had no concerns, as Solo cleared everything by a mile.

Which all boiled down to -- I felt everything was very easy and we weren't learning anything new, except in the dressage. But the Novice dressage test is really not any different than the Beginner Novice test, there is just more bending. So if I was going to be annoyed by dressage anyway, why not be annoyed while learning from new and more exciting jump courses? The things we need to work on in the dressage arena are the same issues EVERYONE struggles with, more balance, more straightness, better connection. Nothing that's going to be solved by staying at BN forever!

It's a bit hard for me to elucidate it all because it really was a bit like a revelation to me one day as we walked a course with a Novice level friend and I thought, gee, I sure wish I was riding HER course because mine is kinda boring. Of course now, having committed to moving up, all of a sudden, the jump courses are a huge challenge all over again and I am daily tempted to back down to the "sure thing" that I already know we can do at BN. But then what would be the point if we never challenge ourselves to grow?

Are there others of you who have struggled with and made this choice? Do you think there are better ways for riders to answer the question? When did you know it was time to take that big step into the relative unknown of a new level in your riding?