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We Are Flying Solo

March 4, 2012

Goldilocks And The 14 Saddles

I'm used to having a difficult to fit horse.  Solo, with his curvy back and hollows behind the withers, is enough to give any saddle fitter a case of the shakes.  When I saw Encore, with his textbook TB-flattish back and high withers, I thought, sweet, I finally have something normal.  Even if it is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE SHAPE FROM SOLO.  Ha.

I got a copy of his tracings and sent them off to the lovely Jay at Trumbull Mtn, as they are always helpful and very experienced, dealing with hundreds of horses and saddles a year, trying to find the perfect for for equine and human.  I also worked with my saddle fitter here at home.

This is where we started, my beloved Black Country Eden MW.  A more wonderful saddle to ride in was never made, I swear it.

However, the tree was a "banana" shaped tree longitudinally, as I talked about here, so it rocked like a grandaddy on a Southern front porch.  You can see that Solo's special wither gussets didn't sit quite right on Encore either, so it was off to the "tasting room" to try and find the porridge that was just right.

Behind door #1:  A Verhan Odyssey, complete bliss to sit in on "Bucky," our tack shop's patient plastic mount.  On Encore, however...

I can see already that the tree is too curvy.
The shape doesn't match his back and look at the upsweep of those back panels.  Their shape side to side isn't bad, but the back 1/3 doesn't even touch the horse!

We want full contact, not "some" contact!
On the plus side wither clearance was lovely, so I rode in it anyway, just for one go, since it felt so amazing on the shop.  Turns out, on Encore, it felt like C.R.A.P.  It was hard, it pitched me forward and was generally the most unpleasant, unbalanced ride I've had in a while.  It ended quickly.

We moved on to door #2:  A Passier Nicole Grand Gilbert.  I heard so many folks rave about their Passiers and their TBs, I had to try it.

Sitting on him, it was not terrible, although still more upsweep at the back of the panel than I'd like -- you really want your panels resting evenly on the horse's back to distribute weight and avoid pressure points.  But then I hit the deal killer:

AHHHHHH!  Wither doom imminent!
Yes, it was nearly touching his withers with no weight on it.  Needless to say, I did not test ride this one and it moved to the "REJECTED" pile with the Verhan.

Perhaps door #3 would be kinder?  It held a Prestige 2000D.  I've never been the biggest Prestige fan; they have always seemed overpriced and of variable fit and quality to me, but I gave it a shot.

The balance was...not bad!  And look at those panels, perfectly following his back!  Wither clearance was lovely and, even though I have a general hatred of external thigh blocks, perhaps I could learn to live with it? 

I took it out for a couple rides.  My balance felt steady and Encore felt comfortable.  But I couldn't get away from the fact that the whole saddle was just...uncomfortable...for me.  The seat was rock hard, the thigh blocks were maddening and awkward, and I just didn't feel the love.  So even though fit was decent, I rejected it too because for several thousand dollars, a girl needs to have a little bit of love for her butt (yeah, I know your brain went there too).

Door #4 (how many freaking doors am I going to have to open already?):  An Arthur Kottas (made by KLM) sent to me to trial by Trumbull Mtn (the others I had borrowed from local shop).  It was a lovely saddle and it had a...wait for it...subtle blue pinstripe around the seat that EXACTLY matched my eventing colours.  WANT.

Good balance, nice panel contact

Width is ok, maybe a bit narrow at the top, but not horrible and withers are CLEAR.
Hmmm, panels look like the stuffing fairy got a little too excited, but perhaps with some softening, we could un-sausage them?
It was quite comfy to sit in and rode well.  My hopes were rising that I would get to keep my beloved blue stripe (oh, how shallow I can be).  However, on the second ride, Encore made it clear that it was too narrow and he was being pinched.  He was unhappy and the sides of his withers were quite sore after the ride, so I had to send it back.  I asked Trumbull if perhaps just getting the next size up might fix all of our problems, but she was very cautious and said don't do it if you can't trial it first.

With a heavy heart, I called local fitter to see if she had any other suggestions.  She offered a saddle from a new line -- the folks who make Thorowgood (synthetic and leather) and Fairfax (all leather version) saddles had come out with a new leather model called the Kent & Masters (all are made in Walsall, England, just like the Black Countries, so my heart rose cautiously).  My BO had a Fairfax that fit very well on her TB, but had the external thigh blocks that I hate.  The K&M was essentially the same saddle, but specifically redesigned for the many folks who had complained about the blocks.  So we gave it a go.

The balance...was perfect.  Wither clearance lovely, panels sat on his back perfectly.  It rode very nicely and seemed designed for the TB back.  It was even reasonably priced for an English built, decently made saddle, at $1595 (which I will note is cheaper than all the consignment saddles I tried except for the Kottas).  I could find no complaints (other than it wasn't the complete hiney bliss of my Black Country, but it was still quite comfortable and I didn't have another $3000 lying around to satisfy my BC longing) so I said "ORDER IT!"

I've now had three rides on new saddle.  Encore seems to like the fit.  It doesn't have the instantly broken in magic of my BC so I'm still working on getting the flaps to lay nicely.  I'm carefully watching some flap wear, but my fitter assures me that if there are any problems, the company has been fantastic about service and any warranty issues should they arise.  So while it may need a flocking tweak in a couple places, I think we have found the right tree for Goldilocks and can end (for now!) the horror that is the saddle hunt.

Thus endeth Saddle Wars 2012 (at least Round 1 - I am far too experienced to think they ever really stop!) and hopefully we can have some peace for a while!

March 2, 2012

More Exciting Tidbits!

Tomorrow is forecast to be very wet and stormy, so perhaps I will get a chance to put together a real post then, but until that time --

Encore's fabulousness is featured on Eventing Nation!  I hope in a couple of years, I can send John the video of a certain little redhead running a Training Level course!

Also fabulousness -- we received Encore's new dressage saddle!  He had decided to be difficult and be exactly the opposite shape from Solo so even though we shimmed and jury-rigged, he really wasn't that comfortable with my beloved Black Country.  After many trials, which perhaps I will get a chance to write about tomorrow, we found the Kent & Masters dressage saddle.  The same company who makes Thorowgood and Fairfax saddles, located in Walsall England (hmmm, I seem to like all saddles made there), build this dark horse of a saddle.

This tree (the same one that resides in the Thorowgood T8 line) seems perfectly built for the OTTB shape -- gorgeous wither clearance and a fairly flat profile with panels which have lots of bearing surface.  It's even comfortable for the rider, although it is not the sigh-inducing butt candy of my Black Country, oh how it spoiled me.  It also does not come with the same gorgeous leather that you just want to rub against your cheek, so the flaps will take some breaking in to shape them.  But as soon as we stepped into trot, Encore stretched down his neck and lifted his back, as if to say, Finally!  Thank you! 

Sorry, buddy, not my fault it takes those English guys five weeks to build your tack. 

Once again, I must thank the generosity of my wonderful mother, for the perfect birthday present for what I hope will be an exciting spring season!!  Here we go...

February 29, 2012

The Photos Are In!

I think I giggled at every single one.  He's just so...earnest!  And he looks so annoyed at the jumps where he didn't get the footwork quite right.  And I think he has more scope than I originally thought!

That is all.

February 27, 2012

It Was A Dark And Windy Night

Well, actually it was a chilly and windy day, but close enough.  I'm short on time, but I'm going to give the rundown of our very, hmm, interesting horse trial on Saturday.

There were some time hiccups and some OMG, the XC course is 47 miles from my trailer and I only have an hour before dressage moments.  But it was the first time this HT has been run, so one expects some speed bumps until the process gets sorted out.  I tried to take deep breaths and everything worked out fine in the end.

Since the HT was situated at a farm where we regularly XC school, I had not bothered to read the direction on the bottom of the omnibus listing.  After all, I've been there heaps of times.  You smell an ominus turn coming in this story, can't you?

Oh yes, I get there, driveway is blocked and sign says go around to the back.  Which means turning the trailer around and going back to a different road and it's a few miles around.  I finally find the correct entrance and it felt so familiar....oh, because we are parking on the Moss Foundation, a massive property where lifehighway and I have ridden many times, as it is managed for longleaf pine habitat and trail riding.  So the XC course IS actually about 47 miles from my trailer.

Uh oh.

I had an hour and a half before my dressage time, so I hiked as quickly as humanly possible to do my course walk.  I was lucky enough to have bribed asked a friend to come help and I must say to her THANK YOU, CINDY, I COULD NOT HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU

I left the trailer at 9:30, leaving her in charge of Encore and told her I planned to be back by 10:00.  At 10:00 I was on jump four of my XC course and I called her and said if I'm not back by 10:10, please tack up my horse.  I actually arrived sweatily (it was hilly!) back to the trailer at 10:20.  My dressage ride time was 10:43 and I still had to put on boots, helmet, gloves, spurs and GET to the dressage ring, which was only 20 miles away, instead of 47.  I was on my horse by 10:32 and I took off at a trot, reins in one hand and eating a Powerbar with the other.  Keep in mind, it was 50 degrees with 15 mph winds.

In brief, we arrived, steward said ring was running 20 minutes late.  After I restrained my from leaping off my horse and hugging her, we warmed up.  Encore was good, I got him round and reaching for the bit and as  supple as I could get in that situation.  My plan was to only walk and trot in warmup so he would not be anticipating the canter in the test.

This was not us.
That was a horrible plan.

He went in the ring and decided to go the confused llama route.  He did not understand the little white chain that made the arena in the grass and he did not understand what his job was supposed to be because it didn't look right.  I think had we been in the other arena (covered with footing) he would have been much better.  At best I would describe the test as....apocalyptic.  You know you're good when you (eventually) halt in the general vicinity of the required location and you salute, then look up to the judge cracking up laughing.

Oh well, I patted him and told him, good try, buddy, but not quite what we were looking for.

Next time, there will be much cantering in warmup to take that edge off!  Note: find a place with a grass dressage arena with chains to practice.

I didn't worry -- I was at the HT primarily for jumping mileage for Encore, so I was satisfied he stayed in the ring and we were on course (approximately).

We then ripped off tack, threw on jumping gear (XC gear too, they were back to back) and Cindy was literally stuffing Powerbar in my mouth as I was buckling my bridle.  Show jumping warmup was small and crowded but Encore warmed up well again, although that wind had him ready to GO!  But he listened when I said whoa and jumped well, so that was good enough.  Result:

You can't really tell, but I am about half in control and Encore is going at a great pace...for Prelim.  I really thought we had that brush box, even though my steering was a wee bit off.  He made it TO the takeoff spot, then did this amazing tango twist around the standard.  We were so close to the jump, I saw top of standard about a foot from my face.  I almost lost it; if my saddle had been slippery, I would have been a goner.  But this situation is why I REQUIRE horses I ride learn the one-rein stop.  Encore's only thought was RUN LIKE THE WIND, AHHHHH!!!!!  I had no stirrups and just kept my body centered and pulled his head right around.  The key was not to rush now, I needed his brain back.  I got my stirrups back, took my time, walked calmly to the edge and resumed our course.

It was then straight to cross country from there.  The course would be a bit of a new challenge.  Designed by Gina Fiore, when I walked it, I felt it the BN course was really a Novice course with some smaller logs thrown in.  There were some challenging questions and use of terrain and I felt fortunate that we had jumped many of the complex jumps before (and my horse remembered).

Want to ride it?  5...4...3...2...1...Have a great ride. 

The circle mid-course where we slowed down was where Encore took a flying leap of the house and I had NO brakes anymore (someone is going to meet Mr. Elevator bit for jumping at competitions, we must balance, my dear).  The next line was a hard right turn and down a steep hill to a suspended log and then a hard 90-degree turn to a bank line.  It was not going to happen at Mach 10 on the forehand without a chance of killing us both.  I pulled his head hard around uphill and he quickly broke to trot.  I said, honey, I need your brain back.  We then went downhill at the trot, picked up a much more balanced canter in front of the log, and pulled off a beautiful turn to our bank.

The last three or so years of eventing have taught me, forget the clock, when you lose your horse's brain, you will get in trouble in a big hurry.  Stop everything you are doing and get him back.  You may get a few penalty points, but they are very low and continuing in a crazed fashion will only end with someone getting hurt.  It is critical in this sport to think on your feet and make quick decisions no matter where you are.  It just good safety practice and good horsemanship -- your horse learns nothing bolting around unbalanced, every moment you are on his back, you are teaching him something, even if you don't mean to.

In summary, a crazy day, but very educational for horse and rider.  I learned what young-OTTB-on-a-windy-day feels like.  We achieved our goal of good jumping miles, even the runout taught me something (aim for the middle of the jump, doofus).  We kept the rails up and were completely clear XC.

I've already painted one of our brush boxes at home bright white (yesterday) and Encore will be jumping it until he's sick of it.  Southern Pines HT is in two weeks and I know what I need to work on, so I better get busy getting busy!

February 24, 2012

Whether We Are Ready Or Not!

The night before a horse trial is always a tense one -- did I pack both girths? Is my armband where I think it is?  Did I remember to make a post-dressage snack for Encore?  Are both cameras charged?

Tomorrow's forecast in SoPines is clear and sunny, although windy and since the hosting farm is in the sandhills, footing should be nice -- although you always have to keep an eye on those pine needle patches, they can slip!  If I have any lucky at all, that sun will shine on Encore making his 2012 eventing debut.  He completed one horse trial last year at the Maiden level, so I'll start him at Beginner Novice this spring to build his confidence and begin to teach him the little routines of horse trial day.

But what will make or break our ride tomorrow won't be weather or footing or gear -- it will be whether I have the patience and calm to warm him up correctly.  The KEY is getting the horse supple.  You don't have to do x number of 20 metre circles or 5 perfect leg yields or a set number of gaits in each direction.  You need to produce a supple and attentive horse using whatever means are most effective to get him there

For Encore, this means bend, change the bend, bend back, counter bend, change bend again, leg yield on a spiral, bend again -- all the while my goal is to work him softer in the jaw and balanced beneath my seat.  If I can acheive that, then I will have succeeded. 

We'll be all over the warmup ring -- it's not about staying on the rail or using a common routine, it's about loosening and suppling my horse so he is round and on the aids when it is time for us to go in the ring.  It doesn't matter how we get there as long as we arrive.

I'll trot my horse down centerline at 10:43 am tomorrow and as we turn right to begin our test, everyone will know whether or not I've achieved my goal and that moment of truth will set the tone for the rest of our day.