Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Changing of the Guard

There was a moment, maybe halfway through Soon's hospital stay and on a low of the emotional rollercoaster, where I declared that if Soon didn't make it, that I was done with owning horses.

Maybe I would keep riding, maybe train some OTTBs or young horses on the side, help some friends...or perhaps I would sell everything and walk away completely.  I had owned horses since I was the 14 total years of horse ownership over my 25 years in horses, I had endured three colic surgeries.  I had been beyond blessed two have two horses that I considered my "horse of a lifetime", Triple and Soon...and colic had claimed both of them.  I was done.  I could not do it anymore.

Then, not long after Soon passed, there was a feeling of peace on this subject where before there had been bitterness.  I knew there would be another horse someday.  I did not figure it happening any time soon, but I knew there would be a day where I would call another my own.  And I hoped, when that day came, that I would do right by the new addition, and in doing so, honor the two great soldiers that came before.

Well, that time has already come, and the changing of the guard is taking place.

I had not intended to look at horses for several months, at least until I knew what my next military assignment was going to be.  Part of me decided that Soon's passing was a sign for me to finally move to England and go on that new adventure on my own.  In the meantime, I was going to ride some OTTBs for my trainer friend, go out to do more normal social stuff, and just wait until the right horse came along later (like...when I was in the UK, or when I moved back stateside). Was not looking....

And then the right one fell into my lap. His ad kept popping up in front of me despite my strict "I'M NOT LOOKING FOR HORSES!" policy.  I ignored it initially.  It was too soon, I was not ready.  But when it kept showing up, I finally looked at it closely.  I was interested in what I saw; I exchanged some very informative emails with the seller, and took 24 hours to really consider what I was doing.  Was I doing this because I was truly ready for another horse?  Or, was I rushing into something after Soon's death and acting irrational?  What about England?

I took that 24 hours and thought it over.  I bounced it off some good friends who knew what Soon meant to me.  They were excited and supportive.  And after a few signs that I could not ignore (keep reading...), I made the trip out to Lexington, Kentucky this past weekend to give him a try. No expectations. No pressure.  If it wasn't totally right, I would walk away and resume my European plans.

I went out and saw him.  Rode him.  Hacked him. Jumped XC fences in the most polite, huntery manner ever.  Snuggled.  And he was perfect. And he's coming home this weekend.

Introducing Sig!!

His name is Lucky Strike (aka "Sig"). He is a 3 year old, full Thoroughbred gelding by Northern Afleet, out of Godiva (CHI). He was purpose bred in Lexington by Mt Brilliant Farm for elite polo (via AI, so therefore not eligible to be registered with the Jockey Club), but grew too large. He was sent to Carleigh Fedorka of A Yankee In Paris fame, who started putting a foundation on him.  He had a brief start as a 2 year old, then turned back out, and probably has about 100 or so days on him total.  Keep that in mind when you watch his sale video!!

Sig is a true unicorn. His personality is super sweet and affectionate, decidedly non-obnoxious for a 3 year old, super quiet, has the best brain, and he is taking to training like fish to water.  Carleigh has already had him out to a baby jumper show, XC schooling over lots of little obstacles, water, and he hacks like a champ.  By himself.  Through 30-foot wide streams.  He's like little a wunderkind of awesome.

My trial ride started in the arena, which went well.  He's a young horse with (hopefully) some more growing to do, but despite that and the relatively short time he's been undersaddle, he is very soft in the bridle and has moments of moving uphill.  He will be super fancy on the flat with more time and training.  And his jump?  Perfect metronome unicorn.  He didn't change to or from the fence, jumped with a lot of promise with his front end, and is already using his head/neck and displaying some bascule.  The boy has talent.

And also, he goes out of the ring like an old trail horse, canters around the XC field and pops over fences without changing.  I just had to close my leg and soften my hand, and he was there at the base of the jump.  It is going to be so fun to see him develop as a jumper!  And he's quiet and fun enough to enjoy lots of time hacking outside the ring too.   He can do it all.

Here's some video of he and I trying each other out:

Apparently, flunked polo ponies is where it's at, ya'll. Go get you one.

I've been thinking that Soonie sent me a gift here.  But why, exactly?  Well, the Thursday night before I left, as I was still contemplating it (mostly sold on the idea of going out to try him), I was driving home, on base, listening to Cole Swindell's "You Should Be Here," and getting pretty misty eyed thinking about Soonie. As I was listening and crying a little, I was stopped behind someone at an intersection and I saw they had Kentucky plates on their car. Now...yes I live on a military base and yes there are plates from all over the country, but I've not seen a ton of KY plates around here. Timing was uncanny. I smiled.

Then, when I tried Sig, while he's still very unique and has some differences from Soon, they're similar in some important ways of how they ride. Sig is really incredible for his age, very level headed and soft like Soonie. Both have a super jump. I had a great, super fun ride on Sig and he made me smile (I had not ridden at all since 14 Oct, the day Soon went in for colic surgery). Then after the ride, Sig was playing with his Carleigh's zipper, something that Soon used to do from time to time. I don't see a lot of horses do that, and to have Sig do it right then when I was standing there contemplating the next step was coincidental...but also uncanny. I just remember standing there thinking "Ok, I hear you, Brother." And decided to proceed with vetting Sig and went from there.

Sig's getting on the truck tomorrow, I expect he'll be at the farm by Saturday morning, and the new adventure begins.  I'm ready.  

Look at this amazing caption of me not falling off after not riding in forever!  And baby genius!

Now, I do like Lucky Strike and I probably will just stick with it, but since he's not JC registered, I had been contemplating changing the name for his USEF registration. There are also 14 other active Lucky Strikes in the USEF database, not even counting the inactive listings. So, I guess I'm interested to see if we can come up with a more interesting, unique name to use moving forward. If I can't pick one then I guess he'll be just another Lucky Strike. I like his barn name and have no intention of changing that.

I like the idea of a one-word name relating to nautical/maritime, or military themes. I have considered "Northwestern" (the name of the crab boat on The Deadliest Catch, as Sig is named after Sig Hansen), but I don't like that name for him. I think his sire's name/lineage may be useful, so I'm open to suggestions. I'm not sure how to work in any reference to Godiva (legend or chocolate).   So if you have any suggestions or thoughts, please let me know!  Some current favorite options are:

- Lucky Strike (current name, very common in the USEF)
- Strike the Colors (military/maritime reference of the age of sail, not in the USEF registry!)
- Signal the Fleet (not in USEF)
- Trafalgar (surprisingly popular in the USEF....)
- Insignia (awesome, but also very popular in the USEF)
- aaaaaaaand maybe one or two off my ancient list o' horse names that is probably on my external hard drive

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Healing, one phone call at a time

I have some news to share shortly.  Some great, exciting, and most importantly, HAPPY news!  It's going to be a long story about a new adventure and a new partner that deserves his own post.  But before I get to that, I have to say I had a very necessary and difficult talk tonight.

I've known for a couple weeks now that Soon's former race owner, Dennis, had been wanting to call.  I knew that was going to be a very tough conversation.  He decided to wait a bit, and I'm glad for that, because I think I needed a little bit of time so I wasn't a complete, blithering mess on the phone.  But even almost four weeks now, and I was still pretty much a blithering mess.

He called tonight, and it really did make my heart happy to hear from him.  I always liked Dennis, he seemed like the type of guy I could just hang around and drink a beer with.  He's a good, old school horseman who put his animals first, as Soon would absolutely attest to.  Dennis is what's right with racing - a kind hearted, hard working guy, who puts his horses first both on the track and afterward.  We kept in touch for over a year after Soon retired, I would send him pictures and updates before we finally lost touch back in late 2014.  Some of the CANTER girls had kept him in the loop more recently with our horse showing and clinic escapades.  I am so grateful for that.  Dennis deserves to know that his horse became a superstar, and was the most important part of my life.

Dennis called tonight to say he was sorry, how he knew how hard it was and how he knew how much Soonie meant to me.  He said if there was ever a horse and person meant for each other, he knew it was us.  He told me about how much Soon had given him, how much of a "people person" he was.  And Dennis told me how he had turned away several buyers, because they weren't right or couldn't provide Soon the home Dennis thought he deserved.  And then he said when he watched me walk in the stall, he knew that was it.  I admit, I spent the majority of the phone call trying not to break down and cry.

And yes, I did break down and cry uncontrollably at the end of the phone call.  

This guy remembered all the details of that day I came to see Soon.  He remembered everything about a racehorse he sold over four years ago.  This guy cares.  Always has.  We both remembered how it was between Soon and another horse that day, and I had come back to see Soon again to see if I could make up my mind.  I walked back in the stall, Soon planted his face in my chest, and that was it.  Dennis said he knew then.  He told me, right there, that "I can't sell him to anyone but you."

I don't think either one of us had any clue in that moment what Soon and I would go on and do in the future, any clue what an important role he would play in my life and how much of my happiness would be wrapped up in him.  But I think we both had a feeling about something, and that was good enough to believe and take a leap of faith.

The call probably only lasted 10 minutes or so, maybe 15, but it was good to hear from him again, and I hope to keep in touch with him again.  He asked for some recent photos, which I was happy to text him, but I told him I'd do him one better.  I've ordered some nice prints of some of our best photos, a mix of candid shots and show photos, and will mail those to him along with all the Chronicle articles about Soonie.  Going to write him a card too.  And if I'm ever in the St Louis area again, or if I ever make the move to Kentucky, you bet your ass I'll be making the trip to Fairmount to catch up with Dennis and cheer on his horses.

I don't speaking with Dennis it was like another big milestone in healing.  And in being reminded how much Soon gave Dennis, it makes me that much more grateful that I had Soon in my life at all.  I'm grateful for Dennis, I'm grateful for four amazing years with a horse that touched a lot of people.  That time was an absolute gift and while I'm still sad it got cut short, I have to start appreciating having it at all, and I smile now just knowing I had the opportunity.

“This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.”
- Michael Morpurgo,
War Horse

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Five More Minutes

I knew there would be a day when he had to leave and would break my heart.  I hoped, that in that moment, that I would not be standing there pleading for more time.  That I would have the strength to let him go and feel satisfied with our time together.  And I did let him go when it was time, I didn't delay, I didn't bargain for more time or feel bitter that night.  I had appreciated every little moment along the journey, said thank you, told him I loved him every day.  I had done it right.

...And it doesn't matter.  Because here I am 10 days later, and what I would give to see him just one more time.

Time rolls by the clock don't stop
I wish I had a few more drops

Of the good stuff, the good times
Oh but they just keep on flying
Right on by like it ain't nothing
Wish I had me a pause button
Moments like those Lord knows I'd hit it
Yeah sometimes
this old life will leave you wishing
That you had five more minutes...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Collateral Beauty

When The Chronicle of the Horse invited me to contribute to their Amateurs Like Us blogs, I had grand visions of regaling the internet world with tales of Soon and I.  Soon, my intrepid and worldly off the track Thoroughbred (OTTB) gelding, who went on a tear with me this summer and accomplished some pretty incredible things.  Perhaps I would write about our summer riding with Joe Fargis and Linda Zang, or perhaps the journey of training your own OTTB on an amateur schedule, or what life is like balancing horses and the military.  Perhaps I still will.  

…But I never imagined I would be describing to you all how he died.

It was just after midnight on the morning of Sunday, November 12, 2017.  In the end, I suppose it was fitting that Soon’s final day was Veterans’ Day.

You see, Soon was a true War Horse.  He had 52 starts on the race track over the course of five years.  He had run-away wins, and wins that came down to the wire, where he dug in and showed real grit in order to run down his opponent.  I bought him off the track in 2013, he was sound as a dollar and came with a sort of old-soul wisdom that you only find in those older war horses.  He was the closest thing to rational I had ever seen in a horse.  He was far too polite to be anything but perfect.  His work ethic and athletic ability were just icing on the cake.  He loved his people, too.  I have said many times, that if I had the ability to custom-build a horse for my needs, I could not have done a better job than Soon.  Who he was is what made him so great.

But in addition to his race record, he became a war horse in the truest sense after he retired from racing, as he accompanied me in my service in the United States Air Force.  He has been with me at two duty stations, even “deployed” with me to Dover Air Force Base in 2015 to help me cope with my somber responsibilities at the Port Mortuary.  Since then, we had a legendary run in 2017, training with my idols, and setting what I believed was a successful foundation in the jumper ring.  There was so much to look forward to.  And then, it was just gone.

They say old soldiers never die, they simply fade away…

After Soon’s brilliant display of Thoroughbred qualities at the September George H. Morris clinic, he and I followed it up with an outing at the Piedmont Jumper Classic in Upperville, Virginia.  Afterward, when we came home, I found myself a bit lost and lacking motivation.  Our big push for 2017 was the GM clinic, and there was a bit of an empty space to fill once we were beyond it.  There was a lot of hacking; we both needed some extra downtime.  

That came to an abrupt end on Saturday, October 14.  Soon colicked badly late that morning, and did not respond to the intravenous Banamine.  I called an emergency vet, who dropped everything she was doing to come out, but in the time we had to wait, Soon grew increasingly painful.  It was so great that multiple times he collapsed; twice I thought he was about to die in my arms.  I could not believe what was happening.  My nightmare. My nightmare was happening.  

It was exactly like the ending in Phar Lap, but with no cute Australian guy.  

The vet arrived, but we knew after the exam that he needed to be at a surgical center.  We topped off his sedation and pain relief, and I loaded Soon up and drove him to the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia.  He was in surgery shortly thereafter for a displaced large colon, and some twisting of the small intestine.

The next three weeks were an up and down saga of immense and unhappy proportions.  He suffered numerous complications.  Every day I made the three-hour round trip to visit, and every day I rode that emotional rollercoaster between expecting him to go home, and expecting to have to put him down.  He had two stints in the isolation barn, where I was unable to touch or interact with him at all.  I was in a living hell.

The surgeons and staff pulled out all the stops, and eventually got Soon stabilized to the point where they were comfortable with him going home.  He would be in an equine hernia belt harness for some time, require follow up exams and a lot of work, but he could go home to continue his recovery.  I was ecstatic.  He was happy to be home, looked so bright and happy, until he had another bout of colic that afternoon.  He came out of it, and the next couple of days were uneventful, but there was this overwhelming feeling of stress and dread in the back of my mind.  

One Last Fight

Late on Saturday, November 11, Soon colicked again.  The vet arrived immediately and sedated him.  We were hoping after the exam that he would be more comfortable.  Perhaps all he needed was a little extra help and some IV fluids.  But after the rectal exam it was clear he had a new issue with the small intestine.  We called his surgeons at Leesburg and they discussed options.  I did not want to send him back to the hospital.  This horse, who had given me everything he had for four years, had been through hell.  If he came out of the sedation and drugs well enough, then we would continue.  If he started acting painful, based on his pain level and the palpation of the small intestine, I would put him down on the farm.

Unfortunately, once the drugs wore off he became painful again, and knowing where I stood, we all agreed that he had enough, and it was time.  Soon fought bravely for a month, and never complained.  He maintained an incredible attitude through it all, but looking at him that night, with him being in that much pain, I knew.  He tried.  I tried.  All his medical staff had tried everything.  This just was not meant to be.  There was not any amount of medicine that was going to cure him, and he did not deserve to be put through any more.

I had a moment alone in the stall with him to say goodbye.  I pressed my forehead against his and cried; I told him he was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.  I said “Thank you Brother, for everything.”  I told him I loved him.  Then he was ready.  He practically dragged me out of the stall.  He went peacefully just after 12:30am, I was with him the entire time.

He was my “heart horse.”  And it felt, and still feels, like my heart has been ripped from my chest, living a gaping, bleeding wound from which there is no recovering.

The Collateral Beauty
There is a movie, Collateral Beauty¸ which struck some raw nerves with me over the last month of this struggle.  The idea that there is beauty to be admired in the face of tragedy, or even because of that tragedy, sounds poetic, but in the midst of that struggle, how do you bring yourself to appreciate it?  Is it even real, or just something that people say to make you feel better?

The collateral beauty in the wake of Soon’s hospitalization, and later his death, is bittersweet, but obvious.  It has some rather immense importance.  It is having the extra time to say goodbye to my sweet boy.  It is knowing that he was at home when he passed.  I feel it in the condolences and messages of support I have received from close friends, family, even perfect strangers.  It is the connection I feel to fellow Thoroughbred owners and fans, and fellow horsemen in general.  It is in the comfort I have knowing we exhausted every effort to give Soon the chance to live.  In knowing that he is no longer in pain, no longer suffering, no longer facing an uncertain future.

It is meeting a wonderful team of veterinarians and nurses who truly put everything they had into Soon’s care.  I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Brown and Dr. Dubois, and the entire staff at Marion duPont for everything they did for Soonie and me.  I also want to sincerely thank Dr. Bryant of Wolf Creek Equine for her quick response and compassionate care.  You are an angel.  Please know that you are all my heroes.  

Collateral beauty is reconnecting with someone from my past, someone I never expected to hear from again, and that person supporting me through this tough time.  It is in the possibility of a friendship, healing, of possibly keeping up to date with a kid I once loved as my own, and who is no longer in my life.  Collateral beauty is one of your friends dropping what they were doing and spending the night in a freezing cold barn with you while you sit up with a colicky horse.  It is another friend being there and holding your hand in your horse’s final moments, reassuring you that you did the right thing.  Collateral beauty, in this instance, is me seeing the good in people.  Maybe that was Soon’s final gift to me: the hope that maybe not every person is going to let me down.  

Collateral beauty is real.  Do not let a tragedy blind you to the fact that perhaps there is some good that can come out of it.  It will not bring Soon back to me, and it will never make it right.  But it is there.  You have to want to see it and accept it.  

Soon was a horse of a lifetime.  I often correct people when I say that I did not rescue him; he rescued me.  He gave me a reason to love again.  He gave me a reason to smile some days when I did not want to.  We pushed each other and he truly made my dreams come true.  He wanted nothing, and yet gave me everything.  He was all heart, all class, all the way through the very end.  I want the whole world to know who he was, what he meant to me.

They say old soldiers never die…they simply fade away.  

Long live all the mountains we moved
I had the time of my life
fighting dragons with you
I was screaming long live that look on your face
And bring on all the pretenders
One day, we will be remembered

He's gone.

Soon left us this morning at 12:30am. Another colic, the responding vet concurred it was not worth prolonging his suffering. He tried, we all tried, but it was not meant to be. He went peacefully and I was with him. I cannot express what he meant to me, what he did for me, and what he represented in my life. He was my life. I did not rescue him, he rescued me. He was my War Horse...they say old soldiers never die, they simply fade away. Thank you, Brother. I love you and I miss you already.

"Good-night, sweet prince;
And fights of angels sing thee to thy rest."    

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Please pray for Soonie

Sitting here at 10pm crying my eyes out.

Soon went in for emergency colic surgery on Saturday, 14 Oct.  I've been meaning to blog about it, but we've been on such an exhausting stretch since then, I've not had the energy.  That day was the most traumatic of my life.  Despite the 10cc of of IV Banamine, he was so painful he threw himself on the ground multiple times while we waited for the emergency vet to arrive.  He was covered in sweat from head to toe.  Twice he laid out flat, presumably from pain and exhaustion, and I legitimately thought he was dying in my arms.  I was crying over him, holding his head thinking he was taking his final breaths.

The driveway looked like a murder scene thanks to an impressive nosebleed from the nasogastic tubes.

We rushed him to the emergency medical center and he was in surgery shortly thereafter.  His large colon displaced and his small intestine had some twists, which they caught (presumably, anyway) before any damage set in.  I watched him walk out of the recovery room, abdomen bandaged up, and I drove home late that night with an empty trailer, still covered in his blood from my waist down.

The two weeks since has been a rollercoaster of nightmare proportions.  He seemed to be on track to come home five days later, but then had some colicky symptoms.  Then fever.  Depression.  Then fluid in his belly.  Off of the IV fluids, then back on.  Painful, then happy and bright.  For nine days I made the 3+ hour round trip and would sit with him for hours.  Or take him for hand grazing when he was well enough.  He'd have one good day, then the next one or two would be bad.  I would go from being happy and optimistic and making plans for his homecoming, to sitting alone and crying about losing him in less than a 12 hour span, many days in a row.

The day after surgery

This was such a great moment

When things were good

When things were not so good.
Then the fever came back and he has spent the last five days in isolation, where I cannot touch him or interact with him.  This has been torture.  To have him not feel well is one thing, to not be able to comfort him (and in turn, comfort myself) shattered my heart.

This reality continues to break my heart

He had what we thought was the turning point yesterday, the fever was gone and his incision infection was draining.  He came off fluids. Then today he had two colicky episodes, the drainage stopped, and the doctors are all baffled.  I can see they're getting frustrated and are sorry to not have consistent good news for me.  Today was the first real hard talk with his surgeon about how far we are going to go, and when is the right time to say enough is enough.

We're not there yet, but we're closer to that decision every time he has a set back.  And it breaks what's left of my heart.

We are going on two weeks now, and I am suffocating under a million pounds of decisions, thoughts, feelings, emotions.  Does he just need a few more days for the new antibiotics to kick in, then he'll bounce back and start his long journey to a (hopeful) full recovery?  Or are we just prolonging the inevitable?  He was dull and stocked up and is starting to shed weight and look terrible, which is crushing me on top of everything else.  I do not want to give up on him early, but I do not want him suffering, he does not deserve that.  "Better a day too early than a minute too late" they say?

I have gone beyond my years
I've wasted half my life
But I found it all in you
Did I save you?
'Cause I know you saved me too

(Stone Sour, Song #3)

I look back on this amazing year we had and I can't help but think "Was it all leading up to this?"  Were all those milestones, those achievements, those dreams come true just part of some higher plan, or does life just randomly rip what you love away for no good reason?  If not, if there's some meaning behind it...then take it.  I'd give all of it back.  Every last second.  The lessons with legends, the horse shows, the GM clinic, the Chronicle blogs, all of it.  Have it.  Just give me my horse back.

This horse has gotten me through the hardest moments of my lifeHe taught me to love again.  And as I type out those words, I'm crying again.  I don't want to lose him.  I don't know if I can lose him.  Life would eventually carry on, but right now it feels like it would be so empty without him.  I have no great love for people anymore.  People let you down.  People use you.  Love is something people do when it's convenient for them.  But not him.  He's always there for me.  He has no agenda.  He's the one last thing I truly believe in anymore.

So please, please....if you have any prayers or good vibes to send his way, he needs it now more than ever.  And so do I.

This came on the radio on one trip out to visit...

I wonder, I pray
I sleep alone
I cry alone
And it's so hard living here on my own
So please come home soon
Come home, Soon
(Shedaisy, Come Home Soon)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

....Now What?

The GHM clinic was our goal all year.  We worked hard for it all summer, really put the pedal to the metal and got stuff done.  Then it was clinic time...We came, we did, we didn't die.

We followed up with a fancy pants horse show in which I managed to not permanently damage my horse.

Can't get enough of this photo

And now I'm sitting here wondering:  now what?

There is an empty void and I'm not sure how best to fill it.

It was a seemingly non-stop summer between all the different lessons with Joe, Linda, and Stephen.  Now that everything's over, part of me wants to take the foot off the gas pedal and just coast, and return to our old "oh hai nice pretty horsey let's go trail riding and dressage (maybe) but probably not, just trail ride because that's all I have the motivation for" routine.  I do have a hockey season to start getting ready for, and I haven't skated since the spring. 

But the other part of me wants to ride this train as long as we can in light of all the progress we have made, together.  That part of me wants to do the Anne Kursinski clinic in November.  The other part of me feels like I'd rather not.  My dilemma is that this is limited opportunity to ride with another great that might not come my way again, and certainly not anytime soon if my job has its way with me.  The downside is that I'm not super enthusiastic about it, and it's a rather large check to have to cut.

The struggle is real and it is in my brain between two completely different energy levels:


And maybe I'm just dreading the feeling of wanting to vomit and die for three more days straight, who knows.

So...Soon and I had a few days off from riding after Piedmont, and have been hacking the last three days and staying out of the ring.  My motivation factor was in the tank, but I have managed some shoulder-in, leg yields, and general dressage-ness while riding around the farm.  I did drop into equitation weekend today at Capital Challenge, and just being back in the horse show atmosphere made me want to run back to the barn and set up some gymnastics, or do some ground poles without stirrups.

Lazy!me just wants to do more of this:

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

....And Then I Lost All Faith in Humanity.

I had some very mixed feelings about my weekend and my value as a horse owner driving back from Piedmont.  It was a good weekend in the end, but I needed some time to mull over it and see it that way.  In the moment, I wasn't so sure, and when I got home, I really was rather regretting it.

Why?  Because this:


I traveled home with the back doors open as it was 85+ degrees and I felt like Soon needed the extra ventilation.  And some ASSHOLE thought it would be funny to target a live, innocent animal in the back of a moving trailer with a paintball gun.  Soonie was okay.  He had a welt where he was hit, but otherwise unhurt and completely himself.  I feel extremely fortunate that he is so level-headed, as this could have caused a tragic accident if he had spooked in the trailer.

 I've had my screaming fits over this, I cried after I got Soon cleaned up.  I've called or emailed every law enforcement agency I can think of that might be the least bit interested.  My friends and fellow horsemen have all offered their sympathy and shared outrage.  I've learned yet again why I hate the greater DC area and why I despise the lower rungs of humanity that dwell here.

This is why I hate people.  This is why horses are too good for us.

A Taste of Humble Pie

Shortly after I posted about our experience at the George Morris clinic, Soonie and I went viral.  The Chronicle of the Horse saw my blog and asked to repost it.  There were thousands of likes, hundreds of shares, hundreds of comments.  The Retired Racehorse Project, CANTER USA, Bernie Traurig, even George Morris's social media people picked it up and shared it.  I was completely surprised not just by the popularity of it, but the exceedingly nice comments that everyone shared.  Usually social media isn't that kind.  I was shocked, in the best way.

Riding the high of this media wave, I once again got myself and Soon packed up to head to our second USEF rated competition, the Piedmont Jumper Classic (held at Salem Farm, home to the Upperville Colt & Horse Show). It was here I got reminded that I'm human and make stupid mistakes and got a taste of some freshly baked humble pie.

We left for Piedmont on Thursday.  Soon hauled over well and got settled immediately.  He really has the travel thing down now, and after last week at Beverly for the GHM clinic, this was cake.  This show was like Upperville Lite - all the fancy jumps, the tent stalls and some of the atmosphere, but on a slightly more modest level.  It is a lovely venue and a lovely show to take a green horse to.  Put it on your calendars because it's a great show.

We call this "making friends"

This is his horse show face

Soon hacked well on Thursday, and came out feeling great on Friday.  Kim and I worked with Canadian Olympian, and Middleburg-area local Sonya Crampton for the first time, and I am so thankful for her truly outstanding coaching.  I added the .80m schooling jumper class as a warm up, in addition to our .90m class immediately afterward.  Soon jumped around the .80m just fine, but a little look-y.  I had a stupid rail having not judged the four-stride correctly.  We came back into the .90m class and he went around like a star.  Sonya had us going along on a much more open, flowing canter stride, focusing more on getting to the jump a little earlier - once again coming flowing out of the corner with leg on, soft hand, and allowing Soon to find the base of the jump.  We went double clear and walked away with a blue ribbon for our efforts in the schooling class.

Photos:  Hannah Jones Photography

I planned on stepping up to the 1.0m schooling jumper class on Saturday morning.  We had schooled more than that at home and with Joe, and felt it was a good challenge.  But as I walked the course, seeing the exactly how large the jumps were, I started to have doubts.  I should have scratched and stuck with the .80m and .90m classes again that day to build upon Friday's success.  But I didn't.  I saw numbers as progress, and ignored what would have more training value.

We warmed up confidently and went into the ring.  The first jump was okay, Soon listened very well to my leg and my request to open up his step significantly and come forward.  We rolled down to the oxer in the bending nine strides, he felt much more confident over that and I thought we were good as long as I rode him well.  We came around the corner off the short(ish) turn to the one-stride, which we met very well and jumped out of nicely.  And that's when the wheels started to come off...I didn't close my leg enough off the oxer, and our four strides to the vertical left him a little long to the jump.  He took it like a champ, but when we came around the next corner to a big, single oxer, I didn't have him forward or straight enough.  The distance was gappy and he didn't feel confident enough, so he ended up stopping.  I came off elegantly, but still came off.

I immediately regretted my decision, and I felt terrible.  Not for myself, but for Soonie.  I stretched him just a little too far.  I had to be 100% accurate with that ride for it to succeed, and I fell short, which left Soon to figure it out at a level where he wasn't completely confident in himself.  He trusts me completely, and I failed him.  This was poor horsemanship.

I calmly ran up my stirrups, reassured Soonie, we walked out of the ring together (no temper tantrums here!).  Sonya did an excellent job of getting my head back on straight, as I was completely frustrated with myself for pushing too fast, being greedy, and asking too much of a green horse.  We jumped a few small fences in the warm up just to end on a good note, and I went and added the .80m class in order to get him around again in the show ring and end on a positive note.

I put Soon away and we both took a break between classes.  I felt sorry for my poor decision making and I generally wallowed in my situation.  Soon and I went around the .80m again with no issues - a little look-y again, but he went around as I asked him to, and went double clear for another blue ribbon token.  As Sonya said, it was money back in the bank.  Soonie didn't hold anything against me.  This horse has all the scope I need, all the talent I need (probably more than I need), he just needs mileage.  And mileage can't be rushed.

We looked good in the 1.0m while we lasted!

Rocking around the .80m again for good measure
Good boy Soonie!
Overall, I think it's hard to look back on this show and call it anything but a good experience.  I can't say enough wonderful things about Sonya and her coaching this weekend, I'm excited to work with her more in the future.  Soon went well on Friday.  Yes, I made a mistake and had him just outside his comfort zone the next morning, but he wasn't traumatized and didn't hold it against me.  He jumped around fine later that day, and seemed pretty content with horse show life.  I learned, conclusively, that he needs more experience in the .85-.95 classes for the foreseeable future before we try 1.0m again.  And I realized that if we were to try to attend the Anne Kursinski clinic in November (still undecided), it would need to be in the 2'9"-3' group, to avoid overfacing Soon again.

This horse wants to do it.  He tried very hard all weekend even when other horses, under the same circumstances, might have quit.  He wants to do it.  He just needs to be shown how.  I've been unfair in how I regard him - he trains with horses that are vastly more experienced, and he not only keeps up, but he performs on that level in training.  But he's not on that level.  He hasn't seen what they have seen.  This is his first year out showing.  Piedmont was his fourth show.  He still needs to get used to dressed fences, max widths, galloping strides.  All those things are more than just jumping a specified height.  He can do the height (see the 1.0m photo - plenty of scope to spare), it's everything else he needs to see, to learn, to become confident with.  And he will.  He just needs time and a patient approach.  He is a very careful horse - that careful quality will make him an incredible jumper, but it presents a minor challenge in development.  I think he has a real talent, and could legitimately be that 1.20m horse I've joked about.  But he'll need plenty of time to tap into that talent and develop confidence.

I should have known that before, but I know it now.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The George Morris Clinic.... aka I'm on fire but it's fine. I'm fine.

Well, here it is, the massive blog entry about the Thing We Have Been Waiting For All Year.  But first, how about we warm up with some beloved George memes:

....Sweet baby Jesus help me.

It's been a long road this year with the George Morris clinic as our target.  This is something I have wanted to do since I was a kid.  I am very lucky now to have the horse, the opportunity, and the amazing support system to help prepare us for this.  I remember back in the early spring when I signed up for the clinic the internal debate and outward screaming I was doing when navigating through the sign up screens.  There was definitely screaming when I hit the payment button.  But I figured this was my opportunity.  I had audited the Beverly clinic in 2016, and told myself that Soon and I would definitely be there in 2017.  I had to.  I may have to move next year and this may, legitimately, be my one opportunity to ride with George Morris.  I was not sure we would be ready.  But there’s a little thing I like to tell myself when facing tough circumstances or challenges in order to quell the self-doubt:  “Why not?”
It was a tough summer, but a good one.  We started working with incredible folks, some of whom we got to see the week leading up to the big GM clinic.  What better way to prepare than these folks?

Linda Zang, Friday, 8 Sep 7
We hauled down the street to ride with Linda for a last minute lesson.  We started with our usual warm up routine and Linda was very pleased with Soon’s trot work.  It’s such an amazing feeling to have someone like her tell her auditors “I really love this horse.”  I’ve been trying to play with more shoulder-in, especially around corners, per her instruction from the last lesson.  This has helped him move more through his shoulder and into my outside rein.  The big breakthrough came when Linda saw me posting somewhat awkwardly tracking right – something was up with that right seat bone, and we made it our mission to figure it out.  Bottom line, I’m not over my left (outside) seat bone enough when we track to the right.  As a result of being of heavy to the right, and cranking that right seat bone forward, it made posting very awkward, and it the root of our more recent right lead canter issues.  As soon as Linda identified that, and we played with my balance some, Soon let go very nicely in the trot and canter, and we had zero swaps/cross-cantering issues going to the right.  He was super!  Linda seemed very happy as well, we had a few laughs over this and we both felt like we had really solved an issue.  I made a mental note to stay much more to the left for the upcoming George Morris clinic…

Joe Fargis – Sunday, 10 Sep 17
We got another last minute opportunity to ride with Joe prior to the GHM clinic, and Kim and I decided to take him up on it!  We rode in the indoor (I was not-so-secretly doing the happy dance because I didn’t have to put studs in since we weren’t in the jump field), so I knew it was going to be a very turn-y jump school.  We started with a low bounce, cantered down to a vertical, around to two verticals in a one-stride, around to a single oxer, down the other outside line to another in-and-out (two oxers), then around the corner, through the bounce again, and then a snaking turn to a low oxer set in the middle of the ring.  My takeaway from this lesson was that I needed to plan and execute my turns better.  Joe emphasized being proactive and starting the turn off the bounce and the jump across the middle of the ring while I was in the air, and shaping the turn on the landing.  Once it went smoothly at 3’, he put the fences up to 3’6” and we rolled around the course again.  Soon felt lovely – I focused on keeping my leg closed on the approach and softening my hand to the jump, and allowing him to find the base.  He is getting so confident at that, and he rides so well to the fences when they’re put up a little more.  I love that Joe just throws the fences up – you don’t have time to get too concerned about the height when you ride with him, which is great.  You just have to do it, and then realize after the fact that the fences were bigger.  No time to change or second guess your game plan, which more often than not results in the same consistent jump that you had at the lower height.  It just emphasizes the fact that height is not important – the plan (pace, line, etc) is what matters.  We all left feeling very confident and ready for whatever George had to throw at us come Tuesday.

George H. Morris – 12-14 Sep 17

Before we went anywhere I had to check off all the requirements in the George Morris Clinic Survival Guide:  horse did not look feral.  Traditional irons were on the saddle, boots were polished, and tack was spotless (Soon does not wear a martingale so no issues with the age old standing vs. running debate).  I had an alias in place in case I embarrassed myself and my family name and had to move to Canada.  I knew the difference between a Half Turn and a Half Turn in Reverse. We had a counter canter.  I could adjust my stirrups “properly.” Soon jumps liverpools (more or less…), and I had done some work without my stirrups this summer.  I did not get around to re-reading GM’s Hunter Seat Equitation book like I had wanted, but I did look at the pictures, and that’s almost as good (right?).  I was prepared to ride that third grader logic straight into the ground because at that point, I didn’t have time for the words.
I also reviewed my goals for the clinic:  1)  DO NOT FALL OFF….I like to keep this list short so I do not forget it.
We hauled out to Beverly Equestrian in The Plains, Virginia on Monday to get the horses settled.  I so enjoy going to Beverly, it is such a lovely facility and I am grateful to have such lovely opportunities within a reasonable distance.  We left early enough to arrive at the polo barn (our temporary home) before anyone else, and got our pick of the available stalls.  We got unpacked and once the horses were settled, we took them for a hack around the property.  We found the trails and spent about a half hour just trail riding to get the horses legs stretched.  It was a perfect, relaxing ride.  If anything it totally took my mind off the pending doom that awaited the next day.  You know the pending doom - the knowledge that you're about to get your head ripped off by one of the most famous horsemen on the planet and it's going to be in front of about 50 other people and possibly the entire Internet.

Good thing I'm in the military and I can take being screamed at.  In fact, I don't know what has helped prepare me more for the GM clinic:  my equitation days with a tough, but brilliant trainer and No Stirrup MONTH, or four months of officer training where nothing you do is right and sometimes there are three huge dudes screaming in your face for no reason whatsoever.  Yeah, so, I'd say that when it comes to being yelled at, these days it's kinda no big deal.

By the case you forgot what Beverly looks like, here is the video again:

 Afterward I found the Most Adorable Cottage Ever that I rented for the week and got ready to attend George's talk at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg.  It was an interesting discussion about classical horsemanship and what is missing today.  GM offered his favorite excerpts from books by Chamberlain, Wright, and others.  After having GM sign my copy of his book, Unrelenting, I retreated to the cottage and relaxed for the evening.  I finally broke down and tried AirBnB after I decided I was way less likely to get murdered in horrible ways if I wasn't trying to stay in NYC or something.  Because Middleburg seemed like a pretty safe, non-murdery place to try paying to stay in a stranger's house for funsies.  And it was, by the way.  I rented the same cottage for the jumper show next week, and I'm already excited about it.  I'm especially excited about that shower.  The bathroom might take up 45% of the cottage, but I don't care because it was WORTH IT.

 Day One
Thanks to Kim being wonderful and staying with the horses, I didn't have to show up until almost 8am, so I was able to get some extra sleep.  I checked on Soonie, took him for a quick hand walk, then watched the first hour or so of the 3'6" group.  I elected to do the 3' group with Soon, since that seemed like an adequate challenge back in March or whenever I signed up for this clinic.  More on that later.  Anyway, I got Bubba ready and came up early to do a light warm up in the dressage ring, as he seemed a little up.  The first day went very well, far better than I expected.  Soon is so mature about traveling - he took everything in stride (even the gaggle of auditors) and was an absolute superstar.  

Flatwork focused on some transitions, then shoulder-fore and then shoulder-in exercises.  In the canter, we focused on keeping the horse truly straight - something that made me VERY thankful for our work with Linda Zang!  All the while GM emphasized keeping the hands up with a straight line from bit to elbow.  Jumping on the first day was straight forward, with a gymnastic exercise to start, where GM highlighted my following hand (jumping out of hand/"automatic release"), which I was happy he noticed.  I was also happy to hear his praise for my "classical hand" over the jump...when you expect to get killed by your discipline's most famous trainer, hearing praise of any kind is almost shocking.  In a good way?  Or is it a trap?

 Day Two
I was feeling really great about the first day, so my nerves were slightly less on edge for day two...that is until I saw that the first group had all their stirrup irons removed.


There's that horrible, sickening sinking feeling when you first realize that you're in for the infamous No Stirrup Day.  It's not entirely a surprise - you signed up for a freaking GM clinic for crying out loud - but you hope that maybe...maybe...he'll have an old person moment and forget.  Because he only told us 847 times how old he is, it seemed like a logical possibility...

But it wasn't.  I accepted my fate, I had a whole hour of the first group to mull over it and come to terms with my situation.  I figured if I fall off today, I might as well keep digging the hole so I can crawl in it and die, just bury me where I face planted.  I did work without my stirrups this summer, but not as much as I wanted to.  Suffice it to say, I was really reaching back to my equitation days and seriously channeling my 17-year old self that, for some absurd reason, really loved riding without stirrups.

I was an overachiever then, and my 33-year old self now really hates that 17-year old show off.
I was very happy to know that GM didn't demand posting trot much, only a lap or two of that, the rest of the trot work was all sitting.  But maybe halfway through our flatwork session I'm riding around in front of an audience AND George Morris without my stirrups trying to look as professional and relaxed as possible, but feeling like:

I think the most exciting bit and surely my death sentence was having to trot the liverpool with no stirrups.  Because we have some pretty well-documented liverpool shenanigans from this year.  I started thinking how long it would take me to dig my own grave in the ring with my hands, or if I should ask the barn staff for a shovel, but thankfully the patient liverpool work I did with Soon this summer paid off.  His first time over it he hesitated slightly and then jumped huge (I stayed with him), but the other times he went over it just fine.  I didn't have to ask for that shovel after all.

We got our stirrups back after the Canter That Would Not End and to my surprise, George asked for Soon.  GEORGE MORRIS WANTS TO RIDE MY HORSE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.  Now, GM has always ridden in his clinics, but these days he seems to choose the better behaved/schooled horses to ride, and this year he had two Beverly riders on hand to ride the problem ones.  So I suppose that was a compliment that he wanted to hop on Soonie himself (footage of GM riding Soon starts at 1:37 in the full video below).

GM jumped Soonie through the grid several times, noting and praising the Thoroughbred, particularly the true TB quality of being "quick on the blood," meaning that Soon was very responsive to George's aids.  And he was - he was the right amount of forward and reactive, but still relaxed and quiet.  He went quietly through the line and quietly up into the corners with no drama and stood quietly.  Bubba was so obedient and he really showed off.  I cannot adequately describe how proud of him I was, and still am.  My heart swelled.  Ring crew were complimenting him as GM rode around.  This little war horse came off the backside of Fairmount Park four years ago, and here he was making George Morris smile.

George wrapped up his ride and (sadly, after the video had been stopped) as he approached me, asked me "What's his price?"  I laughed and shook my head, saying he wasn't for sale.  George insisted again, "What's his price?" and I had to again say that he wasn't for sale, not for any price.  I can't tell if GM was miffed or amused by that answer, he replied with, "I've never had ANYONE tell me that!"

I got on and the jumping went just as well as the first day, with the exception of me completely forgetting to finish one of the exercises, which got me rightfully CHEWED OUT by George Morris.  That's okay, that was completely deserved.  But, to be fair, it was the only time out of the three days I got chewed out or yelled at.  So, that has to be a win.  We ended day two on a strong note.  I didn't feel that I rode as well as I did on day one, but still a solid performance, and of course Soon was the star.  Afterward, I asked GM for a quick photo with him and Soon.  He told me again "I really like your horse!" and Dr. Betsee Parker (of hunter land fame) was kind enough to say "He's a lovely horse."  Two A-List horsey celebrities loving on a $1500 off the track Thoroughbred right there!

Day Three
By now most of the nerves of having to ride in front of GM had completely worn off.  I was tired, my body was sore, and there was a part of me that was just ready to be done.  Three days of 2-hour clinic sessions can be a lot, especially now that I'm only riding one horse most of the time.  Ten years ago this would have been nothing, but I was also riding four to eight horses a day then!  Not so much now.  Half of me wanted to fast forward to the part where the clinic was over, and part of me wanted to soak up every second and enjoy it.  This may never happen again.

There was also a part of me that was worried that No Stirrups Day Part Deux might be a thing, but thankfully, it wasn't.

My reaction to keeping our stirrups on day three
Soon's reaction to day three in general

The flatwork day three was pretty straightforward, just some school figures and practicing changing the bend.  In canter, we worked on lengthening/shortening the stride in the two-point contact, while maintaining straightness both through the turn and down the long side.  The jumping went well, where Soon and I were praised by GM for being so straight down the tight four-stride to four-stride combo.  We also did well on the long, galloping approach to the triple bar.  I made to sure open up Soon's stride and let him come forward out of the turn as GM had told me the past two days.  It worked - I closed my leg and softened my hand as we have been working on, and met the triple in the perfect spot each time.  We did have a stop at the liverpool the first time, but after a quick correction, Soon hopped right over it and rode well to it the rest of the day.  Compared to where he first started with liverpools, that is a huge achievement.  

Next was the bending five-stride line to the two-stride, to the one-stride.  Soon and I gauged this well and got complimented on how we rode it.  We went through that three times, and then wrapped up the session for the last time.  It was over.  We had done it.  We had completed three days with arguably the most infamous clinician on the planet, and come out all the better for it.  

GM asked the last group at the end of their session where in their comfort zone they felt the clinic fell.  I considered how I might answer that question, and the reality is, it was well within our comfort zone, to the point of the exercises being very straightforward.  I actually got a lot more positive comments from GM than negative, so I don't know if that's a good thing or if perhaps I should have considered the 3'6" class with Soon.  That said, as a trainer I know that the 3' class was absolutely the right decision this time out.  It was our first big clinic experience together, and our first time riding in front of GM in a relatively high pressure situation.  It was good to be able to look at the questions and say "Oh that's no problem at all."  It took some of the pressure off.  It allowed us to really shine rather than just scrape by.  We were still challenged enough to walk away with some good exercises and a list of things to improve/polish, which I believe is important.  You don’t go to a clinic to have someone say “Yeah you were fine,” you go there to learn how to be better.  That seems to be one of George’s biggest talking points: you can always be better.

- Carry the hands.  I sometimes worry that Soon gets overbent and breaks over in the neck or gets too low - carrying the hands, paired with the outside hand/leg to straighten and collect all helps keep him up in front.
- Do not look for the lead.  I don't know why I do that, it's such a second grade thing to do, but I sometimes look down at my lead and I got nailed for it on the third day.  I will work on some exercises to reinforce the feel.
- Let the horse flow out of the turn.  This is consistent with what Stephen and Joe have both been telling me, to keep the leg on around the corner and allow the horse to come forward out of the corner to the fence.

After my last session concluded, I made sure to approach GM again.  I think he was expecting another picture request (the other riders were getting those in, but I had my picture with him the day before), but I just shook his hand and told him thank you, that it was a privilege to ride with him and I thanked him for his time.  He took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eye and said thank you in return, and that I was "a great student.  A great student."  That means the world to me. To have looked forward to this for so long, to have worked so hard and with so many great trainers to get to this have that feedback on both Soon and myself was the best sort of validation for both our efforts.

We got home Thursday night and Soon got turned out immediately.  He's been out all night, all day today, and again tonight, and he got a massage session this afternoon.  He seemed very pleased about that, he does love his massages!  The boy deserves some pampering.  Also, I've fed him approximately 8,374 carrots since Monday so he seems pretty pleased about that too.

Enjoying the post-clinic downtime!

I could not be prouder of Soon.  We had not gotten out and about much prior to this year.  He stepped up to the challenge and took absolutely everything in stride.  He is a truly special horse.  Generous, smart, athletic, willing...I am so lucky to have him in my life.  Every day with him in a blessing.  He owes me nothing, and I owe him the whole world.  He has earned it.