Friday, May 28, 2010

Customer Loyalty...

You know, I do almost all my online shopping from Smartpak.  Tucker is currently on SmartGut and SmartCombo, as well as Cool Calories.  Their service reps are awesome.  I called up to add another scoop of Cool Calories (he was on one, now he's on two) and the woman I spoke with told me she's got a tough keeper too, and asked if I had him on alfalfa and rice bran.  (I do.)  But I thought that was really going the extra mile.  Smartpak doesn't sell these things, she wasn't trying to make a sale, just being a good horse person. 

Recently, however, I placed an order with another online retailer who shall remain nameless but is having their big summer sale right now.  Not only did they forget to pack two of my items (despite charging me for them) but they sent me pony-sized polo wraps.  Yes, I'd like a set of large bell boots, a giant himalayan salt block, a horse-sized saddle pad, and itty-bitty little pony polos.  In case Tucker needs a bracelet?  Or maybe something to keep his ears warm?  The woman I spoke with at this nameless online retailer looked it up and I did, in fact, order horse-sized polos.  They just decided maybe I wanted something else.  I've also had a bridle on back order with them since March.  Estimated ship date is now July.  Seems like a long time to wait, no?

So I emailed Smartpak to let them know that I really appreciate their service and have been very pleased with them.  They've never messed up an order, it always arrives promptly (or, arrives via free shipping with my supplements if I so choose), and their prices are great.  I got such a nice email response back!  So, I figured I'd give them a plug here too. 

Happy shopping!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

St. Christopher's 2009... Or "To Fear and Back"

As promised, I've decided to share the story about last year's horse show at St. Christopher's. Makes sense that our 100th post should be a retrospective.  I of course couldn't tell you all about what happened at the start of this blog, which was way back in June 2009.  If I had, you'd all have thought I was some crazy chick with a lunatic horse who is way too much for her.

So last year I got up early on Saturday morning and gave Tucker a bath and loaded up the trailer for an overnight trip.  It was a beautiful sunny day in May.  We drove through Amish country, passed a horse and buggy (Tucker whinnied to the horse, so cute), and arrived at the horse show right on time.  2.5 hours, Tucker's longest trailer ride since the day he moved from CT to NJ as a yearling (when he got to ride in style in a box stall and was sedated for his own safety).  Tucker unloaded wide-eyed and bursting with anticipation.  Where are we?!  What is this place?  Who are all these guys?  This isn't my stall!  Why are you putting me in here?!  Are you selling me?  I don't want to pull a buggy!  They make horses do that here!  I saw it!  Oh wait I know you!  Joe!  Outsider!  Kal!  What's goin' on guys?

Welcome to your first away horse show Tucker.  So, we went for a lunge, but it was in tall grass so he couldn't do much but trot and eat (simultaneously).  I scrapped it and tacked him up for a hack.  We had a couple of moments during this ride that made me question his sanity... Example:  Trotting along, trotting along, trotting downhill, child on bike, CHILD ON BIKE!, leap into the air, huge buck, trotting along, trotting along....  Um, did anyone else see that?  My horse just leapt through the air and bucked, headed downhill, and then kept trotting as though it never happened?

The next morning I tacked up and went for a long walk with Jess and Kal.  Kal being a seasoned show horse and Tucker being, well, completely overwhelmed.  He tried to be cool in front of Kal as long as he could, but then when we got down to the rings, there was running backward.  Just barely escaped running backward into a tree.  Move it along, nothing to see here folks, he's been trained to do that.  Circus horse turned show hunter.

Then we did a jump school in the afternoon and he was actually very good, despite rearing (yes, rearing) on his way down to the ring because of a child on a slide (now that I retell this, what's with all the kids trying to get me killed?!).  He was listening, waiting when I asked him to, moving forward when I asked him to, and got a few lead changes which at the time was a complete rarity.  So I figured this horse show thing was going to be a piece of cake.

The time came for us to horse show that afternoon and we headed back to the ring for a third time.  The jumps had been set for ponies and they were tiny little speedbumps.  Tucker was half asleep standing by the ring.  Perfect.  We warmed up and he was quiet as a mouse.  What could possibly go wrong?  By this time, the jumper ring was finished.  Then, a couple of trips before my class, the other hunter ring finished.  The scene by the ring went from 100 horses to 8 in a matter of a few minutes.  Then the day shippers started packing up to leave.  Then the sky started to turn dark, and the wind picked up. 

By the time I walked into the ring, things were blowing over in huge gusts of wind.  The hanging plants on the standards were swinging like pendulums.  Suddenly, Tucker was not half asleep.  He was wide awake, and scared, and I was Nervous.  Then he was running past the distances, not listening to me, and diving left over every jump.  So then I was Nervous and Annoyed.  Each trip got worse and worse.  By the second trip he was spooking at people sitting on the ground outside the ring.  By the third trip, he was spooking at everything that moved.  And I was Nervous and Scared.

Last line comes around and we're going at a pretty quick clip.  I guess I was thinking, just one more line and you can be done.  We jumped the first jump and something behind him spooked him, and he took off toward the second jump in the line with his tail stuck between his legs.  I should pause here to say this:  I have reviewed this moment in my head a million times, and what I should have done right then is made a circle.  Just pull him out of the line.  Stop him even.  Do anything but jump the last fence galloping terrified at full tilt. 

So we sure jumped it all right, and he jumped this tiny little thing so high that we were above the tops of the standards.  The second his feet hit the ground on the other side, he was back up in the air again.  I had gotten jumped loose already from that huge jump, and now I was on his neck.  There was a brief moment where I said, okay, you're still in the saddle, all you have to do is sit up.  And then he bucked.  Twice.  And down I went. 

I know all of this because I've seen the video.  In reality it was sort of like being inside a tire rolling down a hill.  Couldn't really see what was happening but knew I was getting bounced around a lot and it was going to end badly.  I opened my eyes, flat on my back, and the first thing I said was "Is he ok?  Does someone have him?"  (Typical rider response.)  After a few minutes of lying there with the wind knocked out of me, Alicia and the EMT helped me up (walking like I'd had a few too many martinis.  Ground just wouldn't stay still.) and I went to the back of the EMT van. 

I ended up with a bruised tailbone (holy pain in the...!) and a mild concussion.  I couldn't ride for a couple of weeks, but that wasn't the biggest problem.  The biggest problem was my fear.  I was terrified of my own horse.  Do you know that I actually had to lunge my horse before I got on him?  For three rides in a row?  He was looking at me like I was nuts.  But I had this horrible image in my mind, and suddenly being on his back was no longer my happy place.  All of a sudden he seemed way too big for me, too strong, too young, too unpredictable. 

It's taken a year to come back from this.  Wasn't even that bad of a fall, but I think it was shocking to me that he would do something like that.  He's been so well behaved his whole life that I never thought he had it in him (yeah, I know, that's kind of foolish and he's a horse after all, but I was blinded by love).  I can't say I blame him for what he did, and I didn't even blame him at the time.  Scary ring, horses disappearing (herd leaving him), mom nervous and tense.  Trifecta of terror.

But rationalizing it in my head, and then being able to make my muscles relax and my heart rate slow and my breathing normal (or heck, breathing at all), were two completely different stories.  I know I've blogged about my fears from time to time over the past year (see posts tagged "confidence"), but I was really terrified of him.  It took me until the horse show I did over the winter where I became rigid as a post and turned him from a relaxed quiet horse in schooling when Alicia was on him to a running-around-the-corner nutjob by the third class.  I knew it was self-inflicted, I knew I was the cause of his behavior, but I couldn't stop.

I finally worked through it though, and for the past few horse shows I have been able to relax my muscles and body even when I'm mentally starting to worry.  I do a lot of talking myself down, chatter with friends by the in gate, keep things light.  It helps.  But it's been a major problem.  I think everyone in the barn just kept looking at me and shaking their heads.  My horse is amazing, I ride him just fine, but I was getting in my own way.  I saw it too, but it took months of frustration before there was anything I could do about it.

It wasn't until I pin-pointed the fear -- I'm afraid he's going to land from the jump and buck and I'm going to get hurt -- that I was actually able to deal with it.  Before that point, it was just some amorphous feeling that I didn't like.  Once I targeted it, it became manageable, and even improbable, once I thought about it.  I've jumped hundreds of jumps.  He's bucked me off once out of those hundreds of times.  Those are good odds!

So I guess what I learned is this:  if you're dealing with fear about some aspect of your riding (or heck even life in general), don't let it control you.  Think about it, I mean really give it lots of thought, think about why you're scared, what you're scared of, narrow it down, and then face it head on when the timing is right.  If it's too scary to face it, wait a while.  Maybe in a few months it won't be so scary.  Maybe a year later you'll look back and say "Phew, glad that's behind us.  What's next?"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

St. Christopher's Horse Show... What a Difference a Year Makes

Our last show was at St. Christopher's in PA.  Our third away show of Tucker's career, and he was super!  We got in late Thursday night and were showing first thing Friday morning.  Let's just say that when I took Tucker down to the rings for a spin on Friday morning he was a bit overwhelmed.  The minute the lunge line got five feet long there was a squeal and a leap and off he went.  Never done that before!  He is usually so gentlemanly on the lunge line.  But this time there was squealing and striking and leaping and even a big buck.  It was like a cross between flying a giant brown kite and deep sea fishing.  For very big, angry fish.

He seemed to quiet down so we headed back to the barn, but then Alicia took her mare out for a hack and he was all alone (if you don't count the hundreds of other horses stabled around him) which brought on melt down #2.  By the time Alicia came back and his head and neck had reached full drama-llama height, it was clear to both of us that maybe the professional should be on him first.  So....  about 40 minutes and a couple more mini-meltdowns later, Tucker was ready to horse show. 

All this is perfectly excusable because in the ring, he was absolutely brilliant.  I walked into the ring (talking myself off the ledge as per my usual routine:  "These are tiny for him... they only look big to you... he can do this... just relax... you have to trust him... Mommy loves you... please be good... etc.)  The first round started with a single vertical on the quarter line, coming toward home off the right lead, and I remembered to relax my arms and not do anything but count the rhythm (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) and we found it right out of stride.  We landed and missed the left-to-right change, but he caught up and then the outside line going away from the gate was good.  I let go down the line and he marched right down there.  Again, we missed the left-to-right change, but no big deal.  We'll work that out.  Next was a triple (four strides, then a two-stride) across the diagonal.  That worked out well too.  Then there was a long approach to a single oxer on the outside, off the left lead.  His eye started to wander as we came around the corner but then once he saw the oxer in front of us, he regained his focus and the distance was right there.  That's the great thing about 3-feet, he actually helps me out a little and doesn't sight-see all the way around the ring because he has to pay attention a little.  Then the last line was a five stride diagonal which worked out perfectly.

Second trip started with the same single vertical off the left lead going away from home.  He landed right this time and I decided to get fancy... set my horse up and got a brilliant right-to-left lead change.  Beautiful.  Naturally, after displaying such good riding I proceeded to embarrass myself.  We came around to the five stride diagonal line and I needed to just close my leg and support a little, but I gunned him at it so it got super tight...  (Tucker flicks and ear back at me:  "Really?  You sure?  Well okay, if you say so... not what I would have done but if that's what you want....")  Then we did five and a half in the line because we landed going nowhere and I didn't want to chase him... uh, yeah, awesome riding.  I actually looked at Alicia and said OOPS as I was cantering past her.  Then I did it again.  Pushed him past the first distance and made it tight.  THEN (more awesome riding), I forgot the outside line was a six.  We were on our way to a forward five when I suddenly realized it was a six.  By this point Tucker was already back-peddling ("Um, I can't leave from there.  You'll fall off.  Trust me.  How about I just add another one in here, k?  Yup, that's what I thought.") 

Then we came around to the triple, last line, and I said here's my chance to redeem myself, just leave the poor man alone.  ("Yeah can you just be quiet up there?  Just... stop talking.  Don't say anything.  Leave the difficult thinking to me.  You just sit there and smile.")  And naturally it worked out beautifully.  So beautifully that we were able to create this picture, which was taken over the third jump of the triple, and which will soon be sitting in my living room in an 8x10 frame.

Huh.  Sensing a pattern?  Horse knows better than you do.  Stop trying to tell him how to do his job.  He doesn't stand over your shoulder and criticize your brief-writing all day.  ("A semi-colon?  Again?  Don't you think you overuse that punctuation a little?  And what's with all the howevers?  Also, not sure how I feel about your collateral estoppel argument. Hey you gonna eat that?")

(Photo Credit:  http://www.hoofprintimages.com/)              

The third course was the same course as the first round, and it was excellent except for one missed lead change.  We got all our distances, and the lines worked out great.  The only thing I would have changed is that I needed to sit down in the two-stride to collect him a little.  I have a tendency to stand on my toes when it gets a little tight (in other words, the opposite of what I should be doing.)

Apart from all my little pilot errors though, this horse show was a huge success.  I stayed relaxed, I kept him relaxed, and I was able to realize my mistakes as I was making them, instead of coming out of the ring wondering what the heck happened in there.  The big benefit of that was that even after flubbing two lines in a row, I was able to recover and fix it to ride the last line beautifully.  Most of all, I never let my nerves get the better of me.  He was a little stressed in the morning, and I made some errors, all things that could have -- and a year ago would have -- sent me reeling. 

This is all, of course, light years ahead of our performance at last year's St. Christopher's show, which will be the subject of my next post....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oh and I almost forgot....

....  to tell you about the funniest part of the day.

(Alicia's probably going to kill me for this, but I don't care.  She can't stay mad at me for long.  And it's really funny.)

For those of you following along (a little too closely) at home, the first round and third round in yesterday's post are supposed to be identical.  You'll note that there's one jump missing, the long approach single diagonal oxer -- otherwise known as the jump that measures how patient one can be.  ("One, Two, Three, Four, Don't, Change, A, Thing, One, Two, Three, Four..."). 

So as I turn the corner to jump this fence, I see Kathleen standing in the in-gate jumping up and down with her hands above her head and her pony tail swinging, clearly elated by my near-perfect round.  Just one problem:  there's one jump left.  So I'm cantering up to this oxer and my only thought is "awww, man, she didn't video."  (It hasn't occurred to me yet that they think I am done.  I think she is just cheering me on down the home stretch, or perhaps guiding me in like those guys directing planes at the airport.) 

And as I'm cantering further along down this long approach to the single oxer, I see something else.  My trainer is walking down the side of the ring.  I should pause here to explain that due to some adjustments in the schedule and moving the 3' Equitation to the jumper ring, Alicia had three students on three horses showing in three different rings at the exact same time.  She handled all of it with her usual poise... well, almost all of it. 

My gaze turns away from the oxer and turns toward her.  What the heck is she doing walking through my ring in the middle of my course? Is something wrong?  I hear some kind of commotion from the in-gate.  They are telling her something.  She stops, starts walking back toward the in-gate.  What the -- OH RIGHT THE OXER.  That's going to be kind of short, eek, sorry Tucker!

Tucker rolls his eyes:  "HELLOOOOO?  Are you even still up there???  I'm concentrating here, the least you could do is look at the fence we're about to jump,"Mom" (if that's even your real name).  Aren't we supposed to be a team here?  No, no, no, please, don't worry about me, I'll just find the distance for us.  You go ahead and look at the crazy lady walking through the ring, I'll handle the rest.  Don't let me having to jump an oxer all by myself underneath you interrupt anything.  By all means, look wherever you want.

Of course he jumped it great, and he actually did find the distance for us -- no thanks to yours truly.  We ended up second in the class (perhaps I should leave things up to his judgment more often?).  I landed from the fence and hear Alicia behind me as I'm cantering around the corner:  "I'm so sorry!  That was so great!  I was just so excited... but... Julia... other ring... I gotta go..."  At this point I'm outright laughing and shaking my head and Kathleen is in a fit of laughter.  I finished my closing circle literally giggling like a little kid and waved Alicia on to go finish up with Julia.  I yelled to her that she's fired, but I'm pretty sure everyone could tell that I was kidding given all the giggles.  Besides after a horse show like that how could you possibly fire your trainer?

The funny part of all this is that -- due to all the ring conflicts and all the time I had with Tucker walking around in circles and waiting by the ring -- I had totally gotten in my own head and psyched myself out.  I was barely speaking before I went in the ring I was so nervous.  I had basically convinced myself that everyone else showing in my division rode way better than me, I had no place doing this division, after all 3 feet is my goal height and I'm not really riding at goal level am I?  Shouldn't we be waiting til I ride better?  More accurately?  More confindently?  More something? 

But of course it all went well and everything was fine.  I just need to remember for next time not to get so nervous, because I could end the day giggling through my last closing circle.  Sigh.  Gotta love a horse show.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Somethin' to Blog About...

Anybody else got Bonnie Raitt stuck in their heads now?)

Ahem.  Sorry about the dust and the cobwebs...  nobody's been here for a while.  Life got in the way of my blogging and I've been terrible about keeping it up, but I still like writing about this fabulous horse of mine so I'm going to try to keep going, if you're all still interested in reading.  (Pretty please?)   To catch you up to speed, in the past month we've had some amazing lessons (including another 3'6" gymnastic), had a wonderful last time showing in the pre-adults, and went for a gallop with my dear friend Kathleen and her mare Chloe (otherwise known as the day we found out that Tucker is both fast and competitive).

To make up for the tumbleweeds blowing around on this url for the past month, I come bearing gifts!  Rather than the usual verbose account of my last horse show where I take you all along with me for the ride in several paragraphs, how about I just show you?  Tucker and I made our 3 foot debut yesterday (!), and as you are about to see, he was absolutely brilliant.  Sure, he missed the back half of his lead change in the first class, and in the second class he got a little spooked and swapped his lead when some completely absent-minded grounds keeper decided to fling a garbage bag at him (um, hello?  horse cantering past you in the middle of a round? maybe not the best time to throw noisy shiny plastic things onto the back of your gator parked next to the fence?), but I really can't complain one bit. 

I had a moment in the middle of my third class where I said to myself, "This is the horse I have wanted my entire life."  I have been on a complete high ever since.  Isn't it amazing how a good ride makes it seem like your entire life is moving in exactly the direction it should, and all is right with the universe?  (Conversely, a bad ride has quite the opposite effect, but that's for another day.) 

So.... without further ado....







So, what do we think?  Am I blinded by love for this horse, or is he really as fantastic as I think he is?