Thursday, May 9, 2019

Plantation Field Recognized Event -- Open Novice (April 14th)

Chill warm ups lead to lots of drool:)
*Get ready for a ton of photos!!!!

If you been to Plantation before you're (hopefully) gonna think my illustration is hilarious. But I need it to help describe how the venue is in a class above most as far as events go. They run recognized and start trials there but I'd consider it one of the tougher venues in Area 2 for many reasons.

Basically to scale:)

It's built into the Chester County hillside and is basically a big hill with a proper arena up top, xc on one side and trailer parking on the other side. They alternate SJ and dressage in the main arena and either way you're kind screwed because whatever doesn't take place in the main arena has to happen on VERY sketchy grass on the side of the hill (near the trailers). For young horses or inexperienced riders (or both) Plantation is a BIG ask. I'll call it the great equalizer.

OH, they have snacks here? Okay then.

Scout has xc schooled there exactly one time (they offer a single xc schooling day per year) -- and was almost a full year since he's seen that big hill or been around that kind of atmosphere. The entries were stacked across the divisions and since he had to be entered in the ON division, I decided to forget about the scoreboard and hope for a great outing in all three phases.

Heading up the big hill to dressage


Scout had the earliest time in his division which I knew would work against us, but (again) I really didn't care about that. What I did care about was that he walked flat-footed with gusto up the hill and away from the trailers. The warm-up was fairly quiet, and I was stunned watching just how fluid and obedient he was being.

Hard to be upset when they warm up like this

Completely obsessed with this pic. The background looks like a painted backdrop!


They scored a 34.5 which put them in 3rd in their group and in the top 5 or so across the division. Obviously, I expected a big difference between a schooling show and a recognized event in terms of the dressage scoring. I would say as a guide you can tack 10 points on to whatever you might score at a schooling show. Scout's test was relaxed, obedient and accurate... but he lacks mileage in the sandbox and loses points in typical spots, like reaching down during the free walk and a little more OOPMH in his gaits. The judge liked him and has some nice comments about him overall.


the walk isn't all bad:)

Obviously not square, but atta boy


He waited patiently for his trailer buddy to go fancy prance and we got him ready for show jumping. The SJ warm-up was much kinder than the actual course itself which was wedged into the base of the hill and had gotten completely torn up from the upper divisions the day before when it poured. Regardless, he warmed up beautifully... jumping from a nice open stride. The only problem was that the Sj course did not allow for that kind of stride at all.

Oh Scout

That's more like it. This was coming off a nice turn where he got a great distance to the 2 stride

This jumped quite well for him but gave many others some trouble -- it's hard to tell but it's going downhill.

Early in the course, looking quite green.
Overall I think he had 2-3 rails down, which were simply green. The scope isn't the issue, but adjusting is stride is still challenging. His half-half is fairly confirmed and when he listens, he's able to wait and really push over the fences and that's when he jumps best (no shock there). They left the ring knowing exactly the kind of homework they need to work on. I think SJ will always be his hardest phase until he really figures things out with those long legs!

Cross country:

The course walked pretty fair for the level. My apple watch documented 11 floors of elevation gain throughout and the course designer used the terrain pretty thoughtfully. I wouldn't call Plantation a move-up course, but I don't think it was unfair either. There were a few combinations but no ditch.
This jump was a real problem on course*
Up bank to upright
Go through water and over white jump in the background
Another big ass table type jump
This was a nice size for the level on a  bit of an uphill approach. A nice final fence on course.


Pretty standard for the level

This looked MASSIVE to me!
Scout walked up the big hill one more time to warm up for xc and his little face at the top of the hill was SO cute.
He was pumped. Warmed up over a few jumps and headed to the start box. The weather had a turned a bit over the course of the day and not only was it super foggy, but a light rain had started. He jumped the first two fences great and came up the hill to the jump with the fake brush on top, took a peek and then slid into the base. I honestly thought he was going to jump it from a standstill, but she regrouped him, picked up a canter and he popped right over. Again, it wasn't naughty but I think when he went to take a look at the fence he lost his grip on the slick grass (he's only shod up front). Once he was over that he locked on to everything else and jumped around SO boldly gaining confidence with every jump. He's really going to be a XC machine. He finished the course hardly blowing at all and even with the stop he came in right at the optimum time. When I met them at the finish and walked back down the hill Nora was smiling ear to ear. She said, "he's going to do everything you want him to do... he's got such an amazing brain... and I can still have fun at the higher levels." What a super vote of confidence for the young kid!

**hopefully, I'll have xc pics to add here soon -- I just need to coordinate with the photographer**

It's easy to forget that this was his second event ever. He handled everything with such maturity and eagerness. He stayed happy and forward throughout the whole day and better yet, he came off the three phases like he just ran around Kentucky. He literally strutted back to the trailer. While there were green moments, I never thought he felt over-faced or that we were asking anything beyond his skill or fitness level.

And while the scoreboard doesn't reflect what he learned from the day, I couldn't have been happier of how he handled each phase and as a much more seasoned horse at the end of the day. Onward and upward to the next!!!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Falling silent -- a moment to refelect on losing my best friend

I'm sorry for the silence, but I've been struggling for the last few weeks. So many amazing things have happened (lots of xc schooling, Scout's recognized debut, saddle buying, Land Rover) -- and I promise to talk about them all but I lost my beloved dog Hugo on April 10th and I've been grieving since then.

The first picture I ever took of Hugo the day after I rescued him (June 2009)
In the early hours of April 10th, I woke at 2:50am to the sound of our other dog, Lucy growling. Alarmed, I went to investigate what the problem was only to find Hugo (our 11 year old boxer) in full Grand Mal seizure in his bed. Tongue hanging out, eye balls rolling around, whole body convulsing, foaming at the mouth -- I watched in horror while I tried to keep Lucy away from him. The whole thing lasted 3-4 minutes but felt like an eternity. When he came back around he was understandably confused. He had lost his depth perception and it appeared that he couldn't see me -- he was sniffing for me but could hardly hold his balance. He was showing signs of major neurological deficits and I watched as he tried to maintain his balance unsuccessfully. I started bawling and my bf woke up to the horrible scene of me sobbing, holding my dog. We were able to get him outside (there's a slider to the backyard right by where he sleeps) and with some help he was able to pee, but every time he stopped moving he'd fall over. I called our local emergency care facility and they told me to bring him in right away. I left, alone with Hugo flailing around in the back seat of my truck. He was confused and scared and very unstable. He was able to walk into the clinic (albeit like a drunk sailor) and the vet tech assured me that was a very good sign. We were the only ones at the clinic which was a relief, and the vet went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. Initially the prognosis was fair... while seizures in older boxers are quite common the vet said that we could start him on steroid therapy to help him going forward and that he'd have a decent chance of not relapsing (but also advised us that he couldn't guarantee if he'd live another few months or a year, etc) -- we talked about what his quality of life would be and what sort of complications might arise from long-term steroid treatment. As we were discussing the treatment, Hugo's face started to twitch again and he began to have another seizure. They took him back and he continued to worsen. And every time they tried to bring him out to potentially come home with me he continued to seize... so I finally asked the vet if  could take him home so I could have a vet friend come put him down at home and at first he agreed but then Hugo continued to have seizures. Finally, the vet came out and asked me if I could ask my bf to wake up the boys to come say goodbye... the reality set in that I wasn't going to be bringing my beloved friend home again. Luckily my very best friend was working a bar-tending shift that night so she was still up to talk me off a ledge. The boys came to say goodbye and I had the vet sedate Hugo as he was in a constant state seizing and just generally being scary. I did not want the boys to see him that way. They were super nice and were able to get him quiet enough for the boys to say goodbye to him peacefully. Finally, I had them leave so I could be with Hugo during his final moments.

Just before I said goodbye.
I stayed with him for a long time. I felt like the whole thing was so sudden, so awful I couldn't really comprehend on my own. I am sad that I had to do this by myself, I felt alone and desperate. I kept telling Hugo that I was there and he wasn't alone -- I hated being there, I wanted more for him. It was all so sudden.

But in the end, it was all so peaceful, so quiet. I got to choose when it was time, which was awful because Hugo tried to follow me... but it was so still and serene at the end. The clinic was amazing and we got to take him home to bury in our yard. I'll admit that the hardest part of all of it was bringing his body from my truck to the garage. It was all too real then and reunited, we both sobbed like children.

The days that followed didn't seem real at all. He was my best friend, the being closest to me... he's been there through the worst and best of my life. I've spent a quarter of my life with this creature that loved me SO fully, so unconditionally -- he never questioned me ever. And now he was gone.

I felt like I had failed him.

What the vet assured me was that as an 11-year-old boxer, he likely had a brain tumor (they have naturally enlarged pituitary glands) and if it wasn't a brain tumor, it was a tumor that had in fact spread to his brain. Nothing we could have done would have prevented or predicted the outcome.

My history with Hugo started with a Facebook post from a friend who was living in West Philly. She was grabbing a coffee at a little place called the Greenline and saw a dog tied up outside. Not uncommon for the area but it was raining that day and he was there a little too long. A few hours later she came back by the coffee shop and the dog was still there so she took a picture of him and made a plea on Facebook to see if anyone knew who this dog belonged to. When no one came forward I asked if he was still there and offered to go pick him up so he could have a safe and dry place for the night (I even borrowed a friend's car as I didn't have one at the time). He was so happy to get picked up and I didn't think twice about bringing this mangy dog into my house. The poor guy had an embedded collar, he was unneutered and absolutely covered in fleas and a bit feral.

Left, the picture my friend posted on facebook -- right, one year later:)
 That first night was rough, but I think it helped us bond. He was so flea infested that it took THREE baths to get him into a reasonable state. Literally, he'd shake and fleas would fly onto the ceiling and walls of my bathroom. The poor kid was just suffering. It was clear that he didn't have much training at all but he was sweet and kind. I was determined to find his owners, surely someone must have missed this lovely guy?

Well, no one ever claimed him and after having him looked over by a vet and scanned for a microchip a few weeks later he became mine. The rest is history... he's been with me for the last 10 years... through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This selfless creature greeted me every day like it was the best day of his life. I often said, "I wish I was excited about anything the way Hugo is about EVERYTHING". That kind of joy for life is incomparable.

He became a part of every family he met, teaching young children to trust and enjoy large dogs (our boys included), spent countless hours in the office with me, and immersed himself into every aspect of my life. While I wasn't looking for a dog to join my life, once he was there it was hard to imagine my life without him.

And here I am in the wake of his sudden death still trying to reconcile what life is like without him. Every day I'm reminded of the love and joy he brought to my life. The absence of it feels visceral and harsh and incredulous. Because even in my darkest days, when I didn't love myself enough to get out of bed he loved me as much as my best days. He taught me the absolute power of unconditional love, and I don't know if I ever deserved it.

When I decided to get a second dog, it was entirely so that Hugo could have a friend. He was never a dog park kind of dog, but he always loved spending time with dogs one on one. Lucy insisted on bonding with him, which initially he was reluctant about.

She looked up to him for so much guidance:) 

Even in burger pools!
It wasn't long before these two were thick and thieves and that makes his loss even harder on all of us. She's having a really tough time in his absence, but she's slowly adapting to the new normal.

A couple of best friends (A few weeks before Hugo died)

I don't think he ever knew the kind of love Travis gave him <3 
The sweetest old man
In the end, I'm so grateful for the life I was able to provide for him especially during the last year of his life. He had a giant yard and all the sunshine he could want. We let him wander in the woods behind our house and get lost in the smells. He always came bounding back like it was the best day of his life.

I have so many happy memories of this sweet soul, but I'm currently struggling with the last memories I have of him. It's hard for me to put those out of my mind, seeing him so scared and helpless... and there was nothing I could do.

But a good friend told me to remember him a month ago, or 6 months ago or 9 years ago and cling to those memories, so that's where I am trying to stay.

In my studio at work, probably 2010

In our backyard in Fishtown (he HATED having his picture taken)

Probably my favorite picture ever
Somewhere along Kelly Drive in Philly

This spring, showing his grey
I hope that one day I can live up to the person that Hugo thought I was.

May you always find the sunniest spot to close your eyes and let the world fall away. Rest easy my sweet Hugo.

Monday, April 1, 2019

AND.... We're back!

Scout made the trip home last week with an overnight stop in North Carolina. They arrived home Wednesday and were no worse for the wear after the long trip. Cue the synchronized rolling and galloping (clearly, Scout's idea):

I let him settle in for a day or so and Nora took him for a spin to be sure he wasn't feral after plenty of days off and the long trip home. I was delighted when she sent me an update saying NOT FERAL (along with heart emojis). So we decided I'd come down for a lesson the following day!

He undoes me<3
He was super cute when I got to the barn and spent a lot of time nuzzling me and saying hello in his coy manner. I feel SO fortunate to be able to keep him at her farm for the time being. It's a bit of a hike (it takes me about 50 minutes each way) but the barn is stunning (Scout's stall is easily 14 x 20), it has AMAZING hacking and huge hills, super turnout, a regular ring, a xc course and a grass jump field... it's pretty perfect. Better yet, it's QUIET, there are no boarders that aren't training clients and she has a few ship-in clients for lessons. The farm has super chill energy and the horses seem to love it. More than anything, I'm craving some guidance and supervision for this next chapter in our journey together.

I brought both my saddles to see if they would still fit Scout with his new and improved physique and much to my dismay, they are NOT going to work. And while I'm devastated to sell both my jump AND dressage saddle she reminded me that she doesn't even recommend a dressage saddle until the rider is going Training... okay, fair enough. I'm hoping I can cobble together enough money from the sale of those and some side gigs to get something that will work for the long term.

I was stunned to see that my big boy had really grown up during his stint in Ocala. He has some unbelievable muscles that were definitely NOT there before (and keep in mind, I sent him to Florida in really good condition and with a decent level of fitness) -- but it's amazing what someone more skilled can bring out in their bodies. He's got these gorgeous shoulder muscles and a block of new muscle just in front of his shoulder near his withers! I literally went to his stall to say HI and was like, "Wait, did he get bigger?"
When your already giant horse sees something in the distance and the periscope goes up!
So I borrowed a saddle for my lesson and hopped on for the first time in over 3 months. And OH MY GOD... He feels incredible. One of the nicest compliments I've ever gotten from a pro is that I've done a nice job with Scout... that's all well and good, but we were at a physical and mental crossroads where he needed (and deserved someone who could really work out some kinks). He'll always have his shortcomings, but Nora has helped to establish muscle memory where it did not exist so I can continue to make those weaknesses less and less noticeable.

And when I handed over my beloved horse to Nora, I was very open about where he was lacking and what I hoped she could improve while he was with her. Namely, he loves to swing his haunches in tracking right, loves to pop his shoulder tracking left and was quite resistant to the right leg (which we had come miles and miles from where he started by the time I left him with her), he had a mostly confirmed half-halt on the flat that needed fine tuning and he had a bad habit of going deep and pulling down when he got tired.

From the moment I got on I felt a straight and connected horse underneath me. At the walk he MARCHED, connected in both reins and looking for guidance with my legs. She had us start the lesson with leg yields from the quarterline to the rail and you should have seen my face when I applied my leg and put my weight in my outside stirrup he responded by moving his whole body! When I needed more push, he would respond and if he started to get quick I could halfhalt with my outside rein to keep him from breaking into the trot. He still felt like my horse, just improved. We moved on to trot work and we explored his range within that gait by getting the energy we wanted and then putting him on a 10 meter circle and asking for shortening and lengthening there, then leg yielding him out until we were going large again. It was incredible what a difference it made to create all that energy in a small circle and then keep it going around the ring. She had me work on collecting his trot by posting quieter but more up and down and then really letting him out and posting big to get a lengthened trot. He has buttons! Better yet, when he wants to get a little deep, all I have to do in close my leg and he comes UP at the wither and changes his connection. There was zero sucking back against my leg, there was no nappy behavior, no kicking out, no tail swishing or ear pinning -- just a fit athlete with a "Yes ma'am" attitude. *Sorry about the crummy video stills.

Going for a bit more trot down the long side

Keeping the energy and shortening the step

Funny how I can sit up and ride a little when I'm not struggling every step with my horse!

We moved up to the canter and I made the mistake of asking him like a green horse which he completely told on me for doing and sort of scrambled into the canter. But given that we were starting on "my" bad lead I was super happy that he picked it up and felt actually straight. From here she had me shorten my reins by 3" and keep my hands out in front of my with my elbows at my side and really scoop him up into the contact. She kept acknowledging that he has a REALLY big canter, but that it was important to ask for more and more hind step to get him really uphill. We practiced compressing the stride and then thinking gallop down the long sides to get him really uphill, from there I could half halt in my body and keep the step but at a slower pace. I had the silliest grin on my face the whole time. Here I was riding this horse that was up in front of me and I felt like I could actually ride a little bit!. For the downward transitions all I had to do was open my chest and let out a breath and he'd go into a beautiful forward trot, in balance. Once I got my shit together and started riding him like the young adult that he is, our transitions were much improved. He's now listening to a more educated aid for the canter (inside leg and outside rein) and stepped beautifully into the canter once I figured that out!

He still takes a TON of leg, it's not that he doesn't have energy, but he needs support at the base of each stride to keep him UP and not just running flat. Luckily Nora and I are similar in height and build, so at least while he's been learning a more refined way of going it's been with someone with normal sized legs!

I had been so nervous beforehand that 1. I forgot how to ride and would make a fool of myself, 2. Scout would not respond to me the way he did with her, 3. I wouldn't like Nora's teaching style. Even after just one ride together, I love knowing that if I tell her what I am feeling she really understands what I mean and can help me translate my aids to Scout a little more clearly. I enjoyed her teaching style enormously, she rides every stride with you and is patient while also making you hold up your end of the riding deal. He's so, so special and I am incredibly happy that I made the decision to send him to Ocala. Thank you to everyone that encouraged me to do so and to everyone that supported all my neurotic behavior while he was away.

Love him SO much

I had been kicking myself a little for not riding him when I went to visit in February but I felt like it was worth waiting until he very end to see just how much he had learned. It was like finding your Christmas presents and opening them a few weeks early... And in the end it was SO worth the wait!!!