Thursday, March 31, 2011

Follow-up: Course Photos

Munstead BE90 fence #4 from British Eventing Course Photos
*Note the 3 fences preceding this in the photo album. All of them make
a gradual and natural progression to this slightly
more intimidating spread. 

I am a "fan" of this British Eventing Course Photos page on Facebook and I can't believe I forgot to mention this great resource in my XC course description post from Tuesday. Once again, the British eventers have their act together and it's just one more fabulous example of the nice network they share amongst fellow riders. These are rider photos posted publicly for other riders to see when preparing for showing at certain locations and over specific tracks. I think that almost more than anything, seeing pictures of what you might/most likely expect at any given event helps a lower-level, young, or purely amateur rider overcome those "pre-event jitters" that certainly keep us - sometimes - from performing at our best. Maybe the course description/photos idea doesn't fall so much under skills preparation as it does sports psychology. :-) Were I to view the course in the Munstead album (linked to in the above photo), I would see some great elements -- which, taken alone, might be a bit beefy on their own -- but make sense as they are presented in the flow of the course. After seeing this, I would feel very good about entering this event, or if I was not sure my horse and I were ready, I would make a better-informed decision to enter at BE80/BN or school a bit more and choose an event another month or so down the road. It's all about having enough information to make good, safe decisions for ourselves beforehand. 

One issue that was (inevitably) raised after my previous course description post was the idea of "getting the answers to the test" beforehand. In my book, that refers to "cheating." What do you all think? Do these photos being shared amongst riders throughout a given season feel like cheating? I can see someone's point in feeling that way, but in all honesty, it's no different than if I were to visit a venue myself, walk the spring course, and then make a plan for what to expect on the fall course. Any changes or updates to that course being revealed between spring and fall doesn't seem like cheating, either, as I can maybe ramp up my ditch schools or practice more drops into water or other similar activities between spring and fall, but the fact still remains that Eddie won't see anything until we're galloping down to it on show day. The only difference is that I will feel prepared, and my gosh I know that 90% of my challenge on XC day isn't always the's getting my head out of my ass and onto the job at hand. Course photos and descriptions seem to make me more prepared (thus, a better, SAFER rider on the day). I'd really be interested to know if most people see this type of resource as a great benefit to riders, or a dishonest approach to competing.

Another comment I've heard about my post involved the issue of less dressings at the lower levels (which almost everyone agreed with unanimously, especially if that allowed the organizers to save money on the LL fences and perhaps use that for a more meaningful return to the competitors....more prizes, more food at the competitor's party, another port-a-potty or two....whatever). The one sketchy comment I did hear said something along the lines of "decorations aren't a problem if you do your homework before the event." In theory, this is true and I know what that speaker intended by that comment. But, in all reality, it is absurd to work into our schooling routine a special consideration JUST FOR tackling the challenge of checkered table cloths, wooden animal cut-outs, or plastic watermelons. That's expensive for me to have to recreate at home, and it doesn't AT ALL relate to the things we should really be asked to have mastered at an event at the lower levels: balance, forward momentum, scope, accuracy, pace, connection, control, etc. Nowhere in the annals of the history of the sport of eventing does it say "and thus a horse and rider combination should always be ready and prepared to encounter natural obstacles (as would be found hunting or riding across country) such as banks, ditches, streams, drops, hedges, stone walls, and wooden rolltops with plastic Canada Geese scattered on top of and around the base of the jump." Decorations are ACCESSORY, and often they are a distraction from the true test at hand. Brush or wood chips are part of the fundamental obstacle dressing and I love flowers or bushes, hay bales, pine straw, or stone that help to shape or fill-in a jump (especially a portable jump); plastic toys or cups/plates are TRASH, as far as my horse is concerned, and I don't ask him to jump fences covered in junk when I'm at home. Why would I want to pay $150 to do that in front of my friends, peers, and God-knows-who-else at a competition? 

Ultimately, I was thrilled to hear that there are many other frustrated eventers out there and I don't feel alone in my musings on this subject. If anything, it has caused me to think, "You know, just because it doesn't affect 100% of the eventers out there doesn't mean it ISN'T a problem." If someone is worried about it, and then it seems that more and more people are bothered by it as well, then it garners discussion. I am by no means a whiny cupcake, and I have honestly done far better in my competition experiences than it sounds, so maybe I shouldn't be complaining. But, I see something that bothers me and I feel as though it is causing friction that damages the sport I love a lot. Bottom line: I didn't start this conversation to criticize or demand changes in courses on the whole. I'm really not that horrified about what I've faced in the past, and Eddie has jumped everything in front of him in our dozen or so recognized events the past few years. What I initially wanted to put forth was simply a way to better know and prepare for what those courses are (especially if it's a course or venue where I've never ridden). How do we make smart decisions on where to go for a good experience and a sound investment for our hard-earned cash? Something like the ERA course updates page or the Facebook course photos page may be a GREAT step in the right direction for what a lot of us out there are looking for. Helping even one eventer make a good decision to find the right event is success, in my book. If we could turn that into 10 eventers, or 20, or 100, then we'd really be rolling!

If There's a Rocket Tie Me to It

An exuberant, back-cracker of a jump at a schooling combined test in Nashville.
Riding a bucking Eddie over a 3-foot oxer isn't my idea of an enjoyable round!

It's not often that I get to title an eventing entry on here after the name of a Snow Patrol song, but when I do get that gosh, you better believe that's what I'm gonna do! Eventing and Snow Patrol? Life is sweet.

This time of year, my trusty little cow pony is shaggy, rusty, creaky, and spoiled (ruined after a 3-month stretch of nothing but eating/sleeping, eating/sleeping, eating/sleeping, etc.). As I start to get the wheels turning again, I've been working on my fitness routine, Eddie's routine (although his days of handwalking the hills are over, as he hates it, but I doggedly continue on in pursuit of my own well-conditioned backside), and I'm starting to put him back into regular flatwork to get him in shape for our dressage and jumping schools. Last summer, after my jump trainer saw Eddie display excessive obnoxiousness and an annoying amount of extra energy, she asked if I ever work him on the lunge line to warm him up before I ride. I don't, typically, and I'm not a big lunger at the best of times. I would rather put boring hours of flatwork in undersaddle, but I have recently reconsidered the concept of starting Eddie out this spring on the lunge line. The main reason I've decided to do this is because I can work him on the flat without the added distraction of me contributing to the fiasco from his back. But, I (admittedly) have also considered this because he is just really rambunctious right now. Those of you who know Eddie know that he is mild-mannered, patient, staid, and almost unemotional a lot of the time. However, when it's just me and Eddie hanging around, he can be silly, bratty, cheeky, and loves to dig at me to see how far he can push before I get "really mad." So, in order to avoid the springtime rocket launch, I'm going to work him on the lunge line for the next few weeks until he is more seasoned, pliable, and in nice working condition. Hopefully, by then, I will be in good working condition as well, so that I won't be bouncing around on his back and getting in the way of all his amazing progress. 

Like any good academic, when I start something new or undertake a change in routine, I prefer to validate my reasoning and purpose by going to the bookshelf and pulling down a tome of wise words, written by someone intelligent, experienced, and infinitely more talented than myself in order to gain knowledge on whether or not I have all my ducks in a row. Today, I did just that by going to my dusty old hardback version of The USCTA Book of Eventing: The official handbook of the United States Combined Training Association (2nd Edition). I love this book and have had it since I was in high school. I have underlined, highlighted, and marked up many sections of this book.....although I have yet to need the chapter "Conditioning for the Upper Levels" (by the one-and-only James Wofford). I have, though, found use for Chapter 8: "Bringing the Horse Back to Work After a Rest" by Karen Stives. 

In this chapter, Ms. Stives gives a lot of great insight into the use of the lunge line in the early stages of a horse's return to competition form. This fits perfectly with my current regimen, as she says "Lunge work can be alternated with hacking. I might lunge one day and hack the next" (p. 159). Her next paragraph mirrors my predicament much of the time, and helps me make a better plan, when she writes, "[Silent Knight] delights in trotting faster and faster, ignoring me entirely. He also delights in dropping his back and when I pull on the lunge line in an unsophisticated effort to re-establish some semblance of control and rhythm, he bends his neck and swings his haunches to the outside" (p. 159). So, she wisely encourages one to "use side reins of equal length to help keep him straight and to prevent him from falling on his nose" (p. 159-60). I have worked Eddie on the lunge with side reins some in the past, but I always worry about working him too much on the lunge with artificial aids as I don't want him to get used to "looking" correct, as opposed to "going" correctly. I think that were I to watch him more (from the ground) I might be able to understand better how he moves, what works/doesn't work, and make him more comfortable and flexible without me interfering from the saddle. I am looking forward to some lunge work so I can watch him and learn...which is exactly the same benefit that Karen mentions when she says, "I like to start the horses on the lunge because I can watch them at work, observe the way they move, and spot any problems" (p. 160). So, for the next 2 or 3 weeks, I will alternate 20 minutes of hacking one day, with 20 minutes of lunging the next day, and we shall see what we have at the end of April. 

Next up: "The Art of Galloping" and "Interval Training" with Bruce Davidson. Then again.....maybe I'll just worry about Eddie and the lunge line, for now!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Guessing Game

I've seen and heard more than a few stories, comments, and angry diatribes the past few weeks about the awkward and scathing outings that some of the spring eventers (I'm talking primarily about the ammy LL riders) are experiencing around the recognized courses of late. Some of the frustration comes from not knowing if the respective event's expectations focus on "early year" questions, or (as seems to be happening more and more) spring competitions being tailored to question horses and riders who have had the luxury of training all winter long and are ready for any and all challenges. How many times have I heard (and even thought, to myself), "Where are the true early season events?" "Are there any more true move-up courses out there?" "Where can I run when I know I can get my new year intro event where I won't be jumping a championship-level track in March or April?" 

What is it about some of these tried-and-true competitions/venues that seem to want to put a championship cross-country course in front of competitors no matter when the show is held? It used to be that there were certain places where a rider knew the course, knew the venue, and knew that it would be a familiar test and would choose that for the purpose of early-season outings, debuting greenies, or just regaining a horse or student's confidence. Those courses may change and evolve over the seasons, but the level of expectation would never be so drastically altered to where a horse or rider might suddenly be asked to face a question or obstacle that was not consistent with the rest of the jumps. Now, it seems like even the most trusted of competitions are surprising competitors and most of the showing masses right now HAVE NOT been training with big name riders in warmer climates for the past 3 months. Heck, I have friends who didn't even pull their horses out of the pasture until early February, but all of a sudden, the lower-level tracks have become more of the "experience necessary" or "not a move-up" caliber. It's MARCH, people!

Novice fence #17 at Poplar Place Farm. It is nice that
their course photos capture the fences as set for competition
so a rider can get a sense of what to expect on show day.
Soooooo, when looking for those early-year competitions, how do the amateurs decide or learn the best courses for what they need? Do we just make a guess, buy a ticket, and throw our money in the pot? It baffles me why the USEA omnibus (and even venue web sites) are so vague sometimes when it comes to the possible courses or questions for the lower-levels (BN-T). It's almost like they want to create this sense of mystery or maintain an element of surprise, and inevitably someone gets scared/over-faced/or over-challenged when they had planned for an "introductory" or "confidence-building" experience. Yes, show situations should push riders to test their comfort level moreso than when just riding or schooling at home, but honestly expecting all riders to be ready in March as if they've been riding and training since the preceding fall is just not realistic. Seeing a lot of BN courses that have maxed out or excessive "big jumping," intimidating efforts in March is disappointing and can ruin a season. BN, if anything should always be designed to give confidence and introduce the concept of pace, consistency, cantering/galloping forward, and jumping in front of the rider's leg. Later in the year, the tests can be more demanding and require more bravery. But, what happened to the reliability of some of these spring events? At least if you decide to put some serious fences in there in March, let people know before they get there.

I was scanning the ERA web site last week and I noticed that they had some updated XC course descriptions listed and I simply clicked on them out of curiosity (not that I'll be riding at Belton, Somerley Park, or Withington Manor anytime soon). I was shocked at how honest and forthcoming some of those write-ups were. One was even so detailed as to describe how a Novice (BE level.....our USEA prelim) corner question had been rebuilt or represented so that it would pose a different challenge or offer a more fair option: "Intermediate: Suitable for a first time Intermediate providing the combination is fairly bold. As above, the bounce has moved. The second element of the brush complex has been moved to improve the distance. Novice: Suitable for a first time, bold but straightforward and educational. It has two corners on a related distance but there is an alternative. The water jumps are white and need riding." Several of the entries even linked to a more thorough description with maps or photos.

I wonder why the USEA doesn't get more regular or routine updates on courses and course changes around the US? It wouldn't be too difficult. The designer and builders and organizers would know well enough in advance to email some details that could be posted online somewhere.....anywhere. I always sort of get the sense that venues like to keep their courses "secret" and throw in the occasional wild card jump or question that just seems to be an attempt to weed out the unworthy and applaud the lucky. Ultimately, if you enter a competition, you better be prepared to bring it at whatever the respective level. But, on the other side of that coin, perhaps the venues could bridge the gap for the potential entrants to make things more transparent in order for a more successful effort by horse and rider. I'm not saying that every venue for every event needs to give a detailed description of their XC course months in advance. But, it would be nice if everyone could at least take the time in spring and fall to articulate to the possible competitors what the courses will offer and allow everyone to make an educated decision based on their level of experience, preparation, and their goals before sending a check and pulling up at the stables.

And, as a side rant, what is this with all the accessories and decorations at BN/N/T? I think the artistry and creativity of the dressings are fine and valuable at the upper-levels, but when the real question a horse faces isn't the type or height of fence they are jumping....but rather the number of lobsters thrown all over it or the dog hiding in the cut-out underneath....then it seems a bit unfair to me. Why not save that money on the fancy LL dressings and toss in another few prizes for the top-3 placers? What's wrong with brush, wood chips, and stone as "decorations"? Let's keep it realistic and don't ask my pony to know that the gardening tools scattered all over the top of the 3-foot table he's already facing won't jump up and grab him as we sail over; therefore, he decides to take a closer look at the spade. Just let us worry about jumping the 3-foot table, please. That's enough for me. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Those clever Brits

Had I been born in a different time and a different place, I'm pretty sure I would have looked something like this:

I love Downton Abbey and can't wait for them to finish the second installment so I can watch it later this year. Why is it that one always has to wait, and wait, and wait for the good things? 

*Additionally, it is a mark of a well-written program when you need an ancestral chart just to keep up with all the wonderful characters. Bravo, Julien Fellowes (as usual)!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Irish Eyes are Smiling

I have been a fan of the Irish eventing team
since Ginny Elliot (who, I make no point of hiding, is my personal eventing idol/goddess/inspiration/hero) has been guiding them the past few years. Like DOC has done for Canada, she has taken a talented pool of young prospects and, over time, built a strong international presence that was previously not a blip on the big-time team scene. I have mentioned more than a few times that Geoff Curran and The Jump Jet are personal favorites of mine, and it is clear that Ginny has been a positive and encouraging influence as they have worked together the past several years. Again, like the Canadians (proving me RIGHT) at WEG last year, I hold hope that the Irish will come out and surprise everyone in the next year or so and be ready and strong to contend on the world stage for a long while to come. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

That's Some Pig!!!

Louie the agility pig!
Now, I know that everyone thinks Orson is the best pig around (he is!), but I haven't seen him dashing through tunnels, leaping hurdles, or weaving through poles lately. This little guy is adorable. I'd love to see more of Louie and now I want one just like him!!! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's all in the accessories.

I'm already thinking of some fabulous books that I could use for this project. Some cute fabric.....a creative handle. The possibilities are endless (provided they are someone else's discarded books and not my personal favorites). I'll be looking in the dollar bin at the used bookstore this weekend to see if I can find some oldies-but-goodies and a little bit of inspiration! 

"Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." -- Albert Einstein

Monday, March 21, 2011

A horse is a horse, of course, of course........unless it's a puppet.

I was getting caught up on Melissa Morris' blog this past weekend and she mentions, in a recent update, the opportunity she had to see War Horse on Broadway last week. I would love to go to this, but the chances that I will get to travel to NYC and see this show are pretty much non-existent. Melissa linked to a wonderful video that discusses the construction and animation of the puppets that are used on-stage to create the equestrian characters. All I have to say is: amazing. We are a far cry, these days, from the two-man, head-n-ass, carpet-covered horse costumes of yore. In the one scene where they take the puppets to the street for a demonstration, I can see the three men within (under?) the costume that make the horse come to life. But, only nanoseconds later, my brain completely forgets all that when I see the motion of the entire piece and the incredible movement and facial animations that make it absolutely a HORSE. This is quite remarkable and I hope to get the chance to see more of, or -- at the very least read more on -- this production in the future. Now, if I could just win the lottery, maybe I could get the chance to attend the show myself!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

In a world where all of our celebrities become trash -- and trash become celebrities -- it's nice to see two very talented actors rise above the masses and continue to make well-written, well-directed, and well-acted films. And, it's cool that they are BFFs after all these years, as well. I hope they will make a 3rd movie together very soon....perhaps a movie where one of them doesn't die at the end? 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Eventer Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

My sister was in town this past weekend and we took a hack out on the back of the property on Sunday afternoon. When we came back, I dismounted to open the gate to the front field of the farm and I decided to just walk Eddie back to untack him. In order to get to the tack room, I had to walk up a huge hill where my arena sits on the flat clearing at the top. As we walked up the hill, I thought, "This is some good hillwork, for both me and Eddie!" I've decided to incorporate hillwork into my daily routine by hand-walking Eddie up and down the hill at least 5 times each day (increasing as much as is comfortable each week). I think I'm banking on the fact that Eddie might love me and appreciate me more by working him on hills without me sitting like a big lump in the saddle. We'll be in this together! I'm hoping that this'll get Eddie those nice definition lines in his flanks that means he's on his way to being hill conditioned by the end of spring. It would be nice if I also gained some definition lines in my flanks, too, by the time summer is here!

The hill in my pasture, looking up towards my riding arena at the top.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Favorite Things: Eventer's Edition

This past weekend, I started cleaning out my tack room and organizing some of my equipment. After some of my favorite items resurfaced (I hadn't seen my North Face parka in about a year and a half), I have compiled a list of my 10 favorite things to make an eventer's life complete. 

The North Face packable windbreaker/parka:
I've had this parka for about 6 or 7 years, and I don't even think they make this anymore, but it is a must for me in my tack trunk. It is lightweight, has a hood, 2 front zipper pockets (so things don't fall out....ever), and a back stow pocket that means I can stuff it all into the pocket and it packs down into a 6-inch square that can be stored anywhere to be used at anytime. Perfect for schooling or trail rides when it might rain unexpectedly!

Nunn Finer five-point breastplate:
Well, I know that just about everyone has one of these now-a-days, and I don't care about the smack-talkers who say everybody just bought one because Boyd uses one. When you have a horse who is sometimes wide/sometimes medium; sometimes high-withered/sometimes regular-withered; sometimes short-backed/sometimes downhill, then it's not easy to keep a saddle secure, without putting pressure somewhere that it shouldn't. The greatest invention for saddle placement security is the 5-point breastplate. I love mine and it has kept my saddle exactly where it needs to be, all the time. 

Charles Owen Pro Skull Cap:
I love my helmet. It is comfortable, it is secure, and it saved my noggin from quite a pounding several years ago when I got thrown off while schooling cross-country. In fact, I need a new helmet to replace the one I have (it is only a few years old, but it is well-worn, as I wear it every time I get on my horse). The only reason I haven't bought a new one by now is that I just don't have the money for a brand new one, but I am saving my money and I will be buying another one just like this!

Composite Reflex Stirrups:
Last year, I bought a pair of what I call my "granny stirrups." They are great for absorbing shock and keeping my knees from ever getting sore or stiff. But, I have also come to find that these stirrups (being wider and more substantial than standard irons) keep my foot and heels in a great position, which helps to keep my lower leg more secure and stable. So, "YAY" on both counts! Plus, I can hack out on the trails for a long while without my feet getting numb and falling asleep. That is a good thing, indeed.

Anti-Monkey Butt Powder:
Does the AMBP need any further explanation? This stuff is awesome. I sprinkle it in my helmet, my breeches, my sports bra, my Zocks, and my tall boots before I ride (especially in hot weather). It saves me from a world of sweat and stink, plus it definitely avoids the heat rash, which athletes in the South have struggled against forever. I buy bottles and bottles of this stuff!

Dublin side-zip microfibre breeches:
I have these breeches in both taupe (for jumping) and white (for dressage). These are my "poor man's Tailored Sportsman" breeches and I love how comfortable the microfibre is. They are soft, a bit baggy (the only way to wear white breeches, in my opinion), and they stay cool and wash very easily. I've had mine for about 5 or 6 years now, so I'm not even sure if they are still available. I haven't shopped for breeches in so long because I love the ones I already have and they are holding up great!

My white breeches in action.

My taupe microfibre breeches "cool as a cucumber" at a summer combined test.

N.E.W. Equine Maximum Performance boots:
I bought these protective brushing boots at Rolex in 2006 and I really like them. They have molded to Eddie's legs over the years, they are light yet very, very tough, and they wash/dry really easily. I was sold on them because of the thick fleece lining and the tendon guard, but they have been great boots for any number of other reasons. Once again, it's another quality, long-lasting piece of equipment that has kept me from having to shop for XC boots in several years (and I don't anticipate having to shop for XC boots anytime soon!). 

Eddie in his N.E.W. boots on cross-country.

Ariat Challenge Field Boots:
Me, admiring my new boots back in 2005,
on my beautiful OTTB, Reece.
I bought my boots from in 2004 or 2005 and they are probably one of my most favorite things. They fit so well, they are comfortable, supportive, cushion-ey, and I have worn them so much that they have molded to my legs as if they had been custom fit. In the fall of 2007, the back zipper on my left boot broke and I was devastated. I called and they have an on-site cobbler who repairs all and any issues with the shoes they sell (no matter the age, maker, or style). I sent them to their brick-and-mortar location and they repaired the zipper and mailed it back to me (within 10 days) for twenty bucks. The repair was flawless and the new zipper is almost better quality than the original that is still in my right boot. I'm so glad they could repair them for me, because I paid $250 for a $380 pair of boots, and I can't be buying new boots if these fall apart. Luckily, they look to be in good working order for a long time to come!

Bass Pro Shops "Go Big Orange" sun visor:

My BPS visor with another of my favorite things:
a well-worn copy of Can I Get There By Candlelight?
by Jean Slaughter Doty. A definite classic.

This particular favorite item reflects an association with several things I love: BPS, anything orange (Go Vols!), and eventing (via my USEA pin). I wear this everytime I go outside in the summer, whether it is to do chores in the field/barn, garden, run, get hay, volunteer at a horse trial, or spend the day on the lake. I always have this on in order to keep the sun out of my eyes and to shield my face from harmful UV rays. I like the sunshine, but not too much of it. The only thing I don't do in this visor is ride my horse!

The North Face Trailrunners:
When I'm not on my horse, I try to participate in activities that at least prepare me physically for riding my horse (like running, walking my dog, and hiking). I have been wearing TNF trail running shoes since the late 90's because Nike, Adidas, and Asics just don't fit me well for some reason. I do wear New Balance running shoes, but lately, I've done everything in my North Face trailrunners, so I just stick with what works! I love these. They are tough, comfortable, they stay cool, they dry quickly, and they are very lightweight. I would much rather spend almost $100 on a great pair of versatile kicks than to keep spending $40-$50 every year on other brands that wear out in 6 months. My first pair of TNF trail runners made it from 1999-2010. I still have them, but the sole on one is so thin it is wearing through and it's starting to come unglued. I bought my new pair to "replace" the old ones, but I have since found an excellent shoe guy here in town who I'm sure can resole (or at least re-glue) my old pair, which will keep me in good, quality trail shoes for at least the next 5 years or so!

Show day refreshments:
And, what favorites list would be complete without a list of beverages perfect for any eventing occasion? Usually, if I'm competing, I will only stock my cooler with a few beers (for before cross-country!), water, Gatorade, and maybe a diet Coke or Sugar-Free Red Bull (ok, who am I kidding....there will definitely be Red Bull if I'm competing). Usually, my show day will begin with free hotel coffee (or maybe one from McDonalds, if it's on the way to the barn). Then, I will start alternating water and Red Bull until I ride dressage. After I ride, I'll probably just do water until I either switch to beer (if XC follows dressage) or switch to Gatorade if it's just a show jumping day. Once I'm finished with dressage and show jumping, I might have whatever my friends start passing around at the end of the day, or I might break out a bottle of Riesling and chill it while I clean up around the barn, feed Eddie, walk my XC, and then bed down the pony for the night. Some of the best and cheapest Rieslings are Chateau Ste. Michelle (US) and Lindeman's (Australia). If I don't bring my own bottle of wine, then I will drink whatever is free and flowing at the competitors party (which is usually Barefoot, another good and cheap option, especially their shiraz) and hang out with my friends. Since I only ride BN/N, if XC is on the final day, I usually don't go until the afternoon, so I will start my day again with coffee, switch to water or Gatorade, then chug a beer after I have a quick lunch before I get on to warm-up for XC. This gives me just the right amount of warm-fuzzy to have a blast on course, without putting me in danger of being even close to intoxicated (my friends will tell you that Red Bull is probably more dangerous for me to drink before XC than just one beer!). Some of my favorite beers include Blue Moon Belgian White (with a slice of orange), Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, Carolina Blonde, and Fat Tire (I love the Skinny Dip!). When I finish XC, I will have another beer, then maybe (if I'm lucky and my friend Kelsey is competing at the same event) we will have one of her mother's famous vodka Gimlets and all will be well with the world. 

Beer, boat, float, lake on River Glen weekend in TN (2010)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

First and First

I uploaded these old (OLD) pictures of me from my very first horse show at Virginia Intermont College when I was 5 years old. And.....yes, I finished in first place. I think it was either a nod to the fact I was the youngest and littlest in the class, or it was possibly a tribute to my amazing tan corduroy habit that was homemade by my mom. This was the first horse show for the Ratcliff family, and with my sister following quickly in my footsteps, this was the last calm, smiling, custom-made-outfit, sunny, delightful, argument-free horse show day. Once we went over that edge? All hell broke loose and it was ponyclubhorseshorseshorsestacktruckstrailersponyclubcamphorseshowhorseshowhorseshowbarnbarnbarnponycclubshowbarnrolexrolexrolexcollegebarndutycollegenewfarmeventingeventingeventingnewhorseeventingeventing......etc., etc. from then on out. My friends and I always laugh and say there are two kinds of horsey girls out there: the ones who grow out of it, and the ones who don't. Clearly, we know which one of those I am. :-)

The lineup

Already kinda done. Just give me my ribbon, now.

Yeh, it's blue. We rocked!

This little outfit is killing me!  I love it! I really wish I still had it. I wish
we could have kept Lady (my trusty steed), too.

I'm not crying here. It looks like it, but I think I was just over all the photo taking.

It's a Bloomin' Success!

My orchid blooming on the bureau in my bedroom.
(That's an authentic Charleston sweetgrass basket it's
in that I've had forever!)
Last summer, my mom gave me an orchid she had bought one day while at Lowe's or the grocery store or somewhere like that. It was nothing fancy, but I love orchids and have several of them I've not killed yet been cultivating for a few years. This one re-bloomed suddenly right after the first of the year and I was so excited! I had previously been cutting the bloom stalk down to about 1-2 inches from the base after the flowers all dropped (in compliance with the recommendation of something I read online). One day last fall, I was looking at some orchid food at Kroger and the florist there asked if I grow orchids. I told her I was great at growing green leaves, but they never seemed to re-bloom. She said the trick to reblooming is leaving the flower stalk intact (just cutting it down a tad bit just below where the lowest bloom had grown) after the last flower expires. Typically, orchids don't grow a new bloom stalk for each blooming.....they simply generate new blooms from the existing stalks. And all this time I was cutting down the stalk that might have been full of awaiting blooms. I think I've got it figured out now, so I'm really hoping to have 3 blooming orchids in 2011!

Another photo of the orchid and it's lovely
reflection in the mirror. (Yes, I do have horse show ribbons 

lining the walls of my bedroom. Where else would I put them?)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kids helping horses who help kids who help horses who help kids

Mike Archambault, founder of New Beginnings Youth Ranch, and some of
his rescued mustangs.

Last month, I was reading the February issue of the Tennessee Cooperator when I came across the cover story about a wonderful place not far from here called New Beginnings Youth Ranch in Clarkrange, TN. The more I read of this article, the more amazing the story became. I had no idea this was just down the road from me, not more than an hour from Knoxville. What a special place! I am and always have been a firm believer in the power of horses (well, all animals) to change and improve the lives of anyone/everyone around them. This ranch certainly proves that theory many times over. I know that there are programs out there that connect horses with convicts, dogs with convicts, etc., but the Archambaults endeavor to help those kids before they ever become a convict or prison inmate....and that is really saying something. In a world where I become so disappointed and dismayed much of the time by the greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion I see around me, this really brightened my day.

And, on a related note, I noticed that they have a link on their homepage to a list of items that they can use as donations. I will go through my tack trunks this weekend and pull out some old brushes that I inevitably have more than 2 or 3 of that I never use, as well as other miscellaneous grooming tools, and I will send them on. If anyone else has an inclination to help them out, it is a truly worthy cause. I always want so badly to help these organizations that do such wonderful work, yet I never have enough money to cover my expenses, it seems, much less having much left over for the people/causes I want to reach out to. It is refreshing to see that on their list of requested items, they also ask for "prayers." Now that is something I can offer that won't cost a thing!

Mission Meringue

My marshmallow meringue sweet potato pie, Thanksgiving 2010
Back at Thanksgiving, I made a sweet potato pie with a toasted marshmallow meringue topping. It was to die for (particularly since the addition of the marshmallow fluff to the meringue was a genius of an idea....thank you, Southern Living test-kitchen baker). I made it again at Christmas, but that time, the meringue just didn't get airy and fluffy, so it sort of oozed over the pie (which made me furious, but it was still delicious all the same). Last week, I made a coconut creme pie with coconut meringue topping and it was ok, but not the frothy, 5-inch layer I was going for. So, I have made it my mission to master the art of making meringue (since, clearly, I've already mastered the fine art of casual alliteration). 

My dad told me that his mother (who died long before I was born) used to make meringue and she always told him that the success of the mixture relied upon the weather: if it was too damp, wet, or humid out, it caused the meringue to "weep." Yes, I now know of what my grandmother spoke. There is nothing more depressing than "weepy" meringue, because once it's gone, there is just no fixing it. I'm curious about the chronological process of adding the ingredients to make the meringue more fail-safe. Add the sugar before/during/after whipping the egg whites? To salt or not to salt, and when? And, what about that mysterious little ingredient known as Cream of Tartar (which is reportedly derived from grapes, but I am at a loss to explain what it really does)? By the time the holiday season rolls around this year, I will be the Meringue Queen, so look out all you coconuts, lemons, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Or, for that matter, just about anything else that you can put meringue on top of. This should be interesting!

Another recent meringue-covered confection. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

An "Aha!" Moment

Yeh, OK, I think I just figured this one out. This completely explains why I'm just all about Gary Lightbody. I totally get it, now.

I don't think he would be offended by the comparison. I never really believed that Eddy was as macabre and dour as his writing implied (I bet he was clever and funny, when he was sober). I don't imagine gL is as melancholy and heartbroken as some of his songs imply, either. They had/have their styles, but I bet they were/are quite darling, in person. Brilliant writers and under-appreciated geniuses, that's for sure. A little introspective and overly analytical, but pleasant and friendly all the same. And, there really is NOTHING wrong with "introspective" and "overly analytical." If Poe were alive today, I could definitely see him as the frontman of a fabulously talented band from the UK. I'm absolutely feeling this similarity, here.

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were...I have not seen
As others saw...

I just hope my theory isn't proved too true 10 years from now when Gary is found delirious and half-mad in the gutters of Dublin or Glasgow!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


So, I was supposed to catch up with my bestie, Kelsey, on the phone last night.....but I must admit that I got sucked into a viewing of the original (1978) Ice Castles and I Could.Not.Stop.Watching. Have I not seen this movie about 1,000 times since I was 10 years old? Yes, I have. But it was on and I just couldn't bring myself to turn the channel.

I'm fascinated by the premise at the end whereby Lexie makes a comeback and skates blind. I've been toying with the idea of shutting my eyes in some of my gymnastic schools, since I believe that riding by feel is far better than the tugging, chippy, overly-controlling alternative. I read something the other day where a MFH told a young member of the hunt field that riding to hounds was nothing more than "trust." Trust that her horse's feet were solidly under him while galloping over rough terrain, that he would jump whatever was in front of him, and that he would eventually come to a stop when she pulled back on the reins. If I could just close my eyes and be one with Eddie and trust that his feet will just carry us to the jump, that he would take off from a good spot, and that he will not buck me off on landing, then I'd be so much less likely to make a mess of things over fences. See, there was a horse-related moral to this story after all!

Friday, March 4, 2011

I guess I asked for it.....

Remember a few weeks ago when I said something like, "Let it rain, snow, sleet, hail, FLOOD...."? Well, this past Monday afternoon, we had some heavy downpours here in Knoxville/East TN and we got just that: Flooding. Needless to say, I did not have the cute green boots with the beagles on them to assist my flood-dodging efforts!

I have a dry creek that runs just behind my house, between my backyard and the horse field. When it rains hard, I live close enough to I-40 that the run-off drains from the Interstate and comes down through fields and the creekbed along my road and fills that ditch like a running stream. The other day, it turned from running stream to wild river in about 20 minutes. It floated 2 of my horse water troughs through the field, broke the bottom boards of the wooden fence, and pushed them into the trees way on the other side of my driveway. It also flattened two portions of my woven wire dog fence in the back yard that I had to go out and repair before I could let the dogs run outside. And, finally (and sadly), it washed over my fish pond/fountain/trough in my yard and swept away my two goldfish, Ginny and Lucinda. The water kept on moving down through my neighbors' fields and into a creek that goes to the French Broad River, so I'm hoping they made it to the river and are swimming free. I looked for them everywhere in the water's path after the rush went down, but I didn't see them anywhere, so I'm crossing my fingers they went on through and made it to at least the creek down the road.

There is supposed to be another round of rain/floods this weekend in Tennessee, so I'm moving all my buckets, planters, troughs, and garden ornaments to high ground. I do not want to sit here and watch it all wash away again!

Water viewed from the back porch, looking towards the pasture/barn.

Looking from my back porch across the yard towards the field and my horse trailer.
(That water that looks like it's standing is actually rushing pretty fast through there.)

Photo taken from my bathroom window overlooking the creek.
You can't even see the ditch that it usually runs down
through (it's completely under is my dog fence)!

Looking from my bathroom window towards the barn/driveway.
The fish pond is the gray oval to the right that has been
completely washed over. That water in the center between the 2 trees
is about 2.5-3 feet deep (the creek/ditch is underneath there).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

All Grown Up!

Megan and Malcolm running his first Training-level course at
Middle Tennessee Pony Club Horse Trials 2006 (Nashville, TN)

My friend, Megan Stout, sold her baby OTTB, "Sir Malcolm," a few years ago to a wonderful eventer, and he and his new owner did their first intermediate together a few weeks ago in Ocala. I met Megan and Malcolm at a clinic in Nashville back in 2007 and I have kept track of Malcolm's career via updates from Megan since she sold him. Megan keeps in touch with Michelle and she gets so much satisfaction seeing them moving up the levels and doing so well together. Here is a video that Megan shared today on Facebook and I couldn't resist sharing it here. Great job, Megan, giving Malcolm a fabulous start (right off the track!), providing Michelle such a beautiful horse to have in her life. Good luck in 2011 to Michelle & Malcolm (and Megan, as well...watching happily from behind-the-scenes)!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Class Act

photo by SW&P photography
Who else would you see, but Francy Pants, galloping XC in a dress shirt and cuff links? 

I've been a big fan of Francis Whittington (hereafter referred to as "Francy Pants") since I saw his dressage ride (via DVD) on Spin Doctor at Badminton 2005. Their extended trot across the diagonal is enough to make me simply weak-in-the-knees just thinking about it. I imagine that many of my non-horsey friends like to have their girl friends over occasionally to share a bottle of wine and watch something "chicky" that most likely features Brad Pitt or George Clooney. For me and my girl friends? It's more like apple martinis and dvds of Francy Pants (on any horse, at any horse trial).

Anyhooo....I've kept track of FP over the past few years and while he hasn't been as wildly successful on the podium as William Fox-Pitt, Oliver Townend, or Nicolas Touzaint (oh, don't forget his stunning 2004 Olympic appearance on Galan de Sauvagère, as well as their win at the European Championships in 2007....that's some fine DVD viewing, as well), but Francis has been a solid player in eventing (British and European) all this time. More than just competing and winning, he has become a student of and a businessman in eventing, and it has improved the sport in the UK, to be sure. 

I really enjoyed and appreciated the interview with him on Eventing Nation a few days ago. It gives me hope and enthusiasm to see people like Francis Whittington out there trying to do something to keep the sport exciting, safe, and enjoyable. And although he is a successful eventer and a present/future face in the betterment of our sport, I hope that Francy Pants won't lose his optimism and that things can keep moving in a positive direction (in the UK), and that the US will take note and similarly follow suit.