This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Conspiracy Theory

I can usually take a hint.  However, when my mind is made up about something, it requires a whole pile of them to get me to change my mind.  When I first got Saxon, I allowed myself the luxury of daydreaming about the progress we'd make and the things we'd do in our first year together.  I would look at class lists for showbills throughout the year and think, "maybe we'll be ready to _______ (canter, do patterns, do a trail class, go to a night show, go to ________ <insert spooky location here>) by _____ date."  The date would come and go, and we just wouldn't be ready.  I know he's just three and we have literally decades together.  Still, after waiting so long to find just the right horse, it's hard not to want to do all of that stuff I've been dreaming about.  Naturally, debuting at Standardbred Nationals was high on the daydream list.  The ultimate dream was to take both him and Legs to New Jersey.  It seems that circumstances have been conspiring to dissuade me from my grand plan.

The first factor is Saxon's inconsistency.  At home, he's nearly always laid back or even downright lazy.  Away from home, however, he's more of a Jekyll and Hyde.  Sometimes he displays the same calm, nonchalant attitude that he has at home, and calmly deals with things I wouldn't have expected him to (like spectators under a large umbrella, or trail obstacles magically appearing in the arena).  Other times, he melts down into a 1,000# pile of irrational, inconsolable goo.  The worst part is that I can't seem to predict it, and once he has a meltdown, it is hard to get his brain back together.  I've learned that extensive walking and lunging in a new place helps (but is no guarantee).  I've learned that he simply can't comprehend or deal with carnival rides or truck pulls, even from a distance.  Rain, also, seems to liquefy his brain cells.  People on the rail are ok as long as he had been petted by them, but if he hasn't met them yet, they might be carnivorous.  Sometimes large classes are good, and sometimes they're a problem. I keep telling myself that he's still a baby and one day he'll always be as relaxed in new places as he is at home.  It's just hard to remember that when he's wheeling around while tied to the trailer or balking and rearing in the ring.  Certainly, I don't want to drive a thousand miles to New Jersey if he's going to have a "Hyde" kind of day.  I talked myself into believing that with enough time to scope out the facilities, he'd be fine (and probably tired from the long drive).  But then...

Then there's our trailer accident.  Certainly, a traumatic thing like that could sideline our show plans.  After all, we can't exactly show if we can't get there.  Thankfully, the trailer was just fine, and the truck has been worked over and given the seal of approval.  And though Saxon still shows stress about trailering by prancing and grinding his teeth once in the trailer, even after the incident he continues to load and unload without hesitation.  With the propensity of gastric ulcers in show horses and horses in training (over 60%), I have wondered if this plays into his trailering anxiety and inconsistency at shows.  As a precaution, I bought him some omeprazole paste to try at our next few events.

Okay, say we go, armed with our omeprazole and our lunge line.  What classes do we go in?  While we're still working on our canter at home, I don't think he's ready to do it consistently in the show ring.  Nor do I know if he's ready to handle some of the humongous classes like 2 gait Eq or 2 Gait HUS (see Jekyll and Hyde reference, above).  That leaves In Hand, Intro Dressage (since I once again own a dressage saddle =) ), and the 2 Gait Rookie class.  I had hoped to debut him in Western walk-jog earlier this year, but there was a ferris wheel that was just visible from the arena ...  so much for that idea.  That's not a lot of classes to justify 2,000 miles of driving and 3 days away from home.

Okay, so I'll bring Legs, too, and they can each do a modest number of classes.  I finally have the trailer for it, and though I've been taking it easy with her, she's been doing great so far this year.  No sooner had I convinced myself that this was the way to go then I noticed her consistently resting her left foreleg on August 1. While horses frequently rest a hind leg while dozing, it is not normal for them to rest a forefoot.  I finally found that the nail had pulled through one of the holes in her plastic horseshoes and was being pressed between the shoe and her foot.  I had the farrier out to fix it and she spent a week on Bute and stallrest.  After about 10 days, she was finally sound enough for light riding.  That didn't give me much time to work her fitness up.  Still, maybe if I just aimed for a limited number of classes ...

Enter the evil side of Mother Nature.  I love having my horses on my property, but it also comes with more than its share of hard work.  On August 3, I was pulling fence staples from my woven wire mesh fence in preparation for replacing it with horse friendly flex fence.  I knelt down to pull a low staple, and realized that my right knee was smack in the middle of a poison ivy patch.  I did the rubbing alcohol thing after hiking back up to the barn; nevertheless, within a few days my entire knee was blistered and oozing, and I was smattered with itchy patches all over the rest of my body.  Did I mention that I'm highly allergic to poison ivy?  By the 9th, my entire right leg was swollen and oozing.  I kept looking down and wondering why I had the right leg of a fat person.  Besides the misery of itching, it also prevented me from riding (though I tried once anyhow).  By the 14th, with my knee plastered in gauze and Vetrap, I was determined to try riding anyhow  (I wonder if the horses noticed stronger leg cues from my fat right leg?).  It went ok, then on the 15th, Mother Nature struck again, in the form of a stomach virus.  I spent the second half of my first day back in class bedridden (I got nauseous even trying to crawl to the kitchen) and trying (unsuccessfully) to keep my stomach contents in place.  I dragged myself to class and back again on the 16th, but typing on the computer from bed is about all that I feel up to.

The final factor conspiring against my nationals bid this year is my class schedule.  I'm in class 5 days a week for 4-7 hours a day.  Going to New Jersey would invariably mean missing class the following Monday to make the 12 hour drive home.  Wouldn't you know it, I have an examination scheduled that day and the class has a firm policy about attendance (miss 2 and you lose an entire letter grade) and make-up work (there isn't any).

So that pretty much seals it.  With so many factors seemingly conspiring to keep me in Kentucky this year, I guess I have to take the hint.  I hate that I won't be able to show with my friends yet again this year, and I am disappointed that Saxon won't be able to make his National debut this year.  But I guess I should heed the subtle half-dozen or so hints this time.             

The Horse Show From Hell

This was from last month, but I put off publishing it until now.

Saxon and I have been going to some little local shows here and there.  Some days he's just as pleasant and professional as you could want and other days he totally loses his marbles and it's all I can do to deal with him.  The horse he is at home is nearly always quiet, willing and relaxed.  Lazy even.  I keep reminding myself that he's just 3 and someday he'll be like that everywhere, but it can be hard to remember when he teases me with stellar behavior at home, and then has a meltdown in public.  I've learned a few tricks to helping him relax away from home, like arriving really early and taking him on long walks and lots of lunging all around the arena and showgrounds to let him investigate.  It's not a foolproof system (especially since people tend to set up their tents, chairs, and umbrellas next to the arena after the show has already started), but it seems to help.

I was looking forward to the OC show on Saturday.  Our previous show there had been our most successful to date, with Saxon on his best big boy behavior.  He had even made me confident enough to try the trail class with him that day, his first time doing trail in public, and he ambled through the obstacles like an old hand.  He'd had a few days off earlier in the week while I was out of town, but he was obedient and calm during our pre-show ride.  We got there and did our usual walking and lunging routine.  He was decent through the in hand classes, though I could tell he was feeling a little feisty when he pinned his ears and tried to race me at the trot in the Hunter in Hand Class.

When we tacked up for the under saddle classes it started to rain.  Apparently Saxon's brain is water soluble, as I could practically watch it melt out of his ears the harder it rained.  It was a steady rain and Saxon showed his displeasure about facing it head-on by humping his back and trying to buck when it hit his face and ran down his legs.  We made it through the class with no major incidents, and before our next class, the steady rain turned to a downpour.  Our next class was a large class, but it usually seems to help him stay calm to be around other horses.  One horse propped and reared a little in front of us, but I dodged it and continued on.  Around the next corner, we came face to face with a little mare who had heard something behind her and whirled the other way.  I don't know if it was playfulness, alarm, or an outright temper tantrum about the rain, but Saxon had a meltdown.  When Saxon has a meltdown, he doesn't hedge or mince around, he goes full Chernobyl.  He humped his back hard and tried to buck.  When I checked him up, he reared several times, higher and higher.  He finally got his forefeet back on the ground and the judge encouraged me to walk him around to get him together.  He walked calmly for about 30 feet and then started rearing again.  I have never had to dismount in the middle of a class before, but I guess there's a first time for everything.  He even went up again while I was leading him around the ring.  I checked him for signs of irritation - a bug bite, pinched girth, bunched saddle pad, ouchy wound, but couldn't find anything.  Remounting in the warm-up area to ride him through it got me nowhere, I had to bail again, ripping a hole in my favorite hunt coat in the process.  My clothes were soaking, my tack was drenched, and my temperamental toddler was making his feelings about it all none to subtle.  After a lunging session we made one more trip into the ring for the equitation pattern for the sake of quitting on a better note.  It wasn't pretty; he was looky at the people on the bleachers and slow with his transitions, but we kept our feet on the ground which was a definite improvement.

In hind sight, if that had been the worst of it - the torn hunt coat, the soaked tack, and the temperamental pony, it wouldn't have been so bad.  It was still raining hard when we left the show.  We were on the interstate about a mile from our first exit.  Because of the rain, I was going about 55 (it was a 70), and came around a curve to find both lanes of traffic stopped in front of me.  $^*#@$%!  I broke hard, but the brakes locked up and I could tell immediately that I wouldn't be able to stop in time.  I steered towards the shoulder and continued to pump the brakes, hoping to just ease past the row of cars and come to a stop farther up the shoulder.  We were hydroplaning, and the trailer started to sway.  One of its wheels hit the muddy grass and pulled the truck into an oversteer.  I countersteered, but with some 6,000 pounds of trailer dragging you off the road and into a culvert, there isn't a whole lot you can do.  I was cussing as we slid off the road and praying that we didn't roll, but thanks to my years of autocross experience intentionally driving cars on the edge of control, I wasn't panicked.  Yet.  Thunk.  We came to a stop.  The truck had made a complete 180 straddling a culvert, and the trailer was jackknifed, angled about 45 degrees relative to the road.  I got out, expecting the worst.  Upon quick inspection, the trailer looked pretty good, but there was no way to tow it out of there with the truck facing the way it was, nor was I sure about the truck's drivability at that point.  Shaking, I opened the back door of the trailer to find Saxon standing in his compartment, seemingly no worse for the wear.  No blood, no bumps, no scrapes that I could find.  "Thank god."  "I have to get Saxon home.  How am I going to get him out of here?  Who can I call?  How do I fix this?"  Now I was panicked.  I called J.  He suggested I call one of my friends in the area, B.  She picked up.  "Thank god."  She had her truck and trailer handy.  She attempted to come get us, but the original wreck that caused the pile-up in the first place made it impossible for her to get to us.  I waited, alternating between assessing the damage, and standing in the half open doorway of the trailer, soothing Saxon who was drenched in sweat and steaming from the mugginess.  Wouldn't you know it, very uncharacteristically I had forgotten to wrap his legs for the show when I left in the morning.  I never do that.  I was furious with myself for forgetting.  Thankfully, he didn't have a mark or scrape on him.  Other than a tail full of shavings and the edge of his rubber mat being turned up, you wouldn't know he had gone through any sort of ordeal.  Two trailers crept up through the traffic.  Both were coming back from the same show, and both had empty slots on them.  Both offered to help me out and take me where I needed to go.  After consulting with my friend B, we decided to get Saxon to her farm where J was now waiting, and use her rig to get him home (it was much too far to drag anyone out of their way).  Another guy, whose truck indicated he was from a hunter-jumper farm, had stopped to help, too.  The three of us unloaded Saxon on the edge of the interstate, and loaded him onto the other trailer.  He would load his front end fine, but was concerned that his hindquarters wouldn't fit in the back stall of the slant trailer, but we got all of him on after a little more coaxing.

We crept through traffic to B's farm. I thanked the lady profusely, and tried to pay her, but she wouldn't even take money for gas.  Saxon must not have been too traumatized by the time we got to the new farm, as he was far more interested in grazing on their lawn than anything else.  J and I got him home thanks to the use of B's rig.  I fed him, looked him over, and turned him out to roll in the mud and rejoin Legs.  He didn't have a mark on him.   Not so much as a scratch or a ruffled hair.  This from the horse who gets mystery scrapes on the inside of his thighs during turnout.  We returned the borrowed rig (Which, we found out later, had the hitch receiver fall off due to frame rust the following Monday while en route to a show.  It happened at a red light and thankfully there was no damage or injuries.)

Getting the truck and trailer out of the ditch went smoother than I had imagined.  I was sure we'd have to call a truck to drag the trailer out backwards, as the culvert angled sharply on both sides.  Somebody kindly stopped to help, though we probably could have managed on our own just the same.  We dumped 2 cans of Fix a Flat and added air to the hissing tire that had gravel and weeds jammed into the bead from sliding through the mud.  We chocked the trailer wheels securely and attempted to unhitch.  A pry bar helped free the ball from where it was bound against the receiver.  We drove the truck out of the ditch and turned it around.  After some maneuvering, we were able to rehitch the trailer at a better angle, tow it across the culvert, and back again to the side of the road.  To say I am happy with the quality of my trailer is an understatement.  To go through that sort of thing and protect the cargo within so well...

Thankfully, Good Samaritans still exist.  From the folks who stopped to ask if we were ok, and offer trailer rides and assistance, to the friend of a friend two weeks earlier who loaned us his car, his spare bedroom, and his garage full of tools when we were stranded by the side of the road in the middle of Virginia with a broken differential in the Miata...  there are still good genuinely nice, helpful people left in the world willing to help out a friend or even a stranger.  My only hope is that I'll get a chance to be one of them the next time around, rather than being on the receiving end of the catastrophe.