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!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Doors and Windows

There's a saying that when a door closes, a window is opened.  My quest for accomplishment and achievement with my Standardbreds has taken me in many doors and through many windows along the way.  

About a week ago, I mailed in my last set of show results for the 2014 SPHO national year end awards.  Since 2011, this awards series has been graciously hosted by the SPHO of New Jersey, as a parallel series to their residency restricted New Jersey state awards program.  Prior to that, their club allowed residents of all states without their own state SPHO program to participate in their NJ state awards.  They've held nothing back with their awards programs - offering a superior selection of categories, awards, ribbons, and an awards banquet that is second to none.  The NJ state awards will carry on, but the club has elected to replace the parallel national awards program in favor of regional awards restricted to residents of NJ, NY, PA, DE, MD, VA, and WV so, as I reside one state too far to the west (KY), this is truly the final set of points I will be send in and perhaps my last opportunity for year-end Standardbred achievement.

To be honest, 2014 didn't afford much of a show season for me.  With school, graduation, boards, my own physical limitations (bum leg) and starting over with an entirely new (and unprepped) autocross car I faced a delayed and limited horse show season.  I showed Saxon some in June before my decision to aim for racing my Celica at autocross nationals prevailed over my horse show ambitions for the year.  This choice was fueled by several factors - Justin wanted to autocross the Miata at Nats, focusing on autocross vs. riding would give my leg additional time to heal, and with some prompting GSL was shaping up to be a diverse and interesting class at nationals.  Under the circumstances, I was quite willing to write this off as a "rebuilding year," believing that I would have more time to devote to achieving things with my Saxon in the future when my circumstances were more favorable.  Enter the email of September 15 announcing the retiring of the national awards program.  Looking at my points to date and making a few calculations, and with the show season ending October 31, I knew it was a long-shot, but it was my last shot, so I decided to make one last bid for National SPHO Horse of the Year.  I found and entered as many shows in October as Saxon and I could muster, but I won't know for some time if my eleventh hour stretch run was enough for a repeat performance at the national high point awards.  (Saxon won the national high point Overall Horse of the Year, Green Horse, and Rookie Horse titles during his 2012 rookie season).

This is not my first experience with closing doors and seeking windows in the horse show realm.  There are no guarantees in life, or in horse showing, and I have learned to take my opportunities while they are available, because you never know what will happen tomorrow.

I had been a champion of Standardbreds in all aspects of equestrian competition for years, competing with my wonderful veteran, Legs (Veruca Salt) in open shows for many years before ever encountering another Standardbred in the show ring. We took on all breeds in a wide variety of classes and disciplines - pleasure, games/contest, trail, over fences, under saddle, equitation, reining, dressage, combined training, hunters, western.  Pretty much anything I fancied doing on horseback, Legs and I tried together.  Though I have always considered her to be truly outstanding in temperament, attitude, work ethic, and ability, I was certain that she could not be the only Standardbred capable of excelling in the show ring.  Nearly a decade ago, an internet search eventually turned up the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Ohio where, attending one of their shows in the spring of 2005, I discovered the opportunity to compete against others of our breed, not just at individual shows, but to attain even greater - statewide - achievement, achievement such as I had never before had the opportunity to seek.  I had long fancied the idea of accomplishing something truly grand with Legs, to prove both to others and to myself how great I believed she was.  Alas, given our breed and our discipline(s), I had never had this opportunity.  At that time, the SPHO of OH offered a series of year-end awards open to all of their members and their Standardbreds, regardless of residency.  I was instantly entranced.

Excited at the prospect of finally achieving something great with Legs, we set about to achieve it.  Legs and I earned the SPHO of Ohio high point horse for 2005, as well as high point adult, and reserve high point in hand.  I was stoked.  Sidelined by a stifle injury for most of 2006, Legs and I were unable to show or compete for year end awards, but I still wanted to give back to the club, and volunteered for their July show and trail ride committee, helping to coordinating the venue, determine the class list, and find a judge for that event.  By 2007, the door to compete for the Ohio year end awards had already been closed to me, an emergency club vote having been held at the beginning of the year to mandate new requirements for year-end award eligibility: a number of hours dedicated to club service, and required attendance of several club meetings.  The meetings were held some 3.5 hours away from me and telecommuting was not offered, so I chose to take my cues and quietly drew back from the club and its activities.

As luck would have it, 2007 offered an even more wonderful opportunity for me and Legs - the National Standardbred Horse Show hosted by the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of New Jersey.  I set my goals and made my plans, eager to meet this new challenge and new accomplishment - making Legs a national champion.  After much planning and preparation, we made the long trek to New Jersey where we were welcomed by a supportive and enthusiastic group of Standardbred aficionados.  Though we faced many nice Standardbreds, Legs once again did not disappoint me, placing third in her halter class, and then winning every under saddle class we entered.  I felt welcomed and humbled as my fellow competitors paid me and my little mare many compliments and we were invited to attend their year-end banquet in February to receive the high point awards we'd earned at the national show.  At the banquet, I learned that the SPHO of NJ welcomed members of states who did not have a club to call their own, and offered a variety of year end high point awards, open to all members regardless of residency.  The following year, the SPHO of NJ gained an enthusiastic new member from Kentucky.  Through my involvement with the club, I gained many great friends, and had opportunities opened to me that I never would have had otherwise.  I know that the opportunities I have had to showcase Legs, my opportunity to be part of the team at the World Equestrian Games and International Equestrian Festival, the Standardbred friends I have met in many states, and my ownership of Saxon would never have happened had I not been welcomed then by the SPHO of New Jersey and its members.  In the late summer of 2008 Legs was first diagnosed with early signs of navicular syndrome, and, with collaboration from my vet and farrier to determine the most appropriate measures to balance her soundness with her show career, I felt that this was my best and perhaps last chance to attain that ultimate prize - a year end high point championship such as I had dreamed of since the inauspicious little brown mare first became mine.  Careful management proved her sound and eager to continue riding and showing, and we achieved a variety of new accomplishments in the next several years, garnering a variety of other year end awards and two other chances to reprise our role at the National Show (2009 and 2010), and the chance to demonstrate at the World Equestrian Games.

In 2011, the SPHO of NJ enacted a change in their year end award eligibility.  My initial kneejerk reaction was a flashback to the closing of the door to me for the Ohio awards in 2007, before realizing that New Jersey was retaining their original year end awards for residents of their own state, but offering a parallel set of year end awards open to residents of all states.  An understandable change, to be sure, and a thoughtful compromise to balance rewarding their state's members with their desire to reward everyone who wishes to promote Standardbreds competing in the public eye.  This 2015 change leaves me orphaned once again, as a national series will no longer be offered and Kentucky does not have an SPHO of its own (I and a few others made a fledgling effort a few years back, but were never able to get our efforts off the ground before things just sort of fizzled out).  

Though I will no longer have the opportunity to compete for year-end national Standardbred championships, I look to 2015 and subsequent seasons as a new opportunity.  To be sure, I will miss being able to use these awards as a conversation starter about the show ring capabilities of Standardbreds (When you can say things like, "My Standardbred is a national champion in _____", it opens minds to the idea that there are other Standardbreds out there showing successfully, and that yours isn't the *only* one that can canter/jump/jog/lope/succeed at halter/insert other STB myth here).  But, as this door closes, there there are new windows to seek.  The NJ group is still offering the national show, and a second Standardbred group in OH introduced a STB world show/open show concept two years ago.  School and autocross had kept me from attending these past few years, but perhaps I will be more free to pursue these now that I am free of school and my showing opportunities can be more flexible.  This year I participated rather casually with the Open Horse Show Association, and I look forward to continuing with that pursuit.  With less pressure to earn "points" geared towards specific categories, I will be more free to enter only the classes and divisions I want to ride in (bye, bye costume class and no more temptation to enter egg and spoon - balancing an egg on a spoon while trying to steer a 1200# bouncy, moving horse with one hand was never my favorite pursuit), and I will feel less pressure to enter so many classes at the horse shows I do attend - a potential for less strain and stress at individual shows as well as a savings on entry fees.  I will also feel more free to dabble in new disciplines and opportunities.  Perhaps I will join some of my friends who compete in ranch horse shows.  A Standardbred ranch horse?  Why not!  Or maybe try western dressage - some folks in my area are trying to establish an organization, and it could be fun.  Or maybe I will dabble in traditional dressage.  Saxon seems like he'd be well suited to it, and I think some formal dressage training would be good for him now that I will be less compelled to enter more standard shows.  I will always treasure the opportunities I have had, the awards I have won, and the friends that I have made via doors past, but as is my habit in a closed room, I will continue to gaze dreamily out the nearby windows.                          

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Super Size Me

Ok, ok, I admit that I've let my blogging slip again.  I was able to ride most of the summer (yipee!), and now, as the calendar turns to November, it means the end of  fun season for me and the start of the winter doldrums.  Cue the gray skies, wind, and snowflakes.  Oh, I see Mother Nature has taken care of that already...

So as described in my last post (some, uh, 4 months ago) I was in school for the past two years which definitely put a crimp on my riding and training plans during that timeframe.  More than simply being a pasture-puff, Saxon found a way to keep himself occupied - growing.  I don't know if it's the nearly unlimited Kentucky grass, the double handful of daily "pity grain" + hoof supplement, or some sort of super-hero back story-esque radioactive growth hormone he procured from some exotic source, but he. just. won't. stop. growing.

At the start of our journey, my red-headed friend was a svelte 975# (racing fit), 15.3hh 3 year old.  In a few months he will mark his sixth birthday, and he now tips the scales (or rather, swells the weight tape) to 1,250# and stands 16.1 hh.  Even at this hefty figure, there's scarcely a bit of fat on him, though, and with his compact, solid, and muscular build, he has the imposing appearance of an even larger horse.  He is often mistaken for a Warmblood, and could likely even pass for a draft cross with his solid bone and build (and giant size 2 feet).  I, on the other hand, stopped growing some years ago, and my 5'4" self replete with bum leg cannot get on him from the ground without some degree of swearing, contortions, and aggravation of an already suspect leg.

In some sort of cruel trick, the trail class at a recent show called for dismounting, ground tying, and then remounting.  I dropped my stirrups about two holes before entering the ring, but was still largely hanging off the side of him grasping the stirrup in my left hand and trying to jam my left foot into it while trying to spring off the tip of my right toe for what felt like an eternity.   I finally managed to heave back into the saddle as Saxon stood in the middle of the arena sighing with martyrdom and periodically glancing at me with a bemused expression.

It was never my intention to have such a giant horse; indeed, I always wondered why behemoths were so popular in the sport horse world, particularly in the dressage ring where it seems to me that a 10 m circle would be far easier for a 15.2 hh horse to execute than a 17.2 hh giant.  Sub-16 hh is more my style, but fate did not work that way in this case.  (But no, I am NOT interested in trading your smaller horse for my gentle red-headed giant!  This one's mine!)

Besides the need to get creative for mounting up (mounting blocks, my front porch steps, truck bumpers, fence planks, tree stumps - we've used it all), there's another downside to my incredible expando-horse...  Thank goodness we've already addressed the trailering issue; my trailer is an extra tall and with a 7'6" high roofline, and he remains comfortable in it (for now).  My tack, on the other hand...  I've already had to purchase a larger western cinch.  My old 32" model left more latigo than cinch encircling his barrel.  The new 36" is a better fit.  I have to buckle my 50" English girth on the very last hole to get it started, before I can slowly ratchet it up another hole or two to get it tight.  Ditto for the dressage girth.  My harness is on the very last hole on most of the adjustments.  But my old 76" horse blankets fit him fabulously.  Until this year.  He now measures 81".  Sheesh.  If he keeps growing at this rate I'll just have to fashion his blankets out of  army tents!  Thankfully he still eats like a 975# horse, or he'd likely have to share his space under those army tents with all of the extra hay I'd have to purchase and store!  Sometimes I think Clifford (the big red dog) or Bullwinkle (the moose) would have been more suitable barn names for him.

So as Saxon prepares to blow out his six candles next year, I have a wish for him.  Please, pretty please I wish you'd stop growing!  But no matter what his size, he's still my big loveable, Redheaded Standardbred.