When a horse person talks about The Horse, their eyes shine and probably get teary.  They might sound reverent at the same time that they cuss that damn animal for the foolishness it and they got up to or into.  It’s surprising how many times The Horse was a ‘project horse’.  Project horses are Never. Ever. Easy.  Every day is a negotiation, a work around, like trying to dig through rock with a plastic spork.  It’s frustrating and maddening, and on the days it works it’s as rewarding as being a parent on a good day, or being head over heels in love.  In fact, it’s a lot like both those things.  I’ve worked with something like a dozen serious Project Horses, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to come across more than one that, for me, were The Horse.

Flash was born so premature that he didn’t have hooves or skin pigment yet.  He only had ‘golden slippers’, the beginnings of hooves, and a whisper-thin coat of metallic red hair over bright pink skin.  Dr. Cornsforth, was an old, experienced vet who’d seen just about everything.  He watched this tiny red and pink creature the size of a new fawn, sprawled in the sawdust.  Flash tried to get up, floundering, and couldn’t do it.  Five minutes became ten.  Ten turned into twenty.  He never stopped trying, but his tendons wouldn’t hold him up.  He was just too early.  Finally, watching one last effort that ended Flash, panting, in the sawdust, Dr. Cornsforth cleared his throat.  His voice was all rusty as he simply said – “I’ll get the needle.”

We stepped away from the stall, my parents, me, my sister, and the vet all fighting tears.  When we came back from the vet’s truck, Flash was chasing his freaked-out first-time mother around the stall, staggering on his ankle-joints with his useless feet flopping ahead of him every step like clown shoes.  We looked at Flash.  We looked at the vet.  We were pretty new to foaling out mares (I think she was our third ever), and Flash was… so TINY.

“Anything that wants to live that badly should have the chance,” pronounced Dr. Cornsforth.

We cornered the mare, and it took two of us to hang onto her and one of us to hold up Flash so he could nurse for the first time while my dad headed to the convenience store for diapers and sunscreen.

Dr. Cornsforth showed us how to splint Flash’s legs and feet with wooden surveyor’s stakes, diapers, and duct tape.  The mare settled down once the thing chasing her looked more like a foal and less like a staggery flopping thing.  We hung a heat lamp in the stall.  My sister and I took turns slathering Flash all over with sunscreen, and sitting in the paddock with Flash and his mom, toting Flash into the shade when he was too hot, and into the sun when he was too cold.  The closest we could come to an incubator.  His dam turned out to be a pretty decent mother, even if she did have the brains of a guppy, and Flash grew up.

Flash had all his father’s brains, all his father’s amazing athleticism, all his mother’s looks… and had all of his mother’s panic reflex.  His skin darkened, but it stayed so sensitive that even when he was a grown horse – technically he was pony-sized since he only got to fourteen hands, one and a half inches tall – we had to pad his halter with fleece so it wouldn’t rub him bloody over the nose and behind the ears.  You could leave a welt on that thin, thin skin by brushing him too hard with a stiff body brush.

He was lightning-strike fast, and race-car red.  He had blue-green iridescence all over him, and golden dapples to match his flaxen mane.  Flash was breathtaking.  He was also so small that most trainers were just ridiculously too large to ride him.  He’d break out into a sweat at too much contact of leg, rein, or seat; giving him cues had to be like brushing him with a feather.  No sweat.  I could ride on feather contact.

But.  I simply could NOT stay on him.  Flash spooked like a cutting horse.  I’d had horses do that before, and plenty of them were faster than me; but Flash didn’t spook – he vanished.  As far as I was concerned he’d spook low to the left, and I’d suddenly be hanging in the air with my brain screaming ‘where did he go?!’.  Then I’d hit the ground and Flash would appear on my right side as if he’d teleported there. I wasn’t at the top of my riding yet, and I certainly wasn’t good enough to train Flash.

I was in the early years of marriage when a trainer came along who was small enough, and good enough to stay the trip.  He taught Flash to be a reining horse, and our Flash-rabbit suddenly blossomed.  He blew through his competition.  He did reining exhibitions with no bridle.  He went to the Canadian National Arabian show and placed Reserve Champion his first serious show season.

At the end of that show year, Flash’s trainer was going home to Montana, and wanted to take Flash along to keep him in training.  It was perfectly sensible.  We sent Flash’s half-brother, Panther, along to be ground-worked over the winter.  My parents paid the boarding and training fees, and all was serene for several months.  And then my mother got a phone call from the sheriff’s department.

The sheriff’s department had rescued Flash and Panther and taken them to a vet’s office in Missoula.  The vet estimated they hadn’t had their feet trimmed nor their shoes seen to in months.  Both were suffering from malnutrition.  Flash was on an IV, but the vet thought the sheriff had brought him in “in time”.

My mother called me.  My dad had to stay to see to the other horses.  Would I go with her to pick up Flash and Panther?  I called my husband at work and was out the door in 45 minutes.  All the way from Gardnerville, Nevada to Missoula, Montana we worried.  At our overnight we called the vet again.  Flash was off the IV, but only borderline responsive.  Panther was a nervous wreck.

I admit I fantasized aloud about the myriad tortures that this trainer might expect when he got to the Hell of Animal Abusers.  My mother was more prosaic as we got out of the truck.  “All we can do is get them home and go from there,” she said.

Panther’s head popped up over the wall between him and the parking lot, tipped so he could see us.  He was standing on his hind legs, forelegs scrabbling on the wall, and the second he laid eyes on my mother he started to scream at the top of his lungs.  “I’m here, I’m here!  Don’t go!  I’m here!”

“Panther!  We don’t do that!” managed my mother in a reflex scold.  Panther’s head vanished, but we could hear him charging in and out of his stall, raising dust in a cloud, ‘talking’.  Half-barked, half nickered sounds of anxiety.

When we got to the stalls, my mother went in to Panther to make him stop tearing around like a lunatic.  He raced up to her, slammed to a stop, and put his head flat against her chest the way all our horses seem to, ‘talking’ so fast until it sounded as if he was sobbing.  “It’s been awful and I was so scared and I’m so glad you’re here and PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME.”

In the neighboring stall was Flash.  Dull orange all over.  Mane and tail ragged.  Hip bones jutting out under his skin, ribs showing all the way back into his flanks.  He stood with his head down in the corner, one hind foot cocked up in warning.  “If anyone comes in here I’ll defend myself.”  My Flash.  Who was so gorgeous and talented.   Who had been so little that as a girl I could pick him up and carry him around.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”  I crooned it to him as I slid carefully up toward his head.  It was NOT okay in any way, and I was so angry I was shaking.

He flung himself against the wall when I tried to touch his shoulder.

I swallowed hard.  Made myself relax.  “Don’t be a dolt,” I told Flash, and offered him a bit of carrot.  Starved as he was, it was a low sort of trick; but sometimes we resort to the low.  We got them in the trailer, and started for home.

Unfortunately, we’d had experience hauling horses who were physical and mental wrecks. We stopped every two or three hours so the horses could rest for an hour.  Drive two or three, rest one.  Drive two or three, rest one.  It was a long trip home. We’d stop to rest, get out and feed a few carrots, gently rub our boys with towels and tell them over and over that we were still there, they were okay, it would be all right; but in the truck cab we worried.

Panther was resilient.  Even when he was a pain in the butt it was mostly because he wanted to crawl in your pocket and be loved; and his brain had always been rock-solid.  Panther would be all right.  We weren’t so hopeful about Flash.  Mental resilience hadn’t ever been his strong point.  If we could get past his panic and get him thinking, get him to trust again, then maybe.  Maybe.  We said maybe, but I don’t think either of us thought the odds were in Flash’s favor.

Flash recovered physically, but day after day it was agonizing to win back his trust.  He didn’t ever mean to hurt us, but seven hundred pounds coming down on a horseshoe on your feet isn’t nice.  He’d jump and wrench arms and hands and fingers that were trying to saddle and bridle him.  He’d spook into his handler hard enough to stagger or knock the handler down.  For week after week my dad or I would take him out of his stall, groom him, saddle and bridle him.  After a while – an hour or two at first but gradually it got shorter – he’d calm down.  When he calmed down, we’d take off his tack, feed him carrots, groom and generally make much of him before we let him out into the pasture to graze with Panther.

When I’d get home in the evening, my husband would ask me, “How did it go?”  More and more often I’d be able to say, “It was a good day.  Nobody got hurt.”

We progressed from tacked and standing in the barn to tacked up and standing in the arena.  The arena was a whole new anxiety.  I’d stand in the center of the arena with his reins ready in my hand, my hand on his neck, giving riding lessons to neighbors’ kids with Flash standing next to me while I wondered if Flash was going to break out into actual hives.  Then, one day, it was too much work waiting for something panic-worthy to happen.  Just like letting the air out of a straining balloon, Flash relaxed.  His head came down and he looked at me in a perfect picture of puzzlement.  “Lady, what the hell?”

So I got on him.  Flash went hard and coiled as a hooding cobra. tensed up, but nothing happened.  Absolutely nothing happened.  Ears flicking back and forth, watching me out of the corner of his eye, he risked relaxing again. I patted him, got off him, took his bridle off right there in the arena to feed him a carrot chunk.  I didn’t skip or sing, or float, but inside I was madly laughing dervish of relief.  Flash was thinking again.  He was going to be all right.

It wasn’t the last tough day, and the highest I’ve ever been off a horse in my life was off of Flash; but his panic and fear dwindled over the years.  Eventually my husband and I moved and couldn’t take Flash, and my parents took him along with their herd when they moved to San Antonio; but to me he’ll always be The Horse.

The trainer?  We heard several years later that a quarterhorse went down on its side with him on board and smashed his leg so badly that he’d never ride again.

Flash is an old man now, and silver in the face.  He was a lesson horse for children for ten years at my parents’ San Antonio stable, and this year has graduated to being a therapy horse for the San Antonio Wounded Warrior Program.  Pretty good for a project horse.

It’s as finished as it’s likely to get before tomorrow.  I’ve decided to post the picture, because several very supportive folk won’t be able to make OryCon.  I’ll be wearing this to the reception for the Endeavour Award finalists and winner.  If you want to see it, and don’t want to hunt the halls or the Masquerade, you now know where to come looking!

Here is the dress as it now stands.  I still have to put the black lace on the underskirt and find a suitable way to tack the lace onto the bodice without hiding the beautiful, beautiful fitting job that M.K. did.

7 pm Friday in Mult/Holl – the Endeavor Award ceremony

noon Saturday in Hamilton – My villain is too mwa ha ha. Help!
2pm Saturday in Sellwood – Effective Readings

Saturday evening I’ll be about in the Victorian gown, which has less lace than the original because I can’t stand to cover up M.K. Hobson’s glorious work fitting the bodice.

11am Sunday in Grant – Broad Universe Readings

 

… that M.K. has in spades.   She sat tonight and hand stitched the fastenings for the bodice roughly two and a half times.  As in did them once, we didn’t like them.  She pulled half of one side out, we didn’t like it.  She pulled all of one side out, and redid the whole side.  SUCCESS!  Then she did the shoulder straps, hand top-stitched them so they’d lie perfectly, and finally took this picture.  A preview and progress picture.

This is the bodice, a bit of the hair pieces I made while M.K. hand top-stitched patiently away, the underskirt, and the front drape of the overskirt.  The back half is cut, FrayChecked, and waiting to be sewn up tomorrow in the morning.  I’m planning to take my sewing machine to Edgefield if I don’t finish the overskirt before then, since I’ll be out there until the first wearing of this dress and will wear it there on Saturday night.

By OryCon I’ll have some more decoration done on it, as well as the overskirt finished.

To date I’ve used an entire large spool of thread, ten yards of silk, two and a half yards of black lace fabric, three and a half yards of acetate lining, a yard of denim, four yards of hoop wire, four yards of white cotton, ten spiral steel bones, two packets of bias tape, just shy of ten yards of eyelet ruffles, a yard of black lace ribbon, a yard of gauze ribbon, six silk roses, and have broken two sewing machine needles.

 

 

The bodice is at a pause until I get some help. I can read the directions, but they’re not making a helluvalotta sense to me. Enter M.K. Seriously, this would not get done without her willingness to hold my hand through it. I think I see how to do this to make it right, but… I don’t have time to do it wrong again.

I can hear my father in my head as clear as a bell. “If you don’t have time to do it right, you absolutely don’t have time to do it wrong.”

I cut the material for the overskirt today, and applied FrayCheck to allllllll the edges. Considering each piece is more than five feet long and three feet wide, that’s a lot of dabbing. Tomorrow I have a brief pause for errands and ripping some seams out of the bodice, followed by pleating of the overskirt prior to M.K. coming to bail my silly butt out of my conundrum. More pictures tomorrow!

This is spiral steel boning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are ten bones attached to the inside of the bodice…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lining is constructed exactly like the bodice, and then pinned to it, right sides together.   This takes an ungodly number of pins.

 

 

This is the pinning of just one armhole.  I probably should have changed out to black thread to sew the lining, but it’s lining.

 

Hopefully later today I’ll post a pic of the bodice.

 

 

 

 

The bodice lining is cut, darted, and awaiting use.

The boning for the bodice necessitated a trip to buy a bolt cutter, since in spite of all best efforts, M.K. and I cut some of the bones a quarter inch too long. Too short I can work with, too long is too much stabbing. Thus I carefully removed the laboriously applied boning tips without crushing them, bolt-cut the offending bones down a quarter inch each, and then carefully crimped the boning tips back on. Honestly, who knew that costuming sewing entailed bolt cutters?

Right now, the fit of the bodice looks dead on (pinned the shoulders, tried it on inside out over my corset).

SO. This evening when I take my child off to fencing lessons, I will be picking up the very last things I need. I need – more bias tape, because I’m a few inches short of what I need to sew the last bone onto the last seam. I need more thread, because if I run out while sewing the overskirt I will scream. And lastly, I need hook and eye tape for the front closure.

Then I will sew the bodice, trim the seams (and I’m sure there will be yet more Fray Check on every trim-cut), and finally, turn the whole thing right side out and check that it fits before sewing up the center back of the lining. If the fit is off, I have to take the boning off the seams to do anything like an adjustment. All good wishes and bribes to the powers of sewing are accepted.

For now, I’m off upstairs to clear off the table so I can pin and cut the material for the overskirt.

Update of the update – I found the rest of the bias tape.  Huzzah!  I have no idea how much train is practical on this bad girl.  Boo!

Yesterday’s progress – I kept repeating MK’s quip in my head: “Do not fear the cloth. It can smell fear.” Deep breath. Cuuuuut out a piece, dab dab dab dab dab… cuuuut dab dab dab dab… you get the idea. Lots of dabbing. Lots of waiting for the dabbing to dry so I could move it to do the next piece.

This morning I have the silk basted onto the denim interfacing, and will mark and sew the pleats after lunch.

Today I Fray-Checked the front drape of the overskirt (already had it cut), and transferred the pattern from the muslin. I made sure I had it right by marking the basted seams, picking out the seams and laying it onto the paper pattern before marking the basted seams and new cut lines. After a bit of debate, I’ve worked it out so that the finished back peplum of the bodice will be the same size as the muslin peplum. I loved how it lay on the underskirt, and have wildly extravagant plans for the point you can see in the photo in the previous post. After that I cut the denim interface, which is finished. I didn’t go further, because laming myself on this project won’t help me finish this on time, nor will it help my type the first part of the sequel to ‘Bone Orchard’. More on that another time. Tomorrow I hope to finish the cutting of the bodice, which would leave me the rest of the week to sew it, have M.K. back to check the marks, and then to finish it and cut the rest of the overskirt this coming weekend. Grand plans! Stay tuned to see if I can pull of a miraculous time-bender!

This morning’s alarming discovery was that this fabric doesn’t so much ravel as it simply evaporates.  The underskirt, as you can see below, came together nonetheless.  Later M.K. tested with pinking sheers and confirmed that they have no effect at all on the lack of surface tension of the silk to itself.  Tomorrow will see a lot of Fray-check used to keep the edges together between cutting and sewing.  It’s nasty plasticky stuff, but will be invisible inside the seams and I’ll actually have a seam allowance to work with.

 

 

Here’s the bustled petticoat, complete with a ruffled overlay to keep the wires from showing through the skirts.  M.K. put the overlay onto the petticoat and adjusted all the ties.  Then she went in and embroidered over the ends of the wires to keep them steadier in their channels.  I’m not sure why it’s called flossing, but it’s a lot of very pretty handwork that will keep the metal from sawing out of the cloth.

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the bustled underskirt, all seams rescued from evaporation by extremely careful handling.  The pattern didn’t make this skirt any too long, and while M.K. worked on the flossing and attaching the overlay, I rolled a handkerchief hem all the way around the bottom without causing evaporation.

The white bodice you see here is a muslin mock-up of the bodice that I’ll make out of the same fuchsia silk.  M.K. spent two hours tweaking the fit and basting in all the changes so that tomorrow I can pick apart the mock-up, mark the changes on the paper pattern.  Normally I’d use the muslin pieces as the pattern, but I need to add to some of the seam allowances.  Then, holding my breath, I’ll cut lining, interfacing, and finally the gorgeous and temperamental silk – doctoring the edges as I cut each piece.

I have the overskirt partly cut.  If I’m not about to tear my hair out after the paperwork for the bodice, I’ll cut the rest of the overskirt and apply goo to all the edges tomorrow.