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Starting the Endurance Horse - Part 1 "New Article"

Preparing the Endurance Horse

by

Eric Hought

 

 Preparing the Endurance Horse

When plotting a course to reach any goal, the final expectation must be known. Without a vision the chances of reaching that goal are slim. Many riders stumble because they have no clear mental image and do not have a large arsenal of techniques. When you drove here today, you knew exactly where you were going to make turns in order to arrive in Mariposa. You may have faltered slightly, but you made it. I am sure that none of you just got into the car and began driving in hopes you would arrive today. You had a plan to get here. It is exactly the same with our horse. If we do not have a plan, how can both of us arrive at the same place at the same time?

My goal today is to plant the seed that preparing a horse is simple. Mental preparation of the horse is most important. If the horse is not mentally prepared for any situation or execution of a maneuver, he can not perform to his peak potential. The "work" of preparing him mentally takes place while he learns the mechanics of feet and body control.

The mind of the horse must be on the same page of execution as the rider or leader. Everything we do with the horse is centered on building a good mind. The rider must be able to control every step the horse takes during a ride. Out of control at the start of the ride or any other part of the ride is dangerous for the horse and rider. Aside from that, the wasted effort by the horse can affect his strength and/or recovery at other points in the ride.

The use of exhaustion as a tool to cause the Arabian endurance horse to look to the rider for relief is not an option for preparing the endurance horse. The old phrase of "the blood rises in the head" is not an accurate assessment of the situation. I don't know positively whether or not the reactive side of the horse is the results of the release of adrenaline into the system. If that is the correct assumption then little to no progress will follow until the horse's system returns to normal. I spoke with a veterinarian and he thought it was more of the personality of the horse. Whichever is correct, the rider must wait until the horse returns to normal in order to continue preparing the horse.

The "trick" is to change the activity "before" the adrenaline is released. The window of opportunity between mounting and working with the horse before the adrenaline release will vary from horse to horse, rider to rider and the immediate environment of activity.

A horse's window of opportunity can be enlarged through careful preparation of the horse by the rider. The rider never has the privilege of assuming the position, "I just let him go until it is out of his system". My position is this rider lacks knowledge of how the horse learns, lacks skills and avoids responsibility for the horse's actions by placing the blame upon the horse. The classic method of correction is to use a more severe tool of intimidation such as a larger bit, tie down or martingale. The reality is the rider must return to a snaffle bit and rebuild the foundation of the horse's skills. "But he is not in control with a snaffle bit". The answer is simple. Ride at the walk until control of all four feet is achieved in the walk then progress to the trot etc. This can not happen on a ride. It all takes place on the trail, riding solo in training until control is achieved. It could take 3-4 months or longer depending upon how engrained the behavior, how often the horse is ridden per week and most important the consistency of the rider. The rider's plan is key to success of the horse.

The rider must place his personal success on hold and elevate the performance of the horse to the fore front. It is all about the success of the horse, not the rider. The "job" of the rider is to learn as much as possible about how the horse learns and as many techniques possible to manage the horse to his highest level of achievement. Don't forget feel, timing, balance and remember the horse will tell the rider when a change is needed. The rider must know the horse in order to recognize the signal from the horse to make the best change at that moment. The response by the horse to the change will tell the rider if the correct change was chosen. Today I would like to offer concepts and techniques to help you enlarge the window of opportunity for preparing the Arabian endurance horse.

The other side of the coin is the horse's self-confidence. It is the rider's responsibility to see that the horse's self-confidence grows to the point that the horse thinks he is a tiger, YET totally under control. I do it by never allowing my horse to fail, by keeping him full of air, never ride him past his physical ability and not allowing the horse to take a bad step due to my inattention, therefore avoiding potential lameness. How many times has there been one rock in the middle of the trail and the horse hits it? Where was the leader? I never ask him to do anything he can not do safely. Failure is not acceptable.

The time necessary to arrive at the point of total control of the horse's mind varies from horse to horse and the rider's skills. This is so because too many riders are in a rush to complete the ride and/or finish in the top ten. Some horses are out of control during various parts of the ride because they have taken control of the rider. Many times the rider does not have enough experience to recognize how or when to correct the horse's wrong answer. The answer is simple: correct immediately every time.

The time period in which the rider is developing control of the horse's
feet, physical conditioning simultaneously develops. Walking and trotting with some cantering for a period of 1 ½ to 2 years will develop muscles, tendons, cardiovascular fitness and bone growth. By the time the rider has everything under control a period of two years may have passed. This is not an exaggeration. If we start with a three year old, it is possible to be ready for a LD mid four year old year. That allows for 1 ½ years of mental preparation. The preparation time is shorter because more than likely little or no correction is needed. That is a reasonable time period to prepare for and complete a 5-6 hour first LD.

The goal for the first ride should be to complete and merely go the distance with no speed. Most of the ride would be done at the walk with a little trotting and cantering here and there. A rule of thumb that will work is, if the rider trots or canters for one minute, walk for one minute. That should keep him full of air and give any muscles a chance to rest. One might say, "My horse doesn't need that much time, he is in much better physical condition." My response is, "What difference does it make, are you going anywhere in a hurry, if so, why?" I am not against speed, but, this is not the place or time for speed other than slow. One can always build a fire in a horse, but once it starts rolling it is very difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish. Just look around at the start of any ride. How many horses and riders are nervous, pushing or out of control? The way to avoid this situation is start 5 minutes or longer after the rush has gone. Many riders do this and it is for the purpose of control.

During the 1st LD I ask for some trotting usually up to 100 yards or shorter and then walk. If at any time he pushes, we walk. If he doesn't hear me, execute the SRS. Always remember you are the leader. I keep him full of air in order to make it easy for him. Remember the tiger I am developing?

I may canter 3-4 times or more as long as everything is under control and he is not pushing. I always ride with a slack rein because they can feel any change in the rein. While I am working on the canter, I look for a soft departure, cantering self contained on a slack rein and staying on the correct lead. I also vary the lead at the canter in order to work different muscles. Anytime he does not depart correctly, we just break down into the walk or stop. We walk along until everything is relaxed and try again. That is all there is to it. No pressure because we have 25 miles to improve the skill. The LD is a ride to prepare the horse not a competition. I wait until we are at a point on the trail where everything is going along perfectly. He then tells me it is okay to try the departure, but waits for my cue.

I believe if any rider takes 5-6 hours for an LD or 11-12 hours for a 50 mile ride, he is doing a good job of preparing the mind of the horse which is the most important part in the partnership. Keep him sound, full of air, happy, feeling like a tiger and above all, always, always under control.

How much patience do you have? How observant are you? What skills do you have? Where do you gather your information about endurance riding? How much responsibility do you place on your horse and how much on yourself? I am sure your horse would ask these questions and more like, do you feed on time, before he hired you.

Everyone has a concept and system that best fits them. Not one thing I do is original. Everything is a compilation of knowledge gained from everyone I have known, observed or studied. But wait, there are two things I do that are original, my interpretation and application. More than likely, you are the same. So pick and choose things that will fit into your system and use them to make learning for your horse as easy as possible.

There are many "catch phrases" today each having great value. "The slow way is the fast way" is the cornerstone to my system. Everything else builds from and /or supports this concept. If you find this fits into your system, I am sure this phrase will make life and learning easier for your horse. I read an article in a magazine sometime ago. The goal was to determine the mental maturity of the horse compared to a human being. The final results of the study were that the mental maturity of the horse is equal to that of a three year old child. Since reading this article, everything I do with a horse has slowed down. The preparation skills are unhurried, repeated many times and simplified. Above all I have patience and wait as if working with a three year old child. What is left? Remembering to keep it simple.

You may have heard it said, a lawyer never asks a question unless he already knows the answer. It is the same riding our horse. When we encounter a "hard spot," we must know how we are going to respond before it happens. That way we are able to make the correction immediately. Lapse time between the wrong answer and correction decreases the effectiveness of the correction. It is not how aggressively we respond, it is the choice and lapse time that are critical. When we stop thinking, the horse suffers.

Do you remember the last ride when once the turn towards home was made, the horse knew and immediately began pushing and /or wanted to jog/trot. What did you do? What were the options? Did you pull on his face, let him jog/trot all the way home or did you make lemonade?

The rider usually has developed his standard response to this situation. Let us step back to analyze the best response from us. Okay, he is offering energy, great!! What can be done? Think of a maneuver that requires extra energy from the horse.

If I am fortunate enough to be on a hill I will require him to back uphill. This requires a lot of energy and soon will turn into work for the horse. So, I back up hill 10 to 20 feet. The steeper the hill the better. When he tells you he wants to quit, continue 3-4 more steps. I do this so he knows I am the one who allowed him to stop and rest.

Rest a few moments and allow him to think about what has just transpired. Ask him to walk forward towards home. The instant his back elevates to trot, stop, back uphill as before. You, the leader, are sending the message loud and clear you are the leader. Yes, it takes time right now and how much time is being saved in the future? If I am on a flat trail, I just turn him 180 degrees and let him back towards home. All I do is keep him straight and supple his face.

Both scenarios must pay close attention to whether or not he is pushing off from behind not from the front. This exercise will begin to develop the hindquarters and strengthen his loins and back.

This may take 3-4 weeks depending upon the rider's consistency and the horse. It is not a quick fix, there are none. It is a technique that allows us to accomplish three things at once: addressing the push home, proper body mechanics during backing and strengthening of the hindquarters, loin and back muscles. So he volunteered energy and we found a way to put it to good use. The rider can easily analyze skills in his discipline that require energy from the horse and use the volunteered energy to accomplish a maneuver.

All of the body control techniques can be used in this situation: backing, the turn around, side pass, roll backs, stops by going away from home, supplying, bridling and disengaging the hindquarters. Creative thinking by the rider will begin to pay dividends.

What is the trick? My thought process is when the horse offers extra energy, use it. That way the horse does not hold it against me when I would normally have to ask for more energy. Now, all this activity is being done and to the horse it will gradually be perceived as work not punishment so he won't hold it against me.

The size of the window of opportunity to "work" will gradually decrease because the horse is not "volunteering" the extra energy. So now, we can walk home on a flat footed, slack rein. That is what we want. At this point the horse will begin to see the rider as a good guy because he is not requiring him to "work". The horse has learned if he walks, everything is easy. What do we know about the horse, he is lazy and wants to be comfortable. Hummm.

This technique IS an effective tool and will gradually prepare the horse's mind to "follow the leader". Now, the window of opportunity takes a different perspective. The window of opportunity of positive execution by the horse will gradually increase in size and the "window" for correction will gradually decrease in size. Things are moving in the positive direction by the horse. The positive mental attitude was accomplished through extra work by the horse and not through negative actions by the rider. The difference is slight yet the results are dramatic. Next time when it rains lemons, make lemonade.

What is an Oxymoron? The simplest definition is the use of words, phrases, or statements that have meanings which are contradictory to each other. We us oxymora all the time in order to make a point. I describe it as two opposite concepts that form to make a new concept. Some examples are: the slow way is the fast way, less is more, forward to back. Tell me if you hear others today.

The topic today is Training the Endurance Horse. I would like to change the title to Preparing the Endurance Horse. Everything we do with the horse is preparing him for some skill or event. That is a large topic so I have narrowed it down to one concept that can help you anytime you are in a situation where the horse has decided he is the Leader. The Single Rein Stop (SRS) is so simple it is difficult. There are several spin-offs from this basic skill that make this a jump off point. It can get you out of a difficult situation. If your horse says, "We're going like this" and you think, "Oh, oh we've been here before." At this point there are two choices: let him go, maybe as in the past, or SRS and re-establish with him that you are the leader and "we" are going "my way." Over an extended period of time consistent execution of the SRS will cause you to have to "peddle" to keep him going. After he has completely accepted the rider as leader, he can be allowed to "volunteer" speed.

I have friends who train horses for the show pen. I have offered the term or concept of leader to them and they have said, "Smoke and Mirrors." That may be correct in that specific discipline. But in the field of Endurance, the concept of leader is key. An endurance ride may last from 6-24 hour whereas, a show horse's performance may last only 5-10 minutes. How many times have you heard someone say "their arms are tired from their horse pulling on them?" More than likely, they or the previous owner, took the short cut by using a stronger device of intimidation to "control" the horse or did nothing. This is merely application of a band-aid to stop the hemorrhaging. The simplest thing to do is SRS and regain leadership. While the horse is settling, study the "hard spot" and simplify until you are able to soften the "spot." Rider consistency must accompany the use of any technique such as the SRS, if used, every time when leadership is questioned by the horse. It does not matter if it is inconvenient for the rider. It will only become a larger problem in the future, if it is not addressed immediately. The horse learns quickly he can have his way, if he is not corrected. The rider does not have to execute with his teeth clinched, just execute the skill as the leader - end of discussion. Let him settle, think about what has just transpired and suggest to him to depart. If he chooses to continue as before the previous SRS, guess what, yes, SRS every time. Eventually he will begin to get the idea that you are the leader and he is not. It will take many SRS before he fully accepts you as the leader.

How do I execute the SRS? Simple. Disengage the hindquarters by pressing with the inside leg. Wait for 2-3 steps of the inside hind foot. Simultaneously slide your inside hand down the rein to your arms length, grasp the rein and pull your hand to your hip and hold. Release your leg pressure. Hold with your hand until all feet stop and he releases his face to you, immediately release with your hand. The release is always the reward for finding the correct answer. Remember, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. By holding his face until he releases is making it difficult. It does not have to be painful to be difficult, just uncomfortable or extra work. Alternate sides to maintain balance.

I rode a 5 year old gelding for 60 days. We rode 4-5 days per week between 3 ½ - 7 miles per ride. I made a conscience effort not to give two or more days off back to back, only one day at a time. It took him 45 days before he said, "Okay, you ARE the leader." Speed was never a question, just my speed. Every time he chose to accelerate up a hill, SRS. Finally he would rate at the speed I set. I rode him in an arena with the goal of cantering circles in a relaxed, self-contained rate. He could do it with very little guidance from me because I was the leader. After the end of 60 days, he went home. I was sorry to see him go because the owner had not come to learn how he rode on the trails or in the arena. Anyone who sends their horse to a trainer, should go at least once a week to learn how the trainer rides; if not, you are doing a disservice to the horse and probably wasting your money. Keep the faith in the system, in yourself and wait on him.

This situation happened to me at Cuyama Multi-day Ride a couple years ago with my mare. It took us two hours to travel three miles. She would not walk flat footed on a slack rein. Some times she would take only 2-3 steps and want to jog. Wrong answer, SRS, wait. Depart again. I decided, if I did not address this problem here and now, it would only accelerate. Once we got to the 3 mile distance I could ask her to trot on a slack rein and she would come back to me anytime. There were no other problems for the rest of that day or the next. I had decided I was going to wait her out. It did not matter, if we finished on time or not. She was going to follow my leadership. It is difficult for many riders to make that decision because they are "on a ride" and feel the pressure of the time restraint. Once the rider gives in to the horse, the party is over, and the difficulty will only grow into a larger problem. Do you agree?

The SRS is so easy that it is difficult because the value of it is overlooked. It stops the horse, but it also supples the head, neck, shoulders, barrel and hips. You have effectively taken the physical and mental power away from the horse. The driving power comes from the hindquarters and controlled by disengaging the hindquarters. You have effectively sent the massage to your horse that YOU are the one in charge. He may not recognize it at first because he thinks it was a discipline that will go away, it has in the past. Hummm. What does that tell us? The word consistency comes to my mind.

They are just horses and we are only human. So, it is decision time, who will be the leader, who has the greatest will power, who has the skills to meet the challenge? Who is more important, the horse or the rider? My position is, in situations where the rider goes to a larger bit and assumes that it fixes the problem, rider achievement is more important than the preparation of the horse. He will not or can not wait. This is a tough thing to recognize and admit. How many times do we say or hear, "I finished." Hummmm. Was the horse just a tool for the rider?

The horse is a creature of habit; he is a coward, curious and wants to be comfortable. How do we learn to use the horse's "habits" to establish our role of leadership? Simply put, all we must do is keep the good habits and change the habits we dislike. Preparing the horse's mind to establish our role of leadership begins from the ground. Today's discussion will begin by suppling and disengaging the hindquarters from the ground. The skills of round penning have great value and are for another day.

The next concept is difficult to describe. "Let the horse take you for a ride." Think of yourself as a passenger sitting on a bus. When the horse errors you become the driver, correct the error and return to your seat as passenger at the rear of the bus. Early in the process it may seem as though you are up, down, up and down. The rider's clear mental image, consistency and patience will increase the time between up and down. Gradually the passenger will spend less time fixing and more time as passenger/rider. "Let your horse take you for a ride." Remember the passenger at the rear of the bus? I said, "Once the error is corrected return to your seat at the rear of the bus." The value of riding your horse as though you are riding behind the cantle of your saddle is basically that you are not asking for speed. Consider this analogy. The driveline of the horse is the girth area. If the rider is leaning forward and squeezing with his legs, he is asking for more speed. One technique to slow the horse is to sit in the "back seat" with no leg squeeze and "let the horse take you for a ride." The horse is sensitive to everything we do and he will feel your position. Rider consistency, patience and techniques of control will pay off over time. It all hinges upon the rider's mental image for the horse's performance.

When he stands waiting for direction, ask him to depart into the walk. Give him a slack rein and allow him to make a mistake. He will make one of two mistakes; turn off-line or break gait. We will assume he goes off- line. We always guide the front feet of the horse followed by the release. Compare it to driving a car. The steering wheel steers the front wheels of the car. It is exactly the same with the horse, the reins steer the front feet. It puts the responsibility of going straight upon the horse without rider interference. Do not micro manage because that is like backseat driving. It is simple. If he breaks gait, SRS, wait, and depart into the walk on a slack rein. Believe me, this is difficult and will test your perseverance. It will help, if you are able to ride solo. If you do have a partner, ask to lead and tell why. This technique will take a couple of months, if you ride 3-4 times per week. Do not get into a hurry. The rider must have a clear mental image and patience of steel. If you see value in this concept, try it and keep the faith.

The previous activity is a learning technique of learning to control each and every step of each foot. This also can begin in the round pen. Remember, whoever controls the feet, controls the mind. Feel, timing and balance are senses that the rider must develop. They will take time and constant-self evaluation. Check that your chin and belly button are on the centerline of the horse. The rider's upper torso may lean forward or backward only. No lateral lean. Eventually, if the rider sits balanced and perfectly still, every movement he makes can mean a cue for the horse. Timing comes from feel. When you feel something coming from the horse, be ready to react as needed. It is action-reaction. The horse will give you a get ready signal which you will slowly recognize. He will be consistent from habit, will you?

Teaching the horse to rate is the same as a tube of toothpaste. If you squirt it all out the first few days after your purchase, it will not last long. This can be likened to the horse's rate at the beginning of a ride. If the rider just "lets him go until he hits the wall and slows down," there will not be enough "paste" at the end of the ride. Rate begins with the first step of the ride.

The guide can be easily developed by riding without contact. The value is the horse can feel any movement of the reins. The horse is far more sensitive than we recognize. If the rider rides consistently, the horse's sensitivity can be developed. It all starts with a slight push of the rein on the neck. If the horse responds only slightly, release, less is more. That is the start of something big.

The horse thinks in terms of black or white. The gray area is the intellectual side of the brain in which we think, but not the horse. An example of the gray area is when the rider is very insistent the first time the horse errors. The next time, if he says, "That's close enough," for the same infraction, how can the horse know which is correct? This is where the rider's consistency is very important. The rider who thinks in the gray area can be confusing to the horse especially if the rider is working to develop his own skills. There are only two answers to a problem. The answer is right or wrong, black or white. With horses always make the right answer easy and the wrong answer difficult. The difficult solution to this problem might be a SRS, backing uphill, trotting uphill, standing still for a minute or two (which is a long time) or walking a circle on uneven ground. Circling on uneven ground causes him to look at the ground in order to keep from tripping. He looks out for himself which will cause him to start thinking about slowing down and watching what he is doing. Rider experience will help to choose the best correction for a specific wrong answer.

By now you are asking, "So what do I do?" Simple, I do all of the following as I walk along the trail which begins the moment I mount. These items help to build the mental and mechanical aspects of the horse. Do not develop any habits of your own, always change your routine. I watch for this so the horse does not automatically execute a move by "reading me." Maverick could execute all of these by August at the walk. Do not get into a hurry. Of course, some things were better than others but remember he is still learning today and for the rest of his life. When your horse can execute all these skills he will feel like a new horse to you. I put my mare Plenty, back into a snaffle bit at age five and it took her about 60 days. Rider consistency is very important when working on this technique with a young horse but especially with an older horse because you have to correct old habits.

This does not mean you will not trot or canter for 60 days. Each skill will be developed at different rates. Floating the head at the walk, trot and canter may develop much before disengaging the hips from the canter. The use of each of these skills will be obvious to you when the horse gives the wrong answer. Now you know the exact correction to use when the wrong answer is given.

These are your arsenal of techniques to prepare your horse.

1. Rt. foot, Rt rein, lf. foot, lf rein. If either foot steps forward as I mount, I pull that foot back with the same rein. Release and wait, repeat as needed until he waits for your cue.
2. Slow hands. See Keep It Simple.
3. SRS-Single Rein Stop #1. Begin from the ground, standing, walking, trotting and finally the canter. Don't be afraid to use it at any gait, any time.
4. When it rains lemons, make lemonaide. Use energy he volunteers in order to work on a specific skill e.i. foot pattern #1 or backing followed by a rollback.
5. Float the head while standing still.
6. SRS #2. Take the slack from the rein only enough to feel the horse begin to stop. This is all feel. See "Slow Hands" in Keep It Simple. Do not disengage the hind quarters.
7. Turn around foot pattern #1. Tracking up behind. All four feet are striding forward. The front feet travel a larger circle than the hind feet. Do not allow him to hollow his back out which means the back feet stop striding while the front feet continue traveling forward. Keep him squeezed up.
8. Depart forward at a 45 degree angle with the foot of your choice.
9. Open door, closed door - The horse has 4 doors; 2 sides, 1 front and 1 back. The open door is always the correct answer. The release is always reward for the correct answer.
10. Float the head at the walk.
11. Turn around foot pattern #2. Establishing the inside hind pivot foot while making sure that the front feet are striding forward on the arc. Watch the back does not hollow out.
12. Stop and back, right foot right rein, left foot left rein.
13. Disengage the hips one step as you walk along, release.
14. Walk the front end around the back and the back around the front.
15. Back up hill. Remember the power of the horse comes from the hindquarters. He will have to push off from behind. You will probably need energy from the horse. DO NOT pull harder, use your feet. This will take time to develop.
16. Supple the face and neck at the walk.
17. Ride him into the bridle.
18. Stop, sit still, watch to see he is waiting for the next cue.
19. From the walk, squeeze your calves as a cue to trot, release as he trots. Pitch him away in the face. Allow him to make the mistake and correct it, release.
20. Float the head at the trot.
21. Cue for departure from the trot into the canter. Accept either lead. Gradually you will be able to request the lead of your choice.

Evaluate your sitting position. Are you balanced, relaxed, where are your hands, legs, hips and shoulders? Sit still and let the horse take you for a ride. There will be very little work while you are waiting for a needed correction.

Gain total control of each foot in the walk. Do not progress to the trot until this is accomplished. This may take as many as thirty rides if you are making a change for your horse and if you are consistent. Sit and wait, you are the leader. How simple can it be? Less is more. Anytime he breaks gait, SRS. Wait until he is waiting for you, which is the correct answer, reward him with the release and a rub on the hip. Stand, wait and depart into the walk.

 

Self-Evaluation

The purpose of this exercise is to write a plan of how you will prepare your horse or make changes for his first or next ride. This will give you a road map for the trip.

You will find many things are done automatically. More than likely they will be left out of the written form of your plan. Try to list everything you will do in order to make any changes. Next take each item and write how to execute all changes for that skill. You will be amazed at what you learn about your riding system. This is much more difficult than one would expect. Have fun and Good Luck.

1. Put into writing how you would prepare your horse for his first endurance ride. How will you know he is ready mentally, mechanically and physically? Every time you read your work you will discover something new to be added or deleted. I have read this writing many, many times and have discovered something to change or add each time. Enjoy the project and discover more about you and your system.

OR

2. What changes need to be completed with your current horse that may have already started in an endurance ride? How will you go about the change?

Finally! If any of the material shared today works for you, more can be found at www.hought.com/hp.tempest.html which is a log of thirty entries of difficulties I encountered while riding my wife's mare Tempestad. She was a huge challenge which took about 1 ½ years of patient riding. Wow! She was tuff. Today, she is 7 years old, a great ride and is beginning to show speed we did not think she had.

Additional information about Maverick can be found at Who is Maverick on the home page www.hought.com. Click on the Hought Horses.

Contact: email - slowway@hughes.net

Keep It Simple

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