By Michelle Abma
My horse Bailey and I have been eventing for a year now. And my, what a year it has been. Neither of us were green by any stretch of the imagination…think miles and miles of trail riding in Illinois, swimming in lakes, chasing cows, and playing Hunter Under Saddle for a few years before being shipped out to Southern California. However, we had never had the chance to get dressed up in our Eventer clothes.
I’d always wanted to event, but being located literally in the middle of Illinois and growing up thinking Pony Club was something created by the author of The Saddle Club, didn’t exactly give us a lot of exposure. Thankfully, my lovely DH was stationed in Eventing Capital USA (Virginia) for six months where I got to ride and foxhunt some lovely horses and was introduced to the world of eventing. Instant addict, right here.
Fast forward to last April. Bailey and I entered our first schooling three phase at Beginner Novice after a few sessions with a local trainer. Again, I was instantly hooked, despite the near explosions at ‘M’ and ‘X’ in our dressage test. To this day he still hates that arena. My theory is he can see through the wispy trees to where show jumping and XC warm-up are located, and he just can’t fathom why we have to trot around all pretty and connected when we could really be jumping things. We had a long year working out some kinks, and finally found a great trainer to help fix our (mostly my) several problems. Every schooling show we entered was an improvement, and our first recognized event was at Novice last November at Galway Downs. We survived, had a great time, and the addiction was complete.
After a ton of work over the winter, we decided to move up to Training this spring. We were at a point where Novice just wasn’t challenging enough for us. Once again we hit a few…road blocks. Show jumping had suddenly become our nemesis. Two jump sessions in a row we basically obliterated whatever jump was in front of us, seriously knocking our confidence down a solid five pegs. I was questioning everything, from my trainer to my breeches (seriously, I was THAT rattled).
Finally, we had a breakthrough, and after yanking all forms of leg protection, Bailey got the message that NOT banging your legs on the rails is way easier and less painful. I learned to wait with my upper body, not tense up my lower back, and keep riding those last four strides to the fence. Raising my stirrups a couple of holes did wonders, too. Confidence boosted, we entered a cross country clinic with a fantastic local UL rider who helped us have another breakthrough.
We had few issues, completing questions that three months earlier would have had me going “WAIT!! No way!” At this clinic I learned to stop riding him like a green, spooky horse because he’s not, but the tension in my arms was turning him into just that…a spooky horse who was unsure of what I wanted. Years of riding dirty stoppers and greenies are hard to wipe off the brain. We followed the clinic with a schooling three phase at Training level, in his nemesis arena, and finished fourth, walking away with a 36 in dressage. I was elated, confident, and just so pleased that we only had one rail in show jumping, I could have cried. A fast, clean, safe round on XC just topped it off. Knowing our first recognized Training was around the corner, silly me made the comment “I don’t have hopes for placing, I just don’t want to be dead last”.
Tsk, tsk. Oh my. The Eventing Gods heard, and they laughed. They laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.
We schooled all week, picking the movements from our test that had gotten the lowest score the week before, but schooling the entire test in a way that Bailey-the-Anticipator wouldn’t figure out and go “Aha! Lengthen the entire test!” Galway Downs Horse Trials was hot, dusty, and downright miserable. Our warm up was purposefully short, as my Dressage Nerves are a force to be reckoned with. Our dressage test felt really solid. I came out smiling, knowing it hadn’t been amazing, but confident it wasn’t an abomination. I decided not to look at my score because I didn’t want to put more pressure on myself before show jumping. I wasn’t aiming for a ribbon, I was aiming for decent.
We head into the warm-up pen, sans jacket (YES!!!) and had some great fences. My trainer and I were happy, so we patiently waited our turn, then trotted into the arena. First fence was a multi-colored vertical, and right away I could feel Bailey go “Um, yeah I REALLY don’t like that color combo”. Instead of getting super aggressive from the start, my brain went on auto-pilot. I lost count after the third rail, but I’m pretty sure we knocked 7 out of 10, even landing IN one. I apologized to the volunteer for that one…poor guy. He got a great workout thanks to us.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the course I got MAD, and I said GO. Finally, I felt like I had a horse under me, and we finished. Embarrassed and fighting back tears, we took a looooong walk around the grounds. Doubts were flooding my mind…WHY had I thought we were ready…WHY had I thought Bailey could do Training…WHY had I thought *I* could do Training…WHY does it have to be five hundred flippin’ degrees out!? I took my allowed time of 45 minutes to be mad and sulk…I untacked, hosed Bailey off, and didn’t say a word to anyone. To add insult to injury, I finally looked at my dressage score, which was a solid 8 points worse than the same test the week before. Where I thought we had 6’s, we had 5’s. Lots and lots of 5’s. The comments were harsh, and I wanted to either crawl into a hole and never come out, or crawl into the beer cooler and never come out. I bet you can guess which one happened.
On to XC Sunday we went, on an astounding 84. Yep…84. It has to be some kind of record. My thoughts at the trailer that morning were “It’s not over until I fall off or cross the finish line”. I had nothing to lose, and I was determined to finish that damn course even if I was hanging on for dear life. Temps were over 90 by 8am, and I don’t tolerate sudden heat well. Our warm up was brief, because for some reason “forward” was not an issue. Go figure. We nailed every warm up fence like it was rehearsed, and then the steward called my name. Okay Michelle….breathe, have a good ride.
Down to the start box we went, watch set, heart racing. Bailey puffed himself up…he knew what was coming. Then the count that makes every eventer’s heart race…5..4..3..2..1…Have a good ride! We came out of the box like our tail was on fire…which we actually planned. Trainer and I wanted him to realize “forward” was the only option for the day. First obstacle, clear, followed by a very loud “GOOD BOY BAILEY, LET’S GO!” By the fourth fence, the heat was getting to me, and I was seriously considering the possibility that I would have to retire or risk falling. Thankfully, Bailey took the opportunity to backpedal to a steeplechase fence, and my adrenaline and frustration from the day before kicked in. We almost crawled over it, but dammit, we went! His gallop was forward and cruising, and even though he gave me a few wobbles before some of the obstacles, he still went. He saved my butt a few times, I saved his a few times.
At the first water I felt like I was driving an elephant…he just DID NOT want to go. Once again we crawled over an upright fence coming out of the water, and then HIS brain and adrenaline kicked in. “Oh, wait! This is fun! I get to go FAST now!!” We hauled some chestnut arse coming off fence 9, when I realized…I forgot my course. I looked around, reined him in a bit, and asked Bailey where the hell our next fence was at. Hey, wait…is that it? Yeah…I think…YEP! Black number! Up and over 10, now turn for home. At this point Bailey was ready to burn some track, and came through a combination that rode like a very fun personal roller coaster, to another scary-colored steeplechase, to a corner where he didn’t bat an eyelash. I’m sure the jump judges were entertained by my gleeful shouts of “UP!” and “GOOD BOY BAILEY BOO!” and “GO, DAMMIT!” A helmet cam would have been hilarious.
We finished double clear, but still dead last. But you know what? We survived. We were able to conquer some difficult spots, and we had a BLAST. His little ears were perked the entire time, and he felt great. I rode with clinician Paul Stribery in Virginia, and what he said to our group sticks with me today. “Sometimes you have to reward your nervous system, and applaud yourself for surviving. Tell yourself ‘Hey, I did that right! Far out!’, and be happy with that”, and it is so true.
I can pick apart every phase until I’m blue in the face, but we still survived our first Training Level, and even walked away with a number instead of a letter. A ridiculous, record-setting number, but still a number. A good friend informed me that the Eventing Gods must have deemed me the weekend sacrifice, and I think she was right. They mocked my plea of not being in last place, and taught me that sometimes all you can do is laugh, and celebrate survival. Now here’s hoping that burning my dressage test will complete the sacrifice, and we’ll head into our next event with a nod from the Eventing Gods, and maybe even the dressage judge. Hey, one can dream, right??
Michelle Abma, Area 6