It’s almost a given that people who enter horse shows do so with some expectation of being competitive – it’s all wrapped up in the name of the event, even. You go there to show what you have accomplished with your horse. Why spend all the money (plus the time, training, and heartache) not to be competitive?
So it was something of a surprise to me how good I felt sitting in 8th place after a purposefully conservative dressage ride, walking into my cross country warm up with every intention to add to optimum time out on course. Murray was more than capable of making the generous beginner novice speed, and we had schooled all of the questions on course successfully on several occasions in the past. But unless I was suddenly riding a very different horse than the one who had shown up at previous shows, booking it around cross country at 400 mpm was not going to end well. I had mixed results in my previous shows at Camelot. In 2014, showing at intro, I finished in second once and fifth once, each time on my dressage score – and well under optimum time. My attempted move-up to beginner novice in 2015 saw me eliminated for two rider falls, with at least 185 penalties added to my dressage score. Later in the year, at a different venue, I did manage to fight my way around a softer beginner novice cross country course, but it wasn’t pretty.
It took a lot of reflection for me to really understand what went wrong during my ill-fated cross country run at Camelot in 2015, and even longer to (begin to) patch all the holes in my riding and Murray’s education that the ride highlighted. They are too numerous to make for good reading here, but they all boil down to one big problem: I was not giving Murray the ride he needed to successfully make it around the course. I wasn’t providing him with the mental or physical support to get past his lack of confidence in himself, despite his physical capability, and worse yet I didn’t know how I needed to support him.
Lots of lessons, one with an Olympian, later, I had a plan: slow it all down and actually ride.
Murray might be physically capable of galloping at 500 mpm, but at anything above a 300 mpm canter his brain just cannot keep up with his feet. Anything remotely shocking or scary was amplified when we were moving faster. So if I wanted to get Murray past, over, or through something he was scared of without him engaging the emergency brake, I needed to get him back to a speed where logic was restored to his mind, or where I could at least counter-bend him away from the scary object as we went past.
So out I went on cross country, with absolutely no intention of averaging 325 mpm. When I saw the fire truck safety station after jump 3, down we went to a trot. When we passed another horse on course coming in the opposite direction, back to a trot (with a minor detour after for Murray to attempt to follow said horse – cross country is, after all, a group activity!). And when we approached a fence with a lot of flowers and a funny landing that had been problematic in the past, more trotting. All the trotting paid off in spades, though, as Murray pulled me towards the fences that had previously scared him, didn’t dump me when he saw the terrifying finisher’s booth, and only tried to re-route and follow one more horse on course (alright, alright, there was only one more horse passed on course, but he didn’t try very hard). We came in 21 seconds over time, and I was deliriously happy that we even crossed the finish line.
Stadium the next day was much of the same story. Murray was tired and didn’t really buy into the whole “jump all the things” plan, but when I told him that we were going to, he listened – even if he did jump them with his eyes closed. Scary standards in stadium? Not a problem, but just to be sure I circled, got the quality of the canter back, and gave him enough time to stare them down before insisting that we get over them. Even the speakers, announcer’s booth, and crowd by the finish flags didn’t stop us from jumping, just slowed us to a trot and then Murray still took the oxer because I kept my leg on and said we were going.
I added a LOT of time to my dressage score; and I voluntarily circled and picked up a refusal in stadium; and I finished in 11th; all on a horse who, only two weeks ago, my favourite Olympian told me SHOULD be competitive at this level. But I could not have been happier about it.
You see, it feels pretty good to go to your first show with your baby horse who you have trained all yourself and finish on your dressage score and come in second by a fraction of a point. It feels satiny and proud and awesome. But there’s a part of me that knew very well it was all based on a technicality, and that in a different field it could have gone totally differently; so after a bit it doesn’t feel that good. As good as that feels, it feels exponentially worse to ride your ass off and still not finish your cross country course, and not know why.
My overall feeling after this show was that everything went right. There was a tiny part of me that was asking myself “what are you DOING paying this much money to not be competitive?” but the rest of me – a big part – believed in and stood behind every single decision I made during my rides. Everything improved: Murray’s rideability; my riding; our relationship. He is more confident in himself, and we communicate better. We got out on cross country feeling so much more confident than last year, and man does it feel good to ride a calm, confident horse to the start box. It feels way better than riding a jigging, anxious mess out there who only settles once you let him rocket around the course and stumble over some obstacles.
I made decisions about our ride out on cross country and Murray listened to me – the important parts being both that I made decisions and that my opinionated horse who is pretty convinced he’s the only one in this relationship with any sense of self-preservation listened to those choices. I went out there knowing that if there was something scary on course I had the tools to handle it, and that if there was a fence he felt unsure about I would be able to figure that out quickly and make the adjustments I needed to, and that if we had a refusal I could confidently get him over the obstacle at the second presentation. I have never been that capable of a rider before, and knowing that I have reached a new place in my riding feels AMAZING.
The confidence that Murray and I gained by trying not to be competitive will serve us better than any ribbon could have done. I will be entering more shows this year, and while I have no plans to push it to try to leave with a ribbon, we will still be showing people how much we have accomplished – that we have become a braver, more confident, stronger team together.