Our two days in Lesley Grant-Law clinic were done. They had been wonderful, but they were finished. Now came the true test — a horse trial. Admittedly, it was a schooling horse trial, but for us it was the culmination of all our immediate work for nearly the past week, and our longer-term rebuilding for the past several months. This was the test of everything Charlie and I had been working on: confidence, composure, control, listening to each other, working together. Not a complicated dressage test, and not big jumps. But very important for us.
We had a day off on Saturday. Not wanting to let it go to waste, we took a last minute lesson from Shera Solomon of SAS Sporthorses, who would be coaching us through the jumping phases of the horse trial. Nothing major, just a get-reacquainted type of lesson, since we don’t get to work together all that often.
We schooled over open terrain on the flat, and then over a variety of types of jumps for about an hour and a half. We focused on balance, and the confidence that stability brings with it. Shera reminded me of the basics that so often go out the window when I get nervous: open my chest and shoulders, keep my eyes up, grab mane, and with that the hip fold will largely take care of itself (a big deal for me since I tend to stand up in my stirrups).
We went through the cross-country course and plotted strategy. The jumps were already numbered, so we could make out what the course would be, even without a map. None of them were big, so there was no need to gallop like it was the Kentucky Derby. Control was key. The first three fences were slightly downhill, and we didn’t want to get Charlie overly excited right at the beginning of the course because that would set us up for other problems as the course progressed.
Our other wrinkle was the that jump 3 really required us to go to the right of a large mound in order to get a good approach to 4. But we had gone up the mound during the clinic with Lesley on Friday, so Charlie was a little bit pre-programmed to go for the hill.
After about an hour and a half of instruction from Shera, Charlie Brown and I returned to the barn to cool off, clean tack, and hang out with our fellow clinic riders who were also staying for the horse trial. As the leather conditioner flowed, and the conversation unfolded, it became clear why this was such an unusual crew. Everyone really, truly was here to have fun. There was no judgment about at what level people were riding. The point of riding was to have fun, to cheer for other people who wanted to have fun, and to cheer for our horses who put themselves out there for us with every ride. If you had a great time at the elementary level, that was in their minds as much of a victory as successfully getting around the training level course.
As the afternoon began to cool down, we took our horses out for a leisurely hack among the trees, laughing and talking as we made our way around one small corner of the hundreds of acres that make up Loch Moy Farm. It was nice to have an opportunity to tour the facility that has been built here, and appreciate its sheer size. Afterward, we spent the evening sitting in the aisle, eating pizza, and telling stories of our various horse adventures.
I had drawn an early dressage time, so I had to get up with the chickens the next morning. There was much to be done: hay, feed, lunge to get out any “ya yas,” last minute tack cleaning touch ups, get dressed in my dressage gear, and warm up. Plus, I had a great contingent of support coming to cheer me on: my husband, Bob; my daughter, Rachael; my dressage trainer, Deysha; and Deysha’s wife, Aura. Having them there felt good.
Since this was a schooling show, I chose to avoid the full white look for dressage, but stayed conservative, with light tan breeches. It also saved me having to change between the dressage and jumping phases. Plus, my blue shirt matched my blue EcoGold pad. I wasn’t trying to be a fashion plate, but I didn’t want to look like I was clueless either. The mood of the day was to stay relaxed, and show off what Charlie and I had accomplished in our clinic efforts.
I got Charlie tacked up and we headed over to the warm-up area to get ready for our dressage test. Our first challenge was how we would react to all the activity. This was a huge show with 300 riders — which meant a lot of trailers, horses, people, dogs, public address announcements, and volunteers buzzing around. That’s a whole lot bigger than anything we had ever done before. We both did fine with the commotion. I was really impressed that Charlie didn’t seem to care about any of it. I nearly thought he was waving to the other animals like they were old friends.
We arrived at the warm-up ring, about a ten minute hack from the barn. As usual, it was bedlam, which got to me a lot more than it did Charlie. Since my cheering section hadn’t arrived yet, I had to talk myself through the stress, get back to my ‘happy place,’ and go through our warm-up routine: get Charlie moving forward off light aids, make his strides adjustable between short and long, maintain our rhythm and pace at each gait, and get in at least one lap around the arena in each gate in each direction. Getting in a 20m circle in the middle of all the chaos would be a bonus.
Several of us from the elementary division were in the warm up ring together, and our newly-minted clinic friends were there to lend us all moral support. Charlie and I checked in with the steward for our assigned ring. We were a little early, so we had to wait for a few riders to go ahead of us. As the rider before us finished her test, we entered the fringe around our 20x40m arena, and headed down to the potentially scary judge’s stand to give the scribe our number. Charlie wasn’t put off by the hut where the judge sat, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
As we headed back down the long side, the judge blew the whistle, telling us she was ready for us to begin. We picked up an energetic trot, and headed up center line. I remembered the entire test, even without benefit of someone reading it to us. We rode cleanly, but it felt a little slow-paced. I’m not sure if that was just my perception, or if we were actually slow, because the test seemed to be over in a flash. I’m still not sure if my pace was better than expected, or if the smaller sized dressage arena compressed my sense of time.
When we finished, we headed back to the barn to untack, and give Charlie a breather. We took the opportunity to go back to the show office and check the dressage score. We got a 30.5. For you pure dressage people, that’s a 69.5. But in the eventing world, your regular dressage score is converted to a penalty-type score by subtracting your percentage from 100. Then the dressage penalties are added to your show jumping and cross country penalties for a final score and the horse/rider with the lowest score wins. Regardless of anything else, I was thrilled with the 69.5 dressage score, and could live with whatever scoring came of the other two phases. It was nice to be able to put up that kind of score with my dressage instructor in attendance.
Before long, it was time to get ready for the jumping phases. We found Shera and made our way to the jumping warm-up area together. I’m sure we were quite a sight! Charlie, me, Shera, and our cheering/photography section in tow. We ran through a few warm-up jumps, which went well, so we called it early, and went up to the show jumping arena to check out the course map.
It was a relatively simple course, and most of the jumps could be grouped in pairs by color, so I had half as many things to memorize. We got a chance to watch a couple of riders before us, so it helped me remember the course. Shera said she didn’t care if we trotted the entire course, but she wanted us to canter away from each fence. We could come back to trot before the next one, but we needed Charlie to go forward. She mentioned that the relative safety of the arena would be an ideal place to ride a little more aggressively, if I felt up to it.
The whistle blew, and we stepped into the arena. We started at a trot, took the first fence decently, and cantered away. I wasn’t completely in sync with Charlie’s big canter stride, and we knocked down a rail on fence #2, mostly because I rounded my shoulders and tried to jump it for the both of us. While I didn’t like having the rail down, it was almost a “get out of jail free card” for the rest of the round. Now that it wasn’t going to be a clean round, it was OK to just ride, and stop over-thinking things. So I worked on letting go, and letting Charlie do his job. I focused on keeping my body and hands quiet, giving us a good approach to each jump, and keeping my weight low and close to the saddle. We only came back to trot a couple of times over a nine jump course, and cantered the rest. While it wasn’t a perfect round, it was successful for what we needed, and I was happy with it.
With the show jumping finished, we set out for our part of the cross country field. This time, I knew the course from my walk through with Shera. She reminded me to open my chest and shoulders, and grab mane at each jump, and to stay at trot until after jump #3. From there, the course was a more open series of sweeping uphill passes, first to the left, and then to the right.
Our division was relatively small, so the course wasn’t crowded, and we went off as soon as we arrived at the start box. Trot away, over the log. Canter a couple of steps, come back to trot, over the railroad tie. Canter a step, slow to trot down the hill, over the coop, and steer hard right around the mound. Charlie really wanted to go up the mound, and it became more of a discussion than I intended, so we had to swing wider to the right to straighten out our approach to the #3 arched fence. Once over that, I felt comfortable picking up the pace to a canter. We had gravity and a hill to help us with speed control. And we had seven more fences to get over.
I concentrated on giving Charlie a good approach, taking the jump, and enjoying the longer spaces between jumps. We took them one at a time, relished the wind in our face, and swung along with the rolling motion of the canter. Before we knew it, we were done, including a brush jump we had never done before. Then I shifted my weight back, sat up a little bit taller, and asked Charlie to come back to trot as we went down the hill, and through the finish line. I was exhilarated! Charlie hadn’t put a toe out of line over the cross country course — a clear round. I know we both were ready to do it all over again as soon as we finished. And I don’t think the smile on my face could have gotten any bigger.
At the end of the day, we finished 7th. We had a respectable dressage score, one rail down in show jumping, and a clean run at cross country. When we returned to the barn, our clinic compatriots all had one question — “Did you have fun?” Our answer was a resounding, “Yes!” And while we had won a ribbon, it really didn’t matter. Our victory took different form — we found the fun. And we celebrated by staying to watch our friends, and cheer them on during their rounds, as they had done for us.
Many thanks to Carolyn, Gena, Agata, Rex, and the whole crew at Loch Moy for a fabulous clinic, a wonderful weekend, and a terrific schooling horse trial. I hope to be back to the Maryland Horse Trials soon for many more eventing adventures.