I just went to the Marlboro Horse Trials. We finished dead last in our division. And we won!

Now you may think I’ve completely lost my mind, but hear me out…

I took a nasty spill a while back, and it has messed with my head, and my relationship with Charlie Brown, more than I could have ever predicted.  I love riding, but that experience planted a seed of doubt in everything I did. But the only way to defeat fear is with action. So this summer became the summer of making it happen. I made a commitment to Charlie and to myself that we were going to lick this thing, and get going on our eventing “career” together.

Now don’t get me wrong, people like Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin and Kate Chadderton are completely safe in their jobs, because I’m not an aspiring Olympian. I’m over 50, a late in life athlete, and likely career Novice rider, but I’ll have to work up to that even. I just want a day in the sun, running around a fun course with my horse. But I’m not there just yet.

Since a bad ride at a clinic, I’ve been grappling with confidence issues.  The narrative running through my head was like a Stephen King script of what-ifs.  But I put on my game face, and swallowed hard, and rode anyway.  But I rode very conservatively, and didn’t make a ton of progress.  But I finally got to a place where I wasn’t willing to settle for that anymore.  So I did what I do — I made a plan for moving forward.

The plan was to go up to Kate Chadderton’s place and take cross country lessons with her, every week, until I exterminated those seeds of self-doubt. So that’s what we did. I’ve gotten really good at packing and trailering on my own as a result. After several months of doing this, Kate finally said that I needed to enter the Marlboro Starter Trials.

On the appointed weekend, we set out for Marlboro. First of all, it was a new venue for Charlie Brown and me. But we got there, found where to park, checked in, and figured out where each part of the event was happening. This was a Starter Trial for us, so the fences were a little below Beginner Novice level, but bigger than anything we had competed at before, and a longer course than we had ever done.

To make things entertaining, there was an air show happening at Andrews Air Force base next door. But even with F-14s and B-29s screaming through the skies above us, Charlie Brown didn’t bat an eye. I think it bothered me more than him.

My friends — who are definitely not eventers — came out to support me because it’s what Charlie and I love to do. I know they considered not coming because they didn’t want to make me nervous.  But they too decided to take action, and I’m so grateful they did.  This place wasn’t exactly next door, so their effort was genuine, and sincere, and much appreciated.

My daughter and husband came out to support me, too. My husband (who is definitely not a horse guy, he’s the official Barn Dad) even sat with Charlie while I did my cross country course walk with Kate, noticed that Charlie had drunk all the water we brought with us, and made an emergency run to Food Lion for more.

Kate served as coach, and kept me on task and focused, even though she was riding four horses of her own.  She boiled everything down to a simple mantra that I could keep in my mind, even in the heat of everything: “Forward and Straight.”  Those were my marching orders.  Every fence: forward and straight.

I did my cross country course walk once alone, again with Kate, and a third time with my daughter.  I got us good and lost at one point. My eyes rolled back in my head at a couple of the jumps, which seemed awfully big for the Starter division. But the last walk was crisp, and on course.

Our dressage warm-up was good. Charlie didn’t get over-amped, even though warm-up was in an open field with lots of company, and people and horses going every which way. He was listening well, so I kept it short, not wanting to tap all his energy in the first warm-up. He didn’t spook, even at the scary clown horn the judge used to let us know it was our turn. I knew our test cold, and rode in with confidence. I knew exactly where I wanted to hit each movement, even if it didn’t actually happen exactly at that spot. When we finished, I knew where all the mistakes were, and how they got created. And I know what I have to do now to correct them.

When we suited up for the jumping phases, I put in my own studs for the first time, and they were, at Kate’s direction, bigger than anything I’d ridden in before, but she thought we needed some traction on the grass. They didn’t go in on the first attempt, so we kept at it, and Charlie was patient with my holding up his hoof to get the hole tapped correctly.

Show jumping warm up was bedlam, so we limited ourselves to just a couple of fences. Kate suggested we go in early, to avoid getting cold by waiting around.

The show jumping course was full of turns and changes of direction. All I focused on was “forward and straight.”  I kept telling myself it’s only my job to say, “jump this one,” and then get out of the way so Charlie could do his job. I knew the entire course, and didn’t get lost, in spite of my nerves. I aimed to canter the whole thing, but did deliberately come back to a trot in a couple of really tight corners. Now that I’ve seen the video, I realize I trotted more than I thought. But we went double clear, and I was proud of that.  Plus, I know what we’re going to work on before our next go.

We went to cross country, and my mind emptied. All I could see was the course. We set off strong.  Before fence #3, I got lined up straight, but let off on the forward part, which wasn’t a good idea for an uphill approach. Charlie took that to mean I wasn’t sure I really meant to go over it, so he stopped. My lack of follow through had just cost me 20. We circled back around, and I talked to him all the way up the hill, telling him (alright, yelling at him) to listen to me, and then finally to jump. It was funny because my friends all said they could hear me clear across the field!

I got over fence #5, only to see a pedestrian on course, walking right down our line coming out of the woods. The fence judge called out to her, but she didn’t notice. I called out to her, but she didn’t hear. Then, I finally yelled, “MOVE!” and she scampered out of the way at the last second — none the worse for wear, but definitely startled. Charlie continued to canter along, as if to say, “Geez! We’re running a course here, lady!” I gave him a big pat. He was unfazed.

We got to the water, which was dyed an unusual color, and Charlie wasn’t sure. I encouraged him forward, and he trusted me enough to go in, albeit at a walk. But he regained his composure and cantered out for me. If you blinked, you would have missed it. And even if you saw it, you might not recognize its significance, but it was an important moment in our relationship. Another big pat…

We took the hairpin turn to #8, and had two big sweeping lines left to go. I kept my eyes up and we took the bench (which seemed to grow since my last course walk), then along the tree line to get the right line to the up bank. For us, it was a pretty big bank, so I kept saying to Charlie, “Forward and straight. Forward and straight.” No problem! I gave him another pat, and told him “Good boy.”

The last bit took us through another tree line, and over two more coops. I urged him forward even more. These were #11 and #12 — for us the longest course we have done to date. I could feel him rock back, and dig in for more power to take these last two questions with authority. I trusted him and gave him his head, and could feel him relax underneath me. It was 100m of thundering serenity.

We finished to a small but wild cheering section of people. It was such a rush! It wasn’t perfect. A lot of it wasn’t even recognizable as an accomplishment to someone who doesn’t know our history. But we finished, and we did it together.

When final scores came in, we finished dead last in our division. Then it occurred to me how much we had accomplished that day — not to mention the fact that I was probably the oldest rider in the bunch. But when my 4* Australian coach left me at the show site by saying, “You did it! Good on ‘ya mate!,” then I don’t care what the scoreboard said. We did it! And in that, Charlie and I won a whole lot more than a ribbon.