The first (and last) time The Mare and I “officially” schooled cross-country, it was at the end of the very first summer that she learned to jump. My alma mater, Otterbein University, is quite lucky to have a cross-country course on property, so we often hacked around out in the field for a change of pace. While we conquered the little logs with relative ease, a small hanging log with a small hill on the backside proved to be our worst enemy. I was too terrified to actually hit my horse with my crop, she kept running around the jump, my

Finally getting over the baby log, complete with guide rail and unamused trainer. What you cannot see is my death grip on the reins and panicked face

trainer was growling at us and practically willing my horse off the ground. We ended up with a guide rail, and eventually having to go down to schooling ground poles because The Mare had completely shut down. I know I did more harm than good that day, and was basically worried I’d ruined her for cross-country forever.

We occasionally jumped cross-country fences when we moved regular fences out into the field over the summer, and we learned to play in the water jump when that was added, but there wasn’t much formal cross-country schooling after that first attempt.

And the last time I was doing a show jump course was at the very last class of the very last show before we relocated to Indiana for vet school. I had my trainer from Otterbein and my trainer from my home barn both present, and a Classic to tackle – I literally just had to finish the course and I’d get a payout to cover the cost of the entry…and I fell off at jump 3 after a miscommunication between The Mare and I, and she caught the top rail above her knee, somersaulting me over her ears on the landing. It was a highly unceremonious ending to an otherwise amazing summer of jumper classes.

So fast-forward about four years from the cross-country disaster, and two years from the Classic that could have been.  I was trying to set up a lesson for The Mare, and Trainer offers a cross-country schooling spot at Hoosier Horse Park to us.  She’s been trying to get us to go schooling with her for about as long as we’ve been at the barn, but this was the first time I actually felt The Mare was in enough shape and a good enough spot mentally to go.  I’ve been saving up for opportunities to get her off property and see different fences before Morgan Grand National, so why not? It would be a great way to celebrate the end of finals.

Cross-country schooling quickly morphed into cross-country AND show jump schooling, and I found myself joining the Indiana Eventing Association at 10 pm the night before. WHAT WAS HAPPENING.

I was so nervous. I scrubbed my tack, I polished my boots. I packed a trunk, unpacked that trunk, made a list of ONLY the absolute essentials (plus a few things I couldn’t bear not to take with me). Why was I so nervous? It was just schooling.

God bless my horse, she hopped on the trailer without a second glance as we rolled out of the barn at 6AM. Once at the Hoosier Horse Park, Trainer and her kid prepped for her lesson, and we left the other two horses (my mare and another boarder’s lovely gelding) on the trailer. Once The Mare realized she wasn’t getting off, she settled in with her hay net and munched away, much to my relief. I watched as the show jump ring was harrowed, and was feeling pretty good.

After tacking up and heading to the warm-up, I was feeling more nervous. I hadn’t had to remember a course in how long? What if she ran around like a maniac? What if she wasn’t ready to school? What is we looked like fools? WHAT WERE WE EVEN DOING HERE? I resorted to my old habit of pulling up when The Mare started to get quick cantering around and was quickly reprimanded. She warmed up pretty nicely, so we kept it short and sweet and headed to the show jump ring.  I had signed up to school two Beginner Novice courses; not anything overwhelming in the height, but considering we had been schooling plain fences and a lot of individual fences, lines, grids, and other miscellaneous pieces-parts, a full course felt intimidating.

I walked her in to take a look at a few of the scarier fences, picked up my canter and started my course. Somehow, I remembered where I was going. And somehow, we ended up doing the add in a line? The horse that continually ran down lines to get the horse stride making it look easy in the add? What was happening? Halfway through the first course I felt so nauseous. She was speeding up, I was so hot, where was the next jump, were we done yet? We cleared the last fence and my barn family erupted in cheers. We walked out and I still kinda felt like I might upchuck off the side of my mare. “The last time I did a show jump course I fell…” I trailed off before *quickly* getting a talking to about confidence and giving myself a little more credit (and that I wasn’t a scary rider to watch, and that Trainer would absolutely tell me if I was one of those riders).

We went back in a few riders later, fixed a few problems from the first round, still did the add, I still remembered where I was going, still kinda felt like barfing, but a little less than the first round. We weren’t here to prove anything. This was schooling. ‘God, I need to take myself less seriously – what is wrong with me’ literally was running through my head halfway through the second course. We finished the course. The rails were all up, I hadn’t forgotten where I was going, she hadn’t ran around like a maniac, she wasn’t rushing to the base of every fence or superman-ing from a stride out.

After conquering the first of the demons of the day, we headed back to the trailer to water the horses, grab vests and head over the cross-country field.  I had ditched my gloves (making me too hot) and my crop (making my horse too hot).  I really didn’t want to carry my stick; I rarely ride with one, and it was distracting me. I had brought about 5 bits and my martingale attachment as well – I had no idea what The Mare would need, I had no idea how she’d react…or how I would. I have long thought she’d really enjoy cross-country…as long as I wasn’t the one piloting her.

We headed over the cross-country field and started warming up. She was cool as a cucumber.  What was I expecting of her? To stop? To run out? I was choosing to ride without my stick, would that be a mistake? I realized I didn’t really have many expectations; we were here to get out of the arena, see some different fences, have fun (repeat: this is supposed to be fun). We had the most perfect afternoon to school, and I was schooling with a great group of girls, so I pushed aside the memories of the last time I schooled this horse cross-country as we approached a baby coup.

“She is not impressed,” stated Trainer the second time around.

We quickly moved onto other fences, rolltops, hanging logs; she hesitated only for a half-second before trotting through the first water complex.  She was loving every second. We moved to a spot with a little complex of banks, and she cantered up without a second glance and walked off.  Before we moved to a new locale, Trainer asked if I wanted to do the bank-1 stride-bank. “Sure, why not” I said, envisioning myself flying over her ears if she misread the question.

Instead, The Mare sailed up the banks with no qualms, foot-perfect.

She barely looked at the ditch we schooled.

We had been on for quite a long time, and she was still approaching every fence with enthusiasm; and I was oddly not freaking out. She was not the same horse as the last time we tried this. She was more schooled, more fit, more confident, more trusting. If I pointed her at it, her response was ‘got it!’ instead of ‘why are we jumping a log?’.

We packed up and headed home, and I spent the car ride watching and re-watching all the videos that one of the barn moms took for me (shout out to her for successfully videoing her own daughter as well as The Mare and I and catching every schooling exercise from really awesome angles. I’m over the moon that I can see how we did!).  The horse in these videos was relaxed. She didn’t look out of control. She was jumping in great form, ears pricked on the way to and over every fence. And her rider, well, her rider didn’t look totally petrified. I was actually quite surprised to see my equitation (something we haven’t necessarily been specifically stressing) better than it’s been in ages. Me not creeping up her neck, just out of the tack, my leg relatively still on her side.  It looked like we maybe know what we’re doing.

I could not have asked any more of The Mare (except maybe to get on the trailer at the end of the day as easily as she had in the morning rather than planting herself on the ramp).  She is a totally different horse than I moved out to Indiana with, and I can’t wait to see what all we can do this summer.

So now I’m looking at used vests and trying to figure out what our cross-country colors should be, which I never thought in a million years I would even be considering voluntarily eventing my horse. Now, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to do so.