CEPF Horse Trials: where XC went wrong, and what I plan to do about it

If you saw my recap on Monday you saw under “ugly” that cross country had more than one mishap.  Don’t worry; I bought the professional video so we can all enjoy this mishap for generations to come.  There’s also a little bit of video from a friend, but it is a little disappointing because I was riding really hard yet I look kinda like a sack of potatoes up there.  Whatevs.

Instead of dwelling on how things went wrong fence by fence, since they all went bad basically the same way, I want to instead think about the bigger picture of things going wrong.  I will preface this by saying that out on course, and in the immediate aftermath, I had no idea what had just happened to make the ride so bad.  I mean, I knew what the proximate cause of all the fuckups were, but I didn’t understand why the course never got any better, why Murray couldn’t or wouldn’t just listen to me, and was both devastated and furious that I had been unable to adapt my riding to get it done.

19482783501_95bcf337d6_kGetting it done at the scary brush rolltop

It started in warm up.  I felt Murray noodle to our first XC warm up fence (a small lattice coop) but I got him over it with a strong leg and words of encouragement.  Unfortunately he stopped at our next two XC warm up fences and I had to smack him to get him over them.  After all the times I’ve read that run outs are the rider’s fault and stops are the horse’s fault (and knowing there are caveats to this, like when I climb Murray’s neck and he’s like “nope too heavy for takeoff, Houston”) these stops were definitely on Murray.  I was balanced back on both of them, and as he rocked his weight back on to his hind I softened my hands to encourage him to use his body correctly, and instead of taking off he planted his front feet.

Ultimately, this is my fault too.  It’s a training issue that, somehow, I’ve let him come to think that it’s acceptable to stop thusly.  However, at the time I didn’t want to get into a huge fight with Murray in the warm up because a) show officials (remember how I didn’t want to be disqualified for horse abuse? I read the rule book section on horse abuse very carefully.) and b) getting into a fight with Murray has never the first ingredient to a good ride.  Sometimes it’s the fourth or fifth, but never the first.  Gotta give the princess some benefit of the doubt before resorting to the jockey bat.

IMG_2781Bad stopping pony. This was after his momentum change threw my forward — I assure you that I was sitting back right up until this moment, and he could easily have taken off had the urge struck.

After our third stop (at the up bank) I did give Murray a solid smack and rocked his world a little bit.  He hopped up and flung himself backwards a bit but listened to me whenever I pointed him at another fence in the warm up.  But as you can imagine that did not inspire great confidence in our ride.  I told Alana I wasn’t feeling confident, but I went on to the course with the intent of growling a bit if I had to and with the hope that my trusty XC loving Murray would return when he saw the awesomeness ahead.

Out on course I started as I often have – letting Murray pick his own pace (within reason), following softly with my hands, and rebalancing him as necessary, particularly as we approached the fences.  I’m pretty much never going to have to trip balls about speed until training or above: we’re fast enough that we’ll easily make optimum, but not so fast or talented that we’ll get faults.  The problems started with fence three where Murray first spooked at a jump judge and skittered sideways to the fence. This continued to be Murray’s MO for any fence where there was anything remotely scary nearby: spook and bulge to the opposite side of the scary thing (typically right but sometimes left).  I would then re-direct his attention to the question at hand (the fence), and with the exception of the trakehner he went over everything once reminded what we were actually doing.

IMG_2773 IMG_2776But I don’t want to jump it — YOU WILL TOO JUMP IT

At first I was really angry with Murray for not realizing, after successfully passing several jump judges that didn’t jump up and kill us, that the remaining jump judges on course were probably not going to try to murder us either.  I know, I know.  Horse “logic”.  I should lower my expectations.  In his mind, whatever behavior he was demonstrating towards the jump judges (DISTRUST! HATE!) was working just fine to keep us alive and therefore he must continue that behavior at all costs.  Sigh.  Our best fences were honestly the ones where there were no jump judges visible – the up bank, ditch, water, and canoe all warranted zero looks.  My barn manager Lisa (remember, Murray adores her above all else, and she’s a Murray Whisperer as well as generally fantastic read of horse body language and behavior) watched the whole thing and said that after every fence Murray just got more and more frantic and bunchy and that frenetic energy just compounded his fear of the random shit that was clearly going to kill both of us.

11540849_943642228991984_1621103932468790413_nAt least we know how to gallop

(When I first started this whole blogging thing, I thought about featuring “shit my horse spooked at today” Wednesdays or something.)

When I thought back on the course in the past few days, I really chastised myself for not containing that frantic energy better.  In a jump lesson before Camelot Murray got super disorganized during one round, but all I felt was this open, forward, powerful canter, and I misinterpreted his speed and gameness.  In my cloud of hindsight misery I kept dwelling on how things might have gone differently if I’d instead slowed Murray down and really forced him to get organized and focused on me between fences, instead of just seeking out the next fence and trusting his view of the next fence to get him organized.

However, upon reviewing the video it turns out that even with getting him balanced and organized before a fence, he wasn’t really focused, and was more than capable of unnecessarily looking out for scary things, so I feel a little less like chastising myself in that regard.

Typically when I am working with something scary at home, I demand that Murray soften and get his head down and listen to my aids and bend away from the scuurrrryy thing.  Once he’s done that, I then ask him to walk up to the sccurrrryyyy thing and make him touch it.  Typically we can then work past it just fine.  So while that works fine at home, it’s obviously not a viable solution for away.

Unless… can I perhaps walk him up to one of those jump judges next time?!!  Maybe I can yell “SCHOOLING!!!!!!” and trot him up to a scary jump judge and make him nose it then continue on our merry way?  As long as they don’t talk to us it’s not outside interference RIGHT?

IMG_2800Though he did end up picking his knees up better than usual here

As many times as I told people over the weekend that he was, Murray isn’t an asshole.  He’s not a hundred percent honest or listening, but he isn’t an asshole.  Most of the things he does aren’t out of some kind of defiance or annoyance, but it seems because the little cogs are turning faster than I can keep up with and he doesn’t actually trust me when I say that these things aren’t something to be scared of.  (Not an asshole, just an idiot.)

This annoys me, of course, because I’ve worked really hard for the last few years to get Murray trusting me and working right.  And for fuck’s sake horse, nobody wants to be nice to you except me, just cut me some fucking slack all right?  Whatever, horse logic, I do have higher expectations of you.  Alana and Lisa really think that Murray entered a place of extreme sensory overload, which got worse as the course went on, and finally hit his breaking point at a really unfortunate location.  This is corroborated by Alana’s observation that once I was off, Murray completely relaxed.  I was too fucking angry at him at the time to notice it, but apparently once I was on the ground he put his head into me and his scared, panicked eye disappeared.  He didn’t jig on the way back to the stall, he didn’t try to run away or spook any more, he just wanted to be on top of me (which you can imagine was absolutely the last thing I wanted from him at that point).

IMG_3305Excalibur redemption

I hear that there’s a way to fix the overstimulation that comes with showing.  It’s called: more showing.


This isn’t something we can fix (easily) with just schooling.  Schooling isn’t scary enough – there aren’t announcers, fifty other horses, pop tents, flags, or jump judges.  Sure, I could invite two hundred of my closest friends to come and scream and carry on and make schooling just like a showing environment, but I feel like that’s a lot to ask even of my wonderful team. (OH GREAT IDEA: CALIFORNIA BLOGGER MEET UP?!  We will call it “bombproof the baby”!)  But we can work on it by going to lots more shows, to compete or just to school (so I don’t have the pressure of performing well, but I feel like if I’m going to pay a non-comp fee I might as well pay the whole entry fee and just accept many more eliminations), and going to all different types of shows.  Though schooling stadium on Saturday was fine, it wasn’t great, and clearly the distractions are going to get to Murray in that arena too.  So stadium schooling shows (or even little rated ones) will be a good idea too.  So hopefully we can get him over this.

IMG_3333I’m also considering some kind of new supplement program.  Something with the word calm in it.  Perhaps that starts with “smart”.  I am also considering Quiessence, but when I tried it last September it most emphatically did not work, but if I can get away with making it free I’ll give it a go.  Obviously I will stop short of actually sedating him… maybe.  Additional considerations include poneh earplugs, and a shadow roll.  A shadow roll worked in the past with Quincy, who went over almost every fence with his head under his belly because he was so busy looking at things.  The earplugs will mandate a bonnet, which I have never been the world’s  biggest fan of, but as Lisa put it “what do you dislike more, bonnets or elimination?”

Blogland: I am open to suggestions.  Let them at me!

24 thoughts on “CEPF Horse Trials: where XC went wrong, and what I plan to do about it”

  1. I love how in the video someone says “She is so good at dealing with that horse”. Clearly Murray is not the easiest to deal with, and the respect in her voice was evident. Go you! I loved how everyone was clicking for you at the fences 🙂

    I like your idea of lots more shows, and different kinds of shows. ALL THE SHOWS! Bank accounts be damned 😉 Wet saddle blankets and miles… you guys got this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Wet saddle blankets and miles.

      To be honest, watching the videos and hearing everyone, even strangers cheering for me and supporting me gets me crying all over again! I don’t know why.


  2. Blogger meet up fo sho. Also, there are a ton of those local SAHJA shows that I’ve heard aren’t too pricey and not too far away. Maybe a good place to start for more show practice?

    I also volunteer to pretend to be a “scary” jump judge. 😉


  3. It really isn’t so bad looking from that video. He’s definitely alarmed about the demon under the umbrella, but he isn’t belligerent about it. Can you go xc schooling a couple times and have someone come along with a chair and an umbrella to sit by the fences? How is he at home if he wants to look at something and instead you make him keep going forward instead of stopping to look? I never let mine stop and stare at spooky things, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had one that was very spooky. Henry will start to give things the hairy eyeball and I stick my spur in, growl, and we keep going forward. That doesn’t always work with the ones that are truly scared and not just sorta faking it, though. 😉


    1. It’s true, Murray’s neither belligerent nor dangerous, just irritatingly insistent that he should get to look at what he wants. This was definitely the worst objection on course, but as you can see from the dragon he did this to some level or another over like 2/3 of the course which was really the unfun part.

      Good questions though. I’m definitely planning on bringing some umbrellas and pop tents to future schooling adventures! At home there isn’t really anything scary enough to warrant that level of distraction, but I tend to bend him away from said object and push him towards it. Actually now that I think about it we had a big fight a few months ago about this, in regards to a flapping visor on the fence, and he was this same brand of unpleasant. I don’t remember exactly how it went but I know I beat him mightily for repeatedly ignoring my inside leg and we eventually got past it without incident in future courses.

      Yeah the fake chicken/really scared thing is something I struggle with reading. I tend to treat Murray like his fears are legitimate but am wondering if I should change that strategy a bit.


      1. Good thoughts. It really does sound like he just needs MILES. All the miles, wherever you can get them. I personally wouldn’t reach for bandaids like ear plugs or shadow rolls yet… I’d try to address it the right way first. You’ll be better off in the long run. His mindset really isn’t atypical for a really green horse, he just has to learn that it really isn’t as exciting as it looks.


  4. You don’t HAVE to have a bonnet with ear plugs. Properly inserted ones typically stay in all day. In the hj world, it’s hard to find a horse that doesn’t wear plugs. Just try all the things and see what sticks 🙂 You could always add shadowrolls to his entire bridle.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. …can I join the CA bloggers meetup even though I’m on the east coast?? 😉 You handled him so well in that video, and I know what you mean about hindsight being 20/20. It’s so hard to keep that perspective on course with your adrenaline going. I’m a big fan of ear plugs, my old guy never went to shows without them!


  6. haha i kinda love the blogger meet up idea. bummer quiessence didn’t work bc a few barn mates have had success there… maybe something else with a lot of magnesium? anyways great self analysis – i really do think you’ll be able to fix this (Murray should count his lucky stars that you’re willing!), and maybe lots of cheaper schooling shows (h/j or dressage or whatever) will be just as effective as full events? good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. FWIW, my horse is an asshole (but not an idiot) and it’s a whole different ballgame that’s completely the same. Then he TRIES to pick a fight, but gets REALLY MAD if you rise to the occasion. It’s a very similar ride–ignore the shenanigans and just keep repeating yourself quietly. It works eventually.

    And honestly? The best thing I’ve done for Courage showing-wise was just to enter ALL THE THINGS. That’s why we did ground poles derbies and dressage shows and everything. Showing is a skill, being overwhelmed is a real thing, and we just have to practice until it’s not a thing any more.

    The problem with cheaper shows is that they frequently don’t have the overabundance of spooky jump judges that are featured at the big shows, but at least you can get them in the habit of showing and getting out so there are less things to be overloaded by. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not sure when we’ll next encounter the jump judges, but I do feel more prepared for when it happens.


  8. I’m totally on board for a West Coast meetup, just give me time to save for plane tickets! 😉

    I agree with everyone who said that miles is likely what y’all need. Murray needs to learn, somehow, that he’s not gonna die because someone is sitting in a chair near a jump. If I were closer to you I’d totally come sit in a chair with an umbrella while you schooled XC!


  9. Ohhh, I feel your pain – my Ginger mare is also extra suspicious of people hanging around anywhere near where she is supposed to go. It does get better – the more miles, the more he will trust you (or just realize you’re gonna make him do it whether he wants to or not!) I just love him though, seems like he’s a pretty smart cookie for all his silliness 🙂


  10. I thought you did a really great job of handling a mighty spook! My pony would have been in reverse gear! And it was really cute to hear all your pals cheer you on!

    Agreed with everyone else – enter all the things! Even if you have to go back down to some pre-BN level for some schooling shows (not that your or Murray aren’t capably of it – because you clearly are!) just to get some more mileage and exposure in a show situation. It really is a whole other ballgame


  11. I second (third?) what everyone else is saying- I think you did a great job of handling his spooking. I can’t say I would be able to confidently trot up to that jump after having my horse skitter sideways and get him over it!

    Prince and I went through a period of stops (it was mostly my fault) but in the end it made me a much better rider. Kudos to you for being willing to continue to work things out.


  12. I agree with everyone else – GREAT JOB handling him! So hard to ride a noddle on XC, but you did great. I agree that more shows (and not little ones) with excitement and speakers and horse-eating jump judges is the solution.

    As to whether or not he’s spooking on purpose vs legitimate spooking (naughty vs scared), I’ve had the same issue and learned that you have to treat all of it the exact same way: confident leader method. Leg, crop, driving seat, shoulder nudge, whatever he needs in that moment depending on if he’s bulging or getting behind the leg or what have you. Whatever the root cause, your attitude needs to be “this is what we are doing; come along now pony; we are too busy to be spooking.” It really helped me help the horse once I finally accepted this.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. You handled him really well! Sounds like you know exactly what he needs, so you will get there in the end.
    I have this strange urge for some sprite…


  14. Ugh what a pain! I had a course way back when at the FORK that went like that, at maxed height-maxed width fences… gallop gallop gallop get-to-the-base-of-the-fence STOP fu*k! Jump from stand still!

    It was awful.

    Anyways, I relate. And your thoughts about a Wednesday What did my horse spook at today idea is awesome. I feel like I need a weekly What did I dumb today post to match.


  15. YES blogger meetup, I’ll be happy to bring chairs and umbrellas and tarps and scream at you as you gallop by.

    Also YES to what did my horse spook at this week series, I could add to that too now that I have a horse that spooks!

    As frustrating as it is, you totally deal with it really well. Your perseverance will eventually pay off. I’m with SB- enter ALL the things, especially cheap schooling shows. I can direct you to some down here. Are there any mock hunts nearby? That may be a good way of gaining confidence out there- peer pressure haha

    Also I’ve totally been there, when I got done with the little stallion’s first event ever, the first thing I said to my trainer when she asked how it went was “I know where every single jump judge is sitting and I know what they are wearing” haha it’s more fun to look back on it now than it was to think about in the weeks following the dramatic cross country run.


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