I absolutely have a half-drafted show recap from June awaiting completion, but at this point it seems foolish to dwell that far in the past when just three five weeks ago I WAS AT THE AECs.
I put qualifying for the AECs on my “stretch goal” list this year, with no real expectation that we would get there. But if we got there, I was absolutely going to go to the AECs since they would be at Rebecca Farm — practically in my back yard compared to Kentucky. And then we qualified right out of the gate by coming in 2nd at our first show. I stressed a little bit getting my completion requirements when I had a stop in stadium at Inavale Farm (that stop ended up being a timely lesson that I needed), but we made it happen.
So we prepped for a big trip to Montana at the end of August. We had a six week break from showing after Inavale at the end of June (punctuated by an extra week of break for me while I had covid), took a trip out to Spokane to school cross country (very educational), and then hopped up to the Caber HT (super local for me, just barely two hours away) for one more prep pre-Rebecca. TrJ had a rider in the prelim and was in a Novice festival class herself, so Speedy and I got to spend the whole week up there and really soak in the atmosphere. USEA really goes out of their way to make this special for the BN riders and amateurs, and I appreciated it greatly.
I’ve thought a lot about what to write about the AECs . I could write about our prep, I could write detailed recaps of each day and every ride, I could write about all the things I learned, about everything we took away — physical and metaphysical. But I think I just want to write about the smiling.
I’ve never been one of those people who smiles while they ride (lookin’ at you Olivia). When I’m riding I’m thinking, I’m focusing, I’m trying to make the ride better and give my horse what he needs. And when I’m thinking and focusing, I look… pissed.
And — completely honestly — showing isn’t always straight-up fun for me. There’s always been pressure. Pressure not to let my horse explode, to give him a good ride, to show that he could be more than he looked like. That was Murray. And then with Speedy, pressure not to make mistakes, to give him a good ride, to do a good job so I wasn’t abusing the talents of this fun, talented, amazing (expensive, gulp) horse at beginner novice.
By the time we got the Rebecca though, I had somehow let all of that go. I was riding at Rebecca. I was awestruck and delighted to be there. I was happy for every hack we went on, every time I took Speedy out to hand graze; I grinned through our early morning lunges (okay yes, I cried with excitement a bit too) and smiled through every flat school. This horse is so easy to love, and the more I smiled the happier Speedy became.
I made a mistake in my dressage test (which means I have had more tests with mistakes than without this season, oops) that took me out of 3rd place. Didn’t care. I gave my horse an awesome ride at the AECs.
I felt nervous for a few minutes before cross country. That anxiety that rises up from your stomach, sneaks up into your shoulders, and gets stuck as a buzzing in your ears. TrJ told me to warm Speedy up at the canter around the warmup and stretch him out and it all just melted away. And when I got out on course I rode my plan and Speedy was with me for every single step.
Those nerves came back for a minute right before stadium. I was a couple of minutes off my schedule walking down to the ring (always hard when they are running reverse order of go), and Speedy was a bit antsy so we trotted past a trainer friend of mine. She was like “don’t rush, you’ve got time!!” since her student would go in before me and she wasn’t even down there yet! But I’ve been late to warmup way too many times. I let the horse trot.
Once I got into the warmup I cantered around again and felt those nerves melt away just like they had before cross country. So there I was, cantering around the warmup with this humongous grin on my face, passing plenty of riders white-knuckled and tense. I wasn’t tense. I was riding at the AECs!!!!!
My stadium course also rode right to plan. Do you know how good that feels? When everything rides exactly to your plan and you leave all the sticks up? IT FEELS FUCKING AMAZING DUDES.
Finishing on my dressage score was all I wanted to do at the AECs and I did it. Everything else was gravy. At the end of the day two riders ahead of me dropped rails moving me up into fifth. I won some kind of pony award for the first placed pony in my division. My Adult Rider team finished second. I came away with sooooo many ribbons.
If you get a chance to go to the AECs, do it. Even “just” at the Beginner Novice level, which I qualified my presence with all weekend. It was amazing. It was a week full of smiles and happiness and delight and good rides and joy. It was a week full of progress and learning in the best way. And in between there were quiet moments with my pony, sunrises alone together on the grass, afternoons sitting together on cross country, and meditative stall picking and butt scratching.
It was worth every dollar I paid to get there, that week and along the way. Worth long hours in the orchard to make sure things were taken care of before shows. Absolutely worth all the hours in the tack wondering if I would ever figure out how to ride this horse.
Thank you, Speedy, for making my dreams come true.
The truck curse was still with me two weeks later when Aspen Farms Horse Trials rolled around. Wednesday I took an eight hour roadtrip back to Yakima to retrieve my beloved truck. Then the next morning, one of the tires was suspiciously low after I had topped it up the night before. Next, barnmate got injured rendering her unable to show. Day now thoroughly upside down, I zipped off to Les Schwab to get the hole in my tire fixed and TrJ rearranged her day to show barnmate’s horses for the weekend.
About four hours after I had intended to leave, I loaded Speedy up in my Loaner Trailer (I really, really like that trailer) where he looked at me suspiciously since he was alone, but stood still as can be for the whole ride. So still, in fact, that I pulled off at a truck stop to check that he was still standing in there. And he was, just…. completely still.
We have had an uncharacteristically wet spring in the PNW this year. We got 12.87″ of rain at my house in March, April, and May of this year. For the same period in 2020 we got 7.5″ and only 3.57″ in 2021. We had a few sunny days leading up to the show but the humidity was rising and the barometer was getting low (literally we measure these things at my house now). According to all sources, it was going to be a wet and wild one at Aspen.
It wasn’t quite raining men, but when I got there the parking area was an absolute mud pit. A friend of TrJ’s had kindly saved me a spot and I wrangled my trailer into it. I got Speedy unloaded and into his stall — literally the closest stall to the entry gate, which meant he had lots to gawk at all weekend — and then committed to tacking up for the shortest hack I could reasonably fit in because it was just raining harder and harder every minute.
As an aside, WHY are people such assholes in show parking? I had to knock on someone’s LQ door to ask them to move their truck to get into my spot as they were blocking both the road and the spot. The group parked on the other side of the spot asked me to repark and move a little further away from their rig. I declined, since I didn’t think the ground would hold up to repositioning. This is show parking. The goal is to fit in as many rigs as possible, not provide you with luxury accommodations you wingdings. If you want a bigger spot, buy an RV spot.
During my hack Speedy decided he couldn’t possibly canter in the puddles in the arena, which was fairly worrisome. When I told TrJ she advised me to put in a couple of small grass studs for dressage the next day because — surprise!! — I got to ride on the grass. This actually worked out in my favor, as I’m not sure the property owner would have appreciated me studding up for dressage in his sand arena.
My ride time was 8:56, so after TrJ and I got barnmate’s horses settled in I poured myself a cocktail and tried to braid Speedy. People were cruising back in to the show grounds after dinner at that point, and Speedy was at his most gawkiest and fidgety. After getting three braids done in an hour I gave up, decided it would happen in the morning or not at all, and set myself a 4 am alarm. Worst case scenario I would beg off my failure to braid with the fact that it is beginner novice and — I think — not technically required.
I really need to get my own watch to wear to shows, because once again I had a bit of a timing panic when I heard the warmup/ring stewards calling the rider directly ahead of me. (Fortunately they were informing them they were three out or something, but it still got me a little worried.) Speedy did jump one puddle as we were cantering around in the warmup, and I was a little hesitant to really put my leg on him on the slick grass. TrJ encouraged me to trust that he had his footing and that I need to practice putting my leg on him because I need to be able to push him forward even over sloppy ground.
As far as the test went, it was the first time I got into the ring and could actually feel and ride and make adjustments during a dressage test, which was huge for me! I was chatting with a friend about it later and she described the contrasting feeling as “hoping your warmup was good enough and holds through the test,” which is how I normally feel going into a dressage test. Speedy, for his part, was excellent. I’m always so impressed with how he buckles down and is such as yes-man in the show environment. Yet another thing to love about him.
dressage test video:
My cross country ride was Saturday early afternoon. It rained hard Friday night, but by Saturday morning the sun was starting to peek out. Novice riders went in the morning and there were some pretty wild skid marks from the earliest horses on course. A couple of soggy course walks had me convinced that none of the questions on the course looked big or scary (and there was a sharkstooth that I was super excited to jump!) but that the quality of the footing would really be a deciding factor in how I rode. After her Novice XC ride, TrJ told me to put in some pretty big studs and feel it out as I went. Luckily, that week I had just schooled at Inavale in a lot of wet, sticky mud, so I had an idea of how Speedy might feel in those conditions and how I might want to ride him.
Luckily the ground had really firmed up by the time I got out on course, and Speedy didn’t have any footing troubles or hesitation compared to the horses in the morning. Speedy left the start box with the same open, easy canter that I’d felt from him at EI and I felt both excited and peaceful as we cantered over the first few fences.
I discovered at fence three that I had pressed the wrong button on my watch to get it to start, so I was running without minute markers. I tried on a long gallop stretch to get it started but couldn’t seem to find the “start” button (it’s just the biggest button on the watch, Nicole, no big deal) so gave up. I estimated that Speedy’s easy canter would be right on pace for the course (350 mpm I think?) so figured that as long as I moved my pace up from that a bit and made sure to gallop the longer stretches I would be fine.
The water entrance was where I had my first taste of trouble with Speedy: coming up to the wide, entrance he skittered to the right and I aaaalmost missed the flag. Later, walking the course at Inavale, TrJ explained to me that you really want young/green horses to be able to see their way into and out of the water. I clearly took too steep of an approach to this entrance, so Speedy’s eye was glancing right past the flag and around the water instead he of thinking about going through the water. The better approach would have been to go out wide to the right and turn Speedy to the water so he was approaching it more directly.
But we made it in and through, and I knew I’d need to purposefully half halt and put my leg on for the second water on course. I got excited and leaned for the long one to the sharks tooth, and then absolutely did not stay with Speedy with my body, so that jump was a bit ugly too.
Coming down the hill to the second water, I made that effort to purposely slow Speedy and point him into and through the water, and he entered with less hesitation this time. The second to last fence had been pulled off the course because the landing was a total swamp, so after the second water we had another long gallop stretch to just two more fences.
Speedy was careful with the terrain changes throughout the course. Aspen has both gently rolling terrain and some steeper knobs, pimples, and moguls that the course designers use liberally for all levels. Whenever we had a steep downhill, Speedy slowed to a trot as he assessed the grade and I legged on to encourage him to roll back into a canter when he was comfortable. I think it will be good for us to practice developing and maintaining an uphill canter even through those quicker terrain changes. But for now we have time to kill and it doesn’t matter if we trot a few downhill slopes. I’d rather than than have him panic and run downhill out of control.
Since I had no watch, I had no idea whether I’d come in on time on cross country and had to wait until scores were posted online. While I waited (and iced my horse) one of my best friends showed up with his daughters (his wife was one of the vets working at the show). Speedy napped and we put together an enrichment ball for him and the girls admired him (for about five minutes, and then they became distracted with the bed tucked up in the gooseneck of the trailer).
Sunday I didn’t ride until early afternoon again, and I spent the morning watching some of the 2*/Prelim with my friend and his daughters. Overnight the course designers and builders had to move sections of tracks and multiple fences for almost every single level for Sunday’s cross country. The rain (which started again Saturday night) and slop created by the horses that had already run cross country forced their hand. I cannot imagine the stress that must have caused everyone on both sides. Luckily, I got to do stadium on Sunday!
While I was warming Speedy up for stadium, I was coming around to one of the fences and as I was making the turn TrJ yelled at me “get organized!” This is not uncommon for me to hear from TrJ; I seem to be the perpetually disorganized. In this case though, I thought “I was just about to, uggggh!!” And then I realized…. TrJ wants me to get organized earlier than I think I need to get organized. The next go around I tried to organize myself through the turn, rather than on the straight away, and TrJ still beat me to the punch with her “get organized!” I definitely still have plenty to work on in the organization department.
The stadium course at Aspen had a little more height than the one at EI, but once again was a really fun, flowing course. And this time I headed in with a determination to actually ride this course. I did a pretty good job of keeping Speedy steadily forward until we turned around to the vertical that was on the diagonal across the arena. It was a long approach after coming around the corner, and Speedy got way close and rapped it hard. After watching the video about a hundred times, I needed to get Speedy a bit better organizer earlier in the turn and keep the canter steady through the turn and down the long approach. I didn’t actually have enough space on the long approach to “just steady” after rebalancing, and Speedy moved up ever so slightly to the fence (which is his tendency anyway), getting us awfully close.
After flagrantly turning back to check on that rail, we came around to the in and out. I’d definitely lost some control at this point and Speedy jumped crooked over the oxer in and then (of course) saved us over the out. Since Speedy powered up to fit in the two, when I sat on him to half halt to the final fence he didn’t immediately come back to me, so I figured it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it (spoiler alert: TrJ did not agree) and let Speedy carry us down to the fence.
Luckily Speedy is both quick and handy and he got out of his own way for the last fence as well and left that one up, so we had another double clear round under our belts.
The scores in our division at Aspen were nuts. The top six riders in my division all finished on their dressage scores — me included — and only a few riders dropped down during XC or stadium. I started in 9th after dressage and only moved up to sixth.
Regardless, I was super proud of both Speedy and myself for getting through our first soggy PNW event without any major mishaps! Although, we got super lucky and it wasn’t actually raining during any of our rides, and the sun even came out for our cross country run a little bit. But those frigid, soaking, Aspen (poor Aspen, always seems to happen at Aspen) weekends are a staple of the PNW eventing scene so we had to have one sooner or later.
Writing this all out, and watching all my videos again, it’s becoming clear to me that I need to invest a little more mental effort into getting Speedy and myself organized! I need to be quicker to get organized, and better about staying organized (since it’s more efficient to stay that way than it is to vacillate between organized and disorganized. Though honestly, I’m sure that will be a long-term piece of homework for me. Being organized is not my strong suit.
When I lived in California we used to say that Trainer B was cursed because her truck would always break down at the most inopportune time: on the way to horse shows. Since my truck shat the bed right in the middle of Yakima Nation with no cell service while I was hauling, I’m starting to think I’m the cursed one.
With my amazing barnmate’s help and some in-law advice I did eventually make it to Washington State Horse Park on Thursday afternoon. After getting Speedy settled in, taking a little three hour road trip with a friend to rescue my trailer, and schlepping enough of my shit back and forth from my friend’s trailer to get me sorted for the night, I had just enough time to squeeze in a humid sunset ride. I walked for a long time clicking and treating Speedy for woah-ing. We were both edgy to start with but as we meandered Speedy slowly relaxed and so did I. I had enough time to trot and canter around near the dressage court that I would ride in, and to wander around the warmup as well.
I got lucky and my friends from OldTrJ’s barn wandered by right as I was starting to sort out my bed up in the goose of the trailer and dragged me back to their camp for leftover pasta. After which I wrapped Speedy and took him out for a romantic late-night stroll. We were the only ones out, and the only sounds were horses munching and shifting in their stalls. It was so peaceful and beautiful in the dark with just me and Speedy. So despite all the drama Speedy and I got in a nice ride, I got a square meal in me, and I had a nice warm, dry bed to sleep in with only a Hazel-sized lump in the middle weighing down the blankets.
I didn’t ride until the afternoon on Friday, but spent much of the morning schlepping my stuff back and forth to get reorganized and relocate everything (that had oncebeen carefully packed and organized. Sigh). TrJ told me to get in a prep ride in the morning which was absolutely mind blowing to me. Ride my horse… twice? In one day? On dressage day? Twice?
But TrJ is the boss and so I tacked up early for a warmup prep ride. It was pretty surreal, honestly. I walked into the warmup in just normal riding clothes, clearly not show clothes, and let Speedy wander around smelling piles of poop while I listened to trainers coaching their riders and watched riders stress over their warmup. And I got to just… chill. When we felt ready I picked up a trot and did some work, keeping it light. All of my focus was turned on to just us as the warmup moved on around us. It was bizarre to be that person in warmup who is just doing their own thing, pursuing their own goals, staying out of peoples’ way but otherwise immune to the world around them.
When my dressage time finally rolled around I was way more nervous than for my morning prep ride. Speedy was awesome though. After TrJ warmed us up, we marched right into that dressage court and I robotically made my way through the test just desperately trying to stay on course and keep Speedy somewhat on the bit (really still working on the rideability for us). I only really remember two things:
one, coming down into the walk and thinking “holy shit we are walking so slowly” and “this free walk is going nowhere” and was convinced I’d get a 5 or lower on those movements.
two, Speedy got super behind my leg in the canter-trot transition right and then glugged into the walk early. Rather than kick him back into the trot and deal with the ugly fallout of that, I just let him ooze into the walk a whole letter early.
On stadium morning, I made a classic Nicole error and mixed up my SJ and XC times and got on Speedy an hour before my ride time. Oops. Then I stayed too long in the “flatting” zone of the warmup, and TrJ had to hustle me over the warmup jumps so I would be warmed up.
Speedy was awesome for stadium, of course. The course was set pretty soft and wasn’t too exciting or technical, and we cruised right around. The first few jumps I got some awkward tight spots despite trying to move Speedy up to better ones. As the course went on things smoothed out and got better. Right up until the oxer in to the two-stride, where I leaned for the long one and Speedy intelligently crammed another small stride in and lifted his feet up over it so we didn’t take it down. We somehow still fit in two, because this pony is a freaking genius.
Later TrJ asked me if I noticed that Speedy’s stride got bigger and bigger throughout the course. I paused for a long time, wishing I could somehow say yes to that question but the answer was solidly “nope”.
After icing Speedy I headed over to the volunteer tent to see if I could help out, but they were full on volunteers for the afternoon! Instead, I signed up for a volunteer shift as the stadium timer the next day after my XC ride was over but before barnmate would want to leave (I got to time her division!). Then we walked over to the Preliminary and Intermediate XC courses (about a mile hike away) and watched the prelim riders go!
On Sunday I made a much more classic-Nicole mistake and was running late for my XC warmup. Barnmate hustled me into the warmup where TrJ told me to stay calm and that I had plenty of time. The in-gate people were hustling me along though, so TrJ sent me over the X three times, the vertical twice, the oxer twice, and the natural and sent me over to the start box. What I additionally didn’t know is that they were a) sending people to the start box so early because it was about a 4-5 minute walk to get over there and b) the starter was running early!!!! The rider behind me was already walking to the start when I left warmup, so I hustled Speedy along and trotted part of the way only to find… nobody there when I got there. The starter offered to let me go early, so I took him up on it.
I was (obviously) a bit frazzled when I left the start box, but Speedy fell right into this rhythmic, rangy canter and pulled us toward the first fence without feeling rushed or frazzled. I had gotten the minute markers from another rider while we course walked the night before, and Speedy was right on the first minute marker at fence 3. After fence 4 we had a bit of a gallop stretch, so I put my foot on the gas and Speedy was happy to pick up the pace.
I got surprised at the water, where Speedy slowed to a walk to step in. He’s always been a bit funny about water at home, but never had a problem with it out XC schooling. But he went, so I didn’t think much of it (which almost got me in trouble at Aspen).
The only thing on course that I was actually worried about was the down bank, which I am historically terrible at. But Speedy is the most reasonable and conservative creature about down banks and steps right down them so smoothly. TrJ also gave me great coaching on them when we were schooling and told me to hold on with my low calf and not my thigh (which is my instinct and that of many other riders), so that my seat could move but my base of support wouldn’t. And Speedy, true to his pattern, stepped right down.
We trotted a brush fence on a downhill after the bank (I would have preferred to canter but Speedy chose a trot, and I prefer an organized trot jump to a scrambly canter jump) and then it was a pretty good uphill canter to the finish fences. Which is the best. Cantering uphill and feeling a horse fold up under you and really dig into the footing is amazing.
We were in 7th-ish after dressage. We moved up to second after stadium, and a clear fast cross country round meant we finished there as well.
While I could imagine a slightly better ending to my first show in four years (only a little bit of time separated me from the leader), finishing on my dressage score, getting a personal best, having fun the entire time, and getting a ribbon for my efforts was a pretty incredible way to get back into the game.
I’ve been watching a lot of Great British Bake Off so I mean smashing in all of its possible positive connotations, and not just the ones that look a bit like this.
I was a little worried about the XC course at Camelot. It was challenging — which is pretty much what Camelot excels at. And instead of a nice, friendly, welcoming, come-jump-me first fence, the Novice course had a big, barky, ramp-y hanging log. I knew I’d have to ride it hard. The second fence was the arrow, but after that pretty much everything on course was something we’d seen or jumped before. They were still challenging and a good size, but they were at least challenges I was familiar with. Including that knee-busting down bank from last year.
yep, this arrow!
Murray warmed up really well. He didn’t feel tired, but he was listening and wasn’t sassing me too much. Kate, on the other hand, was full of sass. She kept telling me things like keep my ankle bone on my horse, and that I needed to steady my lower leg and stop jumping for my horse. And I was like “don’t you KNOW how this horse feels about having legs wrapped around him?” and she was like “stop sassing me and be a better rider”*. So I tried to do just that.
Given our problems with down banks lately, I made a plan with Kate for the down bank. She wanted me to ride the house before it on an opening stride, and then push Murray forward from that house for a stride or two with that same BIGGER feeling. Then I would keep my leg on and sit a little back to the down bank (Kate said I wanted to keep that feeling of having 3/4 of the horse in front of me). Murray could take all the time he needed to look at it, but I wasn’t to take my leg off or lose that forward motion. (I think. That’s how I remember the conversation, at least.)
The part I didn’t tell Kate was that if he refused it once and didn’t give me a good feeling about a second go at it, I was planning to retire. I wasn’t prepared to fight about it, especially not with a TD looking on.
Fortunately for us, the down bank wasn’t a problem!
We did, unfortunately, have a problem with the first fence. I tapped Murray three times coming up to it, but he was having none of it and needed a good, hard look at that fence as we got on top of it. I circled him and we got over it the second time, but at that point I knew we were absolutely just in it to finish and not to make time.
And it’s a good thing that I got that into my head early on, because our course was riddled with ridiculous moments of barely slithering over fences (maybe Murray learned something from that snake?), trantering, and stopping to STARE at fences that were absolutely not on our course.
Despite the stopping and staring, the fences I actually had a plan for rode really well. We got right over the trakehner without circling (my foolproof technique to get Murray’s attention back before fences on a downhill), and the down bank rode perfectly. I thought we’d get such an utterly shitty spot to the roll top out of the water because we’d lose all of the energy through the water, but lo and behold it rode just fine. We got in tight but not because we chipped in! It was the fences where I was just like “this is normal and easy, just go like you go at home!” that we flubbed majorly.
Which is a pretty telling lesson.
We ended up with two 20s and a fair bit of time. C’est la vie when you stop for a peek every five fences on course and throw in an untimely circle before the last fence because someone is afraid of the finisher’s booth. It absolutely wasn’t perfect, but it’s also something that has gotten much better with practice in the past.
On Sunday morning Murray was definitely tired. He wasn’t quite as peppy in our stadium warm up as he had been for cross country. He was a good boy though, and jumped all the things, even with a HUGE break in the middle because of show scheduling probs.
I’m not exactly sure what went wrong in stadium. The timing wasn’t perfect. And we were tired. And the fence we crashed into was right next to that dreaded announcer’s/finisher’s booth that Murray hates so much.
What I know happened is that Murray jumped big over fence 4 and even bigger over 5. We didn’t manage to get pictures of number 5, but I really felt him crack his back over it. We landed in a bit of a pile, and I didn’t manage to get him back as we came around the corner to 6. Kate describes Murray’s scrambly gaits as “chicken gaits” and that’s exactly where we still were. We didn’t have a good rhythm and we didn’t have a good tempo. Whether it’s because he was scared of the judge’s booth or the fence or just didn’t feel like it, Murray tried to cram another stride in before the oxer and there simply wasn’t space. And down it came.
It was a disappointing end to the weekend to be sure. It would be nice to finish an event on my first go at the level some time. (And maybe to stop failing so hard at Camelot!) But it was an educational one, and it was fascinating to see Murray’s and my problems through a new trainer’s eyes.
We have a lot to work on — as always. But it’s work I know we can do, and work I’m excited to start on.
Plus — as many of you have mentioned — my outfit was on point. Now I just need some navy gloves….
*Not an actual Kate quote. Just the way I interpreted her kind sentiment.
After hauling all the way to Camelot on my own, and getting there when it was rather warm, I was pretty delighted to find myself stabled next to Eugene and Levi. They are two of my favourite ponies, and I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire weekend kicking at the panels when my horse tried to befriend them. Murray ended up being much more friendly with Levi than Eugene (shhhh don’t tell David but Eugene is a bit of a snob!!).
I spent three days trying to catch these two making out
I knew from the get go that there would be a lot of different stuff about this show. Murray is a different Murray than he was six or nine months ago, and part of the new training paradigm/protocol is not letting him get away with unnecessary shit. Not to say that I get wild or whippy on him when he throws out some Murray moves — just that we get on with our lives and it doesn’t get him out of responding correctly to what I was asking for. (And yes, if this sounds a lot like “good training” you’d be right. Isn’t it wonderful that I’m learning about it now?!!)
So we got out into warm up, and after stepping on the danger noodle, we got to work. Kate said she’d refrain from trying to change the horse too much, but would throw biomechanics fixes at me to help put us together. And boy did she ever throw biomechanics at me.
First, Kate told me to stop shoving and over-riding the walk. Um, I thought I was just following the motion the way I was supposed to? No, apparently not. So I just stopped trying to do that all together, and focused on simply not resisting the walk. When we moved on to the trot Kate kept telling me to slow down my posting — no, slow it down more. She did not want me letting Murray bounce me around into the trot he wanted. Which is also what I thought I’d been doing for the last two weeks. Or not. You know.
I might even be smiling a bit here?
this must have been in the serpentine — which got a 7!
Kate wanted me to pull my seat bones further toward the front of the saddle — sitting them in the deep part of the saddle, instead of sliding them toward the back and perching forward slightly. It turns out I have this tendency of stacking my ribcage slightly ahead of my pelvis, so even though my spine is relatively neutral, I’m not actually sitting up straight. To remedy that, I needed to keep thinking about kneeling and sliding those seat bones forward in the saddle.
By far the biggest change in our schooling came in the canter work. Kate kept reminding me to lift the saddle on the upswing, and then allow the canter with my hands. I’d do one, and promptly stop doing the other. When I could do both at once and keep Murray moving forward, the canter totally transformed! I must practice this canter more to solidify the feeling and the mechanic, because that is the canter we’re actually going to be able to do stuff with.
On test morning I got up early and fed and braided, and only ended up about three minutes off my projected mounting time, with a clean ponito. I paid a kid to braid his tail and she did an incredible job — her best, she said! along with the comment that Murray has a really, really long dock — and we were looking spiffy and ready to go.
“free walk” (lol) — judge’s comments “needs more stretch, breaks to trot”, scored a 5
(we broke to the trot in the next movement also, garnering a 4)
I was not prepared for this dressage test. I’ve been riding “circles” and “diagonals” for months but haven’t actually paid attention to any movements or geometry. And the walk work? HA! I knew the walk would be what it was, so spent the weeks before focusing on the connection and the trot work. So I went in hoping to nail the geometry of the circles and serpentine (oh yeah, made Kate school me on those before — and was she ever a fucking task master about their size) and with fingers crossed for the walk work.
Before I went in to the test I asked Kate for a mantra to get me through the test and keep reminding me of what I needed to be doing to ride well. She gave me one for the trot and one for the canter — sit to the front of the saddle, and allow with the hands respectively.
And all in all? The test was great. I kept my reins shorter than I’ve ever (test) ridden with them. I had my leg on and Murray was prompt and pretty much on the aids. Our two big blunders were breaking to the trot in the free walk, and breaking to the trot again in the next movement (medium walk). Given that we’d schooled walk-trot transitions a fair bit in the last few days, you can hardly blame the guy. Plus, new mistakes! I love new mistakes. Hate old mistakes.
bad habits still exist, though!
Even with the two mistakes, we earned a respectable 35 even. (If we’d not blundered, I would have been in the 33.5 range, putting me ahead of at least one pro but WHO IS COUNTING NOT ME.) I thought the judge (Jane McEnespy) was very fair. I watched the test of a horse a few rides after me, and the horse was super obedient and steady and very quiet. That horse also had his head down but had zero connection through the reins and was totally behind the leg. They scored a 37.9. I feel like that’s pretty fair for a quiet, obedient, respectable test that isn’t totally correct. At least for Novice.
I am so proud of how Murray showed up for this dressage test. He came out of there like it was the most normal thing in the world. Oh — and I forgot to mention that because the ring stewards were being a little conservative about sending people to the rings, we had to legitimately trot over to our ring to get there in time. I’m also pretty proud of myself. I went into a dressage test and rode the hell out of it. I didn’t just try to coast through and avoid, I put my leg on and actually did the thing. That’s pretty cool.
final halt and salute got us a 7.5, even though it wasn’t totally square. perhaps a little generous.
I’m still working on my salute. I definitely don’t practice in front of a mirror to see how it looks. I like the alignment of my arm with my body here, but think I would look a bit better if my hand were a little closer to my leg — less winged out to the side. What do you think?
This weekend at Camelot was… a lot. A lot of fun, a lot of firsts, a lot of hard riding, a lot of hard work. I didn’t go in expecting it to be easy, and it wasn’t. But it was harder than I thought it would be.
This was my first solo hauling trip, and my first time traveling to a show without my main trainer. Which is not to say I was without training — Kate stepped in and did an incredible job. If I’m clever I’ll dedicate a whole post to it. The short version: you gotta get yourself a Kate.
I borrowed my MIL’s rig to get Murray to Camelot and despite a minor anxiety-inducing moment leaving her driveway (there is a VERY NARROW BRIDGE with a VERY TIGHT TURN) it was smooth sailing. A trainer friend helped me find someone to back the trailer up in a pretty primo parking space (I just had to drive through a dressage warm up to get to it), and we were set!
Right before we schooled in the dressage courts, I stepped on a snake for the first time! I was lining Murray up with a big wooden mounting block and checking his girth and the stirrups when I stood on something a little squishy. I looked down and thought “that’s funny, someone left a lead rope! Usually I’m the one who leaves lead ropes around.” And when I lifted my foot up, the lead rope SLITHERED AWAY.
Clearly my Australianness has worn off, because it’s genetically ingrained in us to NOT step on snakes. And there was a danger noodle, right under my foot!
helmet + bonnet + coat on point!
This was Murray’s first show wearing a bonnet, and my first show in my sparkly new helmet! (I’m pretty sure Leah found it for me last International Helmet Day, thanks Leah!!!) I think Murray liked his bonnets. Every time I went to put them on he’d duck his head down and let me pull the fabric over his ears. Normally he is not a fan of me messing around with his ears or the top of his head.
Oh and — duh — this was our first rated Novice.
and our first tail braid!
We had a personal best dressage score — our first 35! — even with two, two mistakes! Murray broke to the trot in the free walk and medium walk — another set of firsts, because usually he’s like “uggghhh do we really have to trot again, I thought we were done?”.
There were some less awesome firsts, though.
We had our first good crash into a fence, bringing down most of an oxer.
And for the first time, I retired on course.
It’s the only thing you can do after crashing like that, really.
This was also the first show I’ve gone to where I knew that I wasn’t prepared enough. Not that I haven’t been underprepared before — I just didn’t know it in the past.
It was by no means a perfect weekend. But all things considered, it was a pretty damn good one. Tears and all.
I learned a ton. I got to gallop fast and jump big. If there are holes in Murray’s ability to listen to the leg and go forward toward scary things, it’s nothing we can’t fix (I hear it’s all about this thing called “stimulus control”, right Kate?).
A million thanks to Sheila and to David and Olivia for pics. Where would I be without you guys?!
200 — approximate man hours spent dragging the course and reworking the footing after it got absolutely annihilated and baked in the California sun for months and months
112 — projected temperature for the day of the show, in the middle of a six day heat wave
111 — temperature actually reached on the day of the show, well after all of the competitors were done with their rides
80 — hours spent painting, flowering, flagging, mulching, and rock-picking by hand on course
64 — starters on the morning of the show
18 — concerned queries we received regarding what we would be doing to keep horses and riders safe in the heat
10 — compliments on the adjusted show schedule
8 — ice and water buckets placed around the facility for riders to sponge themselves and their horses
7 — hours spent putting up and taking down misters on the temporary stables
october fence decorating plans!
6 — total number of hours we ran the show — 65 competitors pushed through three phases between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm! riders traveled from dressage to stadium within about 45 minutes, then immediately on to XC. no rider had to be on their horse for more than 2 hours.
5 — adult sodas consumed while cleaning up after show’s end
4 — days before the show that we completely re-adjusted the schedule so that nobody would ride past 1 PM
3 — nights where I slept for at least 12 hours to recover from the show
2 — dressage rings running simultaneously
1 — month until we do it again (less than, actually!)
On Saturday night I walked Murray around bareback in his wraps to stretch him out from cross country, and liberally used some of my homemade liniment on both him and myself. The upside is that Murray doesn’t seem to hate my homemade liniment. The downside is that, while it feels nice, I don’t think it does shit. I mean, it certainly hasn’t helped the healing of my knees. The formula might need some tweaking. We’ll work on it.
It’s been a while since I walked my horse around bareback in the dark, and Kate commented likewise. It was fun. Murray powerwalked when we had company, and meandered when we were alone. That night I slept like the dead.
there’s so much good stadium media thanks to the Kathy(s)
My knee was almost pain-free on Sunday morning, but it was also very, very stiff. I was hobbling around like a peg-legged pirate getting Murray ready. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately (it’s probably worth its own post) but Murray has made huge strides in tacking up lately. At shows he’s been downright normal — it takes me five minutes to tack him up, and boy is that nice compared to 25 minutes.
Unfortunately for me, my knee was not holding up as well in the saddle as it had on Saturday. Posting was a little painful (though the pain decreased as I rode), and I had a distinct feeling of unsteadiness in my two point. Murray was a little sleepy feeling, but perked up when we started jumping. I was back to riding like a juggalo, and leaned and kicked and crammed Murray to a couple of awful spots. At one point I leaned and took my legs off to an oxer and Murray came to a gentle stop in front of the fence. I turned to B and made excuses for myself, namely “my knee is really fucked right now.”
“This is when you have to really ride perfectly then,” she responded. “Dig deep. Don’t think about it.”
ugh I just ❤ him so much
I came back around to the oxer and pointedly did not get ahead and kept my leg on, and Murray was more than happy to comply. I stopped warming up after that, hoping to save both Murray and myself for the actual stadium round, and did some meditative deep breathing to put the pain out of my mind. I had walked the course the evening before, and given the state of my knee I wasn’t about to walk it again. B walked it separately and we had a little pow-wow on the strategy for the fences. I told her I was planning to try to square out my turn between 2 and 3 to avoid a weird curvy line, but she said it wouldn’t be too bad to bend as long as we didn’t drift. She told me not to rush the turn to fence 5 and let myself take my time to get there, and to take the outside turn from 8 to 9, not the (tempting if I had been feeling better) inside turn. Otherwise, it was a sweeping, fun course that felt a little oddly familiar.
It’s no secret that Murray and I have struggled a lot with stadium (also in general). We have had bouts of mystery stops, major problems with distraction, spookiness, being afraid of standards, not even making it to stadium because we got eliminated… you name a stadium problem, and we’ve probably had it. And I’ve spent a not-insignificant amount of time watching people cruise around stadium courses with horses that seem like they are going no matter what. You know the horse — the rider can be flapping and flopping and not riding at all, and yet nothing short of an unseasonal hurricane would stop them from jumping the next fence. I have longed for that horse. While I’m flopping and flapping and kicking and pushing and kissing and coaxing, I have wondered many times why I do not have that horse.
On Sunday, I had that horse.
Murray was a little looky when we entered the stadium arena, and I struggled to get him into a canter to the first fence because he was staring at everything. I gave him a little precautionary tap on the shoulder as we approached, and Murray was right there for the fence. We had a big sweeping rollback to the oxer for two, and once again, Murray was on top of it. The line to 3 could have been more square, but Murray locked onto the fence and took me there. There was another big sweeping turn to 4AB, and not only did Murray see the fence and go there, but he took the long spot into the combination and made the two inside the combo.
Murray making the combo happen
The turn to five was good, but after fence five I couldn’t seem to get my body back under control. I couldn’t get my right knee to bend so I could get my butt back down toward the saddle, so I was left awkwardly hanging on Murray’s mouth as we made the turn to six. This directly caused Murray to take six down, since I was hovering over his withers, and he got deep deep deep to the fence.
murray: I can’t can’t jump good when you are crooked and perchy!
No matter, he recovered amazingly and powered up to seven in the five strides it measured.
murray: leave the fallen!
We had a very Murray approach to fence 8, the first one with strange/scary fill and the dreaded sharkstooth fence. I managed to keep my body under control and my leg on, so even though we got deep we got over it, and left it up.
taking the deep one
The rollback to 8 yielded the fantastic jump near the top of this post (american flag fence), and then we gunned it home over the knights oxer.
Blurry stadium video below! I need to clean my phone camera lens.
I’m not going to pretend that the ribbon doesn’t matter to me — I’m glad I got to take home some satin, because I’m a money-grubbing whore and #swag. But the ribbon really was just icing. For a move-up show that looked like it could go pretty spectacularly shittily on Friday evening, there wasn’t a single thing I would have changed about the weekend (er, except spraining my knee).
I have been working and waiting four years for this ride. To feel like this is a partnership we are both committed to, where we can complement and improve one another. To know that I’m not bullying and forcing my horse into something he actively dislikes and barely tolerates because it’s what I want to do.
I wasn’t all there this weekend, and Murray stepped in to make up the difference (again, actually). And he did it at a new height, avoiding the problems we’ve had before. I feel like we could do anything together if we just put our minds to it.
I don’t know where we are going from here. But wherever it is, I know we can do it.
I didn’t sleep at all on Friday night. I mean, I probably napped and dozed a bit, but there was no true sleep to be had. It was warm until the wee hours, and never really cooled down enough for me to need any blankets. To add insult to injury, it turns out that you use/twist/stretch the ligaments in your knees a lot without realizing it. A lot like every time you roll over or change positions, which it turns out you do a lot when sleeping on hard ground, you will be reminded of your injury with shooting pain up and down your leg. So when braiding time — 5 am — rolled around I was already awake and peering out at the ponies. Murray was snoozing quietly, so I took my time slowly getting out of my sleeping bag, putting on some clothing, and hobbling over to the bathrooms. Murray and I braided in the slowly lightening pre-dawn, and while it wasn’t my best job, it held for our test.
I wasn’t going to let my knee prevent me from riding in the show. Murray had been so phenomenally honest and fun after my tumble during schooling that I knew we could pull off a solid cross country run. We just had to get there first. I downed three ibuprofen while one of my friends went out to get me some more, and got on right on time at 7:35 for my 8:00 ride. My knee did not feel great, but it wasn’t too bad, as long as I didn’t lean on the right stirrup too much or move too quickly. This definitely changed how I approached the ride. Based on how Murray felt a little behind my leg and small, but still relaxed and round, I wanted to push him forward for more ground cover. But I knew that if pushing led to any kind of antics the likelihood that I would be able to stay on through them was small at best. Also, squeezing with both of my calves hurt!! So I kept it low key and just asked for little bits of increased ground cover and impulsion.
I developed a new warm up routine last week that I wanted to use at the show. It focused on transitions on a circle, which have been problematic for Murray and I in the past: I always tend to just ask for a canter and pray that it goes well in the test, because the transitions are so explosive in the warm up. This time, I wanted to really school the transitions and get Murray listening to my seat for the transitions to hopefully minimize tension and make the transitions more every-day feeling.
Murray was so quiet during the warmup that I was done early, and we walked over to the dressage court to see if I could head in a few minutes early (the one perk of being the first in your division). Murray tensed up again when we went into the new arena, but I went back to our transitions on a circle, and he settled. He still wasn’t as round as he had been in warmup, but it was still very good for us.
The test itself felt fantastic. I haven’t been practicing my centerlines, and haven’t had a measured court to practice in for a little while, so my geometry was not what it could have been. Like… my first circle was more like a 15 meter circle. I realised that we were pretty far off the rail during the circle, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since we’d already started turning back toward the centerline. I held my breath for the right canter transition, but it was beautiful. I mean, there’s not really much more to say. You can see for yourself.
Gaits – 6.5, some tension
Impulsion – 6
Submission – 6.5
Rider – 6.5
Overall – Need to develop rounder topline, some tension, try to place down trans between letters, work on throughness back to front
It was awesome. It’s taken a while to get us to work together so well in public. Feels pretty amazing.
After dressage I hung out and watched Olivia’s ride while luxuriating in my friend’s Back on Track quick wrap. It felt niiiiice. And even better, my knee felt way better after taking the BOT wrap off. I didn’t walk my cross country course because, well, there was no way I was gimping around that thing on foot. It was mostly on the same track as the BN course from June, and I read the course map, so I figured we’d be fine.
Fortunately for me, my knee felt pretty awesome by the time we got around to cross country time. Almost normal again. We jumped a few warmup fences, had a little gallop, but kept it pretty quiet. I knew we’d be making a conservative cross country run, because all I wanted was to jump all the things and not fall off.
Murray was a total champion on cross country. I just had to point him at a fence and his response was “that one? okay, let’s go.” It’s a good thing he was feeling so honest, because at one point when we started going the wrong direction and had to make a sudden (albeit shallow) change of direction, my knee let me know with some stabbing pains that such maneuvers would not be repeatable. Even better, we managed to ride pretty much according to plan! I planned to circle Murray well in advance of the trakehner to avoid him galloping down to the fence and not seeing it in time. If you recall from June, the approach to the trakehner is downhill, and Murray tends to turn into a little snowball running downhill, gathering momentum and ignoring everything in his path. We circled well back, but Murray ate up the ground between the circle and the trak. I gave him just a whisper of added leg, and over we went.
We did have two stops, neither of which I gave a second thought to. The first was at the first water entrance, which is a new pond on the back side of the course. The water was dark, brown, and frothy at our entrance, and I do not blame Murray at all for not wanting to walk in there. He wavered back and forth for a few minutes before leaping over the foam and running through. The second was at the down bank, which Murray understandably suggested we just skip. We came in just barely under optimum time for no time penalties.
We totally deserved the stops, but at the same time I feel like they don’t really count. Maybe I’m having my cake and eating it too, but what horse doesn’t want to stop at a muddy water trap that looks like it might be harboring lepto, and a down bank that ended rather poorly very recently? Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I know that those are two really easy to fix issues — we just need more practice. No deep, underlying issues that will take months of backtracking to fix. No evidence of serious training holes that I’ve neglected for years. Just surface scratches that we can buff out with a little wax-on-wax-off.
It felt pretty freaking awesome to know that we conquered our first Novice course with so much more success than our move up to BN two years ago.
also, Kate let me school this little nugget on Friday so that was a huge plus