Cross Country Schooling at the Horse Park

This weekend, Jack and I made our first ‘big’ outing together, heading all the way to the Carolina Horse Park to school the cross country course ahead of their War Horse Show. While we’ve been off property quite a bit at this point, we haven’t been anywhere that would have a show-like atmosphere. Schooling at the horse park allowed me to see how Jack would be in a place with lots of other horses [literally] running around, trailers, tents, flowers, etc. And I was so impressed!

Jack is officially self-loading at this point, and hopped on the trailer for the 2 hour trek to the horse park. I loved that he actually was eating his hay on the way down, something he hasn’t done so far on shorter jaunts. Since we were running late we tacked up in a hurry and got out to the cross country field where we got straight to work, trotting around and hopping over a green-as-grass jump. Jack was super in listening to me and focusing on the tack at hand, but for the first several jumps (green-as-grass followed by Maiden questions alternately) he would give the fence a hard look before lift-off. There was never a thought of refusing, more just a lack of confidence that slowly disappeared as the schooling continued. Eventually we started introducing cantering the fences and wrapped up the cross country with a Beginner Novice fence that felt so great we did it twice!

Since the horse under me after cross country had lots of gas left in the tank, we then moseyed over to the showjumping, where we walked the maiden course in the tack, then proceeded to do two schooling rounds. For the first we just trotted all the fences, knowing that Jack is more likely to look at showjumping filler than natural fences. Then we picked up the canter and did the course properly.

To say I’m happy with how it went is an understatement, even though I see so many things that need fixing on my part. I now have the confidence in my new pony to go out and do all the things, knowing that he can handle the atmosphere as long as I am there to give him a positive ride. Next time we’ll be schooling beginner novice fences instead of maiden, and that vote of confidence from the trainer feels like a feather in the cap after feeling out of the game for so long. Barbie dream horse indeed!

The Rotational Fall at the Eventing Showcase

They say that money is the root of all evil. But in equestrian sport, money is essential to funding the endless supply of bills that go hand-in-hand with horses- vet bills, shipping, show fees, and of course the everyday costs of simply owning a horse.

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So in theory, something like the Wellington Eventing Showcase provides a rare opportunity to put our sport in front of an audience that is well known to shell out dollars for equestrianism. It’s been discussed many a time how we need to be able to educate future fans, inspire potential patrons, and draw new upper-level owners to eventing, and the showcase’s intention seems to be just that.

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But there are some differences between the polish and ponce of the Wellington event and your typical event. Instead of thousands of people lining the gallop lanes at Rolex, instead there was a sparsely populated hillock lining one of the sides of the derby field. And there were other differences, too. What I want to discuss today is the falls and near-falls of the cross country field.

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Watching the cross country, it was clear that the bogey fences were not the gimmicky, entertaining obstacles like the tent jump, or the fence at the top of the Land Rover embankment. Instead it was a massive corner coming out of the water combination, a skinny at the base of a hill, and a pair of brush fences that could either be angled or, being numbered separately, could include a circle in between to allow for a straight approach to the second element. There were some run outs, to be expected for a course of this level, and that was okay.

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What was strange to me was the difference in the way the couple falls were treated after the fact. I include the above fall sequence only as a result of both horse and rider walking away fine. The miraculous recovery of Woodge Fulton garnered the cheering and applause of a typical eventing audience. But the rotational fall of Marilyn Little and RF Demeter has been oddly swept under the rug from a media standpoint.

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The pair jumped beautifully over the cabin in front of us, out and over the water combination with the corner, and then proceeded to the angled brushes like a bat out of hell- I mean this lady was hell-bent for leather on making time, and was easily moving faster than anyone else was at that stage on course. I cannot say for sure what happened at that next combination, as it was at the opposite end of the course from me, but there was no denying seeing 4 legs in the air and a definite rotational fall. Luckily Demeter trotted away, and an ambulance came over for Marilyn, who we could see was having trouble sitting up. In the end she opted for a ride on a golf cart rather than the ambulance, all the while the announcer attempted to assure the spectators that all was well between awkward pauses.

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Trying to understand exactly what happened, my friends and I scoured the internet looking for some mention of the fall. And, nothing. The impression to us was that the fall was a stain on the showcase, and so nary to be mentioned, nor discussed, in public. The only mention I’ve seen so far of the fall has been in this article by the COTH.

There is no explanation of what happened, no mentioning that the horse went ass over teacups and landed on its human rider, who fortunately seems unscathed by the accident. Just a casual shout-out to sponsors, a week off in a paddock, and a lamentation of not being able to run the other horse.

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While I am not trying to point fingers, I must admit that for me, the whole situation leaves me wanting. Wanting to be able to understand why something as scary and dangerous to both horse and human life as a rotational fall happened at a showcase event, with one of our top riders. Wanting to be able to learn from the scenario so that the sport is made a safer discipline for future generations. And wanting to be left feeling like the showcase really is a great way to bring in the support that the sport so desperately needs.

Bobby Costello XC Clinic Recap

It’s no secret that I’m a fangirl of Bobby- if you’ve met him, you’d know why. The guy knows his stuff, is funny as all get out, and somehow inserts both serious knowledge drops and biting humor into every lesson. Or in this case, clinic.

So when my friend Ali decided to participate in a January clinic in Southern Pines, I was immediately on board as groom. I was stoked to pick up new tidbits and more than happy to return the favor of videoing, since Ali filmed my lesson with Bobby last summer.

Any memories of a warm summer day when we had last been there quickly were replaced but what could, by North Carolina terms, be called the blizzard that started as soon as we rolled up. The snow was coming down at a hellish pace, but when we saw the first group of riders hacking to the cross country field, we started up our toe warmers (and donned every layer of clothing on hand) and prayed for the best.

Spectator selfie- trying to stay warm!

Spectator selfie- trying to stay warm! PC: A

Thanks to the elements, it was occasionally hard to hear everything being said, but here are three key takeaways from the day.

First – shoulders over hips- do NOT get ahead of the motion.
In cross country, where terrain is often part of the question, it’s important to sit back and allow the horse the balance to do his job. Also, the adoption of a more defensive position can make for a safer ride and being with or slightly behind the motion can channel a nervous horse more easily. I loved the visual of “shoulders over hips” as you can immediately see it in other riders as well as use it as an alignment cue for yourself in the saddle.

Break down the elements.
With every group, whether Beginner Novice or Prelim, he started combinations or exercises with the most simple approach, and then added elements from there. Each session started with working on the gallop position, and then over a small vertical, before moving onto the day’s work. For the bowl combination, first riders went through just the bowl, followed by adding in a small vertical, and then putting together the vertical, bowl, and hanging log to finish off. Bobby was great for instilling confidence in both horse and rider by taking this approach to combinations.

Push outside the comfort zone.
You don’t learn anything new by not trying anything new. Bobby asked each pair about any weaknesses or sticking points. And if a rider said their horse was ditchy, that didn’t mean they avoided ditches. It just meant that they got a little bit more vocal support as they worked on it, or for each group there was an advanced rider that they could follow on the heels of to get through the exercise (an awesome feature!). Watching each rider overcome their cross country demons made for a fun day where each horse and rider combination walked away better than they came.

Following the clinic we found the one place open in Southern Pines for Sunday lunch and swapped stories as we thawed and congratulated Ali on her first proper outing since “retiring” Baron two years ago. Looking forward to tagging along with her for her private lesson with BC next month!

Drawing the Bigger Picture: Part II

This didn’t get out Friday because I got caught up at the barn, trying to assess whether Foster is still sore from our jumping last weekend, or if there is something shoe-related going on there. I won’t even consider that it might be something else until tomorrow. *Sigh* Anyways, until then, here are the rest of our brainy break throughs (part 1 here) from the week of lessons.

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Effectiveness of the Seat
To be a dressage queen is to have a good seat. But the seat is also important in jumping, as the rider has to make decisions about two-pointing versus sitting versus sticking close to the saddle (the last is BC’s phrase, used before XC fences). In dressage, I am really focusing on using my weight properly in the half-passes. I’m also working to fight against my own natural confirmation, the dreaded hollow-back ghetto booty combination, that makes it hard for me to stick with the full circle of movement my hips should make in the canter. For showjumping, Bobby emphasized a lighter seat and as previously mentioned, moving from galloping position to sticking “closer to the saddle” upon approach. One seat, used lots of different ways!

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh [Portofino CT Oct 2013]

Commitment Issues
Damn all that baggage of the past. Committing to a course of action is an absolute necessity with jumping, and being less than confident can sometimes have dire consequences. BC picked up immediately on when I became anything less than a fence-eating-machine, and as of course, so did Foster. In his words, I am not to ride pathetically, and having that confidence and grit will help me be a quieter rider by not feeling the need to make any “big moves” in front of the fences. For dressage, commitment means being clear in my instructions and the level of my expectations. Even if it is a trot to walk transition, the horse should “land” going forward and in a good balance, not petering out or falling on the forehand into a lazy amble. It’s up to the rider to commit to asking for all those details, and thinking about these things until it becomes habit.

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Thinking about the Landing
How many times have I heard this one? Probably a bajillion times, but it really resonated when BC asked us to halt in 5 strides after the gymnastic. That shit is hard. And why is it hard? Maybe because my horse is not used to expecting something to happen on the landing. Halting after fences is one of the big take-aways from our showjumping lesson, and a wonderful exercise for getting a horse listening. In the June Jump lesson, we did something similar in making small circles after landing from a fence before continuing on to another element. And guess what- in dressage, you know what is a great way to get a horse focused on you and “keyed up to your seat”? Transitions. Forward, backward, halt, etc. Never should we just careen around the arena without a plan, and that was the point I’ve finally figured out this week.

It’s going to take real discipline to remember all of these, and surely there will be times when I forget one or more of these major points. On the flip side, I really do think that if anyone can master all of these issues they would gain major ground in becoming a better rider. And that is, of course, what I aspire to be.

Bobby Costello XC Lesson Recap

Sunday morning was cool and lovely, which was a relief after having survived the massive storm the night before, complete with intense lighting that almost made me spill my red wine into my lap and even a tornado watch.

The facilities at Winterbook Farm are immaculate, but obviously cater to a crowd much more experienced than Foster and I. Anything that was below Novice (as in 3 Novice fences) was placed in extremely technical positions (like after a one stride up a hill from the biggest freaking ditch you’ve ever seen in your life), so warming up was somewhat interesting.

The stunning Winterbook Cross Country field

The stunning Winterbook Cross Country field

Just like the day before, Bobby wanted to assess my position before actually jumping anything. Apparently I fooled him once again into thinking my leg was solid, but he encouraged me to press my knuckles into Foster’s neck and stay there between fences.  As obvious as this is, it’s hard for me still, as with dressage and showjumping I am ever seeking that straight hand-to-bit line and in XC this makes my hands float around in the atmosphere.

Case in point

Case in point

From there we warmed up over the one baby fence a couple times (NBD) and then aimed at a solid Novice coop, to which I asked for a flyer distance and instead got a shitty chip. Hello, confidence problems. I revisited the coop and told myself not to be a pansy, and it went much better.

The one thing I told him I wanted to look at was Foster’s launching off of banks and issues with drops into water. So we started with the bank complex, and discussed really sitting up straight and slipping the reins at the top- to which I nodded, yes, I’d heard that plenty of times. However, it turns out in execution I have come to expect a big move, which causes me to clutch at the top of the bank, which in turn makes Foster feel like he can’t use his neck and therefore he launches himself. How bout that perpetual cycle? Immediately when I actually slipped the reins and sat back he dropped very casually. We ended that segment by going up a steep hill, one stride to a down bank, then 2 or 3 strides to another down bank. Beautiful, done.

A better view of the course, with the Novice coop circled

A better view of the course, with the Novice coop circled

We popped over a couple ditches and Foster confirmed that ignoring all else, this horse is not ditchy. So we moved on to the water complex. Foster had trotted through it for warmup, so we started by jumping a small fence coming out of the water up a small hill. He did this fine, so we reversed and jumped the fence back into the water. Enter my commitment issues, stage right. While he scooted over it, I got some very stern words about being confident about it and so we went back through a few times, getting better and better.

When on our third attempt he jumped it boldly, we moved on to dropping off banks into water.

Ugh, water drops.

I’ll be completely honest, the trouble lies with me. I feel Foster debate the obstacle, and I hesitate. My hesitation turns into him stopping, and us dancing at the precipice of the bank with no clear way of getting down but to re-approach. With lots of coercion, we finally got in, and then repeated the process until it was coming easily. But when we moved on to a higher bank and included a super long approach, I had the exact same issues. Again on re-presenting we made it happen, but I need to be in the habit of thinking “do or die” rather than waffling. You don’t waffle over cross country obstacles.

More of this please, and less of that

More of this please, and less of that

We ended on a good note, but I’m eager to repeat the process until that cross-country grit comes back. I’ll be coming back to Southern Pines in a couple of weeks to try again, and I’m hopeful that in turn I will become bolder for the experience.

Carolina International 3*

The weather could not have been more perfect for the fun day spent at the Carolina Horse Park. We arrived just in time to see the start of the 3* division go. This meant I had missed Mr. Medicott in the 2* (one of my favorite horses everrr) but it was hard to be disappointed when Olympic level riders immediately started leaving the gate.

The new lens was a great big fail. Here's Karen and Mr. Medicott again, Rolex 2012

The new lens was a great big fail. Here’s Karen and Mr. Medicott again, Rolex 2012

After enjoying a mimosa (or two) at the water complex, which was riding really well sans one rider fall at the corner out (the horse hit the corner with its knee and the rider just popped over the handle bars, no harm done), we meandered over to the Stonehenge complex. After a while a gentleman wearing the staff badge came over to see how the complex (a vertical through the ‘stones’ then three strides to a corner) was riding. It was soon clear that it was none other than Hugh Lochure, the course designer himself.

Boyd Martin and Remington, Rolex 2012

Boyd Martin and Remington, Rolex 2012

Happily, Hugh was more than willing to chat with me about the current miasma of finger-pointing that is going on in eventing at the moment. He also shared a few fun facts regarding his course and some of the riders running it. For instance, the famous Stonehenge complex was originally meant to represent a different set of standing stones from Scotland (his native country). When the inaugural 3* was planned, a sponsor came forward with a farm called Stonehenge, and the decision was made then to arrange the fences in honor of that sponsor.

We also talked about some of the safety aspects currently being developed in the sport. Frangible pins, collapsing tables, and air vests are all becoming common sights to see at the higher levels. But not all riders and venues adopt these changes. It turns out that Michael Pollard doesn’t like the way the air vest feels, and so he rides without, even at the 3* level. Hugh also compared the adoption of ‘safety fences’ (my term) in Europe versus the US. It seems that across the ocean, frangible pin and collapsable fences are more common than over here, where venues are not as likely to invest in them.

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Fugitive, Rolex 2012

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Fugitive, Rolex 2012

Local hero Kelsey Briggs (whose horse, The Gentleman Pirate, has made a miraculous recovery from a broken neck and just ran the Intermediate course) also came over for a bit and we all regaled her with memories of local eventing. It was a good day for Kelsey, who came second in her division with Pirate, and a great day for Phillip Dutton, who walked away with $35,000 after winning with I’m Sew Ready to end on his dressage score.

After the 3* completed, we watched some of the Advanced group warm up (seeing the riders take a huge rolltop at an angle was a kick in the pants reminder to school this at home!) and then peeked through the shopping tents before departing for home. I snagged myself a new pair of mesh Roeckl gloves and a whole new set of fun memories- can’t wait to return to this exciting new event next year!

The Skull Cap Debate

As I briefly mentioned in my Competitor’s Toolbox: Equipment post, the British Eventing Association has banned fixed-peak helmets from cross country. [Read EN’s post with the news here]

Frequent image contributor J (rocking a skull cap) and the handsome Jasper / PC: High Time Photography

Frequent image contributor J (rocking a skull cap) and the handsome Jasper / PC: High Time Photography

Many US eventers are already wearing skull caps, and some like myself, are not. Besides my vanity thinking that peaked helmets are slightly more attractive, I just don’t have the dollars right now to dole out on a new helmet. Especially when I just walked a hole into my paddock boots. (Durn it)

PC: High Time Photography

PC: High Time Photography

I used to have a skull cap at one point, but never used it, and now the padding is so deteriorated that the thing wobbles on my head. I’m not saying I won’t make the move to a skull cap, but it’s not going to happen in the next couple months for sure.

But I’m curious, what do you guys think? Eventers- what are you using/plan to use this season? And for non-eventers, let’s pretend- if you were about to go cross country, what would you don?

Cross Country Schooling: Video

Finally got the video together!

I see a lot of things wrong with my position (pumping my arms when I get nervous, lower leg swings, and what the hell am I doing when he goes off of that big drop?!) but the video still overall makes me smile. Foster is clearly having a blast and I love watching his expression, and seeing him finally start to learn how to cover ground! Not that we’re going to ever win a race with a Thoroughbred, but he’s learning how to lengthen his stride a little more, and that’s awesome.

Thanks again to Ali for all the video!

Looking back at the Season – Part 2

The second half of the year we continued with our busy schedule, and threw in both a Hunter/Jumper and Recognized show for fun.

Hunter/Jumper Show, August 2014

Hunter/Jumper Show, August 2014

July – Hunter/Jumper Show
We went to a Hunter/Jumper show for a change of pace and with the goal of getting in jumping rounds in a low pressure environment. Leading up to the show, a series of crap schoolings and trying to fix things instead of leaving them alone left me with a super tired pony who just wasn’t up for what I asked of him. He tried very hard though, and still earned us two 4th place ribbons in a couple classes. I learned a lot about show prep for my horse and about the world of H/J.

FENCE, September 2014

FENCE, September 2014

September – Recognized Horse Trials at FENCE
Foster’s first Recognized show, and my first one in about 10 years had me pretty nervous leading up to it. I did my damned best to prepare my horse for it, and overall it was a success. What felt like a fairly good test earned us our all-time low of 30 for dressage, and we debuted the helmet cam with a rockin’ cross country course up a small mountain and coming in well under time. I made a mishap of not getting to the start box as soon as I should, which looks bad on paper, but oh well. Foster was tired on showjumping day and took out 2 poles, which was pretty good considering I was almost concussed in the warmup.

CHP, October 2014

CHP, October 2014

October – Carolina Horse Park Horse Trials
Another show at the Horse Park. Although an unrecognized event, they reused the course from the Recognized show prior, which meant I finally had to jump the dreaded trakehner and brush fences. The footing was super sloppy, which was a first for Foster, but he handled it well. We had a slightly tense test for a 31.7, and added 1 time fault in showjumping with a scrappy round. I thought I was going to puke with nerves before cross country after watching multiple refusals, but Foster came through brilliantly and went double clear. We got ourselves another 4th place ribbon.

CHP, November 2014

CHP, November 2014

November – Carolina Horse Park Horse Trials
… and yet another at the Horse Park. A more forward dressage test and a harsh judge gave us a 35.7, but left us tied for second place. This followed by our most fluid showjumping round, though I made turns way too way big and Foster accidently dropped 2 poles. I then went out to cross country preparing for a fun run around, which I was having when I forgot a fence and was pulled up 3 fences from home. Ended on a Technical Elimination.

Our Season By the Numbers
Total Shows: 10
Number of Horse Trials: 5
Average Dressage Score: 32.65 (67.35%)
Average Number of Poles Down: .85
Double-clear cross country runs: 3 (4 if you count that we probably would have gone clear without my TE, regarding pace and jumping faults)
Number of Ribbons: 6
Color of Ribbons (Placings): 2nd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 4th
Times I Forgot Part of Course: 2
Times I dyed Foster’s tail purple: 2

As the numbers show, our tendency is to be at the top of the pack after dressage, then for me to mess things up in the jumping phases. From now on I am holding myself to a mandatory second course walk. But, looking at the positives- we learned a TON. Foster’s confidence at the level has come in leaps and bounds, which in turn has made me more confident. Pace has not been an issue at Novice, though admittedly, there are other venues that run Novice faster than the few I attended. We had one run-out this year, and that was mostly due to my being a passenger instead of kicking on. Since then, my mantra of ride every fence (other than being ironic at the last show) has been a helpful attitude and keeps me from getting too laid back about seemingly easy fences. I should tattoo it on my arm, right next to where my cross country watch goes.

Next year’s calendar will be interesting, depending on how long it takes for us to feel ready to move up to Training. There’s another Running Start Horse Trials in February, and then we would wait until May to do another unrecognized event. Combined Training shows will help us dip our toes into the Training test and battle some showjumping courses, which may be just the ticket. I’ll be spending the winter thinking about our goals and what is the right path for the spring, and hoping the season goes just as well as 2014!

Looking back at the Season – Part 1

2014 definitely marks a year of doing more shows than I’ve ever done before (at least with my own horse, because, IDA). Now that the show season is officially over, it’s time to be retrospective and look at how things went.

Running Start, Feb 2014

Running Start, Feb 2014

February – Running Start Horse Trials
This was our debut at the Novice level, and technically a little on the more difficult end of a move-up course. Foster put in a great dressage test (a 35.5 put us in 2nd after dressage), and was about as relaxed as I’ve ever had him. He then went double clear in showjumping. On the cross country course, he came out a little strong, but did his first jump into water and faux trakehner confidently. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep my leg on at the half coffin and he had a silly runout, followed by my celebrating too early and not realizing I hadn’t yet gone through the finish flags, racking up a whopping 26 time faults to leave us at the bottom of the pile placing-wise.

MacNairs, March 2014

MacNairs, March 2014

March – MacNair’s Combined Training
Somehow I barely remember this show. It was an eh dressage test for a 33.4, and I did a crap job as pilot and we brought down one pole for a 2nd place ribbon.

CHP, May 2014

CHP, May 2014

May – Carolina Horse Park Horse Trials
Our first Novice at the Horse Park, and I remember being pretty intimidated. Instead, I had a solid dressage test, scoring a 31.3. Our showjumping course was pretty sticky, but Foster’s clever feet got us around for a double clear round. Cross country was the first time I really had a blast the whole way around, and we came in with a big grin and double clear. We earned ourself a 4th place ribbon, our first Novice ribbon!

The Fork, June 2014

The Fork, June 2014

June – Fork Combined Training
We drove down to the Fork so my mum could see the painted pony in action. I tried for a forward dressage round that may have been borderline rushing, but earning a 31 nonetheless. I didn’t get to walk the showjumping course at all, and it was the toughest course to date- with two one-stride combinations and lots of bendiness throughout. We took out one rail and I believe we placed 3rd overall. We followed the show with a super fun cross country schooling, and practiced our first water-upbank-fence combinations.

Thus concludes the first 1/2 of the year! Tomorrow, part 2!