Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly… A recap on our first horse trials at BN

The good… what I did right!

Lola and I went Beginner Novice last weekend at a horse trials. We had fun, we got some very valuable experience, and we got some GREAT pictures! I was amazed at some of the things that didn’t phase her. We were stabled about 10 feet from a stallion, and she couldn’t have cared less. Just like last time, she took a nap curled up in her shavings in the afternoon- totally relaxed with the show environment. We did get some fun pictures, and she felt great jumping! Nothing felt big at all, I was really surprised. I can see now that we really have just begun to tap into her jumping potential. We are getting better and better seeing our distances and taking the fences right in stride, it really is starting to feel “just right”. I was really proud of our warm ups for all three phases, and our easy ride the night before when we arrived.

She came out happy and interested, and really did well. I was surprised at how easy and fun she was to ride Friday night. We had two of the best canter departs yet, and such a light easy balanced canter I almost thought I had someone else’s horse! This was despite the fact that we were hacking around on the irrigated grass section of the cross country course (we don’t normally ride on grass much) and there were a ton of other riders crisscrossing all over the place. I was so please that I quit while we were ahead. I knew it would be tough with dressage since it is SO early! Sometimes it takes Lola a while in our dressage lessons to really lift her back and get into a big swinging trot, but we found it quickly Saturday morning. I had lunged her a bit in side reins to give a gentle warm-up for her muscles, and was sure to put an exercise rug on her since it was chilly. So when I hopped on she really felt great- responsive, willing, and eager to stretch into the contact. We had two great canter departs. Both the warm-ups before the two jumping phases went just as well- eager, attentive, relaxed and solid over the warm up fences, a cross rail, a vertical, and an oxer set at the max height for our course. I was so please with all that. If only I could have recreated it in the show rings! We did have moments of brilliance. We got 7’s on all the things that Lola does really well, the walk, free walk, and square halt.

We looked great over the fences in stadium and aside from our two issues we had a completely respectable round. We were solid on the cross country fences- at least until we weren’t, but more on that later!

The bad…what I did wrong...

My nerves dominated the situation- every time. I was practically in tears of frustration by the time I went into my dressage test, so despite my attempts at deep breathing, I turned my warm up calm horse into a ball of nerves and our test was terrible. From the minute I walked over to the dressage arenas my emotions started snowballing. I never saw a ring steward, and instead stood by my ring waiting for my turn. I guess I knew deep down this was wrong, and it was making me nervous, but couldn’t figure out what else to do. Lola was suddenly tense which made me want to work on some trot circles to get her back together, but the more I tried the worse it got. Pretty soon I hear my number being called form at least a hundred feet away, the opposite direction from the arenas- I was apparently supposed to be in the ring NOW. Great. I had to trot over to the woman standing the middle of the field, get over to the farthest dressage arena, only to walk back down to my dressage arena where I had been waiting all the time. UGH! I was embarrassed, and mad at myself, and not being very patient with the spooking mare that had replaced the calm one I had been riding in the warm up arena!

Tense and sucked back-not what we've been working on in lessons!

I completely lost my ability to ride forward and manage the situation; I sort of sat there quietly hoping it would get better. About halfway down the first long side she spooked. I stopped thinking about pushing her forward and re-balancing her, so of course we didn’t find out relaxed swinging trot. That was our last lesson too! Push forward to energize in rhythm with the inside leg, and hold straight and balanced by half halting in rhythm with the outside leg. Did I do it? No. Without our good quality trot, we weren’t going to get a good quality canter. We got out leads (I guess that’s something!), but she really hated the wet grass. It was still very slick from the morning dew. She felt like she was convinced we’d slip at any moment in the canter. It was basically the same both directions. The worse part- I lost points for the shape of my circles! Even if she was breathing fire, I should have been able to ride an accurate figure! I mean come on! What I need to do is laugh at myself before I screw up; tell myself that I’m going to think it is really pathetic to see judges notes about poor circles when I’m done, so I better just pull myself together now and put a stop to that! I just need to find some good sports psychology tools to set myself up for success for the next test.

After dressage I put her up for a while, watched the higher level riders jump huge fences, and about the time Novice was set my stomach was up in my throat again. Despite our good warm up cantering around these brightly colored jumps got us both a little startled. We took the first jump fine, but on the bending line to our second fence I felt her suck back to spook at the jump. I should have ridden her strongly to the fence even if I had to trot it. I think I could have convinced her to take it! I was in survival mode though, so I played it cool. We stopped, I spanked her with my crop, let her look at the fence long and hard, took a really big deal breath, told myself we could do this, circled back and took it no problem. Terrible way to start a round! Not unexpected for a green horse, and I think I handled it well, but it gave us four faults and ate up a ton of time. The rest of the course went fairly well despite the fact that I couldn’t think of anything but “Don’t stop again!” She really didn’t feel like she was going to stop, but when you have a history of falling off at refusals like I do, the thought can become a bit of an obsession! Our second jumping fault was because I didn’t collect her to change a lead in time. We came off jump four on the wrong lead, trotted our change, and only picked up the right lead a few strides from jump five. We didn’t see our distance and took the rail down. End result was 8 jumping faults and 10 time faults for staring at that jump so long! I did feel fairly accomplished for finishing the round; the jumps were way scarier and more distracting than anything we’ve ever seen!

Fence 1

Fence 2 (the second approach)

Fence 3B (the camera missed A)

Fence 4
Fence 5 (this is the rail we took)
Fence 6 (despite the rail at 5 we got our strides and made this one look good!)

Fence 7 (Probably the biggest out there)

Fence 8

Fence 9 (Followed by the finish line)
Looking at these pictures you'd think I'd still be up in that section about "Good", I suppose I'm being overly critical of our round. Piece by piece it doesn't look too bad! I'm pleased as punch with her, I just wish I had ridden better. I'll try to add the video later.

Cross country on Sunday found us well warmed up despite a frantic half-hour hunt for my medical arm band! I never did find it, but I had a spare copy of the insert and borrow another rider’s band. Not the best way to keep my emotions steady! So as Lola walked calmly around the start box, I tried to use deep breathing techniques to talk myself out of the anxiety attack that was creeping on! I can't help but insert the picture here. The camera doesn't lie, you can see my lips puffing the air out as I try by best to breath and think positive thoughts.

Leaving the starting box I gave her a good pat and we look ready.

We cantered into the first jump, a log that I think was a good size height for the course, which I was afraid of despite having jumped it before, because it was the first.

We stayed steady, we jumped it beautifully, we cantered on! Perfect control, at least for the moment. We came around the bend and took the easy and small second log only to have the golf cart collecting score sheets from the division that had just ended come zipping directly at us on our left. Lola spooked to the right, and just as we straightened out she saw the jump judge for the third jump off to the right. She stopped dead. We were no where near the jump, so it didn’t count as a refusal, but I certainly didn’t have time to slowly introduce her to every scary item out there! I really had to laugh at her at this point. We weren’t having problems with the jumps, we were having problems with getting between them! When the jump judge finally asked if it would be better if she stood up, the light bulb went on in Lola’s head- it was only a person! We got passed the third log cantered to the up bank and as we approached I asked the judge to talk to her, and we had no problems. We then had the two logs on a long bending line as the fifth and sixth jumps- no problem. We made it through the trees to a sharp turn to the seventh jump- no problem. We trotted our down bank (eighth) and cantered on to our last log on the “tree side” of the course- no problem. When trying to cross the arena she spooked first at the foxes on the right, then the jump poles on the ground on the left, I laughed again and carried on.

So far nothing had been very bad, although she felt a little like a pin ball as her attention bounced from one scary object to another she had never spooked hard (like something that would unseat me) and she never dreamed of bolting off. She just wasn’t confident. Once across the arena we had a down slope to the dry creek bed the bank on the other side with the log right at the edge. It went better than I expected and we finally came to the fun part! But ten jumps into the course meant we reaching the end of my fitness limit. Do you smell the trouble brewing?

We headed towards the big roll-top but Lola wasn’t looking at it. There were more people off to her right and we ended up with a run-out to the left since she was looking at them all the way. We circled around and jumped it fine the second approach.

I’m pretty sure that’s when I stopped breathing. Not that I passed out, but I do have a tendency to get nervous and hyper-focused, and not breath normally. Run outs, especially from a horse that just doesn't refuse normally, do that to me! By the time we made it across the field to the little white house that would have been jump twelve Lola was frazzled by a huge group of people sitting off to the right (I spoke to several riders who said their horses also spooked there) and I was mentally checked out. So when she simply spooked off to the left again on our approach, I did the worst thing possible- I regressed into the teenager who pointed horses at fences and didn’t do much else but hope and lean forward thinking the horse would catch them as they jumped. I didn’t ride the fence like the others, with my legs wrapped, squeezing in the rhythm of the stride and my shoulders up and balanced. I chose the "hope and lean" approach! I can laugh at myself now, I mean really, you’d think I’d have at least grabbed mane, or spanked her with the crop, or told her to get over the fence in my most convincing voice! I should have done all three! I didn’t do any of them. What was I thinking?

I don’t know what I was thinking, but the next second I was getting up off the ground, collecting my horse and thinking, “This means I don’t get to finish!”, if I really wanted to finish, I should have made a plan before that second attempt! But if your feet are on the ground in your cross country ride, its too late to start planning! I was so disappointed we didn’t get to the water because I am quite proud of how well we’ve schooled the water. I was also very sad that my mother was set up on that side of the field to video jumps 11-15 since they were the cool looking ones, and I didn't make it passed 12. Then it hit me, I FELL OFF! Oh my, that hurts the pride! What a stupid thing to do! This was not the kind of refusal that should have unseated me at all. I said earlier that I have a history of falling off at refusals, this is from spending most of my teenage years jumping without lessons. I haven’t fallen off in front of a fence for almost 10 years. I am too OLD to fall off! So I am none to pleased to reset that counter. Like the sign indicating days without accidents on a work site… 4 days since last fall from a refusal, just looks shockingly bad.

I reminded myself as I nursed my injured pride (and pulled the grass out of the top of my boot) that if I had wanted to win I would have bought a broke horse. I have always wanted to event, having never competed in it, I could have made it easy and bought a horse with experience. But I’ve never owned a horse that I haven’t had to create almost from scratch; it almost feels like cheating! I didn’t take the easy route, I’ve trained my own, and part of bringing a horse along is taking the bad days along with the good. I was pleased that at least Lola did not learn that galloping away from her rider was a good idea! She stuck with me like a good and patient horse.

The ugly... ugly braids and ugly truth!

My biggest disappointment of the weekend was not how Lola had done, or how we had placed, but how I had ridden her. I am honest enough with my abilities to know that I can’t do this without the advice of experts, and so I’ve found myself some very good trainers to help me put the pieces together in our lessons. Without them around, I’m left to try to put together what we’ve learned. The truth is that I’m responsible for any short comings in our ride! That’s a ugly truth to face. I’m not a professional, and although I can give this horse the best I can, I will make mistakes. It does help to look at how far we have come over the last year and a half! Everything that she knows I’ve taught her, so it also stands to reason, everything that she doesn’t know, I have to teach her! We’ve got a few plans for the next week… like cantering out in the open while still staying focused!

Our ugly braids were better than last weekend’s, but still ugly! Oh well, some things you just have to mess up a few times before you get them right! That’s our theme for the weekend. Now that we’ve messed it up once, maybe we can come back and nail it the next time!


  1. What a bummer, I am sorry :(. I am doing my first beginner novice with my OTTB I have trained myself next month. It is only a CT so no XC so it will not be as big of a step for us as it was you guys. I have to be honest though reading about this is making me a bit nervous. You guys will be just fine and it sounds like a huge learning experience. We never know what we need to work on until we are confronted with a problem. Thanks for posting about all of it. It is good to know I am not alone in the move to BN.

  2. Amy, don't be nervous! Just keep your shoulders up and back and you'll be fine! That's where I went wrong. If you keep yourself thinking about how you ride, I'm sure you will be able to recreate the success you have at home at the show. Good luck

  3. I love how to wrote this and reflected on the day. All the physical preparation in the world can't always get us ready for the "putting it together" part--especially when the seams are unraveling faster than we can stitch. ;-)

    The important thing to remember is that you saw where you went wrong. You can only fix what you know isn't right and why it isn't right. If you had no idea why it didn't work out, then you'd be in trouble. Remember this motto. You can't fix the stride that just happened. You can't fix what isn't broken in the next stride... it hasn't happened yet. All you can do is ride forward as if each next step is the first one you are taking, the depart.