While I have focused on dressage and showing for the last number of years I actually used to event. I evented for a few years on the riding club circuit in the intermediate grade. I used to event whatever I was allowed to sit on. My biggest challenge was a chestnut mare ex racer who went like a bullet cross country with her head between her legs. In the show jumping she also went like a bullet but would either jump clear or turf me off. I used to be terrified as the speed had my eyes streaming but after a few events, some of which we won I finally had control of her. At our last event together we would have won the national championships, having led from dressage only I was so delighted at having the mare going well I missed a fence cross country and had us eliminated. It was a hard lesson to learn and I was angry at myself as it was completely and utterly my fault. Sadly we never had a chance to try again as the mare died from a kick a few weeks later. I still think of her often – she thought me the power of positive riding and more importantly how to stick your bum like glue to a saddle. My last ever riding club event was in 2008 or 2009 on a gentleman of a gelding who at 21 years old still thought he was a young lad. We had done a few events together and he was so experienced at his job that all I had to do was steer him. At that last event, also the riding club championships our team placed second which was a lovely finish to my eventing adventures. It is safe to say that I had learned from past mistakes and did not omit a fence.
Almost a decade later I wanted to try eventing on my horse this time last year. He seemed to love cross country. He would happily take on the bigger more solid fences in the local schooling centres. He was the first horse in fact I ever had that would take on the ‘bigger’ option of everything on your standard novice or open cross country. A friend told me that I was making a mistake and to wait until next year. The truth was the horse was good and brave over big simple fences but I had difficulties with anything small or narrow as he simply didn’t lock on and I had difficulties steering through water and through lines. This friend gave me a fairly stark warning – if you keep asking the horse questions that he doesn’t understand he will start saying no. It was a hard pill to swallow but no one wants to mess up their own horse so I took it on board and made a longer term plan. Looking back I really didn’t grasp that the horse had no education at that point and he really didn’t understand what I wanted him to do. So the narrow fence training began – small narrow little fences in the sand arena with guide poles either side, funny looking little fences made from upturned plastic wings or tyres or whatever else could be found. Improving our flat work helped to improve steering. The horse, ever careful about “things that might touch my leg” started to understand that the correct way to avoid something in front of you is to go over it.
The first quarter of this year was spent in the dressage arena earning scores for winter finals and improving our basics in the ring. The next was spent on the cross country field. My partner was training a young horse he would compete so every week we took both of them schooling to every venue we could find – places like Grange Farm, Carlanstown, Quarrylands, Collistown, The Field. It was simply a case of practice and practice – skinnies, lines, water etc. He brought me up to Punchestown to walk the Eventing Ireland course to see what I was aiming for. My thoughts were simple – Pre novice upwards was filed away under there isn’t enough dutch courage in the world – intro was filed under oh jesus these are a lot bigger than what I used to jump. Still the planning was all going well until the horse took absolute exception to a fence two weeks before our first event. Exception as in flat out refusal to go anywhere near said fence and a preference for galloping along a hedge row rather than walk towards it. My partner thankfully got up and spent a half an hour helping the horse. His advice to me afterwards was that the horse must be straight and on the contact and looking at the fence. I hate to admit this but I cried on the way home thinking all the hard work was for nothing and that the horse didn’t want to play anymore.
In the cold light of day I formed a different attitude. The horse had his back done which was indeed quite sore from a slip a few weeks previously and a few days off. We started again with a new approach and jumped every fence we could find with a positive straight and controlled line to each fence. The first event at Killossery was looming and I felt physically sick but I was going and that was that.
On the day I was the complete newbie I didn’t know my number or what a start fee was or, well, anything. I was nervous as hell and almost killed anyone who uttered the stupid phrase of ‘calm down’ – never ever tell a stress head to calm down it really doesn’t work and we might kill you. I was too casual in my approach to dressage as it is my favourite thing and the horse was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the atmosphere and very tense and jumpy in the test. I was dreading the show jumping but made myself ride positively and the four faults we finished on was my own fault, earned when I half lost a stirrup. I walked the cross country with my partner who gave me advice on each fence and how to ride it. The horse was a train in the cross country warmup so encouraged by a friend just to breath and go for it (Thanks Marnie) I decided he wasn’t going to get any calmer and headed for the start box. I started off enthusiastically but it was too enthusiastically and I ran out of breath which was a bit scary. The horse was good to me and kept jumping what I put in front of him. I dismounted immediately in the finishing ring to try and get some oxygen into my legs and Sammy decided to have a lie down in his tack! We had finished safe about two thirds of the way down the class and relieved to have one done.
The second event a week later was at Annaharvey. I was a lot less of a lemming that morning as I actually knew what the routine was. I had much better preparation for dressage, more time and as a result a much calmer and happier horse. Next up was the show jumping. There was one line in particular that I was feeling sick at the thought of and this wasn’t helped when several riders in front of me knocked it, missed it, fell off at it and one case, ended up in the ambulance. I honestly considered packing up and heading home as it was the hottest day of the year and surely anyone sane would be sipping a cocktail in their back garden working on their tan and not attempting to jump a live animal over coloured wooden poles? The rider in front of me withdrew so I shoved myself into the arena before I had time to think. I of course over rode the line of terror so Sammy jumped it and then took off like a bullet so I jumped the next three fences lying backwards and singing ‘woah’. Somehow we completed a wonderfully ungraceful clear round. Cross country almost finished me off on the course walk. It was over 25 degrees and im allergic to grass and trees so with all the pollen up my nose I really wanted to just have a sleep. The course had four combinations one of which included the little ditch also known as the gaping hole of death. Much discussion was had over the approach to the gaping hole of death with ‘ride him at it so fast he is over it before he knows it’ being eventually exchanged for ‘ride him like you have in schooling all week and trust the training’. The truth is my cross country round was what I would term a false positive. On paper we went clear. Most importantly we competently jumped the ditch without issue. However I had two problems – the first was simple I was getting way way too close to fences because the horse was on the forehand and I was checking him on the way in, I was really struggling to jump fences on the fly. The second was I nearly came off at a double of rollers. I was so intent on riding my line that I hadn’t enough leg at the first and was hooked on my right hand. He jumped from a standstill and I honestly thought I’d be picking splinters out of my teeth and ass that night but he got over it and we jumped the second part with no stirrups and loose reins. On paper it wasn’t just a clear round – we had actually won! I nearly fell over in shock at this because to be honest the goal for me was complete the event and come home safe. I was overwhelmed by my horse’s honesty and nature but in the back of my mind I had doubt. I know it sounds insane I’d just won an event but personally I knew I got lucky.
Event three was at grove the next week. I went schooling that week and it was the most important schooling session I have ever had cross country. I set off and had the same problems that haunted me the week before – chipping in, on the forehand, too fast, too unbalanced. I was warming up over the small fences and because they did not back him off it only highlighted the issue and to be honest it was messy and dangerous. I pulled up and sat out on the course by myself and had my phone in my hand to ring my partner to ask him to ride because I couldn’t do it. Then I asked myself what was my partner going to do? He would shorten the reins, he would control the horse and he would ride straight and in control to fences. So I asked myself if you already know the answer why would you ask someone else the question? I honestly think sometimes the most valuable lesson are those we give ourselves and this was one of them. I really needed to cop on and stop being afraid to hold the reins and control the horse – I asked myself which is worse to pull your reins or to risk an injury? So I set off with a new attitude and it was better but a new problem presented itself, I had the control but was meeting the fences again either too close or what felt like too far to stand off. Same issue I often battle show jumping – control shortening the horse too much. So, new approach again – control plus leg on into the bridle. Suddenly lines and strides started to come up correctly.
On the day itself things came into place. The dressage went well without any hiccups. I didn’t check my score as I hate jumping either with the pressure of a good score or the disappointment of a bad one weighing on me. Show jumping this time was immediately after dressage which for my sanity was wonderful as if there is anything I like less than show jumping it is waiting to do it! I had issues with the horse being disunited in the showjumping and rather embarrassingly we put three strides into a two stride double. I rode quite cautiously which gave us a well needed clear round. Walking the cross country this time I felt a bit more educated about what the horse would react to. Fence one was black with a tiny white strip in front of it and while to most it appeared straight forward I knew that little white strip would ignite the ‘but it might touch my leg’ worry in Sammy. Likewise a few fences had shavings or straw in front which again would require positive riding as he would be careful. Half way round there she was in all her glory – the fence that would sit in my head until I was over it – the ditch – not too wide, quite deep and up a step with a white cap which meant that I couldn’t come in too fast as he would see it at the last minute and couldn’t come in to quiet as he would have options. The rest of the course looked okay. I was lucky and had a great warmup from a friend which really helped to get me riding forwards and jumping out of the canter. I set off cross country with the approach of ride forward and the stride is the stride no chipping or checking. As expected we had a baulk and then a good clean jump at the first, he sailed over the others, came back to trot in the water as soon as I said woah (a miracle) and then on to the ditch where he swung his Ass left and right and then decided it wouldn’t eat him and jumped up. He had a good look at a fence jumping downhill from dark to light which woke me up a bit as it was the longest course we had done and he was feeling it. So I gave it everything and asked him for a second wind. He delivered and we sailed home. The last five fences felt magic I couldn’t hear a thing with the wind in my ears and he never hesitated he just took everything literally in his stride. I came through the finish with a smile on my face because that was what I wanted a clear round cross country to feel like. Upon return to the car park I learned my dressage score – Sammy had led from the start and stayed there. We had won and this time I knew I hadn’t been lucky – I had earned it.
The truth about any competition is that it is not just won in the ring. It is won in the weeks and months of preparation beforehand – in the early starts and late finishes, in the hard earned money exchanged for hard training sessions, in the mistakes and the failings and the learnings and in the repetition.
So now after three events we have returned to dressage in an attempt to qualify for the national championships. I have a few more events planned for us this season. I have lots to work on and the first thing I want to tackle is my show jumping. I am lucky to have a horse honest enough to jump for me but the way that I have been riding him will not work if I want to try something higher so I need to develop a forward positive canter into fences with a longer stride. The horse needs to be fitter and with a sand gallops onsite I really have no excuse not to get him as fit as he can be to help make his work easier. More cross country schooling will hopefully help me to continue to know when the horse needs my support and to improve our ability to ride lines. When I entered my first event the goal really was to manage to do them, I didn’t expect anything more. At that time I’d have laughed if anyone suggested I ever do anything bigger but I am now thinking that I might someday be able to attempt a pre novice! So for now it is back to work always with the aim of progressing towards bigger and better things and with the aim of making the most of my brilliant little orange horse.
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