Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adult Horse Camp

As I’ve been writing about for a few months now, last week I attended the Adult Camp that my riding trainer holds in Aiken, SC every year. Well, I’ve arrived home and I have to say that I had a wonderful time! It was an incredible trip.

The Breakdown

Early, early, early flight out of Manchester (hello??? 6 AM? I must have been nuts). I had very little sleep on Saturday night, going to bed around midnight or so after packing and organizing all of my crap, I was up at 3:30 AM to get ready and because I was awake. Met one of the women, Marilyn, at the airport where we were able to chat while we waited for our flight to be called. Once boarded, as a happy coincidence, it turned out that one of the other women participants was seated next to me. We all had an uneventful trip down to Columbia, SC where we picked up the rental car and drove in the rain to Sporting Days Farm in Aiken where Alison and her working students where competing in a horse trial.

That night we had a couple of cocktails in the hotel bar and then made our way to this wonderful little restaurant down the little cobbled lane behind it where the food was excellent.

It was a pretty sodden day, but it was very thrilling to watch the event to get excited for the coming week.

Monday it was still raining pretty hard. Alison called us while we were still at breakfast and said that we might want to do some shopping and wait for the weather to get a little better. We agreed, no one wanted to ride in the torrential downpour (although Alison would have been willing to do it, had we wanted to). So we did some driving around -- even getting a little lost and driving through a planned equestrian community, which was pretty cool. And we stopped in at a couple of local tack shops. Finally we made it out to Alison’s farm where we did some more stalling, had lunch, a lecture on tack and talked about my readiness to buy a horse. You see, all morning long we had been talking about my desire for horse ownership and in each tack shop that we visited there were books or flyers of horses for sale. We kind of jokingly mentioned this to Alison’s working assistants who pulled out a flyer for a horse for sale that they had heard about. Apparently the horse had a decent competition record and the owner needed to sell her and was willing to let her go cheap, so we made arrangements to go see her the next day!

In the afternoon the rain let up some, so we all went out to be introduced to our horses for the week and to tack up to ride. “My” horse was Viper, a cute chestnut Quarter Horse type who also happened to be a pretty good size for me (in other words, on the smaller side).

We all rode out into the jumping field where we did some walk, trot canter warm-up and to get used to our new horses. There was also a path that loops around a part of the farm that we first trotted around and then each took turns doing a slow hand-gallop around. Then Alison had us try a few of the jumps in the field and then started putting together some short jump courses for us. I realized pretty quickly that Viper likes to be pretty speedy while jumping. I’m used to this with Lulu, but my usual methods for keeping Lulu slower and steadier jumping didn’t seem to work for Viper. So I ended up with some rushy-awkward fences. Still, it was my first time riding him, so I figured we’d work it out.

That night we tried another restaurant near our hotel where Alison, her husband Sean and Alison’s working students (Bethany & Suzie) joined us.

Tuesday morning dawned beautiful. Clear, sunny & warm (we lucked out and enjoyed perfect weather for the rest of the week). We started the day each taking turns to have a lunge lesson where we were required to walk, trot and canter without stirrups and without reins, holding our arms out at our sides like an airplane. I had been dreading this particular activity, but it ended up being not so bad. I also think that I got pretty lucky because all of Viper’s gaits are pretty smooth, on a bouncier horse I would have had a harder time.

After the lunging, we moved on to dressage lessons. After getting warmed up and trying some figures, I learned pretty quickly that Viper was going to be much easier in dressage than Lulu is. Once I got the hang of it, I found that I could get him round, in frame, using his back and hind-end and on the bit. I’m at a stage with my riding where I can’t hold it all together consistently, but I was able to get the desired response from Viper again and again without much struggle. I would get and have it, lose it, get it again, have it and lose it again. On circles I was able to keep it much more consistently, on the long sides I tended to lose it, but then would get it again as we turned into the corners. I found it incredibly encouraging though. It made me feel that someday I may actually be able to be able to do this right, on the right horse anyway. We then had the opportunity to put it all together and do our dressage tests. Mine went okay, there were some rough spots, but for the most part I was happy with it. I was also happy that I was able to remember it easily! I had been worried about that.

In the afternoon it was back to the jumping field for more jumping. This time Alison raised the jumps a little bit and put together longer and more complicated courses for us. I felt like things went more smoothly with Viper this time around. We were still pretty speedy, but nothing was as awkward as it had been the day before.

After taking care of the horses we all piled into Alison’s truck and drove over to the place to see the horse for sale. It was kind of weird place, cats all over the place, dozens of horses out in small paddocks and weird jumps built out of scraps of stuff. The horse (named Cindee) was a small paint. Cute as a button, she seemed nice enough as we watched the woman who is selling her (basically, the horse broker) riding her. Then I had a chance to get on her. I was surprised to find how easily she collected up and accepted contact. She went very, very nicely on the flat for me. It was so nice really, that I almost wanted to cry, I was so grateful to have such a lovely flat experience. After that we went over to the jumping area to try a few fences. Well. The first thing we popped over (a little cross-rail) she about jumped me out of the tack! She jumped so big and popped up her back-end so much in her jumping style that I almost actually came off. Alison spent some time having me try some different jumps, and finally after some work and by cantering everything, it got much better. Still, the jumping with her wasn’t easy. She was also a little rushy to the fences, but by the end I felt that I was containing it well. My bottom line after the ride was that the rushing I could handle, she got a little flustered a few times and did some lead switching and a little bit of dancing around, but I felt that I could handle that too (it was my first time riding her after all), but the jumping style I wasn’t sure about. I didn’t think it could be “fixed” so the big question was whether I could adjust to that. So, the bottom line was, I wasn’t sure. The dressage work was just so lovely and this is something that I had been struggling with in particular, that I wasn’t ready to say definitely not. The big question was whether the jumping would get better for me. So we decided that we were going to trailer this horse over to the location where we were competing in our 2-Phase the next day. We were scheduled to do some cross-country schooling on their course after the competition and Alison thought that it might be a good opportunity to fully try Cindee out.

Wednesday morning started pretty early for us as we were competing in a 2-Phase (also held at Sporting Days) and so had to be at the place relatively early. I was incredibly nervous as I hadn’t competed in well over 20 years. It was a little schooling event, so it was meant to be low pressure, but I was so, so worried about making a fool out of myself! My ride time for dressage was a little bit later than everyone else’s, so I got to sit and worry and obsess while everyone was getting ready. Finally it was time for me to warm up and so I made my way on Viper over to the dressage area. I did some circles and serpentines and spirals and transitions and all too quickly it was my turn to ride my test. The test seemed to go okay. I was pretty nervous, but I tried to concentrate on just riding. We had some good moments and some blah moments, but overall I was happy enough with it. I don’t think it was quite as good as the one I had ridden the day before at Alison’s, but it wasn’t disastrous either. Most of all, it was a relief to have it finished.

After dressage I moved over to the jumping warm-up area. Everyone was already there and warming up because their jump times were a little earlier. I started my warm-up and did not have a very good time of it. Once we started jumping, things just seemed to get worse. Viper wanted to be his speedy self and I wanted to micro-manage him and keep him much slower. The result was that we had some TERRIBLE warm-up jumps, including one big stop before the oxer that almost had me off him (I managed to stay on by sheer will, I think). I was so discouraged at that point that I was ready to scratch myself out of the competition. Finally, I managed to relax a little bit and have one or two good fences and it was time to get to the staging area for my stadium round.

Well, everything seemed to come together perfectly for stadium. I just let Viper do what he needed to do and otherwise kept him steady and slowed him a bit in-between the jumps. It was actually quite lovely (turns out that we also had the fastest stadium round in our division). What a relief! I finally figured out how I needed to ride this horse. I’m so used to Lulu who you really DO have to micro-manage, but Viper is completely different. I felt so much better after that. I ended up winning 4th in my division! I was REALLY happy with that, especially considering that I had only been riding Viper for two days and hadn’t competed in well over 20 years.

After the competition we had lunch and hung around waiting for Sean to arrive with the trailer and Cindee the prospect horse. I found myself becoming increasingly nervous about jumping her cross-country, which should have been a pretty big clue that this wasn’t going to be the horse for me. I still had the memory of how wonderfully she went on the flat for me though and wanted to be sure. Everyone else headed on over to the jumping warm-up area while Alison’s working students helped me get Cindee ready. Finally I got on her and walked her around on a loose rein for a little bit. She was a little excited and dancing around a bit, but it wasn’t too bad. After walking around, I decided that I wanted to shorten my stirrups, so I tried to get her to stand quietly while I did so. I had one foot out of the stirrups while I was fiddling with it, when the next thing I knew Cindee reared straight up in the air, tumbling me off the back. I hit the ground so hard that it apparently knocked me out for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes, Sean was standing over me and saying that I shouldn’t move. The whole thing is a bit of a blur so I’m not even 100% sure what and when anything happened, but eventually they let me get up and moved me over to the trailer and out of the sun. They had an EMT over to check me out where she asked me all kinds of questions, like my name, where I was, what day it was, what month it was, etc. Some of the stuff I actually didn’t know the answer to! I had no idea what month it was. I was really confused because I couldn’t remember, it was hot like Summer, yet I knew that it wasn’t Summer. I don’t think I was too sure where I was either. I knew what had happened, yet I couldn’t quite grasp why I had been on that particular horse -- I knew that she wasn’t one that was usually there. After about 15 or 20 minutes everything cleared up for me, but that dazed feeling was pretty scary really.

Needless-to-say my riding was done for the day. Cindee was also off the list of potential horses for me. Any horse that will rear like that, especially for no real, good reason is a horse that is very dangerous and one that I want no part of. Sean said that when he looked over and saw what had happened, that I was actually right underneath her, it’s a wonder that I wasn’t stomped on. I also thought that she had flipped over with me (she didn’t, I just thought so at the time). Anyway, off the list. Sean was kind enough to stick with me and we then walked over to the cross-country course to watch the others ride. I was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to ride it, but relieved that I didn’t have to go through an ordeal with Cindee on it too.

At the end of the day Cindee went back. The day before, however, Alison had remembered a horse that she knew of for sale. This was a horse she had seen compete in the stadium phase of horse trial on Sunday. She knows the farm who owns her and the trainers, has a relationship with them and trusts them. She knew a bit about the training and competition history of the horse and had been thinking of the horse for another rider, but suddenly thought that he might work for me. We had arrangements to see him late on Thursday.

That night we decided to go to the Aiken Brewery for dinner where we enjoyed wonderful wings & beer and other great food. Joanne (one of the women I was traveling with who also happens to be a nurse practitioner) kept an eye on me and kept checking out my pupil dilation situation to make sure that I was okay after my fall, but I was fine. Anyway, we had a great time there and really enjoyed the atmosphere.

On Thursday we were scheduled to go to a farm called “Jumping Branch” where we were to do pacing on the galloping track and then school on their cross-country course. I was a little concerned that my nerve might have suffered a bit after my bad fall the day before, on the other hand I felt that it was such a freak thing that maybe my mind wouldn’t make that connection. As it turns out, I was fine, didn’t even have the slightest hesitation or worry.

Galloping on the track was an incredible amount of fun! I kind of knew that it was going to be, but I don’t think I appreciated how much I was going to enjoy it until I did it. The goal was to hit first 350 meters, then 450 and then finally 550 meters each in one minute (we each took one turn for each pace exercise). 350 pace was a fast canter/good controlled hand gallop pace. 450 more of strong hand gallop and 550 opened up into a good, rocking gallop. Fun, fun, fun.

After the galloping we all jumped a stadium course in the stadium field and then we moved onto cross-country. The stadium jumping I did here as well as the day before was enough to make me feel confident that I now had Viper’s number and so I didn’t have an residual nervousness about my ability to ride him over the cross-country stuff. As I expected, he went wonderfully for me, easily, willingly and enthusiastically jumping everything that I asked him to. He was very forward, but also quite responsive when I asked him to slow for me. I was so happy and relieved that we had finally clicked, I had been a bit worried that I wasn’t going to sort it out. I was also very happy that I wasn’t at all freaked out to be back on a horse after my scary fall the day before, so all-in-all, it was a very satisfying and successful outing.

After we got back to the farm, took care of the horses, cleaned out the trailer, etc. it was soon time to go see the horse that Alison had found for me. There were a couple of things that made her think this might be a nice horse for me. First he’s relatively small (probably about 15.3Hs), he’s not rushy to fences, has already gone Training level (with a pro) and seems to jump up to the rider, rather than out and long like Lulu does (which kind of makes it harder for a rider like me who likes to get a bit ahead of the horse). So we arrived at the farm and right away saw Gambler standing there calmly while he was being tacked up. He seemed so quiet and patient and content. And cute! First we went into their ring where the exercise rider first did some walk, trot, canter work with him. He seems to go nicely round and on the bit for her. Certainly had a reasonable frame for dressage. She then jumped him over a couple of short jump courses. He looked very steady and consistent over everything. Then it was my turn to ride. I couldn’t seem to get him to go quite as nicely. I get so frustrated with myself with where I am with my dressage -- ARGH! But I was also pretty nervous, especially with everyone (Alison, my fellow camp girls, the exercise rider, the farm owner and a couple of other people) watching me. Finally, when I did some circles with him and did a little over-bending, I started to get the desired frame with him. This gave me encouragement that it’s reachable with him, that with work (especially work with my own riding) that I can get this more & more consistently. And really, how long had I been riding him at that point. ten minutes? It’s a lot to ask that everything is going to be completely perfect so quickly. And then came jumping. First I popped him over a cross-rail a couple of times and then Alison put together a couple of small courses for me. It was immediately apparent that he was very easy and simple to jump. Forward, without being rushy, willing, enthusiastic and completely unflappable. I found myself ... happy and relaxed and completely unconcerned about anything on the course. It was a bit of a revelation really.

After the stadium bit in the ring, Alison asked the farm owner if we could try some of the stuff out on the cross-country course. Alison started pointing out a few jumps that she wanted to string together for a course and I had a small momentary freak-out about the size of them -- I thought the jumps were a little bit big, at least for the moment, considering that it was my first time on this horse. Alison looked at me and said something like, you did these smaller jumps the other day, now you’re on to this, you can more than handle it, time to move on. I should add that Alison is extremely conservative and safety conscious. She will not move someone up in levels until she is absolutely sure that they’re ready. She has this philosophy that one should not be moving up to the next level until the level they’re on bores them senseless. So after my short moment of freak-out, I started jumping and everything was EASY! Gambler was steady and happy and just completely trustworthy. I didn’t even have one second of doubt at any point during any of it. He moved forward into a nice rolling gallop between jumps, but then easily came back to me, slowing when I asked, easy to balance before each obstacle. Finally Alison put together a last course including two passes through a water feature, with the intention that we jump out of the water over a log jump meant for that purpose, a stride or two up the bank and then a jump over this house/coop jump thing. The farm owner said that Gambler hadn’t done that water jump yet, but that he should handle it nicely. I think Alison wanted to see how he’d react to something new. She told me that if I felt at all funny or out of control after the water jump, to then just skip the one after it. Anyway, so I jumped the course and we came through the water and hopped over the jump like we’d both done it a million times before. An easy one or two strides (I can’t remember now how many it was) and then over the final jump. I was so much fun and EASY really. It was surprising. And I didn’t seem to have nearly the trouble getting ahead of him that I seem to have with some other horses.

After jumping this course, Alison took me aside out of ear-shot of everyone else and asked me what I thought. I told her that I LOVE him. She agreed and said that she really, really likes him too, and especially likes him for me. She thinks that he will have enough scope for me to be able to compete at least through Training level, which should carry me through for a good number of years. So we sent everyone else away and spoke to the owner. She said that since the horse had recently gone Training level, that they were going to raise his price. But since it seemed like such a great fit (she commented a couple of times on the big smile I had on my face the entire time I was on cross-country) and because I was working with Alison, that she would stick to the original price for me (which was about 2K less than what they were going to be asking).

So, I gave her a deposit! It looks like I’m buying a horse! Pending the vet check (which happens tomorrow) of course. Gambler is a 5 year old dappled gray thoroughbred who came from Kentucky. He is a former race horse, but I don’t know his racing name and don’t know how many starts he had or what his racing record was. I would like to find these things out perhaps, at the least it would be nice to see his pedigree, but I would need his racing name to dig it up and I’m not sure if anyone has that info. Anyway, I hope that he vets clean! I’ll probably be holding my breath all day on Monday. The other thing is, I’m jumping through hoops to pull the money together, I wasn’t planning on buying a horse this week, so money is kind of all over the place at the moment. I hope they can be patient for a few days while I pull everything together.

If all goes well, Gambler will move over to Alison’s where she will do some training work with him for the next couple of weeks and then he will come up with her to New Hampshire when she comes back up around the middle of April. I am so excited and a bit overwhelmed -- I need so much stuff, I don’t even own a saddle!

Thursday night we went to a local Mexican place and Alison and her working students and a friend of Alison’s from the Aiken horsey community joined us. Another wonderful meal where I also enjoyed a couple of margaritas -- YUM.

By Friday morning I was pretty exhausted and feeling extremely sore from my fall the other day. I wasn’t too ambitious and so was happy to just hack around the field a little bit and not work too hard. Friday afternoon we trailered over to Hitchcock Woods for a picnic lunch and then a trail ride. This place is pretty cool, there are trails all over the place, but there are also sections that include jumps, as well as a steeplechase section. No one was feeling too ambitious at this stage so we all kept it pretty low-key. It would be really great to go back there someday and try that steeplechase though, it looks like a lot of fun.

Friday night we went to this awesome sushi place where I had this spicy tuna roll thing. It was incredible!

Saturday morning and it was time to go home. I was both very happy to be headed home and very sad to leave. This is a testament to a great vacation for me -- usually by the end of it I’m desperate to be home. The fact that I was sad to leave means quite a lot. I enjoyed it so much that I hope that I can manage to swing it again next year. I also, really, really enjoyed the company of all the women on the trip. I was a little concerned about this because I tend to be a bit introverted and can be a little socially awkward. I’m also so used to being alone and having my own space, so I was afraid that I might get overwhelmed by the social aspect. Also, being the only non-married, non-mom woman of the group, I thought that that might also put me at a disadvantage. But not so, we all got along incredibly well. Everyone was so supportive of everyone else and we all never seemed to be able to shut up at dinner or cocktails. I guess having a common interests is a big factor in this.

Now I’m home again and it’s time to get back to reality. The week seemed to go so fast, but I also feel like so much happened and that quite a lot was accomplished. It will be interesting to see how it all translates to how I ride Lulu.

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