Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Groton House Summer Classic 3-Phase (horse) Event: 6.21.2009

On Sunday I was entered in my second 3-phase event since my return to riding (and Ruby’s third since coming north to New Hampshire). The event that I did in May had been a simple re-introduction for me and a way to start to get to know Ruby. The Groton House Summer Classic 3-Phase was to be a step up from that – more competitive, higher jumps for my chosen division, a much more comprehensive cross-country course over diverse terrain. My trainer, Alison, had said recently that she thinks that I’m ready to move up in division and that I can probably soon target a sanctioned event as well. We were going to see how Sunday went and then decide what the next step should be.

Sunday morning dawned gray and chilly. After a completely sleepless night, I was up at 3:15 AM and arrived at the barn by 5 AM, where they were already loading the horses onto the trailer. I believe that it was on the ride to the event when the dreaded rain started. I just couldn’t believe that I was going to yet another event on yet another sopping, miserable day. At some point the odds should play out and we should have a nice day, no? But Sunday was not going to be it, unfortunately. This was the worst weather of the three too – we were smack in the middle of a nor’easter. Great. Anyway, we ended up being the first trailer there! The organizers and volunteers were just setting up when we arrived. One advantage of being there so early was that we got prime trailer parking. We were also the first to walk the stadium and cross-country courses – not sure if that’s an advantage, but it did give us plenty of time so we could really look at everything in detail. There was no rushing through any of the sections on course.

Our first riders were scheduled to go around 9 AM, however my ride times were not scheduled to start until almost noon. So that gave me a lot of time to mill around in the miserable pouring rain watching various dressage tests and trying not to think about how miserable I actually was. I do really like to watch the dressage. A good test will inspire me and a ride that has some difficulties that a rider is able to ride through gives me hope and also helps me to realize that lots of people struggle through this phase, that I’m not alone there. It also helps to remind me of what good (and also of what bad) dressage looks like. It is one thing to strive for it from the back of a horse, but it’s great to be able to see it from the ground sometimes. Of course having such a delayed ride time did not do my nerves any favors. I felt my anxiety growing somewhat, the longer I waited. Oddly, I think that I was more afraid for the dressage than I was for the jumping phases. Not sure if that was because dressage was first and I was only thinking of that, at that stage. Or if it was because I knew that in the jumping I could do what I had to, to get through. If that meant slowing to a trot or even a walk to gain control, or whatever, I could do it (you just can’t really stop). As long as I jumped the prescribed obstacles in the prescribed order and went through the correct flags, I knew that I could do what I needed to do to get around. With dressage since I had to perform specific gaits & figures in specific places in the ring, I think I feel a little more anxiety about pulling that off. Plus Ruby is such an honest & bold jumper, regardless of what happens between the fences, she is pretty game to jump anything she’s pointed at – at least that’s been my experience with her so far. Dressage is rougher for us at the moment.

When it was time to get Ruby and myself ready for our first ride, I realized that I had cut it a little close, not really leaving a lot of time to warm-up. It seemed like everyone was milling around the trailer at the same time, using the cross-ties, needing help with this & that, that the time kind of got away from me. So I tacked up Ruby in a great rush, didn’t even have much time to try and get the fresh stains out of her butt – and had to hustle over to the dressage area to check-in and warm up. I think I had a bit of an inkling of how things were going to go when Ruby spooked at the porta-potties as we passed and then did a huge spook at the wooden show secretary’s booth (with the plastic sheeting flapping over one window). She was completely agitated and keyed up, I could feel her bunched-up energy under my legs. I checked in with the dressage ring stewards and found that there were only a couple of riders ahead of me before I was due to start my test. So I right away started to ride Ruby around the field. She was completely freaked out, for some reason, especially when we came to the far part of the field. Freaked out, spooky, you name it, she did not want any part of that end of the field. I think part of it was she could see some hint of the horses up on top of the hill warming up for the stadium phase, but they were not in full view to her. Anyway, for whatever reason, she was jumpy as hell. Because we had such a truncated window for warm-up, I didn’t waste too much time and tried a canter transition soon after we started (I needed to get a few under our belt as this is one of our current problem areas in dressage). Well. I asked for a canter and my normally quiet, reasonable horse took off bucking and bolting! I quickly pulled her into circle and brought her back, but by then I was a bit freaked out.

There is always one horse in warm-up who is the “Scary Horse”. The one you look at and think, ‘TG that’s not me!’ and then try to steer as clear of as possible. Well, on Sunday, I was the rider of that horse. Every time I tried to ask for a canter there was bucking & bolting. I brought her back each time and did some trotting circles, but I was seriously considering scratching at that stage. I wasn’t sure at what point I was going to reach the limit of my ability to ride through this craziness (I mean, I’ve dealt with this kind of thing before, but mostly it was 20-30 years ago!). Luckily Alison rode up on her way to her stadium phase (she was also riding on Sunday). I told her what was going on and she was able to sit there and talk me through some semblance of a warm-up with Ruby. The bucking & bolting continued, but I was finally able to get two relatively sane canter transitions out of her. By then I didn’t have much more time for warm-up and had to queue for my turn for dressage and Alison had to head up the hill for her stadium round.

In dressage, once the rider ahead of you has finished their test and is on their way to exit the ring, you can enter the dressage area and circle around outside of the actual ring. This is usually a good opportunity to give your horse a closer look at the judge’s booth and other areas that might prove to be spooky, you can also get some last minute impulsion going, it’s a last chance to get your horse listening, responding and bending or whatever. So I took as much advantage of this time before the start whistle as I could. Ruby did some spooking around the area, but nothing terrible, mostly I tried to keep her supple and relaxed and on the bit, we had a good period of time while waiting for the whistle, so I was also able to calm myself a little bit during this interim.

Finally it was time to enter the ring and time to sink or swim. Ruby was actually very nicely round and on the bit, with good energy. I started out trying to keep my posting to the trot slow and keep everything quiet, but still with good energy. I tried not to think too much beyond the element of the test that I was on at any given point, and I think that worked well. For the most part I was pretty pleased with how Ruby went. She was very responsive and kept to a nice frame for the most part. I think our left-lead canter work was not bad (especially considering how we’ve struggled with the canter in general). Those were the good parts. On the bad side was one big spook with a mini-bolt, a couple of minor spooks along the long sides of the ring that caused some very crooked lines. And a rough right-lead canter experience, some resistance, a brief break to trot, back to canter on the wrong lead (but which I was able to correct quickly), but we did have adequate canter transitions, so that pleased me (and there was no bucking). So, overall, I didn’t think it was terrible. There were some very good moments and some ugly moments, but I wasn’t at all horrified by it and I felt it was much better than the dressage test at the event last month. After my salute at the conclusion of the test, I took a deep sigh of relief and was able to smile. The judge very nicely told me that I did “a good job”, which was gratifying to hear (even if she was just being nice).

I had about an hour and a half before I had to get on the horse again, so I used that time to watch a couple of stadium rounds and then to walk a piece of my cross-country course again with Alison, just to look at a couple of the elements that she hadn’t been able to walk with me in the morning. It was great to get some additional insight from her and to compare her recommendations on how each obstacle should be ridden with what I had thought on my own.

Very soon I was on Ruby again and headed towards the stadium warm-up. I stupidly thought that she would be calmer now, having been ridden around a bunch and having already seen some of the area. But as soon as we reached the top of the hill where the jumping ring was, and the grassy area for warm-up, the bucking and bolting and spooking started again, only it happened more randomly (and more often) and not coinciding with canter transition requests. Also, added to her bag of tricks now was this very nasty, half-rear/spin combination every time we came around to a certain section of the area. Every horse that schooled over one of the jumps would cause a bolt and buck combo. Every time we reached a section of the area there was a rear-spin with a buck thrown in. There were random buck and bolts that got thrown in around the whole area for good measure too. It was far worse than the dressage warm-up, once again I seriously considered scratching.

Alison was again able to talk me through it, very calmly reminding me to ride her forward, keep moving forward, circle, circle, circle, keep her focused on me. She had me move out from the regular warm-up area and just make small, figure-8 trotting circles beside the stadium arena and little farther removed from the warm-up section that had her so disturbed. Still, there were some bucks & spins, but it was not nearly as insane there as it had been in the common warm-up area. The ring steward asked if I was going to be ready to go for my turn next (after the current horse finished) so Alison had me pop over the cross-rail once to see if jumping made Ruby even more psycho. She jumped it without bucking, taking off slightly after it, but responding when I asked her to halt, so we determined that we were “ready”. Since I really hadn’t jumped as part of our warm-up, Alison pointed to the first fence on the course and said, “See jump #1? That’s your warm-up jump.” Even then I found it kind of funny. I told her flat out that if I felt freaked out at any point on the course that I was going to stop and retire. Her response was basically, do what you have to do, but at least give it a try. I had been so tempted to scratch during this rodeo, but I also knew that I would be very disappointed with myself if I did, and I was also very worried that doing so would cause a big hit to my confidence. So, knowing that I had the power to back out at any point that I felt uncomfortable, I gave it a try.

Well. Ruby jumped beautifully! Once we actually got going inside of the stadium ring, it’s like she pretty much forgot about everything that was freaking her out. Once she realized that she was jumping, she was able to focus on that, and on me, and enjoy herself. I never once in the entire round felt even slightly worried. There were moments when she got a little strong or slightly fresh, but she responded very nicely to me when I needed to balance or slow her and I never felt that any of it was out of hand. We ended up with a very nice clear round after all that crazy drama. Of course, once we were on our way back down the hill towards the cross-country start, the bucking started again. Just what you want to deal with while riding down a steep hill, a bucking horse. Alison behind me kept calling out, “You’re doing a good job! You’re doing a good job!” I think she was trying to keep me calm, although I don’t think I ever really allowed myself to freak out too much. I was too busy dealing with it all.

Waiting for my cross-country start, I again continued to trot in circles to keep Ruby distracted from the “elements” and focused on me. I internally questioned myself whether it was really a good idea to gallop a psycho, bucking, spooking, spinning horse across fields and hills and through woods and over various obstacles and whatnot. But cross-country was supposed to be the highlight of this day and it would be a shame to miss it. I would have been really disappointed if I hadn’t at least tried. So I decided to ride out this craziness and see what happened.

Very soon I was released on to the cross-country course – we cantered up a hill and over the first jump and Ruby took off after it with a very strong gallop across the field. It was less like the bolting she had been doing earlier and more like a “Oh, THIS is what we’re doing now? WEE!!!” Still, it was a bit of a crazy, out-of-hand gallop, one that I couldn’t allow to continue. Normally I might circle in a circumstance like this, but I felt that the second jump was coming up too soon and I ran the risk of it being counted as a refusal. No way did I want to take a refusal if I didn’t have to, especially as I knew Ruby would jump the jump without issue. Luckily I was able to slow her considerably, even eventually getting down to a trot (I’ll bet the people who had been standing in the field watching us blow past, literally gasping in horror as we raced past didn’t think I was going to be able to pull that off, but I did it somehow). She had a very lovely jump over fence #2 and into the next field.

After the initial crazy galloping thing, she was actually very good on cross-country. Listening to me, willing to slow when I asked, but always eagerly looking for the next jump. I talked to her the whole way around, praising her and telling her, “look, another jump, you can do it!” After coming out of the woods, jumping the fence just outside the wooded path and as we were following the tree line, she gave one big spook before we headed to the next fence, but that was the only time she spooked on course. Headed up the hill in the last field after jumping the wood pile on our way to the final couple of jumps she apparently gave a buck or two – this was told to me by Marilyn, who had moved to the last field to watch the end of our course. I honestly either don’t remember it, or didn’t even notice it when it happened. Perhaps I had been through so much bucking and nonsense at that point that it didn’t even register, who knows? Anyway, it was a jump over a little table and then a final jump over this sod-covered coop-like thing, Ruby didn’t blink at anything at all, just eagerly jumped everything that was asked of her. Finished with another clear round! I was thrilled! I was especially thrilled because we haven’t been cross-country schooling at all. This was my first opportunity to ride a big cross-country course with Ruby and she was just great.

So, overall, even with all the warm-up drama and craziness, I felt that the day was a positive one. Ruby came through the official phases with flying colors, it just took a lot of riding to get through the warm-up insanity to get to the point where we were actually able to get on course. Once she got going in each phase, she was pretty much fine. I’ve been through spooking with her before, but this bucking, bolting, spinning, whatever thing is completely new and I’m at a loss as to what could possibly have caused it. I have to keep reminding myself that she is only five. And also, that she had never even evented before this February or thereabouts. I suspect that she just needs more exposure to more and varied events so this can all become old hat to her. I was so happy with her jumping yesterday that I kind of wish we had been entered in the higher division, I think that she (and I) could have handled it with no problem (the fences are only about 4” higher). She would have had to go through water and over a ditch at some point, so those could have presented a problem, but we’re going to have to deal with them sometime anyway. Oh well, in the end I was happy with everything. I was happy also that I was able to ride through the craziness without freaking out, getting off (or getting thrown) or letting it scare me too much. I was too busy dealing with it all in the moment. And I was proud of myself for following through and not giving in and scratching, no matter how tempted I was to do so. In the end I was proud of us both and happy with the outcome, although still a little alarmed by Ruby’s behavior.

Because I was the last rider in our group and the horses were all were all loaded in the trailer and ready to go. And because I was completely exhausted and drenched from the long, wet, overwhelming day, I decided not to wait around (and make everyone else wait around) for my dressage test and division results. I was able to look everything up online yesterday and it turns out that we were 7th! (Out of a big field of 23 competitors too). Our dressage score was 39, which made me very happy. First time I’ve been able to break 40 on Ruby. Even though I feel like the judge was pretty generous (as they tend to be at these schooling things), I feel that I must have been correct and significant parts of our test must have been quite good to have made up that much for the parts that were quite bad – I wish now that I could get a hold of that test so that I could see what her comments were, oh well. So, sitting on this side of the competition, with it all said and done, I’m very pleased indeed.

Now I don’t know what to do about future events. Are we really ready for a sanctioned? If I was to go merely on the actual phases from Sunday, I would say, “yes”. But when I consider the nutso behavior in the warm-ups, I just don’t know. I mean, I know that I run the risk of this regardless of whether we go to a schooling or a sanctioned event, and not going to anything is not going help us work through the problem either. I’m just not sure how eager I am to put on my rodeo hat again anytime soon though. On the other hand, avoiding the problem will just cause anxiety to grow about it too, which isn’t going to help anything at all. I do, however, think that if we do go to another event soon, that I’ll enter the next division up, unless Alison feels strongly otherwise. I don’t think being in the other division would have made anything worse yesterday. If there is going to be craziness, it will be crazy in whichever division. I haven’t had a chance to discuss anything with Alison yet, so I guess I’ll wait to get her thoughts on it all before trying to make a decision.

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