Thursday, July 23, 2009

UNH Summer Horse Trials: July 19th, 2009

On Sunday I competed with Ruby in my first ever sanctioned event. I have written here leading up to the event about how nervous and freaked-out I was for it. Also about how, in addition to being my first sanctioned, this was also a step-up in division for me. Alison (my trainer) had been telling me for the past month or so that I was ready for this, I trust Alison’s judgment and think that, if anything, she tends to be conservative about this stuff (which is good, I never have to worry about ever truly being over-faced). So, I kept telling myself that if Alison thinks that I’m ready, then I must be ready. Still, I spent the last couple of weeks leading up to the event in some form of panic as the day loomed larger on the horizon.

In addition to the general anxiety about performance (and worry about embarrassing myself and my trainer), two big things worried me about riding at UNH. I was worried to encounter more of the crazy behavior from Ruby that I had experienced at the last event and I was worried about the larger jumps and the scarier course that I was going to encounter cross-country in this new division. The latter particularly as we haven’t been off to school any real cross-country course in preparation anywhere. I was less concerned about Stadium Jumping (although still a little worried) as we had done a few solid jump courses in the ring at home at the division height and complexity. Luckily, we have a field at the barn and there are some XC jumps there. So we’ve schooled banks and ditches, ridden over some varying terrain (as well as on trails) and have schooled the new jump height some, so I wasn’t completely coming out of left field, but still, the anxiety was pretty prominent.

I managed to ride Ruby quite a lot in preparation for the show. One day was the wonderful jump school that I mentioned previously where we jumped the coop from the ring to the field, in addition to some other stuff – that gave me a little shot of confidence. The day before the event I spent a full hour riding her in both the ring and the field, doing lots of figures, trot work, canter work, even some galloping. It was a humid, hot day and we were both soaked by the time we were done, but I did not want to have an explosive, anxious horse the next day and felt that this was necessary preparation for the event.

Finally the day was here and we caught a break with the weather! Every previous 3-Phase that I had been to this season had started in the pouring rain, and I was pretty sick of that misery. My day started at 3 AM, but by the time we were leaving the barn for the event, the day was dawning beautifully clear and sunny. I was very nervous, but also excited to be going to UNH – when I was horse shopping back in March, UNH had been the one event that I really wanted to do, so it somehow seemed fitting to have it be my first sanctioned.

When we first got there, we right away ran over and walked the Stadium Jumping course. My nerves were not helped by the fact that the course was set for the division two levels above mine (since that was the first division scheduled to run that day). Looking at the course at that height had me a bit green around the gills. Looking at the twists and turns and the combinations accelerated my breathing and heart rate. I started to feel the pressure and felt the anxiety building. Our first rider had a very early dressage ride time, so we waited for her to go and then Alison took the rest of us out to walk the cross-country course.

My GOD, from the very first jump the obstacles looked huge to me. The course started on a path through the woods and wound through the trees and up & down hills with big, solid jumps in the way. As we walked on and went from jump to jump, I could feel myself becoming more and more freaked out by the scope of what I was doing this day. I found myself thinking, ‘Am I really ready for this?’ I thought about saying something to that effect to Alison, but I reminded myself that Alison already thought that I could do this easily, and had said so multiple times, so I decided to just keep my mouth shut and believe her. In total, there were 16 obstacles on this course. It included lots of stuff that seemed big & solid to me, lots of terrain (woods, hills, fields, up & down hills, even a long bridge to cross), water, a ditch, and one particularly freaky combination of a jump where you landed on a severe downhill bank, with a second jump at the bottom of that. All of this meant to be run within a time-limit. GAH. I finished the course walk even more anxious than before.

Because I had a lot of time to kill before my dressage ride time, I took Ruby off of the trailer and walked her around the area. I wanted to have her look around, stretch her legs, eat some grass and get used to anything that might prove to be spooky to her. I think this might have been one of our issues the disastrous day we rode Groton House. We were in the middle of a big nor’easter that day and so Ruby never had a chance to get off of the trailer and walk around before and between ride times. So I walked her around the dressage warm-ups, around the trailer areas, past the dressage rings, past the mobile tack shops, etc. Let her graze here and there and continuously moving her on to new spots. During the course of our meandering, I ran into the woman I had ridden with at the hunter pace back in October. I had ridden it with a different barn, right before I had started riding at my current barn. That day had been so much fun and she (Amelia) had been so nice and full of eventing advice too, that I was thrilled to meet up with her again.

All too soon it was time to tack up and get ready for Dressage. In this case, even though I (yet again) had a late ride time (why do I always seem to be the last rider???) the time had gone by pretty quickly. I was worried about my dressage, I wanted to get through it and to move on to jumping, but I was immediately more concerned about what kind of horse I was going to have in the warm-up. Well, I needn’t have worried because she was fine. If anything, she was pokey. She looked around a lot, with ears pricked, but there was no actual spooking, no explosion of bucking & bolting when asked for a canter, nothing. What a relief! I had given myself a pretty liberal amount of time for the warm-up because that’s another mistake that I had made at Groton House. Because my ride times had felt so late, time had gotten away from me and I found myself actually rushing to get to the dressage phase on time. This time I figured that it was better to be on earlier, rather than later and it certainly couldn’t hurt to walk around a bit first before we got down to the meat of the warm-up. The warm-up time seemed to fly by incredibly fast and it was all too soon to make my way over to my dressage ring. I must have been absolutely the last horse to ride dressage because by then, the warm-up and the other ring were completely deserted.

Well, the dressage test wasn’t stellar. It wasn’t even very good really, but I felt that it was a vast improvement over the first test we had done together back in May. There wasn’t much impulsion and I really do have to be more organized when I ride these tests, I don’t believe that I think ahead enough to each movement, so they tend not to be very smooth. On the good side, our canter transitions were good! We’ve come a LONG way there. I also felt that both canters were reasonably balanced with good bend on the circle. This particularly pleased me to the right as the canter in this direction really used to be terrible. So, the test wasn’t great, the canters were not perfect by any means, but I feel like both Ruby and I have come a long way since May. Dressage is just going to be a work in progress (as it is for most) and hopefully will just continue to improve as we work on it. Unfortunately, our test received a pretty ugly score, which more or less eliminated the hope of a good placing in our division, not that I was there for the ribbons anyway.

Since I had an hour and a half or so between Dressage and Stadium, I untacked Ruby and took her for a walk down to the Stadium area, which was being held a bit down the road. I wanted to do the same thing that I had done earlier, give her a bit of a look-see at the areas where we would be warming up and competing to head-off spook opportunities. So we wandered around, Ruby grazed and looked, I watched a couple of jump rounds which helped me solidify the course pattern in my head, and checked out the ring for the stadium warm-up. When it was time to warm-up, I found myself a little overwhelmed by the cramped space and horses headed every which way and jumping the three fences, but Ruby was fine. No spooking, no freaking out. We jumped over each practice jump coming from each lead, but caught a bad distance to the oxer which left me slightly rattled. I think I was just over-thinking everything and stressed by the warm-up environment.

Well, when it was our turn for our stadium round, I tried to let all of the worry roll off. The ring steward sent us off by telling me that I had a beautiful horse (I just love to hear that!) I started my canter and proceeded to right away lose one of my stirrups – SHEESH! Of course they right away ran the bell to start, so I cantered around the outside of the ring fishing for it and headed for the start flags. Luckily I managed to get it back before I started the actual course! So, we started the course and I surprised myself by riding Ruby at a good pace to every jump. Ruby stayed ahead of my leg, was enthusiastic and willing and I was happy to ride pretty forward to each obstacle. Previous competitions had had me slowing to a trot at various points, but I didn’t feel the need at this point. Unfortunately, we did pull a rail at #4, however. This was a jump where they were using “flat” jump cups, so even the slightest of nudges would have brought down a rail. This jump also came up immediately after a turn, so I’m sure that I didn’t have Ruby balanced enough for it, it’s completely my fault. Anyway, even still, I felt that our jump round was very good. We had very good distances to everything, I did not jump anything ahead, we rode at the right speed (we had no time faults) and no where did I feel at all freaked out about anything. Overall, I felt very good about it.

Because I had a bunch of time before I had to get ready for the Cross-Country phase, I decided to walk the course a second time. The course was being actively used at this point, so it was necessary to watch out for galloping horses and to step off the path from time to time to clear the way. My barn friend Marilyn and her daughter Emily were there volunteering as jump judges and were positioned right at #1. It was nice to see a friendly face there and to chat for a moment, it helped to take my mind slightly off what was coming up. It was actually interesting to walk the course while the course was being ridden because I got to see some of the jumps actively being jumped. Even though this was one division over mine, there were a lot of shared obstacles, so I did get to see some of the jumps for my division being ridden. It actually got me kind of psyched up for my round, believe it or not. Also, walking it the second time, suddenly the jumps did not seem quite as huge or overwhelming as they had the first time. They still seemed a bit bigger than I had been expecting, but somehow seemed much more doable on the second glance.

The time quickly dwindled until it was time to once again tack up and head to the warm-up. Again, I found myself a little bit freaked out in the warm-up area, even though it was not at all crowded. I think I was just psyching myself out and over-thinking everything again. We had a couple of awkward distances -- I just don’t think I much like the single fence in the middle of a big, open area idea. That just never seems to be the ideal jump situation for me. We jumped a few times and then I said to Alison that I felt that I was finished with the warm-up. All I was doing was psyching myself out and potentially tiring Ruby, I didn’t feel like we needed more at that point, especially as it wasn’t going to get us anywhere.

Very soon it was time to head to the start box. There they gave me the countdown to my starting time. I haven’t yet purchased a cross-country watch, but I do have a timer on my running watch, so I decided to use that. I hadn’t felt like I was going to care much about my time for my first sanctioned event, especially for my first time at this level, but Alison wanted me to at least know what my time was (to start to get a feel for these things) and since I had the stop watch capability, it seemed easy enough to use it. So, when they told me to go, I started my watch (just like a running race!) and off I went!

I again surprised myself by my willingness to set off at a good, strong clip (I was such a wimp about it in previous competitions). I saw jump #1 looming ahead and locked on, felt Ruby lock on and we went for it. I felt that it was a perfect pace, and Ruby took a perfect spot. My position was good, right there with her and it just all felt so thrilling suddenly! I wanted to whoop out loud (like I heard Marilyn and Emily doing), but instead yelled, “Good GIRL!” and galloped up the path. From then on, nothing at all seemed to phase us much. There was one turn around past this huge ditch (that not being used) and up a hill on top of which was a jump that then landed downhill and to the bridge – Ruby was slightly looky there, she didn’t spook at all, but she wanted to trot up to this and I didn’t push the issue except to keep her forward. We cantered across the bridge, but halfway across she got slightly looky too, so we trotted the second half, but then picked up a good gallop once across it. From there it was through more woods, up a hill over a big coop, an up bank jump to a big bench, out to a little field around a corner to a big roll-top – we galloped it all.

After the roll-top there was a bit of a sharp down-hill to a new wooded path. I slowed Ruby to a trot for the hill and she came nicely back to me without any struggle. I then chose to trot down the path a bit to try and gain a little control of myself! My heart was just galloping away with pure adrenalin and I knew that the ditch, the scary, jump/steep-bank,/jump combination and the water elements were coming up and I needed to be in full control of myself and the horse. Out of the woods, it was a sharp turn, up a hill and a good canter over the next jump (I think it was some kind of log/hay bale combination thing, I can’t quite remember) and then the ditch was just a few short strides after that. The ditch was the only thing on course that Alison has been worried about for Ruby. She has encountered ditches before, but she doesn’t love them, it’s the only type of jump that we’ve found so far that she is not completely eager to jump. So I slowed her to a trot and rode her very positively and forward to the ditch and she just jumped over it without giving it even the slightest blink – I was thrilled with her! What a good girl. From the ditch it was up another steep hill and down the scary jump/steep-bank/jump combination that had had me worried. Turned out that it was nothing at all to worry about. Next was the water – into a water feature, through a man-made pond of water and out the other side. I had also been a bit worried about this (as we hadn’t schooled water at all), but she went through with no problem. She maybe goggled a bit at it at the approach, but did not hesitate in the slightest to go in. A big bouncy trot through the water and we were through! After the water I had the presence of mind to glance at my watch and saw that we had about 1:20 minutes to finish the course within the optimal time, so we stepped it up and galloped over the next coop thing, back into the woods and over the big, solid thing (something else that had scared me a bit while walking the course), back out of the woods, around the edge of a field, up the hill in the field over this log thing and up to the last jump on the course, a coop, and a gallop through the finish flags. I was thrilled! Our first big XC together and we went clean. A quick glance at my watch had showed that we were within a few seconds of the optimal course time -- the results later revealed that we hit the time on the dot, so no time faults! (Double-clean) We were both so, so pumped. I could just tell that Ruby was proud of herself and wanted more. I was both so thrilled to have ridden well and gone clean and wanted to go and do it again.

So, all-in-all I feel like it was a very successful day for us. I accomplished every one of my goals. They were:

1. Don’t freak out or scare myself or the horse (or any spectators).
2. Don’t get eliminated.
3. Have fun.

The end result is that we both finished the event full of confidence and enthusiasm. I feel very encouraged now for our eventing future and not nearly as freaked out about future competitions. We’re most likely not going to be very competitive until our dressage improves, but that’s okay. I would far much rather have a honest, bold, enthusiastic jumper like Ruby than a dressage star that’s only so-so about jumping any day. Of course, the ideal is to have both, but the jumping attitude is something that can’t be taught much. It can improve, of course, but that natural enthusiasm and boldness is like gold to me. The dressage will come in time and with work. In the end, it turns out that we were 8th in our division anyway, so we did end up placing. But a decent dressage score would have made us reasonably competitive. Not that a ribbon was my goal for the day really, but it’s something to think about.

Last night Alison was asking me what I want to do next. Next?! I’m still completely overwhelmed and exhausted from Sunday! It’s kind of hard to be thinking of signing up for the next thing already – GAH! She was suggesting that I do either Huntington (sanctioned) in VT next month, or Green Acres (schooling), King Oak (sanctioned) in September and then UNH again in October. Yet more to obsess and freak out about!

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