Monday, September 14, 2009

King Oak Fall Horse Trials: September 12, 2009

Let me just say, it's a good thing that I have a trainer to push me a bit in this sport. I had had such a great experience at UNH in July, but it was also such an exhausting effort. Worse, I had been jumping out of my skin with nerves for weeks leading up to that day. Once it was all over however, I was on a high about my experience, but also with some amount of relief that I had gotten through it and that I didn't have anything else scheduled just yet. That first week after UNH Alison said that we should talk about what I should do next. I kind of blew it off a bit because I was still a little shell-shocked and slightly overwhelmed (at least mentally) from UNH. So I stalled and didn't make any real decision about any new competitions. And then one day Alison said, "so, I guess you're not really interested in Eventing then." What? Of course I'm interested! So, that pushed me out of my complacency and got me to sign up for the King Oak Fall Horse Trials.

I felt that King Oak was a good choice because Alison had already ridden Ruby in their Spring Horse Trials back in May. So, I knew that she had been fine there and had gotten through everything with no problems. Also, since I had been there as a spectator/groom, I had also seen everything and had even walked the cross-country course at that time myself. I knew that there was nothing on course that would particularly alarm me. Finally, I sent in my entry.

Surprisingly, I didn't have the immediate issue with nerves that I had experienced before UNH. I was kind of able to keep the knowledge of the coming event to the back of my mind and not obsess too much. The last two weeks before the event I stepped up my riding, taking (I think) only one day off. I was in a Dressage lesson last week and very, very frustrated over my inability to accomplish an effective bend with Ruby (especially to the right). She has been out of training board for a while now and I probably have not been insistent enough with my riding to force the issue, which has probably allowed her to become somewhat stiff and more resistant to bending. Alison decided to have a couple of her working students (who are all excellent riders) ride Ruby during the week which seemed to loosen her up quite a bit so that I was able to accomplish bending with her when I rode her in the evenings. This also suppled her up and made getting her on the bit much easier. I feel pretty humbled with how easily the barn girls are able to accomplish this where I cannot. It just really highlights how much work my riding really needs, how much I still need to learn, how much I still need to improve to just be merely adequate. That one lesson early in the week was the low-point, but after that, things started to improve and I started to feel a little more encouraged for the event on Saturday. I was nervous, but I didn't feel wracked with nerves like I did before UNH.

King Oak is in Western Massachusetts, so it's a bit of a haul for us from Southern NH. We left the barn somewhere around 4 AM after doing the barn feeding in the pitch dark and pouring rain (now, that was an interesting experience). I don't really want to think too hard about how little sleep I had had over the last couple of days leading up to the competition. Work has been pretty busy, I've been getting to the office early most days, riding every evening after work, not sleeping well in general. It's enough to say that I was pretty much an exhausted wreck by that morning. However, once we got there, I kind of forgot about all of that. It was pretty wet on the grounds, but the rain we were experiencing in NH was only a cool, gray drizzle or mist in Western MA, so really not that bad at all (bad weather for the event was something that I had been dreading).

Again, I had a long wait for my first scheduled riding time (1:05 PM). I always seem to be the last from our barn scheduled to ride, what's up with that? Anyway, the time really flew with walking of the Stadium and Cross-Country jump courses, helping everyone else, watching some of the Dressage tests and a Stadium course round or two and walking Ruby around to give her a look around the grounds and some grazing time. The walk around the Dressage and Stadium areas worried me a bit because the set-up was reminiscent of the set-up at the Groton House Summer Classic event that had thrown Ruby into such a lather. At that event, she seemed to be particularly spooky and cranky about being able to see glimpses (but not a clear view) of horses in an adjacent area. The Stadium area on Saturday was set up just through a small tree stand on a hill beside the Dressage arenas and warm-up, so I had some misgivings about that, it caused a bit of anxiety for me, but still, I have to say that my nerves never really got too bad.

(Note: the Stadium phase was held in a different location than it had been in the Spring. It was the new set-up on the other side of the trees from Dressage that concerned me for spooking opportunities.)

I should not have worried, because Ruby was fine, I don't think she even gave one spook, maybe just a bit of looking around, but she was otherwise very willing to get to work. After about twenty minutes or so of warm-up, we went in for our dressage test. Our past tests seem to have varied from disastrous to fairly mediocre, this is definitely our weakest phase. But on Saturday it felt to me ... not horrible. It wasn't brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. The score was (again) mediocre. But the difference is, it felt different to me. Ruby was more consistently supple, more consistently on the bit than I've ever felt that she has been before for me. As in the past, I would have some good moments, then lose the frame, have some bad moments, and then have some good moments. But on Saturday I felt that the good moments were far more plentiful this time. She also felt much more balanced to me -- the canter particularly felt like an enormous improvement. She actually cantered around each circle quite round and balanced, stepping under herself and carrying herself together, not heavy on the forehand and strung out and not hollow with the llama-horse neck that she can do, no tossing of her head and resisting contact. I feel that this is huge progress. HUGE! Of course, compared to the pool of competitors on Saturday, we were apparently not wonderful, but I was personally quite thrilled with the test once we were through. I was literally gushing about it. Alison was even very pleased with it and felt that it showed a lot of progress for us. Lastly and most importantly, I felt that Ruby and I worked together as a true team. I usually feel this way about jumping, but Dressage has been more a struggle, more of a fight to eek out some resemblance of something that looks something kind of like "Dressage". This test on Saturday felt far more harmonious than our previous efforts. The judge's comments on the test at the end of the day more-or-less supported how I felt about it. The bottom line basically came down to "needs more consistency", "needs to be more consistent". Well, okay, THIS I can work with. Needing more consistency just means that it needs more work, more practice. It means that we're headed in the right direction. This is encouraging.

For some reason, I was the most nervous about the Stadium Jumping phase. Dressage makes me nervous from a performance stand-point, but I know that I'll at least (most likely) get through it, no matter how ugly it ends up being. Cross-country didn't worry me much because none of the jumps on the course seemed particularly intimidating to me. Plus, I feel like, in a way, it's just my horse and me out there, almost like we're out for a hack in the woods. I can trot if I need to, I can slow down and speed up as I want or feel I need to. I can almost convince myself that we're out there alone and that it's no big deal. SJ, well, I don't know, it freaks me out a little bit. The course can have a lot of twists & turns, the jumps always look bigger to me (I think they're more likely to be the max height than the XC jumps). You know there is always a crowd of people watching. This SJ course was in a field, so there was bit of a terrain element (you definitely were headed up and down hill in places) and it was on grass so you had to worry about footing, especially since there had been a bunch of rain. Also, I felt like I had not done a full stadium course like this in a while. I'm trying to remember, but it seems like my last few jumping lessons have been more of, jump a few SJ jumps in the ring, then jump out of the ring and jumps some stuff out in the field. And I had had some recent jumping lessons where I had jumped very poorly too. So I was worried about it.

Well. Let me say that I shouldn't have worried. Ruby truly is a jumping star. And I think that we're actually quite a nice jumping team, we seem to really understand each other. I was pretty good about remembering to rate her, to bring her back after every jump (she was a bit fresh in that field and wanted to GO). I remembered to constantly balance her and I trusted her to do her job and she listened attentively to my input throughout. I have ridden horses before who want to get very fresh and strong and fast while jumping, and this can very often become a bit of fight to keep them at the pace where you want them, but I never feel this way with Ruby. She will also get fresh and strong and fast, but she listens. I find it very easy to adjust her, to check her slightly here and there and change the pace to what is needed.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I didn't screw up a couple of times. She had gotten a bit speedy downhill towards one jump headed back to the in-gate. She had adjusted very well to my rebalancing efforts and jumped it beautifully. Then it was a hook around the back of the field over a rustic-rail oxer which she jumped nicely, but after that it was a turn back towards the center of the course and we lost some forward momentum. I realized too late that we weren't as forward here as we needed to be and that screwed up our next three fences a little bit. She jumped them fine, touched a rail on fence #6 (but it didn't fall), didn't jump as forward into the combination as she needed to, so she chipped in a third stride to the "out" fence, rather than getting the expected two strides. But she got over them all okay, and I have to say, even with the less-than-perfect distances, my body position did not get in her way (or jump me out of the tack). I think I've made some improvements there as I was able to stick with her nicely, whether the fence was perfect or not so much. Finally, it was over some jump that was stuffed with corn stalks and husks and a turn and then over an oxer and we were over the finish line -- CLEAR! That was a relief. Alison told me that she thought I did a good job with the course and that our round and been "quite respectable". I was frankly thrilled with it. Even Ann (who had been watching from the hill) said that she thought it was very well done.

The last phase was Cross-Country. Because it was only about half an hour after our Stadium phase, I didn't feel that Ruby needed a lot of warm-up. We walked, trotted and cantered around the warm-up field a little bit, but I didn't bother to jump her over any of the practice jumps. I felt that she had jumped enough (and recently enough) and that additional jumps would just tire her out unnecessarily. I also tend to really dislike these warm-ups and sometimes start to psych myself out with bad distances and some ugly efforts, so I felt that keeping our good SJ in round in my head was the best thing for maintaing the right positive frame of mind.

Happily, we did not have to wait too long in the warm-up before they let us over to the starting box for the count-down. We started in this open field over a small stacked log jump and then a turn over this scary-looking jump that was stuffed with corn stalks. Ruby didn't seem to mind and just cantered over everything blithely with an attitude that almost seemed to say, "what's next". From there, we entered the woods and it was another smallish log jump and then down the path a bit was some kind of bench thing all the way over to the side of the trail. The jump wasn't very big or scary, but the position was a little off-putting, still she jumped it with no problem. Down the wooded trail some more and then it was over this narrow wood wall, that had these big hedges growing up on either side (so the available spot to jump was pretty small) and then into another field. Here, as expected, Ruby wanted to get a little fresh and strong (as I imagine most horses do there). Big, wide, open field, what horse doesn't react to that? So I was careful to try and slow her and bring her back to me here. But I think I misjudged a bit and she was probably a little bit strung out because she took the next jump long and flat, taking an early spot, which kind of left me behind. That was our ugly jump on the course, she gamely jumped it and didn't hold a grudge that I caught her in the mouth (although, I did manage to slip the reins some, it was not enough).

From there it was another log and then another bench and then a turn across the field to a combination two-stride. Well, what was supposed to be two strides anyway. Ruby unfortunately broke to a trot a few strides before the first jump (not sure at this point if I had over-adjusted to cause this) and I felt that we were too close at that point for me try and change the pace and gait so I let it go. We jumped into the combination, but she had to chip in a very short third stride to jump out. Still, we got over it okay with minimal drama, so it was fine. From here we were back into the woods and uphill, over an up-bank, uphill some more, around a turn and a red coop (which I suspect was the only max height jump on the course) and then a bit of an uphill gallop to a stack of birch rails, around a turn to another log and down a very steep hill and out of the woods. At this point I realized that our time was not good. We were slow and I didn't feel there was much I could do to catch it back up enough, without flat-out galloping hell-for-leather and I wasn't willing to do that, it's just not safe and not worth the risk. So we picked it up to an appropriate speed and I tried to forget about the time. The second-to-last jump was another bench with a big flower pot in the middle of it. Ruby gave that a very good look, but a little leg squeeze from me and she was over it (nice big bascule over it as she wanted to give that horse-eating flower pot a lot of space), a turn across the field and a last log jump and over the finish line. A quick glance at my watch and I estimated that we were probably about 15-20 seconds over the optimum time. Oh well, we're still learning this stuff. Anyway, we were clean! Clean with time faults, but clean. I will always be very happy about a clean round.

Again, the XC mistakes are a matter of consistency. Ruby is very bold and willing. I have a little bit of bravery and am willing to do "forward". It's just a matter of figuring out the consistency of pacing. When you do have to slow down for obstacles on course, or for turning, or for footing (or for a heart that's racing out of control with adrenalin), how do you make it up. Learning to keep the pace stable and more consistent over most of the course so that you have the leeway to slow down for pieces of it. Anyway, it's all a matter of more practice, more experience, more exposure. I feel confident that I'll get it eventually.

So, overall it was a great day! I feel really good about how we did. Dressage was almost a complete revelation, SJ was close to perfect (well, some negatives, but nothing disastrous) and cross-country was no problem at all, just the pacing that I screwed up, but Ruby was almost perfect. XC is especially amazing considering that our last XC course was at the UNH event in July! Now that I have two sanctioned events under my belt, I feel much more solid about it, and about the division level. I feel a bit more confident and a bit more capable. I feel like the things that went wrong are pretty fixable with some work and practice. It's funny, but even though our overall score was (I think) better than it was at UNH, we placed far more poorly, pulling in at 12th place. That's okay, I feel like overall we've made progress and I was happy with the day. Even the weather managed to hold, never actually flat-out raining. All-in-all it ended up being a great day.

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