Friday, June 25, 2010

Weekend o’ Riding

I knew going in that this was going to be a busy, exhausting and somewhat stressful weekend. I had a lot on the agenda with very little rest time planned. The capper of the weekend was to be the Groton House Summer Classic show on Sunday (6/20/2010), my third attempt for this season to put in a successful show effort, having failed miserably at the first two attempts, Pine Top (GA) in March and King Oak (MA) in May. Ironically, The Summer Classic is the show where Ruby acted up so dreadfully last year. I’m not exactly sure what made me decide that returning there might be a good idea, except that I think part of me wanted to make sure that venue did not get the best of me. I needed to move forward and not let the memories of the insanity of last years show settle as a permanent cloud of fear in my brain. The other things that I had planned for the weekend were: a jumping clinic with Lynn Coates-Holmes after work on Friday, cross-country schooling at Scarlet Hill Farm on Saturday morning, followed by bathing and trimming the horse. Oh yeah, and my father was also coming to stay overnight on Saturday.

Into every rider’s life, a little fall must happen.

In a way, my Weekend o’ Riding started on Thursday night with a riding lesson. It was a jumping week and so we started with a gymnastic followed by short courses of fences. I was riding one of these courses and it was going well, until we came to a jump across a diagonal. I somehow misjudged the pace and we got into a bad spot, which caused Ruby to crash through the fence, pitching me off in the process. As falls go, it wasn’t that bad, I just fell pretty hard on my butt, which hurt (and resulted in a lot of bruising and residual soreness). I got back on and, after a couple of bad fences, continued on and finished up the night with a great course of jumps in the ring, jumping out of the ring, jumping fences and whatever in the field and then jumping back into the ring and some more fences there. So, I was able to shake off the fall pretty well, sore butt and all.

The Clinic.

Friday afternoon was the Lynn Coates-Holmes clinic and the soreness from my fall the night before had really settled in. I had attended a LCH clinic in December and had gotten so much out of it that I really did not want to cancel and miss out, but my sore parts were really affecting my ability to ride effectively too. I didn’t want to start bowing out of things because I knew that would allow some amount of fear to grow in my head. So, I decided to move forward and see how it went. Well, for the most part it was good, but I was definitely both mentally and physically affected from my fall the night before. I could tell right off of the bat that I was not riding well. Over fences I felt like a sack of potatoes and did not have the consistent leg that I usually do. I felt like I was more of a passenger than a rider and it was not a very comfortable feeling for me. Both Lynn and Alison continued to insist that I was riding well, but I was riding with Ruby mostly behind my leg and riding to some pretty sticky spots here & there. Some of it was a result of being a little mentally shaken up, but I also think that there was a good part of it that was a result of my sore parts not allowing me to ride the way I normally would. I rode through the clinic however, and just bowed out of the very last jumping course, feeling that my last course had been very successful and wanting to quit while I was ahead. I think Alison was a bit disappointed because she knows that I can do it, I think she thought that I was letting my fear get the better of me (and I WAS), but I really did not feel physically capable of riding at 100% that day and thought it was better to finish on a good note.

Oh, Scarlet.

Early on Saturday morning a group of us loaded the horses up and drove to Scarlet Hill Farm in Groton, MA for cross-country schooling. I had jumped at this chance because most of the cross-country schooling opportunities happen on weekdays and so I usually miss out, I definitely wanted to take advantage of a weekend outing. I had never been to Scarlet Hill, but had heard wonderful things about it and so was happy to finally get to experience this beautiful facility. This was a perfect opportunity for a cross-country tune-up before the show on Sunday and Ruby did not disappoint. She was happy to jump everything I pointed her at, even the scary, funny house jump thing. But again, I felt unable to really ride her forward much and got into some sticky, close spots. I did not feel all that nervous (okay, maybe a little bit), but my soreness affected my ability to ride as I normally would. Still we rode over various elements, over fences, through water, over ditches, over the funny, scary house, over some whiskey barrel jump, up & down rolling hills and around the property. Through it all Ruby was a total star and I managed to come through it unscathed and feeling a little more confident for the show the next day.

Groton House Summer Classic

Sunday morning came very early for me at about 4 AM. I never actually got any sleep on Saturday night because, with my father there, the dogs were all restless and agitated all night long and so I spent most of the night trying to calm them down. Every time I would start to nod off, Tig would jump up or bark which would then also set off Fitz. It turns out that my father went to bed with the door open – sheesh! Of course the dogs could hear every tiny move you made, GAH!

Anyway, so we had the horses loaded and were on the road to the show by 5:30 or so. We got to the show grounds with just enough time to settle the horses in, pick up our packets, walk our stadium and cross-country courses and get back to the trailer in order for some of us to start getting ready for our rides. For the first time ever, I had an early ride time and I was thrilled! I usually have the latest ride times and all that waiting around makes my nerves get progressively worse. The downside with the early ride time, however, is that I did not have enough time to walk my XC a second time. Nothing on the XC course walk alarmed me, although there was some amount of criss-crossing the various fields and re-entering of woods here & there and I was concerned about remembering where and when each had to happen, I did not want to leave out a fence or get lost on course! Groton House has the most beautiful property though, walking the course made me feel thankful for the opportunity to ride there.

After the course walk I really had to hurry back to the trailer to get myself and Ruby ready for dressage. Already the day had heated up and I was pouring sweat. I did not relish the thought of wearing the stock tie and black dressage coat, believe me, but I suited myself up just the same. I was ready and on the horse relatively quickly and before I really had too much time to sit and think & stew about anything. At Alison’s suggestion, I right away asked Ruby for some roundness and bent around a couple of circles beside the trailer, before riding off, just to get her listening to me and not distracted by everything that was happening on the event grounds. We then rode on off to the dressage area to warm-up. Last year I knew pretty quickly in the warm-up that I was dealing with a naughty, completely agitated horse. Spooking, bucking, bolting, and basically freaking out from the start. This year what I had was an angel. Ruby got right to work, interested in what was going on around her, but not overly distracted or upset by any of it. She softly and willingly moved off my leg and forward and was supple and happy to bend in either direction (yes, even to the right!), happily worked correctly across her back and from back to front, becoming (and remaining) lovely and round. I found myself quickly relaxing which also helped create the smooth, soft dressage state that always seems just a bit out of my reach. It was an incredibly hot day (by then over 90 with extremely high humidity), so I did not want to over work Ruby before our test. I still wanted that forwarded, enthusiastic, but relaxed step. So we spent the remainder of our warm-up walking circles in either direction, doing a little overbending here & there, etc. but keeping things as relaxed as possible.

Soon enough it was time to enter the dressage ring. My overall impression of the ride (a few days later) is that it was … easy. Not at all tense, well, except a few tense moments during the transition to the right lead canter, and then the first few strides of that movement. There were also a few moments here and there where we weren’t straight and I probably added some tension in trying to correct it. But overall, I felt that the ride just flowed and was very pleasant. Dare I say, even, fun? Relaxed, smooth, in harmony with each other. Ruby reaching for the contact, with nice forward implusion. I ended that test very satisfied. Our right lead canter piece was a bit of a disaster. I had trouble getting the canter at first and then she broke a couple of strides in. But once we had it established, the remainder of the movement wasn’t as bad as it can be. But the rest of the test felt quite nice to me. Turns out we were in 8th place after dressage, out of a pretty big pool of competitors, I think. I was very happy with it and feel that if our right lead canter had been even just a little bit better, we would have had a somewhat competitive score. Ruby & I have achieved this score before, but I felt that this was the best test we had ever ridden. We also had some nice comments from the judge like, “nice job” and “great pair”. I was also extremely happy to have been scored with a “7” for Rider in the Collective Marks section. That almost never happens for me. So, I was quite pleased with our first phase and in a pretty good state of mind because of it.

My ride times were all stacked a bit close together and the dressage had been running a little behind, so I found that I did not really have enough time to walk my cross-country course again. Usually I liked to walk it at least twice, but oh well. I did take the map and try to visualize what each element was and where it was, so that helped a bit. About an hour after completing our dressage, I was back on the horse and headed up the hill towards the stadium ring. Last year I think the worst part of the day for us had been the stadium warm-up. This was the place where Ruby had been at her naughtiest. Basically, it ended up being one huge, unrelenting freakout. I think that we only ever ended up jumping one little cross-rail and then spent the rest of the warm-up doing figure 8s a little bit away from the jumping area (before entering the ring for our jump course). This year she was not at all fussed, even though the set-up was exactly the same. When I got to the warm-up the ring steward told me that I only had about 7 minutes (GAH!) so I right away got Ruby to work, jumping each of the three warm-up jumps in each direction. She was FINE, although, a bit sticky and behind my leg. But again, like in Lynn’s clinic and at the XC school the day before, this was the way I was riding and not typical. The hot day probably also contributed to sucking some of the natural energy out of Ruby, but I do know that I was somewhat unable to ride the nice, forward, balanced-with-leg-on pace that I usually can do. Again, I think this was both a physical (I was still incredibly sore) and a mental thing.

Anyway, it was time to enter the ring, regardless of how I was riding, and I can say that our first four fences were dreadful. Ruby was behind my leg and chipping in, I was jumping ahead (a bad habit that I had thought I had eliminated, for the most part). We had a couple of truly terrible jumps that would have stopped many other horses. Ruby bailed me out though, she saved my butt again and again. Finally, after the fourth jump I somehow managed to get our act together and we started moving forward. Probably by then Ruby was just warmed up enough, had forgotten about the hot weather and was focused on the jumping at hand, heaven knows that I had done nothing to help her up until that point. Anyway, we came into the two-stride combination quite crooked, but at least at a good, forward pace (finally) and we jumped in and out of there reasonably. From there on the second half of the course was fine, probably mostly because by then we were moving at a nice, forward pace and I somehow managed not to get too ahead, but I can not say that it was brilliant or all that balanced either. I ended the round so proud of Ruby for being the incredible mare that she is and feeling not at all deserving of the clear round that we had. The ring steward at the Out gate said to me, “good job”. But I feel that this one was all Ruby, I had very little to do with it.

The Groton House Summer Classic is one of those wonderful, wonderful events where you are expected to go to your cross-country directly from your stadium round. This cross-country start was pretty laid back, a couple of riders ahead of me, we all just circled around the area waiting for our turn. The day (as I mentioned before) was unbelievably hot, so none of us really did anything but walking here, but there was plenty of room had one wanted to trot or canter around some. Anyway, it was maybe about a ten minute to so wait for me before I could start and I was pretty amazed to find that I really wasn’t nervous. In fact, I found that for most of the day my nerves never really came much into play. I am thinking that having the early ride times was a major factor in this. I was probably also so dead tired from not having slept the night before that I just couldn’t get too amped up (that and the heat). I am sure the biggest factor was that my horse was absolutely perfectly behaved. No spooking, no crow-hopping or bucking, she was completely focused on me and on the job the entire day.

Soon enough it was our time over the start. The course began with a short run across a field and then a log oxer-type jump in the tree line into the next field. Jump #1 was apparently a very sticky one for many people that day and we were no different. A lot of the horses didn’t like jumping away with no real intro fence first (last year they had a simple log jump partway up the first field to get you rolling and then the tree-line fence was #2). In any case, this jump proved to be quite sticky for Ruby and me too. Again, I had the problem of not being able to get Ruby in front of my leg. I basically did everything wrong, no pace, jumped ahead, etc. It was an ugly, ugly jump. She jumped it very awkwardly, almost up & down like a deer, throwing me out of the tack somewhat. I almost fell off on the other side of the jump! Somehow I managed to stay on, slowed for a trot until I could get my stirrups back and then continued across the field. The next jump, a bunch of straw bales set up as a kind of rampy thing, was another very sticky, chipped in jump. I think at this point I said out loud to Ruby, “come ON Ruby, we can do this.” After that we managed to get rolling. #3 was a red house jump and then it was a sharp corner to the left and over a good-size red coop (#4). I had started to relax and felt more myself with those two jumps and we then had a nice bit of a gallop along the grassy path beside the woods after the coop. Then it was a turn into the woods and down a hill that was a bit rocky and steep. We trotted down this because the footing wasn’t fantastic and I knew that we had a funny turn at the bottom with a jump right after that awkward turn.

So, you basically came down the hill on this rocky trail and then you had to make a turn into the trees on this kind of rutted goat trail around a couple of trees and then approach the next jump (#5, a gate made out of logs), which by then was maybe only 3 or 4 strides away. Because of the footing and then how we had to turn for the approach so close the jump, I didn’t feel that there was enough time to fiddle around and try to get a good, forward canter, so I just let Ruby take it from a nice, strong trot. I think it was the right decision for us, she jumped it nicely, I didn’t get in her way trying to change the gait and pace, etc. With this jump, you basically were jumping out of the trees and into the next field. From here it was a short gallop to #6, a solid roll top. By now the heat of the day was getting to me a bit and I was feeling a little lightheaded. Having not really eaten since about 4 AM (yogurt) probably didn’t help much either, so I know I did some bits of trotting here and there. The next jump was all the way across the field and was a solid double, criss-crossing log (#7). And then it was a turn up the hill to a pile of cordwood (#8). I remember the hill after the cordwood jump, last year Ruby bucked her way up it -- ha ha! This year she was very well-behaved. We went up the hill a bit then then it was back across the field to a jump back into the woods (#9 -- I can’t remember what the jump was, I’m thinking that it was maybe a coop, but I’m not sure!). We were then on this nice trail through the woods and up a hill. By now we were rolling nicely and I could really feel how much Ruby was loving it, she was excited and focused with her ears pricked and looking for the next thing and I let her go! We topped the hill out of the woods into a field to a combination of two log jumps. I think maybe 5 or 6 strides between them? Anyway, it was no problem for us and we had a nice forward pace & balance to make each jump easy and comfortable (this was jump #10 & #11).

From there it was through an open gate and then down a steep hill to the water complex. I can’t say that I liked that hill much so I keep it slow and then let Ruby move forward again once we got to the water (#12). Through the narrow exit of the water and then up the hill on the other side. Ruby wanted to know “what’s next?!” as she galloped up the hill. It was turn through another open gate, new field to another house jump (#13) all the way across the field to another stack of straw bales, but with some pine brush on top (#14) and finally, a turn back across the field to one last jump in the tree-line, a a stone wall with a log on top (#15). A gallop through the finish and we were clear! The first two jumps of the course were ugly, ugly, ugly, but once we got rolling and I relaxed a bit, it all seemed to come together nicely, so I feel like I redeemed myself some in the end. Ruby was completely in her element on that cross-country course, it was almost like she was saying, “now, THAT is what I’m talking about!” The cross-country phase is what makes it all worth it to me, the sleepless night, the early, early morning. Enduring dressage coats and stock ties and nerves and scary warm-up situations. When you are on that course, just you and your horse, there is just nothing at all like it. And on a horse like Ruby who has that wonderful cross-country mind ... well, it’s just awesome. You’re in it and loving it together.

So, we ended with a good day, overall. The dressage I consider almost miraculous. The stadium was terrible (all me), but did improve later in the course. It just pisses me off because I know that I can do so much better! That stadium course also showed me just how much heart Ruby has. She would have been completely justified in stopping at a couple of those jumps, but she gutted it out and went way above & beyond the call of duty. The cross-country, after an awkward start, was wonderful. We were in sync and happy and I feel that I rode most of it well. It was a great experience for both of us. Even the warm-ups were great. After it was all said and done, I was happy to discover that I had actually earned a ribbon too -- 6th place.

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