Saturday, September 04, 2010

Valinor Farm HT: 8.29.2010

I have not signed up for a lot of competitions this season. There are a number of factors affecting this: first, I lost a bit of confidence with some of my riding mishaps earlier in the year. Even though the Groton House Summer Classic ended up working out pretty well, I still came away from that event feeling like I had ridden very poorly, most of that was related to soreness and minor injury resulting from a fall a few days before, but the bottom-line was, I sucked and almost felt like I didn’t belong there. My schedule has been a real challenge this year. Now that I am part of our operations on-call rotation, I don’t feel like I can sign up for a competition that follows an on-call week, since I can’t guarantee that I’ll have the prep time available to me during the week. Also, it’s expensive! My budget has been pretty tight, and I’m finding it hard to justify the cost. Still, I’m an eventer (I like saying that) and eventers compete in events, so I could not let the season go without competing in at least ONE sanctioned event. So, I signed up for the Valinor Farm Horse Trials.

It’s funny, but, despite my issues with lack of confidence, overall I feel that my riding this Summer has been going pretty well. Ruby and I have established a strong partnership, I feel that our flatwork has really turned a corner, I’m much braver jumping and definitely am better (but nowhere near perfect) at the balance + forward thing. We have been hacking out a lot more this year, both in company and on our own. Our bond is stronger, Ruby can no longer truly be called “green”, I’m a little more solid in my skills, in general I really SHOULD be in a good position to move forward and be a relatively strong competitor. However, when it comes to participating in an actual competition, I kind of fall apart. I guess it’s all nerves and it could be argued that if I went to more horse trials, the nerves wouldn’t be nearly so bad. Yeah, I know, I know. But between the nerves and knowing what an exhausting, marathon weekend each competition will be, I just DREAD it when I know something is coming up. On the flip-side of that is the fact that I always (with maybe the very rare exception) walk away from a competition on a total, glowing high, completely thrilled with my horse and so very, very happy that I did it. Conflicted much?

As has become the routine for going to a HT, I got up around 3:30 AM. What I did differently this time was take an Ambien before going to bed, so I actually had managed to have some amount of sleep. The pill had worn off before 3:30 and I woke up before my alarm, so it really seemed to work out well. With a show, it is expected that it is going to be an incredibly long day, what was different for me this time was that I had actually had some sleep, so I did not feel quite as horrible as I have for some of the others that I’ve been to. Another thing that is typical for me with these competitions is I always seem to have late ride times which leaves me with a lot of time to sit around and contemplate my rides, and thus become increasingly nervous.

My ride time for dressage was 11:20 AM and the day had heated up quite a lot by the time I was on the horse. There is nothing quite like riding a steaming horse, on a steaming hot day, in a high collar, stock tie and black wool dressage coat. After about twenty minutes or so of warm-up, I thought that I was going to expire on the spot. Anyway, otherwise warm-up was relatively uneventful. I felt that Ruby was nicely focused on the work, not too distracted by the goings on. I did have a bit of a struggle getting a good forward pace out of her though. Who could blame her with it being in the mid-90s and all? The warm-up areas were not at all crowded and were actually very pleasant, which one doesn’t always find at these events. Overall, I have to say that my dressage warm-up was not a bad experience at all.

My dressage test, however? Well, that is another story. Let me just say that I was incredibly tense from the get-go. My tension translated down to Ruby and we really ended up fighting each other for most of the test. I look back on our Groton House test with such fondness, because in that one there was such nice rhythmic harmony. This test just did not flow, Ruby and I kind of muscled each other around the ring and basically just got through it. Some of the comments include, “fussy in the bridle”, “needs longer steps”, “swinging head”, “fussy, tossing head”, “could be more accepting”. I am a tiny bit proud about the comment for our left lead canter however, “fairly round” is a big compliment (and represents a HUGE improvement) for us. Even the right lead canter didn’t have any real terrible comment, “above the bit” is actually not too bad considering where we came from. But overall, the test was not very good. I still feel that it’s an improvement over last year, but not truly representative of the work we are currently doing. Still, a dressage test is only, and can only be, a snapshot of a moment of time and in this moment, Ruby and I were not working together, but against each other and it really is all my fault. Her warm-up was nice, but then I lost it in the test by being a tense wreck.

My time for stadium jumping was not until 1:46 pm, so this gave me plenty of time to walk the cross-country course a couple of times. Nothing on the course alarmed me. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I saw anything on a BN course that made me goggle, but one thing I did note was that there was A LOT of terrain involved with this course. It looked to be a constant roller coaster of up and down hills and I wondered how that would affect my ride. The stadium course also had a terrain element. It was in a field and there was one hill in particular that you had ride up and down a number of times during the course that I knew was going to be a factor in my ride.

It was such a hot day. I really dreaded putting that (black wool) dressage coat and stock tie back on. DREADED IT. I watched others warming up for stadium and noted that there seemed to be half-and-half people in show coats vs those in white collared tech shirts. I stood there for about ten minutes waffling but then decided that I was going to go the tech shirt route. I mean, it was about 95 with the sun just beating down. I could not face that coat again.

Decision made, I got Ruby and myself ready and over to the warm-up. Again I was pleased with the warm-up situation. Stadium was crazier than the dressage warm-up had been, but there was adequate room for the most part. I was not as overwhelmed as I can get in these situations. Our warm-up canter and jumps went pretty well and very soon I was waiting for my turn at the In Gate. I generally get pretty nervous for stadium, but I felt relatively okay, considering, and all too soon I was on course. Alison has been trying to beat into my head the forward + balance concept. Most times I seem to be able to carry it off, but I’m not completely consistent yet. We started off nicely over fence #1 and then it was a turn down the significant down hill on the course. You had to do some good balancing at the bottom as you turned the corner and then head up a hill to #2. Watching other stadium rounds, I had noticed that this had been a problem fence for a lot of people, lots of rails were brought down. You had to get your horse back enough after that down hill, you needed to do some good balancing work in the corner and then needed some good forward to power up the hill to that fence. And being #2 on the course, it was easy to not yet have that good, rollicking momentum and rhythm going that was needed to ride that jump correctly. I had this in mind as I rode and I can say that it rode very well for us. Most of the course went that way. I can say that some of the bending lines I took were maybe a bit questionable, there were maybe two jumps that were a little stickier that I would have liked (I did not have the right amount of forward to those), but overall I would say that our course was pretty steady, consistent and good. I think we rode the terrain well and for the most part had the exact right pace. We got the desired two strides at the in-and-out at the end and were through the finish flags and were double clear! As always after a course like this, I felt this rush of pride for Ruby. She is such a star!

Unfortunately, coming out of the stadium ring, it was quickly apparent that Ruby was suddenly lame. I jumped off and we saw that she had somewhere and somehow thrown a front shoe. Luckily there was a farrier on the grounds and he was able to fix her up and, after walking it off and resting a bit, she was completely fine and sound again. But that was a pretty scary moment.

Unlike many of the other events that I have done, this was arranged with three distinct ride times, so there was no going directly to cross-country after my stadium round. In this case it obviously worked to my advantage as otherwise I would have had to scratch with Ruby’s shoe issue. Luckily for us, our XC was not scheduled until 4:46 PM which gave a good amount of time for Ruby to recover. Normally I would hate all that waiting around (and it had it’s element of stress), but this time that wait was pretty welcome as it gave Ruby the recovery time needed from the bobble.

One thing I dislike about not being able to go straight to XC from stadium is the necessity to go through another warm-up situation. But the XC warm-up at Valinor was pretty laid-back and relatively stress-free, well, except for horses galloping up the hill to the XC finish behind the warm-up ring which sent Ruby into a bit of a spin. But by then I think she was just getting a bit hyped up for her turn. Very soon it was our turn to head to the start box.

After the start it was a short gallop across a field to (what I considered) a pretty max size (for the level) stone wall with a tree trunk/log on top. We got a really nice pace established and it rode beautifully. From there, it was a turn back the other way and then up a very steep hill to a black log at the top. Then a blue bench and then it was a turn into the woods. Then it was a nice gallop through the woods until the path took a turn down a hill. The last downhill bit I trotted as I felt it was a bit steep and the footing had been chewed up a bit at this point. It was a turn around some trees, reestablishing a canter and head for the #4 jump, a moss-covered cordwood pile. Ruby was a little squirrelly here as it was sort of a spooky spot. But I firmly put my leg on, and she was over it without any real hesitation.


After the cordwood, you followed the trail back up a hill. It was a good gallop up a hill and into a new field. Once you entered this field, it was a turn up an even steeper hill to a jump made of tires at the very top. I remember thinking that jump looked big when walking the course, but a lot of that was because you are mostly looking at it from the bottom of this very steep hill. Riding it, you really had to push the momentum up this hill. We rode it well enough, but it was definitely a sitting back on the hocks kind of jump. From here it was a rolling down hill, around a turn and back up a hill to a log that was set into the hill that jumped almost like an up bank (although, it was not technically a bank). Farther up the hill was a log pile and then it was a turn across the field and to the water complex. Alison had advised I trot this as the last time she had galloped Ruby through water, she had been so into it, she had launched herself into the complex. So, I managed to get her down and then it was a strong, bouncy trot through the long water feature. Picked up a gallop on the other side, it was down a hill, up another hill and then to a pyramid of rail ties at the top of that hill.



Down a hill directly after the rail ties, across a field and back UP a hill (see what I mean about the terrain element?) to a hanging log combination at the top of the hill. Jump in, four comfortable strides and then jump out. A turn to the left, down a hill and to a tiny ditch. Now the thing with the ditch ... when we were walking the course, the jump itself was not worrisome, but the question was whether the horses would even SEE it, and especially at this point in the course where presumably you’re rolling along pretty strongly, particularly after flying down that hill. Yeah. So, Ruby and I are flying down the hill and I’m reeling her in and bring her back, getting her off her forehand and paying attention to me and what was coming. When walking the course I had thought that maybe we would come back to a trot there to pop over the ditch, but once we were on course our pace was so nice and she was so in the zone that I just didn’t want to do it. I needn’t have worried, however, as she listened to me nicely, saw the ditch and just flew over it.

Red House:

A gallop across the field, up another good hill and then over a red house jump at the top of it. Another jump that had looked relatively large when walking the course since it was sitting at the top of the hill. A turn across the rest of the field, and then exiting the field down another wooded path. Now, I have to admit, in other cross-country runs, this would be exactly the type of spot that I would use to trot a bit to catch my breath, to reel myself in, to get a handle on my adrenalin and the rushing “OMG OMG” emotions. It was tempting, but this time I kept the pace. Ruby was ON, we were so in sync, our pace just felt wonderful and we were both having such a blast. So we kept going, I suppressed my usual need to get a grip on myself. Through the woods, down another hill (kept the pace this time) and over a narrow coop out of the tree line. A turn to the left, down a wooded road, a little detour up into a wooded patch to a jump that looked kind of like wood sled with a pile of rocks. Back out of the woods, a turn across the road, yet another steep hill, sharp turn and over the last jump, whiskey barrels, and a gallop through the finish flags. Of course I forgot to stop my XC watch, but I had checked it at the second to last jump and we had had 1:05 left there, so I knew that we were good on time -- turns out we were something like 43 seconds under the optimum time, which is a serious accomplishment for me!

We both finished the course on a high. Ruby just strutted and pranced and wanted to know if there was more (probably disappointed that there wasn’t). I hadn’t done a cross-country course in a long time, so I was pretty much on cloud 9. I was very proud of Ruby (as always), but I was also proud of my willingness to keep the good pace going throughout the entire course and finishing with that good time cushion. It turns out that this paid off for me as I managed to break a tie for 8th place with my time, earning myself the ribbon.

Overall it was a fabulous day and I ended the experience on a real high and completely thrilled with my horse. I have been reliving that awesome XC run in my head ever since! Things that I learned:

* Find a way to relax for Dressage. Your horse is learning her job and is quite capable of a respectable test. Trust her.
* Don’t let stadium freak you out. Establish a good pace and know that this will bring the jumps to you.
* Think about the quality of the canter, balance in between the jumps and especially in the corners.
* Be more careful about the lines you plot (stadium).
* On cross-country, don’t be afraid to gallop, gallop, gallop!
* Remember that Ruby loves this and is more than game & willing for the job.
* Relax and enjoy yourself.

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