2015 USDF National Finals, Part I: Who Needs Pants?

Nov 7, 2015 - 12:34 AM
Both Stratocaster and Ellegria put in great performances at the 2015 USDF National Finals. Photo by Kimblerly Loushin.

I LOVE the USDF Finals. This is our third trip here, and once the scary drive through the mountains of West Virginia is over, it’s just the best show. The Kentucky Horse Park is lovely. The staff running the show is an all-star team, hand picked from the country’s best. The decorations in the indoor arena are left over from the previous week’s National Horse Show, and it feels huge and prestigious and special.

So it’s worth extending our long competition season for, even though this time of year I’m at the tail end of about a month of wall-to-wall insanity, teaching clinics, riding a ton, starting a whole bunch of young horses on their changes (who all insisted on leaping around this week, making my back sore as hell, grumble), and just generally running around.

But I felt really good about both Ella (who qualified for the Grand Prix and Freestyle) and Fender (who qualified at Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I), and how they prepared for the show. So we were off!

Our drive was blissfully uninteresting, with NO FLAT TIRES (a miracle!). I schooled both horses on Thursday, and since Michael Barisone couldn’t make it down here with me, I’m INCREDIBLY grateful for the ground support from my wonderful friend Belinda Nairn, who kept me on track. Having only two horses meant that we’ve had a lot of down time, which we spent on Thursday bumming around downtown Lexington, something I so rarely get to do, and we were blessed with unbelievably gorgeous and unseasonable good weather.

And as I was lying in bed Thursday night, happy from a fun day of doing not a whole lot, and excited for things to come, the thought occurred to me, from out of nowhere: where were my white breeches?

It was at this point I stopped smiling.

I pack all my white stuff—breeches and show shirts—into a separate bag. I’ve done so for years. Unfortunately, that does not help me if I do not then put said bag into the truck. Fortunately, I have an amazing staff at home who didn’t even flinch when I texted them to say, “One of you needs to run to the FedEx store tomorrow. Morning. First thing. Stat.” My luggage was sent to my hotel, Overnight, Saturday delivery. Fingers crossed it arrives!

And because I had the great fortune of good draw times for both horses, in the middle of both their classes, but also not until the afternoon, I had all morning to run around tracking down a new shirt (thank you, Little Foxes Tack and Togs!) and white breeches (thank you, Top Hats And Under That!), both of whose proprietors had the grace to laugh with me and not at me. Fully clothed, we were ready to take it all on.

Fender warmed up a treat, but I’d watched much of the class before me, and saw lots of very reasonable and seasoned horses do a nut in the big and noisy expanse of the Alltech Arena, with the cameras for live streaming on USEFNetwork.com (so cool) set up as they had not been for Wednesday’s open schooling.

But I’ve done my homework on Fender, and he’s matured into this amazing, cool, confident thing. He trotted around like he owned the place, maybe could have been more in front of my leg for the trot tour, but showed really good walk, and then lovely canter work, marred only by a few times where I could have had a bit more consequent connection. But he was just lovely, no mistakes, all smiles. 

We ended up third, less than .4 from the lead, in a gigantic and prestigious class. We were beat by older, more experienced horses, and he beat plenty more. I couldn’t be more proud of my lovely boy, here with me just a few miles from his birthplace, in his 7th Inter 1. What a guy!

The Grand Prix Finals classes are at night here, which is something I suppose I could have trained for—I normally ride Ella first thing in the mornings, which is my sharpest time—but it’s hard, when you’re teaching until 8:30 p.m. most nights and having started the day on your first horse by 6:45 a.m., to then want to get on and go for a ride. It didn’t hurt Ella the first night, and she warmed up well, and had a lovely, mistake-free test.

The score was not as high as I was hoping for, but neither was the ride. I still just feel like a stranger in a strange land sometimes; I know what I don’t like about how it feels, and I’m getting better and better and connecting the look to the feeling, but in the test I sometimes just don’t know how to make it better.

It’s frustrating, having this wonderful horse, and working so hard, and spending so much time and money and Money and MONEY trying to buy, cheat and steal all the lesson time I can, and having the progress be so incremental, so slow.

I take comfort in knowing that the scores at these big shows are getting better, bit by bit. I’m up more than 4 percent from the CDI in New York. I’ve nudged the scores up at each big show. I’m feeling better and better about my mental preparation. I’m not so nervous. I’m not panicking in the ring when I feel Ella start to open up too much and get away from me; I’m finding moments in the test to take a breath and get it together.

Things are better. I am better. I’m helping my horse better. It’s just not as good as I know it can be yet.

We didn’t place all that well, but our scores were absolutely within sight of the leaders, the inimitable Poulin dynasty, led by Gwen on Belinda’s wonderful William, who just edged out her incredible dad, Olympian and legend Michael. It was so fun to spend even just the tiny bit of time I’ve spent with them over the years; their love and passion is amazing, and as a long-time “grand student” of Michael, having ridden with Lendon Gray and Carol Lavell and Pam Goodrich and now Michael Barisone, it was an amazing thing to watch both Michael and Gwen at work. 

On the second day, we didn’t have much to do until the evening’s freestyle, where I was hoping to keep improving the little things I saw in yesterday’s ride, and certainly to have a boatload of fun, rocking to Ella’s superfun ’80s-themed freestyle. Tune in tomorrow to read all about it!

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