Amateurs Like Us: Prelim? Seriously? Let's Shoot For The Moon!

Oct 19, 2016 - 4:19 AM

Preliminary. Or as I like to call it: the P-word.

Remind me: When did I decide this was a good idea? I signed up to go prelim in late September at Equestrians Institute in Cle Elum, Wash.

Let’s remember: Just over three years ago I did my first ever event on Cairo at EI. At starter. You know. Two foot logs. Because I was too chicken to sign up for beginner novice.

Starter had me so nervous I thought I would puke. Suddenly I’m at PRELIM? What just happened??? I thought prelim was for the big kids?

I read recently that the majority of the members of the U.S. Eventing Association never compete above training and that seemed pretty accurate to me. Prelim is a big step. It’s not just the height—moving from 3’3” to 3’7”—it’s the questions. Offset fences, skinny chevrons…tables far wider and taller than any picnic table in the park (why yes, I have looked at picnic tables and thought about jumping them).

But if there is one thing Cairo has taught me is to not only believe in my dreams but surpass them. There are goals, there are dreams and there are fantasies. My goal had been to be successful at training level, a level my last horse and I struggled with for several years.

As for fantasies, don’t we all have those? While you know you will never have the money or the horse or the time to ride at Rolex, don’t we all pretend in the back of our minds somehow we could wind up there?

My dreams are bigger than my goals, but more real than fantasies. When I bought Cairo I bought her because she felt like she could jump the moon. And with Cairo my dreams, and the height of my fences, just keep getting bigger and bigger. And, yes, even scare me a little. But every time Cairo and I finished a cross-country course what was possible seemed bigger and better.


This mare. Photo by Michele Stevens

So after success all summer at training, the prep for prelim at Equestrians Institute began. Some gallop sets, lots of dressage—we suddenly had 10-meter circles and leg yields to contend with.

Was Cairo fit enough, I fretted? Too fat? Cairo is ¾ thoroughbred and ¼ draft and she’s petite in some ways but has a good-sized barrel on her. Sometimes I annoy her by poking her ribs with my finger to see if I can feel them. This leads to some serious side-eye from the mare.

And then the teasing. Everyone knows I’m the world’s slowest hauler. What is scarier for Camilla?Riding prelim or hauling Cairo over the pass through the high Cascades? My friend Kristine, who is on showing hiatus, used to haul Cairo for me through the scary passes of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest. She sent me encouraging texts about both prelim and the drive. “You can DO this.”

It takes a village to send Camilla and Cairo to prelim, and I’m still blown away by all the help we got!

Three Pairs

“I’m putting on three pairs of ‘big girl panties,’” I joked to my event trainer Meika Decher. And let’s face it: This whole prelim thing is definitely Meika’s fault. I never would have thought about going past training, but she’s been gently nudging me all summer.

I made the 5 ½ hour drive from my barn in Oregon to Cle Elum in seven hours. That’s not bad time for me.

Cairo, the hungry velociraptor, was well stocked with hay and when the Queen of Cairo is happy we are all happy. For the drive over the pass, clenching the steering wheel, I stuck Cairo’s theme song on repeat, “My Milkshake” by Kelis, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/And they’re like/It’s better than yours/Damn right, it’s better than yours/I could teach you/But I have to charge.”

 Cairo has a certain self-assurance and booty shake that those lyrics just sum up. If Breyer model horses were made of sassy little amateur horses then Cairo’s would have its tail standing jubilantly straight up in the air.

We arrived, settled in and waited for Meika and the rest of the Polestar crew in the morning. My ever-patient-with-Cairo’s-antics dressage trainer Leslie Chapman texted, “Did you make it OK?”

Yep, I said, all settled in. “And you stopped by my place and got the mattress I left you?” she asked.

Umm, no. I was too nervous. So I just headed straight out. “What are you sleeping on?” Leslie then asked, knowing I sleep in the back of my pickup truck.

“The dog bed,” I responded. “With the puppy.”

That awkward moment when you have horrified your dressage trainer. My dreams are apparently all pretty much horse related and don’t involve creature comforts like beds.

Friday was schooling day. Meika told me to sign up for a training round in stadium, explaining to me that it would remind me that training is easy and it’s time to move up.

It was easy except for the part where I didn’t let Cairo come forward to the in-and-out out of a short corner and we came into it all in a twist. Cairo would have jumped the out for me even from the crap distance, but I pulled her up. No need to use up any of her heart and try because I biffed in a schooling round!

That woke me up, and we re-took the fence and finished the rest of the course in style. “THAT is the ride you need for tomorrow,” Meika said of the second half of my course.

OK, nervous amateur, don’t focus on the mistake. Focus on what you did right, and do that again.


Cairo and I getting in the groove. Photo by Michele Stevens

I did my best for the rest of the day to not work myself up into a nervous lather before Meika took me down to the lower event course to walk. EI has an upper course for starter, beginner novice and novice, and then a lower course for prelim and training that’s either a short drive or a 1.5 mile walk though the trees away.

As we walked Meika had to laugh at how intense I was. I was trying very, very hard not to get intimidated by the course. It was, as Meika had a promised, a good course to move up on, but I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about—the size of some of the tables or the skinny fences coming out of the water and after a drop bank and hill. Or maybe it was the maxxed out brush on the top of a hill downhill to a skinny brush?

Meika assured me that one was super fun. Fun for whom? But I kept thinking that while the prelim fences looked big, the training ones looked … small.

A year ago the training fences looked ginourmous. What happened?

When we got back, Meika pulled out the whiskey she’d brought and the banana bread she’d baked with a P and a 1* in chocolate chips on top. And Meika’s assistant trainer Letty, knowing what a big deal prelim was for me (and that I love themed socks) gave me socks with horses and blue ribbons on them. I was feeling fuzzy with the love, and slightly more relaxed after sipping a little of the whiskey!

The Big Day

My dressage ride was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., so I stumbled out of the back of my truck bright and early, blearily grasping for the coffees my friends Trish and Alex brought me—because when it’s coffee and you ride early, you can’t have too much!

I put in some pretty nice braids, if I say so myself. At barely over 15.1, Cairo is so short, I finally figured out that if I stand on the ground, not a stool, to braid her then her braids don’t stand up nearly so high. It’s only taken me three years to figure that out.

We try to keep Cairo’s dressage school minimal, because she tends to work herself up and get annoyed about other horses nearby. Remember when you were a kid and got mad at your sister when she got in your “airspace” in the back of the car on a road trip? That’s Cairo in the schooling ring. Get out of my airspace!!!

The bell rang and then it was just Cairo and I down the centerline. For possibly the first time ever I felt jubilant in the dressage ring. THIS. We were doing it. No matter how it ended, we were going prelim!

Then I reminded myself to shut up and ride.

Cairo’s trotwork was pretty darn good. She was annoyed, as she often is, by the transition after the free walk (points for her overreach, but not enough stretch down) and so her cantering was a little tense with some excited “let my freak flag fly” tail waving in the medium canter.

Given our dressage track record, and that we were in open prelim riding against pros, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for our score, I was just happy we had put in a nice (for us) test. Cairo is a hot little number, a trait that seems vastly underrated by most dressage judges.

Then I saw the scores and realized we’d improved by 3 points from our last dressage test at training and come in THIRD TO LAST.

 I was over the moon.

If you know Cairo and I, then you know I am not being sarcastic. Third to last is great! It’s a huge step up from last! Leslie and everyone else who knows how hard we work at dressage texted me congratulations and I proudly waved the 7 we got on our halt (“almost square and somewhat balanced,” the scribe wrote).

I gave Cairo treats and hay, and Meika tried to keep me occupied (and not fretting about our stadium round that afternoon) by giving me a horse to braid. But pretty soon it was stadium course walk time.

We were early in the order, so Meika handed Cairo off to a nice unsuspecting man and we started tromping around the course. A big natural oxer, (be ready to say “go” after that one, she warned me, they dwell) was the first fence. Lots of bending lines, an in-and-out followed by a dogleg to a fence on the rail and then later an end fence to a triple combination.

We got in the schooling area and I looked around and was like, holy crap, I’m riding against the people that I’m usually leaning against the rail watching! I’m here with the big kids!

Cairo is not stupid and while she used to freak out in the warm-up, she has since decided that the warm-up “doesn’t count” and is quite chill. Now, when we get in the arena or the cross-country start box, she lights up like a firecracker and that’s when her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

This makes schooling interesting as I tend to wait for her to drag me to the fence, and she’s all, “Nah, I’m gonna wait till things get real.”

After a less than forward fence or two, Meika pointed out that whether Cairo was trying to drag me, or trying to get behind my leg, either way, what I needed was a horse coming from my leg into my hand. That made perfect sense, though of course I can’t figure these things out on my own!

Into the arena we went. Ever have one of those rides where you just focus and it just becomes about the ride? That was our stadium round. I didn’t notice the people, or the height of the fences. I got Cairo in front of my leg and we just started nailing our distances. Cairo was all, “Thank God this lady finally figured out I like big fences!”

We were great coming into the in-and-out, but when I pushed for the oxer on the out fence, I threw my arms instead of using my leg and Cairo had a rail. She pinned her ears. “Sorry, Cairo, my bad!” The next fences were awesome and we sliced, per Meika’s instructions, the end fence giving us a great line to the triple, which felt amazing.


On course with everything clicking. Photo by Michele Stevens

I came out of the arena laughing and almost crying. We did it! Over the moon twice in one day! And then if I wasn’t already feeling like I was having the most insanely special weekend, Kristine surprised me by walking up, having driven four hours to cheer us on and jump judge. It’s one thing to live your dreams; it’s another to do it surrounded by your favorite people cheering you on!

It was a fairly tough stadium—out of 18 rides, there were only four clean rounds and two people eliminated. I was pleased with Cairo. Cairo was pleased with Cairo. More hay, more snacks. Another cross-country course walk for me, then dinner with friends and bed.

Making Magic

It’s a good thing I went to bed early, because the feeling of euphoria lasted until sometime after midnight. Then I woke up having cross-country induced paranoia. I sort of knew that would happen so I had preemptively taken a photo of the course map on my phone to stare at, and arranged with Kristine to get a ride down the course when she went at 7 a.m. for the jump judge meeting.

At 7, Kristine had the coffee ready, and we headed down to the course—my ride was at 10:22 a.m., so I figured I had time to walk the course then head back on foot. The final course walk soothed my fears that I would get lost. Three is the magic cross-country course walk number for me. By the third one, the fences start looking fairly reasonable. Or at least I’m certain I can find them in the correct order.

I got back to the barn and started tacking up. I was doing pretty OK at staying calm, but I did get pretty horrified when I realized I was suddenly running late and having a pinney malfunction. Meika duct taped things back into order and told me to trot the first mile to the start—the sandy footing of the trail was a perfect warm-up and would make Cairo happier than walking.

Off we went. Cairo thought the trotting was great. Right before the course there’s a pretty good-sized hill to go up and down. Cairo was pretty sure we should charge up it. I was pretty sure we should wait to charge at things until we were on course. I won that round.

We got to the schooling area exactly on time and Cairo happily swung into a canter. And Meika again had to remind me to GO and get her in front of my leg. We jumped a couple fences and then it really was go-time. Ack!

Meika walked us to the start box, where to my joy, there were no start box antics! At age 7 is Cairo maturing? No fireworks in the warm-up? No leaping and snorting before the start? She’s starting to save herself for the fun parts!

I forgot to tell the starter to let me know at 30 seconds so I could hit my watch, whoops. I hit the button at 15 seconds and hoped I could gallop and do math. Not likely, but since I hadn’t successfully used a watch all season, I wasn’t going to worry about it!

Unlike stadium, I didn’t focus right away. We zoomed over Fences 1 and 2, with Cairo merrily taking the bit and going for it, and then headed for 3. Umm, the wrong 3. Training and prelim were side by side and I had Cairo pointed at the black number, not the green one!

I realized the pilot error a good six strides out and angled Cairo over the correct fence, in plenty of time, telling myself it was a good prep for the offset houses later. As always with me, making a mistake, or almost making one, seems to focus me, so suddenly Cairo and I were both game-on.

Maybe a little too game-on? There was a skinny roll top Meika told me was a prep for the first real question, a skinny corner fence going around a corner. Cairo was in mare-on-a-mission mode and pretty much defined the expression “had the bit in her teeth.”

Charging over a skinny corner is probably not the best strategy. We pulled it off, but next time I will actually set Cairo up for the fence.

The offset houses two-stride was great and as promised, when I put my hands down and said, “Go,” the brush was super fun. The big tables? “Ain’t no thing,” Cairo said. The coffin with a skinny log on the out? No problem for a mare whose motto is JUMP ALL THE THINGS.

We did our first keyhole-type fence, a picture frame before the water. “Horses duck their heads sometimes,” Meika warned me. Not Cairo. She didn’t stick her tail up in the air as high as usual though.


There’s the tail flip! Photo by Michele Stevens

Big log into the water, up the bank, four strides on a bending line to a skinny fish-painted fence (fish out of water, get it?). I was more than halfway through the course and having a total blast. Cairo wasn’t tired but she was feeling very rideable, which made me feel better about the upcoming chevron. Did I mention we’ve never done a true skinny chevron before?

Ditch and wall, ramped fence, Cairo was in her element. Roll top, one stride, down bank up a hill, chevron. We are doing this!!!

The feeling of doing cross-country on a horse that gets filled with glee when she sees the fences is like nothing I’ve ever felt. The bold galloping, the feeling that you are not just doing it but doing it with a creature that wants it as much as you do… Maybe dancers or figure skaters know that feeling of partnership that is as much an art as it is physical work? I’m so lucky to have Cairo. She jumps the moon.

Just a couple fences left from home, I reminded myself to ride every fence and not celebrate too soon. And that I was wearing a watch.

I looked at it and tried to subtract 15 seconds. Or add them? Math is hard. Was I going too fast? I moved us to a more sedate canter to the last fence and we crossed the finish, with me grinning wildly.

Alex, who’s been one of my best friends since we rode together as 16-year-olds, was the first to see me. “I think I’m going to cry,” I said. “I think you get to do that,” she laughed at me.

Meika walked up next and I think she was in the same happy-teary state. We did this!!! We celebrated and she told me that when I first suggested she take Cairo prelim before I did it, she already knew, having ridden the mare, that Cairo would be great and I could do it myself. Glad one of us was certain. Actually, two of us—Cairo has very few doubts as to her ability to jump.

I write for a living, I’m supposed to have words, but I was speechless with the love and support and success. My dreams scared me, but I went for it anyway and it was perfect.

Cairo and I headed back to the barn. Tired? The little minx tried to charge up the hill again and jigged almost the whole way back. Cold hosed, poulticed, supplied with sugar and hay, she munched contentedly while I checked the scores online. I’d moved to 12th after stadium from 15th, so mainly I was interested to see my cross-country time and see if I could get this whole “wear a watch” thing under control.  

Cairo and I had moved to fifth! Forget over the moon, at this point I was interplanetary.

As anyone who has ridden prelim probably knows you don’t get speed faults going prelim (since this was new to me, I just learned that). It’s training and below that can go too fast. Cairo and I had come in clean and just 3 seconds under optimum, while other riders had refusals and time faults, with only five rides coming in with no time or refusals. Double clear cross-country our first time out!

I didn’t really believe this fairy tale come true—that I had competed at prelim successfully and somehow also finished in the ribbons. Wait, not just in the ribbons, but equaling my highest place ribbon ever eventing Cairo. But the scores were posted. A pretty pink ribbon for my pretty little horse and I.

The fact that the prize that came with the ribbon was white dressage polos cracked me up. Yes, horse gods, I promise to keep practicing the prancing in the little white-railed arena. 

Then it hit me, and Meika and three of my other friends all at once who texted me: Did Cairo and I just get a wildcard entry for next year’s prelim championships?

Why yes, I think we did.

I had a wildcard for training level this year thanks to our one other fifth-place finish in July, but two more shows were not in the budget, so I had skipped it and elected to try our hand at prelim. I’m not regretting that decision one bit!

I could not have asked for a better end to our season. I surpassed my goals and I achieved dreams bigger than I knew I had. Now I have months ahead of me to prep for next year and more prelim.

And a one star? That feels like it verges into the fantasy realm of where I thought Cairo and I could go. Am I ready to dream that big?  Cairo will let me know.

Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo…

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