We’re trying to be the comeback kids. Again. I feel like it’s a theme for Cairo and me. Maybe that and big dreams. Our show season trickled to a halt back in August. I can’t even decide if we went out with a bang or a whimper.
I had gone into it with such high hopes. Qualify for a one-star! Jump all the things! And our first couple events were great: a training to knock the dust off, a fun prelim in June. Then there was that unscheduled dismount at The Event at Rebecca Farm [Montana].
As the saying goes, sometimes things get worse before they get better. And they did after Rebecca, but not that much worse, I promise.
Something didn’t feel right about Cairo’s runouts at Rebecca. Cairo felt frantic where she’s usually “game on,” so my trainer Meika Decher and I chatted, talked to the vet and decided to treat Cairo for ulcers.
After a week or two of treatment, Cairo seemed visibly more relaxed. I decided to do the annual Young Riders benefit in Washington at training level to get back on track.
That did not work out as planned.
The format for the event was dressage in the morning, stadium later and then cross-country the next day. We put down an acceptable (for us) dressage. Then Cairo refused in the stadium warm-up. Not once but a couple times. I got her over the fences and headed in for our round feeling stressed and a bit sniffly. Cairo has never refused without a good reason—usually me leaning at a fence or presenting her poorly.
We never got over the first fence.
I am clearly not too old to cry over a horse show, because I cried. But first I trotted out of the ring trying to preserve as much dignity as I could. As the next rider entered, looking very, very sympathetic, I smiled and said “Go ahead, beat that.” He did.
I’m not sure what made me more teary as I waited to watch Meika do her round. Was it the nice lady who gave me a piece of candy to cheer me up (I thought she was offering Cairo the peppermint, but it was for me) or the lady I heard asking another spectator, “Why didn’t she just spank that horse?”
You don’t just hit Cairo. Hell hath no fury like a little bay mare who feels she has been unfairly chastised.
If you are going to hit Cairo, it needs to be justified. And again, something just felt wrong to me. I’d rather have a crowd of people judge me for not hitting my horse, than hit my horse for the wrong reason.
Let’s face it. Mares can hold grudges. There’s resting mare face, and then there’s mare face with teeth.
Meika walked me back to the barn, and we discussed a game plan. The first plan was scratch the rest of the show season and figure out what was going on. I stuck out the rest of the show and came back and groomed at the next one on the schedule because if I can’t ride, well, I will at least exercise my good sportsmanship.
I took Cairo home and decided it was time to rule some things out. Given how much happier she was with the ulcer treatment, I figured we were on track there. But why did she get ulcers? Nothing that different had happened in her life. Yet between cruising around at Aspen [Washington] at prelim and our clinic with Yves Sauvignon where Cairo had a whole lot of naughty, something had changed.
I also decided maybe Cairo needed a break and some time to have fun. And here is the part where I admit I have watched 11 seasons of “Heartland.” I channeled my best Amy-diagnosing-a-problem-horse and dove in.
And here is also the part where I’m also clearly a hippie from Oregon. My dressage trainer, who is also one of my best friends, asked if it would be OK if she checked in on Cairo next time she talked to the animal communicator. I said, “Of course.”
Cairo has talked to the communicator before, but this was a new person, and whether or not you believe in animal communication, Cairo’s response was epically Cairo.
My horse told the animal communicator that she liked the last communicator she spoke to better.
So if you believe in animal communication, then my mare is over the top. If you don’t, then props to a communicator who for some reason tells you your horse totally dissed her.
Cairo also said she felt pinched in her shoulders and had been feeling not so great in her belly. OK, well that did reinforce ulcers. But pinched in the shoulders?
Whatever it was, when it came to jumping, Cairo was mad. I decided go ahead with my plan to throw out everything and just play with her and make things fun again.
This actually led to my first clue when I hopped on her bareback and realized her attitude was better without her saddle. I have a lovely used Voltaire, so I asked Lindsey Spurgeon, the regional Voltaire rep, to come check the saddle fit. It had looked fine to me, but when I ran my hands down her shoulders, I thought maybe it was indeed a little pinchy. Lindsey was there in three days.
Cairo’s saddle didn’t fit at all. Turns out Little Miss Thing had bulked up. It was pinching her shoulders and had too much padding in the back too. I sent it off to be repaneled and apologized to my credit card, which was already reeling from the ulcer treatment.
I will raise you your “no stirrups November,” with my “no saddle for the rest of my summer.”
I also tossed the bridle out the window and rode Cairo in a leather loop “war bridle” I found on Etsy. And I just played and had fun. We jumped little fences bareback and almost bridleless and were silly. And Cairo seemed happy. The only time I used a saddle was for longer trail rides, and then I used an old dressage saddle. I think she wore a saddle maybe three or four times in six weeks.
Cairo got bodywork and anti-ulcer supplements. And kisses and peppermints of course, but that’s par for the course, because the Queen must get her due.
Instead of being sad about not competing, I had adventures. We did a bareback jumping photo session with my amazing photographer friend Irina Kuzmina, as well as a “glamour” shot session. I took Cairo to the beach. I took her out into the high lakes in the Cascade Mountains, riding her out into the wilderness with my friend Becky. We splashed in the lakes, wandered through the trees, and I later sent Meika a photo. “Look, I tied my prelim horse to a tree in the middle of nowhere.”
Luckily, Meika has a sense of humor.
The worst moment for me in all this was when I asked my friend Dr. Ellie to flex Cairo, and she flexed positive in three legs. Ellie tried to reassure me that flexions are not the end-all be-all, but I was freaking out. We X-rayed her legs. I think I held my breath for the entire five or so days between the flexions and the X-rays.
Cairo was fine. Normal changes for her age and competition level. Great navicular bone. She didn’t even need joint injections. We went with Adequan.
My saddle came back, newly re-paneled a couple weeks later, and I got on to ride Cairo. Big change—forward and willing. I was delighted but also wracked with guilt. How long had my little mare been trying to tell me she wasn’t comfortable? She’s always flipped me attitude, and from what her breeder tells me, she has been that way from Day 1.
I got so used to the attitude I don’t think I felt it when it moved from sass to more sullen. Twerking is normal for Cairo, sulling up is not. Now I know. And I’m guessing from the nuzzles and love she gives me, Cairo has forgiven me, and I’m glad I knew in my heart not to hit her when she was hurting. Discipline needs to be fair. And let’s be clear—Cairo does know how to have my number. It’s going to be interesting balancing knowing when she does need to be told to behave with listening to if there is an issue going on.
Also, on a side note, remember the old days when we “fixed” saddle fit with a foam lollipop pad? I feel like in the old days, Cairo might have really had some issues. Or rather, Cairo would have made sure her rider had some issues.
So after all that, our current agenda has been to work on trust. Cairo needs to trust I will look out for her and make sure she is pain free. I need to trust that if she’s pain free, she will jump. That’s not easy. I know for some riders, it’s a better plan to start anew. But Cairo is my whole heart.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.