It will probably never cease to amaze me how, in horse sport, we work toward a goal for a year or years, and then in less than five minutes, our time in the ring actually going for or achieving that goal is already over.
Just a few days ago, I introduced myself, my team and Cassius as we geared up for our USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship debut, and now it’s hard for me to believe the first round has already come and gone.
Coming into Friday’s classic round I felt pretty good; I walked the course on Friday morning with Andre Dignelli, who has been a highly valued part of my support team this week.
Having Andre on the ground for extra input or as a sounding board has been great, and I asked him to share, as I think he summed up that dynamic well: “We bounce ideas off of each other and support each other. Deep down Caitlyn didn’t really need me. I think it was about having somebody to walk the course and bounce an idea off of. It’s just so good for the confidence. It’s so rewarding to see so many of my students continue in the sport and being very, very successful. I’m very proud of her!” (Thanks, Andre!)
After walking, I stuck around the Rolex Stadium to watch a number of the early entries in the day. Watching a good handful of horses gave me a feel for how the course was riding, but I didn’t want to stick around and watch too many because inevitably then you start to see people doing really well or people doing really poorly. You’re thinking to yourself, “What could I do there?” or “I hope I can prevent that from happening to me.”
So instead, I stepped away from the ring and took an hour to myself and went and rode my jumper, Cavalier II. That time on him really allowed me just to clear my head and remind myself that the classic round is just another class on just another day. If the odds were going to be in my favor, great, and if not, I would just work even harder for next year.
Then it was time. I could feel that Cassius walked into the huge ring holding his breath a bit. The derby finals course and atmosphere is understandably a lot to take in when you’re an 8-year-old horse competing in the championship for the very first time! By about fence 5, I could feel his nerves decreasing as though he started to exhale and think, “This is actually OK. We’re doing this together, and I’ll be alright.”
Every single one of Cassius’ jumps felt fantastic. I thought he really gave his best jumping efforts. I jumped two of the high options, and he gave me a really fantastic effort over both of them. The course though was made up of a lot of single jumps, so there had to be an emphasis on the time in between the jumps and the fluidity and the rhythm, and unfortunately, I think that’s what hurt us a bit. Early in the course in particular, I got a little bit stuck with the lead changes, and that kind of interrupted how fluid my rhythm was, which was unfortunate.
As the course went on, Cassius’ nerves seemed to soothe, and I think maybe he felt me exhale as well, and we finished on a really high note. We ended up with scores from the judges of 69, 76.50, and 77.75, and, with two high option points added to each score, a 229.25 total, putting us in 53rd out of 84 entries.
Obviously, you will always wish that maybe you could have done just a little bit better, but at the end of the day, I rode my best, and that’s all I can do. I frequently have to remind myself that Cassius is only 8, and when I started riding him last year, he had done maybe three shows in the pre-greens, so in some ways he’s really still learning the ropes. I really am so proud of him and thankful to Michelle Durpetti for the opportunity to be the one on him for his derby finals debut.
I came into derby finals with no expectations but to give it my 100 percent best, and I came out of the ring with a smile on my face. I went into that ring thinking, “I’m going to do the best that I can do for myself, for this horse, for his owner, and for everyone that has been standing behind me,” and that’s what I did. I feel like no matter what happens next, I can leave the Kentucky Horse Park with my head high.
But that’s also the beauty of a hunter derby and the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships; there is a “what happens next.” So while I can’t believe the first round has already come and gone, our moment here is not totally up yet. Tonight, Cassius and I have another go in the Rolex Stadium as we give it our all again in the Section B Handy Round.
It’s one more day in the same ring with no pressure, so tonight I hope to deliver a redemption round—a smoother round, a better score. It’s another less than five minutes in the ring that I know will be over in the blink of an eye, but it’s another chance to showcase what we have been working toward all year and to close out what has been an incredible first USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships experience.