I Took A Different Approach To Eventing When I Was Young And Foolish

May 17, 2010 - 11:31 AM
Cartoon by Custer Cassidy

Back when I was very young and extremely foolish, I discovered eventing. Eventing is the equestrian adrenaline-junkie’s equivalent of any extreme sport—bungee jumping, skydiving, and driving on the interstates in Atlanta.

When I was young and therefore immortal, Tory was the perfect event horse. Tory was small (barely clearing 15 hands on her tip-toes), blind in one eye, brave, fast and determined. She could and would jump anything at which you pointed her. In the days of the dinosaur, you could recover from an abysmal dressage test with a brave, fast and clean run over cross-country and stadium.

It took Tory one trip around an event course to figure out where the fun was. Dressage was invented by the devil to torture event horses, but if you survived that ordeal, you got to (drum roll) run and jump.

Tory’s approach to cross-country was “bridge your reins and leave me alone.” She wanted a bit of a hold—she didn’t actually lean—and she wanted to be told which turns to take and which fence to jump next. Period. Any attempt to rate her, set her up for a fence, or otherwise interfere with her jumping was treated with the contempt it deserved. This suited both of us, since I was clueless, and this worked until Tory finally met a set of jumps she couldn’t figure out on the fly.

An Exciting Catch Ride

I had loaned her to a Pony Clubber who’d been “jocked off” of her rally mount approximately a month before B-Nationals. The kid was upset, to say the least, and since she was a competent rider, I offered her Tory as a replacement. Tory had never done the preliminary or intermediate level courses the rally was going to call for, but we knew she could handle the heights, speed and distances from her open jumper classes, and she never refused. So off they went.

The pair did as expected (last) in dressage, mostly because Tory thought that the extended canter down the long side was an invitation to begin cross-country and strenuously argued with her rider’s attempts to slow her down.

The girl had ridden her cross-country at one training event as a prep and, being as young and foolish as her sponsor, thought she had Tory figured out. All went well until they headed for the water complex. Tory loved water (more about that later) and saw what she thought was a simple post-and-rail leading to it. We spectators could see her wrestling with Tory, trying to check her pace into what the rider (but not the horse) could see was a bounce before dropping into the water. With her usual disdain for “control,” Tory sailed over the first element—and landed with her nose on the second. Her eyes popping out of her head, Tory somehow found a place to put a foot, push off and keep going. The girl managed, somehow, to stay in the tack and carry on.

The next fence was close enough that we could all (once we’d started breathing again) see Tory’s ears doing a frantic semaphore on the approach—clearing asking if there was anything she really ought to know about at that next fence. They managed a double-clear in cross-country and stadium and helped bring their rally team to victory.

About a month later, I took Tory to another event, this one at my level, novice. Living in the moment, I’d forgotten about extended canters when I set out for dressage. I’d also failed to consider that the dressage ring was set up directly across from the start of cross-country. Tory, of course, did not miss either of these fascinating facts. We spent the opening portion of the test discussing the fact that those other horses were going cross-country, and why couldn’t she? This was not conducive to good scores. Then we turned and were required to canter the length of the long side—straight toward the start of cross-country.

Needless to say, things got interesting. I asked Tory to canter quietly. Tory told me what I could do with myself and displayed her indignation by performing one-tempi flying changes (good, clean one-tempi flying changes mind you) all the way down the long side. The judge, fortunately, was both tactful and compassionate. My test later showed a “0” for the movement, but, bless her heart, the judge’s comment was: “This exercise not required at this level.” There was no point in belaboring the obvious.

We also discovered that Tory understood differences in tack. She figured out that for dressage, one wore a saddle and simple bridle with no extras (I didn’t own a dressage saddle at that point). That tack meant that we were going to do something boring.

The girl who groomed for me learned to tack Tory up for cross-country very carefully. If you tried to put the cross-country boots on before you saddled her, you could forget keeping her quiet enough to finish the job. Hind boots were the very last item on the list, and then we used the touch-fastener ones because she wouldn’t stand long enough to work a buckle. Thank heavens I was completely ignorant of studs at the time.

Tory also learned to judge the end of a cross-country course by the sight of my groom at the finish line. By the time we got to the end, I’d be completely out of breath (that’s what happens when you take a deep breath on the “go” and don’t take another one until you finish). Tory would spot my groom, head straight over and wait patiently for me to be scraped out of the saddle so that she could have her bath. We often found that Tory had finished in the fastest time of the day—usually at least a minute or two under time. This was before the days of excessive-speed penalties—they actually awarded bonus points for “fast!”

Interestingly enough, Tory was neither running away with me nor was she tearing around in a panic. She would roar around the course completely confident that her feet would land where she put them. She didn’t see any point in stopping while there was fun to be had.

Practice Makes Perfect

Tory loved water. Since we knew there would be water on cross-country at some point, my friends and I decided we should practice jumping into and out of water. We were dumb but determined and fortunate enough to board near a national forest with a good-sized stream running through it. The stream was fairly deep and had a sandy bottom (we took the horses there in the summer to swim) and had solid banks with a drop of about three feet into the water. So, to school water, we’d approach the stream by way of a hill on which we’d built a little drop fence, then gallop across the meadow and catapult into the stream. The catapulting part was Tory’s contribution.

From Tory, I graduated to Moses, who was Tory’s polar opposite in all but size: He too was on the small (about 15.1 hands) size. Moses was into energy-conservation (primarily his own) and was an old-fashioned Quarter Horse of the bull-doggy kind. He had a lovely, floaty way of going, could jump anything if presented correctly, and was a brave and careful jumper, but by no means fast or determined. The advantage that Moses had over Tory was that he could and did win the dressage.

Moses was as opinionated, in his own way, as Tory was. He had set ideas about warm-up, set ideas about how Moses was to be treated, and set ideas about how to run cross-country. “Run” didn’t figure into this. More like “lope.” I’d taken a few hard falls between Tory and Moses, and his attitude to extreme speed was exactly what I needed to restore my courage. It drove my coach crazy to see us lolloping happily around a course, especially since we almost always hit optimum time exactly.

I remember one of my more successful runs at training (we won). About halfway around the course there was a bullfinch. The base was the regulation height, the brush was maximum height for brush and almost transparent, and since we went in the middle of the afternoon, a lot of horses had thinned it out even more. Since this was a training course, we’d handled some fairly good-sized solid fences earlier. As we approached the bullfinch, Moses started questioning my sanity. He checked and came back to me, asking if I was really serious about this fence. Since I was riding the base of the fence, I got really annoyed that he was questioning what couldn’t have been more than about 2’6” worth of solid obstacle. I sat down and gunned him hard. As I felt that enormous Quarter Horse rear gather and bunch, I suddenly realized what was going to happen. In approved George Morris style, I shot the reins at him and grabbed mane for all I was worth as he cleared the top of the brush—easily 4’6”. Coming down to land took forever.

A Creative Approach To Conditioning

When we started getting competitive at training, my coach set out a serious conditioning program for us. Being a short-legged, long-backed, bull-doggy and lazy Quarter Horse, Moses needed to be preliminary fit to make time comfortably at the speeds required. So my coach set me to timed interval gallops with one of her star students, who had just moved up to advanced. My friend was campaigning a big chestnut warmblood mare who was doing three sets of seven-minute gallops. Since Moses and I really only needed three-minute gallops at that pace, we worked out a course where Moses and I would tuck in behind the mare, gallop our hearts out for three minutes, and then peel out for a minute’s walk. When the mare came back on the next lap, we had just finished our minute’s rest, and took off after the chestnut rump again. Two sets for us, one for her.

This practice got me into hot water at the last event Moses and I did. The cross-country was set on open prairie in the Midwest. There had been a tornado watch issued, and the organizers were trying to get through as many cross-country trips as they could before sending everyone to shelter. They sent us off at one-minute intervals, since the course was one long circuit track and didn’t cross anywhere.

Normally, I would warm Moses up, and then walk him to the start box on a loose rein, knowing that he would not need any kind of contact prior to the official start. It didn’t occur to me that the horse immediately before us was a big chestnut mare …….That pair took off, and Moses was halfway to the first jump before I could collect my reins and circle. He spent the (fortunately short) time in the start box hopping about and calling for the mare, and when we heard “go,” he shot out of the box like he’d been launched. He ran that entire course faster than he’d ever gone, calling for his ladylove and absolutely focused on finding that chestnut mare.

After Moses retired, Cameo made it clear that she was a show hunter, thank you, and that while it was perfectly all right to go on trail rides, and maybe even do gallops around the hayfield, there was no way she was going to jump cross-country fences. She would sail over enormous fences in the show ring on nice footing, but ask her to hop over a fallen log out in the woods and the answer was a very clear no. And as age starts creeping up on me, and bruises take longer and longer to heal, I’m beginning to think she’s got a point.

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a “Foreign Service brat,” and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. “I’m a survivor of ponies of all sizes,” said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.








Category: Columns
Tag: Humor

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