I giggle when I hear people say that all eventers care about is cross-country, because I feel like mostly what I actually do is dressage, to my little bay mare Cairo’s endless dismay. Just because judges don’t appreciate the unique spin Cairo puts on her fancy prancing doesn’t mean we don’t practice doing it “right” a lot. Besides, even when there’s not a good place to jump, there’s almost always at least one spot you can find to do a 20-meter circle.
So when May draws near, and it’s time for the annual Dom Schramm clinic at my trainer Meika Decher’s Polestar Farm, it’s a mix of excitement and trepidation for me. I can practice all the skinnies in the arena that I want, and trot in endless circles, but it’s all fun and games until you are galloping the wild mare toward a chevron on a bending line on course.
Dom is always a good time, and I always learn something; this clinic was no different. To add to the fun, Dom added in evening talks, including one on choosing a young horse. As he showed pictures of young event prospects and discussed what he looked for from good feet to a good mind to conformation, I pulled up a photo I snapped of Cairo when I first looked at her. Short and out of shape, she’d been out in the pasture, but in my eyes she was perfect. I can only imagine what was going through Meika’s head when I sent her the photo of Cairo and was like “OMG look! I LOVE HER!”
In my defense, Cairo is well-bred, and my friend Becky who bred her knew she was athletic, or she wouldn’t have sold her to me. But let’s just say that at certain life stages, Cairo didn’t always photograph well.
On stadium day at the clinic I tied Cairo’s red ribbon in her tail since we were riding with a couple people who didn’t know her well. Cairo likes to maintain a defensive perimeter around herself. She has never actually kicked another horse, but she sure gives off a lot of “get out of my bubble” vibes to the geldings around her. Honestly it’s just a lot less stressful for me if I’m not riding a horse who is periodically leaping into the air, whipping around, and glaring at the gelding who dared to get within 20 feet of her booty.
Dom eyed the ribbon and said, “Don’t tell me she kicks, too?”
He was remembering clinics in years past when she did things like refuse to stand still while he taught and glared and rolled her eyes at him while he talked. She is not nearly as entranced by the Australian accent as the rest of us are.
We started off with one of those things that seems like it should be simple—an oxer out of a square turn. Nope, not simple. Straightness is just not easy! (Crooked is.)
My favorite exercise of the day was a long line, vertical to a Swedish oxer in about eight forward strides. (Sidenote here: Why are verticals not called horizontals, and why are those oxers Swedish? And as long as I’m falling down that rabbit hole, why is it an oxer?) Dom laid down two rails, side by side, like a railroad track a couple strides after the vertical.
The other levels (novice, beginner novice) had jumped the vertical and gone through the poles and down to the Swedish in as few as eight or as many as 10 strides. A lot of the greener horses spooked at cantering through the relatively narrowly spaced rails.
Our group jumped the vertical off the right, leg yielded right past the railroad tracks, turned left, leg yielded left past the tracks, repeated each, and then went straight down the line in eight. I plead guilty to at least one overly dramatic jumper turn, possibly to show off our recently developed turning skills. Or maybe I just got a little enthused.
Later, as we would head for the line, Dom would holler out how many strides we should get, ensuring we had to land and make a decision.
I also plead guilty to trotting and cantering through the railroad tracks during warm-up. Someone asked me if that was “cheating,” but I’ve seen George Morris chide riders for not practicing what was being worked on instead of just sitting there watching other riders flail. The point isn’t to screw up or freak out your horse. The point is to learn.
As the course progressed, it was over the vertical, through the railroad tracks, square turn to the square oxer perpendicular to the middle of the line. Ugh. Given I love to pick at Cairo and take away her distance, that’s a hard one for me.
Worse, Cairo isn’t stupid. She’s super brave and athletic, but when I do dumb stuff like pick away her distance, she won’t bail me out, and she refuses. It’s a trick I’ve taught her that I’m not thrilled about. When I confessed this to Dom, he looked at me and said, “You were good enough to teach it to her. You are good enough to undo it.”
Ah, that moment that someone at least 10 years younger than you proves to be 20 years wiser.
Dom set a fun, twisty-turny course that both challenged us and set us up for success. It even had a skinny bending to a skinny. Cairo charged through it with enthusiasm and made me feel excited for cross-county in the morning.
Cairo headed out on cross-country with gusto, though I definitely had a moment of stupid or two. I’m slowly learning that while my horse is fearless, she also really does take direction from me, and if I pick away her distance or take my leg off because I doubt the fence, she shrugs her pretty bay shoulders and says, “Fine, whatever, we will skip this one and do one you like better.”
She jumps as a team. And she and I are in it together. It’s our journey, and if there are some bumps along the way, well the successes are ours together too.
Case in point. Dom had set a log, bending to a ditch, bending to a chevron. A one-star question, he said. I’m like, “One-star? Dude, I’m still flailing at plain old prelim!” So I overthought it and basically let Cairo run past the chevron. I doubted myself, and so she gave me (and the chevron) the hoof. Dom had us circle to it on an easier line, and soon we were over it, no problem. After that the ditch bending line was no problem. It’s all mental, I swear.
The final question of the day was Meika’s gorgeous water complex. Her water surrounds a giant boulder. Giant like the size of small house. In Scandinavia where my family is from, such boulders are called “jattekast” or the giant or troll’s throw—legend says they wind up in odd places because the giants threw them in battles with each other. In real life, a glacier dropped the rock, but I like the idea of cantering Cairo past the scene of an epic troll battle.
I think Dom thought, since we’d struggled a little earlier, that Cairo and I would have some trouble with the brush drop into the water. Oh heck no. If there’s one thing Miss Thing likes, it’s the chance to leap into water with gleeful abandon. This also tells me our issues are mental (and my mental) because some other horses in my group doubted the water drop a little, and Cairo was like “Kowabunga!”
So here it goes little horse. Eventing season is here. Where to next?
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.