Some Days Your Horse Isn't Helping, Others She Saves You

Sep 25, 2018 - 1:40 PM

There is something about horses that hate dressage that stimulates dressage judges to new heights of eloquence.

Maybe they are trying to be helpful. Maybe they are just so overwhelmed by Cairo’s take-no-prisoners attitude that they exclaim things they shouldn’t, and they forget the scribe is faithfully writing every word down.

Maybe I should start writing blogs about how amazing Cairo is at dressage, so any judge who reads these thinks they should score her really, really high, and the scribe will write things like, “Beautiful test! Nice job!”

I’ve seen those very words on other people’s tests. I know it happens. And I know from riding her at home that Cairo can be elegant and flowing and look, well, dressage-y.

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Proof that Cairo can look happy and relaxed, just not necessarily in the dressage ring. All photos courtesy of Camilla Mortensen.

Instead, we have some very nice rides at home, and when we get to shows like Aspen Farms Horse Trials (Washington), and Cairo shakes her booty in the warm-up, I smile peacefully, grit my teeth and whisper to Cairo, “Please, please, let’s just look like we can do prelim.”

My trainer Meika Decher warmed me up on schooling day and watched as Cairo threw me some serious backtalk. Cairo and I had a conversation in which I booted her with my legs, and she twerked. But she finally listened, and Meika was pleased. “Do that in the ring,” she said. “Don’t let her walk all over you.”

As we were standing and chatting, in the near-empty arena, an upper-level rider came down the rail doing a shoulder-in. Concentrating hard, he probably got within 20 feet of us. I can only imagine what the expression was on Cairo’s face, because he glanced up and said something like, “Oh whoa, let’s give her some space” before executing a well-balanced, if hasty, turn.

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Let’s just say that Cairo has opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them.

So you can imagine how much Cairo likes the warm-up ring before we go in for our test!

We trotted in circles, bucked into canters, trotted some more, collected, extended and finally trotted down the centerline. 

Good enough for 28th place. AKA “last.” I prefer second to last, but it’s still a number not a letter, right? I’ve seen people get eliminated in dressage. Life goals: Don’t get eliminated during the trotting-in-circles portion of the event.

After my ride and scores were posted, I faithfully went to get my dressage test — always hoping there will be some useful bit of advice. I love Cairo, and I know we are improving, and I know someday our scores will reflect that. 

But this time, my test said, under collective remarks: 

“Horse not helping today.”

The good news: First, the judge, like me, apparently believes Cairo will indeed be helpful some other day, since the mare was not helpful “today.” And second, for rider, it said “tactful.” Which I think might translate to “good job not detonating the mare.”

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So there’s still hope, right?

Let me ponder some of the gems Cairo and I have gotten from judges over the last four years.

“Hot little unit.”

“Bet she can jump.”

“Some drama.”

“Tall braids.”

Yep, that’s us. A hot, dramatic little jumping unit having a bad hair day.

Stadium was a blast, and at this show it came before cross-country day. I’m super glad that prelim went before the one- and two-stars and intermediate—their courses were virtually the same, with one added fence, and of course the added height—because when I watched them go later, I realized that the course was harder than I realized with bending lines and tough questions in a relatively small, busy space. There were eliminations, withdrawals and falls at those levels by some really good riders.

Cairo and I had two rails, but Cairo jumped great. One rail was mine—I held her off a fence. The other was a bending line into a corner that I swear half the prelim rider division had down too. Meika assured me she was really pleased with how I rode, and Cairo is generally always pleased with herself after jumping all the things. We moved into 26th place. 

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I was pleased with our stadium jumping over a tough course.

The next morning, Meika took what she had figured out watching my stadium warm-up and ride and asked me to change my ride over fences. Meika’s farm is a good six hours from me, so she mostly sees Cairo and me at shows and clinics (in other words, she sees me when I’m the most stressed out but seems to love me anyway), which means she does most of our training at shows.

Cairo has a really sensitive mouth. OK, no wait, Cairo has a sensitive everything.

Leave her mouth alone, Meika said. Use your body.

So I did. And it was awesome. Warm-up felt great. I decided to ignore the little voice in my head screaming, “How is ‘use your body’ gonna work when you are charging at a cross-country fence?”

Just fine, as it turns out. Cairo cantered gleefully out of the start box and sailed over the first three fences. Fence 4 was an up bank, one stride to a hanging log with a downhill landing. I landed in a bit of a heap, but Cairo was unfazed. Probably because my heap-like condition was a direct result of her leaping 10 feet further past the fence than she really needed to on a downhill slope.

We were galloping up a couple small hills to fence 5 when I realized I was seeing something I really was not supposed to be seeing: Two loose horses in blankets and halters charging downhill towards Cairo and me, directly on our track.

Meika told me later that it was a bad, bad feeling as a trainer to hear, “Rider 107, clear fence 4” followed by “two loose horses heading for fence 5.” 

Now let’s remember that Cairo is a horse that was manically furious at a horse doing a shoulder-in vaguely near her in a dressage arena. She bucks when horses stand near the fences we are jumping. This was looking ugly. But weirdly enough, she wasn’t even looking at the loose horses. 

I didn’t dare head right, the better track to fence 5, because it would mean Cairo would be set up to be T-boned by the loose horses. So I swerved her left, almost into some trees, around a training fence, and then back over to the right to get to fence 5. It goes completely against the rule Meika reminds me of when jumping—don’t turn left to go right— but I was pretty darn sure this was an exception.

Thank goodness my friend Cindi who was jump judging that day hollered out, “Great riding!” because I’d never had anything like that happen before and was unsure of the protocol. It’s not like stopping Cairo would have been a good idea—I was feeling lucky she was not inclined to turn and run after the loose horses. I learned later they were haul-ins who had broken loose from the trailer they were tied to.

I told myself that Cairo’s attitude jumping the coop would tell me if she was rattled, and if we should pull up or circle and chill before the bending line to the drop into the water. Cairo, who wears a red ribbon to fend off other horses, galloped along as if nothing had happened and leaped the coop cool as a cucumber. She was so intent on her job I’m not sure she even noticed them.

She ate up the next couple fences and while she took a good hard peek at the jump before the water—she cruised it. I made the mistake after the trakehner of thinking, “This feels GREAT” before overthinking the bending line that rode either a galloping four or a show jump five to a skinny. I over-checked her, made her crooked, and she blew past the skinny. We circled back no problem, and our blooper insured I had my act together for the bend to a corner a couple jumps later. 

My favorite fence was the steeplechase near the end of the course. We burst out of the trees, galloped up and cruised over it with Cairo pulling her usual, “What do you mean, brush through the brush?” routine. My friend Michele, whose daughter competed Cairo’s dam, Ruby Contessa, got photos that made my weekend. Who says eventers don’t have good equitation? 

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A jump like this makes surviving dressage worth it.

Even with our bobble, we moved up to 18th place, which further incentivizes me to figure out dressage. And steering. But still, I’ll take a bad dressage score if it means my sassy little horse is completely blasé about what could have been a terrible disaster on course with loose horses.

My horse totally helps me when it counts! 


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.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo.

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