Waking up at 5 a.m. on Sunday was actually harder than getting up at 4 the previous day, and I was glad that my mother was driving so I didn’t have to.
Even though I was number 145 in the order, I arrived at the show fully decked out in my jacket, helmet and everything so I would look nice for the course walk. The mass of people at the in-gate was huge, and I fought my way to the front so I could get a copy of the course diagram, which they were handing out.
I thought to myself, “Wow, they set everything so you just have to find a distance off the turn and ride the course off your eye.”
How very wrong I was. Once I stepped into the ring, I found that the jumps were much closer together than they looked in the picture, and EVERYTHING was related. (For the course diagram, check out the Chronicle’s online coverage. )
I watched the first 20 riders complete the course, and we cemented a plan in our minds, and then I went to sit on Calvin and see if he was calm enough.
I only rode him for a short time because Todd Minikus came and rode him afterwards. It’s weird to see other people ride my horse because I can see little shifts in his weight, and I know exactly what’s going on. Todd only jumped a few jumps, and Calvin jerked his knees up under his chin, and I wished I was entered in the junior hunters instead. With Calvin all set up, there was nothing for me to do but wait.
When I get nervous, I feel like the collar on my shirt is choking me. When I got on, my choker felt so tight that I didn’t know how I was going to ride. My stomach, though, did not have its usual knots, and I felt almost as calm as I did at Regionals.
I kept my cool while we warmed up, and Calvin didn’t perk up at all in the little schooling ring. Just as I did in the USET at Devon, I forced myself to smile in the in-gate, and I could feel my body relax completely. I trotted down to the far end of the ring and picked up a bold canter. I galloped down in eight strides where most people did nine, then recollected myself around the turn. I jumped straight across fence three and did five strides to the spooky birch triple.
Calvin’s eyes widened a bit, but his reaction was slight, and he jumped right through AB. He swapped his lead in BC and landed on the ouside lead afterwards. I shortened his stride a bit too much for the lead change and stayed wide for nine, not eight, strides around the turn, but it set us up nicely for the five to the outside oxer.
Going into the ring, Val had said I should do the tightest turn I felt comfortable with in the rollback. I knew that I had to go for it if I wanted to get noticed, so I did the inside option and cantered seven strides to the coop, seven strides across the ring to the skinny without wings, and stayed out and bent the seven to the swedish oxer and yet another seven to the split rail two.
Many good riders before me had trouble getting through the bending two, so I cut left and got maybe a touch deep coming out, but it directed a nice path for the forward four to the triple bar. The five in the last line was quiet but not unreasonable, and I jumped out just fine.
I’d never seen the course request a specific number of strides in a line, and I thought that was pretty neat. The cheering was deafening, and I was thrilled to have put in a solid trip. I needed to be in the top 10 if I wanted to go to Syracuse, and I was off to a good start.
Waiting is the worst part of the day. I watched as much as I could and hoped I would make the second round. I was sitting relatively low on the standby, so I warmed up my horse before going out to the second course walk.
We were called back in reverse order, and I was standing in 18th place, so I went pretty early. Val and I tried to pick a track that would propel me to the ribbons, so we chose the ambitious six in the first line to the end fence. From there it was a quieter six to the rollback from the first round backwards. I usually don’t walk rollbacks, but since it was so tight we tried to get a feel for the striding, and the seven showed up perfectly.
At first, we bravely chose the six to the coop at the end of the ring, but it became evident that the seven was a more realistic option. We opted for the forward four to the in-and-out, bending five to the skinny without standards, then around the turn to the fan, shaped six to bending five in the last line.
People doubted our plan, and several of Val’s friends and fellow trainers tried to discourage us, especially in the first six. We sat down to watch the first three trips and were surprised to see that people were going directly to the first jump. To make the first line easier, I suggested that I canter up the center line to the first jump, and Val agreed that it was the winning track. She stayed behind to watch while I mounted up and jumped a schooling jump.
Although I felt just as calm, if not calmer, as the first round, my riding was a mess. I circled without jumping at least three times because the only distance I could see was a chip. Miraculously, the second I saw a good distance, Val appeared, and she watched me catch a few perfect jumps. We walked back to the in-gate together and went over the strategy one more time.
It was pretty low-pressure going into the second round, because I knew that it was a long shot for me to get a ribbon, and I really had nothing to lose by really going for it. If I made a mistake, so what? It’s not like I was trying to protect my standings or anything. I took a deep breath and walked into the ring.
I walked a few extra steps, trying to find the track I wanted, and focused on the first jump as I picked up my right lead. The first jump was coming up just a teeny bit deep, so I bent Calvin softly around my right leg to make the distance smooth without losing pace. We took off from the perfect spot and from there it was magic.
Every stride was exactly where it should have been. We were so in sync that everything felt effortless; Calvin knew exactly what to do. I swear, the best high in the entire world is landing from the last jump and hearing every person in the stands whooping and clapping. I knew that it was up to the judges now, and I could go home knowing that no matter the ribbon, I put up a good fight until the end.
I went back to watch and was surprised at how many mistakes people were making. I thought I would get a ribbon for sure, but apparently the judges did not. Many other trainers called and commended me and Val, saying that my round was amazing, and we should be really proud of what I accomplished. Although I didn’t make the top 10, I rode as well as I possibly could have, and that’s definitely the next best thing.
By the time I came back to the barn, Calvin was quietly standing in his stall eating hay. I went over to pet him and say thank you, and then out of the blue I just lost it. He has been an incredible partner in the year and a half that I’ve ridden him, and I hope his next rider appreciates him as much as I do. He is truly a once in a lifetime horse, and I am devastated to let him go once the finals are over.
Then Val walked up and I started crying about her too. I would like to go to college down South next year, so I am switching trainers to work with people who won’t be a 12-hour commute from school (because for some reason I can’t see that working out too well…). New England will probably be my last show with both Calvin and Val, so I am really hoping to make it count. Hopefully there won’t be too many tears involved.