Last Thursday, I hurried through my usual barn chores before loading Calvin into the trailer and departing for Gladstone, N.J., where the USEF Talent Search Finals take place.
He settled in nicely, which eased my nerves about the hardest final of the season. Each of the three phases (flat, gymnastics and show jumping) is much more demanding than a normal equitation class, and I was having last-minute, somewhat irrational, fears about being underprepared.
We were allowed a relatively late start on Friday, riding at 9:30 a.m. It was nice to ease into “horse show mode” because I generally wake up around 9 a.m. since I’m taking a gap year and don’t go to school. The riders were given the opportunity to hack in the show ring on all three days of competition, so we took advantage of that and I let my horse have a look around. Last year at Gladstone, Calvin was uncharacteristically fresh, but this year he was much more relaxed both in and out of the ring.
Even the warm-up class at USET is unique. Riders are given 90 seconds to jump whatever pattern they choose. Val, who bravely accompanied us despite having two broken collarbones, had us jump the open water just one time. She says that people can mess up the first time and their horses will still jump it, but that shakes their confidence and they will probably stop if they head for it again. I saw this happen to numerous people throughout the day, and I was grateful that my one shot at the water was successful.
I used my time on Friday to work on holding a forward rhythm and waste as little time as possible in the turns. I did a pretty good job of achieving those goals while maintaining some degree of smoothness throughout my course.
Oddly, the phase that I was most afraid of was the flat. Last year I had the flu and just about passed out before we even changed direction. I knew that even in good health I would have to struggle for a good score because my short legs are not exactly an equitation rider’s dream. The flat was less taxing this year. Aside from the usual lengthenings and counter-canter, the only unusual test they asked for was a walk on a long rein. My score of 83 put me in about 40th place, which was acceptable to me because I know my build (especially on such a big horse) puts me at a disadvantage. With nearly 100 riders in the class, I was still in the top half.
The gymnastics course is always very different and exciting to tackle. Now that I am more solid in trotting jumps, I was looking forward to seeing the course for Saturday afternoon. It managed to be tricky while still being safe if people made mistakes. The first line had trot poles to a low vertical, then more trot poles to an in-and-out. There were markers at the end of the ring where people could choose to do a simple or flying change to the counter lead before jumping a right-angle six-stride line.
From there, three jumps were offset so they had to be angled with two short strides in between each. Around a turn was a bounce bending to a trot jump five strides away from an oxer. After a tight corner we were asked to do another change to the counter-canter and jump a wiiiiiide oxer with a plank in flat cups in front.
Trainers are not allowed in the ring for the course walk in either jumping phase at USET finals, so everyone from my barn walked together, and we formulated a plan as a team. Being the oldest student at my barn, I had to lead the pack as Val does in other course walks. Once we left the ring, Val said she approved of our strategy, which was a great relief.
I had trotted through cavalletti many times before, but rarely on the way to a jump, so I was happy that the schooling ring had that same exercise for us to practice. I was surprised at how rushed Calvin and I felt the first few goes. Val told us to slow way down, and that did smooth things out a great deal. I was considering doing one simple and one flying change to the counter-canter, but my horse’s smooth flying changes during my warm-up convinced me that the flying changes would work out just fine.
My ride over the course was quite satisfying. I knew the pressure was on for me to move way up in the standings, and for the most part I really kept it together. I got a hair crooked in the first set of trot poles so Calvin did not step over them evenly, but the rest of my trip followed my plan perfectly. I was surprised to hear that my score was only a 75 and I actually moved down after the gymnastics. I guess we really got slammed for rubbing one of the ground poles.
I was discouraged, especially because getting a ribbon was nearly impossible, but there was nothing I could do about it. A weight actually lifted off my chest because there was no pressure to ace the show jumping phase; I could go out there and ride and not concentrate on winning.
In the ring before the class on Sunday morning, I circled the water a few times but didn’t do much else. Calvin felt ready to put in a nice trip, and I was certainly eager to make up for Saturday’s low score. I was still about half way through the order, so I had time to watch the first 30 trips before getting ready to ride.
Because the prospect of winning had gone down the toilet, my approach on Sunday was to get as much as I could out of the experience to set me up for Harrisburg. My primary goal was to be bold and take risks that I might not have attempted if I was trying to protect my position near the top of the class. I schooled well and felt focused and calm while we got cleaned up in the in-gate.
Except…the soles of my boots were not clean enough. At the sound of the whistle, I picked up a strong canter and stepped down into my heels, only to have my foot slide out of my outside stirrup. The force of the slip was too great for me to recover my iron quickly, and the first jump was approaching quickly.
My head was buzzing: should I circle and risk looking like an idiot or go ahead and start my course without a stirrup? I felt tight in the tack and didn’t want to break my concentration, so I jumped up the first line before reaching down and putting my foot back where it belonged.
The rest of my course flowed nicely. I did seven to five where most people did eight to six, just so I could get used to taking a bolder track. My inside turn to the triple bar went smoothly, and I was able to come back and shape my track in the next bending line. I was maybe a bit hesitant to the water, which had no rail over it, so he got a bit flat and landed on the tape, and it took me an extra stride or two to shorten him up afterwards. I cleared the skinny end fence with inches to spare and stayed patient in the eight so I could gallop up over the wide oxer coming into the final triple combination.
Of course, a loss of stirrup is an automatic 50, so I was far from making the top four or even the top half. However, I executed my plan and got my confidence way up going into Medal Finals. My horse did a great job and jumped very well for me, and I’m probably not going to see the two obstacles that tripped me up (trot poles and water jump) for the rest of the year.
After getting Calvin safely put away and ready for travel, I trekked back to the show ring and watched the last few riders complete phase III before the work-off of the top four. Between rounds, they presented the bronze, silver and gold medals to riders who won 5, 10 or 20 Talent Search classes throughout their careers.
I was one of just two riders to earn a gold this year, and it was incredible to be honored during the ceremony, especially at a farm where so many great riders have trained.
I highly recommend visiting the USET Headquarters. The barn is immaculate and positively stunning. The walls by the stairs are decorated with ribbons from various shows through the decades, and each ribbon looks so special and precious. The library, where the riders’ meeting on Friday was held, has a selection of videos of international competitions over time. I was dying to get my hands on some of them! Just the venue itself is enough to have me dying to come back to the finals next year.
It’s funny, really: I was thrilled to be done with the USET class and never have to do the final again, but now that it’s over, I wish I could keep Calvin and return every year until I’m 21. I’m going to miss the gymnastics phase, which is so much more fun than a normal course. I was planning on focusing on hunters when I age out of the junior divisions, but I’m starting to think that I’ll enjoy developing jumpers just as much. Who knows? I might even get brave enough to do the grand prix some day…
I often feel like I’m the unluckiest rider in the world. Silly things I can’t control, like losing my stirrup, always seem to happen to me at the worst moments. Or one time this summer when I was going for my 20th USET win, a rail was balanced out of the cup, and it came down, lowering my score 4 points, from class high down to 7th place.
And then when the odds aren’t stacked against me, I make little mistakes that keep me out of the top. Rather than getting discouraged, I am craving a win more and more, and I really think Medal Finals is going to be my time to put it together and walk away with a ribbon. I’m just hoping that if I can pull that off, the ribbon is blue.