On Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the warm and sunny concourse of the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park, charging my phone and killing time while I waited for Fender’s Prix St. Georges awards. This is the one thing I don’t love about the USDF Finals—it seems like no matter what I qualify for, it will be on Sunday afternoon, and a part of the 5 p.m. awards ceremony.
Fortunately, this was our third year here (and our third year in the same boat), so we’re pretty much professionals at it. After my ride, my working student, Daisy, and I ran off to lunch at the movies (we saw The Martian; it was fantastic), where I surreptitiously checked my phone every few rides to see if I stayed in the top 10, and that led me to the sitting, killing time.
I had to keep my eye on that scoreboard because Fender gave me the best 10 minutes of our career together… in the warm-up. It’s a struggle with any young, still-developing horse—how to make them fit without burning them out—but I’ve had another factor to consider over the last few months for Fender. That this is our last show together, before his new owner takes the reins. I wanted Fender to stay fresh and fun to the work, and not be too fit coming into winter.
So he just faded a little as we came into the ring, and he worked like a trooper and let me make lots of points, and unfortunately made a few too many small mistakes in important things. He still placed ninth on 68 percent, with tons of highlights and high praise from all the judges, and was bested by many more experienced horses. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and as sad as I am to close the book on us, it’s a heckofa way to go out.
The book of Ella and I is moving onto a new chapter, because on Saturday night I had a huge ah-ha with impeccable timing. In watching the videos of both my Grand Prix at the Regional Finals and here on Friday night, I put two and two together in how I’m riding her neck, or rather not riding her neck.
To make a long story short, what feels like poll-the-highest-point isn’t; it’s off the bit. And in the warm-up for her freestyle, I glanced down at her neck in a moment where she was going brilliantly, and it looked like the third braid back from her ears was the highest point. It wasn’t—the visual from the ground was poll up and perfect—but it was the visual cue I needed to make it make sense to me.
I’ve experienced this with students. I’ve talked to them about a concept a trillion times in a zillion different ways, and then, without warning or explanation, they exclaim: “oh! It’s like (insert a metaphor that makes no sense to me)!” And then they get it. It’s one of those it’s-not-the-journey-but-the-destination things.
Whatever, it worked for me. And I’ve still got many more things to make better, to figure out how to shorten the gap between how incredible she feels in warm-up and how she goes in the ring. But we earned a 68 percent from a seriously international panel (including a “good job!” from Axel Steiner, so I can basically die happy now), placed fourth, and have another piece of the puzzle, I hope, locked down.
There have been so many other wonderful things from this show: getting coaching from, and spending time with, my wonderful friends Belinda Nairn and Liz Austin, who I never get to see enough of; catching up with all the rest of my friends from all over the country, all in one place; helping my friend Torrey with her wonderful mare Tali; getting to meet the show’s youngest participant, Sophia, who is also a video blogger, and talking about blogging; celebrating the birthday of one of my favorite people on the planet, Sue Stickle; and watching the inimitable Michael Poulin show us all why he’s the force of nature in American dressage that he is.
On Sunday night, we did one last awards ceremony, one last group dinner, and got a full night’s sleep before the worst part of this show—the 8.5-hour drive through the mountains of West Virginia. And with any luck, we’ll keep our tires intact, too. (But I wouldn’t count on it.)