Amateurs Like Us: Finishing On A Number, Not A Letter!

Sep 28, 2017 - 9:55 AM
  1. How not to prepare for championships.

By a weird fluke (otherwise known as a fifth place finish) Cairo and I qualified for Area IV preliminary championships this year. Apparently if you qualify and enter Aspen Farm Horse Trials September event, they put you in the championships, whether or not you are feeling dubious as to whether you should really be in championships the first year you and your horse do prelim!

So my itsy-bity sassy event horse and I began to gear up, after a break, post-Rebecca Farm. Since my dressage trainer informed me there is no such thing as a “nuclear option” for improving terrible dressage scores, we went back to the usual attempts in lessons to persuade Cairo that trotting in circles without breathing fire is a fine idea.

My first clue that getting ready for the show was not going to go as planned should have been the fact the entire state of Oregon was freaking out over being in the “path of totality” for the eclipse. It was like a cross between a rock festival and Armageddon between the warnings about running out of gas and the party atmosphere. I of course decided the best place to watch the eclipse was from Cairo’s back.

Turns out riding a horse wearing eclipse glasses is made complicated by the fact that the only thing you can see through those glasses is the eclipse. Cairo worked on her piaffe while I oohed and ahhed over the coming together of the sun and moon.

Watching the eclipse. Cairo is unimpressed. Photo by Kevin Matthews

“Was she bothered?” people asked me, noting that during eclipses birds stop singing and chickens go roost. Yes, she was bothered. But I think she was bothered because I was trying to make her stand still while I stared blissfully upwards.

As the world got still and quiet and cool—a welcome break from Oregon’s hot summer weather, and Cairo danced in circles, I was like “Hey, let’s do some gallop sets!”

And I’m glad I did because shortly after that pretty much all of Oregon caught fire and between smoke and hard ground, galloping became out of the question.

Next, having realized that I really had not jumped enough in the last couple weeks, I made arrangements to go school at the Oregon Horse Center after one of its eventing DX shows.

There were a couple little banks on course and that’s something I never get to practice, and I really wanted to work on slipping my reins.

It was a great idea until Cairo caught a toe, tripped and fell, pitching me over her head. She cantered merrily back to my trailer and I did the walk of shame, thinking, “This is not how normal riders prep for championships.”

Cairo seemed fine, so we schooled another fence or two and called it good.

The next morning, Sunday, Cairo had a slightly puffy fetlock. Mentally, I went straight to worst-case scenario. Suspensory, career-ending injury. I was in tears. I texted my event trainer Meika Decher, and she called and talked me off the edge. I also called my vet. Cairo is my heart horse and I couldn’t care less about a show, even championships, if it hurts my little bay whirlwind in any way. I was poised to scratch

My appointment wasn’t until Wednesday so I resigned myself to resting and wrapping Miss Sassypants until then, but because my vet is psychic, he walked into the barn Tuesday morning to do a pregnancy check on another horse while I was there cold hosing Cairo and when I told him what happened, he cheerfully offered to do a lameness exam then and there.

Did I mention by the way that Cairo was not actually lame? And the puffiness I’d seen was gone by Monday night? But there are some worries only a vet (and a vet bill) can soothe!

Cairo was given the all clear, and we were ready to go. Or so I thought.

And that was when pretty much all of Oregon caught fire. Some 400,000 acres of wildfire meant the world became gray and smoky and the air horrible and unfit to breathe. Cairo was not thrilled by my attempt to put a N95 filter over her nostrils, so instead we prepped for championships with several days of long, long walks. It turns out you can ride your dressage test many, many times at the walk over the course of a 45-minute “fitness walk.”

  1. Championships!

I hauled up five or so hours up to Yelm, Wash., where Aspen Farm is located and was delighted the air was better there. Meika asked the vet to do baselines on our horses and Cairo’s lungs were good to go.

Meika schooled me the day before dressage. She was delighted that my dressage trainer Leslie Chapman and I had been working on our bending and not dirtbiking around corners. Still, we needed some work.

“Umm, how bent do you think she is right now?” Meika asked me as I trotted around a corner.

I felt like this was possibly a trick question.

“Well,” I told Meika, “one time during a lesson, Leslie kept telling me to ask Cairo for more flexion. Finally, she told me ‘overflex her!’ and I got all freaked out. ‘I can’t ask Cairo for rolkeur!’ I told her.

‘Rolkeur?’ Leslie asked. ‘She’s not even flexed. I was hoping if I told you to overflex her, maybe I’d see her face closer to vertical.’”

“Right,” Meika said, “She’s not even bent, so try overbending.”

This apparently is how we trick a dressage-hating mare into doing dressage. Ask her for too much and she might give you a little.

As it turns out, walking for days at a time was a great way to prep Cairo for dressage. She was practically relaxed for our 8:18 a.m. dressage ride—she was also thrilled at how few other horses were with her in the warm-up. Of course when I say “practically relaxed” I mean that we still wrapped up dressage in last place.

But 1: It was last place at championships, going prelim!

And 2: It was one of our best scores all season and that has given me hope that we will someday achieve a dressage score in the 30s.

And 3: I scratched Cairo’s neck a couple times during the test, which means that I can now actually release a rein without fear of angry-mare reprisals. It also means that I can show the judge that Cairo has self-carriage and that I’m not some maniac in a stock tie making my horse insane in the sandbox. Cairo comes by it naturally… all on her own.

In her remarks, the judge called Cairo “attractive” and me “elegant,” so I was happy. To be fair, the test also said “tense” a lot, but I’ll take what I can get when it comes to Cairo’s nemesis: the dressage ring and its evil array of random letters.

And it was also nice to hear from one of the volunteers, who has probably seen Cairo going since her very first show, tell me that when she first saw Cairo in the dressage arena, she wondered why in the world someone would get an event horse that simply doesn’t do dressage, but she’s watched our progress the last couple years and seen all the improvements.

They say watching dressage can be like watching paint dry. Watching Cairo and I do dressage is probably more like watching a graffiti artist at work but at least the art’s getting more legible.

The scores were pretty tightly packed after dressage. Except Meika, who scored like 5 points better than everyone else on her homebred Archie McPhee. And except Cairo and I who were occupying our traditional caboose position, like 5 points behind the pack.

But did I mention we were at championships? Take hope my fellow hot horse riders, sometimes we come from behind.


A couple weeks after showing at Rebecca Farm I had watched Meika’s video of her ride on Archie. And I realized that Cairo gives me a lot of gifts on cross-country. Meika was riding every fence—body, voice and stick, when needed. Meanwhile, I tended to wait until something went awry, and then ride. Meika pointed out that Cairo’s independence makes her great cross-country but a challenge in dressage. And I realized that I just need to be more proactive when I see a challenging fence.

“Ride scrappy,” Meika told me, as we walked the course at Aspen. Pointing to Fence 4, a big up-bank one stride to a hanging log on the top of a hill, she said “That’s your first chance to ride scrappy.”

Since dressage was so early, it gave me plenty of time to walk my course. Again, and again. And again. Unlike spring, where I was fixated on the big drop fence, this time I was pretty much looking at the whole course and going, “Whoooooah.” As Meika put it, it’s like they went to Rebecca Farm and came back and went, “Heck, let’s kick it up a notch!” She later called it a good prep for intermediate and I immediately looked at her in horror and asked, “Then why am I here?”

Meika had plenty of chances to soothe me Saturday morning as the cross-country nerves kicked in big time. “It’s not very fun to be this nervous,” I told her plaintively. She agreed, and reminded me I always feel better when I’m on my horse.

She was right. When finally I was on, I went from “I’m going to puke,” to, “Game on!”

On a side note, does anyone have any tips for actually sleeping the night before cross-country?

Meika schooled me before dashing off to get Archie for her ride, and as she left, she called out one last bit of advice.

Which I totally misheard. “Ride pretty!”

“Ride pretty?” I asked. “I don’t think you want to tell me that!” As a former eq and hunter rider, I can easily make the error I used to back then of concentrating on pretty and forgetting to be effective.

“Gritty!” she hollered. “Gritty.”

Oh. OK, well, I decided I can only have so many adjectives in my head on cross-country and I was going to stick with “scrappy.”

Cairo and I were the third ride in prelim champs and she was completely unfazed by the course walkers who had to scramble out of our way as we charged toward Fence 1 with me yelling “Head’s up!!”

No one gets between Cairo and Fence 1.

We were scrappy at Fence 4 and cruising everything. We galloped toward Fence 7AB, a big table bending to a corner, and I was thinking, “We are so going to cruise that line in five strides.”

It walked a direct five on a good gallop or bending six. For all that Cairo is 15.1, she has a huge, huge stride, so I was all abut the five.

Then I realized I had forgotten to set her up a couple strides out (cock the trigger as Dom Schramm puts it) then I overthought it, and I took back at the last minute. Cairo gave the table a good whack and I landed on her neck with a too-close-for-comfort view of the nice job the folks at Aspen had been doing to aerate the grassy footing. I lurched back into the saddle, circled and the corner was no problem. Sadly, since it was a combo, it counts as a refusal.

Luckily, Cairo didn’t know that, and she gleefully galloped fence after fence I encouraged her with some enthusiastic “Git, git gits!” to the first water (probably more for me than for her, there’s something about a good hollering of “git” that makes me feel like I’m in control). And the trakhener—with the black, wide ditch that had caused me to bolt awake the night before—rode like nothing.

The second water was more of a problem. Championships got to jump a big brush in, and combine that with Cairo’s “Kowabunga, it’s cannonball time!” technique for water, I was concerned. Why couldn’t I go like 10th, after the other horses smooshed the brush down a little? Sometime after she lands, Cairo even likes do a second bounce just for kicks.

Into the water! Photo by Tanner Kooistra
Still looking pretty organized here. Photo by Tanner Kooistra

Sure enough, she jumped big, I lurched around, my reins went every which way, and after the up bank, we blew right past the chevron that was on a bend.

Lesson learned—I was so busy gathering my reins, I never got a good eye on the chevron, and so Cairo didn’t either. Next time, I need to worry less about everything being just right and focus on looking and steering. And slipping the reins still needs work.

She leapt the chevron on the second attempt and we were back on course. Poor Cairo. She’s learning prelim at the same time I’m learning prelim and sometimes we make rookie mistakes. I told Meika later that I felt bad Cairo had stops on her record—neither my circle nor blowing past the chevron were her fault. Meika pointed out that Cairo is my horse and not for sale, so who cares? True.

Everything else rode fun, from the open oxer in three to the angled brush to the coffin that was made up of a skinny log, wide ditch and chevron.

OK, so adding 40 points and some time penalties to a 41.9 dressage score is not exactly a great number to head into stadium on, but the goal was to finish on a number not a letter and to feel like we are improving and learning. So far, so good.

For you non-eventers, the lower the number the better—and finishing on your dressage score is always a goal—and the letters I am most familiar with (and have ended on) include E (elimination), W (withdrew), RF (retired fallen), TE (technical elimination).

And that lesson about finishing on a number hit home when one of my friends in prelim champs fell off in stadium and another in beginner novice champs had to scratch. They were both good sports about it—more concerned about their horses than the ribbons—but it was a good reminder for me that we work awfully hard to even get to events, let alone championships, and to steal a phrase from an endurance rider friend of mine, to finish is to win.

I also made good on long-held resolve to officially volunteer. I try to help Meika out at the event she puts on via Equestrians Institute, but I’m slow to volunteer at other events, partly because I’m helping fellow riders in my group, but also because I’m so nervous about my own rides I can’t imagine going off and doing something else entirely. This year at Aspen I was pinney collector for the advanced group and duly impressed at how polite and together they were after a hard ride, even the ones who had fallen.

So, on the last day, heading into stadium firmly in last place, I gave myself a pretty simple goal: Give Cairo a good ride and hold on to that last place position!

I went in first and Cairo was delighted to have all that pristine footing to gallop on. We flew down the first line, and I decided as we headed to a triple bar away from the in-gate that I should tap Cairo with the whip to ensure she didn’t suck back.

Going well. Photo by Tanner Kooistra

Well, Cairo has rules. One of them is you don’t touch Cairo with the whip unless she feels she deserves it. Since she had not (yet) actually misbehaved, in her mare-mind I had used the whip unfairly and earned myself some penalties. She landed after the triple bar angry and I caved in to her demands too early in the battle to the next oxer (there was a stronger half-halt there, Meika said later) and we gave the oxer a hearty thwack.

But it was the triple combination where Cairo gave me the “unfair whip use” payback. She kicked down a rail on each fence with her hind legs.

“That was on purpose,” one of my friends who was watching later observed.

Why yes, yes it was. But at least she was great on the next couple fences, and Meika told me I rode well.

Check out my smile! Photo by Tanner Kooistra

Finished on a number! Albeit a large one…

Four years ago, I was grooming at Aspen for friends, feeling a little left out and wondering if I’d ever find the right horse, my own unicorn, when my friend Becky called and said she might have a little horse for me to look at. And now, here I am, trotting out of the arena at prelim champs, getting my completion plaque in the same division as my trainer and cheering Meika on to her third place finish. For some people, their dream horse is the one that wins the ribbons, but I guess mine is the one that keeps me on my toes!

Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo…


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