Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Amateurs Like Us: I Sat Up And Rode!



Moving up to preliminary is really forcing me to think about what success means.

There’s a reason that the U.S. Eventing Association has come up with a new training/prelim level: It’s a big jump, literally and figuratively, from training to prelim and now I’m finding myself pondering just what it means to take that big step in your training. And I’m reminding myself that since I’m brand-new to prelim and so is Cairo there are going to be some bumps.

Cairo and I. Photo by Mark Solon

To be honest, we’ve already had some bumps.

Last month at Inavale Horse Trials Cairo and I were eliminated for the first time ever. We had a refusal and then a confusal—I didn’t ride strong enough to the fence on the hill, then she never got quite focused on the skinny coming out of the water.

It was discouraging, but even more discouraging is after the event gracefully allowed eliminated riders like me to still do their stadium rounds, I just didn’t ride mine very well. Cairo went a little ballistic grabbed the bit and ran, and I did my “Jesus take the wheel thing” and let her take over for about half the round before I sat up and rode.

After, my event trainer Meika Decher gave me a good pep talk. “It’s great to learn from your experience how to do it better next time.”

(She also gave me a very nice “get your act together” talk about my stadium round, thought she phrased it much nicer than that.)

Eliminations suck, she told me after I did my social media post of shame on Facebook to tell everyone what happened. “But it’s what you learn with it that matters most.”

And one of my favorite clinicians and riders Dom Schramm reminded me, “Character building. Gotta have the hard parts so you can appreciate the good ones. You’ll bounce back!”

My unicorn!

But would I bounce back before taking Cairo to my bucket-list show: doing prelim at Rebecca Farm in Montana?

So what do I do, I asked Meika, do I drop down to training for Rebecca Farm?

“I believe in you and Cairo,” she told me. “I believe that you are completely normal in having trouble adjusting your stress level to match the ride.”

Did I mention I get a little nervous sometimes?

“Don’t return to training,” she said. “The learning curve is so steep right now for where you are. You’re doing it and accomplishing new skills. You will feel a plateau soon… it’s coming.”

I totally get why some amateurs are happy to stay at novice forever. And doing the .95-meters is nothing to sneeze at. I think the joy is equally great when you do well with a horse you love at novice as it is at prelim. At Rebecca I saw another rider crying tears of joy because she was competing in novice with her heart horse at her bucket list show and it mattered more to her than the big ribbons she’d won getting her silver in dressage. For me, that’s what it’s all about.

Years ago, I competed successfully in the 3’6″ jumpers on a friend’s horse (you know, back when you measured fences in feet and inches, not meters) and I’ve been trying to get back there ever since. I just thought when I got back to the 1.10-meters it would be in jumpers, not eventing. I finally have the horse with the scope to spare and enough money to do the shows—even if it means living in a trailer and working an extra job

So I went home and practiced. I rode dressage while the barrel racers practiced in the arena at my barn so I could work on focus with Cairo. Then I turned the barrels on their sides and jumped them to practice skinnies. I got my truck and trailer worked on—new trailer floor, new truck ball joints, new tires.

I was ready!

Cairo is always ready. She’s trigger-happy.

It’s A Journey

So imagine my horror when, four hours into the trip from Oregon to Montana, smoke began pouring out of my trailer tires on a busy highway in Washington.

I jumped out, examined the tires and frantically called Meika, who was at least 2½ hours away. “Don’t worry,” she assured me; she’d come get me if she had to; we’d get me to Rebecca. I limped the trailer into a tire place.

Within minutes, they had my trailer up on standing jacks and were pulling off the tire.

Verdict: I needed a new axle.

Not the best start for a trip!

Meanwhile Meika had called in the forces of the Pacific Northwest eventing community and had scored Cairo a trailer ride to Jonathan and Suzi Elliott’s gorgeous Aspen Farms to layover until we had a plan. And before Meika could jump into her truck to come get us from there, my friend Reb Schmidt called to offer to bring her trailer down for me to drive to Montana. She drove a five-hour round trip to loan me her gorgeous trailer. Who does that?

Horse people might be crazy, but we’re a good crazy and the eventing community is amazing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Cairo was still in my trailer while all this was going on? Yep, my wild-eyed mare was contentedly munching hay in the busted trailer while the nice folks of Les Schwab Tires were using power tools and taking my tires and axles off.

“Umm, can we lower the trailer to get her out?” I asked.

No. It was on standing jacks. On slick concrete. It was going nowhere. Instead, they found me a thick rubber mat, and Cairo jumped onto it cool as a cucumber.

“She must be good at drops,” my ride to Aspen commented.


True that.

After a restful couple hours at Aspen, Reb had my truck hitched to her trailer and I set off to the show in Washington where I would be meeting up with Meika before heading to Rebecca in Montana. I got to the Washington show at 3 a.m., praised Cairo for being a trailer saint and fell asleep in the back of my truck.

And the next day I was very proud of both Cairo and I when, on very little sleep, she and I put in a nice schooling round at the jumper show we had entered to prep for Rebecca. We redeemed ourselves from my bad ride at Inavale.

I guess since Jesus got to take not only my wheel but my axle as well I had no choice but to ride decently.

The next day we caravanned with Meika’s Polestar Farm group for the 10 or so hour trip to Kalispell, Mont. Apparently I was so nervous about driving over the Rocky Mountain passes from Idaho into Montana that I didn’t notice I was developing a staph infection in my leg.

My bucket list trip was starting to look more like the trip from hell.

Monday morning in Kalispell Meika took one look the red swollen lump on my leg and off we went to urgent care.

“Are you here for the show?” The doctor asked, possibly noting the bits of hay in my hair. “We get a lot of you people in over the weekend.” I cheerfully showed him my medical bracelet that provided the info about all the antibiotics I’m allergic too. He prescribed sulfa.

When I picked it up, the pharmacist said, “It’s kind of a horse pill,” referring to its size, “you can break in half to swallow it.”

“No,” I told her. “It IS a horse pill.” It was the same SMZs we give the horses.

I politely declined Meika’s offer to crush my pills up and dose me with a syringe.

However, I did let her turn the ring that we drew around the redness of the infection in order to monitor its spread into a skull and crossbones. Eventers never turn down a chance to decorate.

“Two bad things,” my friend Letty Moreno mused. Letty and I did the novice three-day at Rebecca two years ago together and were now doing prelim together. “What will the third one be?”

“We don’t talk about bad things before cross-country,” I told her.

The Fancy Prancing

Cairo schooled beautifully over the next two days. Aside from a slight tendency to angrily toss her head at the pretty white butterflies in Rebecca’s canola fields, Cairo was a gem.

“Ride her like she’s a fourth level horse,” Meika said, riffing off Dom’s advice to ride my crazy mare “like she’s sweet.”

I feel like that’s dressage speak for “ride her like you stole her.”

You have to laugh, right?!

That said, when dressage day dawned, Cairo was a complete doll. Right up until we began to circle the sandbox of doom.

It’s like she sees those little white rails and switch flips in her brain.

Here is a mare who stood quietly in a trailer in a loud mechanic’s garage, who practiced her tests with people barrel racing, who at one point during the show jumped schooling fences while being sprayed by the water truck, who spooks at pretty much nothing and would probably stare down a semi truck, but she lost her cool completely when asked to trot and canter in a dressage arena.

Our test was like a greatest hits reel of everything Cairo’s ever done naughty in dressage. Charge down the center line? Check. Stick her head in the air like a giraffe and open her mouth? Check. Buck in the canter transitions? Check. Dirt bike around her corners? Check. Crash to a halt at the end glaring wild-eyed at the judge? Check.

“Tough day,” the judge wrote on the test.

Right, like Cairo and my dressage implosion was just a one-day, one-off thing. That was sweet of her.

Ironically, our best movement that day was the stretchy walk. Usually it’s the stretchy walk that kills us. Cairo’s natural walk is like a cheetah, with a jaunty hip swing and overstep. However, rather than stretch her neck down, she prefers to crane it around, wild-eyed, searching for hapless prey in the sandy Serengeti of the dressage arena. For some reason, judges do not appreciate a dressage horse that’s clearly on the prowl and out for blood.

This is also why I take Cairo’s red tail ribbon out for dressage. You know, because dressage judges love it when you mark your hot horse with a red flag that’s screams, “Heads up! This one’s a live wire!”

In the end, all I could do was laugh. For one thing, at Rebecca and back at Inavale, I saw other prelim riders eliminated in dressage. After all we’d been through on this trip, we were still in the game!

Time For The Big Jumps

With all the brouhaha about Katie Prudent’s podcast comments about “fearful, talentless amateurs,” I have to take a little umbrage about the fearful part. (I don’t take offense at her basic point: because Cairo and I sure didn’t get to prelim because I have money!)

We all get nervous. Pros, Olympians, whoever, everyone has the butterflies sometime. Since I like to overthink things, I was getting nervous about getting nervous. I’d been strangely nervous the night before my elimination at Inavale. What if I got nervous again and it blew my ride?


Walking the prelim course at Rebecca—keeping in mind last time I rode at Rebecca two years ago I was doing novice—made me realize at least my nerves were somewhat justified. In my eyes Ian Stark’s course was unrelenting with some big fences and hard combinations. There were maybe two fences that I thought were a chance to take a breath. Not out of Cairo and my league but a good challenge for only our fourth go at this level.

The Saloon!

Meika rode before me on her homebred Archie and had a clean ride. And she made it back in time to school Cairo and I before our go, only 30 minutes after hers.

Just a couple years ago I was watching Meika compete at prelim here, and it never ever crossed my mind I’d ever attempt it. Now here I was. How did that happen?

We got Cairo in front of my leg and our game faces on. Matt Brown entered the start box before me.

Wait, Matt Brown? The reserve for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games U.S. eventing team, who coached my steeplechase at Rebecca’s novice three-day in 2015? I gave him a shout-out in my last blog about his Rolex ride. I’m riding against him at prelim?

OK brain, stop talking. Rebecca Farm is a who’s who of eventing. Get in the start box. GO!

Cairo flew gleefully over the first couple fences and the substantial trakehner followed by the brush keyhole. Never did a keyhole before!

Then I blew it at the ditch and brush. I’m pretty sure I had my hands up and eyes down when I should have done the reverse. Cairo refused. She leaped over it on the second attempt and looking at the photos later I realized that Cairo has absolutely no idea she can brush through the brush. She jumped the maxed-out brush no problem, when I asked her to the right way, and added a little kick and tail flip just for laughs. Duly noted. This horse will jump anything, but I have to be there with her.

The ditch and brush on the second attempt!

Lincoln logs, log in the water, the big coffin that worried me on the course walk rode great. Cairo didn’t care about the large overhead irrigation system that had stalled out on course and was adding a little something to the tracks. So far, so good.

Our next bobble was at the table made to look like a pickup truck, turn downhill to a brush “beaver dam” into the water followed by jumping a sea serpent in the water. I let Cairo get on her forehand and a little crooked so she jumped the truck great, but refused the brushy beaver dam.

And here’s where I’m proud of myself (Cairo I’m always proud of). I didn’t get frazzled or discouraged. I didn’t let myself get sucked into thinking refusing meant disaster was about to strike and I was going to fall off or get eliminated. I thought to myself, “We did not get this far to get eliminated five or six fences from home, now that we managed to get all the way to Montana!”

I sat up and rode.

Over the dam, over the serpent. Figures she didn’t care about a sea monster. The difficult bending line from the cavalry wagon to skinny table was textbook. Meika pointed out later that I rode the harder fences better.

Up and over the serpent.

We jumped the fence I’ve loved since the day I saw it: the saloon. Cairo went into it like it was nothing, then halfway through went “WTF!!!” and added a little flair in mid-air. I landed on her neck, sat up, turned her, and got over the fence on the top of the hill and across the last fence to the finish.

Holy crap. We did prelim at Rebecca. Ever watch that movie Sylvester where Melissa Gilbert is the clueless but talented rider who takes a former bucking horse to do prelim at the Kentucky Horse Park? Love that movie. The whole time you are watching, you are thinking, “Well, that wouldn’t happen in real life,” but you like it anyway. That’s kind of how I felt. I saw Matt Brown at the finish and thanked him for his steeplechase schooling two years ago. He laughed and said he remembered Cairo.

If you measure success in ribbons or placings, we sucked. Two refusals on top of a terrible dressage score put Cairo and I in last place out of all the horses and riders who finished in my open prelim group.

But let’s put that in perspective. We finished!

Other riders and horses had injuries or too many refusals or a myriad of other things that meant they got all the way to Rebecca Farm and didn’t make it all the way through. That’s horribly disappointing. Instead Cairo and I got to do our stadium round.

And my goal to not drop out of my last place position was accomplished! We had a couple rails because while Cairo was jumping out of her skin, I was holding her face too much so she took them with her hind legs. I finally let go and we finished gloriously (in my mind) without taking any rails in the triple.

And we finished sound and happy. And we learned. A lot. And I did it on a horse I’ve brought along since our first go at starter and I’ve pretty much trained myself since I got her as a sassy, green 4-year-old with the help of amazing trainers and friends. All mistakes are mine, but the joy is shared.

It was great to get a fifth place ribbon at our first prelim last fall, but this trip to Rebecca showed me that Cairo and I can struggle, we can get hit with bad luck or spooked by big fences and we can still do it. We can finish. We can improve. We can have fun doing it surrounded by caring friends.

We all want to be the winner who gets a story written about them and their success in the Chronicle. But right now it feels damn good to be the person who took her heart horse and tackled the biggest thing we’ve ever tackled and finished still laughing. (Also, since I have a blog, I get to write a story about myself finishing in last place, so there’s that.)

And this is just the beginning of our journey.

Cairo was happy to be back in her paddock after a hot 14-hour trailer ride home with no mishaps. My trailer is still getting repaired, and I’m recovering from an allergic reaction to the sulfa drugs that resulted in my breaking out in itchy pink spots—my third bad thing, so I’m grateful it happened when the show was over.

And I’ve entered us for the September show at Aspen. My goal is to get to a point where prelim feels less intimidating, and I feel like I’m thinking and understanding my ride to each fence. And I haven’t ruled out a one star.


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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