Amateurs Like Us: The Abyss

Jun 22, 2017 - 8:57 AM

I stood at the top of the drop, before what seemed in my mind to be a leap into an endless abyss and thought, “This is a terrible idea. Who signed me up for this?”

The abyss.

For the record, I’m not a chicken. I prefer to think that I’m differently brave. Just because something looks insurmountable doesn’t mean I’m not going to try it. And once you get me on course, I’m all in with Cairo. #JumpAllTheThings

But when I did my first cross-country course walk for my second ever preliminary level event at Aspen Farms Horse Trials in Yelm, Wash., in June, I will admit I had serious doubts as to my own sanity or that of the course designers (who I’m sure are very nice people, who also think bungee jumping and sky diving are fun).

But before we can talk about cross-country, we first need to get through the bane of the Queen of Cairo’s existence. Dressage.

I was feeling pretty good about Cairo and my first go of the season at training level and our move back up to prelim as we pulled in to the barns at Aspen. Cairo was feeling pretty good in general and chose to demonstrate those feelings during our Thursday dressage schooling ride with some fun buck-departs into the canter and when I tried to make her stand still, some attempts at teaching herself the piaffe. There was a lightning storm looming on the horizon to add some extra oomph to the day.

“The arena will be less crowded tomorrow, and she will be more chill,” I reassured myself, thinking of my morning ride time.

In case you are new to our dressage trials and tribulations, let me tell you that I overheard a couple other riders talking at the Dom Schramm clinic that Cairo and I were at back in May. They lamented that eventing was so easy in the United States that all you need for a qualifying score is better than a 50 in dressage or something to that effect.

Last year this time at Aspen going training at Aspen, Cairo and I got a 49.5 in dressage.

Welp, I told myself, Cairo and I work incessantly at our dressage and we continue to improve. So surely our dressage can’t be any worse this time!

Cairo was like, “Hold my beer.”

During the warm-up, Cairo made it clear that the other horses were too close for her comfort, though she held it together and didn’t actually pull the “lunge and air-bite” move she likes to whip out at home.

When we were sent over to our arena I hoped a couple trots around the outside would settle her. And maybe it would have if I didn’t hear the honk that signaled we needed to start much earlier than I thought I would and found myself scrambling to get turned around.

Honking a horn just seems like the strangest way to signal the start of something as quiet and dignified as dressage is supposed to be. Of course with four arenas going you do need a different sound for each one.

Too bad both Arena 3 and Arena 4 were using car horns that day.

Wasn’t my honk.

But the judge was a sympathetic soul and she blew her horn before we trotted in the arena wild-eyed and frazzled.

Our trot work was pretty good and I’m super pleased at how much quieter her tail has gotten and how her chomping at the bit has gotten less maniacal. Someday the relaxation, smoothness and freedom gaits we are getting at home will translate to the little sandbox of hell at shows. Someday.

So suffice it to say there was a leap into the canter, a flying change at X instead of trotting, a flying change on our serpentines and one moment when Cairo got her eye on the letter “F” and seemed to blame it for all her dressage-related problems and plot either eating it or stomping it to death.

Stretchy walk? Cairo doesn’t play “stretchy walk.”

I smiled beatifically throughout.

We headed down the centerline for our halt and Cairo began to charge. I reminded myself the judge was first of all, safe from charging mares in the SUV she was sitting in, and second, couldn’t see how fast we were going. But she would be able to see Cairo’s head waggle in resistance if I tried to slow her. I held Cairo with my core and exhaled deeply when we got to X. Cairo slammed to a halt, I saluted at warp speed before she could zoom away again and we were done.

We got a 7 on that centerline. Best score of the test. Not sure what I should learn from that.

Having watched other people make mistakes and have moments of naughty and still score well, my current theory is that Cairo looks so tense and like she might be naughty, so when she IS naughty, the judge is liked, “Yup, I saw that coming a mile away.” But when Joe Super Cool Chill Warmblood is a doll his whole test but has one moment of stupid, the judge is like, “Poor guy, such a nice test otherwise, I can’t ding him too hard for that.” Let’s face it, “submission” is scored and it’s not exactly a strong point for Cairo, unless it’s the judge and I submitting to her.

Cairo didn’t succeed in her “let’s shoot for worse than 50 goal” and we got a 43.4. Phew. Someday we will break the 40 barrier. The judge said “tense” a lot but praised Cairo’s freedom of gaits and overstep at the walk and called me “tactful.” And while we were second to last (22nd place), hey we were going prelim!

The next day was show jumping and that’s when things got more hectic. Meika Decher, my event trainer, was showing her homebred Archie McPhee in open prelim and her working student, Letty Moreno was in prelim rider with me. And Meika had another ride on her green mare, and was coaching her husband Mark and a slew of other students and Letty had a horse in novice and one in beginner novice in addition to her ride on Moxie at prelim.

We snuck a stadium course walk in between all their rides, and Meika went first with a lovely ride on Archie, but she warned me, the bending line we walked in eight strides was a far better seven. Given Cairo and my love of leaving out a stride here and there, that worked for me!

Cairo has come so far in show jumping, and she takes far fewer rails at 3’7” than she did at novice. She happily flew around the course with her signature tail flips and we had only one rail, the second fence of the two-stride where she jumped in big and I should have sat up more to slow her. Cairo is a hair over 15.1 but her stride is huge.

The only good thing about the rail is it made her more attentive coming into the triple and she cruised it beautifully. So beautifully that we almost got five strides instead of six to the solid looking wall that was the last fence, but Cairo gleefully launched it for me, leaving us with just the one rail. Cairo operates on somewhat of a “If in doubt, leave it out,” philosophy.

Watching the video later, I took confidence from freeze-framing Cairo in mid-air and seeing how much airtime she had.

And I needed that confidence when I started on my first cross-country course walk.

The first fence, a log. Cool. Second fence, a rolltop. No prob. Third fence a table that looked like it should be part of Great Wall of China. Umm. My friend Sam, who rides Cairo’s uncle, Loki, told me, “Just look at it from the front, not the side.”

Wish I’d listened. Prelim tables are wide! I tried to channel my inner invading horde.

The fourth fence was an open oxer four strides to a corner. I’ve never jumped an open oxer before. Good grief. Who came up with that idea for a fence? Oxers were not meant to be made of big fat logs.

In case it’s not clear, I was nervous. And here’s the thing. That’s OK. It’s OK to be nervous about new challenges. Nervous doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I think we as amateur riders see upper level riders bounding around the course and think that it’s easy for them. I bet they’re sometimes nervous too. It’s not brave to charge at things with no idea what could go wrong; it’s brave to know the hazards, face your fears and defeat them.

Fence 5, a coop. 6AB, a rollercoaster. Umm I don’t like rollercoasters at theme parks, why is it on my cross-country course? It was a tall brush on a hill, down hill, then uphill to another tall brush on a hill.

At this point I was resigned to my fate and kept walking. Fence 10 stopped me in my tracks. The Abyss. Or as Aspen calls it, the “Kerrits Drop.” Sure, slap the name of a cute brand of breeches and horse clothing on it and think that makes it better!

Letty and I examining the drop. Photo by Alex Bigelow

It was a fence, one stride and then a plunge into the abyss. Or more precisely, a log at the top of a tall drop followed by a downhill ride.

I have sat next to that fence at past shows and watched other riders do it and thought, “Wow, they are crazy!”

I walked the rest of the course in a daze. The tank, the chevron bending line out of the really deep coffin (aka the bunker) all looked tame in comparison.

Letty and I walked the course again later. I’m not sure if it was the beer or the fact that Letty kept laughing and saying things like, “This looks fun!” but I started to feel better.

By the time I walked it again with Meika and one more time on my own, it looked doable. And the fact that a lot of the course was shared with the one-star was a good reminder of my future goals.

She looks sleepy here. A far cry from her “jump all the things!” mode on cross-country!

I had a nice earlyish ride time of 11:13 a.m., and at some point, rather late in the game, I realized that time was shortly after Meika’s go and she probably would not be done with Archie in time to come school me. But one of the reasons I love Meika’s group of Polestar Farms riders is we all help each other, and my friend Reb, who I have since forgiven for getting a 21-point-something-or-other on her beginner novice dressage test, offered to warm me up.

Warm up for my second prelim without my trainer? Maybe I’m braver than I thought!

Cairo tolerated the warm-up and I took deep breaths before heading over to the start box.

Why is it so easy to forget to actually breathe when competing in a sport that requires not only you stay conscious but also a certain level of fitness and alertness? Breathing is a basic function right?

Reb walked me to the start box because every so often Cairo decides to have a hissyfit when I don’t let her just charge in and charge out, and in her anger at not having her way, refuses to enter the start box on her own and needs a person willing to risk being sprayed with angry mare froth to escort her in.

This time it was no problem and we were off!

By the time I came to what Aspen calls the “pinnacle table” and what I call the Great Wall, I realized that Cairo was sailing over the prelim fences with room to spare. The open oxer was no problem; I was too busy making sure she got four strides instead of three to the corner to care!

Prelim table? No problem. Photo by Jo Arlow Photography

It helps that Cairo goes from zero to utterly fence-fixated in the millisecond it takes me to let her leave the start box, and I can barely get her to stop hurling herself toward fences with wild abandon long enough to let me tell her where to go until about Fence 4 or 5. Note, it’s not “reckless abandon,” she’s not crazy, she’s just so high on the fact we are on cross-country you could jump her over a dragon lurking in a pit of fire and she would not care.

The footing was generally great but a little torn up by my go in just a couple places where the good gallops were from all the rain the previous days, so I decided to just keep on a good pace and not worry about making time. This decision was aided by the fact that I still hadn’t fixed my watch to make it beep—it needed a very teeny tiny screwdriver—and that it had at some point flipped upside down on my arm and I couldn’t read it. (As of the time of this writing I have now made it beep and tightened the band.)

The rollercoaster was as fun as promised and made more exciting by Cairo leaping gleefully over the brush fences and way down the hills. And I’m sure her cannonball into the water was a crowd-pleaser.


When we came up to the drop I tried to dredge up all Meika’s advice. But pretty much all I could remember was not to let Cairo kowabunga over the fence and turn the one stride before the drop into a bounce. For all Cairo’s “full speed ahead” mentality I ride her cross-country in a rubber mullen mouth Nathe loose ring and she generally wants to listen to me. She listened and our leap off the abyss was fairly mild. For Cairo.

Photo by Alex Gray

It was awesome.

I do need to work on slipping the reins more on the drops. When we walked the course we talked about the riders at Rolex who tackle drops one-handed and Meika explained what the technique does: You can give more with one hand than with two, and with the free hand you can use it to balance like a bullrider does with his free hand.

I’m actually pretty good at riding mechanical bulls when I have some whiskey in me so the one-handed drop ride is now a life goal.

As I suspected, the rest of the course felt like a breeze after the drop. I was so busy dwelling on the open oxer and the drop that I forgot to worry about the bank out of the water bending line to the chevron. Just as well since it was absolutely no problem.

We cruised through the finish flags feeling amazing.

We had 10 time penalties (to remind me to learn to use my watch) and were clean over fences landing us somewhere in about 13th place.

Two prelims under our belt. It’s like we are totally for real.

In 2014, Cairo and I did Aspen at beginner novice. She was only 5 and green with no cross-country background, and I was coming back from having developed some late life show nerves.

Now we are in our fourth season together, doing prelim and we got here as a team. I watch her swish her tail, toss her forelock and then look at me with her big dark eyes to see if I’m watching, and I just throw the dressage test in the air like joyful confetti and go, “How did I get so lucky?”

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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