Amateurs Like Us: Ups And Downs

Jun 14, 2017 - 3:11 PM

Sometimes things just don’t go as you planned. Sometimes you have to go to Plan B.

Even if you didn’t originally actually have a Plan B.

I’m pretty sure Plan B is not in Cairo’s vocabulary—she’s all or nothing—but I’ve learned about it.

For the past several years, Cairo and I have kicked off our eventing season with a clinic with Dom Schramm. He totally “gets” Cairo and hot, maybe slightly crazy, horses don’t faze him. So I headed up to Dom’s annual clinic at my trainer Meika Decher’s gorgeous Polestar Farm the first weekend in May excited to start off our cross-country season. But also feeling a bit out of practice.


A couple of lessons with Rich and Shelley Fellers definitely made me feel like Cairo and I were shaking the rust off our stadium rides after a winter of not enough jumping. But thanks to a rainy rain Pacific Northwest winter, we hadn’t seen cross-country since September. And after our first prelim I was excited to do another. But also still intimidated to have moved up a level.

And then there was Cairo, who was having feelings about things. A lot of feelings. About a lot of things.

We got to Polestar on Thursday evening, after a long slog up I-5 full of thunderstorms and flooded roads. Cairo settled right in and was soon happily munching her dinner in her usual hungry velociraptor fashion. I stared at her trying to determine if she’d gone into heat or not.

The Clinic

The first day was stadium and Dom was full of his usual words of wisdom and wit—which is probably why any time he makes a social media post, five people ask when he and Jimmie Schramm will do Evention TV again. (Answer, it’s not on the current agenda, they are very busy riding and shooting for the big events, like the CCI*** at Jersey Fresh in which Dom and Bolytair B took third place the weekend after our clinic.)

Watching one horse and rider crash through a fence sending poles everywhere, Dom cheerfully informed the rider, “You’re getting him straight at least, but it’s a bit of a yard sale.”

We started off with bounces—something that I look at with trepidation after the time Cairo cheerfully did a one-stride as a bounce—then we moved to an exercise in which Dom set an eight-stride line down the long side of the arena and explained that eight strides is about where most riders have trouble seeing a distance. To make it work you had to come in with a forward bold stride.

At one point, Cairo and I were a little too bold and managed miss our turn after the line into a short corner and gallop right on out of the unfenced arena. Remembering to look and open my rein solved that little problem.

Cairo also threw in a buck or two, to my surprise, as she hadn’t been doing that much lately.

My first real clue the weekend wasn’t going as planned though was when Cairo refused the in-and-out. The fences had planks with kind of wave carved into them—something Dom had seen at shows and suggested to Meika, whose husband Mark builds all kinds of cool jumps—and some of the horses were giving them a double-take. But spooking at a fence is out of character for Cairo and that threw me a little.

Cairo is normally not one to enjoy being crowded, but she was so sassy I just kept her a good 20 feet away from the rest of the group. At one point as Meika cantered by on her talented homebred Archie McPhee, Cairo made such an ugly face that the gelding, twice her size, spooked!.

Later, we did the in-and-out to a bending five to an oxer, rollback to the in-and-out then bending four to another oxer. She jumped the one oxer huge and I never really got her back before the next oxer and so she ran out. Dom put it as that I “paid the price” for the previous oxer, and I tried not to be rattled by the fact that normally Cairo drags me to all the fences! Dom often told riders not to get “greedy” meaning take away from the horse’s stride too much or to chase too hard to a fence.

Dom explained another exercise in which you have two fences about five or six strides apart and in the middle of the line, two poles on the ground, parallel to each other but perpendicular to the fences. The idea is, you jump in and bend around the poles left, then bend around them right on the next go, then finally ride straight through the poles, thus working on accuracy, adjustability and steering.

The session ended on a good note, but I still felt like Cairo and I weren’t on our game yet. But cross-country is our happy place! And Dom assured me later at dinner that height was not an issue for Cairo; she has air to spare.

Cross-country day was sunny and lovely, and Cairo and I trotted out to the big cross-country field to warm up. Meika’s assistant trainer Letty Moreno and I had watched Andrew Nicholson’s 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** ride on Quimbo for inspiration after Dom said at dinner that was something he liked to do, admiring the man’s quiet position.

Dom often starts you off sending you at a gallop over a series of cross-country fences, starting easier but getting bigger as you get underway. When it was my turn to go, we hopped a little log, turned toward some novice height Lincoln logs…and Cairo threw a buck and refused. And having gotten away with it, refused again. And then a third time before we finally got over it.

I was rattled. We galloped the rest of the course but when we came back to the small Lincoln logs to jump the larger fence near it, I felt her hesitate. This time I goosed her and we jumped it willy-nilly with me landing halfway down her neck staring at the soft grass thinking that while it indeed looked soft, it did not look soft enough to land on.

Dom had us get recombobulated then we figure-eighted the fence until it flowed smoothly.

Things went great for most of the rest of the ride. And it was not an easy ride—more one-star then prelim, according to Meika who was in my group. Rolltop, four strides, down bank, bending five to a corner? No problem.

I was more worried about the barrel on the corner than the fence itself. That was partly because Meika has another, smaller, corner fence that I’ve jumped before and I thought we were jumping that one. Letty gently pointed the smaller fence out to me later. Apparently I don’t get worried about the actual height of fences, just the idea of the height!

Brush rolltop, uphill to brush, down hill to a table? Also no problem.

A couple of the other horses had issues with the corner and the brush on the hill, so I didn’t feel completely in over my head, but as good as Cairo was being, I still didn’t feel like we were our usual team. She was great again at the coffin complex.

We ran into trouble on the last exercise—offset houses then a gallop to a sunken road, down a little hill to a chevron. Cairo (or I, hard to say) was thrown by the angle we were jumping the houses and we had a stop. Then she stopped again at the chevron. Meika and Dom had watched her go; she was sound, she just wasn’t on her game.

“Get after her a little,” Dom said. I’m one of those people who carries a stick because I’m told to, but I almost never use it. I waft it around Cairo’s general vicinity sometimes, but she’s deeply insulted if I ever use it, even a reminder tap on the fanny sometimes when she’s being distracted will elicit marish anger and dismay.

We came up to the chevron again and she stopped. And I felt so utterly upset and frustrated that I yelled at her and whacked her with the whip.

Wait, before you get on my case for whacking my poor innocent (if sassy) mare who might have a reason for stopping, apparently I’m better at wafting the crop than whacking. More on that in a moment. And any rate, the next go, she jumped it.

Dom said that was enough. I think he said other useful and encouraging things as well, but at that point I was too busy beating myself up.

I felt bad for getting so mad at my little horse, embarrassed that other people saw me do it and mystified at what was going on and not at all prepared for an event in a couple weeks. When Meika came to talk to me and give me a hug, there might have been some sniffles on my part.

But did I mention, I’m not very good at getting mad at Cairo?

Because when I chatted with my friends Reb and Alex and said how bad I felt for getting mad, they both looked at me like I was nuts. While I thought I was having a big dramatic meltdown and beating on my horse, everyone else was looking at me wondering why I wasn’t actually getting after her.

“I could tell you were upset because I know you,” Alex said to me. “But you were really calm and you didn’t actually hit her.”

Well, I guess I just need to THINK I’m mad and it works.

And that’s when Plan B kicked in. Meika and Dom chatted after the clinic and the feeling was Cairo was having a bad mare day. Rather than start the season as prelim, we would start at training, which Meika pointed out to me was a perfectly normal and reasonable strategy; we just had a different original plan because Cairo was usually so game. So I would enter Equestrian’s Institute Horse Trials at training level instead.

It was hard not to be disappointed. Hard not to be jealous of the other folks who were going prelim and hard to go back to where I’d had a glorious debut at prelim and drop a level.

And it was totally the right thing to do for Cairo and for me.

I look back at the video and pictures from the clinic and I can see we had some great jumps. So maybe it was my own feelings of not being ready that caused the issues, but that still meant it was right to drop back down and get my head in the right place again.

First thing I did when I got home was call the bodyworker to come check Cairo out. She gets myofacial release and cranial-sacral work done whenever I can afford it.

My hip had been bothering me, and I remembered when I first got Cairo, she refused a fence because my back was out and I let her get crooked. And I got myself an appointment with the chiropractor. Turns out Cairo was backsore and it was probably my own back and hip problem that did it. Two sessions later for her and two for me, things were starting to feel pretty good.

Add to that some Regumate and a lesson with Shelley and a jump session and pep talk with my friend Becky, and I was feeling better about the world. A lot of it for me is what’s going on in my head and I think Cairo picks up and that and goes, “Oh, are you in doubt? Look, girlfriend, I’ll pack you at training and below, but if you want to go prelim, you are going to have to ride.”

The Horse Trials

When I got to EI at the end of May I was over my disappointment at dropping down a level and focusing on my excitement to be showing again, and stuffing back my worry that something would go awry as it had at the clinic.

I was delighted with our dressage. Cairo was less angry and more disdainful about the crowded warm-up and only carried a little of her bitterness into the dressage ring. Her tail was less “freak flag” and more “banner of opinion” and she was pretty quiet in the bridle.


The judge complimented our turnout (apparently I’ve learned to tame the “tall braids”) and said Cairo “tried hard” (a big step up from the time a judge called her a “hot little unit”).

So delighted with our dressage meant a score of 43.3 and a position of fourth to last. One person eliminated, so technically we were third to last of those remaining.

Let’s remember that Cairo and I were last after dressage most of last season—except our prelim debut where we were third to last. Clearly, I thought, third to last is our lucky dressage placing.

I feel like I’ve developed a real skill for putting a positive spin on our dressage.

Cross-country was Saturday and not until 5:28 p.m. so I had all day to cheer on my friends, walk my course and fret. Meika was putting the show on, and while she was incredibly supportive she couldn’t school me, so Reb stepped it to remind me things like, “hands down” and “go forward.”

And breathe. Got to love a sport where sometimes your friends have to remind you to breathe.

We did the cross-rail, the vertical, the oxer and the small cross-country fence in the warm up. I looked at Reb and said, “She’s distracted and not liking the warm-up. I’m just going to go in.”

So we headed for the start box.

And there I felt it. Cairo’s very Cairo-ness kicking in. She saw the box, she saw the flags and she was game on.

They counted me down and Cairo zeroed in on the first fence and we were a team again. She grabbed the bit (and my heart) and starting taking me. Rock wall, coop, ramp and then knowing there was a cattle feeder followed by a sharpish left turn to the coffin, I checked in with her. Cairo was like, “Yeah, I hear you, please don’t cramp my style.”

She cruised the coffin and the next couple fences, drawing a bead on a prelim brush as we went by it. Next time, girlfriend.

I could see Meika watching as we came up to a grey house eight strides to a narrow grey house and thought, “She’s probably thinking I should whoah a little.” And reminded myself that Dom had said eight strides can be hard for riders to see.

So I whoahed a little. Aaand we did it in seven.

Later on the course, I reminded myself of this and slowed Cairo enough to make the three-stride an actual three-stride.

Cairo was having a blast and so was I, and the fences felt like nothing. As we got closer to the finish I glanced at my watch and thought maybe I needed to slow down a little bit.

On a side note, did you know if you put your Optimum Time watch battery in the wrong way, it will work but won’t beep the minutes? That would have been nice for me to figure out before I went on course!

We cantered through the finish flags well under the time, but luckily not too much under time. No speed faults!

I looked at Meika and said, “Cairo had her prelim game on.” And apparently so did I! Double clear.


Sunday we show jumped and Meika was crazy busy with the show, so Reb was my “hands down, eyes up” person again. She also cleared a path to the in-gate for my little mare with a big space bubble.

There needs to be a better way to warn people your horse doesn’t like to be crowded than putting a red ribbon in her tail. It’s like a bulls-eye. Other riders see the red ribbon and get magically drawn to it and ride right up your horse’s butt. Cairo has never kicked, but trust me, she has made some gestures in the air with her hind limbs!

Despite the crowded warm up, Cairo was game-on again. And we had enough friends watching that Cairo got some cheers and I swear she knows and understands what that means and puffs up a little.

I will confess there was a bending seven that became a bending six, thanks to a moment of distraction for me when a number blew down as we were a stride out from the fence.

Cairo was not at all distracted, in fact she took advantage of my momentary, “what was that?” moment to grab the bit and kick into higher gear. So when left out a stride. But she came right back in time to turn to the second in-and-out and merrily flung herself over the final fence to be double clear again.

After cross-country we had moved up from 16th to 12th and after I saw a refusal and a rail or two I realized the scores were close enough together to warrant hanging out in the shade and watching. Right around the time I was telling myself I was being silly and should take Sassypants back to the barn, I heard my number called and we went back in for ribbons and the victory gallop.

Eighth place works for me!

I don’t know if it’s a mental place I go to, if she was sore, or if being in heat made her have trouble paying attention, or a combination of things, but she’s now not in heat, and is all massaged and with our confidence restored, so we are heading up to Aspen Farms in Yelm, Wash., to go prelim again.

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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