Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

Amateurs Like Us: Crooked Comes Easy

“She would jump that pickup truck if you pointed her at it.”

That’s what Dom Schramm said to me the second day of our clinic at Polestar Farm in Washington May 6-7. I was excited to ride with him again because he really “got” hot little Cairo last year when we rode with him.

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“She would jump that pickup truck if you pointed her at it.”

That’s what Dom Schramm said to me the second day of our clinic at Polestar Farm in Washington May 6-7. I was excited to ride with him again because he really “got” hot little Cairo last year when we rode with him.

Dom’s words last year, “ride her like she’s sweet,” didn’t just resonate with me, they apparently stuck in the head of a lot of other eventers, judging by how often someone shouts that at me when they hear Queen of Cairo and Camilla announced and we go cantering by with her tail going like a helicopter. This year too, Dom had great advice for other riders and for me throughout the weekend.

Dom got to Washington on a Thursday, and on Friday he taught dressage and beginner novice and starter riders. I had to work, so Cairo and I made the trek up to Seattle on Friday, rolling in at the close of day. I decided Cairo was tired after a six-hour trailer ride and I would just tuck her in and let her rest, and I’d go have dinner with Dom and my trainer Meika Decher, who owns and runs Polestar.

Someday I will learn that Cairo is never tired.

That evening it was fun and enlightening to hear Dom and Meika discuss the world of upper level eventing. Dom doesn’t just have a great accent thanks to his Australian upbringing; he’s a great storyteller. I was recently at a party in a park where man from New Zealand kept shouting, “A dingo ate my baby,” every time a dog ran by, until I wanted to ban all dogs from the area. It turns out that not everyone from Down Under sounds cool when they talk. The rest of us decided that Dom however needed to be hired as a commentator for every upper level event he’s not actually riding in.

Saturday started with the beginner novice group from the day before doing cross-country. Meika’s husband Mark Salser was a blast to watch on his horse Wally, and working student Letty Moreno was on event prospect OTTB Bruce, who had a “Oh my goodness, I’ve suddenly forgotten how to do drops” moment.


Mark Salser riding his draft cross Wally down a bank in the beginner novice group as Dom Schramm looks on.

Dom got out a lunge line and worked with Bruce first lunging him and getting him paying attention, then lunging him off the small drop, then putting Letty back on.

At one point Bruce dropped his head and began to graze during the lunging, giving Dom the opportunity to explain that that is something a more submissive horse would do in a herd when challenged by a dominant one to show he didn’t want to get into it. Dom has a real understanding, tact and sense of timing with young or balking horses that is fun to watch.

The rest of the day was stadium jumping, starting with a second beginner novice group and moving up to prelim. Cairo and I were in the training level (3’3”) group, which is where we left off last season. I watched each group, taking notes, in hope that would prep me to be ready when it was Cairo and my turn. I know it’s fun to watch the upper levels jump, but honestly, the lower levels with the green horses and green riders are my favorite to see go.

Each session started with bounces, three sets of them set at 9’ apart with three strides in between going around a bend. Bounce, bend, bounce, bend, bounce. Dom said he likes to start his jumping sessions with some bounces to get the horses paying attention to where their feet are.

I’d seen some of the lower levels struggle to get the correct bend to make the three strides work out, but I wasn’t worried about that—Cairo’s Gumby-like strides usually make it easy to get my distances without pushing—it was the bounces themselves I was giving the hairy eyeball.

I explained to Dom later that Cairo and I were recently the cavalletti demo at dressage clinic. We earned the spot after I described the time my trainer set a landing pole after a fence and Cairo gleefully jumped the fence and the pole. I was looking at Dom’s bounces and wondering if Cairo was seeing oxers.

At the dressage clinic, the trainer made us walk poles almost the entire ride and then trot them. We never got to actually do cavalletti per se. I think that speaks to the difference between dressage people and eventers. Dressage folks saw Cairo and say, “You need to only walk and trot.” Eventers see Cairo and go, “Kick on, girlfriend!”

Cairo at a dressage cavalletti clinic at Silver Tail Farm in Eugene, only allowed to walk and trot poles. Photo by Irina Kuzmina

Dom let us trot into the first bounce and we sort of ping-ponged through the exercise.  There was dancing, leaping and even a small squeal at either end. Suddenly I regretted thinking Cairo was “tired” last night. Mental note: always, always hack the sassy mare.

Dom told me to have a little more finesse in getting her back to the trot from the canter after the last bounce and before restarting. Do it gradually. By the third time through, Cairo was watching her feet, using her back and I was praised for riding it well. Success!

The next exercise was a series of fences set close together with turns and rollbacks. Cairo continued adding some spice to the day with some bucks and her usual expressive tail swishes. She was getting over a cough and while she hadn’t coughed my last several rides, she suddenly developed a fun new ability to drop her head and cough a stride before my fences.

The rollbacks and turns were great for working on my tendency to, rather than flow out of the corner and maintain, come out of the corner and micromanage a stride before the fence.

Cairo is not a micromanage fan. She is a fan however of just running and jumping, and turning a couple strides after her fence is silly in her view. 

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The training group was a nice mix of riders and horses with my friend Reb on her mare Belle, who was rocking all the stadium exercises, one slower moving gelding, another quick spooky gelding and a gelding that liked to get a little behind his rider’s leg.

The rider on the behind-the-leg gelding had a tendency to throw her body at the fences. “She’s a shoulder-chucker,” (sounding more like sholda-chukka in his accent), Dom said, then explained that although throwing your body of course doesn’t help your horse at all, but it’s understandable we do it as riders, as it logically feels like throwing your body over the fence would somehow help the horse.

The final exercise proved to be the one that Cairo and I needed the most work on. The main exercise was two fences, panels, set at maybe 2’ high, side-by-side on a line, about 36’ apart. Canter to the first one on a right bend, jump it at a 45-degree angle, bend left in a half moon shape, angle the second, roll around to the right and come back to the fence at an angle, half moon to the next one. The first time through you do it in six strides, the second you reduce the amount of bend and do it in five.

Reb and Belle made it look easy. A couple other riders struggled and horse refused. Feeling ready, and confident that Cairo will jump anything, I went for it.

We got to the first fence at an angle and Cairo was like, “You know what? This is super inconvenient to my lifestyle,” and ran out. I was floored, but I sat up and came again. We sort of flopped over the first one, bent left and Cairo was like “H. E. double toothpicks, No! This is stupid.” And ran out.

Dom, ever the gentleman, put his body on the line and stood next to the fence right where she was running out—mainly through her left shoulder. You never want to be the rider who takes out the clinician, and I have several friends who are Evention TV fans who would kill me if I killed Dom, so I managed to firmly direct Cairo over, not past, the fence.

I looked at Dom and said, “I swear if this fence was four feet tall and we were riding at it in a straight line, she’d jump it.” He answered, laughing, “She’d jump it if it was five feet,” and then explained the issue was not her jump but her rideability.

The exercise didn’t need to be big to be hard. I needed to be able to control Cairo’s shoulders. This made perfect sense and meshed with what my dressage trainer has told me about Cairo’s trot-canter transitions—she only bucks if I let her get crooked. 

Cairo has the shoulder moves of a Bollywood dancer so crooked comes easy for us.

Reb, who had successfully done the exercise in six, then five strides, graduated to the next level. She and Belle cut the bend more, doing it in four, then went forward to an perpendicular oxer three strides from the panel fence on one end and a perpendicular vertical on the other.

That looked fairly impossible to me, and luckily Dom said all Cairo and I needed to do was the exercise in five strides, sans the end fences. Throughout the day Dom tailored fences and exercises to the needs of the horse and rider and focused on individual success. We pulled it off in five, with Dom sacrificing his body again for us to do it, and called it good. 

Day 2

The next day was overcast and drizzly, but I trudged out to watch the second beginner novice folks go bright and early.

The beginner novice folks introduced ditches, trotted through water and gave Dom a chance or two to show his patience with balky or spooky horses (or riders). Dom lunged one stubborn horse over a small ditch and coached another sassy mare over it as well. I always have sympathy for the riders on sassy mares.


Dom coaches the beginner novice group cross-country. Photo by Christall Murphy

The novice group went next. Reb and I elected to struggle with our first studding of the season, thanks to the wet ground, and then wander our mares out early to the cross-country field and watch the novice group go, in hopes it would prep us for our session. My hopes died when I saw Meika break out the forklift and begin to move large fences around to Dom’s specifications.

We warmed our horses up as the fence moving proceeded—you know you are an eventer when your horse doesn’t flick an ear as you gallop her by construction-type vehicles.

We gathered around Dom and he gesticulated out at the various fences around the large field: “Start with the log pile, then the Lincoln logs, then the piano keys (a white and brown solid fence), up the hill to the sheep feeder, left to either the log or the table (I hate when I have choices. Half of me says, ‘Choose the little one,’ and the other half agrees with Cairo, ‘Jump ALL the things!’) then gallop to the cut-out fence, left turn to the cabin, right over the brush.”

I was blissing out over the fact the fences all sound cooler with Dom’s accent when I realized he was telling me to go first.

“Umm, when you say the brush, which one?” I asked. There were two. One was only a right turn if you were dyslexic (which I am a little). The other Letty, who had another horse to ride later in the prelim group, had gleefully brushed rather tall.

Of course it was that one. And that was when Dom laughed and pointed at the pickup truck, telling me she would jump it if I asked her to.

Cairo would totally jump a pickup.

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I put on my big girl panties, Cairo squealed and bucked, and we jumped all the things. It was awesome.

Not everyone was on a fence-seeking missile, and Dom immediately tailored his course to each rider. When one horse scared herself over-jumping the cutout fence, Dom took the time to talk to the rider and coach her individually through the issue. Meika pointed out that that patience and willingness to take the time to work through problems was what makes him such a good clinician and rather than being impatient when a horse had a problem. It’s good to know your clinician will work you through it if you too have a problem (and let’s face it, sooner or later, we all need a little extra help).

The next challenge for me involved cantering up and over a small but steep sided hill, then two strides to a rolltop from the bottom of the hill. Dom, remembering Cairo’s Gumby-skills, cautioned me not to let her charge down the hill. I held her down the hill, then promptly forgot to let go and rode her to absolutely no distance in front of a rather large fence.

Cairo, proving that she only runs out on fences she finds inconvenient, sat down and gave me a magnificent park and pop.

The second time, however, we rocked it. “Was that a prelim rolltop?” one of my friends later asked. I decided I didn’t want to know. If it was, great, and if it wasn’t, well, it’s fun to think that it was.

Finally, we headed over to the water, where after we sloshed our horses through it, Dom explained a short course. Log pile the canter to ramp into the water, bank out, three strides to a log. Then do a long rollback turn, drop into the water, bank out, turn, come again, over a rolltop then drop into the water, bank out to the log again.

He had Cairo and I go first again—possibly because he could see her chomping, frothing and dancing. We popped over the logs, charged into the water, out over the bank and somehow we got two strides to the log. Oops. I could hear giggles on the video my friends took, which in my experience is always better than gasps.

When I went to turn back, Cairo gave a couple gleeful bucks. The bucks apparently rolled the marble loose that holds my brain in place, so instead of dropping into the water, I galloped all the way around to the other side again, did the rolltop and cantered merrily up to a decent sized drop into the water. Cairo, not expecting that, stopped, glared down at the water, then merrily jumped in, charged at the bank and did two strides to the log again.

More giggles from the crowd.

Dom then gently explained that the exercise was set up to gradually introduce the horse to the drop, noting this clinic is fairly early in the season for us Oregonians and this was a chance to build up to the more challenging question.

When I told him I got a little frazzled by her bucking, he looked at me and said, “You don’t look bothered, you just kept going.” And then did a nice little imitation of how I ride after a buck that I wish I had on video because it was sort of complimentary.

Apparently I try to ride her like she’s sweet or at the very least I just pretend she’s sweet regardless of what she’s actually doing.

That was a nice reminder that in fact Cairo’s antics rarely bother me, but I get bothered at the thought other people might be bothered by them and judging my horse or me. The only thing Dom was judging was Cairo’s scope and based on the jokes he was making about the pickup or having her jump the forklift, “Jump the front, not the cage, the cage’ll get ya,” the judgment was all good.

After helping the next couple riders with the exercise, or variations on it. Dom asked me what my plans were for Cairo this season. I have entered her in a couple events in June at training level. “Thinking about moving up to prelim?” he asked.

If someone had asked me that a year or two ago, I would have told them that prelim was out of the question. Too big, too scary. But Cairo makes training level feel easy (the jumping part mind you, not the dressage).

So I told him I was thinking about perhaps asking Meika to ride Cairo in her first prelim—Meika has ridden her and knows that despite her sass, she’s a fun ride and for Meika whose ridden in three-stars and taken a horse to Rolex, a little cross-country prelim on Cairo would be no biggie.

“Nah!” Dom said, telling me, I should take her out four or five more times training level, then I should take her prelim myself. “You take the glory,” he laughed.

And that was a lovely note to end the weekend on: Feeling confident about the future and with a little homework to do. Shoulder control, rideability. We can do this.

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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