Competing at HITS Thermal has been a dream of mine since I learned of its existence. And while I’m not quite ready for the A circuit, the nonrated classes seemed like a good place to hopefully have fun, gain experience, and build my confidence.
I had never competed at such a big show before, so of course I spent months planning, strategizing, and obsessing to ensure that everything went off PERFECTLY.
Here’s what actually happened.
Nail it at the last schooling show before Thermal
We went to one of my favorite county shows for a little extra practice two weeks before our week at Thermal, and the day started swimmingly as my schoolmaster horse Andy carried us through the two best rounds of my life.
The sun shone, the distances showed up, Andy seemed to be enjoying himself, and I didn’t ride half bad. One of my teammates recorded my rounds, and as I sailed over the final fence in the second round you can hear my trainer excitedly exclaim, “we should just go home now.”
I can’t blame her for wanting to end on a good note, but there was one round left for the day.
We entered the ring for our limit equitation round with heads held high. We flowed through most of the course, but then I kind of sort of tried to crash us into an oxer. Do you now how difficult it is to crash a schoolmaster horse into a fence? It takes a special, special kind of talent.
For reasons I cannot even fathom, much less explain, I stared down the jump, leaned way over to the right, stuck my legs straight out as if Andy’s sides were an electric fence to be avoided at all costs, and did God-only-knows-what with the reins… forcing Andy to do a sliding stop to the base and then scramble over it like a baby goat. Not the most elegant look for an 18-hand former grand prix horse, and a horse with less heart would have certainly stopped, but this is why he’s worth his weight in gold.
Andy’s feet are every bit as enormous as his heart. All I could see as I went down were these gargantuan hooves desperately shuffling sideways away from me. Yes, I fell off. In the show ring.
On the far end, making for a long, long walk of shame out of the arena. Going past the judge’s stand I averted my eyes, but I heard her kind (to Andy at least) comment: “What a good horse. He had to work really hard to not step on you.”
You may recall that the last time I fell off, I broke my pelvis. This time it was the best possible fall. It was a slow-motion event as I sort of slid down his shoulder and rolled away, dusty but unhurt.
It was unequivocally my fault and what I did wrong was glaringly obvious, so it’s a valuable lesson learned. And best of all, it reminded me that, most of the time, this is what a fall from a horse is—a bruised ego and dirty breeches, not a trip to urgent care and months of recovery.
As an added bonus, I’m in no danger of losing my eligibility for the limit equitation (where you become ineligible after six blue ribbons) any time soon.
Have perfect schooling sessions the week before the show.
I had high expectations and a lengthy checklist of things I wanted to accomplish during the last week of schooling before loading up for Thermal. On Day 1 I pulled Andy out of the stall and got about 10 steps before realizing he’d thrown his front right shoe.
No big deal, he got the day off while waiting for the farrier to come tack it back on.
On Day 2 I showed up at his stall, checked that the shoe has been put back on, led him to the crossties… then noticed that he had thrown a hind shoe. Called the farrier again and put him back for another rest day.
Day 3, upon arrival to the barn immediately checked all four feet and ARE YOU KIDDING ME. The front left shoe was half off and the nails were twisted and awkwardly pressing into areas of his hoof that metal shouldn’t touch.
Andy had clearly been throwing raucous nightly barn parties with zero disregard for his hoof health, and even less regard for his rider’s sanity.
Andy doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he does have a few mischievous ones, and he enjoys being the center of attention. I am certain that, knowing his lease with me was coming to an end, he felt he should leave behind a legacy at our barn. For years to come, all the horses will share the tale:
There was this one horse who spent hours pulling off no less than three of his shoes just days before the biggest show of the year! Ha! Ha! And then he acted like he was completely lame! You should have seen his girl’s face! It was priceless! Ha! She was so upset with the farrier! Ha! Ha! She must have used like fifty dollars worth of Magic Cushion! He got out of work for a whole week and he used his awful fake gimp to get extra apples! We all had a wager on whether he could get the fourth shoe off but the big softie felt too sorry for his girl when she hugged his neck and told him she didn’t care if he could show, she just wanted him to feel better.
A little less than 24 hours before the hauler arrived, I turned Andy out loose in the arena to see if we’d be showing or scratching. With no prodding on my part and not even a lunge whip in sight, he showed off his soundest, handsomest, loftiest trot in both directions and then walked over and nuzzled me. “Let’s do this,” I’m pretty sure he said.
Get settled into the Thermal venue and ride a perfect warm-up as the sun sets over the mountains.
I was the last of my team to school late Tuesday evening, and Andy and I had a whole arena to ourselves. I’m proud to say I was able to forget the pressure and anxiety for a fraction of a moment and bask in the excitement and gratitude of just being there.
Until another rider entered the ring and holy crap that’s Rich Fellers. OMG do I pass him on the left or the right? And I’ve forgotten what a diagonal is. And how do I hold the reins again?
OK, I’m exaggerating. I managed to hold it together and not get too starstruck during that or any of the many other celebrity rider sightings that happened during the week. After all, I’m told they put their breeches on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. But really, can anyone actually prove that?
One of the perks of showing at a big show like Thermal is the privilege of watching the most skilled riders and the most incredible horses practice and compete. Add to that perfect weather and a beautiful venue, and it’s pretty much paradise. Then add that you get to ride your horse alongside the greats, and it’s one part pure joy and one part sheer terror.
Use the weekday .80-meter jumper classes to prepare for the weekend’s 2’6” equitation division.
I got up early on my first show day and walked down to the arena and straight to the course maps. A few rollbacks and a couple bending lines, different from the hunter and equitation classes I usually compete in, but similar to exercises we do at home.
Then I noticed the fences in the arena. What class was running now with such high fences, I wondered. So I asked the back gate official what class it was. Wait, this is what .80-meter looks like?
I promptly located my trainer and told her I was not going to go in there. The fences are humongous, I told her. At least 3’6”, with 4’ spreads, and I definitely saw flames coming out of some of the standards. I’m relatively certain she was thinking “this is why I drink,” but she gave me permission to do the .65-meter class.
Despite being more than comfortable with the fence height, I choked up to the first fence (luckily Andy stepped over it anyway), then in my panicked state forgot which way to turn and circled, costing us 4 faults. I pulled it together for the rest of the course, and then felt brave enough to enter the .80s, where despite the fire-breathing standards we went clear and within the time. A huge accomplishment for my very first jumper classes!
Andy and I in our version of the grand prix! Photo by ESI Photography
We didn’t place in the sizeable .80 class; it was a speed round, and I was admittedly focused more on survival than speed. But anyone judging by my grin and effusive patting and cooing on the walk back to the barn probably thought we had just won the grand prix.
Leave with a pile of blue ribbons and a championship cooler
On the weekend, our equitation rounds were good. Not amazing but solid efforts that earned us a couple pretty yellow ribbons in the company of some very nice horses and riders. After doing the jumpers, the equitation courses seemed simple, and the fences looked little.
Maybe someday someone will explain to me the optical properties that make jumper fences look higher than hunter fences?
My quest for the blue ribbon remained unfulfilled. In the .65-meter classes at Thermal, you get a blue ribbon for going clear within the time allowed. But I had 4 faults for circling in my first class and went over time by ½ a second in my next class. My .80-meter rounds were much better, and in the first half of this year’s circuit a clear round within the time in the .80s meant a blue ribbon.
But the class gained a title sponsor and it was changed to a speed class for the second half of the circuit. So while I sort of feel like we deserved one of those blues for our clear rounds, I am a total rule follower and didn’t take a blue from the basket despite how good it would have looked on my Instagram.
Much of my Thermal experience didn’t quite happen the way I’d planned/dreamed/schemed. I figure I’ll just have to go back in 2017 to claim my blues and one of those oh-so-sweet championship coolers.
In the meantime, I’m content with the knowledge that I left Thermal a better rider than I arrived. And that is worth much more than any blue ribbon.
Lindsey Long lives in Southern California with her one tabby cat, two Great Danes, three hunter-jumpers, and a husband. She recently returned to riding after a 15-year hiatus and is desperately trying to make up for lost time. Her goals include winning pretty ribbons, finding appropriate distances with some degree of consistency, and not losing her breakfast at the mere thought of a hunter derby course.