While Cairo is laid up with an injury, I’ve been riding Zaiden, the little auction horse I wrote about previously. Having jumped several items that were at least 2-feet tall in the Dom Schramm clinic, I asked Zaiden’s owner Janice Mackey if the little guy could go to a show. We filled out the entry, and Z and I were down for the open intro division at Inavale Horse Trials (Oregon).
Apparently I’m a tall person who has a thing for short horses with big personalities. Cairo is 15.1 hands with her shoes on, and Zaiden is a hair shorter. I’m 5’8”, and I’m here to tell you don’t rule out the short horses with big hearts. I’m fairly certain I don’t look like a total dork on either horse, and the good news is that Z fits all Cairo’s tack. It gives me an excuse to keep it clean and conditioned for the triumphant return we are planning for next year.
Given that Zaiden’s first cross-country outing was a month before the event and that his first cross-country weekend was also basically his first real jumping weekend, I decided to take him out for one more cross-country school. After the Dom Schramm clinic wrapped up, my trainer Meika Decher told me that Zaiden had really gotten educated. He proved that when I took him out to the cross-country field at Inavale before they closed the course two weeks prior to the show. He didn’t hesitate at a single little fence.
In fact the only thing that threw him for a loop was the deer that came charging out of the woods—straight at me and my three friends. It went from peaceful stroll to two OTTBs and two baby horses completely losing it.
Mind you the large tractor and massive hay equipment nearby were no problem, but Bambi innocently leaping through the trees was mind-blowing.
With the adrenaline out of the way, Z showed me he was really starting to understand the job—jump the thing! And be sane and happy doing it. While it’s fun for me to teach Zaiden new things like cross-country, I don’t ever want to lose sight of the real end goal for him—that he’s a happy, calm horse in any new situation.
On that note, I did have to be a little cautious when jumping heading back to the barn. Unlike at Meika’s where he was happy in his group, at Inavale he realized he was far from the barns and periodically pulled a maneuver I call “exit stage left”—since he really does head left every time—where he makes a mild, but sincere, effort to head back to his stall. Still he merrily went through the water and jumped two logs in a row. Not bad for a 6-year-old auction horse who jumped his first two fences in a row two weeks before!
The only thing we didn’t practice, since it wasn’t set up, was brush. No problem. When I got home I jury-rigged a brush fence out of some poles blocks and branches. Zaiden was like, “Whatever, are they edible?”
As a final show prep, not only did I get a lesson on Zaiden with my dressage trainer Leslie Chapman, but she also tossed me on her Grand Prix dressage horse Quantro and let me do two-tempi changes on him! Q schooled me on how to do it correctly. When I tried to get the change by twisting my hip a little, he tuned me out, but if I kept straight and used outside leg, outside rein, we skipped around the arena like I knew what I was doing.
On Zaiden, we worked on simpler things. Things like 20-meter circles. Intro does the beginner novice (or as I recently heard it called, beginner nervous) test, and it’s pretty much a bunch of 20-meter circles with some transitions. Easier said than done.
But after making Z stand up through the shoulder on the circle for a while, the little guy suddenly found a new balance to his canter. It’s those breakthroughs that make me come back for more when it comes to dressage. That and the fact that Leslie assures me her extensive wineglass collection is a result of dressage show wins.
When we got to Inavale, Z settled right in. He settled in so well in fact that when I got on him to do a lesson with Meika, he made a sincere attempt to head back to the barn with me. Exit stage left. I don’t know his past history, but at our barn he’s usually surrounded by other horses, so I resolved to start taking him on some trail rides and such where he’s alone and has to figure out that sometimes it’s just him and the rider out there!
Since I was in the “open intro” group (also known as the “adults and trainers get their butts kicked by small children on ponies” division) I was doing dressage and stadium on the same day, while the recognized divisions did dressage.
Zaiden not only kept up his newfound ability to stand up through his shoulder, but he also discovered a hitherto unknown gear in his gaits that suddenly had him taking big boy steps. Leslie encouraged this with clucks as we schooled and then cracked herself up one she realized I was startling when she clucked—a legacy of years of Cairo throwing big bucks when clucked at.
I got a little worried when I realized the area was emptying out because I was the last ride before a break. I could just picture Zaiden realizing that he was the last man standing mid-dressage test. Luckily Abbie, a kid who rides at my barn, was grazing near my arena with her mare Nica and agreed to wait around until we were done trotting in circles.
Zaiden was a champ. He did all the right things in all the right places. I got a little over-enthused about our halt and he took a step back, but that was about the only place we had any trouble, landing us tied for fourth—trust me it’s been a while since my name was that high in the results after dressage!
Z was so relaxed about it that when I let him out on a loose rein, he immediately indulged in what I could tell he was thinking about during our stretchy walk—snacking on the grass footing.
While he chilled in his stall, I ran off to walk the prelim course with Meika. I have for years made a point of walking the cross-country course that’s a level up from me at least once, partly to learn and partly because it always makes my fences look more doable. Nothing makes 2-foot-high intro look doable like walking prelim.
When I got back to the stadium arena, I noted that the biggest of my oxers was still about knee-high. I also noted we had a bending line. Two, in fact. I guessed Zaiden was about to learn how to do a bending line, which was possibly the one new experience he didn’t have in his clinic with Dom!
Zaiden warmed up with only one “oh shit, the trees are yelling at me” moment when a speaker came on as we trotted by the woods. Meika worked on my staying in my two-point just a little longer, so I didn’t come back on Z too soon. And then we went into the arena and as predicted, got our butts kicked by small children on ponies.
Z trotted in and then tried to tell me he could not possibly canter when there were giant black water tanks lurking at the far end of the arena. His ability to exhibit a peppy cantered returned when we were heading away from the tanks. He popped over the first vertical and then as I came around the corner, being a good little (adult) student I schooled Zaiden on standing up through the shoulder, setting him up for future lead changes. Z, however, is the best student—he changed his lead. Baby’s first flying lead change!
What I wanted to do was celebrate. What I did do was remember to keep riding. We had one truly awkward fence when all the greenness came together. We were doing our first bending line (ever) to the only fence on course with wings for standards and heading for the black water tanks of doom. Zaiden was pretty sure there had to be some other option. He dodged a little left, feinted a little right and then caved to his own good nature and plopped over the fence, taking down the front rail of the world’s smallest oxer.
The course finished fine, and the fan club Zaiden was establishing for himself by doing adorable things like standing around looking cute and sometimes whinnying for treats gave him a round of applause.
His mom was pleased, I was pleased, and Zaiden was happy because everybody was happy and also he got treats.
By cross-country day Zaiden was pretty unconcerned about the whole “I’m at a horse show!” thing. I was never terribly concerned about the ribbons, but with our rail we had dropped way down to at least 10th. Between that and my certainty everyone would get around just fine at intro on cross-country I was even less concerned about how Z and I might place and even more focused on just making sure Z’s experience was all calm and good.
I did however briefly debate wearing my watch—simply because I didn’t have the faintest idea what “intro pace” might be!
Meika warmed us up, and I recruited her to walk us to the start box. With Cairo, I usually need a person at the start box because she gets overly excited, and I get a little worried her antics might keep us from getting in the start box. With Zaiden, the start box was very far away from the warm-up and kind of lonely. With the ring steward’s permission I followed the previous rider down there fairly closely, and Zaiden did not feel like he was lost in the woods somewhere.
He trip-trotted merrily out of the box and popped over the first couple logs with aplomb. Exit stage left arose when we came out of the woods into a big field, and Z realized he was terribly, totally alone out there on cross-country. Alone except for two shrieking children playing on a swingset. Don’t ask me exactly how there were kids on swings next to the course, but Z was pretty sure it was a terrible idea, and exit stage left it was. But he’s an amenable soul, and I persuaded him easily that we could just do a big circle and continue.
He was unflustered by the water, the brush and everything else, and about halfway through the course I finally felt the one thing I was waiting for on him—that moment when the green horse knows his job and starts looking for the next fence to jump.
We crossed the finish flags, and Z was absolutely thrilled with himself. I was thrilled with him too, but I couldn’t quite match the high-headed strut and “I am the MAN!” attitude the little guy was throwing as I walked him back to his stall.
No ribbon for Zaiden and me; the rail and the time faults (from circling and a lot of trotting) meant we were out of the ribbons, but as much as I like ribbons, that’s not what intro is about. There’s a pressure for trainers and others to establish themselves by winning, not by training, because of course ribbons are “proof.”
For me the proof is that Zaiden had fun, he knew he did a good job, and he learned. You really can’t ask for much more from a little horse at his first big show. Now we will go home and set the next goal!
Camilla Mortensen is an eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana and brought her mare Queen of Cairo up to prelim. Camilla works as a newspaper editor by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job. You can find updates on Cairo on Instagram.