News of COVID-19 was just starting to hit the Pacific Northwest in early March, and as a journalist and avid news reader, I was getting nervous. I had a bad feeling that things were going to get ugly. But nothing was clear, and no one else was concerned just yet.
It was time to take care of some lingering horse-related details in life: getting Cairo signed off on by the vet so I could jump her for the first time in a year.
Apparently that is the weird way my mind works. The horse first. But at that point the virus looked like a bump in the road, not a pandemic about to shut down the country and the world.
I was thrilled that my fabulous lameness vet Rachel Gottlieb makes house calls to my equally fabulous trainer Meika Decher. I made some weekend plans.
And I’m glad I did because I had a wonderful weekend before the novel coronavirus turned the world upside down. The virus put things in perspective in a horrid way. Last year I lost a show season because my horse had a recoverable—albeit long recovery—lameness.
This year shows are canceled because there’s a pandemic threatening to overwhelm our health system and killing thousands of people around the globe. I will stay grateful for the small things.
One small thing is that I got that lovely weekend in, and—spoiler alert—I got the green light from Dr. Rachel to jump again. You have to hold on to these little gifts when so much is so stressful. Cairo was diagnosed with a high suspensory problem last April, and it’s been a long, slow journey back.
I got on the road to see Meika, whose barn is a good six hours from mine, Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning Dr. Rachel met me at Polestar Farm. Cairo was … well, Cairo. We broke out the nose chain for the flexions. The longeing also had special moments. “Oh,” Dr. Rachel said, “this is the first time we’ve done this without sedation.”
Dr. Rachel was patient as always and knows that Cairo is a much ado about nothing sort of mare—and easily bribed by treats. If you don’t know Cairo, you think she’s a wild thing. If you do know her then you know she is all drama.
After watching Cairo go and then again watching her under saddle, we got that green light (those were her exact words: green light) to jump. Dr. Rachel said if she didn’t know the injury had been there, she wouldn’t be able to tell.
All those long weeks of rehab, all those early mornings of handwalking, had paid off. Cairo was muscled and fit and gloriously sound. “Look at that big butt!” Meika said. “Look at all that muscle. You have to get a picture of that.”
Saturday, Meika set some poles and cavaletti. (Meika was pretty clear that the two poles side by side on a block were too small to be called an oxer.) And Cairo was, again, well, Cairo—a feisty mare who hadn’t been off the property in a year and hadn’t jumped anything in a year. We’d trotted raised poles at home and even cantered a pole on the ground, but that was it. And even those had caused her great excitement.
Cairo snorted and twerked and went sideways and generally acted like the kind of mare the average person looks at and says, “Couldn’t pay me to ride that.”
I happen to pay a lot of my hard-earned money to ride the horse I like to call the Drama Queen of Cairo, and luckily Meika knows Cairo and me well.
We walked and trotted and went over some poles, and Meika had me drop my outside hand by her neck (not cross it over her wither like Cairo talks me into doing) and use it to block her shoulder when she bulged outward. She also had me do some gentle leg yields. Cairo got more cooperative, and Meika suggested we put her away, let her think, and bring her out again later.
In the meantime, I got to ride and trail ride some of the lovely horses at Polestar. One highlight was encountering two massive bald eagles eating their prey on one of the trails. When they swooped into the air, the gelding I was on thought leaving was a better option than risking being the next meal. Can’t blame him. You just haven’t lived until you’ve been 10 feet from a couple of bald eagles and a carcass.
It was also easier to ride a large gelding bolting from birds of prey than it was to ride my dainty little mare over a pole on the ground!
That said, the second ride went better, and we were soon trotting poles and “jumping” the little “fences” with Meika’s positive encouragement. Good Lord. I’ve taken this mare prelim at Rebecca Farm, and I’m stressed about an 18-inch obstacle so small my trainer won’t call it a fence?
Still, Cairo was jumping, and it felt fabulous. She was just so darn excited to be jumping that she was getting in her own way—sideways, backward, she was trying every which way to get to the fences. Also, the twerking didn’t help. I have cantered horses; I have cross-cantered horses; I have trantered horses, but only Cairo can somehow combine her canter with a hippity-hop every stride.
“Don’t overcontrol her to the distance,” Meika cautioned. I was impressed that it looked like I could even see a distance.
“Slouch,” Meika hollered at me, as Cairo merrily bounced around. “Relax and slouch your body.”
Then, more quietly, “Oh, you are going to put that I told you to slouch in your blog aren’t you?”
Yup, that and the big butt comment too.
It was weirdly useful advice. Just saying “relax” to me doesn’t do it. But when I slouched, relaxed my seat and did my best imitation of a drunk cowboy then Cairo’s humped back had nothing to be tense against. I have been using the tips from the hand blocking her neck to the slouching since I got back, and we’re getting better and better. I still make sure my basic eq is there—my heels are down, eyes up—but rather than thinking about looking “right” or “pretty,” I am thinking about being fluid, being slouchy, and I swear my eq has gotten better.
That night we sipped whiskey, watched movies and hung out—Meika, her husband Mark and my friend through thick and thin, Alex, who boards with Meika. And I’m so glad, in retrospect we had that lovely night of friendship and normalcy.
The next morning, Cairo and I took it to the next level.
Yup, we cantered the teeny-tiny “fences.” There were twerks, and there were legit bucks, and there was a little general Caironess, but we were back in the saddle—complete with an “Oh Shit” strap. (Oh Crap strap if you are being PC.)
I drove home with instructions to keep the jumps small—Cairo jumps them big anyway—and goals. I have the strap not because I’m that worried about coming off—Cairo really is more drama queen than anything else—but because I can grab the strap instead of her mouth when she surges. And I decided I would take the time to re-discover our basics of straightness, listening and rhythm.
I got back, and the world upended. Within a week Oregon was sheltering in place (aka stay home, stay healthy), and my days were spent trying to keep the newspaper I edit afloat as ads disappeared as well as helpful to a city full of confused and scared people.
Show season is a giant question mark, and even now that we are permitted to jump, I’m sticking to cavaletti as I don’t want to be the person taking up a needed spot in a hospital bed. Rather than be disappointed we aren’t signing up for shows and doing cross-country, I’m reminding myself that I’ve already learned that there’s always next year, and that’s OK.
I do night check at the barn, so my evenings are peaceful and alone with Cairo, feeding beet pulp and late night hay to the horses I watch over. We keep things quiet and simple and safe. Last night, I cantered two small cavaletti in a row, four strides apart. Our first related distance in a year.
Cairo listened to my body and my breaths, and we nailed the distance, and I knew I finally had my girl back. She’s a little wild and a little hot, and she has all the heart in the world. And we will get through this. All of us.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur 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. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.