Pushing Through Fear Back To Partnership Again

Nov 20, 2020 - 7:55 AM

“Time to restart Cairo jumping for the third time this year!”

That’s what I told my trainer when she said that, despite breaking six ribs and her clavicle in two places, she was still coming to Oregon to give a clinic at Inavale Farm, 45 minutes from where I board.

Last winter, right before the pandemic, after a year of rehabbing her rear hind suspensory, I went to see Meika Decher at her Polestar Farm. Cairo was sassy, but we got over some (little) fences. I went home, made some headway jumping on my own, made another trip to Meika’s, and foolishly thought we’d be competing by summer. A pandemic-induced shutdown of many of the Area VII events combined with Cairo whacking her leg on something and getting a puffy digital sheath on her hind leg reduced us to light work for two months. After that, we weren’t ready for the few shows that ran. So that was the summer. No shows. No jumping. 2020 strikes again.

Before I sound like I am pouting too much, we got some good flatwork in and had some great trail rides.

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Despite the ups and downs, it’s always a good day when I get to ride Cairo. Irina Kuzmina Photo

Once cleared to jump (again), I headed back Chez Meika in September to get Cairo re-started. Between my new-to-me (it’s 20 years old) gooseneck and Meika’s guest stabling, I was able to take a one-week social-distanced horse vacation. Cairo’s already hot temperament was getting triggered by the fact that whenever we went to Polestar we did “exciting” things. So this time we combined jump days with days of hacking on trails, sloshing in the river and even some dressage.

I’m sure doing dressage on a cross-country field is a great training technique to prep for shows where the dressage arena is on or near the jump field. I am also quite certain that the maneuvers Cairo executed looked nothing like any dressage test anyone has ever seen.

Among the things that Cairo and I are dealing with—in addition to Cairo just being what I believe the kids are calling these days “a dragon”—is that since she didn’t jump for almost two years, I barely jumped either, and it sucks to feel rusty. She’s hot at the best of times but on fire returning to fences. And when we left off, she’d been refusing due to her aggravated high suspensory. Restarting, either she had been focusing on the fact she’d learned to refuse, or I was focusing on the refusals and not trusting her, and we were a bit of a hot mess. Nonetheless, after a week of relaxing and help, I left Meika’s feeling successful and set up to keep moving forward. I knew what I needed to work on and just needed to do the work.

Unfortunately, Oregon basically caught fire, and that called a halt to pretty much everything, but especially to jumping. The Holiday Farm Fire was only miles from my barn, and the air quality was hazardous for two weeks.

After the smoke cleared and with the OK of my vet, we went back to work slowly, mindful of not stressing her respiration. By the time Meika rolled into town for the clinic, we had just started back over some small fences. The night before the clinic, I looked at old photos of Cairo and me soaring over prelim tables, and it seemed like a dream.

Day 1 was stadium, and I muttered dire things to the other ladies in my group about Cairo in an arena near geldings to make sure they were forewarned. I think they thought I was exaggerating until Cairo unleashed a couple of her special twerks. “There was only one time I thought you might fall off,” Meika told me later.

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Cairo has impressive dance moves. Photo Courtesy Of Camilla Mortensen

Yup. I was thinking I was heading that way too. Cairo has a strong, active booty and a short neck.

Cairo is a big social distancer, like she thinks the whole arena should be hers. Since that’s not the way the world works, she has to share. This leads to twerking. Long ago I thought if I just kept riding her around other horses she’d outgrow it. Nope, but she does knock it if off about halfway through the ride, usually.

Insert disclaimer here: She’s been treated for ulcers, has custom saddles, gets a periodic going over by a top lameness vet, regular dental work, supplements, etc. up the wazoo. She’s even talked to an animal communicator. She has a lot of feelings and doesn’t like to bottle them up, so she gnashes her teeth and twerks. Despite this, she’s actually fun to ride. You only notice her tail swishing when she manages to whack you with it.

Meika had her usual array of good exercises, so we kicked off with cavaletti on a curve, with the centers about 8 feet apart, which sounds easy but takes a lot of steering. Next was a bounce exercise of three fences that I admit I gave a hairy eyeball to—partly because in her youth Cairo used to treat bounces like oxers, and partly because it’s been forever since we’ve done a bounce.

We came around the corner, Cairo bucked and I circled, chiding myself in my head. Two years ago, I’d jump her 3’6” just strides after a buck. Was I trying to protect her? We came back to it, another buck, another circle.

“Now you just need to stuff her through it!” Meika called. “She’s got your number!” But she did drop the first rail a little to help me out.

Cairo bucked, I stuffed, and we got through it just fine.

The rest of the session was a fun little course of bounces, oxers and such. One good thing, I guess, about Cairo’s butt-flipping tendency is that it helps me keep her standing up around the corners, which stood us in good stead when we had a rollback and an oxer out of a short corner.

The refusal monster reared its ugly head when I made a funny turn to a small yellow fence. I didn’t see the distance and kind of leaned and softened—deflated really. Cairo was like, “Umm, yeah, if you aren’t helping I’m not jumping.”

“That was all me,” I called out. Meika agreed and reminded me that while there’s nothing wrong with a small horse—Cairo is 15.1—it does mean she feels the change in my balance very easily and exaggerates the effect of even a small lean. Add my lack of support, and Cairo exits stage left. I sat up the next time. She jumped.

Jumps like that and this whole experience with injury and rehab have made me wonder: Was Cairo the fearless horse I thought she was? Or was it that I thought she was fearless, rode her like she was fearless, and it worked for us?

A lot of riders are afraid to admit fear or uncertainty, but all of us have been there. There are some days I get on a roll, and no fence looks too big. And then there are days that Meika and I make jokes about Cairo and I needing to not listen to the little voices in each of our heads.

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Cairo never has any trouble expressing her opinion. Irina Kuzmina Photos

The next day we went out on cross-country. It was a rare sunny, brisk Oregon fall day (we tend to get autumn rain in this state), so the footing was lovely, and the horses were fresh. Cairo was excited but better than she’s been out on cross-country in the past year, so I was hopeful she wouldn’t get stressed out and frantic-feeling as she had at Polestar a couple times.

“What do you want out of today?” Meika asked. “To build,” I told her. I was looking to reinforce what we had accomplished the day before and previously at Polestar. I had made the mistake earlier in the summer of thinking I could just take Cairo out on cross-country like the last two years hadn’t happened, when instead her speedy little brain needed a slow comeback just like her body.

I took it slow. We cantered logs, and I tested the waters. There was no leaning into her shoulder to randomly charge off in new directions, no charging at fences like she barely saw them. It was old Cairo coming back. Meika gave me options, and I started small but moved to bigger ones.

The old Cairo of course means there was a lot of tail swishing and even at one point a loud squeal when we cantered past the fences SHE wanted to jump and went on to the one I wanted to jump. “Wow!” Meika exclaimed. And no, she was not in heat; she’s just opinionated.

My biggest aha moment was a basic exercise—but Cairo and I haven’t done even basic exercises over fences in forever. Jump a little barn first off a closer distance, then off more of a steeplechase-type ride and lastly at a coffin canter. Sounds doable. Well, back in the spring, when everyone else was doing the “toilet paper challenge” jumping one-handed, I was just hoping we weren’t charging at small crossrails like the “Ride Of The Valkyries.”

It was no problem. We nailed each distance. Cairo had buttons again—you know the kind you push to make good things happen, not the bright red ones that detonate things. For the first time in forever, it felt like we were jumping cross-country fences with a more detailed plan than just getting over the fence in a safe manner.

“Has she ever bolted with you?” Meika asked. “No,” she answered herself, “she’s not a bolter. Let her go forward.” And she’s right. While Cairo is hot and can feel chargey, she’s really rather sane. I just get caught up in some of her antics and forget to send her to her happy place—forward. She charges when I underpower her.

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“For the first time in forever, it felt like we were jumping cross-country fences with a more detailed plan than just getting over the fence in a safe manner.” Irina Kuzmina Photo

We built over the course of the session, and toward the end, Meika pointed out a short course of fences that involved using our different distances to different fences, then cantering over to the next field, coming down a little hill and jumping the world’s smallest trakehner. I mean, so small it’s technically a “log over swale” when Inavale has its competitions. I jumped it with Cairo years ago when she was a baby, and since then I have jumped the training/prelim trakehner and prelim coffin near it.

I felt unsure. And I hated feeling unsure about a stupid little fence. I don’t even know why I am unsure—that she will refuse? That I’ll fall? That she’ll be hurt? Basically, it’s not wanting to fail my horse. So I told Meika, “I know we can jump it; I know Cairo can jump it. I’m just worried I’ll lean at it coming down the hill.”

Meika looked at me, and said, very logically, “So don’t lean.”

Valid suggestion.

When it was my turn, Meika offered me a slightly different course, one without that log. Cantering up to the second fence, I took back too much at a short distance, but I didn’t lean. I supported. Cairo was like, “No problem. I can pop it from here.”

It reinforced in my emotions what I know in my brain. Healed from her injury, Cairo will jump anything for me if I am there for her. Maybe she used to be brave on her own, or maybe we were brave together. But from now on, it’s brave together. I cantered by Meika and said, casually, “I’m just going to go into the other field and check it out.”

Later Meika and I both cracked up realizing that apparently I jump better when I think it’s my idea to jump something rather than being told what to jump. I suspect Meika is now plotting how to use this to her teaching advantage. Maybe that’s how she got me to go prelim in the first place. I bet I thought it was my idea. I am also realizing Cairo and I are a lot alike in that respect. It’s a good thing Meika has a sense of humor.

We came down the hill, and I looked at that cute little almost-trakehner, and we popped over it like nothing.

Doesn’t matter if you are jumping huge fences or beginner novice. There’s just nothing better than cantering up to a fence on a bright sunny day and going “We got this.”


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.

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