I woke up before my alarm was set to go off at 6 a.m., with my cross-country course running nervously on a loop through my head.
Cairo woke up hungry and ready to rock and roll. If I haven’t already mentioned, she has the appetite of an equine velociraptor.
The course walk with Meika the night before did settle me a little—as I predicted she assured me that what I considered a massive brush fence would ride great and reminded me that Cairo’s boldness does need rationing or it gets me into trouble. Left to her own devices, Cairo leaps ditches with a meter to spare, but doing that would get me in trouble with the log three strides away.
Cairo gives me amazing confidence because she truly seems to relish cross-country. Half of my job is reining her in. Her overly energetic dressage test yesterday should have been my first clue she needed some of her enthusiasm curbed today! Or mine…
We headed out to roads and tracks bright and early and trotted away promptly at 7:37 a.m., after some start flag antics, mostly of the squirming variety, but she tossed in some wanna-be levades for kicks.
Cairo was sorely disappointed after we got underway when she realized after about 1 kilometer of brisk trotting that there was not a cross-country fence in sight—yet. So she livened things up a little with a spook at one of the massive sprinklers we had to pass out in the field.
I had a horrible flashback to course designer Ian Stark cheerfully informing riders at the competitors’ briefing that if we galloped off into the canola on cross-country it would be considered dangerous riding. I wasn’t sure if that counted if it was road and tracks and the crop appeared to be wheat. So I booted her forwards and Cairo gleefully burst into a canter, which was no doubt her intent with the “spook” in the first place.
With visions of Cairo gallivanting through acres of unidentifiable crops without me, we negotiated things back down to a brisk trot. Despite her need for speed, she responds really well to my breath and will back off when I exhale and soften. I was practically having a yoga session out there on roads and tracks with all my deep breathing and trying to remember my core.
Meika wrote all my minutes on a piece of duct tape that I stuck to my arm — 4 minutes at 1K, 8 minutes at 2K etc., and we ended Phase A right on time at a little under 12 minutes for the 3 kilometers and had a little breather before we started B, the steeplechase. Cairo zoomed out of the start box and merrily leapt over our fences. Thanks to a combination of my not trusting that it was really a good idea to let Cairo gallop the fences and some fumbling with the watch at the start, we came in a couple seconds slow and got 2.4 time penalties. Meika tells me that’s not uncommon for riders on fast, strong horses who then wind up holding back too much. Lesson learned. When you are allowed gallop, trust the gallop.
Cairo definitely has a go button! Photo by Alexandria Gray
In the endurance phase you can get penalties for being too slow, but not for too fast—I guess exhausting your horse before cross country is its own punishment.
Phase B is timed separately from C, but there’s no break between the two. Your end of B is the beginning of your C, but a little beyond the finish flags there was a spot your ground crew could meet you and check your shoes (all on, yay!) and hand you a drink of water. My dry-mouth nervousness was gone—I agree with Cairo, steeplechase is fun!—but I was so happy to get a slug of water from my friend Rebecca who was waiting with supplies before I set off on the 17 minutes of trotting that make up Phase C.
Cairo had her panties in a twist at that point—letting her gallop and jump then forcing her to trot again is like handing a kid a pile of water balloons then telling her she can’t smash them—so Phase C started rather briskly. Mindful of an upcoming temperature, pulse respiration check (TPR) at the vet box before cross-country, I got her to walk in couple places to give her a breather, but Cairo and I both agreed that the graveyard we had to go past around the third kilometer was a bit spooky, albeit she and I had different reasons for thinking it, and we trotted speedily past.
As Meika predicted, all that trotting in the middle of nowhere, with only periodic flagged gates and gate judge for company, also got me spooked and I can’t blame the cemetery—at one point I was convinced I was lost and was delighted Meika had made me bring a map along. Cairo was less delighted that her pilot was having some navigational issues and played whirling dervish while I fumbled the paper out of my pocket.
When our little game of spin the Cairo-bottle ended, we headed off the correct direction and were soon trotting up to cross-country. Cairo made a healthy effort to canter through the finish flags and I can only imagine what her frothing face and wide-eyed expression looked like to the nice people we were bearing down upon.
My wonderful friends from Polestar Farm had the 10-minute box down and Cairo was sponged, I was watered and Tanner, who was being an amazing good sport about having to withdraw when her horse Ernie went lame, took on the duties of stuffing sugar cubes into Cairo’s mouth to distract her while the vets took her temperature and such. I had decorated Cairo’s tail with a nice little red ribbon. Cairo has yet to actually kick anyone, but she’s made some healthy threats and I’m pretty sure she’s decided to come into heat during the show to make things a little more fun for everyone.
In the fray I think the vet said her temp was 102 and something was 80—her respiration or her pulse or both? Thank God no one took my heart rate! They tightened Cairo’s girth, tossed me in the saddle and I trotted off to the start box for Phase D, cross-country, a.k.a. the moment Cairo had been waiting for.
She lit out onto the course like she hadn’t already been trotting 7 kilometers and steeplechasing, and that is the part where I should have thought, “Hmm, I should slow down.” Oops.
Cairo began flying fences with her customary glee. Fence 4, the brush? I hope someone got a picture because Cairo didn’t get the memo that horses can “brush through” the brush and that’s why the shrubbery is allowed to be higher than the 2’11” novice height.
Cairo had no problem at all with the jumps! Photo by Alexandria Gray
We sailed over it with I suspect a foot to spare. I was good and not staring down at the fence like I do with ditches sometimes, so don’t quote me on the airtime, but it felt huge, even for Cairo who regularly jumps training level tables like she is imagining she is at Rolex.
Later in the day, Letty and Panamint sailed over the brush, too, and all the other fences, a huge payoff for all the work she puts into that talented chestnut Thoroughbred who sometimes likes to give a fence or two the hairy eyeball.
Rebecca Farm has amazing cross-country fences, but Cairo didn’t stop to admire the elaborate “Indian village” or even the snake (serpent?) fence later on the course. She was a mare on a mission and I have to admit that rather than ask her to tune out the voices in her head that scream “MUST JUMP ALL THE FENCES” I tuned into them.
I did have the presence of mind to ensure she only jumped the novice fences we were supposed to and not for example what I think was an advanced or intermediate fence—a large wooden fish, in the water that she got her eyes on. I was too busy steering her away from it to note the color of the number on it.
So bold through the water that she was ready for some upper-level questions. Photo by Alexandria Gray
I didn’t stare down at the ditch, and I didn’t pull her to crappy distances in an effort to over-control her (well, at least not very badly or more than once). Unfortunately, I also didn’t listen to my internal timer that always tells me “It’s now time to slow the wild beast” because I was wearing a watch and surely the watch would save me, right?
It didn’t. Despite Cairo’s giant stride and love for galloping (she might be 15.1 but her stride is that of a much, much bigger horse) I haven’t gotten time faults because I tend to clock her pretty well in my head. I was wearing a watch for the first time in years and I made a total amateur mistake and relied on it rather than my instincts.
Speed time faults. 10 of them. Ugh. That’s bad. On the positive side, despite our enthusiasm, we weren’t reckless, and later I saw other riders in my group circling before the second to last fence to avoid the mistake I, and several other riders, made in going too fast. I’m glad I learned that lesson now and not later when (fingers crossed) we move up the levels. I also need to stop having jumper-rider flashbacks and always picking the inside track.
We cantered through the pink breast cancer awareness finish flags and the Polestar team was ready to get right to work with water and scrapers as the vets came up to TPR Cairo. She was hot—104 degrees—but came down to 102 within 6 minutes. Her initial in-barn vet check earlier this week had her at 101 or so. The vet was really nice (even about the red ribbon and the part where Cairo clamped her tail down to avoid getting her temp taken) and explained that horses like Cairo with a lot of muscle mass sometimes heat up more. Cairo is petite but her ¼ Irish draft blood shows up in her muscling. It does not however seem to show up in her temperament.
She was soon cooled, and we were sent back to the barn for icing, wrapping and, despite the fact Cairo was drooling sugar and peppermint from the thermometer bribery, more treats.
I’m exhausted, but when I took Cairo out for her evening walk, she made her best efforts to make herself into the boat with me as the waterskier, and when that failed, danced circles around me. I’m still not sure if it is that she doesn’t get tired, or it it’s that she doesn’t believe in tired.
Next, Letty and I do stadium and Meika goes cross-country, and we have to dress up and braid one more time for our trot-up for soundness.
Cairo was amazing, and I’m so proud of her. Despite my bad timing skills, we moved up into 13th place, a nice improvement from last out of 21. Letty is in 13th in her division too, and Meika’s number in the CCI* is 13, so I’m calling all that a good sign!
Now to have a conversation with Cairo about the difference between her favorite things, cross-country and steeplechase, and the more sedate behaviors we need for stadium jumping. I’m also totally not above bribing her with more treats.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who’s made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day. She’s sharing her weekend with us with some great blogs! Want to follow along with how she’s doing? Here are the live scores—she’s in the A division of the novice three-day.