Cairo and I were going around the arena at a lazy canter, the one you just kind of sit to and relax. Cairo isn’t always relaxed, so I was enjoying it as we finished our warm-up.
My trainer interrupted my reverie. “Keep that canter, come around the corner and jump the wave fence.”
I was immediately horrified, but knowing Meika Decher as I do, I wasn’t going to say no. She probably had a method to her madness. Still, we’d just had a conversation the night before about the right way to ride Cairo and, well, “lazy canter” isn’t what Cairo needs.
With that particular fence’s curly wave shape, horses tend to look at it. Still, it was set very small, and Cairo has jumped it a lot at Meika’s farm. So I came around the corner, kept that lazy canter to that little fence, and Cairo slammed to a halt.
I knew that was going to happen, but before I could say a word, Meika said, “OK, come again, but have her consistent in your hand and in front of your leg.”
I admit I was annoyed. I hate refusals; they fluster me. But, I reasoned, it’s going to happen at home when I school Cairo alone or at a show, and I have to deal with it. So I got Cairo up into a more powerful canter, made sure I had a consistent feel of her mouth, and she popped over it, no problem, as well as everything else in Meika’s arena that day.
If you are just tuning in, Cairo and I had been competing at preliminary level eventing for a little over a year, having moved up the levels together, when she started refusing. She turned out to have a hind limb high suspensory injury, which we rehabbed, and ulcers, which we treated. Now we are working our way back and dealing with our emotions. I say “our” because we both get a little emotional, or that’s what I call it when Cairo has a tantrum. She is a hot mare who likes to be ridden with a certain tact. I am learning what triggers a refusal in this horse who will also bail me out from bad distances and other errors.
So there was indeed a method to Meika’s madness, and mine as well, and that method has been working. Cairo and I are miles better than we were this time last year when she was having tantrums about cavaletti, or the year before when she was diagnosed. And despite COVID-19, I have managed to get several awesome rides in with Meika recently. Her Polestar Farm is a good six hours from where I board in Oregon, so I have loved the extra sessions. I do a lot of self schooling and dressage, and I periodically send Meika videos to critique.
I knew when she was injured that we had a long rehab in front of us, but what I hadn’t entirely taken into account is with a horse like Cairo there was also work to be done in terms of rebuilding our relationship. She’s super talented, and, like a lot of talented horses, she’s not simple. And let’s face it, learning isn’t simple and it never ends, despite the many family members and friends who ask us: “How come you still take lessons? Don’t you know how to ride by now?”
There’s always growth and always new goals. One goal I’ve had since the concept first arose is to try indoor eventing. To my delight, back in January, Meika came to do a one-day clinic the day before Oregon Horse Center’s super fun Winter Indoor Eventing show. Though Cairo and I have done the indoor trail course, it’s never worked out to jump (mind you Cairo has pondered jumping some of the trail obstacles). With my trainer there, I could finally jump cross-country indoors and get a lesson.
Our group started out with some little logs and worked our way up. Cairo twerked and bounded about. Cairo is, Meika and I have decided, not a “clinic horse.” She hates other horses near her when she’s working, and she doesn’t stand well when waiting her turn. I remind myself periodically that when you talk to top riders about their top horses, rather than try to stuff them into a box, they work with their quirks. I am skilled enough to ride a quirky mare, and she makes me a better rider. (Note to friends and family members: You don’t stop taking lessons because you don’t stop trying to get better.)
I recently overheard someone at a clinic asking why I would buy a horse that’s hot and sometimes bucks, like Cairo. Well, she’s fun and scopey, and I usually finish a jump school laughing over either her antics or her talent. And I am lucky enough to work with people who get me and my quirky little horse. I recognize most people who say, “I like a challenge” are not thinking about a mare that is able to practically buck you off at a standstill. But this same mare is so bold I have ridden her next to inflatable water slides and jumped her while people are running barrels (my barn gets a little wild sometimes), and yes taken her over swinging bridges on an indoor trail course.
OHC has three arenas for the indoor event, one for beginner novice and intro, which is where we started, and the other two were set up with an array of fences from novice through prelim, with an added bonus of getting to jump from one arena into the other. Meika pointed out that Cairo behaved better when the jumps get bigger. This is not the same as thinking you can slow a fast horse by raising the fences, rather I just need Cairo to see something she has to respect a little or think about. Small logs do not impress her.
Cairo and I popped over some fun combinations, and we jumped the fence between the arenas, which I have been dying to do, but then I had problems to a simple table heading into the corner.
With the fences getting bigger I was starting to feel what the issue was, and Meika could see it too: When I don’t see a distance or there’s something about a fence I don’t like, like a short corner before a solid wall riding a mare with a tendency to twerk, I soften my core, and that will trigger refusals. If I keep my core strong, Cairo usually jumps from any spot.
After working through the issue, I decided not to enter Cairo in the show and just be happy with the good jumps and training and having finally done cross-country indoors.
Also, since Cairo is more fond of social distancing than anyone I know and hates the kind of crowd that’s inevitable in the schooling ring at any indoor show, it seemed like sitting this one out was the better choice. By “crowd” I mean she’s kind of OK with another horse in the arena, standing still, not looking at her. I really wanted to play over more of the fun indoor cross-country fences, but we were still building. There will be more shows, and I had a plan to haul up to Polestar in a couple weeks.
In the meantime, Meika suggested I practice “bad fences” at a low height (my description, not hers). By bad I mean fences on angles or out of unexpected turns. So I did. After a couple sessions, I texted Meika, “Apparently I can’t make myself ride badly; I just need to do it naturally on my own,” because Cairo didn’t care about any of the weird distances or strange angles. I could even jump her at night in our badly lit arena with a headlamp. She didn’t care.
That is what led to the Great Wave Fence Caper of 2021.
I exaggerate. But it was a really useful learning moment.
Meika has another student, a talented teenager named Madison Flanders, whose mare Snip is spicy in a different way from Cairo. She was also competing at prelim when she and Snip had some problems. Madison is a lovely rider who could have “solved” the problem by buying another horse, but, like me, she loves her mare and wanted to work through it with her. Madison and I are riding the struggle bus back to prelim together.
Madison was a working student for Meika part of the summer, and Meika hopped on Snip (aka Arwen II) at a jumper show. She found that Snip preferred her rider to have a steady contact on the reins. If Madison got doubtful to a fence and let the rein contact get weak, Snip would refuse.
Snip is enough like Cairo that Meika theorized I was dropping the rein contact. I honestly couldn’t say. I knew we had figured out the weak core issue, but as to what my hands were doing, I didn’t know.
So as I cantered that day, Meika could see that it was the easy kind of canter to get lulled into when you have a hot horse. It felt relaxed, and my leg was on, so it felt like it should have been fine, but the reins were loose, and I wasn’t really riding. It was exactly the kind of canter I will pick up at a show when I’m schooling and trying to deceive myself into thinking I am not nervous and Cairo is not hot. I am not used to riding Cairo leg-into-hand, because she is hot, but that’s the ride she likes.
So, “Jump the wave,” Meika said. And I was thinking, “Wait, didn’t you just tell me that this is not the way you think I should ride this horse?”
But there’s theory and there’s practice, and all the conversations in the world are not the same as developing a feel. As soon as Cairo planted her little Irish feet and gave me the hoof, I knew Meika was right. It wasn’t just my core. It was the whole package from our impulsion to the rein contact.
Cairo was telling me what she needed from me, and the experience showed me how to listen. It wasn’t a magic cure for all refusals, but it was a big tool. And after my practice over little “bad” fences, I knew I could ride Cairo all kinds of ways, just not like a limp noodle. I need to have a strong but not stiff core, steady hands and straight back.
The rest of our ride that day went great—even down to us doing skinny fences on a long gallop and a combination. Glimpses of where Cairo and I were before were shining through. We took some big leaps forward that weekend, and I went home to enter a couple local schooling shows—my first shows in two years with Cairo—and win some ribbons.
It was a heck of a lot safer to learn the lesson of how not to ride Cairo over a small stadium fence than to learn it heading to a table on cross-country or a good-sized oxer in a warm-up ring. Plus, Meika has been schooling me since I got Cairo in 2014 and before that with my previous event horses. She knows when I need a push, when I need a shove and when I just need a hug.
That day I needed a shove.
They say mistakes are opportunities to learn, and for riders, mistakes can really shake us up. That shaking can back you off, but if you understand what happened you can process it and grow.
Doing something that challenges you or rattles you a little is also a chance to learn. If I want to get back to jumping big fences, I need to ride big fences and sometimes hard fences.
Understanding why Cairo sometimes ducks out helps me feel confident that I can fix it. My horse isn’t “naughty,” and I am not a bad rider; it’s a communication problem. And our relationship, despite injuries, a global pandemic and a tendency to fling her exuberant butt around, is worth fixing. I get why some people sell a horse they don’t get along with, but for people like Madison and me, who love our mares and our relationship with them, we are going to make mistakes, we are going to get shaken, and we are going to grow.
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.