Somebody Has To Be Second-To-Last

Jun 29, 2018 - 7:30 AM

There was an NPR interview a couple years ago that stands out to me. Fresh Air host Terry Gross was talking to an actor and asked him about a role he played where he had to ride horses.

“Do you ride?” she asked him. “No,” he said. “Oh,” she replied. “So you had to learn for the part?”

The actor said no, he didn’t. Gross was confused, so the actor explained that while he knew how to ride a horse, he didn’t “ride.” He saw riding as something akin to playing an instrument; in order to be a rider, you practice as much as five hours a day.

I kind of love that comparison. It’s constant practice; sometimes you get swept away in the music, and sometimes your partner in the duet completely throws you off.

When it comes to dressage, you may have noticed, Cairo and I tend to step on each other’s toes.

In my last lesson before my first event of the season at Equestrians Institute, my dressage trainer Leslie Chapman said, “Wow, if she goes like this at the show, you’ll do great.”

Famous last words. Cairo is fully aware of the difference between being at a show and schooling at home. And I have yet to persuade her that being good at a show leads to galloping around the arena wearing pretty ribbons at the end of the show.

I guess the good thing is that the whole point of dressage is developing the horse and rider, and Cairo and I develop all the time. At home. Where no one else can see us.

Leslie texted me on Friday after dressage. “How was it?”

Me: “Bad.”

Leslie: “Why?”

Me: “She was mad.”

Leslie: “Why?”

Me: “Dressage.”

All smiles after dressage, even though we were second from last. But our braids look super! All photos courtesy of Camilla Mortensen.

People tell me, “Take her to a dressage schooling show.” Ah, see, you assume Cairo is some ordinary horse who can be fooled by schooling shows. Nope. Take her to schooling show, and she’s all, “Whatevs, these idiots don’t jump. Don’t care.”

She trots in circles and behaves. Take her to an event, and she throws down and is all, “Let’s JUMP because I hate this crap!”

Dressage judges LOVE that attitude.


A: Enter working trot. Cairo: “I hate this. Who do I need to bite?”

C: Track right. Cairo: “I kill you.”

Later in the test. A: Circle left 20 meters, let the horse stretch forward and down. Cairo: “Freedom! Finally!”

F-X-H: Free walk. Cairo: “WTF. Why are we walking??? Who has time for this crap?”

So my dressage score sucked. Second to last. It wasn’t pretty. But I smiled peacefully through all the shenanigans. And our braids were super. I have this yarn button braids thing down.

Since it was our first show of the season, and we have only had one cross-country outing, we had dropped back to training level. It also reduced the stress because my event trainer Meika Decher was an organizer of the show and couldn’t be there for all my schooling. I can more or less self-school at training. At prelim I tend to want a little hand-holding!

Since Meika was going to be giving a safety talk and placing jump judges, she was pretty sure I was on my own before cross-country, so I recruited my friend Lindsay to set fences, hold my Recharge (the hippie version of Gatorade), and say helpful things to me.

Cairo was deeply insulted that there were minions in the same arena she was schooling in but more or less kept her twerking minimal. I warmed up and jumped while the arena was still fairly quiet, then withdrew to a quiet spot to wait for our time, which is where Meika found me. “Good?” she asked. Yep.

“So when you get out there …” she continued.

“Hands down, throw your heart over,” I replied.

Meika, who knows me well, knew that was my version of promising to ride every step.

We headed to the start box, and Cairo began to gyrate. Lindsay is new to Cairo’s start box antics, and she looked a little wide-eyed when I asked her to be ready to lead Cairo in if she started dancing too much. At one minute, we took a practice walk into the box. Cairo bucked, and I walked back out before Cairo decided to slip her tongue over the bit and charge at the first fence.

At 8 on the countdown we headed to the box. Cairo bounced up and down. But before Lindsay had to grab her bridle, Cairo walked into the box.

And squealed.

Who does that?

At “Have a nice ride,” we were off.

Question: I try to read the rulebook, but I can’t remember all of it. I just got the USEA bumper sticker that says, “8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Have a nice ride!” and immediately began to wonder if that’s a required statement.

Also, no matter what Cairo is doing, I always say “thank you.” It’s not just polite; I think it’s good luck.

Cairo ate up the cross-country. We had an “oh crap” moment on my part when I realized we were about to put two strides in the three out of the coffin, but Cairo is catty, and we pulled it off. And it reminded me to sit up for the seven from the table to the corner later in the course.

A couple “whoa dammits” and a sedate canter through the finish line kept us within the time for a double clear. It also helped, time wise, that Cairo decided to spook at a golden retriever standing near the finish flags.

On stadium Sunday, Cairo was eager to prove she was not one bit tired. She strode out into the arena raring to go. She rared a little harder than she needed to and gave fence 1 a good thwack. Her sudden wood allergy after that meant the next several fences got good clearance, but on the right turn for fence 6, a triple bar bending in five to a one-stride, she got more excited by the battle for control than the fence itself, and we took that rail too. Aside from that, we were golden.

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We finished show jumping with two rails down but still had fun. And fun is why we do this, right?

Our crap dressage score meant that while we moved up, we were still way out of the ribbons, but whatever, we finished, and it was fun.

That’s the part I need to remember. Fun.

If I’m going to spend so much love, time and money on something, then in the end it has to make me happy. (And Cairo, because if Cairo ain’t happy…)

So we are shooting for prelim again and seeing where chasing dreams keeps taking us.

And we just won’t talk about the whole “dressage” thing, OK?

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.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo.


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