I have a strict policy—I only ride Cairo in clinics or lessons with trainers who my own trainers and people who really know my little mare have pre-approved.
There are a lot of reasons for this. She acts like a wild thing, but she’s not really looking for a fight. She’s sassy and bratty, but in the end, snuggling, shaking you down for treats and making kissy-face are her favorite activities. She never knows when she’s tired and keeps acting up past the place where she’s exhausted herself, and she’s super sensitive.
She thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips, and I adore her and wouldn’t trade her for a more obedient horse because she teaches me to be a better person and rider.
I’ve had a ride or two with people who don’t “get” Cairo, and those didn’t end well for anyone. This isn’t to say Cairo and I don’t need to get shaken out of our rut or try new ideas. It’s just she needs to get shaken, not stirred, to misuse a James Bond quote.
After riding with Yves Sauvignon last year, my trainer told me I needed to ride with him when he came back, so in late June when he came up from Santa Rosa, California, where the French-born trainer makes his home, I signed up for his clinic instead of the only recognized horse trials in Oregon.
I figured I’m on a budget, and Cairo doesn’t need to go non-stop, and since we are still having stops and runouts at prelim, a clinic instead of a show was calling our name.
This is our fifth year competing together, and at Cairo’s ripe age of 9, I still haven’t gotten her figured out. On some level I probably never will, and that’s part of the fun. She surprises me.
For example, after she had a wolf tooth removed this spring (yes, Cairo grew a wolf tooth at 9), I jumped her with the reins attached to her Micklem noseband in case her mouth was sore, and I discovered that she listened just fine to the fences. Then I found a leather bit on Etsy—a “war bridle”—that you can use without a headstall and tried that on her (basically because it looked like fun and was cheap), and she did well in that, too.
So in the spirit of surprising me, on Day 1 of the two-day clinic, Cairo decided to go full hellion. I mean like head-spinning green-vomit whose-horse-is-this hellion. There was bucking; there was spinning; there was squealing. I somehow managed to keep a straight face when another rider asked, “Have you tried supplements?”
That’s sort of like walking up to a mom whose toddler is on the ground in a screaming tantrum and saying, “Have you tried reasoning with her?”
“Yes,” I said while Cairo gnashed her teeth. “Tryptophan, magnesium, raspberry leaves, you name it.”
We started jumping, and Cairo kept up her antics. Even on a naughty day, Cairo usually settles down once the jumping starts in earnest. Not this day. Little Miss Thing was on a tear. I wasn’t sure if she’d taken a dislike to one of the geldings or what, but she was in full dervish mode.
After jumping a couple fences punctuated by bucks, Yves very nicely said he was going to be there all day teaching, and if I needed to take her for a walk and come back later, he would just go an hour longer with me. This is why I love riding with pre-approved clinicians! Clearly this is a man who can deal with a detonating mare!
Let me break in here to say the Yves has a fantastic French accent and bears a passing resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard, but no matter how awesome your clinician is, it’s intimidating to have your already hot horse go full eye-rolling, nostril-flaring sass attack in front of him, riders and spectators, so I really appreciated the offer to take the pressure off.
I told him we’d give it one more go, and after, per his suggestion, we took the edge off with some cantering in circles, she settled in a bit. He told me later he was glad we stuck it out.
If you ever get the chance to ride with Yves, do it. He is a fantastic instructor and delves into the hows and whys of what you are doing. He sets you up to be successful over difficult questions and is technical without being overwhelming.
The first exercise flew past me in the Cairo antics—it was essentially landing and turning to sharpen the horses up. Horses and riders at the lower levels worked on the same pattern for landing on their leads. Since Cairo was plenty sharp, we did wider turns than the other riders.
Cairo did demonstrate that, antics aside, she can JUMP. However, Yves clearly could also see how her general demeanor was not dressage friendly. He laughingly compared her to a horse he used to ride nicknamed “the Flying Sardine” that could jump the moon but gave him possibly the worst ever recorded dressage score. I thought a 50 was bad, but Yves rattled off a number of more than 100!
We then moved on to bending lines, altering our line and our ride to alter the strides. All went well for a while, including through a difficult combination of vertical, one stride, oxer, three strides, vertical, tight two strides, oxer.
Then we came to a polka dot oxer on an off stride, and Cairo got mad and confused and refused. I got tense; she refused again.
“Go jump something else,” Yves said. We popped over another fence, came back to the oxer, and soon all was well.
The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole, he explained, is stop digging. Don’t keep doing what’s not working. Go let the horse succeed at a different fence and then come back and try again.
Our session came to a close with some stadium work over skinnies, and that’s when I could feel that, like that tantrumming child, Cairo had exhausted herself. She was done and ready to take a nap. I put her away bathed and wrapped, wishing we could have done more work on the skinnies but glad to stop while Cairo was still learning.
The next morning, I got out to the cross-country field early, hoping to head off any misbehaviors with a longer warm-up. Cairo was happy until the group got going again, and she no longer had the field to herself. Then she again made her dissatisfaction known. She was sound, healthy, not back sore; I had a sneaking suspicion my choice to not restart her on Regu-Mate was perhaps a poor one.
Cairo and I had more refusals than I’ve ever had on my little jumping bean. She and I were both tired from the day before—all the cantering to calm her down, combined with the antics wore us out. My confidence was also low because I mentally don’t handle refusals well, and Cairo picks up on that. I always thought she was the brave one, but she relies on me more than I thought.
On the bright side, whenever you talk about moving to prelim, everyone says how the “questions get harder.” But Yves laid it out more clearly than that. And that was incredibly helpful.
At training and below, most questions can be addressed at one pace: 350, 400, 450 mpm. At prelim you are suddenly asked to have gears, like you’ve gone from driving an automatic sedan to a big rig with 18 gears. You might gallop at 520, but you need a different pace for the coffin, the water, the steeplechase, and so on, and that’s hard and adds whole new layers of difficulty. It’s not just run and jump anymore.
One of the reasons Cairo and I skipped the Oregon horse trials at Inavale is that the terrain and trees there really mess with her busy brain. Suddenly I could see, thanks to Yves’ explanation, how, in the same way that rapid terrain changes can upset her, it’s hard on her to gallop over a steeplechase fence but then need to slow and rock back for a bending line to a chevron or a water question. All the gear changes interrupt the flow of the gallop, but they are what is needed for those harder questions.
The other thing Yves laid out clearly for Cairo and me was just how much my body affects her. I’m almost 5’8″, and she’s barely 15.1. If I let her get downhill, and I lean a little at a training fence, well, she can deal. But if I do that at a difficult combination at prelim height then I’ve made it that much harder for her to do it.
So while on the one hand it was daunting to have refusals, on the other, it helped to have someone be able to assess just why this was happening and how to fix it.
Everyone always says, well the rider is easier to fix than the horse. Sure, until you are the rider who needs fixing!
But again, she makes me a better, more balanced, more careful rider, and Cairo and I are in it together. She’s my girl, even if sometimes she gives me the hoof and the dreaded mare-stare.
The work Yves did with us really built on what my trainer Meika Decher and I had worked on at my last show, checking in with Cairo but not holding her to the fence, using body before hands. I mentioned to Yves how I had played with her bitless and with the war bridle. “That should tell you something,” he said. (This of course is why we have good people teach us—to get that outside perspective that tells us something we miss on our own.)
Before the clinic was over, I felt like I had more tools in my tool box, AND Cairo and I did a double-down bank, which I’d never done before. We left a little earlier than the rest of the group, as I could tell Cairo’s quarter had run out, and she had nothing left in her tank, and I had lots to ponder.
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.