Labor Day weekend I headed up the freeway to the fall horse trials at Aspen Farms in Yelm (Wash.) with Cairo, aka the hungry equine velociraptor, trying to eat her way through a bale of hay in the trailer.
As long as she has hay to munch, she’s happy. After she has burned through a hay bag, I can feel the trailer move as she starts to yank her head down in an effort to reach the hay she has thrown on the trailer floor in a fit of reckless hay-eating abandon. I usually stop once on the four- or five-hour drive to check her and refill her groceries.
(And yes, I have tried a slow feeder hay net. Hell hath no fury like a hungry mare forced to eat her snacks through teeny-tiny holes. In her frustration, she managed to rip it down and stomp it. Given her speedy metabolism and her need to be constantly moving—even if it’s just her jaws, munching—I have caved to the inevitable and just let the hungry little hippo eat.
I, on the other hand, was not eating on the drive thanks to the show nerves trying desperately to escape my belly (where they make me a little queasy) to my brain (where they make my brain go out the window). I hadn’t done a horse trials at training level (3’3”) in three years and breaking the three-foot barrier was suddenly feeling huge.
Cairo, of course, was feeling full of her usual sassy self and couldn’t care less about my musing I drove along muttering my dressage test to myself.
At this same exact show, two years ago, I came to cheer on my friends, feeling rather morose because I had sold my OTTB, and while my aspirations were to jump big, (or bigger anyway) my budget was telling me I needed to start small. I’d looked at couple horses but none of them felt like “the one.” Rather then stay home and sulk, I decided to go groom for my friends and take photos.
While I was at Aspen, my friend Becky called with an idea. She had a mare she’d bred, a bit small and such a little pistol it gave Becky fits some days, but she felt with the right rider, Cairo was super athletic and could go far. Did I want to try her?
Two years later, here we are. Just as Becky promised, Cairo is super athletic and just as Becky warned me, dressage is still not hot little Cairo’s thing.
Check out our ride through the water jump this weekend…
The good news is that moving up a level didn’t hurt our dressage score one bit. We improved. The bad news is that we were yet again in last place after dressage. We got a 40. The first-place rider had a 20.9. Whoops.
Still, 40 was our best score all season, so I decided to focus on the fact we have improved. She gave a little more to the Baucher bit and wasn’t as hard against the bridle as she’s been in the past. Our centerlines were clean and sober. And my friend Rachel assured me that the buck at X during a canter-trot transition was barely noticeable.
I could feel Cairo trying to feint left and dodge right as we trotted and cantered the test and one canter depart was less of a depart and more of a minor explosion, but this test was more controlled burn and less wildfire than usual.
And hey, we didn’t jump out of the arena, despite my distinct feeling during the canter lengthening from M to F that Cairo was eyeing the white rail of the dressage arena to the taller rail of the perimeter fence as a bounce.
One of my (tongue-in-cheek) mottos is that I’m either here win or be the entertainment. Judging by the people laughing (with me, I’m pretty sure, not at me) as we exited the ring, Cairo and I are excellent entertainment.
I picked up my test at the end of the day and forced myself to read the comments—they as usual prominently feature the words “tense” and “fussy,” which are like dressage euphemisms for: “Your horse looks like she’s loaded for bear.”
Top of the test: Color of Horse: Bay.
Distinguishing Marks: Tall braids.
I started giggling. Cairo is ¼ Irish draft, but I like to joke that the only place you can see the draft is in her giant bushy mane. I guess that my attempt to tame the wild mane into neat braids was not entirely successful and the judge noticed. The next time I’m feeling frantic while braiding and someone says, “Don’t worry, the judge doesn’t notice the braids,” I’m whipping out this test.
The judge also noticed the buck at X and the over-enthused canter depart. The remark? “Some drama.”
Some drama indeed. We did get a 7 on a trot transition, and I was delighted to see as a rider I got an 8. But the judge really won my heart with her comments at the end of the test, which started off “Very fun” and, after giving some advice on getting her to stretch and be more elastic, she concluded with, “You can win the dressage phase. Guessing no problem for jumping.”
With that reminder in my head, I grabbed my dog Biggie’s leash and headed out to walk cross-country. The first fence looked friendly. The second, a table, looked massive as did the brushed logs a nice seven strides away. I took a picture of it, using Biggie for perspective, to try prove to myself later it wasn’t that big.
A couple big tables, some hills and a coop later, the first water had a jump in the water. Water to water. Ack! Never done THAT before. I thought that kind of thing was reserved for the “big kids” at the upper levels.
More logs, a corner and then a rolltop to a (massive, to me) up-bank then up a hill to a log roll at the top. Good grief, what did I sign up for? Where did my cute little novice fences go? Trakhener, steeplechase, drop with a quick left to a half coffin.
The course designer has a sense of humor: The second-to-last fence was a narrow cooler that someone had actually filled with ice, soda and, I as discovered rooting around in it, at least one actual beer. Grabbing the Bud Light, I joined my trainer Meika Decher for a second course walk.
Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was Meika calling the fences “fun” and “friendly” or maybe I finally remembered Cairo is nothing if not bold and scopey, but by my 10:02 a.m. ride time the next day I wasn’t freaking out and actually felt really ready.
And maybe it was the new Waterford bit or maybe the fences made her think more, but Cairo felt attentive and rideable in the warm-up — a little less fence-seeking missile and a little more guided rocket. That’s not to say she didn’t overjump the warm-up fences by a mile…
Out of the start box she leaped the first fence gleefully, and snorted and charged into the woods. I said “Whoa a little, girlfriend,” and she flicked an ear and listened. She sailed over the table and flew the brush (which might have walked a seven however for my little Gumby-like Cairo it was a six).
She did her patented kowabunga into the first water instead of merely cantering in, but I managed to snort the drops out of my nose and steer her to the log in the water (and not let her get an eye on the carved fish the advanced riders were jumping), and everything felt incredibly easy, even the up-bank and trakhener.
After the coffin at fence 16 and as I entered the woods heading to the second water, I caught myself marveling at how fantastic the ride felt. Then I immediately chided myself to ride every fence because we were not done yet!
I was glad I did because we turned out of the woods, over a feeder and then headed for a log jump into water. Did I mention we’ve never jumped into water before? Near water, and thanks to the earlier fence on course, in the water, but never into it. I felt Cairo briefly hesitate, and I clucked. I didn’t actually manage to use my crop, I sort of gesticulated with it, but a cluck was all the encouragement she needed to make a big leap and splash with me grinning wildly.
See me smiling?! Photo by David Grimmer
Through and out, over the cooler (no stopping for a beer this time) and over the maxxed out table that was the final fence to canter in at 4:48 on a course with an optimum time of 4:50. I swear I was so happy that I almost cried.
After we did the pinney dance where Cairo spins and snorts while I try to undo the knots I used to keep my number in place, we headed back to the barn for cooling off and more of Cairo’s current favorite treat — peppermint Altoids. Curiously strong. ’Nuff said.
Meika scheduled a 7:15 a.m. course walk for stadium on Sunday and if not for my friend Reb, who showed up at 7:10 a.m. with a coffee at my truck where I was sleeping, I don’t think I would have remembered any of it. We walked it set at advanced height, which I decided was psychologically great, because the training fences would look small later, right?
I watched some rounds for inspiration, including Meika on Lear at prelim and again on her homebred Archie McPhee at training, making it look easy, and making time, which was proving hard for a lot of riders. I wanted to go grab Cairo and make her watch the fabulous Gin & Juice go at prelim—see Cairo? Hot mares can totally rock stadium (and dressage, come to think of it).
I had moved up into 13th after cross-country, but looking at the scores, there was going to have to be some major rail carnage by other horses in stadium for Cairo and I to get into the ribbons. I can’t help but to feel that rooting for others to screw up is bad pony karma so I decided to go with rooting for myself to have a really nice ride.
Cairo was pretty chill in the warm up—I know it goes against the spirit of eventing but I so wish dressage was last, not first!—until I pointed her an square orange oxer that to me looked huge.
I decided if we jumped that thing, then anything that came up in the arena would be a piece of cake. We cantered up, I saw a distance, supported…and Cairo turned on the rocket boosters. I cantered away, pulled up and looked at Meika’s working student Fieke with eyes that were probably the size of dinner plates. “Umm, what did I do?”
Fieke, who is Dutch and prone to be calm and understated, said, “Nothing, she just jumped it really big. You should go do it again so you feel confident.”
I headed back to the orange oxer and…Cairo hit overdrive again. I swear we cleared the tops of the standards. As I cantered away, another woman schooling in my group called out to me, “Your pony has wings!” I decided that was an excellent note on which to enter the arena.
We went in, I managed to trot and nod at the judge at the same time, and not let Cairo bolt when he blew the whistle. I never let my horses take off when the whistle blows, I always pause, walk or do something that does not involving charging into a gallop at the first fence. The Queen of Cairo is not one bit fooled by this strategy. She knows the whistle means hot-mare-fun-time.
The first line felt great, then we turned right to a bending line heading away from the in-gate, and Cairo played the “Now I will charge out of the corner” card. I had decided I was sticking to my guns and not accidently leaving out strides, and I was determined to ride the bending six to the bending seven. So what I needed to do was settle her and release, but instead I raised her “charge out of the corner” card with my signature, “Now I’ll hold you to the base of the vertical” move, and we had a rail.
On the plus side, I got the strides in the bending lines, and she flowed around the corner to a wildly painted in-and-out. She jumped in boldly and I think briefly considered whether one man’s in-and-out is another Cairo’s bounce.
“Whoa a little bit,” I said, and she checked herself, put in a short stride and leaped out beautifully. She didn’t take even the slightest peek at a pink fence that had been causing trauma to the green horses all day, galloped the wall, cantered sedately into a two-stride and leaped gleefully over the final orange oxer.
Ribbon? No. But we had fantastic show and came in 11th. (And full confession — those second place ribbons we won at the little hunter derby last month? I actually cut them up to use as red ribbons to place in Cairo’s sassy tail.) I couldn’t ask for a bolder horse, and I love the confidence she gives me. We’re going to work on not charging out of short corners.
Finally, I hate to break the news to her, but in addition to some bodywork, a fairly unlimited supply of hay, and Altoids this fall, basically her reward for being so good to the fences and so very entertaining in dressage is going to be…more dressage. Lots more dressage.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.