Disclaimer: this post is loaded with memes that felt more appropriate than footage of the actual event. Also we were so busy and lacked a boots on the ground photographer (praise god) that there is minimal photographic or video evidence of this train wreck.
After packing up our gear and horses, I plopped down in Black Beauty (our Ram 3500 Cummins dually) blue, red, yellow ribbons lining the dash and looked over at Dressage Queen.
“What a disaster.” I said.
“It wasn’t a disaster, but I feel like you and I spent the last two hours getting beat up.” Dressage Queen replied.
“No. You’re right. It wasn’t a disaster. I have two words that describe it more accurately.” Dressage Queen raised her eyebrows as a question.
“Shit Show. It was a total f*cking Shit Show. Excuse my language.”
DQ didn’t disagree. “No that’s a perfect description.” She confirmed.
GHLHF hit the road this weekend for our first 2021 horse trial/derby in Seguin, Texas. The event is part of the Greater Houston Combined Training Association’s derby series, and turned out to be quite the learning experience for all involved. It may be my fault for watching International Velvet before loading the horses and heading out to pick up Dressage Queen for a three hour road trip to the event. To quote Anthony Hopkins from my all time favorite movie, “He got round as I had predicted. Nothing for the record book, but still no disgrace. We were more fortunate than some. Some didn’t get round. Some got round the hard way.” The three hour ride home was filled with woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, but the general consensus was we got round the hard way.
I’m going to back up and give you a recap of the weeks leading up to this first event. I’ve been working my tail off trying to keep three full size horses in training. Odessa aka Indian Summer and Comanche aka Comanche Spirit are my two rescues that I’ve been taking to a few breed shows a year to get them exposure while working them into eventing. I’ve also been riding/training my mustang Johnny Cash. Dressage Queen has been working her four year old thoroughbred, The Reverand pretty hard all spring in hopes of moving him up the eventing levels. We have taken dressage lessons, focused on softness/transitions, and conditioning everyone for all three phases of an event Dressage, Stadium, and Cross Country.
In truth, I had focused mainly on Comanche and Johnny Cash as my main string eventers for 2021 until two weeks ago, when I realized Johnny Cash will need a full year of serious work and exposure to everyday things before I can throw him at any serious fence work or expect him to hold it together at a show. He’s only a little over a year out of the wild, and he just isn’t one of those mustangs that found the transition to domesticated life easy. I don’t won’t to overwhelm him with the experience of a show as a competitor, but he may find himself hitching a ride to stand tied to a trailer for reasons that will later be explained. So while Odessa didn’t receive quite the training focus that Comanche and Johnny Cash did, she has a better foundation and overall is just more pleasant to work with. Once I realized that Johnny Cash probably wouldn’t be ready for a horse trial until fall if not 2022, I began to increase Odessa’s training rides. Odessa doesn’t have the movement or athleticism of Comanche, but she’s consistent and her bravery over fences is impressive. She’s never given me a dirty stop refusal, and the only time she’s run out on me was the very first time I pointed her at a cavaletti which was most likely the first one she had seen in her life.
Odessa was giving me consistent dressage work, and I gave her two jump schools prior to the show. Those two schools were the first time she’s jumped in over a year, but I had only signed her up for the combined test. She only needed to make it over ten low fences, and my fat girl was more than conditioned to survive a trip around stadium. Since our dressage lesson, Comanche had really been giving me some good flat work. He’s been jumping consistently and effortlessly, and I was really excited to turn him loose on a new cross country course. DQ reported that The Reverand was moving beautifully, and jump schools had been awesome. So on the morning we loaded up our horses and headed for Seguin we were over the moon. I informed DQ that I read in the show bill, you bring home a blue for going clear on course to which she scoffed. “I want to earn my blue. I don’t want one for simply going clear.” I’m not super competitive against other people. I’m in it to judge my progress against my previous performances. Since I had invested a lot of blood, sweat, tears, entry fees, and fuel into this show, I had no problem bringing home a blue simply for going clear on course. This was going to be the beginning of an amazing competition season, and without the added pressure of a green insecure mustang in my show string it should have been a walk/ride in the park. As it turned out, it was a ride through Jurassic park, and I brought the Velociraptor and TRex. Not sure what DQ brought but I’m going with a Triceratops since her horse was laid back and not out for blood.
When we arrived the show manager informed us that we could hack the cross country course, but we weren’t permitted to jump. Apparently this show draws mostly locals who trailer in the same day, but I don’t take those chances on any drive that involves more than an hour. You never know what could happen with traffic/wrecks etc, and green horses need time to settle in. She threatened us within an inch of our lives if we entered the freshly drug arenas. (not really but the message was clear not to step foot in them). After three hours in the trailer, I didn’t plan on jumping anyone anyway so this was great news. The horses needed to get out and stretch their legs. I had hoped we would be permitted to get the horses out on the course before the derby. I didn’t want our first ride on the course to be our show round. Seeing every type of jump imaginable is an important part of an eventer’s education. As a human its hard to predict what your animal will find terrifying, you can make educated guesses based on experience, but sometimes the seemly mundane will produce more drama than Shakespeare.
I saddled both my horses. DQ hopped up on The Reverend and I grabbed Comanche leaving Odessa tied with a hay net. The cross country course was well designed, and I was extremely grateful to be hacking it. The courses Comanche has seen until this point have been relatively flat with more natural looking obstacles, not much embellishment. This course had pretty steep inclines for Texas, which meant this would be our first time jumping up or down hill. The obstacles ranged from logs with fake flowers, to loudly painted coops and roll tops. The water hazard was large and deeper than any we had seen before, and every approach to it was downhill with the exit being a jump out. If this had been my course at home, I would be in heaven and it would be a dream to ride. Facing this course for the first time at a show with no do-overs and a horse that will be a little amped, because that’s who Comanche is, was a little intimidating.
Because we were anxious to get horses off the trailer and onto the course, we forgot to ask which color pattern marked our obstacles. As we walked the course, DQ decided we had to be black on a yellow background. I was skeptical, because these looked higher than the 2’3″ max height for Goldilocks, but figured she had way more experience than me. Comanche currently schools between 2’6″ and 3′. I knew he had the scope, but not sure I had the cajones to ride him that high on an unfamiliar course and terrain. So we began the task of approaching every obstacle letting the horses view it from all angles and mentally preparing ourselves for the possibility of death. The color patterns on some of these roll tops gave them the impression of being a lot larger than they actually were when approached. As we walked directly up to one particularly frightening roll top, The Reverend slowed and approached with caution. Comanche on the other heard marched up to it on a mission and was ignoring my whoa cues which weren’t exactly forceful because we were only walking and secondly because I assumed he’d stop when he came up to a nearly chest high roll top. Not so, he hit it with his front hooves as he attempted to lift over it from a walk. So, at least I knew my horse was capable and up for the challenge, but everything is more terrifying going at Mach 5 on the freight train.
DQ stayed out on the course doing flatwork while I switched horses. Comanche wasn’t that happy about being left behind, but Odessa headed out toward what looked like a greener pasture to her without a another thought. Our second hack around cross country was much less about exposing horses to obstacles and more about letting Odessa relax and she was totally happy to be out on what she considered a trail ride. Odessa would not be facing any of this scary stuff as part her combined test so it was nice to just relax out there in the awesome sandy footing chatting about how we thought the next day would go. DQ made the statement, “What a great course! I’m so glad we came! If all we did was come out here and hack this course the trip was worth it.” Little did either of us know, we would need to be reminded of those sentiments many times over the next day. Everyone was blissfully settled having consumed their night feed, with full hay nets, and water buckets.
The show started off well enough. We arrived at 7:00 am, picked up our numbers and show packets. I was riding dressage at 9:19 am on Comanche, DQ would follow me on the The Reverend, and then Odessa was on for 9:39 am. I didn’t have much time to warm up Odessa after Comanche’s ride, but if I had to pick a horse for a short warm-up it would be Odessa. I can count on her to get to work faster than Comanche. Comanche true to form was raging, but after thirty solid minutes of flexing, circles, and transitions he was almost starting to soften when we entered the staging area for the dressage test. It was his first time in the arena, and the horses lined down one side warming up or spectating kept drawing his eye, but he put in a solid ride during the test. I however failed him. I don’t know how many times I read the test before, but I practically dreamed it the night before. Somehow, I managed to forget that instead of turning for the judge and final salute at “A” you were to approach “X” from a diagonal at “K” and then straighten to salute at “G.” Basically I interchanged USDF Intro C test with USEF Beginner Novice A test. For you non-dressage people I’m sure its alphabet soup, but C’est la vie! I blame it on mom brain because I didn’t always suck at memorizing patterns. There was a day when one look at the test was all it took for my photographic memory to have it. In my post-partum return to the show ring, I always seem to second guess my memorization of at least one small detail and then pick the wrong option in the moment.
I wished DQ good luck as I headed out to swap horses. Now Odessa would have about ten total minutes to warm-up before she hit the arena. I made those ten minutes count making sure we had three solid rhythmic gaits. Transitions are usually Odessa’s strong point, and then I got in as much flexing as I could. In truth, I needed Odessa to have the long jump warm-up since she doesn’t have Comanche’s scope, and we would be jumping an entire course of the maximum height she has ever schooled. Not ideal, but I knew she was capable. Now that I had learned the dressage test the hard way on Comanche, I was determined not to repeat my mistake on Odessa. I was proud of my little cow pony. She went in and laid down a solid test for her first time. She did attempt to pop into one canter stride when asked for working trot, and she also threw out a wrong lead on her right canter circle which I immediately corrected before she had made the second stride. I was happy with her performance, and it wasn’t until after we exited the arena that she turned into TRex.
When I finally caught up with DQ, I told her that I blew Comanche’s test. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one working with mom brain, but I wasn’t beating myself up nearly as bad as DQ. She had reviewed the dressage test just before riding it, and rode the canter circle at the wrong letter. Unlike me that had completed 97% of the test before my mistake. DQ wasn’t allowed to complete her dressage test. I’ve been showing horsemanship and equitation patterns at local breed shows for the past three years. I have had way more time to resign myself to the fact that my ability to memorize a pattern in a single glance is a thing of my distant youth. Little did I know this was DQ’s first time messing up a pattern, and which in her book is considered a “cardinal sin.” I get it, truly I do, and maybe this was just a single blip on her otherwise spotless show career. I did my best to remind her that during her show years pre-children, her daily mental load was less than half what it is now. All she had to do was show-up and ride her horse. She wasn’t worried about what the kids were up to, and her show prep didn’t include getting her kids ready for a weekend without mommy before hitting the road. Thinking about what the kids would need when she got home wasn’t something she would have running through her mind at a show pre-children either.
We had two hours to hang around and just chill after the dressage debacles. The derby at this show was different from other horse trials we had attended. At most trials you have a specific ride time for each phase of the event. It takes all of the guesswork out of planning the logistics of your rides. At this show there is a block of time for the jumping events and it is ride at will. Since so few riders were actually jumping, half of the competitors had come to ride dressage only, this gave me a window of possibly fifteen minutes to switch my jumping saddle from Odessa to Comanche, adjust the gullets to fit his considerably narrower back, and warm up after Odessa’s round. If I do this show again with two horses I may just have to take my old jump saddle from high school or borrow a second from DQ to avoid the fire drill of a high speed tack change with no groom for assistance.
I staged girths, saddle pads, and bridles, and then took Odessa out for her jump warm-up. Now this is the point where the experience unravels spectacularly. Odessa came out like a fire breathing dragon or more accurately a TRex ready to eat everything in sight. She isn’t usually a mare-ish mare, but Comanche was busy screaming like a stallion because he was left alone back in the stall. One would think that his screaming would stop after a few minutes of no success, but no it carried on for over an hour and a half. I know this because Odessa was thoroughly distracted by the antics of her pasture mate back at the barn, and because the jumping rounds were running behind schedule. Odessa ended up getting an hour and fifteen minute warm-up with Comanche screaming for her the whole time. Since she refused to settle to the work at hand and preferred to prance/threaten to buck/shake her head, she got the Clinton Anderson treatment which means you make the horse move their feet backwards, forwards, sideways, tiny circles non-stop until they start focusing on the rider rather than whatever else (ahem Comanche) is going on in their head. After about forty five minutes she finally relaxed and chilled. I could even walk her on the buckle no less. During this hour DQ kept The Reverend on a leisurely large walking circle around the warm-up watching my dinosaur scare the spectators. I don’t think I’ve ever been jealous of someone riding a bay before, but I was beginning to think riding color wasn’t all its cracked up to be while riding my fireball.
Unfortunately, the jumping arena was near the barn, and well within Comanche’s screaming. We were first in because of our tack change issue, and Odessa amped up again once she was closer his audible range. So I got her feet moving, and hoped once we popped over the first jump she would turn her attention back to me. She didn’t pay any attention to the upcoming cross rail, but it was low enough that it didn’t demand her focus, the second vertical was high enough to demand attention, but she fought the turn, focused too late, and knocked a rail. That however was enough for her to realize that Comanche was not her immediate problem. She pulled it together for the next jump in the line, a very scary standard with hay bales, ferns hanging from it, swaying in the breeze. At last my horse was with me. She was tiring from the extended warm-up shenanigans, and the following seven jumps were all the maximum height she has ever schooled. But, my cow pony pulled through. I alternated from emotions of extreme pride, and utter annoyance at her refusal to focus on anything but Comanche’s screaming. I didn’t have much time to dwell on it as we exited the ring and headed straight to the barn.
I wished that I could give her a better cool, down, but alas it wasn’t to be this show day. I pulled her in the stall and stripped her tack. The saddle pad and girth were thrown to the side. I threw everything up on Comanche, pulled the allen wrench out of my pocket to adjust the saddle to Comanche, and led him to the mounting block. Thankfully DQ’s round had taken longer than expected and she was still out on cross-country. If you are riding the full horse trial at this derby, you ride stadium, exit the arena and gallop straight out to the cross-country course. This means a total of twenty jumping efforts half of which are quite intimidating on a green horse. I began warm-up circles while DQ disappeared over the horizon. I popped Comanche over a warm-up vertical at which point I realize the saddle is still too wide and requires serious attention. I swing off and crank the allen wrench a few more turns, pray, and barely mount from the ground. The saddle slips and it’s all I can do to re-center before coming off. DQ is leading Rev toward me, saying something about hay bales and cinches up the girth for me. By this time the ring steward is asking if I’m scratching or riding. Riding definitely riding, even if it kills me, after this scramble.
Oddly enough, it did almost kill me. I don’t know how I stayed on or how we didn’t die, but I’m writing this so…Comanche entered the ring and not one single brain cell registered that he had a rider on his back. It was like steering a large ocean going vessel with a broken rudder. The bell rang, and we did a huge courtesy circle around the scariest standards to give him an opportunity to see them. It would have been a good plan if he had actually paid attention. We head to the first jump. He notices less than a stride away and does some weird scramble over. I realize as we hit the back side that I’m basically riding bareback as badly as the saddle is adjusted and if I don’t stay center the saddle is going sideways and I’m coming off. None of this is ideal considering we have nineteen more jumps, nine of which are cross-county obstacles. We turn sharp and now we have a vertical followed by the super scary jump. We ride deep into the base because Comanche isn’t looking at the jump in front of him. All four feet come off the ground in the “cat jump” and we clear it which is better than Odessa managed.
Now I realize what DQ was talking about. Hay bales…Those things our horses eat every single day of their lives, are somehow terrifying when placed under a vertical. If I placed haybales under my practice jumps at home, I couldn’t scare my horses off of them with a whip, but in an arena at a show…We run up in what I think is finally the moment Comanche has focused, but instead he focuses just enough to decide to stop and jump sideways, my first refusal in years. I circle him wide, push him straight, and hold the line with legs and reins.
Now, I’ve always boasted that I feel confident I can get almost any horse around a 2’3″ course with no refusals. I’ve never actually tested that theory until today. As DQ would later tell me, I made good on that promise while riding a rampaging velociraptor, in a saddle that was threatening to slide off at any moment. I won’t bore you with the details of every single stadium jump but we alternated between jumping from a standstill or taking the long spot for every single jump, because my horse just would not focus, balance, and stop fighting me.
We fly off the last fence circle and head for the exit. As I’m headed toward the cross country, I think I might just not have the courage to ride it. Also, I have several serious issues, the saddle not the least among them that adds significant risk to riding the cross country. In for a penny or in for a pound, I decide it’s do or die. We approach the first question which just happens to be a hay bale combination that jumps downhill toward a chicken coop with the water hazard below. Comanche balks at the haybale, jumps from a stand still and races to the coop. I haul him back to an extended trot hoping I can keep straight with no run outs. Instead he halts in front of the coop and throws a single leg over. We have no choice at this point but to waddle over, which in cross country is frowned upon but still accepted as a clear because you didn’t refuse. We charge at several more obstacles which I don’t even bother to rate speed. I just hold him on the line, sit deep, and pray. There’s a term in horse racing called throwing crosses. It’s a way of bridging your reins on the horse’s neck, so that when the horse pulls, it is actually pulling against itself and not the rider. Throwing crosses is not good riding form for cross country or even advisable, but it’s the only thing that allowed me to check his speed without killing my arms which are still feeling pretty shredded today. Once we had cleared the final obstacle and I managed to haul Comanche to a stop, I just kept forcing him to walk in long low circles while I looked back at what could have been the end for either one or both of us.
After cooling Comanche out, the adrenaline rush finally dissipating, the whole day felt surreal. I finally got to hear how DQ’s day had gone because I had barely had an opportunity to talk to her once we started warming up for stadium. Apparently Rev had freaked at the stadium haybales, and then proceeded to refuse any cross country obstacle with haybales or brush fence design. She wisely had avoided turning the cross country into the steeplechase Comanche apparently thought I’d brought him to, but Rev had refused more fences than she would have liked. We both marveled how either of us had managed to sit cat jump after cat jump. Glad to be alive a minor depression over the performance of the day began to sink in as we packed up.
We had worked and trained these horses harder than either of us could ever remember training in our youth. My horses have more show mileage with me in just a few short years than my jumper through high school had in his entire lifetime. “I just don’t remember ever working this hard, this long with so little to show for it I told DQ. After a day like today, I understand why some people make an entire career out of simply grooming for big name riders and never showing a single horse themselves.”
“Same with me.” she replied.
We took care of the horses, packed the trailer, gathered our placings, and hit the road. Despite the brutal cross country performance, Comanche had ultimately went clear and earned his blue ribbon. Odessa placed first in Goldilocks combined training, Comanche second in Goldilocks Derby, and Rev third in Goldilocks Derby. For two hours I wondered how two horses with their combined show mileage could still behave like first timers and what I could do at home to prevent repeat performances. Individually they both are great at a show, but if I take them as a team these shenanigans always happen. Ultimately I decided I will never take two of my own horses to a show again for the foreseeable future. If DQ trailering with me we will either take two or four horses, but I will make sure that no horse is left at the barn alone to behave like an idiot while everyone else is out. Also, Comanche has a lot of “tree of knowledge” time in his future. Until he can stand by himself without pawing, pacing, or calling out for other horses he will be standing tied to a tree or trailer for days.
I think overall DQ was happy with Rev’s performance. He didn’t act like a complete idiot like my two. He simply acted like a green horse without a lot of confidence over fences or new surroundings. Unfortunately the new surroundings issue is one that can only be solved by going more places. The fence work she can build at home until it translates to the show arena. When it comes to working with horses you have to have a sense of humor. As depressed as we were leaving the show, by the time we rolled into Temple, we were both laughing hysterically at the entire day. We both agreed that instead of trying to move up the levels, our current horses really need at least a full year at Goldilocks before we attempt to go Beginner Novice.
People that don’t show really don’t understand how you can put so much manual labor and effort into a horse show with so little to actually show for it (*cough* three $0.75 ribbons). As I relayed the events of the day to Darling Husband he asked, “Did you have any fun at all?” In the moment, it was just hard work with a lot of disappointment. Looking back, there were moments that were pretty awesome. Odessa only knocking a single rail on a full stadium course when she was more worried about Comanche’s nonsense and she had never jumped more than a few jumps at those heights without a single refusal was nothing short of impressive. Her dressage test was pretty awesome for a first timer. Comanche laid down a decent dressage test for his experience level. I was fine with only knowing in theory that I can actually get any horse over 2’3″ course even if it means we take every jump from a stand still, but it’s pretty bad ass to have it confirmed in reality. Not a lot of riders could have stuck the ride especially in a saddle that was threatening to slide off if you were even a little unbalanced on a rampaging horse. DQ’s horse Rev is a solid citizen, and there’s a lot to be said for a horse that could remain calm while stabled beside the drama king and queen.
My answer to Darling Husband is this…”Yes, I did have fun in the end despite the disappointment and when it comes down to it, I still wouldn’t trade this bad show for a great day at the office. It was well worth the vacation time and money spent on it.”