Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ode to the Butterflies.. (With Video)

((Fair Warning: LONG post. Read with caution. ))

I have had this conversation before:

Inner Voice: “You can do this.”
Brain: “Are you sure?”
Inner Voice: “Wait….is there a problem? Because if there is I wanna know what it is and have more time to evaluate it and pick it apart and analyze all the relevant data for similar cases over the last 100 years…”
Brain: “Well geez I don’t know now.”

This is where I usually just shake my head and throw all the thoughts out the window and just canter to the first fence.

Horse showing is a great part of my life. Any discipline, any kind of competition is fun. Now admittedly there was a time that I was so overwrought with nerves that I didn’t enjoy it as it was happening. Many famous trainers have spun the line about it’s ok to have butterflies in your stomach, you just have to get them to fly in formation. Mine never did. Mine were the lost spirits of Kamikaze fighter pilots. They dove, spun, arched and crashed into my empty stomach filling me with nausea and nerves. Those were the old days.

Now things have progressed. We have a new team of butterflies and some are still acrobatic, but others are the rocking chair versions of their predecessors. They fly a little then they settle and watch. I enjoy shows so much more now because I get that none of it matters in the grand scheme of the world. It matters to me sure, and my goals and the goals I have for my horses matter, but life is about getting out there and doing your best. Sometimes that yields gorgeous lovely performances where friends Ooooo and Ahhhh at your glorious pictures and videos. And then there are days, like yesterday, where the biggest success was completing the course and knowing that while not ‘picture perfect’ there was a lot of positive and some room for improvement. This now leads us to the tale of the Radnor Jumper Show.

I have to back up a bit to recap the week so you know how we got to Saturday. First I want to say there is something funny about this particular show. 2 years ago I was aiming for it with both Lad and Petey. Lad sustained a muscle pull and missed out. Petey went and was great for his 2nd or 3rd show ever. Last year I again aimed for it and Lad pulled a shoe. So we missed out. 

This year on Monday night I rode a friend’s horse and got walloped in the face and sustained a pretty good case of whiplash and a possible very minor concussion, but I didn’t fall off. Just got hit in the helmet around my nose and face by the horse’s neck.  The doctors told me I could do as I wanted but it would be best to maybe sit out for a week. I loved the doctor I had, he knew and I knew I didn’t want to sit out a week. He at least gave me that if I just waited as close to a week and listened to my body that’d be ok. So I accepted it and planned to sit out a week. I got my dear friend Jane to take Petey to her barn the next day with the plan that she would show him for me at Radnor.

Ahhh the best laid plans. This humors me when you think you have all the answers and then you don’t. So yesterday I woke up feeling happy and normal and bright, like the last 4 days. And I got a text that Jane wasn’t feeling well. That was an understatement. Jane was really sick. So I did what anyone would do. “No problem, I can ride him if you can’t.” 5 days off versus 7 days off is a minimal difference. Dr. said I could. So off we went. Jane brought Petey to Radnor and I swapped him to my rig and sent her home to bed. God bless her for riding his butt all week and doing a great job. She’ll fill in for me one of these days yet!

So the day was running LOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNGGG. I decided to take Petey for a hack. I walked him around and down a road that runs alongside the property. As I walked down it I reminisced that 21 years and 5 months ago I was trotting down this same road as I set out on phase A of my first three day event. Half a lifetime ago geez. As I walked I remembered how the kamikaze pilots of old were flying at break neck speed as I thought about all the flags I had to remember, the steeplechase jumps, the minute markers and the imposing xc course that lay in wait for me then. I laughed. So much has changed in me. And yet so many of the good things have stayed.

We rested after the hack and I even took a nap. But then it was time to actually ride. I had the Gamblers Choice class first as I am trying to wean ourselves from needing a warm up class before we go into the “good” class. At Devon we don’t have this buffer. We have to improve our ability to get up and go. In hindsight I think I should have had a better course plan. I had a plan but then as I cantered to the first fence I realized I could jump a different fence first, so I shifted my plan. On approach. Yea that’s never a good idea! And true to form it didn’t work. Fence down. You’d think I’d learn. The round was bumpy at best and thankfully there were some positive moments before the 60 seconds ran out. When they asked if I was going to attempt the Joker fence I laughed. The fence in question was a lovely stone wall vertical with 4 rails set at 4’6”. That’s about 6” lower than Petey’s withers and 13” below the top of my head. Brave though we may be, that stuff is going to have to wait. Plus I didn’t think losing 200 points for knocking it down would be a good idea either. So Petey and I walked out of the ring by it and I petted him and said “Look, that jump is bigger than you!” The onlookers nearby heard me and giggled.

On we went to get ready for the Mini Prix. My first and his first. Up to 4’ high. I had already noticed that we were clearly not at a Thoroughbred Show anymore. I was surrounded by walking giants, covered in ear nets, 5 point breastplates, Fluffy boots and people who looked awfully comfortable with that Joker fence. Petey was literally dwarfed by the competition. But I knew we weren’t totally in over our heads. Or at least I didn’t think so.

I was going last so I watched a bit. The riders were graceful and their mounts fluid machines who made fences I think of as “large” seem like just a mere cavaletti in their spectre of scope. I would be lying if the thought didn’t cross my mind, “What the hell am I doing here?” I thought at this point that maybe the best plan was to hang with Petey and my friends and eat some food rather than watch the competition.

When I got on I had a better plan and a better plan for his warm up. You see there’s a bit of peer pressure that comes in the warm up ring. If your competitors are warming up their 3’6 horses over 4’6” and their Mini prix horses over 5’, you start to wonder if your plan, which in my case is VERY different, isn’t maybe a bit wrong. I didn’t like how I warmed up for the Gamblers so this time I stuck with my normal plan. I warm up over fences lower than the height of the class. Not by much, but a bit. I wanted him sharp but paying attention. So we did a 3’9” vertical and a 3’9” oxer, but we didn’t push him past where we have been. This time he warmed up well. This time I felt pretty good coming to the ring having no second thoughts and ignoring the magnificent 6 figure horses that ambled by me.

(Author’s note… It’s taking 3 pages to get to the class description. LOL. Sorry guys a lot on my mind from this outing. Kudos for your perseverance!)

I rode him into the ring and purposefully went down and circled the one fence that had been added for this class. Years ago I saw the newly added fence cause 5 horses to refuse. I wasn’t gonna let something silly like that happen to us. Petey didn’t care anyway. So we cantered off to the first.

These are my thoughts of how it felt riding:

The first fence was a little sticky. Not bad, but not striking off the ground and sailing as I would have hoped. That caused me to add a stride to the second and I found myself into my bad habit of in the back seat with too long of reins. Then the add came to number 3 and hello.. I am on his tail!!!!! Shape up Emily! I gathered my reins back up and found the pommel again as I swung wide to #4. Nicer jump there. 5 strides to #5 and a little wavering confidence to the oxer but he went with it. Ok wall fence on the short side by the people. Boy Petey’s big ears can really prick when his things something is interesting to look at. Close distance but not bad, clears it nicely. Get the change go to the In and out on the long side. 7AB was a good oxer to vertical one stride. I thought we cantered down well to it and we got to take off I slapped Petey on the shoulder with me whip. He sunk into the footing and took it almost from a stand still. I am not sure why, but we cleared it and the distance was nice enough that he fit in the one stride easily. Down the line we went to the Swedish, I am “Good Boying” down the line and yep… on his tail again. He jumps well over the Swedish. I think we can pull this together and then we chip in and pop the new fence. All I am hearing in my head is “RIDE EMILY RIDE>>>STOP BEING A LUMP!” So I kick and cluck a bit and we sail through the vertical to vertical in and out much nicer. Add the distance to the last oxer and I am laughing at myself as my heel is threatening to spur my own ass over it. Oh good lord thank God there are the finish flags.
I am not even sure if I hit anything. So I ask the folks in the little grand stand, “Did I knock anything down?” They all say no. Oh dear Lord I have to ride the jump off.

Here’s where I get in trouble. I am not gonna lie. I nearly forgot a fence. I thought the jump off was 1,2,5,7AB, 11. It was 1,2,5, 6, 7AB, 11.

You can see on the video, that I am not posting, that I try for a second to do this amazing turn from 5 to 7, realize my mistake and try to slice 6, but the line was impossible. So we stopped at 6, totally understandable. We circle back and jump it and then a strange thing happens, Petey didn’t get his change and we headed to the in and out and he decelerated. I pulled him up. I retired on course. It’s just a jump off and the bigger picture was that he told me he needed more. “More what?” is the next question but I was happy to save my lovely guy. I owe him the world and I am so glad he said something rather than try to scramble through again. So with that I was depressed. As riders do I blamed myself for not preparing him, riding him and training him so he was ready today. I praised him mightily though as he clearly gave his all. We went up the hill and I let him graze a bit. Amy took him back and I sat down and ate some more food, waiting to hear how the others and their giants had fared in the placings. 

I listened for the 7th and 8th place spots because I wondered if in a crowd of 12 or so entrants if I might have gotten lucky enough to grab a low spot. As the 8th – 6th spots were called and I wasn’t mentioned I shrugged and went back to eating. Oh well. A lot was learned today and there are signs that a lot of learning is yet to come. I sipped my drink and was ambling through my mental replay of the ride when I heard my number and I snapped back to reality. 4th???4th !!!! HOLY CRAPOLA! I jumped up and ran down to the ring, without Petey. Hopped the fence and darted in to grab my ribbon. I even posed for the photographer with it. And yes they were doing a victory gallop so we put Petey back together in record time and galloped with fervor amongst the giants!

Was it our best day? Oh hell no. Was it our worst day? No. There are many things to work on but the size of fence is not mattering as much. He has the scope and I am not riding nervous to the fences. Now we have 3+ weeks to fine tune the rest. Not sure I would expect to place at Devon, but beating out 8-9 REALLY nice horses and riders definitely made me step to attention and realize how wonderful of a horse Petey is. And at only 6….. well there’s a lot of future and I maintain I am gonna be crushed when he sells but hopefully he’ll go on to great things and enjoy it all.

So the bottom line of this RAMBLING post is that nerves are what you make of them. Enjoying the moment is as important as remembering your course. Laughing after mistakes is by far the best thing and self flagellation has no place in the goal of progressing on from little blips of imperfect riding. Petey went home and galloped across his field to rejoin Lad and Lunar. He whinnied with delight and the 3 strided out across the grass and I smiled as had just a moment before I took to the roads to try to watch the Derby. The first Saturday in May will always mean Derby to me, but this year one little loser from the track was a bigger winner on the day than California Chrome.