Today, Brego and I headed over to a farm in North Berwick, Maine, to participate in Hunter Trials hosted by a local hunt. The course was long, about 10 minutes of cantering, over 15 fences. Part of the course wound through some woods, and thanks to some recent rain, the mud was very deep and tricky.
I walked the course in advance and I was concerned about the footing but others said the wooded trails rode fine. This was Brego's first ever "real" course, where we were cantering the whole way over fences he has never seen. I wanted a very positive, forward ride as a barometer of where we needed to be by mid August (our recognized event).
The trials had "foxhunting" obstacles in addition to the cross country course. We had to open a gate while mounted, perform a hold hard when the horn blew, turn it up during a "gone away" section, and finally dismount and lead Brego over a fence and remount (mounting block was provided, thank you very much :) ). So the point was not to get a steady rhythm on a perfectly groomed and drained cross country course, but just to see how obedient and suitable the horse is for hunting experiences.
Our warmup was terrible. It was very, very humid and the area was wet so we couldn't get a good forward canter going. Brego was not slipping outright, but he was not really cruising either. I knew I was going to have to really ride aggressively to get him in front of my leg.
Brego was pretty good at the gate, moving over in a side pass when asked so I could reach it. It was the starting point to the course and he trotted off pretty well towards the first fence. The first fence was a very small log, very inviting, and Brego acted like it was made of some sort of horse-eating wood. He looked hard at it and then jumped fine. I really pushed him on then, seeing that this was going to be a "looky ride".
The next fence was a vertical with standards out in a field and he did just fine. Brego understands arena fences. Then we went into the woods and the mud was problematic. He just lost all confidence and slipped all over the place. We ended up trotting all the fences and even jumping some from a walk, due to the footing, but he was a good boy and tried. The one time he got ahead of me and cantered, he slipped very hard from behind and I kept him back. So much for training forward.
After the woods, we got out into a nice dry field and I tried to reestablish a nice forward canter. We popped over a gate fine and then the horn blew. So back to a halt for five seconds. Then canter off again. So much for training forward.
We went back into the woods and although this trail was drier, he was very hesitant. I could tell he was rattled and not trusting of the footing. We trotted through the woods, over a couple fences, including a nice 2'11" brush and then back into the field. The first fence back into the field was a stadium vertical over barrels. Ah... the dreaded barrels. I popped him with my whip three strides out, he locked on and with a slight resistant bend, jumped fine. I hope the I can officially call his barrel phobia over.
Feeling pretty proud of us, we got to the "gone away" flags where we are supposed to gallop, flat out, until the next set of flags and go back to a working pace. This test shows obedience in the horse. Brego did fine, he actually did speed up, much to my surprise. He came back easily as well, probably because the "gone away" sprint was right up a steep hill.
Then we had an easy curve to the left, over some spooky logs. Brego really popped his shoulder and I had trouble getting him straight. I deduced from the pictures that my reins are way too long to really help with bending and my legs too high.
Then we had another nice canter up to the top of the hill where some stadium jumps were set up. I was flagged to jump a 2'7" roll top at the top of the hill. When I walked the course, I thought "That's going to be a problem". Brego has never jumped a roll top before. It was big and green and right at the top of the hill. I got Brego up the hill and he was tired. I was tired. I tried to lock him on the roll top and I could tell he thought I was kidding. I popped him and really drove him towards it. He almost bought it and gave it a good effort, but at the last minute just stopped and looked at it. Neither of our hearts were in it after the climb, so even though it was a stop, I felt like it wasn't a "refusal". I circled around, with myself collected and ready and he jumped it fine.
Lots of pats and we headed back down the hill. We had a long gallop to a log and even though we were flagged to jump this tiny thing, he gaped at the bigger log next to it. So more bending, resisting, while he stared at a log we weren't even going to jump. Through sheer strength, I held him on a good enough line to get him over the baby log we were supposed to jump.
Then another muddy water crossing where he refused to go faster than a walk. He's smarter than I am. Then another log up a hill, no problem. The final fence he looked at, but jumped it and then we came to the lead over. I halted, paused a second to let him settle. Then I dismounted, ran up my stirrups and led him over a fence. He did great.
So all in all, a very green, shaky round, but we're both very green. I was completely exhausted by the end of the 10 minutes of cantering, and he was blowing pretty hard as well. I hosed him down and he recovered fine, but it was a wake up call. A Beginner Novice course will be half the distance, but as many fences. We need more conditioning, both of us, and I will pray to the weather gods for no humidity. It is a killer for the big guy.
When I was done, I was bummed about the roll top. But as I thought about it, he did amazingly well out there on course, by himself, first time ever, after slipping and nearly falling in the mud. He's a green horse, he will have stops. He's not a dirty stopper or dishonest, it just wasn't meant to be. If I were a stronger rider, not exhausted myself from the climb, I could have stuffed him over. But that's where we both are right now. I would rather get a clean stop, regroup, and represent for a clean fence, instead of squeak over. That's getting dangerous. I need to trust Brego that if he says he can't do it honestly, he can't do it. He's earned that trust from the work he's done to this point. We will ride another day, we will both get stronger, no big deal.
I am going cross country schooling tomorrow. I am going to focus on water, trying to rebuild some confidence lost today. I am going to focus on forward to fences he has not schooled. And I am going to shorten my reins so I can be more effective. Oh yea, and fix my leg.