As some of you may have noticed, El Brego de Orro and I took a trip to New Hampshire last weekend to participate in the USEA-Recognized Horse Trial at Kingsbury Hill. It was our first recognized event, having several schooling shows under our belt, and I knew it was going to be a nice step up in both difficulty and competition.
For the previous two weeks, Brego has been in relatively light work because of a small swelling on his right hind fetlock. He was never truly off on it, but not quite his usual self. As a result, he had minimal work and even less conditioning. The Thursday before the show, I had a jumping lesson and my trainer, who is always very conservative, recommended I scratched the show. Brego was completely sound, but seemed tired and not his usual self during the lesson. It was a hard decision. Was my desire to complete this show, to finally go recognized, to FINALLY earn the title of this blog: The Eventing Percheron, overriding my good judgment about my horse's welfare?
I knew, deep down inside, that Brego felt good. I could see it in his expression and his big goofy sense of humor. I could tell by the way he pulled me into the trailer, ready to go, at out last outing to school cross country, that he wanted to do something. He was sick of the arena, the endless dressage.
So I decided to try.
We packed up and left on Saturday to make the three hour drive to the show grounds. On the way, we hit a nasty storm complete with blinding sheets of rain and penny-sized hail. The wind was strong and I was worried about a tree falling across the tiny, winding New Hampshire back road. The truck did great, hauling the big trailer up the hills in near blackout. Finally, we got through the storm and found we had missed a turn when I was focusing on simply staying on the road. We ended up driving an hour out of our way, but finally pulled into the event barn. Kingsbury Hill is a very appropriate name. The entire show was held on the crown of a pretty good sized hill.
We unloaded Brego and put him in his stall and then set up our trailer for overnighting. A few people were already there and everyone was very nice. I got Brego bedded down and then headed out for the first course walk. The rain had just come through and the course was drenched. It looked tough. It was pretty long, 16 fences on a double track winding between two main fields. The fields looked like they would drain. The paths through the woods looked very slick. On the first course walk, I just focused on where I would go, the order of the jumps, and the start and finish.
I tried, weakly, to control panic.
About an hour later, I walked the course again. This time, I looked at the terrain, at the footing. The course started to make more sense. I started to see how the terrain was a challenge unto itself. The first half of the course winds its way down the hill to the lower field. Then the second half, you come back up the hill, including a very steep incline before a large bank at fence 13. Then the last three fences are on the flat, a mad straight dash to the finish. I identified Brego's bogey fences, the ones he would look at. The maxed out flowerbox with bright purple flowers, big and bold, at fence 7 and the tire jump, with giant tractor tires as standards at fence 14.
I then walked the show jumping course, which was situated basically on the side of a hill. Where the course was was relatively flat, but right below the course, in warm up, was steep and wet. The stadium course consisted of 8 fences spread out like a hunter eq course. Nothing tricky, nothing spooky, no rolltops or coops. It flowed pretty well and was not too tight. I felt better about stadium, if the footing would hold. The grass was long and it was very wet. I just hoped the sun would shine bright before my 1 pm stadium start.
I few more cookies for Brego and then bed time. I watched the women's marathon at the Olympics live in my trailer and got inspired about my piddly 5 minute cross country course. I went to sleep, dreaming of gold.
The morning of the show was gorgeous, chilly, crisp, surprisingly not humid. A stiff breeze blew across the top of the hill and really help to keep it cool and dry out the wet. Brego was demanding breakfast as I scrambled to get him braided, get my competitor's packet, memorize ride times, optimum times, allowed times, speed times, so many times, but never enough time. We tacked up for dressage and I hit the warm up ring. To say it was busy is putting it mildly. It was a circus. One woman, with the best seat I have ever seen, rode out a rodeo I couldn't believe. Every two seconds I was calling out "inside", "outside", "inside" as we wove in and out, trying to get bend, trying to relax, but not too much, still must have energy. Brego's canter felt really good, so I moved out to the dressage arena.
When our time came, before I entered the ring, a kind lady called out for me to fix my coat collar. I asked her to help and then she told me I couldn't have my whip in the ring. Silly kind lady, I was not there for the championships! I was there for our first event ever! So in we went and didn't muddle things too badly. Brego was late to pick up his left lead at K, but otherwise he was very prompt. I was too busy, too urgent, but he graciously ignored me and did his job. The halt was not square, but it was at X dammit and that's all one could hope for.
Otherwise satisfied, Brego made it back to his stall to the rest of his breakfast, lots of cookies, and sudden recognition from the other competitors. Everyone was very kind to this point, but standoffish. Aside from a couple of overheard comments about 96" blankets (everyone is a comedian, eh?), no one had paid us any heed. But after dressage, people started to come up, ask about Brego, engage with us. We were becoming one of them.
I took at look at the scores and we had a 39.5 after dressage, tied for fourth.
I walked the cross country course a third time and this time I focused on my plan. Brego's conditioning was not the best, and that leg... it was wet and a long course. I planned on trotting Brego during two points in the course, both through the woods. I even planned to walk him through some of the deepest mud. The open fields, where the largest collection of fences were situated were drying out quickly, so I could make my pace there and get some nice gallop fences. But I must protect Brego in the woods, where it was treacherous. Optimum time was 4:48 and I knew that was tight. But there it was. That was my plan.
During the 4 hour break between dressage and stadium, I watched the training-level riders tackle the show jumping phase. The first four horses slipped and had rails. Everyone had time faults. The course looked a lot more sneaky than I thought. These were big scopey horses with shoes and studs. What was poor barefooted Brego going to do? I started to get really nervous.
At noon, I got dressed for cross country and tacked up for stadium. Because they were running one after the other, I could wear my cross country gear during my stadium round. I made it down to the jumping warmup and it was a mess. Sloppy and chewed up from countless other warmup rides, Brego was slipping at a walk. I watched horses go in warmup and then in the ring. The footing in the ring was definitely better. So I needed to preserve his confidence for the ring. I gently cantered him over a few jumps and then just kept him loose on at the walk, asking for leg yields occasionally, asking him to check in with his brain.
Then it was time to jump. We entered the ring and I asked for a big trot up the hill between the jumps, how was the footing? Did he slip? No, that was ok. I heard the whistle, smiled at the judge, and asked for the canter, right rein. Brego did a mini spook at something on our left, so strange, not quite sure, so I asked again. And up and into the right lead and he was on fire. He was ready to go. We screamed through the start flags and I got back enough to get our first jump. Then he was cruising to the natural poles at two. I braced back and sat tall and then we both saw the distance together and nailed it. So incredible to have him in front of my leg for once.
He cruised around that course, looking hard at fences and then lifting over them while searching for the next one. I was riding crazy, using my weight, my arms, anything to keep the balance, keep him going, but not... too... fast... I had to really steady him for the downhill verticals. MUST PROTECT THE VERTICALS. and found myself laughing at this brilliance. He was so "on". We sailed through the last combination and when the announcer said something about a Percheron and going clear, I just erupted. It was not the prettiest bit of riding, and I am sure we looked a little half-crazed out there, but dammit if Brego didn't just light up on that course and carry me away with him.
I was pretty ready to call it a day. You can't top that performance. The spectators were at once amazed and incredulous about what they saw. Many of them called out to me: "Good riding!" "I love your horse!" "What IS he??" I replied, "He's a Percheron!!" and everyone turned and commented to their neighbors. What a rush.
I ended up tied for first after that stadium performance. The footing had claimed more victims.
I had fifteen minutes before cross country. Brego could lay down and refuse to move another step, and he would still have surpassed all my wildest expectations. But he recovered well and seemed to be enjoying the crowd, the atmosphere. He was ready.
Finally we got called to the start box for cross country. I rehearsed my plan in my head. Strong out of the box, left lead to 2, right lead to 3, easy over 4 then trot to the big field. Big bold canter over 5 through 8. Then easy canter over 9. Trot then walk through the mud, pick up the canter before 10. Trot the rest of the hill then right lead to 11. Trot up the hill to 12 and then up the steep hill, must canter that, to the bank at 13. Then finish strong at 14, 15, 16.
The timer counted down and wished me a nice ride. I looked at her for a second or so more, then remembered, this is it! Fly, you fool! I clucked to Brego and we were off! Strong out of the box! Too deep to 1, must control the strong part. Nice lead to 2, got it to 3, feeling very strong, a little too strong. Over 4, now trot. Brego sank into a big trot. On the way out to the field, trotting through the woods, we passed the previous riding walking back. She had fallen off and was eliminated. She was a good rider and a better horse and they didn't make it. What the hell was I doing? Brego, can we make it?
Stick to the plan.
Out of the woods, into the field, left lead to 5. Oops, wrong lead after 5 and the turn to the right is down a hill. The footing... can't bring him down too suddenly, let him figure out the lead. He's not figuring out the lead, ok big turn, make it wide so he can counter canter it, can't risk a simple change. Ok, back on track over 6. Now on to the bogey fence, the big purple flowers on the big box. Line him up, up and over, he didn't even look at it. He's strong, really moving now, ears perked, looking for 8. There it is a whole field away, go Brego! 8 is big, looks bigger from this speed. He's got it, be still and let him find it. There! Up and over, now he's really trucking.
Need to slow it down for 9. We're headed back into the woods. It's wet, slower. Good, 9 was no problem. Trot now, and walk through the mud. Good boy for having such a good brain. Got through the mud, now up the hill. We are starting the climb, must save him for the end. Canter 10 then back to the trot, still climbing. Trot 11 then canter 12 and now we get to it. The steepest part of the hill crowned by a huge bank. Ok canter and go, come on, almost there. The bank is big, I can feel it takes a lot out of him. That was 13, just three more, come on, you can do it! Tired now, we're both tired, but there is the finish, you can see it. Just line up for the tires at 14, another bogey Brego doesn't mind, and then a small log at 15. Then it's just the maxed out rolltop at 16. No problem! Check the watch, cross the finish! We're over time, but not by much, but who cares??? We did it!
We did it!
We did it!
Brego got a slow cool out with water and a leg rub. He owned that course, made it his own. I have never felt him so strong, but when I really needed him to listen, to come back and rest, he did. Twice during the trots he asked to canter, and both times he heeded my gentle "Not yet".
He absolutely did everything I asked of him, perfectly. The only thing I can fault him is that he missed the left lead at K in our dressage test. Which is such a small nit, compared to the magnitude of his effort and how much he enjoyed the jumping phases and carried me with him. There's no doubt, he finally "gets" cross country and he couldn't get enough of it.
As for me, I am more proud of our final 3rd place finish with 4 time faults than I would be with a win. We were first after stadium, but I had a plan and I knew my horse and I knew what he would need. If I had pushed him around the course to make time, he would have been too tired. He needed the trot breaks, I could feel him recover. The improvement I could have made would be to get the correct lead after five so I could have made a safer and smaller turn. But there was not anything else I would change. I rode to my plan and I rode for my horse.
There were a lot of nice horses there and even better riders. We were not the most polished team, or had the best technique. But we rode for each other. Brego trusted me when I said go and I trusted him to keep me safe. And I felt it, that feeling on cross country when things are clicking and your horse is hungry and each fence rolls under you smooth like the last. I finally felt it.
And I love it.