Turning 50 is one of those things that messes with your head. It’s not that the body is actually significantly more decrepit than it was at 49. But that number, man. It feels like a 16 tonne weight.
Truth be told, my mojo has been a bit elusive for a few years now. In my case, what I mean is that I’ve become something of a chickenshit in the saddle. Oh, I still break and ride silly young horses, and I still go out hacking, and I don’t need a fence around me to feel secure when I’m schooling, and I frequently ride by myself (cel phone in pocket) because if I always waited for someone else to turn up I’d never bloody ride at all ….
And I still feel like I’ve got a secure galloping position, and I still jump. But when you’ve been out of the competitive world for a few years, and decrepitude is creeping up on you, and you mostly ride on your own, and there’s often no-one around to move the jumps around for you (and you get seriously fed up with mounting and dismounting and mounting and dismounting to do it yourself) … well, both the frequency and the quality of the schooling over fences begins to suffer a bit.
Consequently, jumps that used to look pretty do-able to you, start to look positively formidable. You ‘lose your eye’, so to speak.
I’m not claiming I was ever a hero out there on a cross-country course. I have friends who are utterly fearless … year after year, they’re competing at the highest levels and no fence seems to be too massive. I admire and envy that, but recognize that my mojo, even at its shiniest and most splendid, has limitations, and more importantly, so does my athleticism. (I like to think that my common sense, on the other hand, runs pretty deep…. which is perhaps why Preliminary level, which is just a weensie bit death-defying, as opposed to utterly and insanely death-defying Advanced level, is as far as I’ve gotten in the sport.)
Eventing, after all, is a little more extreme than some of the other equestrian disciplines. Not gonna claim it’s as mind-bogglingly extreme as, say, steeplechase racing (I’ve always maintained that the advantage of my sport over that one is there’s relatively little risk that you’ll collide with another 500 kg animal hurtling around at the same time you are), but still, on the hard-core side, and it tends to attract Type A adrenaline junkies who lean towards the ‘live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse’ philosophy of life. Many before me have pointed out that it’s practically the only sport where you’re required to have your medical information strapped to your arm at all times.
If the corpse thing doesn’t come to pass, though, it’s generally acknowledged that, at some point, most eventers start to become dimly aware of their own mortality, and become DQs (dressage queens) or take up some other (ahem) gentler art, like (cough) combined driving. Though lately, riders like Mark Todd (age 57) and Andrew Nicholson (age 52) are bucking that trend … something in the water in New Zealand, perhaps?
I’m not ready to become a DQ. Much as I enjoy dressage (and seriously, I do — no, really), if it were the only thing I did on a horse, I would eventually go postal and take out a Wal-Mart with a semi-automatic something-or-other. And so would my beasties. (I can easily picture Parker with an Uzi.) One of the nicest things about eventing is that horses rarely get sour, because they always have something different to work on. Flatwork one day, jump the next, gallop sets the third, go out on a hack the fourth, have a cross-country school the fifth, lather, rinse, repeat, not necessarily in that order. It’s good for the brain.
So … not ready to give it up, but feeling the athletic equivalent of my biological clock ticking this spring (oddly, I never felt one when it came to my uterus, but that’s another tale), I cast my gaze upon Young Master Spike, grazing in radiant obliviousness (obliviosity?) in his field this spring, and declared, “Enough is enough.”
Spike, who is 11, hasn’t been to a show since he was five, and probably hasn’t missed it, helpfully raised his head and said, “Huh?”
For the past half-decade, one stupid thing or another has kept us from competing. Injury to him, injury to me, work conflicts, and general destitution chief among them. (The destitution hasn’t changed, but let’s face it, I’ve really never let that stop me before.) But I’m sound at the moment (and have even lost some weight chasing around after clients and their ponies, so feeling slightly less lumpy and ungraceful than the last few springs — plus my show clothes actually fit again, or are even slightly loose, which is a bonus), Spike is sound but getting no younger, and I figured if I paid up all my memberships, I would feel a sense of obligation to actually compete.
Time to kick my mojo in the ass.
Honestly, I hadn’t jumped a cross-country fence in almost five years. Even my knock-down fences at home had rarely inched above the 2’6″ level. So the first order of business was to arrange a schooling session at a nearby farm. A friend and fellow coach indulged me and my confession that I was feeling, ahem, rusty and ancient, and pointed me at some nicely inconsequential logs and ditches and things on a June afternoon, saying encouraging things, and pretty soon the muscle memory started to kick in. Just a little.
It helps that Spike is a Steady Eddie sort of character. Nowhere near as athletic or dynamic as my previous partner, Toddy, but at the same time not nearly the obstreperous bastard Toddy could be, either. Despite his lack of mileage, Spike is dead honest … if you point him at an obstacle and halfway have your shit together, he will jump. It might not be pretty, but he will go, bless his little cotton socks. I was counting on that.
I set my sights on competing at Entry level (max height 2’9″), to begin with. Which, yes, is mildly embarrassing for someone who’s been at it as long as I have. But while Spike is getting to the point where he’s pretty broke on the flat, thanks to my reluctant-dragon-ness he was a little behind on his jumping skills and I didn’t want to overface him right off the top and damage that honesty of his … and also, he might be a Thoroughbred but he doesn’t have that baseline of fitness that a TB who has actually raced, always seems to maintain. (This is my subtle way of saying he is built like a Sherman tank and is likely the most difficult TB in the world to get fit.)
So, Entry level. Not because I was still feeling like a chickenshit. No sir.
Our first attempt, I’m sad to report, was a non-starter. I selected a horse trials at Wit’s End, a farm a mere two concessions over from mine, thinking that would be a lovely place to start. Spike disagreed. I came home from teaching on Friday evening, ready to ride and then bathe and braid and hook up the trailer and do all that show-prep stuff that was as natural as breathing, once upon a time … and Spike was a gimp.
He hadn’t been bothered by his sticky left stifle in more than four years, but having developed an unerring instinct for detecting when a $200 entry fee has been mailed, he just couldn’t resist, I guess. I ended up spending the day at Wit’s End helping with the timing in the stadium ring. And Spike was sound by Monday.
Mercifully, he has held together just fine since then. We re-routed to a ‘short course’ at nearby Equus 3D Farm the following week. A short course is sort of a hybrid competition, more casual than a proper horse trials, and a nice way to ease in. You ride a dressage test, as per usual, and then jump a few stadium fences, leave the ring, and jump a few cross-country fences. Spike was nervous, a bit neurotic, screamed his head off throughout his dressage test and was momentarily startled at the transition between coloured poles and solid logs out in the hayfield … but his honesty kicked in and he improved as he went ’round. We took home a sixth-place ribbon. Yay us.
Mojo: still a work in progress.
Since then we’ve done two more horse trials, two cross-country clinics, and a dressage lesson for good measure, and it’s starting to come together. At Will O’Wind in July, I felt Spike looking for the next fence and taking me to it for the first time, instead of landing and going, “Now are we done? No? There’s another one?”, all stutters and starts. That’s what a good event horse should do, what Toddy always did. Woe betide you if you pointed Toddy at the wrong fence, because he would lock on the line like an electromagnet and it would take a herculean effort to pull him away.
It’s an amazing feeling when a green horse starts to understand the job and love it. (Even if the green horse in question is 11.)
I got some pictures back from the first few competitions, and it convinced me of something: them fences ain’t so intimidating after all. Spike’s just stepping over them. They’re …. little.
Why, mojo, that’s where you’ve been hiding, you slippery little bastard.
So it’s time to upgrade. All the way from Entry level to Pre-Training (gasp). Where the fences are max three foot. But I had planned, if all went well, to do one event a month this summer (that being all my budget can withstand) and upgrade by the end of the season — so Spike and I are on target. Next year, we can start out at Pre-Training and finish up going Training level, at which point perhaps I will no longer be mortified.
There have been a number of little things to be proud of, thus far in Project Mojo. Spike is becoming a horse show veteran. A couple of months ago he was screaming and freaking out … now he gets off the trailer and says, “Where’s my hay net?” and is learning not to get his panties in a bunch. My student-slash-groom, Sarah, is much relieved.
Our dressage scores are steadily improving — not that an Entry level test gives him anything much to do, but mentally, Spike has not been ready to show off his fancier moves in front of an audience just yet. At the beginning of the summer it was all I could do just to keep him in the ring. Now he’s over that and I’m starting to be able to really ride him through.
And I think that I’m more relaxed, and subsequently riding better, than I sometimes did in the past. Being one of those A type personalities, I used to produce enough adrenaline at an event to light a small city, and that tended to make my legs creep up the saddle flaps and my lower back go rigid … and though admittedly, that was when I was showing at the Prelim level and there might have legitimately been a fence or two to be worried about at the time, now I’m finding that the absurdity of starting over at Entry level is allowing me to just laugh about it all. I’m not getting nearly as wound up as I used to about the whole showing thing, and it feels good.
(I could have tossed the Rocky theme in here or something, i suppose, but I’d rather have some more Austin Powers.)