Parker the Precocious
I know I still haven’t posted about the Pan Am Games showjumping, and I will get to that just as soon as I finish editing an absolutely stupid number of photos, but I had to do a little brag about Young Master Parker.
Ontario summers are brief and frantic, and this year I’ve been pulled in all sorts of directions which, while interesting or productive or useful in terms of paying some bills, have not allowed me to do all that much with my own horses. Between a number of gigs judging schooling shows (for which I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, and yes, just FYI, I’m available for more of those), and the Pan Ams taking up a good chunk of July, I haven’t managed to get either Spike or Parker out to a single event. Or clinic. Or combined test. Hell, I didn’t even drag my jumps out of storage until the end of July. (For that matter, I also didn’t get anywhere near a beach, a hiking trail, a canoe, or a drive-in movie, either — all usual elements of my summer repertoire. Oh well.) I’ve been riding both of them semi-consistently, and I even succeeded in getting my filly, Trixie, backed at last (oh, gawd, add her to the list, another future blog post). But making good use of all those expensive memberships which allow me to show? Not so much.
So with fall looming and the wretched prospect of being buried in a snowdrift again in mere weeks, I resolved to at least get each of them out to one or two events before the end of the season … budget permitting. The obvious choice for our first outing was Wits’ End, by virtue of it being two concessions away from my home base. Wits’ End, owned by Jo Young and Bill McKeen, both respected officials in the sport, runs divisions from Pre-Entry all the way to Intermediate, and used to host a CIC*** before negotiations with the FEI to get a favourable date in the calendar failed, and the whole thing became too big a money-loser to continue. It’s known for its challenging, extremely hilly terrain and big, but fair, courses. And a long, long walk from the trailer parking to the show rings.
The original plan was to take Spike Pre-Training, but he has come up with a mysterious hard bump on the back of one fetlock. It’s not bothering him in the slightest, there’s no heat or tenderness of any kind, but given that it’s a bit of a headscratcher I decided to hold off on jumping him for a bit. Time for Young Master Parker to step up to the plate.
Given that Parker has really only done two events in his short lifetime, and they were both last year, I figured, damn the optics of it, we’d better stay at Pre-Entry. I know, I know. The shame of it. Log, log, log, log. And me a certified coach and all.
For better or worse, log, log, log was not really what we got. I was a bit startled, to be honest, when I walked the course the day before the show, because there was a whole lot to do out there. For the level, I mean. Baby horse was going to get an eyeful. There were a few definitely-visible-to-the-naked-eye sized jumps, a couple of which were brightly coloured, but I was more worried about the technical fences, which included a Helsinki (a fence set into the side of a hill, the likes of which you rarely see on cross-country courses anymore, and certainly not at Pre-Entry) and a vertical at the top of a steep hill. Also, there was a little ditch — and Parker had not previously had any issue with ditches, except for a week earlier, when we’d gone cross-country schooling at another local farm and he had inexplicably and repeatedly said “fuck you” at every ditch I’d pointed him at. I stared at that inconsequential little thing for a while and thought, “Well, depending on his mood, our day just might end right here …”
I walked the stadium course, too, and it was also Not Nothing. The fences themselves aren’t terribly big at Pre-Entry, but the track was the same one that would be used for the upper-level horses later in the day. Among its features was a triple-bar — which I didn’t even think was legal at Pre-Entry, who knew? — with a bending line to a skinny vertical. Is it just me, or is that way technical for a baby horse?
(I have judged a whole lot of hunter schooling shows this summer, and I could, if I wanted, insert a rant here about how there is an entire generation of kids coming up through the hunter/jumper system, who not only could not handle any of the bending lines in Parker’s mini stadium course without having a meltdown, but who these days aren’t even expected to go into the ring and jump the jumps without having a half-hour ‘warm up’ over those same bloody jumps. But I’m trying to stay on topic here.)
Sink or swim, it was, then. The little peckerhead would either rise to the occasion, or be utterly backed off by the experience and never forgive me. I went home and tied his mane into tiny knots, had a quick swipe at my tack and my fancy half-chaps (still mud-splattered from hunting last fall), and then spent most of the night staring at the ceiling while I tried to ride the course in my brain. (Having taken a number of sports psychology seminars over the years, I’m aware of the value of positive visualization, but my powers of concentration generally let me ride the first six or seven fences in my mind really, really well … and then after that, things get fuzzy.) It felt kind of stupid to fret over a course that didn’t (probably) exceed two foot six, except that I find riding baby horses in competition a fair bit more nerve-wracking than taking a more experienced horse over considerably bigger fences. Parker can be a bit of a wild card at the best of times, and I really wasn’t sure how he was going to react.
I won’t give you the entire blow by blow, because let’s face it, you’ve only read this far because you’re probably a personal friend and you’re being polite. Thanks for that, by the by. It’s not like anyone other than me is going to remember next week, what transpired and where we placed. Suffice to say Parker handled the chaos of the dressage warm-up ring better than I expected him to, and apart from a few head-tosses, delivered what I thought was a pretty nice test for a youngling. (And I got to wear my fabulously blingy new stock tie, too.) The judge, tragically, disagreed with my assessment, writing on our test, “Such a shame. A disappointing day for you.” But then again, she (or her scribe) also wrote, “abrupt transition” for a movement which didn’t include any transitions, so, you know. Grain of salt. I was just pleased that he kept his head and tried hard for me. No hissyfits = #ParkerFTW.
I got brave for stadium and left Parker’s braids in, steadfastly ignoring the wee voice in my head which recommended having a handhold available in case of emergency. In for a penny, etc. He dragged me down to the jumps in the warm-up area, which I hoped would translate to the stadium ring, and luckily, it did. He isn’t fazed by bright colours, decorations or gew-gaws, and thinks jumping these things is just about the best fun there is to be had with tack on. And wonder of wonders, the rideability between the fences is coming along — or, at least, we had fewer wobbly lines than I remember from a year ago. We had one disagreement as to take-off spot, resulting in some awkwardness, but left all the rails up and were one of the few clears in the division.
Thus buoyed, I brought him back to the trailer and got him unbraided and gussied up for cross-country while he head-butted my most excellent groom, Sarah Cuthbertson, repeatedly. Cocky little bastard. Wits’ End was having a little photo contest in which you were supposed to demonstrate your matchy-matchy cross-country colour excesses and get a bunch of ‘likes’ on Facebook, so I dragged out the red and royal blue saddle pad, the red reins and the blue boots, and the piece de resistance, the scarlet breeches I bought at the Royal Winter Fair last year in a moment of weakness. I figured at least I’d be easy to find in the long grass if the whole thing went tits up in a snowbank. We snapped some pix, and with loins metaphorically girded, headed towards the start box.
By this point it was fricking hot out — pushing 31 Celsius, I think — so I gambled that Parker’s recent stadium experience would keep his brain in jumping mode. I only hopped over one cross-rail in the warm-up before we presented ourselves for our count-down. Twenty years ago, when I was competing my dear departed Toddy at Prelim, I used to get rather nauseated circling the start box, and I felt a flutter of that walking Parker around — but once we got into gear, we were both more focused on sucking in oxygen and not taking any wrong turns than on churning stomach acids. My brat was bold as brass, and really only showed his greenness at a little post-and-rails (fence four) where he tried to veer sideways and ended up jumping it almost from a standstill, and on a couple of the steep downhills, which he was not quite balanced enough to canter down just yet. He didn’t bat an eyelash at the ditch, nor at the Helsinki, nor at the couple of coops which were bigger than anything he’d tackled before … and he actually listened to me when we came to the vertical at the top of a steep rise, and jumped it safely. (That one caused a fair bit of consternation with the other Pre-Entry horses.)
I could feel him gaining confidence as he went, and by about fence 12 (the cabin in the photos at the top of this post), I stopped trying to set him up for each fence from 85 strides away, and just let him roll on down to them the way I normally would on a horse with more mileage. He was fine with that. 1500 metres or so later, we passed through the finish flags knowing a whole lot more about each other than we’d known before — which is what a good course is supposed to do, but until we did it I hadn’t been at all sure we were going to get that far!
Rather too late to say, long story short, at this point…. but on account of the time faults we racked up trotting down the hills (and the dressage score handed down by our disenchanted judge), we ended up fifth in the Open division. Just fine by me as ribbons weren’t even on my radar for this outing. (I’m running out of room on the lampshades anyway.) Then, of course, Parker had to ruin our good mood by being an asshat about loading to go home — that’s still a work in progress — but overall, he’s still on Santa’s nice list. And he may have earned himself an upgrade all the way to (gasp!) Entry level before the season’s over. Depending on whether I can scrape together the shekels for another entry fee.