Go have a look, and cruise around the rest of their blog, which focuses on long-distance riding but has lots of interesting tangents, too! (Oh, and if you like the logo, they have lots of lovely merch available. Happy Winter-Celebration-Of-Your-Choosing!)
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 aboutYoung 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 wasWits’ 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.
Hey, it`s a Canadian blog, so you`re gonna get pix of the Canadians. All of whom were legitimately excellent, and I don`t say that lightly — all four delivered tests that were the best I`d ever seen from them, especially Belinda Trussell`s Anton, who, frankly, had the best piaffe in the Games and wuz robbed of a medal, IMHO.
Dressage at the Pan Am Games has a complicated history. The Pan Ams are qualifiers for upcoming Olympic Games, and as such are hotly contested, but for the past couple of decades at least, the level of competition has been at the Prix St. Georges/Intermediare level, not the Grand Prix level demanded at the Olympics. Which means a country may qualify for the Olympics, but will probably not be sending the horses and riders who cinched the qualification, because it takes more than a year to take a ‘small tour’ horse and have him confirmed and solid at the ‘big tour’ level.
Recognizing that the standard of dressage has improved markedly in Central and South America and the Caribbean in recent years, the Powers That Be decided for the Toronto Games that countries with the resources to do so could bring up to two Grand Prix partnerships of their four that made up a team. Riders who showed at the Grand Prix level were given more weight on their results (I think it was a coefficient of 1.5) than the Prix St. Georges horses. The US, Canada, and Argentina all managed to scare up two Grand Prix horses to send to Toronto, and Mexico and Uruguay each had one GP horse. The happy result was that spectators didn’t have to sit and watch the exact same test all day, but it did make the scoring, and the qualifications for the individual medals, confusing to say the least.
There was also considerable debate as to how many competitors from each nation were allowed to move forward to the individual round, after the US took the Team gold, Canada the silver, and Brazil the bronze. The FEI issued a bunch of contradictory statements the night before, and apparently volatile Team meetings back in the barns went into the wee hours, before it was declared that each nation could send forward only three of its four qualified riders. That meant both Canada and the US had to leave one horse in the barn despite qualifying scores. Which kind of sucked, but it did ensure that spectators got to see more individual freestyles from more countries.
Have to say, the South Americans have the best music for freestyles. The North American musical selections have all gotten to be much of a muchness, due in part, I think, to the fact that there are only two or three people writing and choreographing these things for the riders. We could use a little more soca and samba and a fair bit less of the generic-movie-soundtrack type stuff.
And here’s the afore-mentioned Puerto Rican rider, Luis Denizard, and Royal Affair, in a probably-illicit snippet from their freestyle, embracing the Leonard Bernstein:
End result: The US claimed individual gold (Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, 80.075%) and silver (Laura Graves and Verdades, 79.825%), and Canadian Chris Von Martels, who had put in a spectacular freestyle with Zilverstar, hung in for the bronze (79.50%). The other two Canucks, Belinda Trussell and Brittany Fraser, tied for fourth with 76.80%. Canada didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics with their Team silver — there was only one spot going begging and we would have had to have won gold to get it. There are still some opportunities to qualify individuals, but it’s going to take more expensive trips to Europe to do it, so may those with the deepest pockets, win.
Now that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity. This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground. So much for home court advantage.
Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games. Yup. Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments. The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process). I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth. Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible. I am bummed about having missedColin Jamesthough.
Anyway. For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games. In no particular order.
1. OVERBLING: The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women. If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly. From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling. The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids. In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours. (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)
2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES: I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”. I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country. Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.
Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.
Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches. From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome. The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle. It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara Falls. WTF? doesn’t really cover it …
And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it. The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.
3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE: One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie. The Americans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them. Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair issubtly differentin its design and the curve of its back. But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, particularly the eight-foot kind.
4. FUGLY: Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell? Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.
Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys. Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”? I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities. Seriously, who looks good in this fabric? One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who. And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe. These girls were putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these. Hashtag fashion fugliness.
5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE: By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country. But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels. In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto. Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.
The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever. (It’s a bit of a circular argument: if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following? Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal. Ugh.) So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything —declined to show upfor most of the equestrian events. Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on. There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.
There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games. Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff. The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones. I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.
There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond. But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work. At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent. Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party. Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front. But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in. Note to the Pan Am organizers: if it ain’t broke …
6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE: How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be themascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions. If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon. (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever designed by humans. They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.) I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated. I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely. In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two? No clue there either). Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers. (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)
7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY: As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything). Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it. At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause. The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact. YouTube became the place to go …
Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website. I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us? They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.
8. ALL THE FAKENESS: These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the Caledon Equestrian Park. They were at least five feet tall. I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario. (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)
Another headscratcher: the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers. And they looked really …. fake. I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?
9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE: Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door? As in, within driving distance for many? At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming. The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm. Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)? Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood). But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad. They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.
10. KICKSTARTER?: The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019. Always wanted to go to Peru. Send money, please?
(Please note: pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant. Thank you.)
Far be it from me to ignore a challenge. Well, okay. I do occasionally ignore challenges … only so many hours in the day, and I’m edging towards an advanced state of decrepitude, after all, and I’m way behind on blog posts about the Toronto Pan Am Games already, and besides, you think all these excuses just spring from the firmament fully formed? This kind of carefully crafted obfuscation takes time and effort, people.
But my good friend (and far, far more consistent blogger than I), Katherine Walcott, over atRodney’s Saga, tossed out a request to describe the best class I ever had at a horse show. So I’m going to reach a bit into the pre-Cambrian era (or, at least, pre-Spike) and tell you what I remember, rose-tinted though it may be. Cuz apparently, it’s a thing to do if you blog. Creates traffic and all that.
So. Once upon a time. I had abig lanky chestnut Thoroughbred geldingwho was an obstreperous bastard and my horse of a lifetime. That his show name was Sweeney Todd ought to tell you a little about him … he went through life with his ears permanently pinned, but OMFG, he had more run and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with. Transforming him from a malcontent racehorse into an event horse took every ounce of persuasive ability I could muster, a willful ignorance of the peril he semi-regularly put me in, and the approximate weight of a Buick Skylark in bulk-food-store Scotch mints, but we did forge a productive partnership eventually — and he was a nice enough horse that several Big Name Riders noticed him. (And went out of their way to tell me I was wasting a talented animal and ought to pass him over to someone who could do him justice, but whatever.)
Please can I have just a little peril?
Toddy had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and that “fifth leg” (no innuendo intended) that a really intelligent and athletic horse has; I trusted him implicitly on cross-country, and he got me around some Preliminary-sized courses I probably had no business getting around. He remains the only horse I’ve ever had who probably could have gone Advanced — had I had more money, more time, and the talent to match his. But as it was, with a limited supply of all of the above, we did reasonably well at the Preliminary level in Ontario in the early 1990s. And then I took a job managing a riding school in Bermuda for a year, and leased Toddy out at the height of his eventing career. (Looking back, not sure that was the smartest thing to do …)
So. The job turned out to be a bit of a trainwreck, and I returned to Ontario pretty much penniless and had to regroup for a while. The resumption of Toddy’s career took more time than I would have liked. He was 15 before I managed to get back in a position to show again. I’d realized by then that an upgrade to Intermediate was probably not in the cards, but I did have another bucket list item on the agenda: doing a full-on three-day event. We’d never managed to fit one in prior to my semi-tropical hiatus, and I knew if I dithered too much longer, it wasn’t gonna happen.
This was shortly before the “long format” three-day event became extinct, and theOntario Horse Trials Associationused to make a point of offering a Training level three-day event each year as a sort of gentle introduction to dealing with a real three-day (as opposed to the simpler, one-day horse trials format that most amateurs are accustomed to). “Real” three-days began at the Preliminary level and wereFEI-sanctioned, so the Training level three-days were run as clinics, with BNRs talking you through the extra steps: the two veterinary inspections, the various Phases of cross-country day (does anyone still remember Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase?), the dreaded 10-minute vet box, the demands of caring for and cooling out your horse after that sort of intensity.
So Toddy did his first — and only, as it turned out — three-day event at the age of 16, passing the jog despite his super-fancytrack jewellery, and delivering a mediocre dressage test in the rain the next day. (He often delivered mediocre dressage tests, not because he couldn’t do the flatwork, but because he held it in disdain and far preferred to embarrass me than to wow the judges. He was the old-fashioned type of event horse who wanted to get on with the running and jumping as soon as possible, please.)
That’s not the “best class” part. That came the next day, when Toddy trotted around Phase A — the first Roads and Tracks section — and then came out of the start box on Phase B (steeplechase) monumentally confused. Ordinarily, one gets a few warm-up cross-country fences before one goes out on course, but at a long-format three-day, you book it straight down to the (substantial) brush fences on steeplechase with no heads-up for your poor beast. Toddy, three-day virgin that he was, launched himself about five feet in the air over that first 3’3″ brush, with his eyes out on stalks. (Please note my bravery in providing you with photographic evidence of this: I was not exactly at my slimmest at the time, and between his helicopter effort and my thunder thighs, it ain’t a pretty picture!) We landed in a bit of a heap, and (with my heart in my throat) I chirped to him to gallop on … and suddenly there were tears streaming from my eyes as the pretty-good-allowance-turf-horse inside my teenaged beast asserted himself, and he realized that pelting like a bat outta hell at big brush fences was just about. The BEST. Thing. Ever. EV. ER.
To this day I don’t think my heart-rate has ever gotten higher; I’m lucky I didn’t stroke out, but I suspect that Toddy would have continued to pack me around even if I had been as limp as a bag of hammers at that point. I had galloped plenty of racehorses in my youth, but nothing ever felt faster or more terrifying or more fantastic than that two minutes and change on steeplechase, on the most athletic damn horse I ever sat on. The finish flags were a blur, and it took me one helluva long time to pull him up, but eventually we completed the second Roads and Tracks section and came into the 10-minute box on time and unscathed. (Good thing they weren’t checking my heartrate in there — it was still pounding like a bunch of demented Kodo drummers, but my shiny metallic chestnut dude was good to go despite the heat.)
The actual cross-country, Phase D, was almost anti-climactic after steeplechase, considering it was a Training level course and thus not all that challenging for Toddy, who’d been running Prelim for years. My brain stalled out at one point and I wasted a good 20 seconds circling in a field before I remembered where my next jump was, so we ended up with time faults, but I really didn’t give a rat’s ass. We were clean, Toddy had come through all of it beautifully (especially for an old warrior with osselets and a minor heart murmur), and his legs were cold and as tight as they ever were the next day. He hadn’t even managed to pull a shoe, which for Toddy, was saying something.
We capped the whole experience the next day with possibly the most perfect stadium round I have ever jumped. I freely confess to being a bit of a ‘seat of the pants’ rider. My eye for a distance is not the greatest, and I’ll routinely flub at least one fence by second-guessing my horse — but on that day, we absolutely nailed it. I remember cantering down to the final vertical on the course thinking, okay, I’ve managed to get a perfect spot to every fence so far, which never, ever happens … surely I’m going to come down to this last one and fuck it all up. Instead, I saw the distance, and the distance was good. It felt amazing. And I — and maybe the stadium judge, maybe not — was the only one who saw that round. Because the rain was coming down in absolute sheets, and pretty much everyone else had abandoned ship and was huddled in the indoor arena, some distance away.
To say I was proud of my Grinch that day is a huge, huge understatement. On top of all of his other little successes that weekend, he was normally a horse who loathed having to compete in the rain. He’d flatten his ears to his skull and grind his teeth and make it clear that I deserved to burn in hell…. but that day, he put away the ‘tude and pulled out the stops for me. Never mind that it wasn’t a ‘real’ three-day and it didn’t count for anything of any significance, and never mind that I don’t even remember where we placed. (Eighth or ninth, I think, thanks to that dressage score and the time faults on Phase D.) It still sticks in my mind as the most awesome show we ever had.
But you’re really going to have to take my word for it.
Over at this blog(the subtitle for which rather confusingly defines it as being about “politics, men, Detroit, horses, and prayer” — um, okay), author Nancy Kotting has written a post defining the “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders”. Being an inveterate Facebook-link-follower, I read through it. It’s a pretty good list. There’s a lot I like about it. But in the usual manner of those devoted to dress-AHHHGGE (soft g, please, peasants), it’s … well, a little stuffy. An eensy bit wordy and idealistic and brimming with the supposed nobility of the Classical Art of Dressage Which Is Always Capitalized. All of which can get a smidge tiresome when you are a no-bullshit, “Give It Some Wellie” A-type eventer who’s aware that the vast majority of people calling themselves dress-AHHHGGE riders are total wannabes on an unending Quest For the Perfect Twenty Metre Circle.
(Is that harsh? It’s probably harsh. But then again this is a snarky blog. Here be dragons. Sorry.)
Because I’m forever and ever an editor at heart, regardless of my current shortage of employment in this area, I decided to re-write the post for the real world (and all riders as opposed to just those OCD and flatwork-obsessed), make it all a little more succinct and practical and easy to remember. So without further ado, here’s the For Dummies version:
10. There are no failures, only Teachable Moments. AKA: Every horse will teach you something.
9. Leave your baggage in the car. Your job blows? Your boyfriend is bumping uglies with your yoga instructor? Your parents won the lottery and absconded for Argentina, leaving you a diabetic Himalayan cat and 43 Murder, She Wrote VHS tapes? Your horse is supposed to be your escape from all things wretched. Don’t take it out on him. Nothing productive is going to come of broadcasting your frustration, your rage, or your fear while in the saddle. Admittedly, it’s a tall order, but one of the most valuable skills a rider can learn is the ability to let it go (or at least stuff it all into a remote broom-closet in a back corner of your medulla oblongata and slam the door). When you put a foot in a stirrup, you have to Live in the Now, at least until you dismount. (Or as an instructor of mine once told me, “The Pope has just come by in his Popemobile? Doesn’t matter; carry on.”) Essentially: leave the tension in your skull and don’t let it reach your muscles.
8. Be the boss mare. Horses like a nice, clear hierarchical structure. They like having a calm, confident leader to follow. Be that leader, be firm but kind and not a pyschopath, and your horse will trust you to the ends of the earth.
7. Corollary: Don’t be a pussy. It’s oft observed that the trouble with parents today is that they want to be a friend to their kids instead of a leader and a role model. Similarly, an animal who outweighs you by 1100 lbs or so can easily lean towards taking advantage of that little disparity if you prove to have the constitution of last week’s Yorkshire pudding. I do not confuse horse ownership with parenting, and I hate the “fur kids” mindset, but the Boss Mare job description is accurate. It means that you don’t let your horse use you as his personal scratching post, you don’t let him run all over you because he doesn’t like those horrid, restricting cross-ties, and you don’t let him abuse your farrier or your vet, either. By all means, spoil your beastie within reason (I do not subscribe, for example, to the notion that hand-feeding treats is an appalling breach of discipline — horses are enormously food-motivated and I, for one, am not going to give up that powerful a training tool), but set firm boundaries on safe behaviour and be consistent about those rules. As my own critters hear repeatedly, well-mannered horses live long and happy lives. Nasty, dangerous ones, not so much.
6. End each ride on a positive note. Some days, that might mean you settle for a half-way obedient halt. It’s good to have a plan for every ride — otherwise many people tend to just putter aimlessly around the arena for 15 minutes and then give up when ennui sets in — but when you’re dealing with horses, you can’t be rigid about said plan. Maybe you began your ride hoping to work on your canter transitions, but your horse is being such a space cadet that you realize you’re going to be lucky just to keep the shiny side up. So throttle back, adjust your expectations, accept what your horse is able to offer mentally and physically on that day, and finish up with something you know he can do well, no matter how basic that might be. Horses are short on rational thought, but aches and pains, opinions, and emotions, they have in abundance, and any of those plus whatever’s going on in the environment can influence your ride. It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day.
5. There are no short-cuts. It takes work to produce a horse properly, regardless of discipline. Skimp on the basics and it will come back to bite you in the ass somewhere down the line. Try not to get ahead of yourself and expect things from your horse that he has neither the strength nor the understanding to offer you yet. Stop bitching and get your tender tush out the door every single day and do the work. It’s amazing how horses respond to consistency.
4. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. It’s true that the basic principles of riding are the basic principles of riding because, by and large, they work. They’ve done so for hundreds of years. But horses are individuals, and not every critter responds to the old Training Pyramid exactly according to the equitation manuals of old. Avoid the cliched definition of insanity, and be prepared to change it up if something’s not working. Horse just isn’t getting it when you ask for leg-yield down the long side of the arena? Try asking on a circle instead. Be flexible enough to approach some problems by the back door. If it’s true that the brilliant horses are always a little quirky, then why do we expect them all to be conformists? You just have to keep your eyes on the prize (in other words, the end result has to be somewhere in the vicinity of correct).
3. Don’t be your horse’s biggest handicap. Be fit enough to do the work. Gawd knows I’m nobody’s poster child for fitness, but I make an effort, on the theory that you really can’t ask your horse to give his athletic best if you are his biggest impediment. See #5, No Short-Cuts. If you can’t sit a trot, if your energy level fizzles before you ride that good downward transition, if your hands aren’t steady enough to allow your horse to trust that he’s not going to get whacked in the molars — in short, if you don’t spend enough time in the saddle to be solid and confident and have a truly independent seat, you really can’t expect Trigger to pick up the slack. And the reality is, riding one horse once a day doesn’t cut it for most people. Either find more horses to ride, or do some cross-training of your choice, both cardio and strength work. (Oh, and it’s “No Stirrups November” — remember all that stuff you used to do in Pony Club, and don’t make yourself do anymore?)
2. The cure for everything is forward. I subscribe to this to the point where it’s on my business cards (the riding instructor ones, not the editing/writing ones). When in doubt, close your leg and kick on! If your horse is truly, truly working from your leg into your hand then his options for being naughty are minimized and productive things will likely start to happen.
1. The horse comes first. I was taught this from an early age: feed your horse before you feed yourself, ensure his well-being before your own. It’s not enough to be a competent rider. You need to be a knowledgeable horseperson too. Understand that your horse’s welfare trumps all other considerations — like, say, ribbons, convenience, expense, and having a life. If you didn’t sign up for that, I hear ATVs are sorta fun.
Well. That really wasn’t any more succinct than the original post. Thanks for the inspiration anyway, Nancy.
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.)
This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. I’m exceedingly fond of my thus-far-intact skull, and as an eventer and a coach, I’m something of a helmet Nazi. So I’m happy to spread this message to my stalwart, happy handful of readers. Though I know I’m preaching to the choir, cuz you’re all smart like that, right?
RIDERS4HELMETS ANNOUNCES INTERNATIONAL HELMET AWARENESS DAY 2012
Helmet Manufacturers to offer discounts globally through participating retailers
Lexington, KY — Riders4Helmets.com has teamed up with leading helmet manufacturers to host International Helmet Awareness Day 2012 on Saturday June 9th.
Building on the success of National Helmet Awareness Day 2010 (USA) and International Helmet Awareness Day 2011, participating retailers all over the world will be offering discounts on helmets to equestrians on this day.
“We are delighted to be in our third year of hosting and organizing International Helmet Awareness Day,” said Lyndsey White, Riders4Helmets. “The campaign was founded two years ago as a direct result of Olympian Courtney King-Dye’s accident with the aim of educating equestrians on the benefits of wearing a properly fitting, secured and certified helmet. We are proud to dedicate this years’ event to Courtney.”
International Helmet Awareness Day is not just an opportunity for equestrians to purchase a helmet at a special one-time discount, more importantly it is an opportunity for equestrians to be educated. “Riders4Helmets will therefore be live-streaming ‘Get Educated’ webinars via Riders4Helmets.com on Saturday June 9th, in which equestrians will be able to ask a variety of experts real-time” questions.
The webinars will feature experts in fields such as: traumatic brain injury and concussion; psychology (why equestrians choose not to wear a helmet); neurophysiotherapy; helmet manufacturers; traumatic brain injury survivors; leading equestrians (including Olympians); and helmet testing agencies. Riders4Helmets will announce the confirmed line-up of participants at Riders4Helmets.com prior to June 9th.
The educational aspect of International Helmet Awareness Day will be supported by participating retailers, many of whom have already made plans to offer educational events in their stores on June 9th.
“We are grateful to the helmet manufacturers for their continued support of this important event,” said Chad Mendell, Riders4Helmets. “The Riders4Helmets campaign has continued to grow on a global level, as we hope will International Helmet Awareness Day.”
Retailers who wish to participate in the event may register by visiting www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/retailer-information/. Retailers are encouraged to register prior to May 28th, 2012 in order to ensure that they receive educational materials in time for the event. Late registrations will however, still be accepted through June 8th.
Equestrians may visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ to learn more about International Helmet Awareness Day and to search for participating retailers by name or geographic location. Equestrians are encouraged to visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ the morning of June 9th, 2012, to view the most current update, as participating retailers continue to be added.
Individuals or organizations wishing to hold an event to recognize International Helmet Awareness Day may email email@example.com for helmet awareness graphics and educational brochures. “You can participate and show your support just by wearing a helmet on June 9th, no matter whether you are trail riding, showing or competing” said White.
Riders4Helmets was founded in early 2010 after Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye was seriously injured in a riding accident. King Dye, who remained in a coma for a month following her accident, was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, and is still undergoing rehabilitation.
I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?
That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.
Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows. Rarely sublime, often ridiculous. Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi. (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)
But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.
There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland. (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four. There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass. A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)
Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit. And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself. After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”
Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …
The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better. While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar. Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own. We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.
Not only was there no press tent, there was no food. The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture. (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches. Sheesh. Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)
By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.
Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too. I still have the hat somewhere.
At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary. I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime. Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts. Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.
I’m gonna say it again. Cutlery. Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.
For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.
And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion: a fed journalist is a happy journalist.
It’s true. We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment. Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted. Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.
Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***. It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.
So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta. I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”
Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last. By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece. (And they were egg salad. Yecch. If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it. It’s just revolting.)
By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money. The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one. Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.
I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.
Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food. (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.) We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so. My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy. And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations. Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries. I get that.
Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there. I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores. Incorrectly. Par-tay.
I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”
Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas. With plumbing and all. Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.
Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out. But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying. (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.) Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us. (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.) We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.
I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.
I haven’t been raining negativity, bitterness and bile down on my gentle readers lately. And apparently, that has to stop.
It has been suggested to me by a devotee of WFTRSOTS (okay, ‘devotee’ might be phrasing it rather strongly, but there is forensic evidence that she pops by on occasion) that I should share with you some of the topics I’d just as soon never, ever, ever write about ever, ever again.
Is that the sort of thing you’d like to read? No? It’s just her?
Never mind, I’m going to forge ahead anyway. Woe betide me should I disappoint her. You can be the next one to suggest a topic. (No, really. Go ahead. Let’s see if I can riff on anything a la the late, great George Carlin. My guess is no.)
By the way, I should probably mention that I have made some headway recently in my ongoing crusade to demonstrate that I can, in fact, write entire paragraphs of published text without mentioning hooved quadrupeds of any kind. This seems necessary because there are a head-spinning number of editors out there who don’t seem to be able to extrapolate from one of my articles about a veterinary issue, that I can write about medical issues, and who can’t read a piece about a riding vacation and take the great leap to believing I could craft a piece about a boating or skiing vacation.
Between my snowmobiling jaunt in Quebec, back in January, and some agricultural pieces ranging from celebrating the Goat Farmer of the Year to rather more sober discussions of how fully farmers are adopting mobile technology, I have now collected …. ohhhhh, about a dozen clips, I guess …. which avoid horses like the plague. (Okay, yes, the goats are quadrupeds and have cloven hooves, but the article really discusses the award-winning goat farmer rather than his charges. Mostly.)
I consider this a minor triumph, but then, I have to take my triumphs where I find ’em these days.
I was also charged with writing my very first infographic a few months ago. It wasn’t easy, let me assure you. But the artist quite skilfully made a silk purse out of a (proverbial) sow’s ear …
I would happily write about goats some more. Or pigs. Or soybeans. I’m learning quite a lot about all three.
But please don’t ask me to write another infographic. It made my head hurt.
Of course, it’s still true that the vast majority of my portfolio — and the archive currently stands at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000 published articles — does feature, or at least discuss, equines of one sort or another. You’d be surprised how much variety there is within that niche: personality profiles, hard science, event reports and recaps, PR for future events, how-to’s, training tips, health and veterinary advances, a few fluff pieces, even some controversy on occasion. Maybe I’m not a flak-jacket journalist, but that doesn’t it’s all meaningless trivia (she said self-righteously).
There are few truly new topics under the sun, however. And there are some old chestnuts that editors seem to trot out every year without fail … depending on we starving freelancers to invent a new spin, lest we all simultaneously slip into vegetative states from the sheer, desperate redundancy of it all.
Some of these subjects, I don’t mind, honestly. I don’t object to writing about internal parasites, for example. There’s usually a bit of new science to discuss every few years, which keeps it fresh and interesting for me … and also, although I am easily grossed out by, say, eye diseases (I cannot look at the photos — ick), I apparently have a high tolerance for pondering the life cycles of slimy blood-sucking phylla who inhabit eyeballs and intestinal folds.
But please shoot me, I beg of you, if I ever have to write about the following again:
1. Fencing for horses. Coma-inducing? Oh, gawd, yes. New stuff to discuss? Pretty much never. The most exciting thing to come down the pike in recent decades has been an electric fencing product which has two-way current or something and doesn’t need to be grounded, which I guess is great because I don’t really understand the whole grounding thing and thus find it difficult to describe in articles. But ‘great’, in this case, is very much a relative term. If I have to put together one more bloody chart comparing oak board fencing to pipe corrals to high-tensile wire to synthetics, I may in fact garrote myself on the next electric fence I see, regardless of its grounding or lack thereof.
2. Thorny regulatory issues. Especially when they’re American. I write for a lot of American magazines, some of which, in their peculiarly Ameri-centric way, insist on ONLY American sources being quoted. This, to me, is short-sighted as hell … seriously, if you had a chance to hear from a showjumping expert like Beat Mandli (Switzerland) or a dressage guru like Edward Gal (the Netherlands), wouldn’t that be every bit as interesting to a reader from the United States, as someone home-grown? I don’t see how the US can continue to teach its citizens that nothing of any note happens beyond its borders, but I digress. What really makes me crazy is trying to figure out which government agency I have to phone, when I am commissioned to write an article about some issue which concerns or involves American government agencies (ie. drug regulations, feed and supplement labels, or the slaughter industry). The whole regulatory situation in the US, with so many things under state jurisdiction rather than national — and thus wildly different from state to state — makes me absolutely postal.
I’m nearly as unenthused about doing pieces about Canadian regulatory issues, but at least I can usually identify a ministry or organization as a likely starting place. Fuggeddaboutit in the US of A.
3. Fly Control. Again, this is a topic that makes the rounds at the beginning of every summer, and it is just mind-numbingly stupifying to write about. And to read about too. I can tell you all about the relative toxicities of various pyrethroid compounds, and discuss the efficacy of supposedly natural alternatives like apple cider vinegar and (I kid you not) Avon Skin-So-Soft, but really, I’d rather not.
4. Trailering. By this I mean, the methods and mechanics of moving horses from one place to another over asphalt. I have discussed health issues. Regulatory (ugh) issues. How to inspect your trailer for safety. How to select the right towing vehicle. Just run me over with a diesel dually next time instead of making me rehash it all again.
Et vous, gentle reader? If you are the type who peruses horse magazines, which topics do you find irretrievably old and tired and would rather not see again in your lifetime? I promise I’ll stop writing about them immediately.