Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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Archive for the tag “Eventing”

Parker the Precocious

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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 tParker triple bar2-0020006wo 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 S0249926me 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 Parker dressage canter-0269937disappointing 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 toParker xc colours 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 Parker faux ditch-0051later, 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.

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2015 Toronto Pan Am Games: Eventing

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As far as I was concerned, this was the Main Event (I make no bones about my bias).  It was lovely to share it with two houseguests, who endured my rather cramped and unglamourous quarters with exceptional grace, utterly failed to complain about the cat hair, rode my horses with aplomb, and made the whole thing way fun.  One was an old friend returning to Toronto (though not, to her disappointment, to downtown — there just wasn’t time), and the other was one of those great friends you’ve never actually been in the same room with before!  Amber and Ellen, we need to do that again.

colleen loach jog-0700So.  Eventing started out with the first veterinary inspection (aka “the jog”), which was somewhat less entertaining than these things sometimes are because everyone was decked out in official team uniform.  Therefore, no real fashion risks.  The Canadian women looked sleek and smart in red jersey dresses with white jackets, while male teammate Waylon Roberts made do with jeans which were more burgundy than red.  The Americans, sad to say, looked slightly rumpled and casual in khakis, and many ofguillermo garin ubago CHI uniform-0758 the South and Central American riders were decked out in full cavalry uniform.  (I hate to say it, but some of the military garb had a decidedly … Nazi-ish … twist, which I’m sure was not what they were going for.  But then again, the uniforms were one of the only things not viscerally, gut-clenchingly objectionable about the Nazis.  Do not send death threats for my having said that.  Unless they’re amusingly creative and you have no intention of following through.)

This being a Team and Individual competition rolled into one, one day of dressage was all that was required. Wet and chilly wasn’t exactly what spectators had been looking forward to, but if I’d been wearing a shadbelly and boots I would have been quite content with the temperature.  First-time Canadian Team member, Kathryn Robinson, knocked it out of the park, scoring 39.8 penalty points for second overall on her lovely Let It Bee, and Jessica Phoenix and Colleen Loach also laid down really solid tests.  Waylon Roberts’s Bill Owen, unfortunately, struggled to handle the atmosphere in the big ring and did his impression of a giraffe for most of the test  — but we all figured that was the drop score (Teams keep the top three scores from their four competitors and drop the worst of the bunch) so it was fine. At the end of the day, only Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca, with his longtime partner Tom Bombadill Too, had managed to trump Robinson’s score, with 38.9 pp. America’s Marilyn Little, who’s a relatively recent convert to eventing from the showjumping world, dropped into third with 40.30 pp.

Cross-country day was held not at the Caledon Equestrian Park, but at Geoff and Ann Morgan’s Will O’ Wind Farm, about 20 minutes away.  Will O’ Wind has hosted bunches of Ontario Horse Trials Association events over the years, and has been the site of the provincial championships on a number of occasions, but being selected to host the Pan Ams was another level of, well, everything. As in, pain-in-the-ass level 37, between the tearing up of much of the existing cross-country course (and the manicured grass dressage rings, which became a stabling area), losing the hay crop for the year, a truly paranoid level of security, and the Morgans being told they could no longer make decisions about their own land. The payoff was supposed to be a ‘legacy’ cross-country course at the two-star (Intermediate) level for Ontario riders to enjoy for years to come.  Unfortunately, that’s not really what Will O’ Wind got.  Because the Powers That Be accepted a low-ball bid for the design and construction of the course, rather than go with a bid from any of the local, extremely qualified course builders who understand Ontario conditions … they got jumps built in the southern US and shipped northward this spring on flatbed trucks.  Many of these fences were built of southern softwoods which won’t withstand a single Canadian winter, and the construction that happened locally was also substandard in a lot of ways, meaning that (among other things) the Morgans are going to have to re-do what was once a perfectly serviceable water jump in order to make it serviceable once more, post-Pan Ams.  Can you say, “clusterfuck”?

At least they did get it all finished for Pan Am cross-country day, if only by the skin of their teeth, and the weather and the footing on the big day turned out to be ideal.  Someone had decided, in an utterly typical bit of short-sightedness, that the venue could only accommodate about 5000 people, due mostly to the parking challenges, so that was the cut-off for tickets.  The event could easily have handled five times that, if only some bright spark had had the presence of mind to arrange shuttles from the expansive Orangeville Agricultural Society fairgrounds, a mere 10 minutes away, but of course that never happened.  (Overall, ticket availability for the equestrian events was all kinds of stupid, as tends to happen at major Games.  Online sales portals said the events were sold out, while the stands turned out to be half empty.  I’m told what often happens is that huge blocks of seats are held back for corporate use.  Said tickets are handed out to sponsors and other affiliated organizations which then never use them.  Meanwhile, actual interested people bang their heads against walls and take their frustrations out on their children and dogs.)

kyle carter VEN-0825Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I last saw Central and South American event riders competing in any significant numbers (we’re talking the Winnipeg Pan Am Games, in 1999), but it was fantastic to see how much the standard of cross-country riding has improved in these nations since the last century.  Let’s just say there used to be a lot of scary, kamikaze riding out there, but I didn’t see any of that this year at Will O’ Wind.  Granted, the Pan Am Games is run at the two-star level, which is nowhere near as demanding as, say, the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, or even a three-star like Fair Hill or Jersey Fresh.  But everymark todd BRA-0814 rider and every horse looked like he/she/they belonged there, and there were very few falls or other incidents.  Part of the equation might have been that many of the up-and-coming teams forked out the big bucks to hire world-class coaches, leading into the Games.  Brazil, which ended up with Team silver and an individual bronze for Ruy Fonseca, clearly reaped the benefits of having Mark Todd on board — and they’re keeping him for the foreseeable future.  Mexico had Karen O’Connor coaching them, Venezuela had Kyle Carter, and Guatemala had assistance from Peter Gray.  (Neither of the last two countries managed to finish as a Team, sadly, but they looked a lot more solid in their attempts than they might have otherwise.)

(It’s Sir Mark Todd, looking a bit grim and wearing a jacket with “Brazil” on it!  We’re not worthy!)

Never mind the stupid Wayne’s World videos, I hear you cry.  How did the bloody Canadians do???  Well, three out of the four smoked around, adding nothing to their dressage scores.  Admittedly, one of those was the individual gold medalist at the last Pan Am Games, but considering that she was riding with a very-recently-repaired collarbone and kathryn robinson let it bee dressage2-1093liver (along with various other injuries suffered in a fall at Jersey Fresh at the beginning of June), it was pretty damn encouraging.  Unfortunately, however, Kathryn Robinson and Let It Bee had a tough day at the office.  Not sure how it happened, considering this combination has four-star mileage, but somehow they came a cropper at the second fence, an impressive but straightforward table.  Rider fall = elimination, and they hadn’t even gotten going properly.  I had been looking forward to seeing them go — they’re based in the UK so no-one in Canada had much familiarity with them, and I suspect Robinson was given a Pan Am team slot largely as a consolation prize for having been named to the World Equestrian Games team for 2014, then being told she hadn’t gotten her paperwork in on time and was ineligible (despite an Equine Canada high-muckity-muck having assured her that all was kosher).  To have flown your horse across the pond to finally wear that Team jacket, and then crash and burn that early, must have really blown.

With Robinson picking up the Big E, Canada no longer had her stellar dressage score to call its own, and was forced to count Waylon Roberts’s somewhat-less-than-stellar result (65.1 pp).  Michel Vaillancourt’s stadium course did not prove all that influential (there were lots of clear rounds), and the end result was Team bronze, which was rather less than we’d been hoping for.  Luckily, thanks to an error of judgement on the part of a French rider a year ago, which belatedly resulted in a positive drug test and France being disqualified after the fact from the 2014 WEG, Canada had retroactively moved up one placing at the WEG and had already secured a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which was really all we cared about.  The US eventing team, which had an even worse time in Normandy than we did, clinched its eligibility for Rio with its Pan Am gold, and Brazil … well, being the host country they were already invited to Rio, but the pleasure they got out of landing the Team silver and an individual bronze was infectious, and I think everyone was rooting for them.

Many people — including the riders — were anticipating a second stadium round to determine the individual gold silver and bronze-1930medals,since that’s a format which has been used at the Pan Am Games before.  Not this time, apparently.  The math was done based on the completed single stadium round, and Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti, the reigning Pan Am individual champions, missed the repeat by less than a single rail (42.10 pp).  They settled for silver this time, behind American Marilyn Little and her mare RF Scandalous (40.30 pp).

Out of 43 competitors, 10 were eliminated on cross-country, either for a fall or for too many refusals, and there was one Guatemalan entry who withdrew at the jog.  The top 17 competitors made it round the cross-country with no time penalties, a reflection of the slightly more generous time allowed at the two-star level (time is generally more influential once you get to three- and four-star competition).  Eight nations managed to brazil silver celebrate-1825finish in the Team competition (at least three out of four riders completed):  USA, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia.  Argentina, Venezuela, and Guatemala failed to finish in the team competition, but two of the Argentinian riders and one from Venezuela got around.  So, you know, progress.

Here’s another photo gallery, of stadium and dressage and medals and shit.

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(Also — I really, really should shut up about it, but I have to say my uniform comments came about because this image popped up in my mind.  Oh, the adolescent hotness!)star trek nazis

Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow 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 missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. 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.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

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.

beavers-0694Canada, 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 grizzly-0691Falls.  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 Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, 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 is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly 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 fugly dresses-9907putting 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 up for 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 the mascot 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 pachi-2033designed 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 triffid-9051Caledon 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 waylon trilliums-1649farmland 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 fans in stands-0281noting 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. pachi finish-2288 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.)

No Witnesses

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.

mbc-blog-hop-badge2But my good friend (and far, far more consistent blogger than I), Katherine Walcott, over at Rodney’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 a big lanky chestnut Thoroughbred gelding who 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 backtoddy 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 the Ontario Horse Trials Association used 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 were FEI-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, dressage done wrongthe 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-fancy track 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 Toddy training3day steeplechase20001and 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 Toddy training3day steeplechase0001outta 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 high_diveconfess 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.

Survival of the Stupidest

sleighGIFLast winter, we here in Ontario got off comparatively lightly.  It didn’t snow in any sort of serious way until after Xmas.

I knew we were gonna pay for that.

This year, my farm got hit with the first big snowstorm — completely un-forecast by The Weather Network and similar geniuses (just sayin’) — in mid-November.  Which is simply not kosher.  And I’m talking an honest-to-gawd 50 cm worth — over the tops of my boots and up to my knees in spots.  A week later, another 30 cm.

I’m sensing a trend.

As much as it’s part of the Canadian identity to pride oneself on one’s hardiness (and ability to steer out of a skid on black ice without ever having to put one’s double-double back in the cup holder) — and as much as we can’t help sniggering uncontrollably whenever we see news footage of civilization grinding to a halt as soon as there’s a dusting of white stuff on some American road (because pfffffttt, amateurs!) — the truth is that all the riders I know ’round here who can afford to, pack up house, horses, and hounds, and head to Aiken or Ocala for the winter months.

The rest of us poor sods? We tough it out.  And kvetch.  A lot.

four seasons 2Hey, it’s only four (cough) months of hellish horsekeeping.  How bad could it get?

(Truth be told, politics and religion have gotten so polarized and just plain creepy in the States that I wouldn’t set up shop there even if I could.  Fundamentalism weirds me out.  But I digress.)

Eight short weeks ago, Spike and I were competing at the fall Grandview Horse Trials, where we successfully upgraded to Pre-Training (go on, admit it, you’re impressed).  Considering it was accomplished in a biblical deluge, I was actually pretty impressed with us, especially Spike, who had never had to do a dressage test or jump in conditions like that.   The warm-up rings were literally under water, the competition areas no better, the heavens were just relentless, and while the cross-country course footing at Grandview is superlative, even it can only take so much.  Young Master Spike squelched around in his usual unflappable, good-natured way (my previous partner, Toddy, hated heavy rain with a passion and probably would have flattened his ears to his head jumpallthethingsand said, ‘Hell no, you crazy woman’), jumped clean in both stadium and cross-country despite the fences being a bit bigger than he’d been used to, and brought home a seventh-place ribbon, which under the circumstances was nothing to sneeze at.

He also demonstrated to me some hitherto-undiscovered scope — otherwise known as HOLY SHIT! fences.  There were two obstacles on cross-country where he clearly didn’t much like the look of the chopped-up footing at the base, so he simply left out a stride (or, um, five) and launched himself skyward.  Now, while my cardiovascular system could do without that kind of excitement, it did indicate that Spike’s been hiding his light under a bushel to some extent, and that’s useful information for the future, when the fences actually begin to require that sort of power.  Spike’s the type of horse who always seems to be at the limit of his athletic abilities, and then surprises you by kicking it up a notch … my personal little Stealth Bomber.  So there was that.  Overall, it was as positive an experience as I could have asked for considering the rain never let up for two fricking minutes, and I’m feeling good about going out at Pre-Training in the spring and upgrading to Training before the end of the season.

So that was eight weeks ago.  Eight weeks.  And now my semi-sleek event horse looks like a yak, Parker has already shredded three blankets (not on himself, but on his filly friend, two-year-old Trixie, because he appears to get off on the sound of ripping fabric), my metabolism has bottomed out and is packing on the pounds just in case this is the next Ice Age, and it’s abundantly clear that this is going to be one long sunuvabitch of a winter.

There are some tricks of the trade, when it comes to winter horsekeeping in Ontario.  (Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to hear the fingerfrom some folks in Edmonton, or Yellowknife, telling me I’ve got it ridiculously easy.  Winter one-upmanship is also part and parcel of the Canadian identity.)  I’ve actually been compiling ideas about winter stable management for about a decade now, because there’s a half-formed idea in my head to write a book called Northern Horsekeeping.  If you gentle readers think you’d actually purchase such a book, leave me a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll get motivated to get off my ass and finally pull that proposal and sample chapters together and send it off to some publishers …

Given that this nebulous book concept is still floating around my cranium, I probably shouldn’t give away all the best ideas in a blog post, but here are some random survival strategies for getting through four (or more) months of frost-bitten misery:

1. Designate your biggest, ugliest, heaviest winter coat the Barn Coat.  By the middle of the season it will completely reek, so designate another the Being Seen in Public Coat and keep it away from the barn.

2. The layering thing:  pretty obvious.  The tricky part:  finding layers you can still move well enough in to a) muck stalls, drag hoses, schlep hay, and b) actually ride.  These two requirements are vastly different.  The boots and gloves you wear for chores will be way too bulky to ride in, and probably so will the coat, so have stuff to transition into when you get on a horse.  At which point it becomes a race to see whether your toes give out first, or  your fingers.

3.  Frozen leadshanks.  Leave ’em out hanging on the gate and you will inevitably have to deal with this.  You can thaw the snaps by sacrificing precious hand warmth, but ain’t nothing to be done about the fact that it’s going to be like leading your horse with a broom handle instead of a rope.

4.  Hot Shots:  those little chemical packets which are supposed to heat up when you shake them, and can be tucked inside your mitts and boots and pockets.  Buy many.  They’re useful — when they actually work (which is something of a crapshoot).

5. Snowmobile sleds are your friend.  These are like toboggans on steroids, with high sides, and they’re heavy and rather expensive, but sturdy and can hold a couple of bales of hay per trip.  Beats the hell out of trying to push a wheelbarrow through the drifts.  Canadian Tire puts them on sale at the beginning of the season.

6.  Absolutely no Canadian barn should be without a hot water heater.  They’re not that expensive to install, people, and you can’t even imagine the ways in which even a little hot water is useful from December to March (and often beyond).

7.  There has to be some fitness benefit to slogging through snowdrifts in 15 kg Frankenstein boots.  There just has to be.

8. Why doesn’t anyone sell (women’s) Frankenstein boots that are actually tall enough to slog through those snowdrifts in?

9.  As confirmed on another blog recently:  when filling troughs and buckets, you need at least three pairs of gloves on the go.  One waterproof pair for wrassling the hoses, a second pair to switch to when the first pair gets soaked and freezes solid, and a third pair of regular gloves to resort to after all that nastiness is (temporarily) taken care of.

10.  Four wheel drive.  Not optional.

11.  Ways to keep from freezing while in the saddle:  a) forego the metal stirrups and put cheap wooden Western ones on your leathers, or just ride a lot without stirrups (good for the circulation).  Thaw fingers by tucking them between nice fuzzy horse and saddlepad on a regular basis.  What’s a 1200 lb. beast good for if not sharing body heat?

12.  Also:  ride bareback.

13.  Beware the dismount.  OMFG it hurts when your feet are frozen.

hosers14.  Designate a cheap, washable scarf the barn scarf.  Its purpose is two-fold:  to keep your face from freezing as you bring horses in out of the latest blizzard, and to breathe through when you’re mucking stalls.  Frozen manure makes for simplified mucking, in a way (you can easily find the shitballs you’ve missed because they feel like hockey pucks under your feet, even through the Frankenstein boots and three pairs of socks), but also makes for very dusty bedding.  Scarf warning:  make sure the ends tuck safely into your jacket when riding or working around the beasties.  Parker tried to throttle me last year.

15.  You know you’re Canadian when you’ve mastered leading a horse while wearing snowshoes.  Bonus points if you can lead two.

16.  Hoses are from hell.  Frozen hoses, ninth circle of hell.

17.  Options for dealing with frozen water hydrants:  a) hair dryer; b) the hot water dump (see #6, above); c) the boiling water dump (best to have two working kettles on hand at all times);  and d) the little propane torch that once lived in your kitchen and had only one function, to caramelize the sugar on your creme brulee.   Like that’s ever gonna happen again.  Try not to set the barn on fire.

18.  Horses do not feel the cold as acutely as we do.  Duh.  They’re not nekkid.  And they originated on the frozen steppes, not in the desert.  So don’t judge their discomfort by your own.  And don’t get stupid about the number of blankets you pile on them.  They really would rather not be trussed up like the Christmas goose.

19.  Serving warm beet pulp makes you feel like Mother Teresa.

20.  Sometimes the only way to thaw out properly is to throw yourself into a scalding hot bath.  Though red wine and dark chocolate are also forces for good.

And here are a few of the notions that keep me in Ontario when it’s bleakest:

1. Frozen everything means no worms, and no need to deworm, for at least four months.

shaving2. Ditto mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.  We don’t have to vaccinate for West Nile or EEE year-round.

3. No fire ants.

4. Virtually no sand colic.

5. No anhydrosis.

6.  Lots of good grazing (well, for six months of the year, anyway) and good hay the rest of the time.  Some places would kill for our hay.

7.  Fuzzy horses are kinda cute and Gund-like and pettable.

8.  Sometimes, it’s actually really nice and soul-restorative to go for a boogie in the snow.  Sometimes.

9. Is it bad that that’s all I can come up with?

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the upcoming winter solstice, after which the days start getting longer and I might start to enjoy enough daylight again to actually complete all the bloody barn chores that take six times as long to do in winter.  So in that spirit: Happy Solstice.  And cheers.

Project Mojo

austin mojoBeen trying to get my mojo back.

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 common senseshiniest 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 DSC_0799 driving marathon4Parker 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,130818_831 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 130818_834and 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.)

On the Sidelines

Spent part of last weekend being selfless and virtuous.  A veritable paragon of crunchy humanitarian goodness.

See, I can already tell you’re impressed.

Okay, I spent it sitting in a lawn chair in the rain, writing down which horses jumped fence #5abc cleanly, and which had refusals.  (For the record, there were a total of two refusals in the Open Intermediate division,  no falls, and no breaking of the frangible pins, which was mildly disappointing because #5abc was a fairly technical fence — the sort of thing that we used to call a ‘coffin’, though apparently that appellation is no longer politically correct and I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call them now other than vertical-ditch-vertical combinations.)  I was expecting more interesting, if not teachable, moments, since #5abc had the potential for a certain amount of mayhem.  But hey, any day that the ambulance doesn’t budge all day is a good one in eventing.

Lawnchair-occupation, with clipboard, is called jump-judging.  The average weekend horse trials or one-day event needs a small army of hapless intrepid volunteers not only to record what transpires at every jump on every course in every division of the competition, but also to fulfill a wide array of other duties, from timing their progress from start box to finish line, to writing down the words of wisdom which issue forth from the dressage judges’ mouths, to transporting brown bag lunches out to the far reaches (via four-wheel drive pickup or ATV, generally), to making sure the competitor’s gear conforms to the rules before they embark on their cross-country canter.  (This last one is called being a tack-check steward, and I did a few hours of that on Saturday before retiring to my lawn chair in the boonies on Sunday.  It’s pretty light work, though you do have to endure a certain amount of green slime.)

Over the years, I’ve done a fair bit of ‘giving back to the sport’.  I’m not the volunteer of the decade or anything, but at one time or another I’ve done just about every job you don’t get paid for, which helps make a horse trials run.  My feeling is this:  I can’t afford to give money, but at least I can give my time.

Seeing the armies of volunteers recruited for the London Olympics (can I now use those words in a blog without getting drawn and quartered by the IOC’s marketing SS?) makes one ponder their motivation for serving.  It must’ve been popular — I read somewhere that there were something like 70,000 people who assisted in one way or another, so many in fact that the volunteer committees actually had trouble finding things for some of them to do.  I imagine you get an outfit and access to at least one venue out of it, though whether you actually get to witness much of the competition is questionable.  You might also get a box lunch or two, the loan of a two-way radio, and the temporary illusion of power.  Are there other perks, or is just saying you were part of the Olympic Games, sufficient in terms of bragging rights?  Is there opportunity for collecting autographs or surreptitiously taking pictures?  (Or taking other people’s cameras away when they violate the rules and then pocketing them, maybe?  I should monitor eBay … might be a glut of cheap point-n-shoots popping up from UK sellers any time now.)

Volunteering at the Wit’s End Horse Trials doesn’t have quite the same cachet, though the site did host a three-star CIC*** which was on the calendar for the eventing World Cup series, for a number of years.   A bit too much disrespect from the FEI (the governing body for international equestrian sport, which remains convinced that Canada is a godless tundra not worthy of its estimable gaze) put the kibosh on the international level stuff a couple of years ago, but the locals continue to enjoy the facilities on a slightly less ambitious level, and I have reasonable evidence that the organizers don’t much miss jumping through the FEI’s hoops (not to be confused with Olympic rings, although there are some uncanny similarities).

These days, I seem to spend a lot more time on the sidelines — or in the weeds, really — assisting others in enjoying the sport of eventing, than I do participating.  The reason’s no mystery.  I have the horse, I have the equipment, and I have the ambition.  I just don’t have the money for all the memberships and the entry fees.  Which is a huge, huge drag, because I’m not getting any younger and neither is Spike.  Every time I hear about another Big Name Rider bringing an eight- or nine-year-old horse to compete at Rolex (or some similar multi-starred big dance) I get a little pang about now 10-year-old Spike, grazing in his pudgily oblivious way in his field.

Not that I have Team ambitions anymore … I gave those up a looooong time ago when it became clear that I had neither the talent, the time, nor the backing to make it to that level …. and not that Spike is a world-class talent who is wasting away.  (I had one of those, once, and there were several BNRs who went out of their way to make it clear to me that I was doing no justice to a horse whose cleverness and athleticism far exceeded mine … quite a guilt trip.  But no-one has yet voiced similar admiration for my gentle, solid citizen Spike.)

Just, you know, generally.  That I should be doing more with him before we’re both too old and creaky to do any of it.  That I should be out there jumping the jumps before my decrepitude finally forces me to become what most old eventers morph into — a DQ.  (That’s “dressage queen”, for the uninitiated.)  I am not quite ready to enter the pursuit for the perfect 20 metre circle.   I don’t harbour any hankerings to run at the Advanced level anymore, but I would like at least to be competitive at the lower levels and keeping up with the ‘fossils over fences’ crowd, if not the immortal twentysomethings.

Poverty sucks.

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Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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