Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the tag “fossils over fences”

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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