Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the tag “Wits’ End Horse Trials”

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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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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