Let me start by saying that I know the American Eventing Championships are not the pinnacle of international competition. I know that Maria and I were competing in the Beginner Novice Amateur division, not the Advanced Adequan Gold Cup with a prize of $40,000. I know that the world and this sport are a lot bigger and there are many possibilities that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. However, in all the time that I’ve been eventing (16 years!), I’ve always had the AECs as a goal in the back of my mind and I’ve never been able to make it before this year. I’ve already talked about how we prepped and planned for the trip and the competition, this won’t be a complete play by play of every moment of the week (don’t worry!), but I tried to take note of the highlights while they were happening and thought I’d share them with all of you! I was there as a competitor and not a reporter, so this is probably going to be a somewhat random assortment of observations, but it was the week as I experienced it!
Travel Day 1 (Monday)
Not a ton of exciting things happened on our travel days, which is really what you hope for when traveling with horses, right? As is my horse show routine, I left my house that morning feeling like I was forgetting everything. I always feel like I don’t have everything I’ll need, no matter how many lists I make or how many times I check them off, but something about leaving on a Monday made me feel extra-disoriented. As it turned out, I did forget a number of things, but my lovely husband was nice enough to bring them to me on his way to work before we pulled out with the trailer! As I said, the drive went smoothly and we got to our layover barn in Lubbock, TX around 3pm, so we had plenty of time to get the horses settled and hydrated (I don’t know if you know this, but Texas is really hot in August) and even get dinner for ourselves! We were actually slightly concerned about the accommodations for the horses when we arrived, but fortunately the barn had a row of small runs along the outside so each horse got lots of room to stretch their legs (and roll, of course). I always worry about Maria when we stay somewhere that isn’t home, especially after a long day of trailering, but the apartment we stayed in was actually just feet away from the paddocks so I was able to keep a close eye on her.
Travel Day 2 (Tuesday)
We had a pretty easy first day, Lubbock was not quite halfway between our home base and the Colorado Horse Park. That meant that we’d have a much longer drive on the second day, so we got a pretty early start. Fortunately, the second day of driving went just as smoothly as the first, there was just a little bit more of it! The route we took to get there went through New Mexico and into Colorado, which was a beautiful drive! We made it to the horse park around 4pm on Tuesday. It was still pretty empty at that point, just a handful of horses in each barn, so we had an easy time of unloading and getting the horses set up in their stalls. We took our horses on walks around the grounds that afternoon to let them stretch their legs and get familiar with the surroundings. The weather was incredible, coming from Texas where it had been hitting 90 degrees by 10am, unloading into 75 degree weather during the hottest part of the day felt like a vacation!
Show Day -1…0? (Wednesday)
I don’t know what the day before Day 1 should be called, but we’ll go with Day 0. The traffic at the horse park really started to pick up, with most groups arriving and getting settled in. We had time to get checked in at the office, do a quick flat hack and walk the cross country course! Obviously, we had plenty of time to check out the trade fair and get some shopping in too. Each competitor got an awesome Nutrena welcome bag and Adequan bucket with their packet, full of cute AEC goodies! I’ll try not to leave anything out, it included a bunch of magazines and pamphlets (official AEC program, TIP Championships brochure, Warmbloods Today magazine), an AEC microfiber towel, a car/trailer decal, a pocket first aid kit, a horse head shaped dry erase board and pen, a ballpoint pen and some chapsticks, a sample bag of treats, a sample bottle of fly spray and a whole pile of vendor coupons! This was my first competition outside of Area V, so I’m not sure how common it is to get little gifts from show sponsors in other areas, but this was far and away the most generous show packet I’ve ever received.
We also learned that the CHP was offering free jump school sessions in a warm up ring. It was basically set up like a show jumping warm up, a line of fences that your trainer could set for you. I thought this was particularly thoughtful of the organizers, because in most cases, I think, riders typically live close enough to shows in their home area that you travel a day or maybe two days prior to the start of the show. Having to leave on Monday meant that we effectively lost 3 to 4 days of schooling time, so being able to jump even a few fences after the horses had a chance to adjust to the new elevation and the facility was extremely helpful.
As I said, we also got our first look at the cross country courses. My first impression was that the course was fair, with a few substantial questions. Obviously the terrain all the way around the course was a question in itself. The ground was a bit hard in some of the fields on that first day, but even on our very first walk we saw them aerating and working on the footing, so I wasn’t too worried about how it would look on Saturday.
Show Day 1, but not for me (Thursday)
The show officially started on Thursday, with the Advanced through Training level divisions doing their dressage tests. We had a little bit of time to watch some of the upper level tests, which is always educational and inspiring as you’re preparing to do your own. We also got to do the jump school that we’d signed up for the day prior. There seemed to be some minor miscommunication about this set up, we got to the ring that we were directed to by the office and started to warm up. There were show jumping fences in the ring, but no jump cups! We waited until a few minutes after our start time (my thought was that they may have removed the cups during the hours that they weren’t running the schooling times to prevent people from doing any unauthorized jump schooling?), but when there was still no one in sight to help us, we found a volunteer who directed us to school in the ring next door. All of the horses seemed to be feeling good in the altitude and had recovered well from the traveling, we did a fairly quick jump school and headed back to the barn.
Two other notable events happened on Thursday: we got to go on course walks with Madeline Backus (BN) and Tamie Smith (N), which was lovely and very educational; and BAILEY GOT TO COLORADO! The course walks were our second look at the course, and it was really interesting to hear from professionals riding young horses in the levels about how they were going to approach the course and what thoughts they had about the various questions. I did the Beginner Novice course walk with Madeline Backus, which was, of course, the level that I was riding in. I also did the Novice course walk with Tamie Smith, partially because I was interested in seeing how the courses compared and what was being asked at the next level up, and partially because I’m a big fan of Tamie!
By the time we got back to the barns from the course walk, Bailey and my mom were back from the airport! If you don’t have a best friend who will travel by plane, train or automobile to support you whenever they can… I’m not saying you need a new one, but I am saying that you should consider it. I think that eventing is a bit of a difficult sport for spectators, especially in our area. The shows in Area V are typically in small towns that are not close to anything, really, your ride times are spread out over the whole weekend, if the show is over 3 days you’ll only have a few minutes of show time each day, and even if it’s a 2 day show, it’s a bit of a high level of commitment to traipse all over the show grounds to be able to see a few minutes of your friend/family/loved one’s cross country course. All that to say that the fact that someone would be willing to take multiple days out of their regular life, spend essentially a full day traveling back and forth, to hang out with a stressed/nervous rider, walk one million steps a day and get slimed by a sweaty horse when it’s all over is a pretty remarkable act of friendship.
Show Day 2 – Dressage Day, finally! (Friday)
Friday morning was when I was finally scheduled to ride my dressage test. I wasn’t particularly nervous when I woke up that morning. Maria is fairly consistent in dressage and if I can keep her in the right mindset, she can be pretty competitive. Another rider from our barn was actually riding just a few minutes after I was in a completely different arena, so my trainer stayed with her to warm up and Bailey and I went to my warm up ring. Maria felt pretty steady during our warm up, she can be a bit conservative and I have to constantly remind myself to keep pushing her forward, so we got a bit of stiffness worked out and she was feeling great. The way the dressage ring was set up, the big warm up area was in one empty arena and the rings were in the large arena next door, with a smaller warm up area to one side, only big enough for 2 or 3 horses to be in at once. They were sending riders from the bigger warm up to the smaller one about 2 rides before they were scheduled, so we had a bit of time to ride in the actual area where our tests would be, which was nice to help the horses relax back into their work. Sometimes moving from one area to another can feel like starting over a bit, the horses lose their focus and take a few minutes to regain it, so I thought it was helpful that you had time in both rings.
We’d already competed with both Beginner Novice test A and B this season, so I was familiar with the test and Maria was feeling really ready going into the ring. She was very steady except for trotting through one corner, between A and F, where she got a bit tense, and one trot to canter transition, where she was anticipating the transition and wanted to canter a bit before I had actually asked. Of course, I would have liked to do without those small bobbles, but I was really very happy with her. The atmosphere was much more than anywhere we’ve shown in recent memory, maybe ever, and she did a great job of staying focused and listening. In all honesty, my goal to myself was to break into the high 20’s, because I know she can do it and obviously, the place to peak would be at the championships, but we ended up with a 30.5, which is a tie to our personal best from the spring season and put us into a tie for 6th after the first phase. This was also the first time that we’ve ever received scores from two judges, one at C and one at B. I actually received a better score from the judge at B, which seemed to be in the minority, as most riders were scoring higher with the judge at C. I’m not completely certain what the reason for that was, but possibly the judge at B was not positioned to see Maria’s head toss in the circle going into our canter transition, while the judge at C had a straight shot at it.
I’ll admit that I was a bit discouraged on initially finding out my score, but I know that we are capable of breaking into those lower scores if we can keep those little mistakes out. Maria has only gotten more relaxed and professional in the dressage arena, so I think the scores I want are definitely within our reach.
Show Day 3 – Cross Country and Weather Delays (Saturday)
I was initially meant to ride cross country around 3pm on Saturday. However, there were some lightning storms in the area on Friday afternoon, which caused absolute havoc with the schedule, so things were in a bit of a jumble going into Saturday morning. There were a few Beginner Novice divisions that did not get to ride their dressage tests on Friday, so their ride times had to be adjusted to allow them to ride both dressage and cross country on Saturday. They also apparently only had one dressage judge available on Saturday, so they ended up removing one of the scores from the divisions that were affected, which of course changed the scores from what had been posted the previous day. On the cross country course, Advanced, Intermediate and one Prelim division still had to run cross country, on the day that they were supposed to be doing their show jumping. The divisions that had run cross country on Friday before the weather cancellation, all Training and all but the one Prelim divisions, did their show jumping as scheduled and finished the show on Saturday. We were able to see a bit of the Intermediate and Advanced cross country courses as we were doing our final course walks. Both of the other riders in my barn went earlier in the day, so I made a few treks out to the course to support them.
We had heard that there was a bit of ‘carnage’ on the course the day before, there were a number (like, a high number) of rider falls, refusals, retirements and eliminations throughout the first few divisions, and the second day of cross country didn’t seem to be any exception. Within a few minutes of each other, there were two BN rider falls and two loose horses. One of them was quite well behaved and cantered right up to the finish line volunteers and stopped. I knew the horse and rider so I offered to hold him while the rider made her way back. While that was going on, another rider had a fall and the second loose horse was heading back to the barn, no exceptions. The officials on the course were actually yelling for people NOT to try to catch the horse, because he was not stopping for anything and it was a situation asking for someone to get hurt. He actually ran through some of the lane lines and proceeded to drag rope and stakes behind him, through the crowds of spectators, until they finally came loose. He ran all the way back past the warm up and looked as if he was going to try to cross the road back to the barns, but fortunately the gate was blocked before he got there. They did catch him and we saw him walking back with no major injuries. Both riders were also completely fine and were up right away. This did cause quite a bit of excitement on the course, but fortunately no one was badly hurt!
The complete upheaval of the schedule actually moved my ride time for cross country up a little bit, so I headed back to the barns, got Maria tacked and got myself ready, and just as I had seen happen to other riders in the barn the day before, as I was walking her out of the stall, an announcement came over the PA system that there were more lightning storms in the 10 mile radius and they were holding all competition again. Frankly, I was glad that I wasn’t already in the warm up when this happened, because I’m sure the walk all the way back to the barns on fired up horses was not the most fun. We untacked Maria, but I stayed dressed. Once you get your vest, gloves, watch, helment, spurs on… let’s just say it would take a lot to be worth it to me to get dressed twice. After almost an hour, we got the go ahead to get back on and head to the cross country course.
Things were still a bit off with the schedule changes, so we ended up having a lot of extra time in the warm up. Maria has done a lot of cross country courses in her life, she knows her job and she knows when we’re getting ready to do it. She literally felt like she was buzzing underneath me the entire time we were warming up. I don’t typically get too nervous for cross country, because I have a horse with a lot of go, all I have to do is keep a lid on it and not let her get carried away, especially over a lower level course. I did have a few moments before this course where I was concerned about how carried away she would want to get, mostly because I didn’t want her to overdo it in the higher elevation and have any kind of reaction.
When it was our turn, we headed up to the start box and circled for our last minute before going out, slipped through the start box and headed to the first fence. The first fence on the course was honestly fairly unimpressive, so I kept her pretty collected, but she knew what was up. From there she absolutely ate up the course. I spent most of the time around the course rebalancing and recollecting her. Maria was not a successful racehorse but she does feel like she’s got a 20’ stride at times, which can be a lot to manage. I kept an eye on my time throughout the course, but every time I’d think that we were back to our minute markers, she’d make up time again! When we jumped fence 13 and headed back toward the final field, I knew we were significantly ahead of the clock, so we took a bit of a breather. It wasn’t much of a breather for either of us, as she was only focused on getting back to her gallop and I was only focused on preventing that from happening, but we slowed down a bit. The balancing act there is to be able to bring the speed and the stride back down to earth without taking away so much that it affects the jumps you have left. Fortunately all that was left at that point was a ‘steeplechase’ combination, which were not fences that I would have steeplechased in any case, a water splash through and the last fence, so they all really required a certain level of collection anyway.
We came through the finish flags well within the window of optimum time and speed fault time, which is really all I can ask of her at this level. She knows how to run cross country and I’m not trying to make her a Beginner Novice packer, so there isn’t any reason to pick an extra fight over making her go exactly 350mpm, when she is so confident and positive already. I will say that I felt a bit sick coming off the course, I had to expend a lot of energy to keep her together, but she almost immediately looked ready to go again. Her respiration barely came up, and she was hardly sweating. This wasn’t concerning for me because she is a great drinker and a great sweater, and I think that simply from all the work we did in the Texas heat during the spring and summer, she was totally comfortable in the lower Colorado temperatures. She downed two buckets of water and got a good shower when we got back to the barn, aside from our liniment and bandages, she didn’t seem to need much more recovery time than that! Our double clear on cross country moved us up to 4th place following the second phase, which meant that the pressure was on!
Show Day 4 – Show Jumping (Sunday)
Just as the schedule for Saturday had been turned upside down because of the weather delays, the schedule for Sunday had to be completely revamped as well. Since the Advanced, Intermediate and one Prelim division, not to mention all of the festival (non-championship) divisions, still had to do their show jumping, in addition to all the Novice and Beginner Novice divisions who were originally scheduled for Sunday, the organizers ended up running the show jumping in 3 different rings!
Show jumping has been the area where Maria and I have struggled the most. Part of it is that she can be a little bit lazy with her feet, rubbing and consequently dropping rails, part of it is that I was a bit spoiled in my early riding with Houdini, who hated touching anything and rarely pulled rails, and part of it is that for whatever reason, the stadium ring is where our communication tends to break down a bit. We have done a ton of work and improved a lot, but it is still the phase I get the most nervous for. By a long shot.
I woke up on Sunday and felt practically frozen with nerves. I did my best to go on through the day like normal, but I’m sure everyone around me could tell exactly how nervous I was. I was the second of our 3 riders to go, so I went to the ring to support our first out (Go Reagan and Ralph, 5th place in Junior Novice! And to Maggie and Trump who went after I did, 7th place in Junior Beginner Novice!). After her ride was finished, we headed over to my ring to attempt to walk my course. Because of the scheduling issues, they were running Novice and some Beginner Novice divisions in one ring, and running Advanced, Intermediate and the other Beginner Novice divisions in another. Mine happened to be the ring that was set for Advanced at that moment, and some of the jumps were going to move, so there wasn’t really any use in walking it yet. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks on what that did to my nerves.
Bailey and I walked around the grounds and the shops and were able to watch the Advanced division do their show jumping. I’ve seen quite a bit of upper level competition, but I’m never less fascinated by the athleticism of the horses who can run a big, tough cross country course and then come into the show jumping ring the next day and jump around so carefully and elegantly. We got to see Tamie Smith and MaiBaum take home the win the Advanced Adequan Gold Cup, which was so exciting and a bit emotional, as she’s had a long road to bring this horse back from an injury. He looked like he hadn’t missed a beat and it was really lovely to see them get to celebrate all the hard work they’ve put in.
That distracted me for a short time, but once the Advanced division was finished, it was time to reset for Beginner Novice and that meant it was time for me to walk my course. I do think that the way everything worked out gave me a few advantages. First, the ring that we were in was huge. It had just held the Advanced course, so there was quite a bit of room, which can be helpful for Maria because it can give us a little bit of extra time to recover if we start to come undone a bit. Second, it was actually the same ring that we’d ridden our dressage test in, so she was already familiar with that area of the facility and had ridden in both the warm up and the competition arenas already. Third, because there were only two levels before ours, it moved our time up by about 4 hours, which was pretty lucky because I don’t know who would have won out between myself and my nerves if I’d had to wait the rest of the day. Here’s the thing about show jumping, just like the dressage test, I know what we’re capable of. We’ve had clear rounds. Our last two rounds before the championships were clear, and the one before that was our first show jumping round in 4 years and we only pulled the first rail. Maria has more than enough scope and I have more than enough experience to put it all together. But the courses can be so unforgiving, mistakes can be so costly and there can be so much pressure that it just feels insurmountable. It wouldn’t be the end of the world for the round not to go perfectly. It would be educational no matter what. But I am competitive and I wanted to prove that we could go out there and step up when it mattered.
I don’t know who I needed to prove that to, probably myself, but getting to these championships was a much longer road than just the work we’ve put in and shows we’ve done this year, and I know that with horses you aren’t promised anything, so I really put the pressure on myself to make it count. Flash forward to the show jumping warm up. I actually feel as though I could throw up, if I’d had anything to eat that day, that is. Maria is jumping well in the warm up, but I can tell that she’s a little fatigued from the day before, whether it was mentally or physically fatigued is a different story. When she gets tired she can get a bit emotional, so I was trying to be careful not to overdo it. When I was two riders out, the warm up steward sent me down, Bailey rubbed down my boots and tack one last time and I got some final words of encouragement from my trainer.
In we go. I salute the judge and pick up my canter to come around to the first fence. For some reason, even though it is the least imposing jump in the course, I’m worried about this fence. We clear it and I feel a little more confident. We finish the first and second lines and make the turn toward the combination. It is a two stride oxer to vertical heading into the opposite corner from the gate. I’m worried that she’ll stand off the first fence and get long to the second, or launch at the first fence and end up on top of the second. Somehow (almost like I’d done this before, who knows?) I’m able to rebalance her without overdoing it inside the line and we’re still clear. We head into the turning section of the course, we’re still clear. Out of the turning section we head down a long, maybe 10 stride, bending line to a vertical, heading right towards the out gate. She gets a bit long but I stay behind her and we’re still clear. The rollback turn carries us way out toward the rail, but we have room to get our balance back together and we’re heading toward the last fence. It’s a lime green vertical heading straight toward the in gate and the judges’ box. I have a choice of whether to collect her and add a stride or to go for it. I’m honestly terrified of pulling this rail. She locks on to the fence and I let her make her move. She clears the fence and we land through the finish flags and I don’t process right away that we’re clear(!).
Once I do is when the tears well up in my eyes. I hold it together to make it out of the arena and receive my medal for completion. It seems so silly but I was so excited to receive that symbol that we had done it!
I heard the announcer say that I could finish no worse than 4th, which was confirmation that it was time to exhale. I held it together pretty fairly well until we walked over away from the gate to wait for the award ceremony, then I had Bailey standing with me, then my trainer, then my mom, and I couldn’t really hold it in any more. I’m for sure a sympathy crier always, but I think the buildup of nerves just had me completely fried and I couldn’t help but have a little release. Fortunately I had composed myself by the time they were pinning the divisions. We all gathered around the gate and waited for them to call our numbers, Bailey helped me get the 4th place ribbon onto Maria’s breastplate and we headed into the ring. They called each horse and rider’s names, score and final placing and paused for each of us to trot up and have our official photo taken.
When they called the 8th place rider, there was a bit of confusion. She’d been pinned with the 3rd place ribbon, but she had apparently had a rail down that hadn’t been factored into the scores when the volunteers had read the list. Fortunately the announcer had the correct information and after a few moments of shuffling ribbons between horses, Maria and I ended up with the 3rd place ribbon on our breastplate! I was overwhelmed with happiness just to finish on our dressage score, but I have to say that a top 3 finish turned the weekend into a damn fairytale.
I was beyond thrilled during our victory gallop, I felt like I could have bursted from pride. As I was coming out of the ring, a girl asked if she could “grab [me] for an interview” and I confusedly said “sure!” Bailey took Maria for a walk while I sobbed all over the poor girl who just wanted a quote for her USEA article, but only for a second. I got it together enough to answer all of her questions and talk about Maria and how proud I was.
Something about her asking me to tell her about our journey to get to the championships made me laugh/cry and it took a second to regain control of myself! It was definitely surreal but very nice of them to do and really cool to see us in print! We got Maria back to the barn, untacked, showered and for a nice graze. Then I remembered that I had to pick up my prizes!
This was my first AEC, so while I was most excited to have finished on our dressage score and second most excited for a top 3 finish, I will readily admit that I was third most excited to get real prizes! The sponsors of the show were generous enough to provide an awesome prize bag to the top 6 finishers in each division, varying slightly by placement. Our 3rd place prize bag included the following:
· Nutrena hat and water bottle
· Parker Equine Insurance hat
· Bag of Enjoy Yums treats
· Bag of cinnamon SavvyMash beet pulp mix
· Bag of Beet Treats
· Bag of GumBits treats
· Sample supplement wafer/treat from SmartPak
· APF Pro sample bottle
· Merck Animal Health screen cleaner
· Sore No More Performance Ultra Poultice
· Engraved AEC wooden picture frame
· Custom AEC C4 Belt!
· All inside a SmartPak tote bag
I’m so grateful for all of the prizes that were provided and I particularly can’t wait to spoil Maria with all her new treats (and to wear the C4 belt!).
Our trip home was also fortunately very uneventful. I have definitely experienced a horse show hangover before, but this one took a bit longer to recover from. It has actually been raining here, pretty much since we got back, so Maria has had a great vacation and I’ve had lots of time to reflect and plan! Until next time, remember, it’s okay to have butterflies, you just have to get them to fly in formation!