Okay, it’s been a year since I last walked a cross-country course. I’ve walked dozens of courses over the last 16 years, but I’m admittedly a little bit out of practice. I’d competed at the Texas Rose Horse Park before, but they recently hired a new course designer who overhauled the whole cross-country course! What I remembered from this venue was that there was a lot of terrain on cross-country (think the most beautiful rolling hills you’ve ever seen!) and that all of the jumps were new and well made.
The course started out more or less how I expected it to, aside from the fact that I am not quite in course-walking-shape right now. All of the fences, lines and questions felt level appropriate and fair, until we got to fence 11. Everything up to this point had been some variety of small boxes, coops, step tables, log oxers and a splash through of the first water. Fence 11 was none of those! It was about a dozen big questions for a Beginner Novice horse and rider all rolled into one!
The first water, which is situated pretty centrally to the first part of the course was a splash through and then almost a hairpin turn back to a small house. You take a long gallop, to the farthest point on the course away from the start box, from the warm up and from the barns. Question 1. You gallop up a pretty gradual hill toward the tree line, passing a large unflagged Intermediate jump, which is pretty much right in your line and definitely a distraction to a Beginner Novice horse. Question 2. This Beginner Novice fence was situated in a line next to similar Novice and Training fences, nestled into a group of large trees, meaning that you’re galloping from bright daylight to complete shadow about 25m ahead of the fences. Question 3. The fence itself was a substantial question for a Beginner Novice course, it was a brush wall fence with a simulated ditch in front, filled in with more brush (the Novice fence was a slightly larger wall with a slightly larger fake ditch, the Training fence was a larger wall with an actual ditch in front). Definitely appropriate for the level, but its intention should be to acclimate newer horses and riders to a more advanced type of fence. This fence was already situated in the midst of a series of other obstacles. Question 4. Once you clear this fence, you have to contend with the landing, which completely falls away from you. Yep, you land (from what I’d consider to be a bit of a fly fence) already galloping downhill, making a right hand turn back up the hill and back to civilization! Question 5.
Now, I don’t think that the elements of this obstacle were inappropriate for the level all taken separately, but I do think that they were a pretty substantial question when all combined. It required a pretty forward ride on the approach, to keep your horse focused on the task at hand and then immediately required you to manage your horse on the back side, galloping and turning while moving rapidly downhill. On the one hand, I love the idea of beefing up our lower level courses in an effort to prepare horses and riders, because I’ve long thought that there is too much of a gap between levels which can leave you unprepared when moving up to a new level. On the other hand, this felt a bit abrupt, as the beginning of the course was flowing and inviting, and it seemed to be throwing all of the questions at you in one effort.
The rest of the course was more similar to the first half, including a second water jump, with a jump several strides out from another splash through (much closer than the first water, a perfect graduation, in my opinion!). There were a few more tables, logs, and even a baby corner (again, a perfect, level-appropriate introduction to the question). You finish with a nice solid table and a long walk back to the barn across another of the picturesque fields.
I honestly wasn’t completely sure what my impression of the course was upon completing our first walk. Maria has always been very solid on cross country, but she had also been out of competition for almost 4 years at this point. Basically, I wasn’t too concerned about any specific parts of the course, but that was really because I wasn’t sure how she would handle the experience overall. I didn’t know enough to know what I should be concerned about!
My dressage warm up routine with Maria has always been fairly simple. She’s generally pretty supple and submissive and doesn’t require a lot of time to get to work. In fact, I usually find that she does better with a shorter warm up because it allows her to stay fresh, so she still has a bit of jump in her gaits by the time we get to the sandbox. We also managed to get to the warm up at a good time, it wasn’t too crowded while we were doing the bulk of our work. Maria is pretty low key, but one thing she doesn’t love is a lot of horses working really close to her (but really, who does?). I usually try to get my bit check done first thing before I start warming up. We don’t usually have an issue, but I never think it’s wise to wait until the last second if you don’t need to and risk getting your horse upset about a stranger putting a rubber glove in their mouth.
Nothing too eventful happened in the warm up. We headed up to our arena after the okay from the warm up ring steward and waited until we were allowed to start circling the ring. We were the first test back in our arena after the lunch break, so it did take a few minutes for the judge and scribe to get ready for the next set of tests. This gave us a few more laps around the ring than normal, which can either be positive or negative. In this case, I tried to incorporate lots of transitions and changes of direction to keep Maria focused on me, because it would be pretty easy for her to start getting anxious. Event horses always know when it’s time to do their thing, don’t they?
If I’m being honest, I don’t love the new Beginner Novice Test A. They expect you to be able to gallop up a hill to an impressive brush fence and land turning down a hill, but not to be able to turn down the centerline? The majority of the test is fine, but I found it a bit disorienting to enter turning onto a diagonal and finish the test moving off of the diagonal to the centerline.
There were a few, admittedly brief, moments of tension, but altogether I was over the moon with how Maria felt during our test. We came away with a 31.9, which I thought was a really fair score. I appreciated the judge’s comments and I definitely got some constructive things to work on. I always love when I get actual constructive criticism from dressage judges, because my first 4 years of eventing on Houdini mostly produced comments like “cute pair, lots of potential”, which is nice but not particularly executable.
On to cross country! Walking out to the warm up (a pretty long walk from the barn, just you and your horse and your thoughts!), I started to get some butterflies in my stomach. I’ve had some issues with my nerves in the past, but I’ve found that if I can get to the warm up and get straight to work, I can be distracted enough to be productive. We took our time trotting, cantering, galloping around the cross country warm up. I took plenty of walk breaks to let Maria see the horses out on course. She stayed pretty mellow the entire time we were in the warm up. We jumped around and added in some of the solid fences they placed in the warm up area and she still felt totally calm. When I was about 2 horses out, I let her respiration come down and headed over to the start box.
I got a few last minute words of wisdom from my trainer, headed into the box as the starter counted down, and we were off! She was right under me and felt solid as a rock coming up to the first fence. I think the moment she landed was when she realized what we were doing. She immediately started hunting for her next fence. She felt great around the whole course, ran right through the water and felt super adjustable and handy through the turns. I knew she was probably running a little quicker than Beginner Novice speed, but I decided to let her play a little and not shut her down completely, because she was having so much fun! We got through the water and headed toward fence 11.
Truthfully, this was the only jump that I wasn’t sure about. I felt pretty sure she’d have no problems around the rest of the course, but I just wasn’t sure what her mental state would be and how she’d handle a more substantial question. She was feeling so good around the first half of the course that I was feeling pretty confident coming up to this fence. She did take a bit of a look as we approached it, taking in the activity around it and the change from light to dark with the shadows, which actually perfectly allowed me to ride her forward to the fence. She jumped it great, and (since we’d already been moving a little quick around the course) I was able to let her carry down the hill a little bit and try to smooth out the turn back up the hill. Her inside hind did almost slip out from under her but I was able to keep her head up, stay out of her way and she recovered herself easily.
Once I made it through that part of the course, I was really confident about the rest and it was smooth sailing to the finish. We came in about 30 seconds ahead of optimum time. Ideally I would have liked to be a little bit closer, but mainly I just wanted Maria to have a positive run for her first time back out.
Okay, I’ve talked about this before, but show jumping is not my and Maria’s strongest phase. She is not the most careful jumper and really doesn’t seem to care if the rails go flying. We’ve worked on this a ton over the years, but at a certain point, you have to work with what you have.
The show jumping course looked to flow really nicely, as long as the rider was careful about their lines. There were several bending lines and related distances. This was a bit concerning to me because I can have a tendency to let Maria really shorten her stride when she starts to get some jumping ring anxiety, but also knew it would be a great learning course for us because I’d have some definite distances to ride towards, and I’d be able to tell right away if her stride was shortening.
She felt great in the warm up and was really moving up to all her distances. Maybe even a little bit too forward. We schooled a few fences trying to add a stride, since we’ve spent so long working on leaving a stride out. I treat her jumping warm up similar to her dressage warm up, trying to keep it short and simple so that she stays composed and fresh. I stepped out of the warm up to watch a round or two before I went in. The butterflies were completely consuming my stomach and moving into my throat at this point.
When it was our turn, we trotted into the ring and did a short tour waiting for the bell. She felt perfect on the approach to the first fence, if anything I may have gotten her a little deep to the distance, but she was right where I asked her to be. She rubbed the front rail of the oxer with her hind feet and I heard it come down behind me. On the one hand, I was disappointed that our hopes for a clear round were already dashed, but on the other hand, it took off the pressure a bit and let me loosen up to really ride the course the way Maria needed to be ridden.
In all honesty, it was not our best show jumping round. There was some head tossing and some lurching jumps. What I was really happy with, though, was that we both came apart a little bit at different points and she still jumped clean around the rest of the course. This would not have been the case a few years ago, and it was really encouraging to see the difference that all of our show jumping work has made. We made all the distances the way that we’d walked them and she fired around the rest of the course, even if she got to a distance a little bit messy or if I didn’t get her where she needed to be.
We came out with just the one rail, and while it was disappointing, I really think it was more a result of surprise at being back in the show jumping ring than anything else.
There were a few things that I might have changed about our weekend, and hopefully soon I’ll get to the point where every single thing doesn’t make me an emotional wreck, but I really couldn’t be happier with how Maria handled her return to eventing.
We came away with lots of things to work on and lots of positives. Anyone who works with horses knows that any experience that reinforces all of your hard work in the ‘off-season’ is incredibly rewarding.
We are getting ready to head out to another show tomorrow (!) and we’ll hopefully have the opportunity to employ some of the lessons that we learned during our first show back!
Until next time, wish us luck, and thanks for reading!