I found out that Maria and I were qualified for the AECs in April or May, but I really debated about whether we would actually make the trip until the end of July. As some of you might already know, I have been working on getting Maria fit and getting her weight back up to where it was before she had a significant amount of time off to recover from some various injuries.
At the beginning of this year, she was a bit underweight and hadn’t been in a consistent training program. I hadn’t been competing regularly for about 4 (!) years because of work, adulthood and life in general, but I had still been riding as much as I could and having semi-regular lessons. When my work situation changed in February of this year, I knew that one thing I definitely wanted to make time for was more riding, more training and getting back to showing!
I think my horses were on the same page, because they both came back without missing a beat. Houdini has never been particularly competitive in dressage, but he definitely thought he was getting ready to run around a training level cross country course again. Maria erased any doubts that I might have had about bringing her back with a 2nd place finish in her first horse trials in almost 4 years, followed by a 4th and a 3rd! As it turned out, that first showing back qualified us to compete at the AECs.
To give a little insight into what my hesitations were to make the trip and compete, I was considering the following:
· Fitness to make the trip: the drive alone would be almost 15 hours, not taking into account a slower driving speed with the trailer, as well as stops; she would also have to stay in an unfamiliar barn for a layover and be stalled for a much longer duration than she is used to for our stay at the horse park.
· Fitness/soundness to run at elevation: Parker, CO has an elevation of over 5800’ while our home base of San Antonio, TX has an elevation of 650’. Not only would we be traveling and staying there, but also tackling a dressage test, cross country course and show jumping course at elevation that we’ve never experienced before.
· Fitness/soundness to compete at a championship facility: not only was the physical environment a consideration, but the level of difficulty of the courses and the atmosphere of the actual facility would be more intense than what we’re currently used to.
· Level of competitiveness in a championship field: I am more than aware, especially at this point in my riding/competitive career, that showing and competing should be fun and educational above all, but to be frank, taking (and asking my trainer, my mom, Bailey and my husband to take) a week out of regular life to travel, miss work, live in a hotel and help take care of my regular responsibilities so I can focus on Maria and the show, is a pretty significant thing. I would not want to go through and put Maria and all of them through the travel and stress only to embarrass ourselves in the dressage test or go bowling in show jumping.
· Time/age: on the flipside, while I think that my hesitations/concerns are valid and worth considering, I have to remember that Maria is 20 and that there is no guarantee about qualifying for future championships. I don’t want this to be an excuse to do something reckless with my horse, but I do need a reminder that we don’t have infinite time to go on adventures and if we can make it happen, we should try!
Once I figured out what I was worried about, the next step was to decide how to address it! Easier said than done.
· Fitness to make the trip: Maria hadn’t done a ton of traveling in the months leading up to the AEC trip. She went to 3 horse trials in the spring, one in March, one in April and one in May. We made an active decision to limit her travel up until the actual trip. We did lessons and schoolings at local facilities, not traveling anywhere further than a half hour away from home. We skipped a trip to do a cross country schooling, knowing that she is pretty well seasoned on cross country, and the stress of trailering an extra 12 hours over a weekend wasn’t likely to outweigh the extra experience she would get on that cross country course.
· Fitness/soundness to run at elevation: while there wasn’t a lot that I could do to train in actual conditions of higher elevation, I did what I could with the resources I had to make sure she was as fit as possible. We did lots of trot/canter sets before our rides, as part of our warm up, lots of ‘cardio’ type work. When we went to my trainer’s facility for lessons, we would work on the track and utilize the incredible hills they have. Several times we did overnight stays so that we could have back to back days of hillwork as well as a dressage school and a jump school. I also took her off our property a few times a week, into a neighborhood across the street from us to walk up a hill. There aren’t really any hills on our property and I’m sure the residents of that neighborhood were pretty confused by our presence, but you have to do what you have to do sometimes. In addition to the hillwork, we also practiced over a lot of combinations, usually pretty low, sometimes with wide oxers. I set up a bounce exercise at home, which I detailed on an Instagram post, if you’re interested in dimensions/distances. Also on the topic of overall fitness, Maria got regular massages to help her stay comfortable so she was able to maintain the level of work we were asking of her. It also helped her muscular development, and helped her stay loose and relaxed.
· Fitness/soundness to compete at a championship facility: the great thing about these facilities is that they are typically very well maintained! The arena footing is usually high quality with a good base and good depth, and they typically manipulate the footing on cross country using an aerator and/or water, so my main fitness consideration aside from the altitude would be the terrain. As I stated above, we did a lot of hillwork at home and at lessons, but it’s difficult to find a hill to jump on or work at any speed. There is one hill at my trainer’s facility that we have a combination set up on, but for the most part we’re only able to walk and trot on hills. We also worked on a lot of show jump courses in our lessons. I only have 5 pairs of standards at home, which is plenty to school various exercises but not enough for a long course. I took advantage of hauling in for lessons to get to school combinations and related distances in an arena, since I don’t have a lot of opportunity to do that on a regular basis at home.
· Level of competitiveness in a championship field: this one was a little trickier to address. Maria is fairly competitive in dressage, in our three outings this spring, her dressage tests scored a 31.9, a 31.1 and a 30.5. As long as I could keep her loose, relaxed and focused on me, there’s no reason to think that she’d have any issues with the dressage test at the championships. Similarly, she is a machine on cross country. She is brave and bold, she knows her job and is able to focus on what she needs to do regardless of distractions or the atmosphere at shows. Show jumping is always our biggest concern. For as long as I’ve had Maria, we have always struggled here. She can be a little bit lazy with her feet, and has a tendency to come a bit undone when things get rolling. I have had to learn a completely different way to manage her in the show jumping ring, but we have both come a long way. In the spring, we had one rail, literally the first stadium fence we’d jumped in competition in 4 years! We had clear rounds at the second and third shows of the season, so we’ve been on a positive trend and I’d just need to figure out a way to keep that going. There’s no reason that she wouldn’t be able to put in a clear round, it’s just a matter of keeping it all together on the last day!
· Time/age: as I said, neither of us are getting any younger! We have plans to continue competing, I’d love to keep going as long as she tells me that she wants to, but there are never guarantees about what you’ll be able to do with horses or when.
So, having endlessly thought, debated and worried about whether or not I should bite the bullet and make the trip, my trainer and I decided that if we really put all our focus on Maria and her fitness leading up to the trip, it would be safe, smart and worthwhile to make the trip. Cue butterflies - let's hope they can all fly in formation!