Archive for September, 2010

September 9th, 2010

» Expect the Unexpected

I wrote this piece for the Fall 2010 issue of Cross Country (the Central States Dressage & Eventing Association’s magazine), and thought posting it here would be much easier than writing a whole Poe update from scratch.

Riding, especially young horses, you learn to adapt, and to expect the unexpected. When it’s good, you celebrate. And when it’s bad, you pick back up and try again.

It’s fall 2009, and I suddenly find myself horse shopping again after selling my young gelding on to his dream job. I know what I want next: a nice youngish horse with a solid foundation, who will be ready to compete in the spring. As a kid I’d taken eight years of lessons without setting foot in a show ring; I’m itching to go to my first real Event, and by gosh I’m going to get a horse who’s ready too. So of course in the middle of December there I am sitting on a coming four year old, once again weaving through a drunk baby trot. But Poe is so clearly a Good Choice that square two doesn’t sound so bad any more, and I take that skinny-necked redheaded boy home – Merry Christmas to me!

By July, Poe and I are getting there with the flatwork, spending more time stretching down and less time on giraffe impersonations. We hack everywhere we can get, and do short, fun sessions over small fences. We pop over ditches, up and down banks, through water; we lope around little hunter and jumper courses at local shows. I’m careful to keep it all baby-appropriate, and Poe in turn is cheerful and optimistic about everything in life. All told we’re starting to look like we might actually be eventers – we just need more mileage.

And there, a modest six hours away, is the Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trials, with its Starter Beginner Novice division: real cross-country jumps at two feet and lower. Perfect! I can get him used to traveling, give him a taste of a big show atmosphere, and stuff him (if necessary) around his first real cross-country course. Dressage is some circles, changes of rein – we practice and take it seriously, but we’re so far from competitive that I figure we’ll count it a success if we just do the test and stay in the ring. You can guess where this is going.

Friday afternoon we have a stellar ride – Poe is the best he’s ever been! We’re round, harmonious, floating – I want nothing more than to ride the test immediately. I make the mistake of confessing this out loud – several times. By warm-up time on Saturday my future FEI star has been replaced by a barging, rocketing giraffe. In the 95* heat my last brain cells liquefy and fall out my ears; I forget about that really important breathing thing and cling only to the thought that it will all be over soon – just follow the test and stay in the ring.

I do manage to remember my test. However, for anyone unfamiliar with BN Test B, it does NOT include a “hop sideways out of the ring at H” movement. I’m sure ours is worth at LEAST a 6: some resistance, but square knees! Then I have to explain my idiocy to a string of officials before finding the person who can okay me to ride cross-country. She doesn’t seem any more impressed with our new dressage move than the judge was, but we’re given permission to continue – so long as we retire in the event of a refusal. No pressure or anything for the green baby and the girl who’s already established she can’t steer.

When we enter the start box I’m thinking about our First Start Box Ever, and Poe is wondering if that guy with the clipboard has any cookies. We trot onto the course. Poe is bewildered by the row of hay bales up ahead and balks; I stick my leg on hard, trying to banish a horrible vision of having to retire at the first fence. Poe tries a little left, a little right, and then happily goes over. We zig-zag up to and over the next few fences, then settle into more of a rhythm. I start believing again that we can do this thing. We get a little creative at the water, squeaking through the narrow strip of sand between the flag and the water itself, but it counts and we’re clear. Poe comes off the course more confident, feeling good about his little lark through that big field; I’m tingling and proud as hell of him.

I have a lot to think about on the long drive home through cornfield after cornfield after cornfield. Mostly I try (and fail) not to dwell on the Big E, that moment when we went sideways instead of straight. When I get home I have to tell the story over and over again; I get better at telling it but feel worse every time I have to explain every gory detail to a non-horsey person. But the horsey people are a blessing: so many have their own stories of mortal embarrassment, blips in training, lessons learned.

The very next weekend there’s a schooling show just an hour and a half away. I want absolutely nothing to do with the inside of another dressage ring – which means I really need to go. I decide this time I’ll tell no one, leave the tall boots at home, show Poe under his barn name – anything to make it less of a Big Deal. It’s a full Beginner Novice; I head out half convinced the cross-country is going to look too tough, and I’ll just scratch after dressage.

The course turns out to be up to size but fair, with some great terrain questions and a very inviting water entrance. We’ll try it, I decide – if I don’t die of nerves before dressage. We warm up in a downpour, but just before my test the sky clears. I dash the water from the brim of my helmet, take a deep breath, and head for the ring. I am determined as hell and probably look like a crazy person as I negotiate my turns, staying well clear of the fence. It’s a very mediocre test, but after our halt I feel incandescent. I’m not sure what the etiquette is for whooping in the dressage ring, so I refrain (just barely).

When we trot out of the start box onto the cross-country course, Poe has no clue what’s going on – he’s gawking at the people over there in the lawnchairs, and that bush, and those flags. I point out the first jump, and he says Oh, a jump, okay. No wiggling or balking, just an easy little hop over it. After the third jump he starts looking for them, and by the sixth we’re eventers. He gambols through the course, and after the last fence I am so elated I almost blow right past the finish flags. We duck through them at the last moment, and I throw him a loud party. In my excitement I perhaps say a few things unfit for print, but I know the people waiting for their turn on course understand. Sometimes it’s just that good.

September 2nd, 2010

» 24 Books: August

August: crazy. I read Naomi Novik’s latest installment in the Temeraire series: Tongues of Serpents. Very good — but if you don’t know this series, you should start at the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon. They’re fantastic — imagine the Napoleonic war plus dragons, written in a more historical fiction style (vs high fantasy). I still have a handful of books lingering that I haven’t finished — including, shamefully, 100 Years of Solitude. I don’t even remember any more how long ago I picked that one up…

2010 Book Count: 19 (+4 fluff)
January: 2 (+3 fluff)
February: 4
March: 3
April: 2 (+1)
May: 1
June: 5
July: 1
August: 1