Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch have had a busy month, winning the big Advanced division at Millbrook Horse Trials for a second year in a row in preparation for defending their Adequan USEA Gold Cup title at the American Eventing Championships next month. In her latest guest blog, Lainey checks in to give us a play-by-play of the big win at Millbrook.
If someone told me last year that in the late summer of 2014 I would find myself winning a bareback puissance (without a shirt to boot), reclaiming the victory at Millbrook for the second year in a row and trying my hand at FEI dressage all within three weeks, I would look at them bewildered accompanied with a slightly confused chuckle and carry on.
Truth be told, the last three weeks have been a whirlwind of excitement filled with tireless hours of travel, frequent pit stops to Wawa and abundant greetings from strangers acknowledging my shirtless bareback win in front of a crowd of 5,000 (not to mention the many pics of evidence that circled around various portals of online social media). Oh yes, to say it’s been an “eventful” three weeks is quite the understatement.
As you may know, my plans for Al this year changed when Rolex didn’t pan out for us due to an untimely abscess. With my new goal for Al pointing us to the AECs, I chose to bring him up to Millbrook Horse Trials to once again tackle Tremaine Cooper’s lofty Advanced track, which I feel is always a great prep for the tough fall events. After two days worth of lessons from my long-time coach and friend, Buck Davidson, the team headed north to the beautiful state of New York.
Similar to last year, the Advanced class was a large one, filled with many of our U.S. WEG team members and amazingly talented horseflesh. What made this year even more difficult is that Millbrook opted to use the tougher of the two Advanced tests that has four flying changes instead of two.
Being that the last time Al had performed an Advanced level dressage test was in early April at the Fork, my goal was to simply ride every movement in the test with as much accuracy and brilliance, even if I had to forsake a few points for making a mistake.
You see, Al has always been a horse to place in the top after dressage at the horse trials because he moves well and, above all, paints a very relaxed picture. However, boring tests aren’t winning tests on the world scale. I can truly grasp that statement as I gain more experience in the sport, and I am constantly learning how far to push Al or when to scale back in the warm up.
Additionally, being that I am constantly practicing two, three and four tempi changes with my dressage horse, Santiago del Escarvido, I have been able shake the nerves and anxiety I sometimes foster when thinking of the Advanced test with four changes. Simplicity is always key, my friends.
I told you before my goal was to enter that sandbox pushing all the buttons I have trained into my horse of over 11 years, and, despite one mistake from asking Al for too much in the extended trot where he broke to a canter for a few strides, I can confidently say that I came, I saw and I CONQUERED those damn flying changes, and I couldn’t have been happier with Al’s performance, which left us sitting in second place (tied with my coach, of course) going into the cross country.
The course at Millbrook was what I expected: technical yet gallopy. I was very happy to see the slide taken off the Advanced course, which was replaced with a kinder, downhill slope on the approach to the last two jumps. I left the start box with one goal in mind: to have a safe, clear round.
Although it took me to about fence seven to really feel “settled in,” Al was on his A-game and gave me the boost I needed to confidently pilot him home to a clear and, to my surprise, the second fastest round in the class, moving us into the overnight lead with Phillip Dutton hot at my heels and less than two points separating first through fifth. GULP!
Once again on Sunday afternoon, Al and I slowly made our way to the warm-up ring to tackle the really big and super intimidating show jumping course. As the warm up ring slowly began to empty out, soon it was only Phil, Buck and I left bustling about. As soon as Buck jumped his round aboard Copper Beech, he scurried over to me to give me a few last-minute reminders, which was quickly interrupted by the roar of the crowd, as Phillip had just posted a double-clear round.
The best advice Buck has ever given to me going into a pressure-cooking situation such as the one I was faced with was to BREATHE. With that in mind, Al and I cantered into the ring. Breathe. Did a little rein back to make sure Al’s attention was on me. Breathe. Picked up the canter and set our focus on the first jump. Breathe.
When we jumped the last jump and the announcer loudly reported, “CLEAR,” I suddenly remembered to BREATHE again! I felt a huge sense of relief and even greater sense of gratitude to be sitting on the horse that I am, who highlights my strengths as a rider yet is so forgiving of my shortcomings.
What an honor it was for me to lead a victory gallop with people who I have idolized since I was a little girl and whom I still look up to still in this sport, with my adoring mother and amazing groom Lauren Sherrill there to share the sweet taste of victory.
The road to the AECs is still a long one, but with the recent win under my belt, I have added a little swagger to my step. The next stop for Al is Five Points Horse Trials in Southern Pines, N.C., where we will have one more Advanced prep before the big show, and I will have (hopefully) dusted off the rust and nerves that left me feeling a little uneasy at times at Millbrook. Until then folks, saddle up, kick on and go for the gold! We’ve got a kick butt U.S. WEG team to cheer on!