A Year In a Show Mom’s Life

Longtime horse show mom Ruth Ann Cox Pence wrote this memoir of her year of Plans A, B, C and D as her daughter, Paige, attempted to qualify and compete at the FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Horses never go to plan, as we all know too well, but this is a story of determination and sheer willpower. Many thanks to Ruth Ann for writing, and thank you for reading!

Paige and Ruth Ann Cox Pence. Photo via Ruth Ann Cox Pence. Paige and Ruth Ann Cox Pence. Photo via Ruth Ann Cox Pence.

Shortly after we bought Class Action, or “Dan”, in Fall 2013, my 15-year-old daughter Paige (who had been riding about six years and had completed a grand total of two Training level horse trials at the time) announced she WAS going to qualify for the NAJYRC CCI1* the following summer.

Paige and Dan did a couple of successful Trainings, then jumped (quite literally) into Preliminary. In the interim, my husband Steve and I bought our first horse trailer, and became lawyer-trailer drivers (another story in itself). I was a fairly experienced show mom-groom so felt confident. The Paige/Dan pair clicked — they not only completed, but won, their first Prelim at River Glen in November 2013 — this was going to be easy!

Paige’s trainer, Susan Harris, told her to make a plan — the list of shows and championships she would complete in order to qualify for NAJYRC.  The qualifications were a bit complicated (understatement), but Paige pored over the USEA omnibus and came up with The Plan.

We had a meeting with Susan on a freezing January day in the viewing room of the indoor arena at Spring Run in Prospect, Kentucky.  Susan approved The Plan, but kept referring to it as “Plan A” and asked if we had backup plans — B,C,D, etc. I wondered what she meant — we had The Plan and we would execute The Plan, right?

The second Prelim was Full Gallop in late January. The pressure was off to win this time, as we reviewed the list of well-known professionals in Paige’s division.  Dressage was decent, followed by a couple of rails in a big show jumping course.

The cross country course looked doable as Paige and Dan took off on the final phase the next day. It turned out (as Paige got to know Dan better), that a bulky 17.1 hand Irish Sport Horse needs adequate turning time to maneuver tricky cross country combinations.

Going too fast into the first combo, Dan decided he didn’t have time to get his bulk into the second one, and went to the side.  Uh-oh, no run-outs allowed for a qualifying Prelim.  A too-fast approach to a second combination was followed by a second run-out.  Two run-outs, but after turning around and re-approaching, they still finished under optimum time. Definitely needed to slow down next time, but we were still on track with The Plan — a trip to Ocala Horse Trials was the next month.

Paige Pence and Class Action. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Paige Pence and Class Action. Photo by Samantha Clark.

We arrived at the Florida Horse Park in early February, in the dark after an exhausting 14 hour drive from Louisville. Dressage went well two mornings later, followed by an absolute deluge of rain.  Show jumping was better than expected, considering the fact that there was quite literally a water complex in the jump ring from all the rain.

The next day was bright and sunny as cross country loomed ahead. I left Paige in warmup with Susan and went to position myself near the start.  I waited, and waited, and waited for Paige to appear. Something was amiss — she should have started by now.  Susan called and said to come back to warmup — Paige and Dan had taken a fall.

Paige was being examined by EMTs when I got there. Dan had gotten his very long legs tangled in a small oxer and fallen, Paige accompanying his descent.  She landed on the side of her face, sustaining a head bump, scraped cheek, and a black eye.  Dan was fine, Paige seemed fine as well, but shaken. The TD was kind, but said he did not want her to compete cross country since she had hit her head.  Plan B was starting to make sense now.

Rocking Horse was less than a week away, but Susan said maybe we could get in late (as it turned out, we would have had to stay anyway due to an ice storm in Atlanta).  The Paige/Dan duo competed at Rocking Horse and this time all went well.  They finished second in their Open Preliminary Division! Paige and Dan were now qualified to compete in a CIC1*, so we made plans to attend Poplar in March.

Paige Pence and Class Action jump clear round the CCI** XC for Area VIII at NAJYRC this year. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Paige Pence and Class Action jump clear round the CCI** XC for Area VIII at NAJYRC this year. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Poplar was a huge show.  Dressage was mediocre, but met standards.  Show jumping was huge, but they had their first clear jump round–just a few time penalties.  Several course walks revealed a beefy cross country course — uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t still be walking the courses?

But Paige and Susan were confident. The next day Paige started the course and I hurried to the finish. I waited for what seemed an eternity for Paige to appear and when she did come out of the woods, she was red-faced, mad and Dan was hauling his hulk at a high rate of speed.

A large table combination mid-course had been covered with white tarps for the competition (not there the day before) and Dan apparently thought it would be in poor taste to jump a table with a cloth covering.  It took two attempts for Paige to convince him otherwise — not a qualifying CIC1*.

To add to the disappointment, we had to wait as Dan was randomly chosen for drug testing.  Now it was too late to complete the two CIC1* option for Young Rider qualifications.  Paige and Dan would have to complete a qualifying CCI1*.  Plan C?  In the meantime another qualifying Preliminary was required for a CCI1*, which we picked up at River Glen in Tennessee.

The Virginia Horse Park in May was a familiar venue. We had been there several times for Pony Club champs in Paige’s games-playing days.  Although she has since outgrown games, she made the International Pony Club Games Exchange Team in 2013 at the height of her games career.  After a shaky first formal inspection (Paige forgot to put Dan’s number on him and was called back and admonished by the TD), Paige and Dan had a great dressage (although I missed
it completely due to a mix-up on arena location).  Steve called and said Dan’s dressage bit had been called into question and Paige might be eliminated — he was joking, right?

There was no joke. Paige had not gotten her bit checked before dressage and it turned out that the bit she had competed in ever since owning Dan was FEI taboo.  The ground jury convened, got out their books and compared Paige’s bit to the illustrations.

The bit was declared illegal and she was eliminated.  Shock set in.  On the bright side, Paige was a very good sport– respectful to the T.D. (now a familiar face) and said she understood. I made my way to the videographer’s stand to request a refund of my video fee and lamented our incredibly bad luck.  I complained that it appeared there were no more opportunities for Paige and Dan to qualify before the June NAJYRC deadline and that Young Riders would not be a reality in 2014.  She replied, “Ever heard of Fox River Valley?” Plan D?

To make a long saga shorter, we had not heard of Fox River Valley, but went there.  It was the very last CCI1* that finished on the very last day of qualifications for Young Riders.

Paige and Dan were polished and determined.  Solid dressage was followed by clean cross country, followed by the hardest rain I had ever seen at a horse show (many trailers got stuck, but not ours, we were now seasoned trailer drivers).  Show jumping the next day was in a very wet, soggy field.

As Paige and Dan entered the show jump arena, I realized that all of our efforts these past months had come down to one final show jumping round.  So what did I do?  Turned my back and walked away, too nervous to watch.  With two rails, Paige/Dan finished in the ribbons in seventh place!  They qualified on the very last day, only a few hours before final applications were due.  They were going to Young Riders!

Celebrating at NAJYRC! Photo via Ruth Ann Cox Pence.

Celebrating at NAJYRC! Photo via Ruth Ann Cox Pence.

NAJYRC was an experience like no other. As for me, it was an amazing feeling not being Paige’s groom—there was someone else with that official designation.  No more Mom/daughter conflicts over studs (which I purposefully never learned to do, another story), hair nets and getting ready on time.

Paige and Dan continued to improve and bond as a pair—solid dressage, clean cross country, and their very first totally clean show jump round in the Rolex stadium before a small crowd (although my squeamish inability to watch show jumping has stuck with me to this day).

Paige’s Area VIII team won the bronze medal, and Paige and Dan placed in the ribbons, 10th overall.  It had been an amazing journey to NAJYRC, but well worth the trip.  A few weeks later, Paige said she intended to move Dan up to intermediate and she WAS going to qualify for the 2015 NAJYRC CCI2* … yikes! Time for a New Plan.

History does, in fact, repeat itself.  Paige and Dan moved up to Intermediate after NAJYRC 2014.  They competed successfully at Intermediate through the remainder of  2014 and  spring 2015.  In June, they qualified at the last available show for NAJYRC CCI2*, where they won the bronze medal.  Paige recently passed her C3 Traditional pony club rating and she and Dan won the AREA VIII Junior Intermediate championship in August.