Courtney Carson
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Courtney Carson


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About Courtney Carson

I am an avid Three-Day Eventer and Fox Hunter in the Midwest/Area IV. I have 10 horses, mostly off the track TB's, and I have competed through the Intermediate level.

Eventing Background

USEA Rider Profile Click to view profile
Area I live in Area IV, we compete in areas II, III, IV, and VIII mostly
Highest Level Competed Intermediate
Farm Name Lone Creek Ranch
Trainer Meghan and Jill O'Donoghue

Latest Articles Written

One Year On with the International Grooms Association + A LRK3DE Grooms’ Party

McKenzie Regan with Woods Baughman’s C’est la Vie 135. Photo by Abby Powell.

The International Grooms Association (IGA) is now one year old, and after a successful first year of collaborative development the association is marking its’ first anniversary by expanding both its team and its focus.

Founded with the support of the FEI, the IGA represents the voices of international grooms, working to bring about positive developments for grooms by demonstrating their vital role in horse sport, and the ways the rest of the equestrian community can support these teams behind the scenes.

During this first year IGA members have been invited to participate in member only surveys, the results of which have been used by some shows to implement change, and by the FEI when creating their new groom focused section of the FEI Event Organisers Guide.

As this is the first time grooms have been referenced in this resource, the IGA is very proud to see members’ voices included in the new advice.

Throughout the year the IGA has been able to offer members a feedback facility, so that grooms are able to share their experiences at FEI shows and events, as well as collaborating with the FEI regarding their own feedback facilities.

The generous support of more than 40 FEI events and shows who have committed to be a part of the Show Supporter programme has helped the IGA in its work towards a better future for grooms, but has also meant the IGA has been able to work directly with these shows to shine light on the grooms working during their events.

As the IGA moves forward into its second year the time has come to broaden its scope; the recent appointment of Courtney Carson as US Coordinator is an exciting opportunity to see greater development in the US market.

In addition the board has welcomed Ashley Kashark as Youth Representative director, a role which will help give a voice to younger grooms- the future of horse sport.

Finally, the time has come to establish IGA Rep groups; a network of grooms around the world who wish to play a bigger role in bringing about positive development, and help us demonstrate how equestrianism can become a more attractive and sustainable industry.

IGA Executive Director Lucy Katan said “it has been an exciting first year for the IGA, and we are proud of all we have achieved. However these are only the first steps in a much longer journey. The establishing of the IGA was a truly historic moment in itself; to give international grooms a formal voice for the very first time.

To see this voice used, and listened to, has shown how the international equestrian community is working together to celebrate the role of the grooms and find ways to support grooms in their work.

We are very grateful to our three fantastic partners Cavalor, Haygain and Boehringer Ingelheim. The loyal support of these three companies is enabling the IGA to create real change, and over the next year their support will be vital in helping us prioritise groom education alongside our mission to ensure better working conditions for grooms around the globe.

We know there are still big changes and developments to come, so we invite any grooms who have not yet taken the chance to be heard to join us on this journey towards a better future for international grooms.”

The International Grooms Association is very thankful to have both the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and Split Rock Jumping Tour as show supporters this week throughout the competitions. The IGA is also hosting a 1-year party for grooms working this week as well as spectating throughout the event. The party will be held Thursday evening from 5:30-7pm at the Murphy Pavilion.

Want to sign up for the IGA? Click here!

A Horse That Owed Me Nothing Made My Career

After the announcement of the retirement of Vandiver, the Olympic partner of Doug Payne and best friend to #supergroom Courtney Carson, we asked both Courtney and Doug to write about the horse that took them around the world. We’ll kick things off with this must-read from Courtney.

Kentucky 2019. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It may sound a bit ridiculous to say that Vandiver made my career, considering I’ve only been doing this for six years and I hope my career extends way past this point. Hell, he may not have been the first horse that I went to a championship with, but there are some that you just have a feeling about.

In a weird way I knew the moment it was announced he was going to Doug for the ride, a full 15 months before I took the job, that Vandiver was destined to do amazing things. I am just lucky that I was a part of that ride. He took me on my first foreign adventure, he was my first 5* horse that I groomed for, I got to ride him at Burghley and Aachen. He made more dreams come true than what 10-year-old me could have ever dreamt.

Vandiver is a horse who seemed to always be the bridesmaid despite being one of the most consistent horses you’ve probably seen in this country. That may sound a bit insane to think of, but in the time I worked with him he was rarely out of the top-10. He may not have won anything massive, but he was the USEF National Reserve Champion in 2019 with a fifth place at Kentucky, he was the direct reserve for the Pan American Games that year, was top-15 at Blenheim 2017, and capped his career with a top-American finish at the Tokyo Olympics.

Courtney Carson puts the finishing touches on Vandiver. Photo by Abby Powell.

It takes a lot to keep a horse running at the top level, and the great thing about event horses is that they don’t all fit the same mold. The really great ones have a lot of heart though, and this particular horse has a heart even bigger than his giant, amazing ears.

His journey was not without bumps, some stops, and a lot of anxiety and emotion. He lived the career as an afterthought, it seemed. When I got to Doug’s in 2016 it was just exciting to have an Advanced horse. He was third at the American Eventing Championship in Tryon that year and followed that up with a second place in 2017.

He had other top placings which gave us hope that he would be placed on the 2018 World Equestrian Games team at Tryon. He was at home there; it is essentially home for us because we show jump there often in addition to eventing.

Quinn started 2018 incredibly strong, even winning the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Carolina International in the pouring down rain as the only horse to finish on his dressage score. Then heartbreak struck when he was held at the first trot up two weeks later during the Fork/WEG Test event. We withdrew from the hold box and had a serious discussion about how we needed to get to the bottom of his chronic off-again-on-again lameness in the right hind. I spent an afternoon sitting on the barn floor with some good friends, a bag of Swedish fish, and a bottle of vodka. While we knew there was a chance we could get this turned around, he was already 14 years old and had done a lot in his career prior to that.

Hanging at Millbrook in 2017. Photo courtesy of Eliza Goldberg Photography.

Following a routine arthroscopy that didn’t show us more than what would be expected in a horse with his resume. We still gave it the ol’ college try and had them clean everything out, what did we really have to lose at that point? During this time Doug was campaigning Getaway at the Advanced/4* level and Quantum Leap was qualified for Le Lion d’Angers as a seven year old (both went on to represent the U.S. that fall at Boekelo and Le Lion), but no one was really ready to step into Quinn’s shoes.

Thus began a long several months of walking, and walking, and walking. I would get up at 4 a.m. to hand walk before work began. I would stay late and hang out with him while he ate grass. We built him a small turnout area at the bottom of the hill with good grass when he could finally go outside. By the time he was able to begin tack walking I had talked Doug into letting me do it. I spent more time with that horse in the next nine months than I’ve probably ever spent with one particular horse. I learned everything about his eating habits, something he was notoriously finicky about prior to this.

I created a monster. Sometimes I had to hold his grain bucket so he would eat a meal, occasionally I would even have to hand feed it to him. I learned to power walk in the dark by the moonlight so that we got an acceptable amount of time in by his watch. We had several arguments about how long he should be trotting once that was allowed. And I became even more obsessed with getting this horse back to the top. I just knew somewhere deep in my soul that he could, and that he deserved, to be on a team before he was through.

Courtney and Vandiver share a moment in the Kentucky vet box. Photo by Sally Spickard

2019 was a roller coaster of a year. Quinn had an incredibly strong spring season, finishing it off with a fifth place and Reserve USEF Championship at the Land Rover Kentucky 5*. We had talked about trying to take him to Aachen that summer, but being named as the direct reserve to Starr Witness for the Pan American Games kept him stateside that summer. Instead we tried our hand at a second trip to the UK and a canter around Burghley.

In the year that saw one of the most gruesome Saturday’s in the history of the sport, he fell victim to the statistics. This big, golden hearted gelding cantered up to the biggest white, open rail oxer on course and left the ground despite being a full half stride away from where he should be. 99% of other horses would have slammed on the brakes and said “hard pass”, not this guy.

Were we there two years too late? Maybe. Was he ever destined to be a Burghley horse? Maybe not. He showed his resilience though and flew home to claim the win at Stable View in the CCI3*-S two weeks later, he didn’t look like he had missed a beat. He finished his year with a canter around at Fair Hill and another double clear show jumping. Maybe the Olympic dream was alive for this guy.

Doug Payne and Vandiver under the lights in Tokyo. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Covid hit. I’m not going to try and put into words how Covid affected others less fortunate than myself, and it seems unfair to say that my biggest worry throughout the 2020 year was that the Olympics were canceled and that we had missed our shot. It is incredibly selfish to even have had these thoughts, but while he still looked great and was working well, time was slipping away from us like sand in an hourglass. I didn’t know if we could keep him going at the top of the sport for an entire year — he was already 16 at this point. When we got back to competing he came out and won a 1.35m Welcome Stakes in Aiken, won the Advanced at Tryon, and then was fourth in the CCI4*-L that fall. Maybe if we played all of our cards correctly, we could do it.

Quinn just continued to impress us and step up. He ran well all spring, winning the CCI4*-S at the Fork, earned a top-12 finish at Kentucky, and jogged up afterward like a champion. My whole world now became keeping him as happy and sound as possible so that no one ever saw him in less than his best condition.

Being named initially as the reserve almost fueled my fire even more. I was not going to give anyone the chance to say that he did not deserve to be there if he was given the opportunity to compete. I found out as we were loading equipment at Gladstone to leave for Aachen that he was stepping into the team role and my world changed. He was in! Everything I had spent five years working towards, every feeling that I had, every heartbreak we had experienced along the way — Quinn was finally, officially, getting his shot to prove to the American eventing scene that he was not just a footnote at the bottom of the write-up for the weekend.

The best Dude – ears and all.

At the Olympics it was a bit difficult to not be starstruck. You’re standing in a field grazing your horse looking at the likes of Explosion W and Gio thinking that you’re surrounded by the best in the world. Then it hits you that you’re holding a horse at the Olympics as well, you’ve made it. Spending five weeks with only one horse to focus on can become difficult, but I tried to keep it in perspective and not get down his throat and upset him.

Quinn is notoriously antisocial, and even though it has been joked that I’m his emotional support person, even I get sick of myself so I can only imagine how he felt. Talk about a horse who gave it his all, though. At the ripe old age of 17 he galloped around and left it all on the floor for everyone there.

Finishing the Olympics was the most incredible experience, and finally being the top placed American horse was just the cherry on top. Erik Duvander told me at the beginning of cross country to take a moment and enjoy it, after jumping the individual round I told him through my tears that I was going to take more than one.

Quinn owed us nothing. We never expected to get what we did out of him. Coming into this year, we said we would always let him tell us. He was never going to be a horse to quit — it’s not in his nature — but we hoped he would let us know. At the 2022 Kentucky Three Day, he told us.

Most people won’t believe me when I say it, but I think in a weird way he knew it would be his last trip around the bluegrass. He was oddly calm and relaxed in the dressage ring. While he still demanded from the moment I showed up that he was taken out for grass, he was almost less fierce than ever before.

The morning of cross country he ate his breakfast, something that I can promise you has never happened before. Watching him gallop around the cross country, standing in the tent, I knew this would be the last time I met him at the finish line. While he continued to jump, it was never in his nature to not keep trying. Even walking down on Sunday he was slow, his warm-up lacked some of the spring off of the floor, but he went in and gave it his all.

Through the Tunnel at Tokyo. Photo by Bridget London.

I had silent tears going down my face as I walked him to the gate. One last trip down the ramp for the big guy. I began crying outright when he jumped the last fence. As he got his standing ovation, walking out of the ring on the buckle in front of the fans who loved him so, Doug wiped a tear from his own face and I cried even harder.

I enjoyed my last walk home with him, crying the whole way. I have a lot of memories coming up that ramp, one of my favorite photos is us coming up it in 2019 and it hangs in my house. I will never forget a single moment spent with this amazing horse.

Doug telling the world that I get to take him for a spin — my only bucket list competition item for myself has been to leave the start box on him one time — makes it even more emotional. It is weird to think he won’t get on the trailer to the big horse shows any more, that I won’t get to spend hours walking him to make sure he is fit enough, and that I won’t run to meet him at the finish line.

But he capped off an incredible career in style, giving it his all in front of a sold out crowd on a Kentucky Sunday, and I can’t think of a better way to have finished it.

I hope every horse in our barn knows that it’s nothing personal, but they will never fill his shoes. Mostly because no ears will ever be as large or as perfect as his, and I hope to God that no one else ever needs to go in just one glue on front shoe.

There just will never be another horse that touches my soul the way that he has done. It has been an honor and a privilege to chase him around the world and to be his person. I have loved watching him come alive over the last six years and I hope I’ve been able to convey to everyone just how special he truly is.

You Can Never Stop Learning

Meghan discussing fundamentals of cross country to a Novice Group. Photo by Courtney Carson. Meghan discussing fundamentals of cross country to a Novice Group. Photo by Courtney Carson.

“The only way to get good at this sport is to never stop learning.”

I’m not entirely sure who said this originally — someone much more wise than I am — but I have heard variations of it throughout my entire 20 years in the saddle.  It could not be a more true statement to keep in mind when working with and around horses. There is always another way to approach a situation and every horse has a unique personality and there will never be a cookie-cutter way to teach and ride.

I am incredibly fortunate enough to be a part of a fantastic barn with more knowledge floating around than I could ever hope to absorb and retain.  Jill and Mark O’Donoghue have always been parental figures to look up to, and I try to learn from every statement that comes out of their mouths.

I also had the privilege of growing up with Meghan, who is now a household name in the eventing community, and her sister Kelty, along with other girls who have gone away and come home with new tips and tricks of the trade.

Meghan keeping a watchful eye on Jana Lyle (Preliminary rider)- Queeny Park Clinic

Meghan keeping a watchful eye on Jana Lyle (Preliminary rider), Queeny Park Clinic. Photo by Courtney Carson.

When Meghan, Kelty, and I were in high school we used to spend hours upon hours in the barn together. We would set jump courses, ride as many horses as we could get our hands on, and sit to study each other’s lessons.

We were hungry for ways to become better, and we found those through watching and listening, something that I unfortunately don’t see a lot of riders doing now days. There is a serious lack of desire to learn, along with any type of support for one another within barns.  I have seen this in multiple programs the last couple of years, and it bothers me.

I have arranged my horse’s schedule the last two weekends so that I have been able to travel with Meghan to her clinics in the area.  While I justify this as spending time with one of my best friends since she is gone six months out of the year, I also have made a point to pay attention to every moment of these clinics.

While the combinations have all been lower level horses and riders, I have probably learned more than if I had sat at Phillip Dutton’s farm and watched a bunch of 4* riders jump their 4* horses all day.

Phancy Pharm Clinic 5/9/2015- Photo via MISHO Facebook Page

Phancy Pharm Clinic 5/9/2015. Photo via MISHO Facebook Page

The horses ranged from absolutely perfect packers to hot young Thoroughbreds, and the riders spanned from nervous children who had never been in a clinic before to adult amateurs who ride with Meghan every chance they get.

This made for every possible situation one could imagine throughout the two weekends, and we also got to see a variety of communicating with the horses on the flat, throughout the show jumping, and finally out on the cross country. No pair was perfect and Meghan found something for everyone to work on!

I have watched Meghan teach hundreds of lessons, sat through several of her clinics, and had her work with me and my horses countless times, yet I still manage to take away something from every session I continue to hear. I try to do this with lessons I take myself, or that I have the opportunity to watch.

I have been amazed recently with some of the younger riders in the barn who don’t take the extra hour out of their day to sit in the arena and watch her teach.  I was also amazed at the number of riders in the clinic who loaded up and left immediately following their rides, or did not get there early to watch some of the other groups.

Super Pony in the starter group- Queeny Park Clinic

Super Pony in the Starter group, Queeny Park Clinic. Photo by Courtney Carson.

Now I know that with clinics a lot of participants have time constraints and cannot stay, or they haul in from a distance, but I still find it amazing at the lack of interest in sitting and watching others learn.  Even the lack of attention paid by riders within their own groups, talking to their husbands/wives or other supporters instead of watching and listening to the clinician.

Yes, this is a fast-paced world, but if we really want to be masters of our craft, or hell- even just kind of good at it! You have to take the time to study the sport and not just participate in it.

I see way too many people who just get to the barn, ride their horse, and jump in the car and leave.  Very few riders will put pressure on their horses when not riding in a lesson, therefore losing any ability to work through tension on their own.  At some point in your career you will be warming up by yourself, and if you have never practiced at home and alone, you will be lost trying to figure out how to ride without help in the warm-up arena.

While at events riders may run over to the ring to watch their friends ride, but they don’t sit by the ring and study other riders throughout the day. You can learn something from every ride, even if it is just what NOT to do, and I know I see a lot of that (and definitely contribute to the cause at times as well!).  How many riders sit down and watch the videos that are available online from major events and watch what the riders are doing as opposed to just watching for entertainment value?

We can all be held accountable for how good we really want to be at this sport. While things such as work, family, and other obligations in the lives of amateurs do play a part in how much time we can devote to it, I guarantee all of us could find time to watch someone else ride, stay a bit longer for a clinic/lesson, or to help set a course and learn about distances and why courses are set the way they are.

I have run the Intermediate level, and I learned more from the Starter and Beginner Novice riders in the last two weekends than I did from the Preliminary riders. You are never too good to quit learning, remember that.

Indiana Eventing Association Needs Our Help to Finish New Water Jump

Dirt work at the new water box. Photo via IEA website. Dirt work at the new water box. Photo via IEA website.

As event riders we tend to find venues we enjoy competing at and make a point to place events at those venues within our schedule every year. While this is a wonderful thing, we find ourselves jumping the same course with the same jumps over and over again.  What most competitors do not understand when they begin to ask for new jumps is the cost involved. This cost can be very great depending on how many fences are being constructed.

One type of fence that we all enjoy, as it is a staple of running cross country, is the water jump. Almost every competitor looks forward to the question at the water, and usually the photographer stands there as well. A good water box can make or break a course, and the presence of more than one, or one that offers many options, is a welcome component for course designers and competitors.

The Indiana Eventing Association holds a wonderful event every year at the Hoosier Horse Park. IEA is an organization that has members from all over the state of Indiana and offers year-end awards, clinics and other shows along with the recognized horse trials. The IEA Horse Trials hosts Beginner Novice through Intermediate/Preliminary levels and is also one of the few events in the country to offer the Novice and Training Classic Three-Day.

Concept drawing of new water box. Drawing by Tim Foley.

Concept drawing of new water box. Drawing by Tim Foley.

Beginning in 2014, IEA began to raise money in order to construct a new water complex at the Hoosier Horse Park, which is home to the IEA Horse Trials as well as Penny Oaks Horse Trials. This new water jump, designed and constructed by course builder Jon Wells, will become a part of the course in addition to the already existing water box and will offer many more options for questions throughout the levels.

With two peninsulas, offering two- and three-stride options, as well as straightforward up/down banks and trot ins and outs, this new complex will be a very exciting addition to the courses for these two horse trials.

Unfortunately due to where the water complex is being placed, the cost for the jump ended up being greater than originally anticipated. Lee Ann Zobbe said that the area had to be excavated multiple times in order to keep vegetation from sprouting back up into the designated area for the box itself.

Between this unexpected cost and the harsh winter that affected the Hoosier Horse Park, the dirt work itself became more expensive than anticipated. IEA estimates that an additional $25,000 needs to be raised to fund the completion of this new complex.

This complex will be located near the warm-up and big Pan Am bank complex, which always offers good questions and will make it an exciting area for spectators, as they can see the start/finish along with two influential questions on the course while standing in one location. The thick trees which used to separate the warm-up from the bank complex have also been cleared to allow unobstructed viewing from the warm-up.

Concept drawing of the new water complex. Completed by Tim Foley.

Monica Foley, head of fundraising for IEA, is hopeful about finding donors and funds for this jump. She said that IEA has several exciting opportunities coming up to help with raising the remaining funds.

There will be a 50/50 raffle held during the IEA Horse Trials (May 28-31) which is still accepting entries for both the Classic Three-Day divisions and Horse Trial divisions through May 12. This horse trial will also be a wonderful opportunity for competitors to see what has been done thus far with construction and where the jump will be located.

IEA is also hosting an Event Derby at the Hoosier Horse Park on July 26 with all proceeds going towards the funding for this complex. The derby will be held by the current water box and will incorporate both cross country and show jumping obstacles.

There are also sponsorship opportunities available for those interested in making a donation. There are four packages available at different sponsorship levels; all donations are tax-deductible. With the prime location of the new water complex, this is an excellent advertising opportunity. Information about the specific packages and how to donate can be found here on the official IEA website.

Current Picture of the New Complex.  Photo via IEA Website.

Current Picture of the New Complex. Photo via IEA Website.

Course builder Jon Wells said he hopes to make it back to Hoosier in June to continue constructing the new complex. If the fundraising is successful, Monica said they hope to finish the box in time for fall schooling opportunities. IEA would like for the new complex to make its official debut at the 2016 IEA Horse Trials and Classic Three-Day Event. This event will also showcase the businesses and individuals who have helped make this new complex possible.

The Hoosier Horse Park is a fantastic eventing venue in the midwest, and this addition would continue to improve the quality of courses throughout this part of the country. The Indiana Eventing Association has gone through great lengths to continue to improve the education of riders through their clinics, events and seminars at the classic series event; now let’s help them improve their courses. Click here to donate via PayPal.

Go Eventing.

IEA Links: Website, Horse Trials, Water Complex Donations

Eventing at the Bay: Spring Bay 2015

Preliminary water complex. Photo by Courtney Carson. Preliminary water complex. Photo by Courtney Carson.

I was warned Friday morning by my friend, a meteorologist, that he hoped I had packed a boat with me for my trek to Lexington, Kentucky, for Spring Bay Horse Trials. I laughed and replied that I had water wings, but that it would not be too bad as I had loaded without getting rained on. Little did I know he was more right than I ever could have imagined.

The KY Horse Park Friday around noon.  Photo Credit: Courtney Carson

The Kentucky Horse Park Friday around noon. Photo by Courtney Carson.

The closer I got to the horse park, the more water I was seeing in fields, moving closer to the road, and falling from the sky. I kept seeing fields with lakes that had formed overnight, and I held my breath knowing that more rain was moving in from the west that afternoon. It wasn’t until I got to the park entrance that it hit me we may only be running a combined test this weekend. I unloaded and set my stall up in the pouring down rain, thankful that I had packed two rain suits and several extra pairs of socks.

Somehow we managed to find a break in the rain to ride and check out the footing down by the dressage rings. I am always impressed with the footing at the horse park, especially since they have redone the rings. While it was sloppy, I was 100 percent confident that we would be running on Saturday.

When we came back to the barns, my two friends and I rotated between holding/bathing our horses off. When we began bathing the first horse, the rain began again. We left the hose and wash bucket down at the wash rack while we switched out horses, and by the time we came back there was a fairly strong creek running through the area. When we finished the second horse we picked up our stuff and moved it back towards the spigot by the stalls because the water was so strong it would have washed away the bucket.

We stayed at the park as late as possible because we knew if we left there was no way we were getting back to do a late check.  Pulling out of the park I had to cross two sections of running water across the drive, and there was a very swift-moving river running next to the road; we even joked about going white water rafting instead of riding the next day.

Entrance to the Horse Park, 7:30 pm Friday. Photo Credit: Courtney Carson

Entrance to the Horse Park, 7:30 p.m. Friday. Photo by Courtney Carson.

As the event community always does, we pulled together and the communication was fantastic thanks to social media. The officials for Spring Bay were constantly updating the Facebook page and event website about conditions for getting in/out of the park. By Saturday morning there were several posts about road conditions and the entrance to the park, with riders sharing the post and including everyone they knew who was competing.

The water had gone down extremely well, with there being no running water on the drive and our rapids were reduced to lazy river speeds. The dressage began on time, and the footing in all of the rings was great. Every volunteer showed up and had smiles on their face, and the officials continued to communicate with the competitors about their decision regarding the cross country.

When we went over to walk around our courses Saturday evening, I was pleasantly surprised with how well the footing had held and how much water had drained. Spring Bay runs two tracks for the cross country, with the Preliminary/Training on one side of the park and the Novice/Beginner Novice on the other. Honestly, this factor is what saved the event from being condensed, as the footing was able to withstand only half of the horses running on either side.

The Preliminary track was designed very well, asking several technical questions with an appropriate number of galloping fences. There were only two fences I was worried about: the water jump because the water was knee-deep, and the fence following the water because it was a swamp with deep standing water and mud in front of it.

The Training/Preliminary Water Jump. Photo Credit: Courtney Carson

The Training/Preliminary water jump. Photo by Courtney Carson.

The officials came through once again and made things work out. When we arrived at Masterson Station around 7 a.m. there was someone out and about with a backhoe, placing loading of dirt in really wet spots and moving fences. The fences in the warm-up were moved to the safest spots in order for us to use them. The second to last fence (which was the last fence for the training level) was removed, and they were using the backhoe to remove bucket loads of water from the water complex.

Our first rider was in the Novice, so she began down the hill. From the moment she walked into the warm up, volunteers and other competitors were sharing the news of fences that had been moved from their course. The starters made sure that she knew exactly what had been moved before she left the box, and which fences still had mandatory flags. When I opened my Facebook there were posts from other riders also informing me of the course changes.

I had a similar experience when I made it to the warm-up for the Preliminary. Volunteers were telling everyone of the course changes, and once again everyone was smiling. Mandy Alexander ended up being the trailblazer and when she was finished she came running to the warm up to give hints and information about the course.

Weekends like this remind me why I love this sport so much, as everyone went above and beyond to make sure that competitors remained safe throughout the competition. The officials did everything within their power to make the event run smoothly, despite less than desirable conditions, when they could have condensed it to a one-day combined test easily.

I am so impressed with the communication and proactive response to concerns from competitors. I personally cannot thank the Spring Bay organizers enough for all that they did this weekend. I just want to remind everyone as well to please thank volunteers and officials, because they are going out of their way so we can compete.

Now to keep fingers crossed that things dry out before Rolex in a few weeks, as I personally do not want to see a Badminton 2.0 in Lexington.

Go Eventing.

Keeping Calm when Kim Scores a 15.7

Goose Jump Lesson Goose Jump Lesson

There is something special about the first event of the season.  Whether you are competing at the lowest or the highest of levels, the butterflies in your stomach that flutter while you pack for the first time would make a kid at Christmas seem calm.

I have just returned from my annual trip down to Aiken, and I am riding high on my experience there. Our winter was fairly mild through the end of January, which led to me stepping up and entering Goose in the Preliminary at Pine Top for their spring horse trials.

We were able to get in a couple of proper jump schools, some good fitness days, and even real baths! I thought about how he was last season, having completed four Preliminary cross country courses with minor bobbles which were attributed to rider error, so off the entry went! I decided that he would run slower for his first time out, looking for a good confident run in preparation for the CIC* at Chattahoochee Hills in May.

Intermediate Drop at Full Gallop

Intermediate Drop at Full Gallop. Photo by Courtney Carson.

Everything was full steam ahead. I had a plan in place with Jessica Payne for lessons and coaching while I was down there, my friend Liz and her horse were riding down with us, and we were counting down the days.

Then the blizzard hit.  We were instantly buried under 18 inches of snow with weeks of sub-20 degree temperatures; all of a sudden I was questioning my decision.

The Blizzard of February 2015

The Blizzard of February 2015. Photo by Courtney Carson.

Thankfully we have a wonderful equestrian community in the area and I got Goose moved to the O’Donoghue’s barn for the three weeks leading up to our trip. I was able to have him in continuous work with the help of their indoor, and I was convinced that he was fit enough to head on down for the Preliminary.

We made it to Aiken and were greeted with sunshine and paddocks for the horses to go out in. The boys were thrilled to have their blankets pulled and to roll in the sand. Liz and I wandered around Full Gallop on Sunday, made it to the jumper show, and then took the boys for a hack. We may have even ended up in shorts before the end of the day. The original forecast of rain all week was looking better by the day and we were excited for a week of growth.

Dressage Lessons in Aiken

Dressage lessons in Aiken. Photo by Courtney Carson.

It is always a bit difficult to ride with someone who does not see you on a regular basis. I called Jessica in a panic before Richland last August and she did a wonderful job helping me keep my head on straight and warm up for the event.  I was very excited to actually lesson with her after our hard work since seeing her last.

I was incredibly thrilled with the quality of lessons I received during our week in Aiken. She is a very positive instructor, while being very effective and precise in her instruction. She was quick to correct me when I needed to lower my hands, stay back with my shoulders, or shift my weight on the flat.

She picked out some things to change that I had not been told, or maybe she just said them in a different way, which helped my visualization while riding Goose. He is still very green, having only completed his first event at this same Pine Top just two years ago, and she helped me to fix some of the basics that I lose in trying to make the movements happen.

The entire Payne Eventing operation has a ton of personality, which makes it fun to be a part of, even if for a short period of time. We laughed the entire week — at ourselves, at one another, and at who-knows-what.  My lessons were very serious, and we got a lot accomplished, asking appropriate questions before the event without over-exerting Goose. I was feeling quite ready by the time we hauled over Thursday evening.

Goose Jump Lesson

Goose in a jump lesson.

Somehow in my excitement of entering the first event of the year I placed myself into an Open division at Pine Top instead of Horse or Rider. Usually this does not bother me, but as I watched the entry status and saw Phillip Dutton x 4, Boyd Martin x 2, Doug Payne, Kim Severson, etc. I was beginning to feel like a very small fish from Illinois in the middle of shark-infested waters.

I was not concerned with where I finished,  because my plan was to go slow on the cross country (first event of the year, condensed into a one day), but I was a bit worried of looking like a fool when I got sandwiched between two professional riders all day.

Goose was a tad bit rusty in the dressage ring, and he still had a bit of the baby-distractedness throughout the test. Overall I was very happy with him and his rideability, Jessica was thrilled with our warm-up and happy with the test, and I was feeling pretty good.  As we sat in the truck before show jumping and watched it rain I began receiving messages from my support crew back in the Midwest.

“Look at you sharing the scoreboard with names such as Severson and Dutton! Did you see Kim’s 15.7?! Is that even a dressage score?” Well, way to build me up and then tear me down!

How was I supposed to go into the show jumping — the phase I am most nervous in — with that hanging over my head? Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that Kim is a professional, Cross is much more schooled than Goose, and I am just here to have a good, confident run.

I sucked it up and put my tack back on before heading to the ring. I had probably the best warm-up I’ve ever had, and then one of the best rounds of my career.  I still made some mistakes, but thankfully this horse jumps out of his skin for me and I was able to only add some time to my score.

The messages continued to flood in as I walked around my cross country a second time:

“Did you see Kim’s score?  She had a rail and is still under a 20!  Looks like you are having a good day though.”  I love my entire support team — they are amazing. I just had to chuckle while reading some of these messages.

How does one amateur even compete with the legend that is Kim? I continued to walk around and look at the questions the cross country was asking. Once we got back to the trailer, Kim actually walked over to Doug and made some comment about how big the course was. Wait a second. You just scored a 15.7 on the flat, I secretly want to ask for your autograph, and you’re saying the cross country is stout?!  How does one keep calm at this point?

Bounce Bank at Pine Top

Bounce Bank at Pine Top. Photo by Courtney Carson.

By the time I got to the cross country warm-up I was shaking. I am saying that is from the cold rain that was pelting down, not from any nerves I had. I could hear the announcer following Kim and Cross’ progress throughout the course and I got to see her textbook ride through the water.

As she came through the finish flags, I took one more deep breath and decided I was not the least bit worried about the number on the scoreboard — I wanted to ride like she had around that course. Goose rocked around and answered some very tough questions, and while we had time and I probably didn’t look nearly as good as Kim, we got it done and I am still smiling days later.

It is rare that I get a chance to compete against so many big names, and it was nice to see that I did not make a fool out of myself, or feel as if I did not belong to be there.

At the end of the day , it is all about the partnership between myself and Goose, and when I remembered that I was able to just think about our day. While we did not come home with the blue ribbon, it was our most successful event thus far and I cannot wait to take what we have learned in Aiken back to Illinois and hopefully improve on this result at Spring Bay in a few weeks.

Go Eventing!

Keeping the Motivation

The countdown is on The countdown is on

There is only one week left in January.  Yes, you read that correctly: JANUARY HAS ONE WEEK LEFT!  Where in the world has the time gone, and how are we almost 1/12 of the way through 2015?! I feel like it was just yesterday that I was writing my season recap, and now I’m barreling down on my first event of the year like a runaway semi without brakes. I also came to the realization that my first competition of 2015 is one week away!

No, I have not migrated South for the winter — I am stuck in good ole Southern Illinois, staring out at the frost covered ground, and stalking results from Rocking Horse and Full Gallop as I drink my coffee.  While all of our lucky friends have been posting pictures of their horses in fly sheets, sending SnapChats of sunshine, and watching the ICP and U18 clinics I have been breaking ice out of buckets, changing layers upon layers on my horses, and trying to find somewhere to ride when I cannot haul off of the property.

A rare sunny day in Southern Illinois

A rare sunny day in Southern Illinois

Needless to say, winter in the Midwest is difficult.  Last year when I left for Aiken in the middle of February we had just over two inches of ice on the ground and had to improvise, rolling out a carpet of used shavings to give our horses traction so we could load them.

This year has (knock on wood) been much more pleasant and I have been able to ride quite consistently since moving back to Cobden and no longer having an indoor.  I have passed the time enjoying an exciting year of football, although for my Packers the season was cut a couple of weeks short.  Alas me not having to worry about a Super Bowl game means that I can now attend a schooling jumper show next Sunday- coincidence, I think not!

I have also spent the last several weeks mapping out possibilities for my spring schedule.  I downloaded a countdown app which allows up to six events with daily countdowns- hello Opening and Event Dates!  This makes getting out of bed in sub-20 degree temperatures a little bit easier knowing that my first event is 6 weeks away.

To really keep my motivation I have taken some tips from other posts and set small goals for myself and my horse.  I have slowly been working on getting my spring break plans in place, and just knowing that I am headed south helps to keep me riding as well.

I am excited to take another step in my riding education as I will be lessoning with Doug and Jessica Payne while in Aiken this spring.  I am always interested in learning from someone new and I have always been impressed with both Doug and Jessica’s riding style and the horses they have produced.  I was fortunate enough to call them in a bind at Richland last year, so they have both seen the Goose-man and I already.

Some Self-Motivation

Some Self-Motivation

A major part of my motivation this winter has come from my friends.  I have always heard that the best way to stay on a workout plan is to take a buddy.  Well, the friends who are keeping me motivated are doing it through text messages and phone calls, but it is still working!

I have a couple of friends in St. Louis who are trucking right along with me in the cold, and whether it is inspiration to ride, complete homework, or head to the gym they are inspiring and it keeps me from hiding in my recliner with coffee and a good book.  We also have a wonderful group at the barn who are all beginning to gear up for the show season as well, and discussing plans with them gets me excited to bundle up and ride as well!

The key to all of this for me is to stay excited!  While it may look cold and nasty out there, it probably is, but I just keep telling myself that I do this sport because I love it and my horses.  Once I get into the barn and going I am usually ok, it is finding the motivation to get out there.  Make a calendar, start a countdown, write in a big goal for the end of the spring/year, and get a good support base- all of these things will keep you going through the cold winter months!  Best of luck!

New Year’s Resolutions: Social Media Etiquette

Cross Country. Photo Credit Lee Carson Cross Country. Photo Credit Lee Carson

Happy Holidays! We have officially entered the week of Christmas, and for the first time in years I am actually ready for it! I’m sorry it has been so long since my last update shortly after I finished my last event, but I have been running around trying to get through my first semester back in college.

I thankfully survived both my horse’s vacation (which was a major accomplishment!) and all six of my classes this fall.  I tried to keep myself sane by riding my hunt horses, although that is mainly conditioning sets, and shopping for a new project.

I was lucky enough to find an unraced 3-year-old gelding the Monday after my break began — Merry Christmas to me! He has stepped up to every challenge thus far, and I am very excited to see where he goes in the next couple of months.

I also began my break by going right back to riding five horses a day and being in the barn full time, which has been a wonderful way to wind down after school ended.  Goose is also back in full work and we are slowing piecing together our 2015 spring season.

Young horse on his first trail ride.  Photo Credit: Lee Carson

Young horse on his first trail ride. Photo Credit: Lee Carson

Since I was buried online looking at Facebook researching for my term papers, I saw a lot of interesting internet activity throughout the horse world, which led me to the focus of this blog post.

The equine world is a very small one, and even though you may feel you are protected by your unique discipline that really is not the case.  As I travel and meet more professionals, trainers, and riders I have learned that everyone really does know someone, who knows someone else that you know.  It makes for very interesting and fun conversations, but also leads to the social media factor within our sport.

Social media allows comments, whether they are true or not, to spread like wildfire.  Enough people sit behind their keyboards and surf the internet all day, just to label themselves experts that you never really know what you are getting yourself into.

Now, I am not saying that I always know what I am talking about, but I do my best to keep my comments limited to what I do know and understand.  The other day someone shared a screen shot of a post where a mother had complained about a service with a barn in Pennsylvania.  There were some very inappropriate comments posted as a response from whomever runs the facility’s Facebook page, and thus posting the screen shot poured gasoline on the fire and away it went.

I scrolled through some comments from event riders, hunter/jumper trainers, desk chair experts, and even the facility’s response to this post and just shook my head.  The situation escalated quite quickly, and while I understand why the mother was upset with the sale (I won’t go into all of the details because it turned into a he said/she said ordeal), she did not handle herself in a professional manner either.

I lost respect for both the farm itself and the mother for her comments and actions, all based on what I was reading during an emotional post and response.  I did not know either party personally involved, yet their reputations were instantly damaged in my eyes.

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I wish I could count all of the posts that I see online which openly speak poorly of someone’s farm or business on social media.  While everyone has reason to be upset at times, social media is not a place to voice most of these frustrations.

When you have an issue with an individual or business it is best to handle the issue behind closed doors, and then if you must tell your friends do so in person.  More times than not I have seen a business lose customers because an individual was angry because they did not receive special treatment, or other extenuating circumstances took place, and they were disgruntled for a short period of time.

While the poster feels better after they rant online, and some realize later that their post may have been immature and take it down, with the internet nothing is ever really gone.

An article was just posted about athletes losing their scholarships due to their social media accounts, and I thought that it should actually apply to everyone.  Nowadays most first impressions come from our social media accounts, so while they are “personal” they should always be professional.

If anyone who reads this is like me, then they did not enjoy rumors in high school. So with New Years right around the corner, why don’t we make it a resolution to take the negativity off of the internet?

You may think you are just blowing off steam, but you are a reflection of your connections, barn, students, and friends.  While you may just think you are blowing off steam, and that it is harmless because the person you are complaining about isn’t on social media, others will still view your post and it is a reflection of your own personal character, which affects you moving forward.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week filled of family and fun, remember to get those candy canes while they are out there for your four legged friends as well!  Until next time.

Sending off the 2014 Season

Goose in his first Prelim. Photo by Lee Carson Goose in his first Prelim. Photo by Lee Carson

I just got home from my final event of the 2014 season, and all I can say is “Wow!” I feel like it was yesterday that I was digging through all of my trunks to make sure my event gear was together before heading off to my first event of the season. I cannot believe that it is time to pack away my show bridles again until next year.

2014 was an interesting year for me, and turned out to be a huge year of growth within my riding career. I have been quite fortunate to have a couple of horses prior to this one with huge hearts (not that Goose’s heart isn’t huge!) and who have been willing to blindly jump off of a cliff for me, no questions asked.

Goose, on the other hand, is a bit more careful than that. While he is willing to jump just about anything, is thoroughly convinced that he is allergic to wood, and loves to show off in the dressage ring, this one is going to call me out on my mistakes nine times out of ten.

Thankfully I have had some pretty good coaches over the years, and I have two fabulous ones right now, so I don’t make tons of mistakes, but I make enough of them. This has led to me adapting my riding style a bit this year in order to better ride my horse now that he has moved up to the Preliminary level, and we still have lots of homework for this winter!

Goose at Team Challenge after Dressage

Goose at Team Challenge after dressage

I just came home from the Hagyard Midsouth Team Challenge event this past weekend, and I was quite disappointed in my performance throughout the weekend. We posted a well-below-average score for us, then I had a beautiful warm-up for the show jumping, only to loose my mind waiting at the gate and have a bit of a panicked round for two rails down, which unfortunately is the worst round we have had so far in Goose’s career.

I set out on the cross country Saturday morning with something to prove: that I would not make this the all-around worst weekend for my horse and we would come home fast and clear. The footing was fabulous after the rain Lexington had gotten earlier in the week, and the course looked like it would ride very well if ridden positively. We were trucking right around, having conquered the tough water at 5AB, the big open oxer, the skinny turtle in the second water, and the largest Preliminary corner I have ever seen.

I was feeling great as I galloped down the hill into the back field where our coffin was, fully aware that we were sharing the rails in and ditch with the CCI*, and that it had ridden quite tough the day before. We were up on our minute markers, which is something I had not paid much attention to this season until this ride.

I balanced for the rails, closed my leg to let him know that “YES! We are going!” and even gave him a reassuring tap behind my leg for good measure. Let me just say here that I love my horse because he jumped in like a champion, unfortunately so well and careful behind actually that he pitched me up onto his neck with a huge snap of his hind end.

All of a sudden I was staring into the bottom of the ditch, fully aware that if he jumped this deep ditch like he jumps every other ditch that I was falling off.  So I made the quick decision to pull him off and we came back around. Sigh, there went all of my hope for redemption, and thus we cruised home at a less intense pace since we were officially out of the running.

I was thoroughly disappointed with myself for a few minutes, letting that happen at my last event of the season and having to go into the winter with that hanging over my head.  Then I took some time to reflect on the entire year, and realized that I have accomplished so many things with this young horse, and in comparison to my previous seasons at Preliminary this one should be considered a grand slam.

Yes, I accumulated more time penalties in one event that I probably had in all of my previous runs combined.  Yes, I had one-stop runs at two of my four runs with my horse this year.  But I feel that I am riding much better than I ever have in the past. My dressage scores are astronomically better than they have ever been across every level, not just at Preliminary, and I only had four rails across seven rounds, with four of those being clear rounds.  That in itself is huge for me, as I carry many demons in the show jump ring.


This sport really is all about perspective, and there will be highs and lows, but you have to take them all with a grain of salt.  I have learned that every day is a learning experience, and even if I have a rotten day where I want to bang my head against a wall I have decided to take something from that ride and learn from it.

I learned last Friday in the show jumping that no matter what I think is going on underneath me, I must always keep my leg on.  I learned on Saturday that I need more sticky spray to keep myself in the saddle when my horse kicks up over both our heads.  I learned this season that if I do right by Goose that he will give me 110% and I am thankful for that because few of us are lucky to find that in a horse.  I made a lot of new friends, restored relationships with some old ones, and have a pretty fun plan mapped out in pencil for next year!

We all have our struggles in this sport, but at the end of the day as long as our horses come home sound and happy then we really are winning, despite the number on the scoreboard.  As I head into the winter I am working on my dressage and show jumping until my face turns blue, and dreaming of lower scores and tighter toes.  Hopefully the next time I check in I will have gotten to a jumper show or two and will be reporting that I no longer quit breathing at the in gate.

Until next time.

Dunnabeck Horse Trials Are an Area IV Staple

Photo by Jen Whitfield Photo by Jen Whitfield

The coming of fall here in the Midwest is always a very welcoming time.  The humidity finally dies down and a crisp breeze hangs in the air, which in turn makes you want to throw on jeans, boots, and a hoodie and just spend time in the barn.

For our community in the Carbondale, Ill. area, we band together to put on Dunnabeck Horse Trials.  Mark and Jill O’Donoghue began running this event years ago as a small horse trials, and it has continued to grow throughout the years.  Dunnabeck has hosted Area IV Championships, been condensed down to a one-day, almost been cancelled altogether, and fortunately is holding strong as a two-day horse trials due to the hard work and support from our local barn community.

Dunnabeck is a very well decorated event, with hand crafted cross country jumps that are decorated in lovely fall colors including pumpkins and mums, cornstalks and cane grass, even a goose or two has been spotted under a jump.  The courses are different each and every year, with all of the jumps being moved off of the property when the event is not in session.

For Area IV, this event has a lot of terrain, and riders will gallop in and out of the woods, as well as up and down hills while negotiating the questions set by the course designer.  There are two water boxes that can be used at each level, and most spectators can see quite a bit of the course while standing in one spot, which makes for a very fun weekend.


The Canoe. Photo via Francie Mohert's Facebook Page

The Canoe. Photo via Francie Mohert’s Facebook Page

This year, Dunnabeck ran a record number of horses, minus the year we hosted Area IV Championships, with 118 entries as of Friday morning.  We hosted Starter-Preliminary courses, with a record number of horses in the Preliminary level as well.  All of the courses had a great flow to them and encouraged a positive ride, while asking very fair questions for each and every level.

We had just enough rain on Wednesday and Thursday for the footing to be just about perfect all weekend, and the temperatures finally broke to a crisp low-70’s both days.  The event ran very smoothly, with only one hold on course when a horse unfortunately slipped in the footing, resulting in cross country being about twenty minutes behind.  The majority of riders came home with big smiles, fist pumps, and lots of good things to say about their horses.

Photo by Colleen Mills

Photo by Colleen Mills

Saturday night brought on a wonderful competitors dinner, complete with a band and some really good Mexican food.  Everyone gathered under the tents near the secretary’s office and enjoyed catching up with old friends and making some new ones.  Area IV is fairly tight-knit and it was very fun to see a lot of riders from the area, who maybe only compete once or twice a year, come out and have a good time.

Mark gave a very heart warming speech, thanking all of the riders and volunteers who have made this special event possible.  The Southern Illinois University Equestrian Team played a huge part in helping out this weekend, posting members all over the venue to help with bit check, jump judging, score running, and jump crew on Sunday.  It really does take an army, and having a lot of helpers who are not riding is key- thank you guys!

Under the Sea. Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

Under the Sea. Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

Sunday morning brought some very thick fog, even cooler temperatures, fresh horses, and cool shadows in the show jumping ring.  The course was very well decorated, with different themes for the jumps.  There was once again a terrain factor, and the course rewarded positive riding and using your turns to help balance your horse without taking away the power.

Rails were spread pretty evenly throughout the divisions and clear rounds were rewarded generously because scores were quite tight across the board.  It is easy for spectators to get to the show jumping, and so there is always quite a big crowd and lots of cheers.  “Congratulations” could be heard over and over as riders exited the ring and it really gave the event a good feel as everyone stayed around to support one another.  I personally do not know how I have a voice today from cheering so loudly throughout the weekend.

These are the best moments in the world.  Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

These are the best moments in the world. Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

We had some very special awards this year that made the event even more fun.  Dunnabeck awarded the trainer with the most students competing a free entry for next year (how is that for incentive to get your students there next year?!), USPC gave out a low score Pony Club award, Area IV awarded the low score Adult Rider, and Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds, Meghan O’Donoghue Eventing, and several other friends of Le Cheval sponsored Low Score Thoroughbred awards at every level, as well as Champion and Reserve Low Score Thoroughbred for the event.

Tribute Feeds donated saddle pads and hay bags as prizes, and then of course there were the coveted Dunnabeck saddle pads awarded to first place finishers in each division.  Some riders walked away with quite a bit of loot- which is nice with all of the effort we put in for our horses.


Molly McBride and Rittenhouse Square: Low Score TB for Beginner Novice and Overall

Molly McBride and Rittenhouse Square: Low Score TB for Beginner Novice and Overall

Dunnabeck Horse Trails offers a great weekend of competition while also bringing an inviting and fun atmosphere.  The courses are not meant to overface any horse or rider, and we want everyone to enjoy this sport as much as we do on a daily basis.  We continue to grow every single year and are already looking forward to 2015.  If you are within driving distance of this event, please consider it, as we have a wonderful time and want to share this experience with every horse and rider possible.  We hope to see everyone next year!

Haunted Horse Trials?

Headed to Richland Headed to Richland

There are haunted house, hotels, and museums, but have you ever heard of a haunted horse trial?  While I do not believe that the horse trial itself is haunted, there is most definitely something weird going on with the Richland Horse Trials.  I have now dubbed this streak of bad luck the “Richland Curse”, and it is indeed very real.

The last two years have thrown some really sour luck my way.  In 2012, the first year I made the trek to Richland, I had some rotten luck when my Intermediate horse tore a tendon on the cross country and I had to withdraw.

Last year my Training level horse was chased by a pasture mate through the fence, which we still got the all clear to go, to have a freak accident happen while I was riding him the day before we left.  Somehow he caught a foot in the girth and caused a ton of havoc, leaving me with a separated shoulder and sitting at home while he rested for a few days.

This year I was determined to make it to Richland and come home with a number.  The first goal is accomplished, as we are here!  This is not without some crazy bumps in the road, however.

I started the week off by losing my bit for dressage (of course it is somewhere along the road and I have to buy another one) followed by the hotel loosing our reservation for the weekend.  Insert a ton of curse words as I complain to the manager, who can see where I had a reservation but “unfortunately cannot do anything” because he has a wedding party booked now.

I scrambled to find another hotel- one that happens to be extremely far away from the park – and sent an email to my friend who was sharing a room with us only to find out she has been rear ended.  This led to her seeing a chiropractor and a general physician, both of whom told her to stay home and not ride this weekend.  The curse claimed its first victim of the weekend!

We made it!

We made it!

While everyone else has made it safe and sound there was rumors of the curse trying to attack other groups traveling here as well.  Liz Lund posted on Facebook that she locked her keys in the truck right before departing, and Lisa Marie-Furgeson was side-swiped by a semi while hauling her horses here.

Fortunately everyone is OK and has either made it or will be back up and running shortly (sorry Liz!), but these crazy events continue to happen.

I have several more stories to support my curse theory, but I don’t want to bore you.  Needless to say I am the latest victim and I will be performing a spectacular walk of shame tomorrow morning since I forgot to grab my bag for the hotel from the trailer.

I am making a run for my dressing room first thing in the morning, hopefully no one will catch this!  Here is to the curse moving on to another group of people, preferably someone not horse related, and to everyone having fun and safe rides this weekend!

Kick on, Eventing Nation!

Hunter Show Raises Funds to Send Meghan O’Donoghue to Burghley

Meghan and Pirate to Burghley! Meghan and Pirate to Burghley!

By now you know the story of small-town girl Meghan O’Donoghue and her scrappy Thoroughbred Pirate. If not, the quick recap is that they both hail from the middle of nowhere in the midwest and worked their way through the Preliminary level before heading out east to continue their education.

After two clear cross-country trips and top-20 finishes at Rolex, plus a wonderful showing overseas last September at Blenheim CCI3*, Meghan and Pirate are now headed to France as Team USA alternates for the World Equestrian Games later this month. Talk about an underdog story!

High Point and Reserve Thoroughbred Winners, Jill O'Donoghue, and Sponsors Randy Cook and Susan Fischer

High Point and Reserve Thoroughbred winner Jill O’Donoghue with sponsors Randy Cook and Susan Fischer.

While Meghan is busy stealing the hearts of all the selectors — and proving that she deserves a spot on this team or on the Burghley roster if all of the squad horses trot down the jog lane in a few short weeks — we have been rounding up everyone we can muster to help fund her trip. Meghan and Pirate received a Land Rover Competition Grant for use to compete at Burghley, but there will still be costs associated with the trip that must come out of pocket.

While Meghan has an enormous fan following, we are not the most wealthy bunch and all have horses of our own to feed, ride and fund. We do everything we can to help our friend/coach/hero, but we don’t have thousands of dollars to just hand her like we wish we did.

The beauty behind this is that we are all a very determined group of people, and we have some great ideas when we put our heads together. We now have an annual Meghan O’Donoghue Benefit Hunter Show in August to help fund her fall event plans. This year was just the second year, but I feel that it gives me the right to call it an annual thing now, and hopefully we have many more years and reasons to continue.

Silent Auction and Raffle Items

Silent auction and raffle items at Meghan’s benefit show.

Hunter classes were offered from the cross rail through 3’3″ heights, with champion and reserve awards given in each division. As event riders, we threw in a couple of jumper classes as well, with roll backs and broken lines, to keep us from the dreaded pattern of outside line, diagonal and repeat.

Once again, this was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to get some time in the ring at an affordable price and work on the things we cannot in a proper show jumping round, while all the money from the entry fees went toward Meghan’s fund. We have a couple of local barns that travel now to come to these shows as well, and when I pulled into the parking lot yesterday, I hardly had any room to get my truck through, which was a very promising sign!

We hosted several fundraising events as well: a 50-50 drawing that raised over $200, with the winner donating back her half of the money; a raffle for several great donated items like a massage for your horse, a gift muck bucket from the local tack shop and brushes; and a silent auction that featured Meghan O’Donoghue Eventing embroidered saddle pads and donated items. The raffle drawings took place about halfway through the class list, and everyone was very excited with their winnings.

MOE Gear Donated for the raffle and silent auction

MOE gear donated for the raffle and silent auction.

The final award, and probably the most special to our group, was graciously donated by Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds, an organization that supports local shows and second careers for off-the-track horses. Since Pirate, as well as many other horses in our barn, came from Fairmount Park in St. Louis, I contacted my friend who is very involved with Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds, and she sponsored the high point and reserve awards for our show.

The winners got beautiful champion and reserve ribbons, Meghan O’Donoghue Eventing/Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbred saddle pads and cash prizes; the high point winner took home a beautiful decorated plate.

Excited winner of a MOE jacket, saddle pad, and lessons!

Excited winner of a MOE jacket, saddle pad and lessons!

This show was a great way for our community to feel like we are really helping Meghan on her journey, even if we are hundreds of miles away most of the time. We wish we could all load up and fly across the pond to support her — or even just have gone to the prep trials in Virginia to make embarrassing amounts of noise as she rode past — but we are doing what we can from home.

The benefit show yesterday raised close to half of what Meghan needs to complete the funding for her trip to Burghley — not too shabby for a small hunter show in southern Illinois — but we still need help in getting her and Pirate to Europe. (And back! No one-way tickets, please; we want her home this fall!) While there is not time for us to have another benefit show or auction between now and her trip, there is still plenty of time to help. You can go directly to Meghan’s website and donate to her travel fund.

This is a very exciting opportunity to support one of the sport’s talented young riders as she heads overseas to represent our country with poise and competitive class this fall. I hate to call them underdogs still after all they have done, but she is still a small town girl with a self-developed, off-the-track horse looking to defy all the odds. We are all on Team Pirate here in Illinois; you know you want to be as well!

Taking “Show” Out of the Weekend

Photo Credit: Jen Whitfield Photo Credit: Jen Whitfield

This past weekend, my awesome barn hosted one of several schooling hunter shows that we put on throughout the summer.  These days are a great get-together of riders from all over the area, and they just keep getting bigger each year.

Being in a tough part of the country there are not a lot of opportunities to put oneself into a show situation, and so we try to take advantage of every opportunity we can.  Le Cheval runs a very casual atmosphere for the day, with a concession stand put up by the local Pony Club, young horses get to come out to their first real horse shows, and lots of young/new riders get to compete for the first time.  Schooling begins at 7:30 and then classes begin with cross rails at 9 am, with the big divisions wrapping up around 4pm, posing for a very long yet fun day.

These shows are great exposure for the young horses. Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

These shows are great exposure for the young horses. Photo Credit Jen Whitfield


While these are technically hunter shows, we break all the rules are very lenient as far as equipment, attire, and turnout are concerned.  These shows are treated as schooling opportunities for horses and riders; if a rider would like their horse to wear open fronts, then they can wear open fronts.

Most of the riders who compete are also event riders, so we see a lot of flash and figure-eight nosebands which would be promptly turned away from the hunter ring.  The entire point of the day is to have a good time, jump some jumps, maybe win some ribbons, and most importantly have some fun.

We allow shameless posting and announcing of horses for sale, and rounds with coaching from the sidelines are common.  Our announcer is always worth listening to, especially when she is announcing for her own child.  We laugh, we cheer, and at the end of the day no matter where a rider is from we are all supportive.

Photo Credit: Jen Whitfield

First timers get great show experience. Photo Credit: Jen Whitfield

The most beneficial part of our schooling show is that I suffer from crippling show nerves, especially in the show jumping.  I have yet to figure out what I do to myself, but when I have expectations it does not matter how large or small the setting, I freeze and all of a sudden my round is close to a train wreck.  Who is reading this that does not suffer from show nerves?  William Fox-Pitt maybe (how cool would that be for him to read my blog!) that man has ice water in his veins, but I would harbor a guess that even he got nervous at one point in time, and maybe he still does.

The mental aspect of this sport is part of what makes it so difficult to be good all the time, and those of us who are lucky enough to channel that nervous energy into grit are the ones who rise above while under pressure.  Yes, this weekend was just a schooling show, but I still managed to strive for perfection, and in that struggle managed to almost eat dirt.  While talking through a lot of my frustration with my trainer over the next couple of days, since this was at no fault of my horse, she said exactly what I needed to hear: “You have to take ‘showing’ out of the weekend.'”

Photo Credit: Jennifer Whitfield

These are fun shows- smile! Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

While it is difficult to think that way when you’re in a competition setting, people are standing at the rail, and you name comes across the loudspeaker, that is essentially what has to be done.  No matter how much money we spend to go around the ring once, or sometimes twice, these rounds all still need to be about confidence building for ourselves and our horses.

If I were a big named professional then I may give you a different opinion (but by then I may have a handle on my nerves and would not be writing this in the first place!) but for the majority of us out competing coming home confident and happy is more important than just getting by and then playing catch up or paying for it later.  One of my good friends took complete advantage of her rounds and worked on her ride-ability on a veteran horse when she easily could have gone out and water skied and won both big classes and been division champion.

She focused on the quality of the ride and used the small bit of nerves the schooling show created to simulate the feeling she has at a proper event.  Looking back, I wish after a hairy jump I had done the same, and reestablished the connection I needed between myself and my horse before just hoping that things would get better, which they ultimately did, but at what price?

Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

Photo Credit Jen Whitfield

When you don’t have a lot of opportunities to get into a show situation you have to make the best out of each round.  While we all want to go in and be competitive, no matter how large or small the scale, when in a casual situation it is more important to treat it as a schooling than any ribbon.

Sometimes as eventers we get caught up in “it doesn’t have to be pretty, that is the beauty of the sport” which can ultimately catch up to us in the long run.  Yes, it is ok to go out there and get the job done from time to time, but when in a Combined Test, Mini Event, or schooling show you start to feel the wheels falling off, forget that you are showing and make a circle then start again.

Also, try and establish in your own mind that all of these rounds and just you and your horse jumping jumps, like any other day at home.  It may be your first Beginner Novice, or your first three-star, but if you treat it as just a schooling round your chances for success increase.  Well, at least I’m going to try and go with that frame of mind and I’ll let you all know how it turns out after my next event!

As for now, take advantage of local schooling shows and support local barns in the area by attending.  It never hurts to work on the mental game, and sometimes all it takes is having people you don’t know stand at the rail and judge watch you.  Good luck!

Going Slow is Not for Sissies

Learning to jump baby coops Learning to jump baby coops

After having a week to decompress (ok, work every night) since the three day, I’ve been able to think about my weekend, my horse, and plans moving forward from here.  Bird is the Word, or Goose as he is known to all of his buddies, has been a pretty cool little horse from the start, always stepping up to the plate and being almost on the fast track.  When a horse is brave and answers all of the questions, sometimes it is difficult to not make really big plans for them and get a little ahead of yourself.

Goose's first ride off the track: October 2012

Goose’s first ride off the track: October 2012

He had an awesome first season, making a trip to Aiken to compete at his first Beginner Novice, then moved up to Novice in style to lead from wire to wire.  When he jumped clear around his next two events, finishing 6th and 3rd, it was really easy to begin thinking about the Training level.  I knew other horses who came off the track around the same time as him who were already running Training, and aimed for the long format at the end of the year- so why couldn’t my horse?

We made the move up successfully, but life still got in the way and I found myself forgoing the three-day at Hagyard Midsouth and frustrated for some time.  My horse was fit, jumping well, and throwing down great scores on the flat- I should be there!  Looking back now, I know that it was the correct decision to not try and cram in qualifying runs and to give my horse the time to develop into the horse he is today.

As the winter and spring progressed, I continued to rewrite my plans for the season.  Finally, the decision was made to target the long format and then move him up from there.  Since then we have decided to push back his move up again in favor of getting in another confidence building run, as well as some hunter shows and combined tests at the Preliminary level.  I want him to be the most confident horse in the world when I enter the show jumping ring or leave the start box.  Goose gives me everything he has every time we compete, and I owe him nothing less than to be as prepared as possible before asking him something new.  After all, he has just turned seven this week!

When I see others’ posts on Facebook about their young horses moving up through the levels quickly, I have to stop and think about their situation before I get down on myself.  Every horse is different to begin with, and when someone lives in Virginia or can spend the whole winter in Aiken they have a lot of training opportunities that are not available here in Illinois.  If my horse could run ten events in a year without traveling six hours one way to each of them then yes, he would probably (hopefully) be confidently cantering around green-flagged courses already.  But I am not in that position, so I have to adjust my plans and keep writing in pencil.

Schooling in Aiken 2014: Back to the basics

Schooling in Aiken 2014: Back to the basics

Fortunately we are not under any time constraints; I am too old for Young Riders, I am not trying to qualify for any international championship team, and I having nothing to prove to anyone.  I love that I have made the decision to keep my horse in a big, fat snaffle until he tells me he needs something else in his mouth, instead of cranking him down in some crazy bit to steer him around a cross country course right after he came off the track.

I don’t jump his legs off because he won’t be able to compete more than once a month due to travel and time off from work, and I don’t need him schooling Intermediate height while we are still running Training.  I want him to be the best prepared that he can be for the level he is running, and I want to know that I put in the proper tools and development before I enter him in an event.

I understand that it is hard to do sometimes because we see all the professionals who are on the fast track with a lot of young horses.  But if you really look at their USEA records, just because they went from beginner novice to training in three months does not mean they have not shown several times.  Horses and professionals that live on the East coast do their homework the same as you and me, they just have more educational opportunities in a shorter amount of time.

One thing I have really learned in the last year is that listening to your horse is more important than saying he is successful at a level; just making it around and finishing with a score is not really being good at the level.  I am guilty of stops, rails, and less than par dressage scores, but I want to consistently have a score in the 30s, clear cross country rounds, and one rail or less before I even begin to think of moving a horse up.

The occasional blip or fluke round is going to happen, but having several rails or stops every outing is not successful.  I believe that if more people practiced this then their horses would be more confident and more sound all the way around.  Just remember too, no one will ever say you made the wrong decision for taking a step back to get you or your horse’s confidence back.  This sport is supposed to be fun and safe!  Life is not always about being in the fast lane.

A Weekend of Perfection at Indiana Eventing Three Day

All 5 horses from LeCheval Pass the 1st horse inspection: Photo Credit Debbie McBride All 5 horses from LeCheval Pass the 1st horse inspection: Photo Credit Debbie McBride

Every barn has an event that seems to be the summer kick-off event. Ours here in Carbondale, Illinois varies between MayDaze at the Kentucky Horse Park and the Indiana Eventing Association Classic 3 Day event.  Some years, members from our barn will run both, and sometimes the group splits between the two events.

This year I targeted IEA because they host the Classic format at the Novice and Training levels, with the plan of competing the long format in the Training.  I was not disappointed once during my five day stay at the Hoosier Horse Park as the event was run in top class form from start to finish, with attention paid to even the tiniest detail for horse and rider.

For anyone who has not had the privilege of attempting a long format event, I strongly encourage it.  I had more fun this past weekend than I probably have at any other event, and the energy in the three-day stabling was comparable to any FEI event I have attended- OK, maybe a little shy of Rolex but, to a lot of riders, this IS their Rolex.

From the very beginning everything was educational and about giving the competitors every chance to succeed throughout the weekend.  A riders meeting was held at noon on Thursday, followed by a drive-by and breakdown of phases A and C for Saturday.  Lee Ann Zobbe has done a wonderful job of making sure every possible question is answered, having wonderful speakers and educators for the first timers, and having a very approachable attitude for any concern throughout the weekend.

Bird is the Word at the 2nd Horse Inspection Photo Credit Lee Carson

Bird is the Word at the 2nd Horse Inspection Photo Credit Lee Carson

Dorothy Crowell and her team were exceptional at walking us through every phase; practice jogs, course walks, steeplechase schools, and vet box breakdowns.  Every single person who volunteered had a smile on their face, despite baking in the sun and sitting on roads and tracks or in a warm-up ring for hours.

There was such a sense of camaraderie in the barns, it really did not matter how anyone placed because the experience was worth more than the score.  Sportsmanship and horsemanship were at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the weekend, and all the competitors and grooms continued to show up and support their friends, old and new.

The classic three day ran a record number of horses this year, with twelve passing the first vet inspection for the Training division and more than twenty five in the Novice.  Everything ran spot on time wise, due to wonderful organization, and with minimal problems or confusion.  The horse trials ran several divisions as well, running from the Beginner Novice through I/P levels, all with confidence building courses, beautiful dressage rings, and a fun show jumping course.

Stretching out on Phase B. Photo Credit Lee Carson

Stretching out on Phase B. Photo Credit Lee Carson

With running so many divisions across so many levels the organizers made the decision to run some show jumping on Saturday while the cross country was running, and everyone I spoke to who had multiple rides had plenty of time to get from one horse/ring to the next without feeling rushed.  If there was one complaint all weekend that I heard it was about the gnats, which is something completely out of the hands of the staff and organizers.

There were beautiful ribbons and great prizes offered across all levels, including cash prizes for the top three in all of the horse trial divisions.  For anyone who is within driving distance of the Hoosier Horse Park I would suggest that you pencil in this event for next year.  I unfortunately missed the competitor party, but I heard that it was also a major highlight of the weekend, and if you were to search YouTube there are rumors of Cupid Shuffle videos running around.

If anyone harbors any interest in competing a long format event, all I have to say is go for it!  There is no feeling greater than hearing “Accepted” after going down the jog strip, coming off of steeplechase, or even the final salute after finishing your first test in a standard dressage arena.

Best of all though was galloping through the finish timer on show jumping and just knowing I had completed, such an accomplishment in itself.  Thank you to all of the organizers, volunteers, officials, and others who make this event possible and put in the extra work to allow the long format to continue.  I am already looking forward to returning in 2015!