The riding phase of modern pentathlon has at its root the idea that a good soldier can climb on an unfamiliar horse to deliver a message on the battlefield. How this morphed into showjumping a 3-foot course is unclear but I don’t really care because this is going to be my kick-back-and-relax phase. I can do this. An unfamiliar horse – one that was successfully tested on the same course yesterday – couldn’t possibly be as scary as some of the familiar horses that I’ve ridden over the years. You know which ones I mean, the ones whose particular brand of crazy you know well but have to ride anyway. (Those horses, several of whom are enjoying a cushy retirement at my farm, would never have been accepted for this competition.)
Before I go on, I should mention that until last weekend, I hadn’t jumped in three years. At all. But that’s because I hadn’t sat on a horse more than a handful of times. About a month ago, after a moment of equal parts self-awareness and panic, I started taking weekly riding lessons at a local hunter/jumper barn on an ancient school horse named Cyndee!. Not ‘Cyndee’, Cyndee!. You get the picture. But Cyndee! made me work for every step and did wonders for re-innervating my riding muscles, although it would have been expecting too much of her to put her over anything more than a ground pole. So last weekend, I went down to Los Angeles where my friend’s wonderful trainer was kind enough to let me jump around on six of his horses. The first day was ugly but by day three, my old self was back. Admittedly, that’s not much to shout about. My old self was also still outrageously sore from the experience.
In pentathlon, there’s an official course walk, which must be walked in full regalia, including your helmet. Then the horses are jogged for soundness, assigned numbers and the top-placed individual athletes draw numbered ping-pong balls from a bucket to determine who rides which horse. (When the point totals go up, I’m very surprised to see I’m sixth in the overall point standings. How did that happen?) I’ve got beast number 8, a cute bay Quarter Horse gelding. The two ponies in the draw have gone to two very tall guys. Tall, as in 6’2″ and up. I’m not sure this is a good idea and wonder why the ponies weren’t reserved for the women. Or maybe I’m just jealous because I wanted to ride a pony. Or maybe it’s because the jumps – lots of them – are set in a smallish indoor with very tight corners. My British roommate cracks a joke about the Prince Phillip Cup. It’s that kind of tight and crowded.
The course walk is emceed by the riding director, a man whose name I was surprised to see in the program. According to publicly available documents, he’s been expelled from the United States Equestrian Federation for various infractions and cannot apply for reinstatement for some time. Perhaps this is why he’s turned to coaching pentathletes (the NGB is not affiliated with the USEF or FEI). Most people here (including the American athletes) aren’t aware that he is persona non grataon any sanctioned horse show grounds in the US.
Even with the above in mind, the course walk is a revelation of sorts. I’ve been riding for a long time and trained with some quality coaches but never, until today, have I been told that you’re supposed to gallop in the corners. You think that’s a typo and I meant to say ‘balance’, right? Uh-uh. He said ‘gallop.’ In the corners. Repeatedly. “Every time you head into a corner, I want to see you gallop,” he says. Did I mention we’re in a small indoor? With jumps everywhere? And a scoring table/judges stand/spectators in one corner?
I’m not going to heed this advice but I worry about the less-experienced riders. Galloping in a tight corner with a solid wall on one side is a proven way to roll a horse over on yourself but it’s not a safe way to navigate a showjumping course. I’ve had enough. I can’t listen anymore. I break away to do my own personal course walk but this guy is loud and I keep hearing him go on about galloping in the freaking corners.
The rulebook allots each rider a 20 minute warm-up on their horse which includes a maximum of five jumps. But today, the riding director has other ideas. He leads a mandatory, supervised warm-up for groups of five riders at a time, sort of a involuntary mini-lesson. We’re already severely behind schedule for the day but now, here in this small indoor arena, any hope of catching up fades. Time ticks along. We’ve been taken hostage and no one wants to step in to free the pentathletes.
When I finally get to mount my horse, I notice he has two raw, quarter-sized ulcers just above the corners of his mouth, caused by the rings of his bit (a twisted snaffle) which is set too high in his mouth. If you take on the reins at all, the bit rings catch his raw spots. The previous rider had a good ride on him (she’s a fellow eventer and he is a lovely horse) but when she handed him off to me, I pulled a fresh piece of skin off the end of the bit. I alert the stable manager and trainer but they tell me ‘the owner wouldn’t care’ and ‘it’s nothing’ and ‘it’s been like that for a while.’ I flatly state the horse should not be ridden in competition like this but everyone says he’s fine. I have a choice to make and it’s a troubling one. I decide to ride him anyway but I’m not going to take back on the reins. Having seen the horse go, I know this won’t be easy but I should be able to sit up and balance him well enough with my body, and if I grab mane over the jumps (which I always do), I won’t catch him in the mouth.
He’s fine in the interminable warm-up but gets a little rushy out on course. The horse is endearingly honest and I work out our deal over the first few fences. He has a habit of rooting down hard right before a fence so when he does it going into the first element of the triple, I just keep my leg on and send my hands a little forward, hoping that this unfamiliar horse is a sensible chap with a sense of self-preservation. I’m relieved when he lifts up his shoulders one stride out and pleased when he doesn’t try to root on me again. We jump and jump and jump – I think there are 16 jumping efforts total, rarely more than four strides between them. It feels like one long gymnastic. I do not gallop in the corners.
I dismount and tell the horse he’s been a good partner, then hand him to one of the stable girls. I have really mixed feelings about what I just did. I vow to go through the rule book to see how to handle a situation like that in this sport in case it happens again. It just isn’t fair to the horse or to the owner who so generously loans a horse to the competition.