The Long, Winding Road to the Kentucky T3D: T3D Minus 6 weeks

Victoria Prince and Reina at the summer 2017 event at Otter Creek, where they won their Prelim/Training division. Photo by Xpress Foto.

The classic format three-day event has long been a personal goal of mine. As a teenaged pony clubber growing up in England, I obsessively read Lucinda Green’s books about her early eventing experiences and made annual pilgrimages to Badminton and Burghley with my horse-crazy friends. Years later, as a 40-something naturalized American citizen residing in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a horse and once again get involved with eventing. Many hours of poring over the USEA and EN websites as I moved up through Beginner Novice, to Novice, and on to the excitement of Training level, convinced me that the T3D was the right goal.

My first adult horse, Stormy, was a “solidly” built (but very photogenic) grey Percheron/Thoroughbred mare, who seemed as brave as a lion — right up to those moments when she decided a cross country fence might need a second look. I learned a great deal, won a few lower place ribbons, but over a few seasons with 20 penalties at too many events we failed to complete my qualifying rounds for the T3D. The years went by, and realizing Stormy was better suited to helping show another inexperienced rider the ropes, I moved on to my second horse.

The beautiful and talented FHF Reina, with her Percheron/Thoroughbred dam and fancy Oldenburg sire, came to me as a green rising 7-year-old who had never jumped. But her dressage breeder and trainer (mother-daughter duo Peg and Jennifer Kaiser of Forrest Hill Farm in Lafayette, Indiana) knew their filly, correctly identifying a horse who would not only be able to jump, but would also love it. Reina benefitted from a fantastic, professional, flatwork grounding and has naturally good paces, which means the only reason for less than stellar dressage scores is me.  Teaching her to jump was a wonderful experience, and with help from both my long-term trainer Steve Farkos of Winsom Farm in Beecher, IL and several others — including an especially timely clinic when Reina was a wiggly, green, Beginner Novice horse with Lucinda Green herself — I managed to nurture and not spoil her ability.

Fast forward seven years to our current goal of the Hagyard MidSouth T3D, which will take place next month in the Kentucky Horse Park. We have been to the Horse Park for the Memorial Day weekend May-Daze competition numerous times, and competing on that hallowed four-star ground is always a special treat. Today, we are six weeks away from the start of the T3D.

I have learned a lot about horsemanship in the past decade, some of it the hard way, and know there is still plenty more to learn — including a whole lot of ways this can go wrong. We have been competing in the Prelim/Training division the last couple of years, and this year schooling some serious-sized Prelim cross country fences at clinics, so I know she has plenty of jump.

By contrast, speed is not her forte; with her lack of Thoroughbred blood she doesn’t really love to gallop, and we have to hustle to make 450 or 470 mpm, especially when there are hills involved.  While Stormy may have been a chunker, she was also the great grand-daughter of Seattle Slew and definitely enjoyed a good gallop. The more elegant Reina really prefers to just lope along peacefully.  One of my hopes is that the steeplechase, and the increased fitness she will need for the T3D, will make her a more forward thinking horse — maybe even a Prelim horse before we both get too old.

We have been qualified to do the T3D for multiple years, but for one reason or another the time has not seemed right — until now. I returned from Area IV’s summer Otter Creek event, having had both an uncharacteristic stop at a jump in the water and a silly rider error in stadium (missing the finish) that led to a technical elimination, but with a plan to keep on training beyond the September Area IV championships and to go down to Kentucky in October for the T3D.

Four weeks later there have already been multiple hiccups in the plan, but I think we are still on course. Hiccup number one was that my back gave out 24 hours after I returned home from Otter Creek. Several chiropractor appointments later it’s a whole lot better, but still not 100% — let’s call it a work in progress. Hiccup number two is that one of the reasons I missed my finish in show jumping at Otter Creek was concern about Reina’s jumping; she felt awkward and seemed to be trying much too hard to make those Prelim-sized fences. Two days later flexion tests confirmed that both her hocks and her stifles needed injections, and I went ahead and got that scheduled with my regular vet. This meant she would need a few days off, so I moved straight into my conditioning schedule in an attempt to get ahead of the game.

Years earlier I had downloaded “A T3D conditioning schedule” and still had it on my laptop. Some web-surfing revealed it to be a modified version of a Sally O’Connor plan, and according to multiple riders an effective approach for a less-than-speedy warmblood horse. Remarkably, it is a nine-week plan, precisely the time I had between Otter Creek and Hagyard MidSouth, and it also suggested a horse trials at week five, right when we are set to go back to Otter Creek for Area IV championships. Surely this was a sign?

The conditioning schedule involves one long trot a week, one session with interval sets at trot and canter, and six days a week of riding with extra saddle time at the walk. I’m a University professor who also has an administrative role, live nearly an hour from the barn, and have a schedule that does have some flexibility but also takes me out of Chicago to conferences and teaching obligations elsewhere. In other words, I can’t possibly do all that on my own, especially with an iffy back and a significant other who actually likes to see me occasionally.

Enter Team Reina. Team member number one, Kathy J., lives next to the barn, teaches riding for a living, and has ridden Reina for me for several years. Luckily she adores Reina and is happy to keep riding her one day a week, and can even add a second day occasionally, but only that on her own days off. Team member number two, Jessica, sadly has a slightly lame horse right now, but in addition to being a very competent young rider she is essentially a professional groom having spent nearly a year working with a professional eventer out east. She expressed willingness to put in some saddle time, and even volunteered that if she could escape work she could be my 10-minute box person in Kentucky. Things were looking pretty good.

Victoria Prince and Reina. Photo by Xpress Foto.

Next hiccup: I try my first day of trot and canter sets, admittedly in nasty hot and humid conditions, and find to my dismay that my horse really doesn’t want to gallop for four mins at 470 mpm. The very useful Equilab app shows that we barely hit 430 mpm! Worse still, my back was not happy, my legs were not under good control, and in my attempts to speed her up I gave her a spur rub. I felt terrible about it, and for the next week fretted that maybe the whole plan was hopeless.

But the next time we did sets Kathy came along too, on her hot little Thoroughbred Frankie. This time we were supposed to add a minute of galloping at 520 mpm, the temps were down, the ground was perfect, and at that point I got seriously run away with. Not that I am complaining, on the contrary that made me so happy I was giggling about it, and even more pleased later on when I found out we hit 565 mpm for a moment. So maybe Reina can gallop after all! Although true to type, at the end of our set all I had to do to stop was say whoa, while Frankie took a few circles to pull up — hey, we can’t all be racehorses.

Hiccup three was the need for a groom. Jess found out she could not escape work for the T3D weekend after all. I emailed a few likely people but none could manage it. I even started to work on my long-suffering boyfriend, who has got quite good at leading and grazing Reina in recent years. He was too nice to say no, but probably felt relieved when to my great surprise my good friend, long-term riding partner, and fellow professor (who has a schedule even crazier than mine) offered to fly down on the Friday, be the all-important 10-minute box person, and drive back with me Sunday. With my buddy on board it seemed another problem was solved.

Then it was time for Reina’s injections. Needles in joints never fail to make me nervous, but she behaved perfectly and it seemed to go well. My vet Mike expressed jealousy of my T3D plan and told me the classic was one of his best ever equestrian experiences. Reina spent that night in a stall and then went back out with her girlfriend in the dirt lot the next morning.

All looked good at that point, but the second morning, as I checked on her after a visit to my chiropractor, her hocks seemed swollen. Taking photos of the hocks was a challenge, as Reina thought my phone was a treat that needed nibbling, but I got one half-decent one and forwarded it to Mike. He didn’t seem too concerned, and recommended a couple of grams of bute, but I spent the next 24 hours convinced she would need weeks to recover and we wouldn’t even get to Championships let alone Kentucky. The next day we all stood and stared at her hocks. Are those really lumps or was she always that way? No heat was reassuring and she was certainly walking out sound and happy, but a better knowledge of my horse’s legs was clearly called for. On the fourth day, I gave her a first easy ride, breathed sighs of relief that she felt fine, and then left town for a teaching assignment on the east coast.

While I was away, in addition to standard team Reina, I had organized a ride by local dressage trainer Korin Rinaldo, who rides beautifully and has known Reina since she was a foal. Korin then sent me video of gorgeous canter work, making we both delighted that my horse is so lovely, and full of feelings of inadequacy that I can’t get her to go that well myself. Her report that Reina had “never felt better” filled me with more dreams of Kentucky, and I gleefully walked my entry to the local Post Office right on opening day, so I could make 100% sure it went off safely.

But the very next day brought another set-back. Kathy reported she had found girth rubs, not on one side but two. Every fall as her coat changes, Reina gets thin skinned, and last year she developed a nasty girth gall in early September. I spent a sleepless night cursing myself for neglecting to remind everyone to pull Reina’s legs forward to avoid pinching under the girth, wondering just how many bareback rides my bad back might tolerate, and having horrible visions of being sent home in disgrace from Kentucky with weeping sores on her sides.

Early the next morning, requested photos from Jess popped up on my phone — no weeping sores, no lumps, just a couple of little hairless areas. Once again I breathed easier, and my blood pressure came down several notches, but not all the way to normal because now the weather was causing trouble. Where I was out east, it was sunny and beautiful, allowing me to get some human conditioning work by swimming in the Atlantic each day. But back in Chicago it was raining. A lot. In fact, the Equilab app showed a walk down the road was the best Jess could do for me, not the conditioning sets the schedule called for.

Today I flew back from the East coast, found the “Bickmore Gall Salve Wound Cream” I had ordered from Amazon on the doorstep, and headed out to the barn. The rubs really don’t look bad and the blogosphere claims close to magical healing and hair-growing properties for the salve; we will see if it works. It was certainly nice to be back on my horse for a flat lesson, albeit in our rather small indoor arena as the rain was still coming down. We finished with another walk down the road in the drizzle and I realized that she has now missed two of her conditioning sets. At least the forecast at Otter Creek for Championships the weekend after next looks reasonable, and it will be interesting to see how she copes with the long course and steep hills this time out.

My list for the next six weeks is packed. I need to work on my own fitness while not making my back worse, teach Reina to tolerate having her temperature taken, find her pulse — I know it has to be there somewhere — train her to trot up nicely in hand for the “jog,” select a perfect outfit to best compliment her chestnut coat, find a way to practice 520 mpm over a steeplechase fence, persuade the farrier to leave me her old shoes as emergency spares, gather all the necessary items for the 10-minute box, schedule her health certificate, learn the T3D dressage test, and I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting. Oh yes, try and get a nice placing at Championships to earn a spot at next year’s AECs so we can have another excuse to go to Kentucky.

More to come!