Two Unicorns and How The Sport Has Changed

Did you watch videos of horses sailing over those huge Mike E-S oxers at Plantation? Nope, none of those horses were one of my unicorns. How about the incredible win of Kim Severson at Blenheim this weekend? Nope, none of my unicorns got blue ribbons and victory gallops. How about special retired racehorse showcases, jumper shows at the famous Devon oval, big 4-H championships at prestigious horse centers, top quality dressage shows with hundreds trotting down center line … nope, didn’t make it into any of those either.

My two unicorns just helped remind me of how really hard this sport is, I mean really REALLY hard for anyone who wants to just do it because they liked the idea of galloping cross country. Not that they were bad — they were exceptionally good, as a matter of fact — but it hits home to me after about seven years of not competing in recognized events that this sport remains completely difficult. It has not changed!

I have been filling in everyone as the year has progressed, starting with a decision in the spring to stop putting it off and get back to a recognized event, and as of last weekend, I got there. I am not going to tell you the journey was a shining path of fun, nor was it entirely without inspiration and good feelings.

It hit me walking the course for the last time, after dressage on Saturday. Many of the Training jumps are next to the Novice jumps, and the numbers are painted black with white letters. The Novice jump numbers are the opposite. The last recognized events I did were with my great champion Rugby I lost four years ago, and we rode Training level a lot. The black numbers were for Rugby; I had to stop and cry a little couple of tears in the woods where no one could see. Black numbers for Rugby! 

Photo by Susan Yates.

But today I was riding Hamish and he had to look at the white numbers. I knew I had to ride him without thinking of the past and of other things; he is very honest but he is also pretty sure if it’s new, it deserves a look. The great thing about foxhunting a horse is that they just learn to go across the country, even if they haven’t seen it before, they just do it. Eventing is much like that without the herd to follow. So as an experienced foxhunter, he was used to country, but in eventing, he had to be brave and go by himself for me. This he and I have been working on. Since he’s never been to Marlborough Horse Trials, it was all new to him — I had to make sure that when he looked, he knew he had to go.

Well, no worries there! His biggest “OK Mom I got this” moment was the bold leap off the down bank, and when I asked him to gallop on at the end of the course, a big one at the last fence. Earlier in the course, when we roller-coastered down the big hill to the water jump and entered the water jump field, he took a big look around, and I allowed him to trot to the half round which was the in, then trot through the giant Tidy Bowl, and gently hopped the little log out. He landed, and went, pppffffew, there. Water’s done. Let’s go home now. And I had to unfortunately ask him to canter just a bit more and up another hill. So we had a few time faults on cross country because I was a bit conservative here and there. The second fence, a lovely brush, was also a bit sticky, but he shook it off and took off up the hill after the third like he was mad at himself! I was so lucky to be riding such a smart horse that day.

But on the way home, thinking about the course (which now I am going over in my head every quiet moment I get) I realized that I had jumped clean (but slow) on cross country, clean (but slow) on stadium, and ripped off a 30s dressage test on a half-fit horse, while competing fairly exhausted, wearing a dressage coat I hate, without anything really more than two good jumping lessons as prep. And got a ribbon to boot. I don’t recommend anyone do this like I did. It’s much better to be prepared properly. This sport is hard.

To make the week difficult for no real reason, my refrigerator died and a new one had to be purchased, and all the food we had was tossed; because I helped volunteer all day on Friday, there was no time between driving back and forth, clipping, bathing and riding, trying to get some sleep (and getting up O’Dark Thirty for four days in a row) to buy more food. So Hamish’s great breeder and number one fan, Susan Yates, came and brought a delicious picnic which saved my sorry butt. I cannot thank her enough for being there! I usually event alone so it was a real treat to have an extra pair of hands — that brought FOOD.

This event also held an unrecognized combined test on the following weekend day and in a completely insane moment, I entered my other unicorn, Nice Guy, in the Beginner Novice division. Realizing it was too much for one weekend, I went ahead and did it anyway. (You thought I was going to say scratch.) Well, things went pretty well until I walked him up to dressage warmup. Then he took a look around and said, this is NOT the dressage shows I have been going to all summer. This is DIFFERENT. And found an excuse (a baby stroller) to be a little bad.

Uh-oh. When my horses meltdown, I sort of meltdown too. Not this time! This required a nice, slow, regular warmup with emphasis on paying attention until he loosened his back and was ready to go in the ring. Well, I tried. We ended up with a much shorter warm-up than I had sort of planned on. I stuck to about ten 20-meter circles at trot and told the ring steward I was going to canter until I had to go in, bless her heart, she was not afraid and trusted me! (And thank goodness for the decision to put the jumping saddle on and not the dressage saddle. We like knee and thigh rolls.) So he went in the ring and behaved if you can believe it. And I did not forget the test! Meltdown averted!

Many thanks to the eventing stranger in the parking lot who took this for me. Unicorn #2. Photo by Holly Covey

Then he was to jump. Well, this horse has not jumped in competition for three years. So why not just take him into a terrifying warmup with kids, ponies, professionals on big warmbloods, shrill coaches yelling directions? Sure. And trot your first course a bit. Sure. And then canter your next course and jump everything with distain as if to say, “Is that all you got today, Mom?” What a horse, what a day — a second unicorn. We elected to forego a cross country schooling, since we had accomplished a lot already in the day and I didn’t want to fight traffic going home.

So finally at home, I was thinking about how I am going to write this blog for you all. My triumphant return to recognized eventing. Realization One: I really have two wonderful horses that I’ve made myself. And they are the reason I get to do this and make these plans and goals, and achieve them. And I have to really write about them and how great they are. Then I see the big events and fancy 4* horses going around, and watch the videos like everyone else, and think well my little novice horses don’t seem so terrific compared to those horses, and yet – to me – they are terrific, because they enable me. I will never jump around a Plantation, or Blenheim, or Fair Hill. And so what.

Realization Two: This sport remains HARD. Don’t believe anyone — ANYONE — who says “eventing is easier” or “it’s changed, it’s easier now.” Bull. It’s hard. I am well past middle age and have been riding my whole life. And it’s still hard. I made a mistake in every phase, things I have to fix going forward, and there is always more work to do. Better dressage basics, those are things anyone can do. Better pace — that is also something I should work on because I know better — more practice with the watch, timing myself, getting comfortable with more gallop. More fitness. (Gad, you can never be too fit. All of us.) And lastly, friends. Lots of friends to encourage you, tell you when you are wrong, lend a hand, hold a horse, remind you to let go and kick on. Friends are the thing that makes eventing easier.

So my advice after this saga: appreciate and care for your horses a lot. Get fitter. Take more lessons and be a better student of the game. Be a fan but don’t be a fanatic. Stay cool. Under-enter and over-perform. Rely on friends and appreciate them. Go eventing.