I’m not sure exactly when the gerbils entered my brain, but this was my first eventing competition and somewhere along the line they got into my head. Glennwood Farm in Brandywine, Maryland has a very nice starter event in June of each year. Last year I helped my good friend Cherie Chauvin with her horse Katchi at Glennwood. It was also one of the first places I schooled cross country with the Bird. I liked the place, so I had this great idea that I would enter Birdie in it this year. While I was at it, why not enter Willie so he would get some exposure before I put him on the market.
Maybe that’s when the gerbils got into my brain. Who enters two horses in a horse trial when they’ve never ridden in one? For that matter, Willie had never been to any show. Still at the time it seemed like such a good idea. Glennwood lets you school the day before and I thought it would be so easy to introduce Willie to eventing there. Oh and I might as well enter Birdie in Novice, since I can ride him over the course the day before.
The week before the event it rained and rained and rained. So the decision was made to cancel the cross country schooling. In all this time, I was not nervous or concerned. I did learn you can’t have a reader in eventing, like you can in dressage, but I thought no sweat – I can learn two different tests. I called Sam Allan and asked her if should walk the course on Saturday and she told me yes. I wanted to do it in the morning so I could ride everyone on the farm in the afternoon when the ground had time to dry. Sam organized this event and what a huge job that was.
I drove over Saturday morning and found Sam. She gave me the course maps and told me to walk each course twice. That’s a lot of walking, but I did it. As I walked the Novice course, I started to think, “Why did I enter Birdie in Novice? What the hell was I thinking?” I just knew he was going to be excited and strong. In the first part of the course there was a coop, hard right, straw bale two stride, hard left down a hill to a brush, hard right and dog leg to a downhill brush. It was in the first part of the course, he would be too strong for me to navigate that. If I trot it, he’ll quit. Wait a minute, stop doubting, you can do it, remember what Lucinda said, “they can walk those fences.” I keep walking the course, uh oh, the dreaded ditch. Now it is true, it seems that we’ve gotten him over the ditch problem, but this will be a show and he’ll likely revert. There is an alternative, but I should jump the ditch, shouldn’t I? What if he refuses three times and gets eliminated? He’ll learn he doesn’t have to go. Where’s Jimmy? What do I do?
I wasn’t particularly worried about Willie, I entered him in elementary and he easily jumps 3’6″. Still, I had visions of him stopping and me falling off for the whole world to see. When the ride times came out, it had to be Birdie first. I really would rather have started out on Willie, but I could live with that, I still was surprisingly calm. I decided I needed a lot of help so I asked everyone I knew if they would come. I ended up with six helpers and they were the absolute best all day long. At least I didn’t have to worry about that.
All night long I laid in bed thinking why did I enter Birdie in Novice? Why? Why? Why? When morning finally came I was nervous, but happy, because I was tired of laying there trying to rest. I didn’t sleep at all. Why did I enter him in Novice? Then there was the dressage. We are still battling our dressage demons. I fed them at 4 am and wanted to leave by 6:30. I needed plenty of time to unload the truck and hack Birdie around. Lots of time to warm up.
Everyone showed up and we were on time. We were the first ones there. My dressage was at 9:08. I was on the Bird by 8 am. To my astonishment he was very relaxed, reaching and stretching his back. When we trotted, he was supple and on the bit. This is the day!! This is going to be the day he finally does dressage in a show instead of tanking because he is so upset.
Twenty minutes before our ride time, he switched gears to Bird mode. He was uptight and getting in the way of other horses. I decided to get out of the warm up arena and try standing. We waited and our test was the usual uptight, no dressage test. We finished last. I’m going to try a new strategy the next time. The good news is, he’s never been that relaxed before in the warm up, so I think we are making progress. I was so disappointed because I thought it was going to be our day. I still love him though.
Next it was time to warm up for show jumping. Jimmy was in my head. It was crowded in there with Jimmy and all the gerbils. Jimmy hates the gerbils. I had walked my course and was ready. In the warm up it was like being on a guided missile. He was launching off the ground and very forward. Not running at the fences, but over jumping and not really wanting to pull up after. Oh boy, am I in for it.
As we began the course, he was even stronger. “Why didn’t I use more bit?” Happy Mouth isn’t so happy when your horse is ripping your arms off and beating you with them. If he’s like this on the cross country course, I’ll never be able to ride him. Why did I enter him in Novice?” SNAP out of it, the judge is blowing her whistle. You’ve gone off course. The gerbils stopped gnawing on my brain long enough for me to ask the judge if I could finish the course anyway and she was kind enough to let me. I still didn’t get it right, but I was dead anyway. The judge said to me, “I’m going to let you do cross country, you’re not dangerous, your brain just isn’t working that good.” Gerbils. I could hear Jimmy telling me, you have to ride. You can’t be gerbil brained.
We went directly from show jumping to cross country. I was asked if I wanted someone to hold his head until it was time to go and I declined the offer. Riding racehorses for so many years taught me the only person you want on an upset horse’s head is someone with much experience. Otherwise it’s scary and bad things can happen. Why did I enter him in Novice?? Thirty seconds – Why? – fifteen seconds Why? – GO – Why? This is it. The moment of truth when I find out if I can do this. Was all my hard work just a shameful waste?
The moment my Bird set foot on that cross country course, he was home. “Don’t worry human, I’ll take care of you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” I couldn’t believe it. He was totally relaxed, so I relaxed and the gerbils stopped eating my brain. I could hear Jimmy yelling at me, “You can’t sit there and expect him to tow you over the fences.” I know my Bird thanks him for that. The first couple fences were easy. We sailed over the coop and went to the straw bales. Sam had said make sure you approach so he can see there are two jumps. He did the two strides with precision. Left and down the hill, boing, hard right, hard left and we did pull up to a trot, over the brush he sailed. Now, I’ve got rhythm with my Bird. Sam had cautioned me to focus on keeping Bird balanced. This was very easy because he just was balanced.
Now for our “other” moment of truth. I decided to swing really wide so Bird could have a long time to realize we were heading for a ditch. I pulled up to a trot. He went right up to the edge and stopped. He didn’t take any steps backward. I sat there and remembered what Elizabeth had told me. She said, “When you talk to them, they do understand.” I heard myself saying “Come on Bird, please don’t do this to me.” With that he bounded over the ditch. Hot tears were rolling down my cheeks as I patted him on his neck. “You are the best horse, I love you. Thank you for being my horse and teaching me everything.” We trotted through the woods because it was very greasy and I didn’t want to risk hurting him. Out we came and through the water. He never missed a beat. Several more jumps and I had completed my first cross country course of 17 fences. He never ran at any jump, never left long and never chipped in. He loved it and I loved it too. I finally understood why I entered him in Novice.
Willie was cheated because he got a tired rider, but he was fabulous. He questioned a lot of things and wondered what was going on, but finished fourth in his division and has a tremendous future ahead of him. He really likes this.
So what did I learn? Really too much to express. First off, Birdie does belong in at least Novice. Second, I can do this. The next time I’ll leave the gerbils at home, then the show jumping will be successful. I won’t ever worry about the cross country again because I have the Bird. Of course the dressage is our cross to bear, but Elizabeth pointed out that I can’t expect that to improve overnight. After all a top rider couldn’t get him to do dressage. This will take time and time is something we have. After all he is improving. I don’t recommend riding two in your first event, but I’m glad I did it. Think how easy the next one will seem.