Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson


Alright dear reader -- grab some popcorn and settle in, as today's story - like all the best stories - actually starts several weeks ago.

That's right - today's story started the day after I sent in my entries to Will O Wind.   That was the day Athena's brain fell out her ear.  *sigh*   Athena had done Grandview and the Lucinda Green clinic and was jumping really well, so I figured we'd be good to go to upgrade.  And then all of a sudden we were completely out of control over fences.  And while eventers may have a bit of a reputation as, well...  Flat out yahoos :)

The truth of the matter is, most of us realize we actually need *more* control to jump solid obstacles safely at speed -- not less.  So when all-of-a-sudden my horse is grabbing the bit and CHARGING at fences and then throwing herself over them with, shall-we-say, less-than-traditional form, upgrading suddenly seems like an absolutely horrific idea *sigh*   So we spent a week on trot to the fence, jump, land, halt.  Sometimes even trot to the fence, halt, reinback, trot, jump, land, halt. (not my favourite exercise since I don't like to ever stop a horse in front of a fence, but at very least this horse is honest about jumping!)  Understand -- that halt at times was taking up to 10 strides!  That's very not acceptable.  

So after about a week of that she was starting to rebalance herself and charge a whole lot less, so we started adding in canter work -- which actually went remarkably well.  The constant halts after the fences made it so she'd land and listen -- so half-halts became a legitimate option.  Sweet.  So we spent a week mixing up land-halt with land-balance-canter away.  And it was almost getting civilized again.

BUT, now less than a week from the show.  We've never jumped a PT height course.  We've never jumped related distances without building them up slowly.  And our off-property experiences haven't been excellent. I was a little concerned.   Fortunately my coach found said concern to be valid and arranged for an off-property jump school at a place with a reasonable show-jump course.  Only down side?  The only time we could meet was for a 7am lesson.   You're not new here. 

However, such is life.  So we bring her out and he's set a course at PT height + a bit with an in-and-out, a triple (incl scary planks!), and a few random jumps.  There are two smaller, less-interesting ones, that are clearly meant to be warmup fences.  So we mimicked the show environment as best we could with one ring to work with -- she did get to see the fences as we warmed up, but she only got to jump the two uninteresting ones before doing the course.  Including both lines.   And you know what?  She was awesome.  High and looky, but tuned in and allowing me to make the executive decisions.  Even though I, I have to admit, was not riding my finest.  So that was a HUGE confidence boost, and suddenly I felt we might survive our upgrade.

High and looking, but still jumping!
Ok, so then we get to Thursday.  Which went just fine except right before I was going to go home my puppy and I collided.  End result -- a puffy eye I couldn't see out of :(   Booo on that.   Fortunately by Friday the swelling had gone down and I was just left looking like a make-up artist gone horribly wrong.  I also had a wicked head-ache.  Thanks to said headache, I did not sleep well Friday night and when my alarm went off at 5:30 I was already awake.  If you don't understand the significance of that, see above >;-P

So Saturday morning I was less than thrilled about this idea.   Temp supposed to be 30deg and sunny -- discounting the humidex.  Lovely, except for riding a black horse who's not uber-fit.  And my xc was scheduled for 3:46 -- right when it should be good and hot.  Still had said headache, so dealing with loading my horse was going to be less than fun.  AND, being an upgrade, I knew I'd have to make the ride -- which I simply didn't feel like doing *sigh*   I also knew there were almost 40 people in my class; most of whom are team-level pros mounted on very nice babies that they're bringing along.  And Athena simply doesn't have the movement to compete with that in dressage so we're already starting at a disadvantage.  And when you're tired and not feeling well and grumpy and hugely competitive -- that's enough to make it seem like you should go back to bed.   But I wasn't sleeping anyways, soooo....

Off we went.  Paula took care of the barn for me today so I could escape and Chelsea spent all day in the sun grooming for me.  I have the most awesome students :)  Got there with lots of time and there was a huge amount of parking, so that was excellent.  She was a little dancy while I tacked up for dressage, but not too horrid.  Got a little lost trying to figure out what path horses were supposed to take to get to dressage world (I knew how to get people there, but that path said no horses...) but eventually we got there, way earlier than I probably should have.   She warmed up super-well, but we had time and I didn't want to exhaust her (not as fit as I'd like and super hot remember?).  So I gave her a break for a bit, chatted with some people, watched some tests.  All good :)  And when it was really time, warmed her up again.  And she was great!  Forward and through and round and connected.  Sweet.
Pretty dressage warm-up
And then we went in the ring.  In my *entire* eventing career I have had exactly ONE test that was worse than what we did today.  Remember that whole grab-the-bit-and-charge thing?  Yeah, it suddenly made an appearance in dressage.  We trotted up the centre-line beautifully.  And left her brain at about G.  Tracked left and she grabbed the reins and tried to dive over the dressage ring.  Frig.  There will be NO getting eliminated in dressage.  They might not let us jump!  So forget nice quiet subtle aids, that was nearly a pully-rein you WILL stay in the ring.   Well that was the highlight.  *sigh*  Our circles were neither round nor the size they should be -- I swear one of them had a diagonal in it!  Seriously - try that on purpose some time -- it's an interesting challenge!  There was leaning and falling and pulling and at least once more we had another attempt at the interesting cavelletti exercise set up.  We did have the odd moment that was almost acceptable -- but if the judge blinked she would've missed it.  I actually apologized to her after the test.  It was *that* bad.  And remember -- the last horse I campaigned seriously would pull 9s on almost every test.  So after that, this was both embarrassing and appalling.  I had figured we wouldn't be seriously competitive in dressage just because of her movement limitations, but I HAD at least expected to put in a reasonable middle-of-the-pack test.  This...   Not so much :(
Our one acceptable moment in dressage
Alright well now we are out of the competition.  May as well have some fun.  Got Athena untacked and bathed and then went to walk the course.   Stadium was what I'd been concerned about, so went there first. It was in-progress, so no walking but I could watch it.  And I have to say -- if I could've set my absolutely IDEAL course for this horse, that's exactly what it would've been.  And all of a sudden, I was actually looking forward to stadium.  A combination of my stadium round at Grandview was fun (that never happens!) and that this was so perfect for what we needed to school (which, given our dressage, was all we were going to do today anyways).  My concern about related distances was negated by the fact that there weren't any *g*   And it was a super-twisty course.  Which means land-balance-turn.  Exactly what she needed.  But not ONLY was it super-twisty, the ring was HUGE.  So if you didn't want to turn tight (or, perchance, ended up going a little faster than technically ideal), you didn't have to.  I heard a lot of comments from other people about the turns -- esp 1-2 and 2-3, but really it was riding well for the lower levels and for almost every turn you could buy a ton of space if you wanted to. 

Ok, starting to feel a whole lot more confident about the whole upgrade thing.  Go walk cross and come back grinning :)   Fence one = log.  Not even a big log.  Absolutely perfect start to xc.  Fence 2 = slightly raised log.   Took me a little to find fence 3, esp as two riders doing PE came through back to back so I was trying to stay out of the way :)   Fence 3 was a lovely little stone wall in the tree-line that had the optical illusion of a scary drop after it, but it really was just an illusion and a couple strides to 3B - a little cabin on a slightly bending line.  Cool.  Get to think a bit, but nothing so big she couldn't easily trot it.   And the distance was text-book.  Then our first nice long gallop of the day, which I was mentally thinking Athena could trot if she needed to :)   Fence 4 was our first actually maxed fence, but it was an easy roll-top (and tbh, maxed PT is still trotable for Athena).  The trick here is that the next one is an open ditch.  Far enough away that they weren't actually related, but close enough that I'd really need that land-balance concept working.   Followed that by a decent sized bench in the treeline.   Then the second lovely gallop (aka trot) down the hill and back up the other side.  Here was a small and easy set of logs on top of the hill.  Only thing here is I once had a really nasty run-in with the T fence right next to it that even though it was several years ago, made me really consider this one.  But honestly, no matter how I evaluated it, stupid-history aside there was nothing scary about the fence.  Down the hill around a corner to a slightly raised log with some flowers under it.  Ok np.  Back up the hill to another slightly raised log.  Only thing... this one has a BFD under it...   (ummmm translation - Big ... Ditch; a takeoff on the ever-traditional BFJ that should be on every course :)   Uh oh.  So Athena's never jumped a trakehner before...  hmmmmm but it was carefully disguised -- she'd see the ditch only about one stride out.  For better or for worse :)  Ok, mental note made.   Next was a trip to the water -- the water itself was actually optional.  For the best line to fence 10, you had to go through it.  But you could skirt it and jump 10 on an angle...  11 was a tiny up-bank.  The only thing I wanted to consider there was that it was skinny with a spook factor on one side (the bigger bank :).  Bending line to a tiny cabin type thing (I think? -- memory's a little fuzzy here but it was a little jump that I knew would ride easily).   So I mentally decided that if my horse was feeling tired or lagging we would retire at this point.  By here she would've seen all of banks, ditches, related distances and water and finished on something easy.  Fair enough.  But on the off chance she was good to go, I continued my walk.  13 was a random log -- only thing there was it was about a stride after the tree-line, so a bit of a spook/add factor.  14 was a line of houses - again, text-book striding.  Another long gallop to 15 -- one of the few maxed fences, and 16 was just a quick curve away and also maxed -- both of these were  pointing directly towards home though so no real concern except for fitness.  But overall a super-inviting and fair course.  Perfect for an upgrade.  And suddenly I was really looking forward to the rest of my day :)

And then I got back just in time to get to actually WALK stadium.  What a luxury!   Went back -- poor Chelsea had been hanging out with Athena all this time!   It's boring being the only extra person at a show!  But she was still smiling :)
Chelsea and Athena
Had a bit of time to chill and then tack up for stadium.  She was a little sticky in the warm-up, hesitating and then over-jumping, but it got better as we went...
Stadium w/u - over jumping just a little :)
Then in we went.  I was SO proud of her.  We had a bit of a discussion to fence three, and on landing from fence three.  So I opted to trot fence four -- partially so we could make the turn and partially to make a point.  Schooling after all :)  She also really didn't want to give me the right lead -- that I didn't pick on at all; I know the left hind is weak so I didn't stress about it.  She was balanced and maintained a rhythm and that's what counted.  Mostly she was just backed off enough to be rideable.  What really impressed me was the one fence she did lock-in on (after 6 we were supposed to jump and bend left, but she locked in on the fence to the right) she let me renegotiate a change of direction.  HUGE improvement from the disaster that was a couple weeks ago.  I was pretty happy after that round :)  Not yet pretty by any means, but under control and safe -- and jumping clear!  A reasonable start.   On a minor note -- they have to start making armbands that go smaller!  Mine was on the tightest setting and fell off >;-P  And there are a lot of riders out there smaller than I (like my entire competitive team :).  hahaha -- I tied it in knots before going xc cause it was a *slight* distraction *g*

Amazingly Athena wasn't terribly stressed by stadium -- we took her back and bathed her, but it wasn't totally necessary; not nearly as hot as after dressage.  PE XC had had some challenges, and as a result XC was starting half an hour after the posted time.  While I usually prefer tight times, since I was still pretty concerned about her fitness level, the extra half hour was good recovery time for her.  And I was thrilled that she was drinking all day.  

So I deemed XC warm-up less necessary.  I didn't want to waste what jumps we had left.  We cantered around a bit and hopped the vertical a few times -- again, very sticky at first but gaining confidence each time.  Never did do the oxer *g*  Fortunately we had two good ones in a row just after the 2-minute warning and got to the start box confident and ready to go.
XC warm-up
The first two fences on XC were very sticky.  They were super-inviting but I still needed a seriously defensive "this is NOT optional" type ride.  Got over them though and landing from two she booked it *g*  Sadly I had to bring her back to trot fairly quickly as the 3AB combination had earned my respect.  But after that I let her have the run to four.   I started to bring her back ridiculously early though -- and glad of it since it took probably 15 strides to get her to rebalance and listen.  Ditch was a non-issue.  We trotted it, but I'm not even sure that was necessary.  Bench was little more than a speedbump *g*   I DID get all responsible and make her trot down the next hill, we then had a very reasonable canter to the one at the top.  Fence 8 I rode really defensively as though it had a giant ditch under it.  Sitting in the back seat, kept her head up, serious leg on, etc.  And she jumped it and I could just feel her roll her eyes like "what was that all about?"  But it meant when we went to 9, which looked very similar to 8 at first, and I gave the SAME ride -- she didn't question it.  Until she took off.  hahaha then we kinda defied the laws of physics.  In the air she saw the GIANT-HORSE-EATING-PIT underneath her and I swear she levitated.  We somehow got higher than her initial propulsion would've allowed.  And she landed and booked it.  We were getting away from those monsters as fast as possible!  hahaha but that's ok -- I let her run till the end of the field then brought her back to the trot for the water.   She really had NO interest in getting her toes wet -- methinks we need to do some water schooling.   But was all-for jumping the bench out on a random angle with a one-stride approach. hahaha All good.  She actually did consider shying at the tiny bank, but being as it was a tiny bank and we were trotting, and I was expecting it -- it didn't take much to redirect her up instead of around.  Jumped 12 and then we were at the decision point.  She *felt* awesome -- it was only really in my head that she wasn't fit enough.  But I decided I'd let her make the choice -- allowed her to go but didn't make her...  And we were OFF.  hahaha flew across that field in an awesome rhythmical, albeit way-too-fast-for-PT pace.   Had to fight to get her back for the next jump, but she DID listen.  Woohoo!  I did ask her to trot for a bit after the 14 combo (which I *really* had to ride), partially cause I was worried about her and partially cause I was pretty sure even with the trots we were too fast -- turns out that last part wasn't quite right, we ended up 2 seconds slow :(  Bad rider.  Regardless, we flew over the last two fences, locked on and taking me to them :)  Got to the vet -- she was hot yes, but her respiration and heartrate dropped almost right away.  And the awesome people at Will O Wind had water troughs at the end of the finish line, so I'd asked Chelsea to bring our buckets over so I untacked Athena there and we gave her a few quick baths till I was sure she was cool.    Only down side to that was the very LONG walk back carrying all the gear!  hahaha
Athena on XC
But yes, overall I was absolutely thrilled.  Our dressage... UGH.   But admittedly even on her best day she wouldn't've been entirely competitive in that group, so if we're going to screw it up - that's the day to do it.  But I couldn't've been happier with the way she jumped.  Even now, hours later, I'm still grinning :)
When all was said and done...


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