A Work In Progress

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My friend Jimmy Wofford often describes horses as ?a work in progress,? especially a horse with a lot of ability but a temperamental foible or two that is preventing the horse from being consistently competitive. When Jimmy describes a horse as a ?work in progress,? He's comparing him or her to a work of art, to something that right now might look like just some random splashes of color but that will, someday, tell a story in a beautiful way. Really, every horse is a work in progress. it's just that most of them either never get finished?for a list of reasons that could fill up this page?and many more are finished poorly and become the equine equivalent of graffiti. The ?works? that do reach their consummation can range in quality from an eighth-grade art project (perhaps a perfect trail horse or a therapeutic-riding horse) to a Picasso or a Rembrandt (an Olympic or World Champion). I have a horse named Alba who is very much a work in progress (and whom I've written about previously), and at a competition last weekend we made some definite progress toward arranging the colors and the light into a beautiful painting. Alba is a 15.1-hand, Appendix Quarter Horse mare who was left with us three years a ago this month, by an owner who described her as ?crazy? and then paid her first month's board and disappeared. We initially thought she could make a nice lower-level mount for a teenager or smaller amateur woman, and we tried to sell her as that for two years. Meanwhile she progressed along the levels of eventing with me, always attacking the jumps rather too aggressively to suit that demographic. But I loved riding her and loved having her around, and sHe's so sweet and gentle that our 22-month-old son, Wesley, can feed her hay by hand, standing at the door of her stall. So, finally last winter I asked Heather, ?Why are we trying to sell her'? She admitted she didn't know, and now Alba will be with us for the rest of her life. Why is she a work in progress' Because sHe's pretty tricky to ride. SHe's almost too willing, too eager about anything when you're on her back (especially jumping), but she can be rather opinionated, and she has some foibles that my riding style isn?t completely suited for. But we're both working on that. Alba is very sensitive and very quick of mind and of body, so she reacts to every single movement of my own body, whether it's intentional or unintentional. SHe's always trying to anticipate what we're doing next and how she wants to do it, and her relatively small size and quickness can knock me slightly off balance, causing me to shift my weight or a leg, or move a hand, in a direction I didn't mean. She then tries to figure out what I was trying to say, instead of just, as many horses do, ignoring my unintended aid. And sometimes she can get pretty angry if my aids don't make sense to her or correspond to what she thinks she should be doing, especially when we're jumping. In 2009 Alba zoomed through the three lowest levels of eventing in just six events, her only cross-country faults coming when I cleverly steered her to the wrong fence on cross-country in her first training-level start and we were eliminated. I started her at preliminary (the fourth level of eventing) in February 2010, figuring it would be a big jump up but knowing that the training-level jumps were no longer impressing her. Last weekend?s Event at Woodside (in Woodside, Calif.) was her 10th preliminary start, and it was her most consistent overall performance. While her dressage test wasn?t as relaxed and obedient as her previous start (in May, also at Woodside), it had no major mistakes and earned a reasonably competitive score. On cross-country she confidently jumped the ditch that surprised her in May as she cruised beautifully around the course to finish just 5 seconds slow (because I took the long option at the combination with the ditch). And we finished with the best show jumping round We've ever had at preliminary level. After we'd finished, I felt as if my little Quarter Horse, who's stayed in my life because of an unpaid board bill, had proven sHe's belongs in the same division as the more elite and expensive horses sHe's up against. Much more importantly, I felt as if Alba and I had reached a new level of communication and trust in each other. As an example, both water jumps had 90-degree turns in them, and she just turned where I looked, sited in on the next jump, and went to it. My goal for Alba this fall is the classic-format preliminary three-day event at Galway Downs, in Temecula, Calif., on the first weekend in November. I believe that the classic format is the next step in her education, because the two phases of roads and tracks and the steeplechase phase that precede the cross-country phase will deliver her to the cross-country course in a more settled state than sHe's ever started out on course before. Our only problems on course have come at early combinations, when sHe's still over-eager and doesn't like to listen to my attempts to slow her down. She then gets surprised by a bank or a ditch when she jumps in, which is what happened at Woodside in May. I hope the classic format will show her she can be both eager and responsive early in the course, just as she is once we get six or seven fences into the course. I also plan to make the classic-format preliminary three-day events at Galway Downs and Rebecca Farm (Mont.) her goal for the next several years, sort of her ?career.? Why do that instead of moving her up to intermediate' Two reasons: First, although sHe's certainly got excellent scope over fences and a bigger horse's stride, she is still small, and I'm just not certain that the bigger and wider jumps and the faster speed isn?t going to be at the top of what she can do. Alba gives me everything thing she has, all the time, and I absolutely don't want to discourage or, especially, scare her. So, the second reason is that I really want to support these few surviving classic-format events, and I think sHe's the perfect horse to do it with. I think that both Alba and I will really enjoy eventing the way it's meant to be. I'm eagerly anticipating feeling how our communication will grow as we ride through the classic format at Galway Downs, and I hope that, on Saturday night, after a clear cross-country round, I'll look at her with even more adulation and appreciation than ever before, just as I have with the three horses I've already ridden in three-day events. don't worry?I'll let you know how it goes.