The Bond We've Developed Preparing For The Three-Day Event

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In four weeks, I plan to be riding in a competition I've been aiming my wonderful mare Alba toward for nearly two years?the classic-format CCI1* at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event (www.galwaydowns.com) in Temecula, Calif. And I'm going to tell you about that preparation this week as a follow-up to last week?s blog on ?How To Save The Preliminary Three-Day Event.? Last week, Sherry Hevner-Rygh, of the Long Format Club, told me that it ?seems to be someone looking for a challenge or for a tradition? who's riding in preliminary classic-format events. Well, I'm proud to say that I'm both of those. I believe in the classic three-day event format as the historic basis of my sport, and I like the challenge of preparing my horse and myself for it. Alba, who's now 9, has been an atypical horse to train, in that she hasn?t developed competitively in the usual style. In February 2009 (three months after she?d started jumping), I ran in her one beginner novice event, and she zoomed around both cross-country and show jumping. Six weeks later, I ran her at novice, and she basically ran away with me in both jumping phases. So I moved her up to training level at her next event, hoping the larger fences would slow her down. They did, for four events. I decided then that I didn't want to run her in a training level three-day event because I didn't think she was mentally ready to run the short steeplechase phase and then do cross-country. Since barrel racing was all she?d done before she entered my life, and she has an over-achieving but hard-headed personality, I didn't think she could handle galloping even faster to three jumps before going cross-country. So I decided to move up her up to preliminary, the next level, figuring then that it would be her ?training? level, the level at which she?d really learn her job, having had an introduction zooming through first three levels from February through August. Preliminary certainly has been her ?training? level, as you'll know if you?ve been read the several blogs I've written about Alba in the last 20 months. How has Alba (whose show name is Firebolt, as in Harry Potter?s broomstick), and the two of us, evolved in that time' Well, let me think? Her ring anxiety has certainly decreased markedly. Alba used to get so tense and stiff in her back and neck, whenever she entered a dressage or jumping ring, that it was like riding a board. Now I can feel her hold her breath as we go around the outside of the dressage ring and then let it out and loosen up. Before show jumping and cross-country she usually does a half-rear and spin before she takes that breath, but at her last event, 10 days ago, she didn't run away with me to the first fence, for the first time since her first event. That was a great accomplishment! I think this improvement is the result of mileage and confidence in herself, the result (and purpose) of training. Similarly, her understanding of and obedience to my aids has improved tremendously, probably 20-fold. I don't think she?d previously had anything more than rudimentary training (she could walk, trot and canter?that was it), so she hadn?t really been taught to accept the aids, and as a red-headed mare, sHe's naturally inclined to do things her way. Now she knows shoulder-in, haunches-in, leg yield at trot and canter, counter-canter and more. What I've lately been working on is a back-to-the-basics program, because I had to teach her these exercises to be able to work on our communication. I couldn?t just trot or canter a circle and convince her to be round and relaxed and obedient. I had to ?do something? with her. So, now that sHe's confident in my aids and accepts them, We've taken a step back to work on the quality of the gaits and of the transitions and figures, trying to do them really well, instead of just doing ?tricks.? I've gone back to the basics in jumping too. She understood and took to jumping about as quickly and easily as any horse I've ever ridden, and then, in concert with the need to move her up, I had to make the fences bigger and the jumping exercises harder to get her attention and to be sure she could answer the questions at the next level. So she knows how to answer al the tough questions, but jumping a fence or two quietly and steadily remains an elusive ability. So We've been doing a lot of more basic exercises and concentrating on our communication going toward and leaving the fences. We've still got a lot to improve, but in that last event I was ecstatic with the way she went cross-country and largely pleased with our show jumping. I think, though, that what's really helped the most is the fitness and strength sHe's developed over the last three years, especially in the last three months, as I've prepared her for Galway Downs. The primary difference between a standard horse trial and a classic-format three-day event is the second day. Instead of having just a cross-country course (which for preliminary is about 1.75 miles), we have to do four phases?phase A is roads and tracks (trotting a marked path around or through fields or along dirt roads); phase B is he steeplechase (a fast gallop over five to seven brush fences); and phase C is the second, slightly longer roads and tracks. You do those three phases without stopping, although you plan your timing to arrive at the start of B one to two minutes before your start time, and you plan to walk for three to six minutes at the start of C to let your horse recover from the gallop. At the end of phase C, you have a 10-minute break in the vet box, where veterinarians examine your horse's soundness and recovery, to be sure He's fit to go on to phase D, the cross-country course. At Galway Downs, the total distance covered on the second day of the classic-format CCI1* is 9.2 miles, with the cross-country course being about 2.4 miles of that. Galway Downs also has a training three-day with a total distance is 6.1 miles, the cross-country course being about 1.6 miles. The preliminary steeplechase speed is 640 meters per minute, with cross-country at 520 mpm. The training steeplechase speed is 520 mpm, with the cross-country speed at 470 mpm. Yes, the preliminary is markedly longer and faster than training level. So, as I've done the fitness work (along with the more demanding dressage work), it's been fascinating to see Alba?s body develop. Her neck, shoulders, back and hindquarters now ripple with muscles, and she moves with bigger, looser steps. I'd say she walks with a swagger now, as if sHe's saying, ?Look at me!? I now think that Alba is mentally ready to do cross-country after steeplechase?I'm confident that 6.5 miles of work before she starts on course will get her there in an eager but relaxed attitude. Last Saturday I took her to the beach at Bodega Bay, about 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, as the seagull flies, to continue her conditioning program. We trotted for 20 minutes, then galloped at about 500 mpm for six minutes, walked for three minutes, trotted for 10 minutes, galloped for three minutes at about 450 mpm, and trotted for five more minutes. Her breathing could hardly have blown out a candle as we walked back to the trailer. But what was really neat was what a joy she was to ride, how self-assured she was. She hardly paid attention to the people walking or jogging, to the dogs running in and out of the surf (and some barking at her), or to the crashing waves and the surf flowing back and forth as we trotted and galloped through it. She was there to do the job she knew how to do, with me, and I just had to think, ?trot,? ?gallop? or ?walk? for her to do it. No mater how we finish at Galway Downs, and at future events, I'll treasure that day as evidence of the communication and bond that Alba and I have developed along our journey.