Moving up to a new, higher level of competition is always nerve-wracking and anxiety inducing, especially in eventing. A new level is a test of your training and of your ability in the saddle, and it's often a test of your horse's ability and of his heart.
I moved up my two mares, Firebolt and Phoenix Amani, to the next level of competition last weekend at the Twin Rivers Winter Horse Trials in Paso Robles, Calif. Firebolt stepped up from preliminary level to intermediate level, while Phoenix Amani stepped up from training level to preliminary level. And they each gave me numerous reasons to feel very proud of them.
Eventing has six levels of competition, and the first two"Beginner novice, at 2?9?, and novice, at 2?11??are at a difficulty that any well-prepared horse and rider are capable of completing. The third level, training, at 3?3?, requires more ability, especially jumping scope, but roughly 40 to 50 percent of the horses competing in eventing are capable of it.
Preliminary, at 3?7?, is where things start to get really serious, where the horse has to be a serious athlete with heart and courage. He has to want to jump big, to go fast, to negotiate big drops and to figure out three- and four-fence combinations that often include skinnies and fences that are off the line or on an angle. As the rider, you have an important role to play, delivering the horse to the jumps on the correct line, at the correct speed and correct balance in a positive attitude, but the horse has to want to jump the jumps. If he doesn't want to jump, they're too big to shove him over.
Intermediate, as the next step, ratchets up the requirements even higher. The jumps are only 2 inches higher, but they're considerably more complex questions. You have fences in combinations two or three strides closer together, the ditches are deeper and wider, and the drops are farther.? The horse has to look through the bridle in the start box and want to get out there and meet those challenges.
Prior to Twin Rivers, I wasn?t sure which of my two mares I was more nervous about, because they're such different horses. Firebolt, 11 years old, is a 15.1-hand Appendix Quarter Horse mare who was left with us as ?crazy? 4 ? years ago. SHe's competed at preliminary for the last here years, completing 18 events and jumping clear on cross-country in her last eight starts. Amani, 6, was bred for this job and had jumped clear on cross-country in all seven of her training-level starts in 2012-2013.
Throughout her development, Firebolt has often pleasantly surprised us with her scope, but, as I prepared her to move her up to intermediate, I suspected that this is probably the top of her ability. In her training, she had been jumping the bigger fences well and without strain, but I still fought off uncertainty in the days before the event. And, after walking the cross-country course three times, my confidence that she could handle the size and complexity had increased further. Still, in those last few moments before we entered the start box, I had to push aside anxiety about her scope, especially since she looks like a pony compared to her competitors.
I never worried about Firebolt?s heart, though. She?d proved that to me dozens of times. But the situation was different for Amani. Whether she could jump the jumps was never a question. The unanswered question was whether she would jump the jumps' Would she start on the cross-country course and say, ?This is too hard. I'm not doing this!? Or would she go out there and dig in, accepting the challenge of the new level'
Firebolt?s show jumping on Friday afternoon was disappointing?her ring anxiety, which I thought we'd overcome, raised it's ugly head, and I didn't react to it as well as I should have. The result of her running at the fences was that she lowered five rails. But she was absolutely fantastic once again on the cross-country course on Saturday. The bigger and more complex fences didn't back her off at all. Once again, she?d proved the depth of her heart and of her try to me.
Both of the water jumps were highlights of our ride, and she just zoomed through another demanding combination?a five-foot-wide table with a drop on landing followed, in six strides, by a skinny wedge jump. I was particularly pleased to have three fellow riders/trainers say to me afterward, ?Your little chestnut mare looked fantastic out there!? Yes, I thought, she was too.
Amani was a different type of ride. As we cleared the first three straightforward galloping fences?and then jumped into the first water over a big rail and out over an up bank and one stride to an angled hedge?I could feel her saying to me, ?Holy cow, Dad, these are a lot bigger!? I assured her that she was right, they were bigger, so let's keep galloping.
Besides her excellent efforts at both water jumps, Amani had two other highlights. The first was the four-fence sunken road complex?a narrow coop, one stride to a down bank, two strides to an up bank, and then two strides to another narrow coop. It was a more complex combination than she?d ever jumped before in competition, and the prelim combination was in the middle of similar combinations for all five levels, so there were a lot of jumps and flags to ignore to find our line. And that was exactly what my little girl did?she found her jumps and just hopped right through like it was a gymnastic combination in our ring at home.
The other highlight was the three-fence coffin combination, the sixth fence from the finish. I was worried about this combination because it was late in the course (at about the point where the training-level courses she?d been jumping would have ended), and I wondered if she?d be getting mentally and physically tired. But she angled perfectly over the skinny log to drop in, took two bold strides to clear the ditch, and then she took two more overly bold strides to the skinny wedge out and (realizing she was getting too close) patted the ground for a third stride to clear it. She?d shown boldness, cleverness and determination to get over the jumps.
The cross-country effort on Saturday left Amani feeling tired for the show jumping on Sunday, and she wasn?t jumping with her usual ease and flair, but she worked so hard to jump clear! She drifted left at an oxer and lowered the back rail, as she dug down deep to do the job I've been training her to do. I was so proud of how well she well she jumped when facing a bigger course while feeling tired for the first time.
The great German show jumper Ludger Beerbaum is, like me, a believer in mares as competition horses. I often heard him say of mares, ?They fight for you in the ring.? And that's exactly what my mares did for me in facing their new challenges last weekend: They fought for me.