Monday, April 11, 2011

Eventing The First Time

Plain Truth warming up for his first dressage test

Saturday was one of those first times. I got to ride Plain Truth, aka Brownie, in his first event at the Maryland Horse Trials near Frederick. It was an unrecognized event, which means your screw-ups don't go on the horse's official record, and it costs less to enter. It was at Carolyn Macintosh's magnificent Loch Moy Farm, which means that the footing is perfect, the jumps are like art, and the organization is flawless. It also means that everything is pretty much maximum height and to the standard of a recognized event.

Brownie was my second horse of the day. Perfect Eli went first at the same level, so losing my way was unlikely.

Brownie has never been one of the easy ones. He is by my stallion, Salute The Truth (Willy), out of a Thoroughbred mare who we leased for a year because her owner was moving and she was a pretty nice mover. Brownie was always pretty plain looking as a foal, not particularly friendly, and brown. We knew he would become gray and I couldn't think of a good name. Plain Brown Truth became Plain Truth, but Brownie stuck at the barn.

We raise our youngsters like cattle in the far field. They get their feet trimmed and dewormed, but it's always an ordeal because they are wild. Our farrier Angus Whyte would be happy to share some stories.

Brownie got real big and ugly fast. When we brought him down as a three year old to start him we were very careful. He was close to 17 hands, very nervous, and really powerful. Most of Willy's offspring act like they were ridden in the womb, but Brownie made us treat him with respect. He also made the effort worthwhile.

No two horses are alike, but I can't help but lump them into types sometimes. Brownie had developed into the type that has a lot of suspension when inspired, a looseness throughout his body that makes his movement feel like slow motion, and a way of reacting to stimulus that has a little agression mixed in with the fear. He's a pure Thoroughbred that looks, feels, and acts a lot like a quality European warmblood. I love the big, athletic, loose and powerful warmbloods, but they are usually the scariest horses to train. Brownie was all of that.

He never bucked anyone off, but he had a way of tensing up when his environment was unpredictable. He would sometimes lock and stop, sometimes throw a threatening little buck, and generally become angry.

Michelle Warro, our super tactful and super talented assistant trainer did a lot of his early riding, fell in love with him, and then lost the ride to her boss. I get the big ones, she gets the little ones.

We got Brownie going in the fall of his three year old year and had an advanced level event rider do a pre-purchase exam on him that winter. The price was $20,000. The vetting went great, except for a small chip that the radiographs showed in his hock. Maybe never an issue, but you never know. I agreed to do the surgery at my expense. The sale was still on track until the hock got infected. In total the ordeal cost $10,000 and left him with a perfectly good hock but a permanent "bog spavin" or pouch of fluid.

We put Brownie back in work last fall after 8 months off, got him jumping, and took him to some neighbors to school over their jumps a handful of times. Brownie never really stopped at jumps, but the new environments would make him think his world was caving in and it would always take a while to settle. I would hold the neck strap quite firmly.

When I walked the cross country at Loch Moy Saturday I thought that maybe this was too much. We'd really only schooled cross country twice away from home, and the second time he was so worried about his little girlfriend Truce that we didn't accomplish much. Brownie isn't the kind of horse that responds well to pressure of any kind. I couldn't make him jump if he didn't want to. 

I decided that my big-ass ego would not get in the way. If we only trotted a couple jumps on the third try and then went home, that would be OK. If we only did a bit of time standing around the dressage warmup and then called it quits that would be OK too. No expectations.

Brownie was Brownie on the way to dressage. He was petrified, but fortunately also a bit curious. I think he really wanted to leave the trailer and go see what all those horses were doing up on that hill. It was just really, really scary. Malinda walked alongside him and led him when he needed the help. It took a while. The show jumping, three dressage arenas, and dressage warm up are all in one huge enclosed arena. There were probably twenty horses in the warm up, plus three doing their tests, and another jumping the colored rails on the other side. 

We sort of scooted in the gate of the warm up arena and then spent five minutes darting this way and that like a pinball. If he just had to stop and snort I let him and then coaxed him forward. When he was going forward I nudged him along even more forward with my calves. My salvation, I knew, would be the incredible trot that he was born with. He can't help but find rhythm in that trot, and that rhythm and full use of his body has a way of captivating his mind and reminding him that it's really all about him. When I finally got that trot we were good. The canter made us even better. I swear he knew he was the best moving horse in that herd and forgot that he was the newcomer. By the time we entered the arena we owned the place.

Even if you own the warmup arena, being all alone in the 20 x 40 is a different scene.  He spooked hard at the scribe's paper shuffling as we took our tour around the arena just to show the judge he was a greenie and get some sympathy. He did his absolute best once we entered. He couldn't do better than he's trained to be, and he really isn't very polished yet in his transitions, but he sure can walk, trot and canter like he belongs there, and he showed that. The judge was generous, the competition was light, and we finished in third with a 35 (that's 65% in dressage numbers).

Going from the trailer to the jumping warmup was easier than our first trip away. He was only a fraction as tense as in the dressage warmup, but still a bit tight at first. It's amazing, by the way, how much more dangerous a warm up arena with eight Beginner Novice horses is at an unrecognized event than a warm up with twenty upper level horses is at a recognized event. It's just really hard to figure out what direction some of those wild ponies are going!

Brownie jumped the warmup fences just fine, thank you. We got going forward, almost a gallop, and let him use his body. Jumping 2' 6" doesn't really count as jumping for a horse with Brownie's talent, but I wouldn't have wanted them any bigger. We trotted out of the warmup area to the gate for show jumping like we meant business. At least I wanted Brownie to think he meant business. Poor guy didn't even know what the business was going to be.

Lucky for me we didn't have to wait long. The gate person, Tom Smith, is a friend from the horse council and after his public pronouncement after my first ride that I'd never win the Medal Maclay he owed me one. I got into the arena before Brownie had time to get distracted.

Often I trot the first fence on a really green horse and then just kind of let them tell me how they want to proceed. The jumps are enough of a shock, and if they come up too quickly the youngsters don't have time to process what they are going to do and they freeze. Brownie has such a balanced canter that I picked it up right away and let him find that magic rhythm in a nice big loop around to the first fence. That was, of course, after I walked him past the first fence in an obvious effort to cheat legally. The canter felt good so we cantered right down to the first fence, and he stepped over it like it was one of the jumps at home. He jumped the whole course like that, pretty much waiting for me to ask him to shorten or lengthen his stride. They weren't all perfect, but that's because I didn't give him a perfect ride. The dude was ready to be perfect. Next time I'll be ready.

He did offer a bit of humor to Tom Smith and company at the gate on the last fence. It was a two stride combination, with the second element right in front of the in-gate. The two was riding very tight for most horses, so I made a point of getting close to the first element and jumping in small. I was too successful at that and the two strides suddenly became long, giving Brownie an opening to see the gate. As I was about to ask him to stretch forward in his second stride he veered right toward the gate. I managed to swerve back, add a third stride and get over the fence, but I used my voice at a fairly high volume to get it done. I can't remember what Tom said, but he certainly cut me no slack. That's ok. My horse just grew up. He's two thirds of the way to becoming an event horse. Just getting through the finish flags is enough to make my day.

Like most events these days, we go straight from show jumping to cross country with just a few minutes to catch our breath, adjust our tack, or jump a couple warm up fences. I slipped into the cross country warm up area on my way and let Brownie feel the spongy wet turf that had soaked up a lot of rain the previous day. We cantered a few circles and jumped the log jump that was set up for schooling. Brownie was a little confused about why we were going in circles at the edge of a huge field, but no real problems.

Dale Clabaugh was the cross country starter. Seeing people like Dale at events always makes me feel safe and among friends. She used to organize the Menfelt Horse Trials, she's active in the Maryland Horse Council, she sponsors this event in her role as a State Farm agent, and she would do anything for anybody. She introduced me to her college-age daughter as we waited to start. While Dale spoke over the radio I told her daughter that I was part of Dale's Fan Club. Her daughter said she was President of that fan club and gave me the thumbs up. Off we went, smiling of course.

Again, we picked up a canter and headed toward the roll top that was fence #1. We went for a conservative, close distance, stepped over the jump like it was nothing new, and cantered on. Fence two was a little bigger and more interesting looking with a shine from the rain that was no longer falling. Perfect. He used his body a little more and it was fun. Fence three was a little weird looking. It had stone dust to repair the footing at take off and chopped up mud on the far side. It had that airy hanging log effect, and was at the end of a line of bigger jumps for the higher levels. Brownie actually hesitated here, broke to trot, and then jumped. I like that carefulness. If they never question the jumps at the lower levels, they never learn to think. We want them to get there, ask if it's ok by hesitating a titch, and then go when we answer them with a reassuring squeeze. That little conversation works like a half-halt to shift the balance back and increase power and adjustability for the jump. Horses that are too brave don't check in with us that way, so we have to check in with them. That's harder to do without interfering with the rhythm. It won't be long before this huge subject gets a blog posting of its own...if I ever figure it out myself.

Brownie did everything right. We trotted the downhill house with the slippery turn after it to the water. He went into the water at a trot and cantered out. He cantered over the ditch with no fear. On we went.

The coolest part is just being out there. Cross country jumping is so natural for a horse that we don't have much work to do. In dressage and show jumping we as riders have to be on the ball, but on cross country, especially at the lower levels, we spend most of the time just balanced over our feet feeling the incredible beast beneath us doing what he was bred to do, which if he is all or part thoroughbred is to run. A little daydreaming is ok. A little listening to the horse is even better.

Wow. Brownie just went around his very first cross country course and proved to the world that eventing is the sport for him. He's brave, he's adjustable, he's athletic, and he did it so calmly! I always say that horses only learn when they are relaxed. This horse just learned so damn much in six minutes. He mostly learned that it feels really good to do this. I'm damn lucky to be there for the ride.

Oh, and don't feel bad for Michelle who did the hard work with him early on. She had an identical experience Saturday with Salute The Truce, our four year old who has been under saddle for only 6 months and placed 2nd in her division at the same level. I didn't steal the ride on that one because she'd look like a pony with me on her. The two of them were magnificent.

And big, bad Brownie finished his day tied to the trailer with Sam and Andy, my 20 month old twin boys, taking turns on his back.

PS. If you are wondering where this whole "Listen to The Horse" thing came from, it's part two of our answer to the Natural Horsemen who seem to be in the habit of copyrighting phrases and words for their training materials. First we thought we would copyright the phrase "Learn to Fucking Ride." It's a pretty good answer to people who ask why their horse misbehaves, don't you think? When you've done that, you get to compete. When you are at the competition, the hardest thing to do is to "Listen To The Horse". It may sound a little hokey, but I swear it's the best advice you'll ever get as you enter the arena. In another blog post I will tell you what it means to my father. For that be prepared to go deep.

So, whatever it means to you, Listen To The Horse.


  1. This was a great story. It's nice to know even Big Name Trainers have similar experiences!

    Does your Learn to Fucking Ride club come with a rope halter?

  2. Great blog and LOL at the comments! My horse wishes I would join the LTFR club. But he wouldn't be seen dead in a rope halter.

  3. I'd like an LTFR black and white oval sticker for my car....That would keep people guessing.

  4. I'd love a LTFR sticker for my back windshield but I need mine printed backward so I can see it in my rearview as it's a message to me. It's a big part of the reason I don't ride much anymore as I feel like I'm just confusing Star(which I am) and I don't want to ruin her.
    As you know, I bought her to breed, but for someone who has dreamed about owning a horse since she could first think, the temptation to want a riding horse as well is strong. Problem is, my formal riding training consists of two weeks of summer camp as a teen and two semesters of student teachers at UMD. Not knocking either, but that doesn't add up to a very confident rider. 99.9% of my horse experience (hotwalker, groom, foaling & broodmares) comes from the ground, not mounted.
    I spent a lot of time researching Star's bloodlines, records, and finding a compatible local stallion I could breed her to. I would have been happy with that, but once I rode her a few times, I got a bit of an insight to how her brain works and was even more pleased with my choice. She's a very nervous horse, but she's a very eager horse. I feel like she would do anything I ask of her if I just knew how to ask the right way so it made sense to her. Just because I don't know what to do with it, doesn't mean I can't feel it :) Sure hope she passes that down to her foals. Hope you do a Retired Race Horses for Dummies clinic one day.