This part of the review took a lot longer to write than previous ones, as it was really emotional for me to look back on, and it took a while for me to gather my feelings and thoughts on the day.
MREC has historically been my favourite local show park, because its facilities are beautiful, it is well-run and the XC has been very inviting for weenie Wheeler as she learns to overcome her jumping anxiety. I was really looking forward to our XC portion of this HT; Vesper is such a beast on the XC field and I knew that if the footing was good, we would probably storm our way around Training without a lot of hiccups. If we could get over the Weldon’s Wall.
Those of you who follow my IG know that I’ve been psyching myself up to this beast since I discovered it was not a Prelim fence as I imagined, and it is a permanent fixture in the MREC Training field. It’s not actually that tall from the takeoff point, but it’s prefaced by a ditch (and Vesper likes to pause and look into ditches which knocks me off balance) and it just looks frigging gigantic on foot. I felt that, if we were going to have problems on course, this would be where it was going to be at – and very likely my fault, if anything. You’ve probably seen my massively-ghetto version of this obstacle at home built out of a pallet ramp, weed mat for a ditch and a stadium fence to make it bigger.
Something that I knew in advance, but really noticed during the course walk was how much longer the Training course felt than Pretraining. A similar amount of elements perhaps, but it seemed to wind back and forth more, and the OT was almost the same as the recent PT rounds I have done. We were going to need a really forward pace in order to make OT; but Vesper is really good at that. Me? Less so.
I went into the course walk somehow expecting that the questions would be a bit like PT but maybe slightly beefier. I had read that they certainly tend to be wider, if not necessarily taller. Um. These were both wider, taller and skinnier. I went from worrying about just the Weldon’s Wall to worrying about almost everything in our path.
This was where I started to sweat profusely and my stomach started tying itself in knots and I started imagining all of the ways this could go wrong. We haven’t practiced skinnies (although Vesper is such a unicorn that I figured it probably wouldn’t matter a ton?) and I was realizing that this move up was significantly more aggressive than I had imagined. I had to face down the acknowledgement that I have relied about 87% on my horse knowing what to do up until now and I was not actually as prepared for this level as I had thought.
I walked onto that course feeling like a champion, and walked off feeling like a mouse. I was really nervous… I don’t remember being this nervous in the move up to PT? But the rain was expected to stay away, I was going to ride in our snaffle to prevent me pulling too much and we would have studs in for grip. I just told myself to push up to the fences instead of letting them intimidate me, and let Vesper handle the rest.
Go time was 10:54am, and we arrived back at the show grounds around 9:15am. Vesper didn’t want to get on the trailer to leave home and she seemed a bit tired, but I wasn’t surprised based on how physically demanding day 1 had been. I took the early arrival opportunity to go and have a peek to see how the Prelim riders were handling that ugly 8B element, and I’m so thankful that I did because I noticed that the dinosaur of a log that they had originally added to the up bank had been removed and replaced with a teeny little friendly-sized log!
I was going to have a bit of a crowd cheering me on; mom, husband, friends, Vesper’s chiropractors… I usually tell people to watch the XC if they’re going to come to spectate since that is the most fun of the three events! I was starting to get excited again, although not with the same joyfulness that usually comes at PT; this time there was much more consideration placed on riding intelligently than just riding for the fun of it.
I had already decided that I would spend minimal time in the warm up, wanting to save whatever energy Vesper had for the course itself. In retrospect, I probably should have actually opted for a more thorough warm up, as she came out dead quiet and had absolutely no fire. I’m so used to seeking a quiet ride (left over from my hunter days and anxiety about high energy jumping) that instead of trying to wake her up and get her engine going, I just worked through the gaits and popped her over the fences a couple of times and left it at that. I won’t make that mistake again.
She came out of the startbox with… nothing. Her MO is to lock on and pull me to fences, but right away I was pushing hard just to get her from a canter into a gallop. Luckily fence #1 was the easy log to get us sorted out, but I didn’t have the horse under me that I always have before. The table at #2 went okay – there was still a chip in but that’s pretty normal for us at the first few fences while I gather my nerve and she finds her stride. But the table at #3 came up totally weird – it was off a long gallop and I have a terrible time seeing the distance off such a long approach. We chipped again and Vesper barely made it over; I heard her scrape along it with her legs. Her confidence at that point went *poof*.
#4 was a simple rolltop that should have come up easily but she backed herself right off and came in really hesitantly. I could feel that her confidence was shaken and I did my best to switch over from passenger to confident rider in hopes of giving her confidence with my own strong support. This took some guts from me, as it has always been the other way around and I didn’t feel very qualified to be the rider that she needed in that moment.
We came in well to the ramp at #5 (although I had to push her the whole way), but between the rollback to the corner at #6 and the intimidating set up of the corner, we had our first run out ever at the corner. I think I felt my heart sink down into my bowel area at that moment. This horse has never stopped on XC, no matter how garbage I ride or how poorly I set her up. I remember coming to the corner thinking, “Gosh I’m glad she knows what she’s doing here!” and being so stunned when she said no. It was really hard to get my head back in the game at that moment, I was so thrown off and realizing that this run was really not going the way I had expected or hoped.
We circled around to the corner a second time, and once again Vesper put on the brakes, refusing a second time. Looking back on it, I have asked myself so many times if I shouldn’t have just withdrawn at that point; she clearly didn’t have her heart in it, and she’s experienced enough that this wasn’t just “greenness”, other than perhaps a lack of preparation or adequate riding on my part. But in the moment, quitting didn’t come to mind and so I set her up a third time, genuinely wondering if we were even going to make it over. Because she is a certified saint, she obliged me with a jump and we were able to continue on. But I was rattled. It was the first time that I have ever thought on course, “we might not be able to do this.”
#7 was a table that we cleared, but Vesper still wouldn’t lock on and was not enjoying herself as we always do. Instead of blasting around like fabulous rocket ships, I wanted very badly for the round to be over but knew we weren’t even halfway yet. It was a bit like that feeling of being trapped in a bad dream and not able to wake up…
#8 was an easy bench that looked more like a PT fence than Training and I was locked on to the skinny up bank B element of it trying to ride my butt off, but Vesper stopped at it anyway. Gutted. She actually reached down and grabbed a bite of the hay that was decorating it, so I knew it wasn’t a case of spooking at the dumb thing. I straight up had a moment of feeling pretty pissed at her right then. It’s not the time for eating! Of course, I shake my head at myself to think of it now. But at the time I was tired, frustrated, confused and riding a horse who was obviously feeling all of those things as well. We got over it the second time and I had no idea if we would make it up the B element; it wasn’t our most elegant combo, but she did get us over.
#9 was that absurd fish tail skinny before the water, which was a hard nope from V. I definitely didn’t have any gusto on the approach, and between both of us being uncommitted, she ran out on it and I got flagged down to leave the course with our fourth refusal and an elimination. It’s been over a week since then and typing that out still clogged up my throat and made my eyes sting. It happened right in front of the spectators, including everyone who had made the trek out to watch us, and the “walk of shame” back felt interminable. I briefly made eye contact with husband, who was giving me the smile of “I’m proud of you anyway”, and it took a lot of self-control not to burst into the tears that were bubbling up in my throat. I was completely at a loss… How could this happen? I was ready to handle time faults, maybe even a refusal at the very worst, but elimination? I had a pathetic moment where I almost wished that I had fallen off instead – at least that would have been a better excuse than “we couldn’t handle it”. Pity party doesn’t even do it justice.
I managed to wave a brief goodbye to my wonderful friends who could tell I needed to be alone and didn’t force their condolences on me (bless them), water and untack my beautiful mare and give her carrots, and then I tucked myself into the trailer tack room and ugly sobbed for a couple of minutes. Husband held me and let me come apart. I cried for my expectations, my disappointment, my guilt for pushing my horse when she clearly didn’t want to keep going, the hard work that we had poured into, the shock of truth that (contrary to her track record) my horse actually can have bad days… It was difficult having to explain to my husband and mom that no, regardless of our amazing dressage score and decent jumping round, I would not place at all that weekend. We would be going home without that pretty rosette I was looking forward to hanging on my wall in memory of our first time at this level.
I did manage to pull myself together and go back to watch a few of the PT rounds. There was a teensy amount of consolation in knowing that I was not alone in having a difficult ride; 2 of the 4 of us in Training were eliminated in the XC and I watched one rider fall in PT (she was fine thankfully!) and another be eliminated as his horse was having none of the water. It was a tough course clearly. I’m just so accustomed to having no problems on course that I was living in an untouchable bubble, and the bursting of it was painful to my pride.
Full transparency: I wallowed all that night, and it took me days to screw my brain back on correctly. I would choke up with tears thinking about it at random moments, and it took days before I could look at the footage or photos. I doubted my skills as a rider; I doubted my horse’s ability and age and fitness; I doubted our future; I doubted my horsemanship; I doubted myself as an eventer even. By next season I might be pregnant, or Vesper might be too old to ever try that level again, or I might be too nervous to try that level again. Maybe we should stay at PT where it’s safe and easy! Maybe we should just do dressage! Maybe I should have withdrawn on course! Maybe I should have schooled more XC! Maybe I should have worked harder at her fitness! Maybe the change of bit threw her! Maybe the addition of the flash was limiting her air intake! Maybe the dressage warm up the day before was too draining!
Monday morning, I kid you not, I went online and Googled “my first elimination eventing” because I needed to know that the world was not ending and I was not the only person on the planet who had been eliminated with refusals in an event. Which is hilarious because DUH. Anyway, of course I ended up on CotH and reading threads about people’s elimination stories actually really helped me refocus; it turns out it has happened to most people in fact! What a shocker hey.
One of the young girls in the Prelim division at the show sent me a lovely message on IG to encourage me to be proud of our attempt, and to commiserate that she herself had fallen off last year in her first move up to Training. Considering how much I admire her riding (and her absurd stunner of a draftX mare), that went a really long way to helping me feel better.
Over the next week, I spent time disseminating my feelings and came to a few conclusions:
- We did not actually fail, contrary to my initial feelings. As husband reminded me numerous times, we broke our dressage score record, jumped around a Training stadium course successfully and made it basically halfway around a Training XC course. That’s freaking amazing for weenie Wheeler!
- Equal parts disappointed and relieved that we didn’t have to face that Weldon’s Wall lol.
- Definitely disappointed that we couldn’t tackle some of those more intimidating jumps on a good day.
- I actually rode XC with a snaffle for the first time in my life.
- Vesper tried her heart out for me even when she clearly did not want to. What a unicorn. If she is maxed out at PT, then by golly we are going to have fun at that level for as long as we get to. She’s going to get a physical check up at the vet’s to make sure everything is okay, because I am hyper aware that stopping out can be an early sign of pain.
- Placings, ribbons, results don’t matter to Vesper. She gives me what she’s got on a given day, and that is what I should be thankful for.
- Even though it felt like this show was our One Chance™ to have a go at this level, I don’t need to treat it like it was. Sure, life may change plans, but in the meantime I am going to ride like we are aiming for our next Training event.
- It was a horse show, not the apocalypse. There will be other horse shows, and very possibly (likely) other refusals.
- We both came through with no injuries and I am so thankful for that.
- We broke our dressage high score record!!!?!!!
- I need to get more jumping and XC lessons if I am going to succeed at Training. It’s no longer “just for fun”, it will require skill and discipline to ride at this level.
- Kids may not even happen right away. I’m not going to ease off riding until it actually becomes a reality.
- I was literally telling my husband AT THE SHOW that I will never ride at Prelim and I never want to. While typing this whole thing out, I decided that right now, I want to go Prelim someday. Or maybe just 3’6″+ jumpers… Those XC fences look mental and I like being alive, thanks.
A week after the show, I took Vesper on the first drag hunt of the season just to check in with her; I wanted to know if she was still feeling “the spark”, because there was a tiny part of me that worried deeply that I had ruined her passion for this sport. I needn’t have worried apparently, as she almost pulled blisters through my gloves she was having such fun! There were no obstacles to jump at the hunt, but that’s okay because I need time to rebuild my own confidence. We can work on that this winter if both of us are up to it. She felt so strong and forward, which convinced me that she was really tired on XC day at the show and just didn’t have the energy we needed at that level.
We have a visit back to the same show grounds scheduled for a couple of weeks away if the weather isn’t atrocious and the field stays open, and I have wormed my way into a lesson with a local trainer that I deeply respect and admire. I’m really looking forward to maybe schooling some elements that we struggled with this time – or at the very least bombing around some lower stuff just to rebuild our confidence. I’d love to have a go at some of the fences we never made it to on a day when Vesper is feeling fresh and strong.
Yes, it was really hard to end our season on an elimination in what is historically our strongest phase. But holy carp have we (I) come a long way! I still can’t wrap my head around it at times. I found this old photo, taken by the same friend Rachel at my very first 2 phase where we competed at Entry level back in 2016:
I can’t not cry looking at these side by side. This mare is my best girl, who made my dreams come true and gave me the confidence to chase new dreams that I had written off a long time ago. She’s almost 20 and I am so lucky to have the time with her that I have had. This is not the end for us, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds!