Thursday, March 24, 2011

Aiken - the ultimate time warp

(No I can't stick my behind in the air any higher!)

Thirty days literally flew by in the blink of an eye. I can't believe that I am once again back in my house, blogging with my dog passed out next to me... with the heat on. Here goes my recount of the wonderful experience that was Aiken...

The hardest part about packing for Aiken was de-stinkbuging the trailer. Being the clever person that I am, I thought that keeping everything in closed containers in the trailer would eliminate the wretched creature’s ability to infest all of my saddle pads, wraps, blankets, boots, etc. I was very wrong. It seems that stinkbugs are sneakier than I thought, and somehow I found hundreds of stinkbug carcasses all over/in/around my trailer and dressing room. And when I say carcass, I mean that most of them were dead or hibernating, but there were definitely some of the hardier variety that tried to avoid my soapy water bucket of death. And in typical Courtney fashion, I started this entire process the day before our scheduled Aiken departure. So there were no breaks, no running away from the horrid smell these little suckers gave off when I picked them up. Instead my task was to go through every inch of the trailer and find these little creatures...this includes unwrapping ALL of my wraps, standing bandages, polos (they manage to get under each individual layer of the wrap), opening all the folding chairs (pretty sure that I found a nest of stinkbugs), looking in the pockets of my show jackets, inside the armpit of my shadbelly, and searching through each inch of blankets and towels I had foolishly left hanging up in the trailer. If I had a dime for every stinkbug I found, I'm pretty sure I would have been more than fine for gas money — at least for the way down to Aiken. But enough with the stinkbugs, I am sure that there will be another blog post about them when they come into full force during the warmer the billions. Gross.

On to Aiken... after making my "Aiken list" and checking it twice, I was pretty sure I had everything I could possibly need for our short stay. Everything from extra shoes, extra feed buckets, duct tape, and hairnets. Our trip down was pretty uneventful except that it was long and thank god for XM radio because that is the only way that I was able to stay alert and entertained all by my lonesome.

I was fortunate enough to stay at the beautiful facility, Jumping Branch Farm. JBF has a full XC course from tadpole to preliminary, dressage rings, show jumping courses, lots of areas to hack, a racing track, and the best thing... a sand road! It was great because I could use the track for gallops, and the long, hilly Fox Pond Road for long trot sets. Our first order of business (after unpacking) was to get Deacon ready for his debut at Full Gallop Farm. This involved a full body clip, show clip, mane pulling, tail trimming, tack scrubbing — the whole nine yards. I somehow managed to pull this out in the POURING rain ... but no complaining from me because it was a warm pouring rain! Deacon's dressage was a bit lacking, we had two minor blowups — one when he was certain that I was having a blonde moment because we canter NOW. Oh well we cannot always be perfect. Friend and instructor Richard Lamb was running the show jumping, so after watching about 20 rounds, and having a beautiful warm-up, Richard called for us to enter the ring. Boy did Deacon feel fabulous! We hit every spot beautifully until I did a wonderful little rollback and promptly forgot that number 9 typically comes between 8 and 10. Fortunately I noticed this mistake before I jumped into the triple, but not before I was given a technical stop (for crossing my tracks) and time penalties. Oh well, this month is for dusting off cobwebs, right? Hopefully I will not have to do that again. Because of the downpour the day before cross-country was incredibly sloppy, and it became very clear very fast that I did not have the right size studs in. Deacon really showed his true colors by saving our behinds at several fences (it seemed that every combination was downhill). Unfortunately we have a blip early on and literally slid into the fourth fence, so I came back and represented... a disappointing day on paper but it was incredibly helpful to get back into the swing of things.

Things really did not let up as Sporting Days was just four days later, where Deacon was running his first preliminary level horse trials. Our dressage scored better by eight or so points and one unlucky rail in show jumping. Deacon's entire schedule was centered on using Sporting Days as a move-up because it is one of the few events on the East coast that is generally very forgiving and you typically don't see anything too out of the ordinary. I guess it has been a while since I have had a preliminary horse because I was really taken aback by how difficult the "easy Area III" event was: you had to gallop past warm-up between fences two and three, fence 7 was a really tough downhill ABC ditch combination, a chevron, ABCD water combination, and a corner. Deacon started off great, it felt that with each fence he was getting more confident! Then we got to fence 7 the ditch combination. His jump over the maxed out table at A was a bit hairy, he scrambled over the B ditch, and just got too underneath the C element ... and just like that 20 points. But boy did this horse jump everything else like a champion! By the time we got to the corner (the third to last fence) he was on cruise control. I know that I still have a lot of work left to do with this horse, but we are definitely on the right track!

So after a chaotic first week of prepping Deacon for his first events, getting Willy ridden, unpacking the horses, unpacking me, then frantically searching for other living arrangements for myself — the Aiken adventure began in complete disarray. But after Sporting Days and finding a new home thanks to Colleen and Richard this began to settle into a rhythm. At this point the Aiken learning curve began. I found out the best places to eat, grocery shop, rent movies, where to steal the best internet, and most importantly which laundry mat was horse friendly. I also began taking lessons from Sally Cousins to get in a solid jumping school on each horse, and Richard Lamb to do a bit of flatwork and gymnastics. It was incredibly fortunate that my coach while I was living in North Carolina, Holly Hudspeth, was also staying at JBF with several students (Holly is out of commission since she is very much pregnant!) So I had the opportunity to take a fabulous dressage lesson with her on Willy.

After a very busy week of taking lessons, XC schooling, and fitness work, both horses were headed to Pine Top II Horse Trials. Willy was more than eager to get off the farm (he sulked every time Deacon got on the trailer without him), and Deacon needed to post a clean cross-country. The weekend started off very early with Willy's dressage, and HOLY COW did he warm up fabulously. I actually had people come over to me and congratulate me on how great he looked on the flat. Our wonderful supple and quiet way of going evaporated as soon as Willy took a step down centerline. But this time I could not really blame him — the rings were frozen! The footing was nothing better than concrete, and Willy was not happy about it. He immediately became short and choppy, and was not at all inclined to move forward and give me medium gaits. His dressage score showed exactly that — good but not great. Satisfactory but nothing special. Rats! We have been working so hard and go figure nothing to show for it! Isn't that always the way with horses? Willy's show jumping round was absolutely spectacular; he almost seemed bored over the tough course. He was fabulous on cross-country as well, until we had a bit of a cheeky moment coming out of the water over a corner. I saw the distance from about five strides out, and tilted my shoulders forward like a champ. DING DING DING that is the perfect way to ask the pony to stop. So after our "blonde moment" runout, I represented and off we went to finish the course in fine form. So well in fact that we still ended up in 8th place!

Deacon's day started out very much like Willy's - not very fun. He was a bit excited (I think he is finally figuring out what his job is all about), and then was none too happy when he had to perform in a frozen arena. The show jumping at Pine Top is always difficult — the course is built in a small grassy area on the side of a hill, so terrain is always a factor. For Deacon's inexperience at this level I was really thrilled he handled the course as well as he did ... a rookie mistake at the maxed out downhill oxer, and two rails in the uphill triple (I will take some blame for those...I set him up a bit too much for the first element). But Deacon really earned his keep on the cross-country course...posting a clean round! And not only was his round clean, it was beautiful and really fun to ride! It turns out that Deacon is the easiest horse to ride cross-country because he does everything for you! All you have to do is keep your leg on and he does the rest, half-halts included! It really is fabulous.

So not a great start out for team DGE. Back to the drawing board - this sport is so humbling! Just when I thought I did all of my homework, spent my dwindling dollars on top-notch lessons, and made sure my horses were in top form... the stars just do not align. Not to get discouraged... just time to up our game

Our next outing was Paradise Farm. Paradise is a tricky event, not only because it spans over three days but also because the dressage rings are quite deep, the cross country is very challenging, and the show jumping (when on the grass hill) has taken victims left and right. After a week of hacking, dressage schooling, and lesson with Sally Cousins, Deacon was ready to go. His dressage test was definitely improved, but he was a bit fussy at times, although our dress was very much impressed with our leg yields. Earning eights! Cross-country looked TOUGH! The course started out with some seriously BIG fences, but designed to allow horses to establish a good pace. The first question on course was an ABC ditch combination. The ditch was followed closely by a downhill rolltop to corner combination, then a skinny to a HUGE drop, followed by a bounce bank to skinny telephone. These intense questions were followed by the water combination and then finally a very tight two stride offset combination. Boy, Deacon better have his "big boy pants" on for this course, because the questions really never let up - no time for green-bean moments. Thankfully all of my hard work and preparation finally paid off! Deacon had a foot perfect cross-country run. He was a bit fresh in warm-up and it took me the entire twenty minutes to really get him focusing on my aids (and not on the horses galloping around the course). But the moment he stepped into the box, he was all business. He exploded out of the box into a forward gallop, attacked the gallop fences and immediately set into a rhythm. The ditch combination was a bit of a squeak (Mental note - LEG after the 'A' element of ditch combinations, Courtney!) but after a little encouragement from my battle weapon, Deacon took the hint and stayed in front of my leg. The only other bobble on course was the massive drop, which was midway around the course. Deacon was really confident by this point, so my feeble attempts at half-halts were largely disregarded. He jumped boldly in over the skinny, and was great to the drop until he realized just how big it was! Our forward momentum over the "A" element kept us going down the drop, even though Deacon thought about backpedaling at the last minute... muhahaha. Deacon finished cross-country in fine form...clean and fast. The next day, I noticed some redness on the back of Deacon's pasterns. I tacked him up and started our show jumping warm-up, but he didn't feel 100% sounds so I decided to scratch. As I have said before... when my horses do not feel absolutely perfect, they do not run!

So I came back to Jumping Branch thrilled that my horse performed so beautifully, but worried as to what was making Deacon uncomfortable. On Monday I noticed that Willy's legs were just like Deacon's! Warm and swollen from their pastern to about half way up their cannon! YIKES! After a frantic call into the vet, it appears that both of my horses have very sensitive skin, so sensitive that the constant exposure to sand caused this high level of irritation, go figure! The vet's solution - SMZs and tube socks! Both horses had to be turned out and ridden in tube socks to avoid extended exposure to the sand. And if you are wondering, men's size 6-12 works just fine for horses with small/medium-sized cannons, just remember to cut off the toe!

After just two days, both boys were back to normal and we got the vet's ok to continue onward to the big Pine Top. But before our Pine Top adventure, we were scheduled to take lessons with the great Kim Severson- Olympic silver medalist, multiple Rolex winner, her list of accomplishments would make this blog post more ridiculously long. I begged and pleaded enlisted Kim’s help particularly for the pony’s dressage work, which has also been a “work in progress”, but I thought she could also provide some insight into pushing Deacon’s flatwork to the next level. I had no idea what I was in for. I was a bit nervous right off the back because well it is KIM SEVERSON and Willy especially is not known for his fabulous flatwork. After two hours of almost non-stop work, the boys and I were exhausted. But I came away from the lessons with a large bag of tools and higher expectations for my flatwork. After just one lesson on each horse I felt like I was on the brink of a huge breakthrough, so I made the decision to stay for three days following the big Pine Top to continue taking lessons with Kim. But I am getting ahead of myself…

And here we are to the climax of my Aiken journey, Pine Top. The weekend itself was already somewhat of a letdown because Willy and I weren’t contesting our first advanced event, but rather another refresher intermediate outing. Of course my times were ridiculously close together and with no help it was going to be a challenging weekend! Willy warmed up beautifully and continued to be soft and relaxed through his trot work. Things were looking pretty good until I asked for the medium canter. The key there is “asked”, one does not “ask” the pony for medium canter but rather allows it to happen. Wrong button Courtney. So Willy dropped his back and went GALLOPING across the arena (in the double bridle no less), it was everything I could do to finish the test in some sense of control. The good news was that our trot work scored consistent 6’s and 7’s that is the makings of a solid test for Willy…the canter work, not so much (ironic because we normally score well at the canter). Deacon warmed up well, luckily Kim was in the warm-up so she helped me get him back on track, I was ready to go into the ring when the steward asked me to wait because they were changing the ring next to mine a small ring (rather than a standard). After an additional 10 minutes I was allowed to trot around my arena, and began my test. Solid movements earning 8’s. Awesome. Then as I was leg yielding over the judge to ask for my canter depart, THE GOLF CART used for hauling the extra letters and chains from the ring next to me went in-between my ring and the judge’s car…literally inches away from us. ARG! Our test from that point on was distracted and well, not very good.

Show jumping was big and technical, which is to be expected from Pine Top. Willy was the last intermediate horse to jump, and boy did he feel great! He jumped fabulously and just had one unlucky rail in the triple combination. Deacon was up next and oh lord I was not sure what to expect. Boy did he surprise me. He jumped beautifully! I had been really working on his show jumping with Sally Cousins, riding him a bit slower and rounder to give him more time to pick up his toes! I was so very happy with both of my boys, but the cross-country was going to be very difficult for both horses. But both boys came through for me posting double clear cross-country rounds. Willy moved up to 9th place and Deacon moved up to 8th. Not a bad weekend to end on for my boys!

Our last week in Aiken was filled with more lessons with Kim Severson, and I hope to team up with Kim again shortly after she returns from running at the Fork. The boys are enjoying a mini vacation, and will be back in action soon gearing up for runs at Plantation Field in mid-April. Until then!