Posted by: shannonc | July 1, 2010

Why moving up is weird

Recently I have been forced to think hard about why it is I compete.

I think people do so, legitimately, for different reasons.  Roughly I think there are two main divisions:  those who are competitive with others and those who are competitive with themselves. 

I have always fallen into the latter category, probably in no small part because growing up I was castigated for anything less than blue ribbons and championships.  I did hunters on a pony who probably did not belong there.  I spent most of the time between my 11th and 13th birthdays kissing dirt (or, on occasion for variety, sand or grass) thanks to this pony.  I learned a hell of a lot about riding, but I did not collect a lot of championships, and thus I was constantly failing expectations.

It was easily 6 months before we stopped being eliminated at fence 1 in schooling shows.  In the next 3 years we progressed to doing outside courses, putting in the occasional 7 perfect hunter fences (“if only you hadn’t screwed up that 8th fence”), and taking home some equitation ribbons from rated shows including the Middleburg Nationals. 

There came an interesting point then at which the harder I worked, the less well we did.  When my instructor put me on horses who knew a bit more and could do a bit more, and I rode well, we did better than I’d ever done with the pony.

I was able to arrange a free lease with one of these horses so that showing him wouldn’t cost us any more.  But the answer was no.  And then one day my pony just disappeared and no one would say where he went.  I was 15.  The reason I was given was “you’re just going to be interested in boys soon anyway.” 

So, yeah, I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to valuing the relationships we have with our horses, and the journeys we take with them, over any 50-cent ribbons.  I hate it when the first and only thing someone asks me about a show is “what place did you get?”  Ask me if we had a good day, if we had fun, even how it went.  And if I answer the question I don’t like by saying “we finished 8th,” don’t look so crestfallen and tell me not to worry, we’ll do better next time, without knowing if I think we didn’t do well in the first place. 

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be sending back any ribbons that come my way, it’s fun to win, but that’s not the only thing that’s fun for me.  And my horses don’t know the difference anyway – they either come home having had a positive experience, or a negative one, end of story.

The culture of our sport does seem to be slowly changing and evolving toward a more ribbon-happy mentality.  Which is especially unfortunate since if you want to line your wall with ribbons, eventing is probably the wrong discipline for you, seeing as how you work all day or for several days toward one single final placing.

I do find that people who have brought a horse or two up through the levels tend to abandon the ribbon-hounding point of view for a more big-picture perspective.  I guess by that point we have all had some days we were just glad to stay safely on ;) – or as my friend Hilary says, “to have finished with a number and not a letter.”

I think my proudest moment so far has been a 15th place Prelim finish at a big, fancy event on a horse whom pretty much no one else had ridden since the age of 4.  I will take it over a wall full of N ribbons any day.  But that’s just me.

Some people do not believe in moving a horse up until they are reliably winning at their current level.  If I’d waited for that, I never would have seen that #15 at P.  Or any event at P.  I have a couple different rules of thumb when it comes to when to move a horse up.  One of them is when the fences start to look small and we start to feel bored at the level.  Another is when schooling the higher level is riding better than the one at hand.

It may sound strange, but sometimes the bigger questions just ride better than the smaller ones.  Blue was always like that because no amount of persuasion could convince him to respect a small fence.  As Lucinda Green once observed about him, “now that we are asking him to do something difficult, he is acting like he has a brain.”

How’s that for high praise?  ;)

I did not think the pony would fit into this category.  You know, Mr. I-Must-Understand-It-Thoroughly-Before-I-Will-Consent.  But for some reason, I tried it yesterday anyhow.

I rode the BN at Scarlet Hill’s xc derby and it was okay.  It was a world and a half better than last year’s Elementary, in which we recorded an average speed of something like 175 mpm.  We cantered the hills this time, we cantered into the water, we cantered the ditch.  We had a stop at a big barn-red coop.  It commenced with snorting at 50 feet and then proceeded like this:  snort, kick, prop, snort, smack, smack, snort, kick, skitter…all the way down to six feet from the base.  From there I had to coax him step by step close enough to sniff.  Snorting all the way :P

If he weren’t so darn cute, he’d be impossible :)

I found myself musing on the way back to the trailer about running the course again…but maybe at N.  I was a little bummed about the stop, but I think I was more unsettled about the ride – I felt that I was having a lot of trouble sitting in and riding forward.  Instead I felt I had to manage too much.  An internal discussion ensued, going something like:

“What business do you think you have trying N when you’re not even clear BN?”

“Not sure…but sometimes it’s surprising what works…”

Still vacillating, I picked up the N course map and went for a walk.  Fence 1, fine.  Fence 2, hmmm.  I wish I’d taken a photo because the BN and the N were adjacent and the N was easily 6 inches higher – it just looked like an extreme contrast.  Skipped over that for the time being and walked the rest.

Ultimately, I decided to ride a course foregoing 3 of the 16 or so N fences, replacing them with options.  The ones I was going to skip were fence 2, because it was big and right at the start, and two tables up the hill which were quite solid and a shape we haven’t encountered very much yet.  I knew it was my last time out xc before ENYDCTA and I didn’t want to risk starting something I might not be able to school through before the event.  In the latter part of the course I was going to ride all the N.

I happened to get back down there when it was deserted and Meredith offered for me to jump one of the small, 2′ Elem tables as a warmup.  Well, it was an ugly jump.  Hmm.  Good wake up call.

Off we went and oddly enough, the course rode brilliantly.  I was much happier with it than the BN run.  I felt like the bigger fences allowed me to focus on riding forward and not on arguing with him about the balance.  And when that pony gives me airtime – it is so much fun!

He still needs to feel more confident, especially at certain questions.  But it’s coming along faster than I thought it would.  Strange!



  1. I of course agree with you, it’s all about the experience. I love you! xo

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