Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let the Games Begin

I've returned from Florida after completing Rocking Horse Winter I! It was amazing. I finally understand why everyone makes the trek down to Florida to compete during the winter. The weather is beautiful, the skies are blue, the footing is so perfect that Dante ran XC for the first time in his life without any studs.

(A couple of unflagged XC jumps set in a small thicket of Spanish Moss.)

Of course, my weekend began Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at Love Field in Dallas, only to discover my flight had been delayed 40 minutes. This was worrying as I only had 35 minutes to make my connection in New Orleans. Luckily, many people on my flight were headed for Orlando, and so Southwest delayed the flight from New Orleans to Orlando so that we could all make our connection. We ended up making up much of the time in the air, and ended up only 10 minutes behind schedule. I figured, ok, we'll be taking off for Orlando in maybe 45 minutes. Hurrying to my gate, I was dismayed to see that my flight had been delayed...for an hour and a half.

This meant I arrived in Orlando at midnight, and my friend Jessica and I did not arrive back at Rocking Horse until 1:30 am, finally going to sleep at 2 am. I was to jump Dante at 8 am on Thursday, and so ended up getting up at 6:30am because of my unfamiliarity with the facility and trying to find all my stuff before my lesson. Dante felt fantastic during our jump lesson after he spooked at the egrets, the barrels on the ground, and the warm-up crossrail. He had a wonderful canter that felt like a coiled spring.

We then came back and I had a dressage lesson (brief) in the late morning. Dante again felt wonderful after the warm-up, and my confidence for a good dressage test on Friday morning was high. I wasn't necessarily hoping for a high placing, considering I was competing against many 3* horses and 4* riders, and even against my own assistant trainer on her fabulous Slate River (headed for Rolex later this spring) and Buck Davidson on his Ballynoecastle RM. My goal for this show was to compete against my previous tests and to score in the very low 40s or high 30s. Oh, and preferably not be last after dressage. :-)

Jessica and I walked the cross country course later in the day. It was helpful to walk the course with a friend who is currently running Advanced on her horse...she was able to say, 'oh that's not too big' when I felt my eyes were bugging out at the size of the fence. She even provided a long established nickname for the largest jump on the course, a very large table she called the BAT.

(Jessica stands next to the BAT...short for Big A** Table.)

Particularly interesting was the Irish bank, which came right after another particularly large table. After jumping the table, you turned left to the Irish bank, which was large enough that I could barely even see the tops of the flags on the third element while standing on the ground in from of it. In fact, in my photo, you can't see the flags at all. A couple of the other riders were worried about it, but I had the advantage of having ridden the Prelim Irish bank at Pine Hill, which Dante had handled easily.

(The view from the front of the Irish bank. What you can't see are the flags for C on the other side.)

We also had a pretty challenging first corner question with an angled skinny question, three strides to the corner. You could choose to do either to do the left side or the right side, which were identical questions. However, the right side was slightly friendlier. We also had a pretty challenging first water complex, with a hut, one stride to a set of logs mounted to the top of a bank to create a big drop into the water, then four strides through the water to a rolltop. I was incredibly glad we had practiced the drop question a week before at Gold Chip. As a result, I felt excited rather than nervous about the drop. The Intermediate course also had a set of tables with a bending four strides between, a rolltop then run into water, turning to a wedge out of the water, a set of angled skinnies set two strides apart, and a relatively easy coffin near the end.

Friday dawned slightly chilly as I prepared to ride dressage. I was very thankful that I was riding right before Heather and Roe, rather than right after. It's always intimidating to know you are following an excellent test! For the first time, I didn't feel nervous as I circled the ring, and neither did Dante. I think Dante and I easily put in our best Intermediate test to date! We scored a 40.4, which accomplished our goal. Although I was slightly disappointed with the score, I felt better after reading the judges comments (or trying to!). She wanted more angle in our haunches in (which is on our list of things to work on), more uphill medium canter (also on our list), and more uphill downward transitions, specifically the canter to walk and trot to halt (which is something that we began working on last week). I think she really nailed what we need to work on. I also received a 7 on rider position, the first time I have gotten a 7 since competing above Training. I'm very happy that working on my position is paying off. I still have a lot of work to go, but I feel much more correct already than I did before. Dante also received a 7 for freedom and regularity of gaits, which is great because it tells me he was relaxed enough to show off his gaits.

After dressage, I got ready for show jumping. When we walked the course, we found that almost every fence had a related distance....a long one. Dante has a twelve foot stride, but these were walking with more of a thirteen foot stride, except for the triple combination. Dante warmed up well, but he was spooking initially at the warm-up fences, and he didn't have the coiled stride that we'd had the day before. I really need to work to find a way to translate that coiled stride from lessons into the show ring. Anyways, we went into the ring, and I thought that we had a big enough stride. The very first line was the first fence then six bending, slightly forward strides to a vertical then four very forward strides to another vertical. Unfortunately, I did not have a large enough stride for the very first distance and we got there in six and a half and he punched through the rail. Somehow he then put five strides in and managed to get over the second vertical, and I figured out stride needed, so we jumped the rest of the course clear. However, it felt a bit strung out and flat, so I'm thinking now about ways to translate that coiled stride to the show ring, as I stated before.

(Look at those blue skies!)

After show jumping, I checked out the crepe vendor and the photo booth, finding a great stadium course. Jessica and I walked the cross country course for a third time then watched some Prelim show jumping.

I woke up on Saturday extremely nervous. I hadn't ridden cross country in almost nine months, since early May at Greenwood. This course was definitely bigger and more technical than any Intermediate I had ridden before (at Greenwood and Holly Hill), and I was wondering if maybe I should have entered the IP instead. I hadn't wanted to do that though, because many people told me Ocala was REALLY big and technical, so I felt I needed another Intermediate before tackling Ocala. I knew my horse was ready and could handle it; Dante is a cross country machine. I was wondering if I was mentally ready.

Deciding that I needed to stop thinking so hard about it and to just do it, I spent the morning watching some Training show jumping and trying to keep my mind off my ride later. I must have succeeded, as before I knew it, I was in the warm up and Dante was perfect. A few minutes later I was in the start box and off we went.

Dante was a total rock star, as usual. I needn't have worried. The course rode amazingly well. Don't get me wrong, we had a couple of tight spots and at least one spot that I would ride completely differently if I rode it again. I'll start with the bad so I can end with the good

The bad: We almost missed the third jump completely. It was set off a sharp right turn after a decent gallop and Dante was very focused on galloping in a straight line. After we relearned turning on that turn, he was pretty good about it the rest of the course.

The corner complex was tricky to read. It was the first real question in the course, the adrenaline wasn't pumping as much yet. Jessica had warned me after her ride that the horses had a slightly hard time reading the first part, the angled skinny. Sure enough, Dante felt hesitant there, although he jumped it fine. Not sure what I could do differently there, but I was happy that he jumped it despite not being sure.

I gave Dante a very bad ride at the second water complex. I was confident that he would be confident since he'd already been through the first water, it was a much easier than the first in, and it was a small rolltop. However, he was backing up the entire way to the rolltop and ended up practically crawling over it. I should have given him a confident, strong ride up to it and instead I sat there and hoped he would figure it out. In retrospect, I think he was backing because he always backs up at water, there was a sharp line where the new neon grass began about a stride before the rolltop, and I think he may have been slightly shell shocked from the first water and wondering if he was going to have that big drop again. Next time, don't stop riding!

The good: The attitude Dante came roaring out of the start box with. He was armed and ready for this course, and he tackled it like a champ.

All of the giant tables that Dante leaped over as if they were nothing. This included the mushroom table before the Irish bank, the several staircases on course, the skinny table near the end, and most notably the BAT. I found good strides to all of them too, which I was happy with. I have a great memory of making the turn t the BAT and knowing instantly that I had a good stride, good pace and impulsion, and then the feeling of the giant leap Dante gave me over it. It was amazing.

The ease with which Dante tackled the Irish bank. Irish banks are something the rider can't really help much with, other than getting a good stride to the base. They pretty much have to sit tight while the horse figures it out. Dante had jumped the one at Pine Hill, but this one was much more intimidating. My spot was maybe very slightly longer than I would have preferred, but Dante had no problem figuring out the question.

The ride I gave Dante through the first water complex and the way he responded. We came around to the first part and he back off slightly, his usual response to the sight of water. I rode him forward over the first element, and rode him forward through the one stride, tapping him once behind my leg and he took the one stride beautifully and dropped nicely into the water. Mike had warned me that the complex was riding slightly sticky, with a lot of horses chipping in, so I think it was great to have a good ride there.

The two large tables with the turning four strides between the tables. Slowed down from the gallop a few strides before the first table, jumped center to center with a perfect four strides.

The coffin rode well. Got a slightly short stride to the first element, but Dante handled it, jumped the ditch and made a nice turning three strides to the last skinny. Didn't really expect anything different because Dante has always handled coffins like a champ, but still, good to do it well once again.

Dante's fitness level was higher than I thought. I hadn't done any fitness work with him except a couple of 6 min slow gallops the Saturday before, so I had planned to let him pick his own pace. Well, that chosen pace was fast and try as I could, I couldn't really get him to slow down except before the fences. Smart horse. So we ended up only 8 seconds slow, which was the third fastest time in my division. I was worried about him cooling down, but he cooled down pretty quickly. All of this is good, as he will only get fitter now. I think I can go for time at Ocala.

In the end, I finished in 7th place. If I had finished on my dressage score, I would have been 3rd. I'm very thrilled with how this weekend went. :-)

I've added a couple pictures of Dante and I from this weekend on the gallery on my website. Probably won't update until after Ocala though, because the only thing I have going in the meantime is school and working out. Gotta keep in shape somehow without the pony here!

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