I started my horse search in September of 2006, and on January 2, 2007 I wrote a check for a 2002 chestnut thoroughbred gelding named Aiken Pike, hoping he would take me through Preliminary.
Boy, was I wrong.
Dante and I have officially competed from BN through Advanced together as of Saturday. He has never been competed by another rider. I have never ridden above Novice on another horse.
He jumped so over the shoulder at the Training level that the move up to Prelim was a leap of faith that he needed bigger fences to be impressed.
Then I thought he would top out at Prelim, thanks to his habit of always tap-tapping the biggest tables on the cross country course. At our first Intermediate, I missed to the third fence, a huge table, and he took off long and just soared over it without a sweat. Dante only ever jumped as big as he needed; he always jumped as big as he needed.
I stopped worrying about scope.
When the horse absolutely ate up the course at Jersey Fresh, my coach and I knew he could run around the Advanced. We waited until winter to move up so we could try to get my CCI** qualifier in the fall, but were thwarted when Dante spiked a 104 fever the day before XC at Galway and were forced to withdraw.
This weekend was one of the best of my life. I had never dreamed that Dante would take me to Advanced, and to be honest, no one else did either. He was the horse no one thought would even do Prelim. Now he just finished on his dressage score at his (and my) first Advanced. What an incredible journey.
Dressage was one of the better tests in recent memory. His trot work really felt lovely, and the judge generally agreed with me, scoring it with 6's and 7's and positive comments. I need to bring his frame up a bit more for Advanced, but otherwise his trot work was fantastic. Unfortunately he became quite wound up in the copious amounts of walk, and we picked up the wrong lead to canter. I made the mistake of fixing it through a lead change instead of walking and cantering again. Our half passes were decent except for the right canter half pass which was haunches trailing a bit. One change was quite good, the other a bit crooked. The medium canter came at the very end, and I basically lost control through it. He ran through my requests to slow down, ran around the short end of the arena, swapped leads before our ten meter circle onto the centerline, swapped back, then swapped again right before the halt.
Obviously, relaxation is still an issue.
However, it was a much better test than it could have been, and I was extremely pleased with his trot work. I did breathe a sigh of relief to see my score was a 44.10, as scores were a bit high at first and I was worried about getting a qualifying thanks to Dante's undesired additions to the test. Luckily, the trot work saved the test.
After our 9 am dressage test, I then had to wait until almost 4 pm to ride stadium. This gave me a chance to watch the Intermediate and Preliminary show jumping, who both had similar courses. The design of the course was quite good, with lots of tight turns with options to go outside or inside certain fences. I got on early enough to watch the first few riders in my division jump, and saw that unless you took at least two inside turns, you would have time penalties. There were three main options for inside turns, only one of which I definitely planned on. I decided to go ahead and do my second choice as well so long as the jump before wasn't a flier.
During warm up, Dante felt absolutely amazing. I moved up to a good distance to a big oxer, and he jumped me out of the saddle. I only jumped about five jumps total before I headed over for my turn. In the ring, it seemed that the chatter died down as I cantered to the start. There had not yet been any clear rounds, although my stable mate Sidney had gotten an extremely cheap rail at the final oxer when her horse barely breathed on it. As I made the turn to the first fence, I took a deep breath and briefly closed my eyes. Opening them, I saw my spot and rode to it.
The rest of the course flowed like water. Every turn I rode according to plan, every line I made the right decision. Every spot simply came to me. I didn't try to push Dante into any frame, and let him be between the fences. He rewarded me with fabulous jumps at every fence. Halfway through the course, I noticed how hushed the audience had become. It seemed that I could hear every whisper of Dante's hooves through the air.
Over the final fence, I could hear Dante ever so slightly brush the rail. As I landed, I held my breath, listening for the rail to fall. There was a moment of silence, and then there was a great cheer from the crowd as Dante and I delivered the first clear round of the day. It was the kind of round that brought tears to my eyes because it was so perfect. As I exited the ring, the first thing I see is my coach with a huge grin on his face and his hand up to give me a high five. I exclaimed, "That was freaking awesome!" and gave him the high five. I knew without asking there was nothing about that round that could have made it better.
I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.
So many people came up to me to tell me how lovely my round was that I lost count. I was so unbelievably proud of my horse, but I was also incredibly proud of myself, which is a rare occurrence. I usually think of something that could have been better, or know there was one fence where he saved my ass. That show jumping round was the culmination of a five year partnership, where we each delivered perfectly. On that round, we moved from 20th to 8th.
I was so happy about that round, that I almost forgot to be nervous for cross country the next day. I was much less worried about the XC, simply because that is Dante's forte. He is so dominant in that phase, and to be honest, I expected nothing less than a clear round.
Of course Dante delivered.
The course was quite technical, but extremely fair, with nice striding everywhere. He was a little surprised at the Weldon's Wall appearing at the third fence, but jumped it with encouragement. At the double corners, which came sixth, he was quite green, wiggling heavily through the middle. I knew he would jump it though, and guided him accordingly. At the angles and the coffin he was fantastic. The turning tables were a mistake on my part. I uncharacteristically forgot that his stride lengthens quite a lot outside the ring, and rode the turning tables on the inside track, getting there on three and three quarters of a stride. Dante packed a tight one in to make the four and I apologized to him for my doubt. He jumped the trakehner great, and then we headed to the first water which was a hanging log, six strides to a log drop in, four across to a bank out and bounce to a large brush.
Knowing Dante's habit of backing off to water and taking an extra peek, I rode him solidly forward after the log, determined to make the six and not allow him to chip in for the seven. Apparently he no longer looks at water, as we did it in a forward five, landing closer to the bank than I thought we would. Halfway through the water, I felt him hesitate upon seeing the bounce, which ended up putting us off the bank a bit. Dante knew what to do though, and took off while I basically grabbed mane, jumping the bounce like it was nothing.
(Dante leaps over the log to the first water.)
The next big question was the sunken road, a bounce down to a one stride, up and then two strides to a wedge slightly offset. I basically aimed Dante at the wedge from the beginning and then held on as he navigated the question. I was pretty much exactly on my minute markers, and I could feel him tiring slightly at the fifth. He jumped through the second water well, but I could feel his jump form lacking as we jumped the out. Luckily there were only two more easy fences, so we cruised to the finish. I checked my watch and was happy to find it reading 5:52, which was optimum time. I knew I had started it slightly late, so thought I came in one or two seconds over time.
The humidity was pretty oppressive, and Dante didn't really start to recover until I began hosing him off. Luckily, he recovered quite quickly after that, which is his typical reaction to humidity. I began icing him, and checking the results.
When I later discovered I had finished fourth, I was ecstatic. I was a little surprised to see that they calculated my time as 5:05 though. I knew there was no way I was that close. The TD later ended up coming to my coach to ask about the time, but he knew I hadn't been anywhere near that. The TD discovered a math mistake and found that my time was actually 5:53, exactly what I had guessed. Still, I had to continuously fend off comments about my incorrect time, including doing some damage control on Eventing Nation and the Chronicle Forums.
At the end of the weekend, I felt that this show could not have better highlighted the incredible partnership that Dante and I have. We've been together for five years and we've taken every first step together. I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings.