The relationship between horse and rider in eventing is unlike any other sport. While eventing demands the obedience of dressage, the horse must think for itself. While it requires the carefulness of a show jumper, the horse must be equal parts bold. But greater than any trait horses are born with, successful event horses must trust their riders more than they trust their instincts. Cross-country is unique to eventing, and it requires a horse to trust that the lake its rider asks it to leap into is shallow, and that the drop jump into the horizon will have land on the other side.
They say that if you throw your heart over the fence, the horse will follow. But they don’t mention that it takes years to develop that kind of partnership. I just started on the long journey this past September when I bought a new off-the-track Thoroughbred, Khaleesi, or “Lizzie,” after seeing a couple of YouTube videos.
I bought Lizzie sight unseen from Hillside Haven Farm, which selects high quality OTTBs, gives them down time, and then starts them on a new career for resale. Lizzie had only been ridden under saddle a few times since racing, but she did have a free jump video.
I asked Megan to jump her under saddle, and she sent me a video of her jumping a few cross-rails in a field. I was hooked. I loved her expression and her ability to problem solve. I was thrilled to find a horse with all the pieces I could hope for, but I knew the burden now fell on me to produce a partnership. Lizzie was delivered to my doorstep on Sept. 1 of last year, and our journey began.
Bringing along a young horse reminds me of that “Whack-A-Mole” game at the arcade. As soon as you deal with the first mole, another one rears its head. For the first five months, my only priority with Lizzie was getting her strong and balanced enough to canter. Literally.
We did not successfully canter a circle until the end of January, and I was OK with that. Then she tagged along with Trance on the annual trip to Aiken, and I just wanted to get her exposed to the hustle and bustle of the event world. After lots of cross-country schooling days, jump schools and schooling shows, we entered our first event on March 3 at beginner novice. Lizzie was a star in all three phases and finished on her dressage score to get third in a big division. “That was easy!” I thought to myself. But oh…horses are like the mole game…
Thrilled with her big debut and excited to have a horse to campaign this spring, I entered her in a novice at the end of March. I worked hard with combined tests and schooling days to prepare her, and she went in ready. The dressage was tense, but she still scored well. The show jumping, however, was one of those lovely rounds where the rails just came down. She had FOUR rails. The mare had never had a SINGLE rail at any of the many schooling shows she had done, so that was a bit surprising. Not one to be fazed, I continued onward to the cross country, where she smoked around only to come to a screeching halt at the water where we then danced for about a minute. We got through it, and finished our course, but with a whopping eight million penalty points and a glorious 16 out of 16 finish.
So I then entered a turbo phase of the mole game, where both the show jumping mole and the water mole popped up at the same time and I only had a few weeks until the next show. I made sure she walked in water every single day. If I trailered somewhere, I found water. If I stayed home, I hacked to a creek crossing. She wasn’t being bad about water; she just did not trust me enough yet to realize I would never ask her to walk into a lake filled with alligators.
I stocked up on lessons with Skyeler Icke Voss for the show jumping, and we really worked with Lizzie to sort out her balance. In September, Lizzie was a downhill 16 hands. Now, she is an uphill almost 16.3. So part of her recent issues in technique are her growth and the changes in balance. We worked diligently to help her hone her skills but kept her confidence as the biggest priority. I also stuck to my weekly flat lessons with Kim Severson, who does a wonderful job of making sure Lizzie has the correct fundamentals on the flat (and that I gain some control over my body). Lizzie stayed game for the challenge and seemed to love the intensity of the work.
I went out on Apr. 27-28 at the Loudoun Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials (Va.) hoping to simply finish with a confident horse and a score less than eight billion. I finally put together the pieces Kim has been working with me on, and we did a lovely test for a 28.5, which is actually the best score I have ever had on the flat at an event.
I then gave her lots of encouraging words and pats and we went into the show jumping, where she rubbed one solidly, but they all stayed up despite a couple awkward leaps. I’ll take it!
Off to the cross-country we marched, and she galloped like the giant gazelle she is and went RIGHT into the water. What a star! She came home with a pink ribbon in a big open division, but more importantly, she came home proud of herself. For the first time when she left the start box she took me to the fences, which is a feeling Trance didn’t get the hang of until after a few training level events. I was proud of her, and Lord knows she was proud of herself.
This will be a key year for our partnership. To be a great event horse, she has to learn to trust me. I am sure we will have many more moles pop up this year, and I am certain the water might still be an issue at points.
Looking forward, it is my responsibility to know when to press her and when to hack for a few weeks, when to push to finish a course and when to know it might not be our day, when to move her up and when to hang out for a while at a level.
No matter what, I must always remember that the majority of our issues will stem from trust. And you can’t hurry that. Ultimately, I have to gain her trust by my responsible riding. I can never ask her to jump something she is not ready for, or put her in a situation that is too risky. Only by continually having positive experiences can the spooky babies become the thunderously confident upper level mounts.
In this sport we aren’t in the business of producing “yes ma’am” horses, or horses that jump cross-country out of fear of the whip. We are in the business of producing educated and willing partners, knowing they will someday have to save us from our own mistakes on course. Like any long relationship, the years will be full of tears and cheers, and it is all part of the journey.
In the end, I am an eventer because I fell in love with the sport and the partnership it exemplifies. I can only hope that through patience and guidance Lizzie will come to love the sport in the way all eventers do, and find a home here as so many of us have.
One of the Chronicle's newest bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Junior & Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.