On the road to the holy grail of horse trials

Cassie Astle takes a ride on Dundee.
Cassie Elia | BDN
Cassie Astle takes a ride on Dundee.
Posted Sept. 13, 2013, at 1:08 p.m.

This year was going to be different as I planned to complete all three phases of the Foxcroft Horse Trials with Dundee. Last year, he was apprehensive about the stadium jumping course, and we were eliminated after his third refusal.

When Dundee and I arrived for the trials, it was a bit raw and rainy. That worried me because wet grass can make the footing slippery for jumping. However, dressage was first but as I warmed Dundee up before the test, he seemed distracted. He was excited but not paying enough attention to me.

Things didn’t get better as we headed to the competition arena, and Dundee felt a strong gravitational pull back toward his horse trailer. I managed to get his body to move around the ring, but his eyeballs and brain were taking a different route. Technically, he was doing as I asked, trotting circles, making transitions, cantering on the correct lead, but we were lacking harmony and cadence. Dressage isn’t judged just on whether you get all the movements in the right order, but how well they are executed, just like a figure skater scored for technical and artistic elements. If Dundee and I were artistic, it was surely abstract.

Knowing I could have done much better, I left the dressage arena discouraged and decided not to look at the leaderboard for my score. Dressage in horse trials is scored on penalty points, and like golfing, a low score is best. The test is scored by the judge on positive points but then the score is converted using an equation into penalty points. Good scores would be on either side of 25, while great scores would be in the teens.

Knowing I wasn’t going to hit “good,” I just left it alone.

Next up was the cross country jumping. For my division, there were 19 obstacles with a maximum height of 2 feet and 11 inches. Three feet might not seem tall when looking at a toddler, but facing a solid wall on a galloping horse — which may or may not decide to jump over it — can be rather daunting.

Jumping is not my area of expertise. Or we could just say I’m chicken. Going pell mell across the country side was fun when I was a fearless teeeanger, but as an adult with an active imagination, a business to run and a child to raise, it creates a murky mess of worst case scenarios.

Walking the course, I felt like I was going to need every ounce of determination I could muster.

Dundee would most likely go if I told him, but every once in awhile, he fools me, changes flight paths, and abruptly avoids the jump altogether. I guess he and I are just two chickens in a pod.

While getting dressed for this next phase, I ran the course over and over in my head so I wouldn’t get lost, and I’d have some positive mental imagery in my mind. Dressing for cross country includes boots and a helmet, but also wearing a protective vest and a medical ID card strapped to the rider’s arm.

You know a sport means business when you have to have your medical information strapped to your arm to participate.

In the warm up field prior to the cross country, Dundee just didn’t feel connected. I had a bit on his bridle that I wasn’t sure he liked and thought of going back to change it, but I wasn’t sure I had the time. He fussed, complained and wasn’t particularly responsive to the bit, but he wasn’t downright ignoring it either.

There just was a feeling something wasn’t right about the whole day. But I had 19 jumps to think about and tried to stay focused on that.

We jumped the practice jump — a single rail — and to my shock, Dundee knocked it down. He knocked it down on the second attempt, too. Things clearly were not going well because Dundee never knocks things down. He might go around them, but he’s never hit them before.

Now my nerves were raised, and to top it off, the wind had become “gusty” and was creating more disturbance. Dundee cleared the practice jump on the third try, and I gave it a rest after that. The only thing that lessened my apprehension was watching three other riders also knock down the practice jump. Misery loves company.

Then it was my turn to go. I urged Dundee into the start box just as the timer was counting down from 10. The first jump on course wasn’t too menacing but again, Dundee seemed to be feeling the pull of the parking area. It took some strong riding and a growly, “Get up there!” from me to get him across the jump and streaking toward the next. Jump number two was a “squash wagon”— a bright yellow buckboard wagon surrounded by hay bales.

Dundee was pretty sure it was surrounded by horse­-eating trolls, and again it took a lot for me to get him over it.

Having cleared the second jump, Dundee suddenly clicked on. He was away like a speeding bullet. I was just able to point him through the hedge and toward jump three — which was a “roll top” — a jump shaped like an enormous barrel half buried in the ground. Trouble was, it was a downhill approach, and Dundee was making a mad dash for it. I sat back and asked him to go easy. Thankfully, he obliged.

Immediately after was a bank in the hedge requiring a short jump up and then a long drop down back into the field. In practice, Dundee had taken this jump like Superman, and it was not meant to be a single bound kind of deal. This time, Dundee came back to a trot at my request. He carefully jumped up then down and then went streaking off for our next obstacle — a log over a rock wall — which he jumped with gusto.

We then headed up a hill and back down to jump off a bank into a little pond. Dundee may have been nervous during practice, but his training paid off. Albeit timidly, he hopped down into the water after a brief pause and galloped away. It was off to the next field for a tiger trap jump — a long pyramid of logs criss­crossed — and then a sharp turn to two big logs set at an angle to each other. That was followed by a short gallop to a big stack of tires. Dundee took all of them in textbook fashion, and we were away to the next field feeling more confident.

Dundee soon spotted another big log and headed straight for it. The trouble was that the log wasn’t on our course, so I hauled him around at the last second and pointed him to the wall we needed to jump. It wasn’t pretty, but we got there. Then, he was off like a freight train to the next location.

At this point, I realized I was having trouble catching my breath. It was most likely from not being relaxed for this half of the course. I worried a bit knowing I still had eight more jumps. It was a slight distraction, but it contributed to the moment when things went awry.

All of a sudden, I noticed I wasn’t in the right area anymore, and it was because I had by­passed jump 12. A quick glance over my shoulder showed that I could make it back there if I hooked a right. But when I asked Dundee for this abrupt change of plan, he protested.

Dundee stopped short and his hind legs slipped. I lost my stirrups, and he jumped forward. I landed on the back of the saddle, and he stopped quick and either slipped again or ducked to the side. I was on the ground having very possibly said a bad word.

That was the end. A fall of the rider is instant elimination from the competition. We were done.

Luckily, not injured other than crushing disappointment on my part. Had I not missed the jump, had I taken the time to change his bit, had it not been windy, had I been breathing properly, had I not been in the slippery part of the field, had I not had trepidation from the beginning, we would have gotten around the course just fine. There were too many obstacles for us, and none of them were on the course map.

So, we will try again next year. As distracted as Dundee was, when I really needed him to follow direction, he was there. Part of that is training, part is trust, and part of it is something mystical.

Completion of the Foxcroft Horse Trials is now my holy grail. With luck and preparation, next time we go after it, it will be more like Indiana Jones and less like Monty Python.

 

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