The good thing about being the only person in Prelim is that our 30.7 dressage score was good enough for first. Admittedly, anything I did that day was going to be good enough for first, as long as I stayed on and didn’t forget the course. Which was enough of a challenge for me at a first Prelim attempt, let’s be honest.
After dressage I walked stadium one more time then swapped tack and got back on. We headed down to stadium warmup, which is very small and the footing is pretty deep. I hate all warmups as a general rule, but I hate that one the most. I just could not get Henry in front of my leg at all coming out of the hairpin turn (he’s kind of the worst at handling deep footing) and he decided maybe the solution was to just stop. Twice.
That was not the solution.
Trainer promptly went and acquired me a whip, Henry got smacked on his hiney for the first time EVER by me, and proceeded to become extraordinarily offended. His eyes bugged right out of his head as he leapt into a gallop, feet magically unstuck from the deep footing, and he marched right down to the oxer and pinged over it like the Good Boy he usually is. We went up to the ring and waited for the people walking the course to clear out, and Henry stood there doing the equine equivalent of rocking back and forth in fetal position in the corner, still wide eyed and absolutely beside himself about getting a smack on the butt. Seriously horse, it was one smack. And you kind of had it coming. Get in front of my damn leg, you drama king.
Once we were in the ring I picked up the gallop like I meant it and powered down to the first jump. After which Henry landed and basically just kind of dragged me the whole rest of the way, screaming “OH MY GOD I WAS A BAD BOY, OH MY GOD SHE HIT ME” on repeat. Still traumatized, clearly. He definitely never once even vaguely thought about stopping. I think I could have gotten him there upside down and backwards and he still would have jumped. Granted, he never once even considered listening to any of my attempts at a half halt either.
You know what’s not useful on an overly dramatic horse that’s having an existential crisis about having been a bad boy? A goofy little loosely-fitted hackamore with a leather curb strap that is essentially a glorified halter. In normal circumstances it’s great, but this time… not so much. We ended up just too deep and flat, past the distance to a few of the verticals, and had rails there. Which is the complete opposite of Texas Rose, where his rails came at the oxers.
The hardest jump sequence to me was 5-6-7-8, which weaved across the diagonal. 5 was an oxer placed very close to the in gate off of a really awkward short turn, then bending to a vertical in the shade, then land and hang a sharp left to an oxer, then land and hang an even sharper right to a vertical. It was a very herky-jerky sequence and the turn to 8 was sketchy at best.
Really though, Henry’s little temporary lapse in sanity aside, it was fine. It was our second real Prelim round ever, no one died, and it wasn’t tragic. Two phases down, one to go. I sure was laughing my butt off as I pulled him up though, which took some effort. Henry’s eyes were still bugging out of his head like we might all just randomly start beating him at any moment, because clearly that happens to him all the time. Honestly Henry, you are ridiculous. IT WAS ONE SMACK. In FIVE YEARS of owning you.
After that I had to shove him full of cookies back at the barn, which seemed to convince him that he was indeed a Good Boy again. He relaxed and went back in his stall to munch on some hay for a couple hours before cross country, his Bad Boy experience completely forgotten.
My ride time was at noon on the dot, as soon as dressage wrapped up (dressage is all in the middle of XC, so I’m pretty sure no one wants to be doing their test as horses are galloping right past them). I stepped into warmup just as the last person was saluting, and after a couple laps of gallop and a few warmup jumps, Trainer sent us on our way with a “Good luck, have fun, ride smart!”. I got over to the startbox and turned on my helmet camera, which ended up being a huge mistake as we had about a 10 minute delay while all the jump judges finished finding their spots. As soon as Control radioed and said they were ready, my camera beeped and died. Not even kidding. I’m really sad about it now. Luckily there were a few people videoing and Hillary was taking pics, so I at least have some media.
I figured that I would know after jump 3 (the big red wagon) how the rest of the course was going to go. As usual I wanted to come out of the startbox positive, getting him thinking forward right away. If you can get Henry convinced that he’s running away with you a bit (which he isn’t, but he thinks he might be) at the beginning and jump a couple of fences from a more open gallop, his confidence swells. He came out of the box all business, pinged over fence 1, and when I landed and put my leg on, he eagerly dug in and galloped away. At that point I thought “Hmm… I think this might be a good day…”. We jumped the big rolltop at 2 out of stride, then wove around the mound to the wagon. I saw the distance as soon as we came around the corner and so did Henry, and again, we galloped over it right out of stride. A huge smile crept onto my face at this point and I let out a “HELL YEAH GOOD BOY”. As predicted, by jump 3 I knew how it was going to go… and I knew we had this.
We wove through the woods over the combination at 4ab, down the big log stack with the dropped landing, over the skinny, and then up and over the Irish bank. The chevron came up fast off of a short turn but Henry never even blinked, just popped over and kept right on galloping through the trees to the trakehner. Clearly for our first Prelim I wasn’t worried about time at all… I hadn’t even worn my watch, nor was I going to press him for speed. Trying to make 520mpm would basically be a flat out gallop for Henry, and I wanted to just let him gallop at a comfortable pace and focus on having good jumps. It sure seemed like everything came up one after the other really quickly as it was, without many long gallop stretches. I guess that’s the effect of riding through the woods versus out in the open.
After the trakehner we had a narrow rolltop out of the woods, coming back into the main field for the water. This was a “busy” spot, with a log down into the water, a skinny on the opposite bank, then immediately to a bending line of arks as we curved back around the water. I sat and whoaed as we came down to the water, taking care to jump in quietly (and slightly to the right) lest we go blasting past the skinny. As soon as we landed from that Henry moved right back up to gallop easily over the arks, landing and powering away, back up the hill. He had plenty in the tank, and he seemed to be having a grand ol’ time as he hopped over the bench like it was a speed bump.
From there we headed to the jump that I thought might be most tricky, a big corner off of a left hand turn, heading back into the woods. The tricky part for my horse was the fact that there was an unflagged fence right where we needed to turn, and I thought Henry might lock onto that one, messing up our approach to the corner. And he did lock onto that one (Henry you are predictable) but I stuck my right spur in and got him turned toward the corner instead, which he locked onto with equal gusto. By this point he was having such a good time I think he would have jumped a tank if I pointed him at one.
After the corner we curved around the edge of a pond and popped out a few strides away from the brushy boat table (I dunno what else to call it, it’s a table with an orange boat on the front face and brush on the top). He jumped the freaking snot out of that, stumbling a little on landing but quickly righting himself back up and galloping on. From there we went to the downhill bank combo – a skinny rolltop, two strides to a downbank, then down the hill to a chevron with a dropped landing. That put us back into the main field once again for the last two fences – the train and the big ugly last table. The train was easy peasy, and I came up to the table thinking “ok, self, don’t mess this up”. And then, there it was, the nice forward distance, and we closed the last 5 strides to get up to that thing perfectly. He jumped it like a freaking superstar, with room to spare. Definitely not tired.
And then we crossed through the finish flags, and then trainer yelled “YOU HAVE A PRELIM PONY!” (which you can hear in the video) and then cue all the bawling that I already wrote about on Monday. We racked up plenty of time faults, as expected, but we were clear. We finished. We did it. We actually fucking did it. Days later I’m still pinching myself, and still stuffing Henry full of cookies.
It was a totally respectable round too, not even a case of survival. I felt like I made mostly good decisions, and my horse felt like he was brimming with confidence. He had plenty left in the tank, definitely could have gone faster, and strutted back to the barn like the damn unicorn he is.
It was one of the best rides of my lifetime, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.