I’m not really even sure how to start this recap post. Henry gave me what can only be described as the ride of my life on cross country that day, and I’m struggling to find the words to describe it. Was it foot perfect? No. There were a couple spots where I messed up, and he saved it, and there were a couple spots where he didn’t quite get it, and I helped him out. He was bold, he was focused, he was looking for the flags and taking me to the jumps… it felt like a real partnership, and I was sitting on a really confident horse that was absolutely on fire for his job. I’m not sure that it gets much better than that.
They changed the course a bit after week 1, particularly the second water and a new coffin. Yeah… they built a new coffin. As in, they were still digging the (massive) hole for the ditch the night before XC. The changes made those questions more challenging than they’d been the first week, and I was a little concerned about both, since they ended up being questions that Henry and I hadn’t quite seen before.
I’ll be honest, when I walked the course beforehand, I didn’t have the balls to look all the jumps in the eye. Some of them were really big, and I had to shield my eyes a bit when I walked past a few. There are some things I just don’t need to know before I mount up. It took me a while to be able to look the Training fences “in the eye” on the ground too, and I’m not quite there yet with some of the Prelim. Everything looks so much smaller and more doable from the back of a horse as you’re galloping towards it.
But I did go back out there that afternoon with Hillary and make myself look at them, especially the width. It’s a confidence boost to know how easily Henry hopped over them, even if they still look big to me. I took pictures of some of the jumps then, too, since I hadn’t done my usual course walk with pictures before. And I think that worked out for the best, because I got to use Hillary and her dogs for scale, which was fun. Especially since her face in most of these pictures looks horrified.
That was most of the more interesting jumps, anyway. Well except for the one big gross log oxer in the back that I was too lazy to walk back out to for a photo.
The footing at Coconino is interesting, being mostly wood chips. It’s not like anything else we ever run on, especially around here. You’re never quite sure how it’s going to feel to jump out of, but it felt pretty good under my horse’s feet once we got going. You do spend some time on your course walks very carefully plotting your course to avoid stray stumps or rocky patches, but they’ve done a lot with the footing since I was there last in 2016.
I didn’t wear a watch, mostly because we just aren’t to the point yet where time is a consideration. We still need to focus on the jumps first and foremost, and I don’t want to find myself worrying or feeling pressured about the time. It’s a distraction I don’t need yet. Especially for this course, which was definitely the most challenging we’ve faced, and very twisty and turny and up and down. I needed to focus on balance, not speed.
My helmet camera died the second I turned it on, so… I don’t have footage from that perspective. I did have barnmates scattered throughout the course though, so got a decent amount of video!
Henry set off from the box like a man on a mission, landing from fence 1 and digging in, already wanting to go forward and searching for 2. It was at this point that I thought to myself “this might be just fine after all”. When a horse leaves the box like that, it definitely boosts your confidence a bit. He pinged over the trakehner at 3, jumping HUGE over it and landing in a gallop that was pulling me up the hill to the coop at 4, then back down the hill to the wagon, which he also jumped the shit out of. Yup, he was definitely in the mood to play.
I checked my whoa before the water at 6, wanting to make sure he didn’t just blast through there. It was the first combo and I wanted to ride it a bit quietly, since we had many more combos to go and I needed him to stay rideable. He was really good there, hopping through it politely and easily.
Then it was down to the Weldon’s Wall, which had a really wonky approach. Nothing like weaving through trees and then having to turn sharply a few strides before a wide gallop fence. I completely botched the distance there, 110% awful, but Henry just stuffed another stride in and packed my ass right over. There are not enough cookies in the world for this creature, y’all. He earned a whole box of them at that jump alone.
After that was our wide skinny table
which he galloped right up to the base of and pinged over like it was Beginner Novice. This horse has more scope than I give him credit for, I think.
Then we weaved around to our first corner combination at 9AB. The jumps there were not that big, at or close to Training height really, but the approach made the line pretty tricky. You came off of a very long gallop, then had to hang a sharp right hand turn around some trees with just a few straight strides before the corner. Week 1 I watched someone have two runouts here because the horse didn’t get his eye on the corner out of the turn, so I knew I needed to take it seriously. I brought Henry waaaaaay back down to a showjump canter and carefully picked my line to make sure we were straight.
As soon as he got his eye on the corner he took me right to it, then down and back up the hill to the coop. It was no problem. After that we had a long gallop to a skinny cabin and then a smaller brush fence (which I again missed the distance to and Henry was like “hold my beer”. Get him more cookies.) before heading down to the second water. Of all the things on course, I was most nervous about this and the coffin. The water because the approach to the first jump was SO SHORT, you literally had two straight strides off a sharp turn for them to even see the jump in, and I definitely wasn’t sure that he would get his eye on the corner out. There were a lot of jumps back there, it was visually quite busy, and we’ve never done a corner out of water before. I rode the first element slightly right so I could exaggerate the bend a little bit and get him straighter to the corner, and it rode freaking brilliantly.
Like… he was foot perfect. He saw the corner as soon as we jumped in, and he locked right on, never wavering from the line. It was a pretty amazing feeling, and I hope I never forget how that felt. I could have stopped and gone home right then and there and felt like we’d won. There is nothing so thrilling to me as feeling a horse come into his own and really love and understand the job. I rode away from that water with a smile on my face.
But I didn’t really have a lot of time to think about it, in the moment, because we had a gallop up the hill to that big disgusting vomit-inducing double brush table. That thing did not look any smaller from horseback, but I just kept coming to the base and let Henry sort it out, which he did perfectly, while I tried to stay out of his way. He jumped it so freaking hard, I don’t even think he touched the brush. More cookies. So many piles of cookies. I had to settle for lots of big pats at the time.
After that we had the combination of skinny tables, which also rode really well. Easy, by this point. He just kept looking for the flags, and all I really had to do was guide the way and keep him balanced.
Then it was the big oxer out in the back, which you can’t really see behind the tree.
And then it was time for the coffin. I distinctly remember galloping to the crest of that hill and starting our downhill approach, thinking to myself “Do not fuck this up. Do not fuck this up. Do not fuck this up.”. Our fall at Holly Hill was at a downhill coffin, and I really didn’t want to repeat that. I heard my trainers instructions in my head – balance at the top of the hill, then keep coming – so I did… then I rode down to that thing and attacked it like it had personally done something to me.
Henry jumped the hanging log in and I could feel him quickly assessing, looking for the out. I gave him a bit of verbal encouragement over the ditch, where he was still trying to figure out where the out was. I had to sit and tug a little, but he finally locked on and hopped over C. It was a bit scrappy but we got it done.
I found out later that a barnmate’s husband was down at the coffin helping the course designer rake the landing of the ditch after each horse, and when I jumped through, the course designer said “that’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to be ridden!”. Which was a really nice compliment to get. He stopped what he was doing to watch us go up the hill and jump the Normandy Bank, too (which felt more like a little gymnastic by this point).
After that we flew over the last rolltop and through the finish flags with a clear round! I was slow, as expected, so picked up 10 time faults, but we were the only Prelim pair to jump around clear. The second water and the coffin wreaked some havoc.
I can’t even put into words how proud I am of this horse. He tried so hard for me, was absolutely brilliant, so genuine, and really rose to the challenge. He jumped some big fences and challenging combinations without so much as a second thought, and any lingering doubts I had beforehand about our ability to do this were completely erased. I still have to pinch myself a bit when I stop and think about what we’re doing, actually DOING, and how it so vastly exceeds anything I thought we could ever achieve. It doesn’t seem real. This kind of partnership is what it’s all about, and these moments are the reason why we keep putting in the work, day in and day out. I’ll be riding that high for a long time.