Last weekend, at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials (Calif.), my mare Alba and I achieved a huge breakthrough in our training and, as a result, in our competitive result. I believe last weekend’s performance is an example of my two primary beliefs about training horses, especially for eventing:
First, training horses takes time—lots and lots of time. There are no shortcuts. Four years ago, all Alba had ever done was barrel race (apparently like a wild woman) and then stand in a field for several months. Now, after a lot of diligent training, I can say that she’s truly a competitive preliminary level event horse.
But my second belief is that training is something you never complete or finish. In my view, no horse is ever “trained.” There is always more to do; there are always things to improve about your own technique and your horse’s performance. To me, training a horse is like climbing a mountain whose peak always remains in the clouds above you, and you’ll never reach it. But you will always have a higher view of the valley you’ve left behind.
Now I’ll tell you why I’m so thrilled with our performance last weekend at Galway Downs. (By the way, Alba’s show name is Firebolt—yes, she’s named after Harry Potter’s magic broom. Heather and our working student at the time, Mireya Cabron-Heinick, are huge Harry Potter fans, and Alba is like my magic broom on the cross-country course.)
The weekend began with our best dressage test ever. She stayed calm in the ring, and we produced a mistake-free, smoothly forward and obedient test. The judge gave us our best score ever (30.0 penalties, equal to 70% in pure dressage). The only disappointment was that that excellent score left us only tied for 12th (8 points behind the leader) in the 26-horse open preliminary division. The judge told me the next day that she was rather overwhelmed by the quality of the performances.
So, while I was walking the cross-country course for the third time on Friday afternoon, I decided that we had to make the optimum time of 5:35 to stay in the hunt, that we had to go out there and really gallop.
Well, Alba was all business out there, galloping around like a cross-country veteran. She’d galloped unusually quietly and softly to the first two fences in her first start of this season four weeks earlier, making me hope that she’d seen the benefits of a calm start in the three-day event at Galway Downs last November. But this time she absolutely exploded out of the start box, and I had her shadow roll in my teeth heading for the first fence. She took a little breath on the run to the second fence and jumped that beautifully, and then I could feel her take a big breath and relax, as if she were saying, “I was gone for a moment, but I’m back now.” And she jumped the rest of the course beautifully, allowing me to gallop up to the jumps, balance her and save some ground on the turns.
We galloped through the finish line comfortably, five seconds fast. And Alba was one of only three horses to make the time, which moved us all the way up to third place!
But show jumping is our Achilles heel, and I said to Heather on Sunday morning that I was not going to be upset if we pulled four or five rails and dropped out of the ribbons. Alba gets frightfully anxious in the show jumping ring, I think because it reminds her most of her frightening experiences in barrel racing and because she has such an intense work ethic. She gets really mad if she thinks she’s given me the wrong answer and makes a mistake (like knocking down a rail), and then it just snowballs.
So, over the last eight or nine months, we’ve gone back to the basics at home, schooling her over relatively easy exercises and courses and working on doing them calmly and steadily (and happily). We’d also changed her dressage warm-up, starting with longeing to loosen her up physically and doing lots of exercises to keep her steadily in front of my leg, emphasizing “go forward from my leg” and “listen to me, not the environment” to compensate for her anxious tendencies. So this time at Galway Downs, I decided to warm her up for show jumping just as if it were a dressage test, one with jumps.
It worked, thank goodness. For the first time, she was relaxed enough that I could ride her up to the jumps, not just desperately trying to keep her under control enough to steer to the next fence. And so we kept a nice rhythm, and she just barely caught two jumps with a hind foot. Two rails down was her best score ever at preliminary, and it was a relatively good score for the division, so we only dropped two places, to fifth.
She really felt like an experienced competitor this weekend, and I certainly think another factor is the amount of experience I’ve given her over the last four years. Galway Downs was her 20th start in an event and her 14th at preliminary, including her second-placed finish in the classic-format CCI1* at Galway Downs last November. She now knows the game and knows her job.
I feel so proud of me 15.2-hand, Quarter Horse mare, whose previous owner left her with us because he thought she was crazy and didn’t want to pay for her any more. I feel so lucky he left Alba here, so I could have these experiences with her.
But, by no means to do believe we’ve reached the peak. We’re, maybe, halfway up the mountain. There is so much we could do better; so much we can build on from what we’ve done so far. I’m looking forward to climbing higher with Alba, as I aim her for her next classic-format CCI1*, at Rebecca Farm (Mont.) in July.