Monday, April 26, 2010

Back in the GAME!

It takes a lot of time, preparation, training, blood, sweat, tears, casts, and focus to make it to the four star level. Top that with the tedious search to find that perfect four star mount, well, it seems next to impossible to make it to the level without unlimited funds and excess time. I have been fortunate enough to have had four 4* mounts at the age of twenty six, which although in most sports would be considered an age to retire, is a pretty ripe number in equestrian years. Aside from Mazetto who had already competed through the four star level before I took over the reins, Jamie, Frodo, and now Alex have been projects, horses that were overlooked on the racetrack and passed around in an endless abyss of suitable jobs. As many of the top riders know, a horse can have the talent, movement, temperament, and scope to be a four star horse but what sets him apart from the herd is indeed, his heart. Where Jamie lacked in his movement he made up for in his yearning to succeed and to compete. Where Frodo lacked in his scope he made up for in his obedience to please his rider. Where Alex lacks in his temperament, he makes up for in his bountiful and abundant talent. The point that I am trying to make here, is that the recipe for a four star horse doesn't have to exist in his bloodlines, rather, it the relationship and trust that he has with his rider, and above all, his heart.
To clarify some rumors, let me digress in retelling the story of how Alex came into our barn. In 2004, Beth Mueller, who had briefly leased my first preliminary horse, had given me a call telling me she had recently acquired a horse off the track that although he was beautiful in appearance, he was equally as difficult to ride. Because of his inconsistent temperament and his inability to finish in the top placings at the Charlestown race track, she offered the owner $500 to rescue the tiny little Thoroughbred from existing in a dog food canister. When he became too difficult to ride, she sent him to Paul and Lauren Tjaden, who at the time were in the business of re-selling horses for the sport of eventing. Coincidentally, soon after Beth told me about her new horse off the track, Paul called me up asking if I would be interested in a talented little horse, but warned me of his spooky nature and insisted that I give him a try, since he had been taking up room at their farm for over six months with no interested buyers. That week, I came to look at Alex with my mom, and as soon as Lauren lunged him, despite freaking out and throwing a shoe, mom and I looked at eachother thinking, wow, this is the real deal! He was such a beautiful mover with natural suspension and thrusted forward with ease from his hind end. His self-carriage was equally as amazing as he zoomed around the now ten meter circle swapping leads every other stride. So, I asked myself, ok so what, he’s a little hot under the collar....what’s the catch here? After taking us nearly an hour loading him into the trailer, in which he flipped over backwards during one of his frantic episodes, we finally were hauling out of the driveway. Although it was a hot and sticky summer day, all of the doors and windows on the trailer were shut to be sure Al would not kick, chew, paw, or throw himself out of the trailer. We had signed an agreement with the Tjadens that we would need a fifteen day trial with the horse before handing them a check, which although wasn’t enough to afford a used saddle, we certainly did not want to have a liability on our farm. However, as soon as we unloaded the now sweaty and tucked-up sixteen hand bay onto Crow’s Ear Farm, his whole attitude had changed. It was as if he had a revelation in the three and a half hour haul home and decided that he had better straighten up or else he would meet his demise in the dog food can once again!
If only it were that easy....after the summer was over I loaded my three horses up, Jamie, Frodo, and now Alex, and headed to UVa where I boarded with Marcia Carabell at Belle Brae Farm. After about a week of settling into his new temporary home, I soon discovered why Alex was such a “freak” at the Tjadens and possibly on the race track. Because Marcia’s farm was surrounded by cattle, Al was constantly throwing himself on the ground in the stall, running around in the pasture, and would take out anyone or anything that was in his path to rid himself of the monsters that surrounded him, including me. After moving stalls, closing doors, and switching pastures, we were able to calm him down and create another plan of attack on how to go about this newfound fear of was really quite simple you see, and still remains to this day: Don’t let a cow within a ten mile radius of Alex.
Coming back to Rolex after what had occurred only two years prior was beyond demoralizing. As I grazed Alex around the steeplechase field, I calmly gazed out at the exact spot that completely ripped my life apart in the spring of 2008. I wondered if I had made the right decision in coming back to this venue, to this city, well, even to this sport. I felt as if the whole horse world had turned its back against me and even wished for my failure. As I stared into that open cross country field, my faith in myself, in my horse, and my decision to compete here, had slowly melted down to the raw emotion of fear...the fear of failure. No sooner than I could pack up and head back east to Virginia, was I met with smiles and cheers from my family, my friends, my support. I soon realized that if everyone else can believe in Alex and I, well, why can’t I do the same? Was there something they knew that I didn't? Apparently so.
The week of Rolex passed by in a whirlwind. Everything that I had hoped and dreamed for had come to fruition. Ok, so Al was a little naughty in the dressage ring which gave him an uncharacteristic mark in the high fifties that certainly left me disappointed but hey, this is a four star, there was plenty more to worry about rather than a few spooks across the center line and a couple of late flying changes. As I set out on the cross country course, my main focus was to have a clear and sound mind. I kept replaying certain special quotes from Mind Gym in my head, the most prominent being, “You have to be present to win.” I wanted to ride every fence on it’s own and give Alex the most confidence building rides as I could possibly muster. About eight fences in and three minute markers down, I knew I was sitting on a four star mount. Al saw his lines as soon as I did, lengthened his stride as soon as I asked, and shortened his body as soon as I sat up. As we cantered through the finish line, all of my fear, my anticipation, my anxiety, my nerves, and my pride came bursting out in forms of tears and laughter! I couldn't believe what I had just overcome, and the insurmountable demons that I had finally beat down! Not only did my horse grow up, I became a different rider and person in the span of eleven minutes and thirty seconds. That newfound maturity was only doubled as Alex and I finished Rolex with a double clear show jumping round to finish in fourteenth place overall, and eighth place nationally. Knowing all of the hard work both mom and I had put in, all of the disappointment, hospital visits, vet bills, lessons with Kim and Buck, literally everything that led up to this moment in the past two years, I must tell you, it has certainly been nothing short of surreal.
Now, for the most important part of my blog: the “Thank-You”s. Above everything, I have to thank my mother...for her support and actual belief in my riding has allowed me to press on when I had nothing else left. It is from her eye, her care, her love, and her knowledge that my horses and I have become what we are today. There is no one or nothing that matters more to me than my mother, for she is the only person who truly knows and feels how great this victory to overcome really encompasses. Second, I would like to thank Alex. Alex and I share a similar story in that we both gave each other second chances. Al was given a second chance at life when he was rescued from slaughter; and in turn, he gave me a second chance to ride at the top level once again, and most importantly, to SUCCEED. In short, we both gave one another a second chance at life itself...pretty profound statement I know, but it measures up on so many different levels. Third, I want to thank my groom and best friend, Bronywn Watts. Aside from my mother, B knows the struggle and the courage it took not only to battle my own demons within, but to bring Al up to finally become a four star horse...she has loyally remained by my side, and I plan to do the same for her in the many years to come. I want to thank my family, for at times they had to relive their nightmare in order for me to pursue my dream. I want to thank my students, Sam, Geri, Bethany, Celia and “Kabby” for being there to witness one of the most important days so far in my career. Furthermore, I want to thank my sponsors who have kept my horses and myself looking pristine and professional and have remained apart of Team Crow’s Ear through any disparity and controversy that my past experiences had sometimes encouraged. FITS, County Saddles, Heritage Gloves, Thinline saddle pads, Flairstrips, Triple Crown horse feed, and Southern States: your support and products have equally contributed to this successful result at Rolex. I also want to thank VV Skivvies for their new sponsorship with Team Crow’s Ear. Lastly but certainly not least, I want to thank all my supporters and fans who have continued to send encouraging words of support for Al and myself and have in turn, provided me with inspiration to keep doing what I love the most. Keep your letters coming!!! Until next time, shoulders back, chin up, and keep kickin on home! Be in touch soon!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Magic in the numbers!

And the magic number is.....#37! Even though I am not a superstitious person by nature, hanging around with Buck Davidson, aka “superstition FREAK,” I often search for signs leading up to an event that will foretell whether I do well, or take the “long walk home.” (Kids, please don’t try this at home!) Anyhow, if I WERE a superstitious person, then I WOULD be extremely excited that my number is thirty seven for the sole fact that three added to seven equals to ten, which is in fact, my favorite number. However, being that I sometimes like to use brand new equipment on the day of cross country, and I don’t have a certain pair of socks that I seldom wash in fear of cleansing the “luck” out of them, I have decided that superstitions just take too much time and effort. I have always been a firm believer in fate and hard work. In fact, a wise horseman once said to me, “Lainey, you’ve got to make your own luck,” and since then, I’ve never looked back.
There is a fine line between acting cocky and being confident. Although this past month I have lacked both, I am slowly gaining my confidence in myself as an upper level rider once more. Because I am overwhelmingly confident in my horse Alex, who I would put up against ANY horse in the world, I have recently learned to piggyback off of that emotion and belief, and force myself to realize that the hands that molded the great creature on which I am mounted were indeed, that of my own. The very fact that Alex has no problem taking the reins and helping his pilot out in times of uncertainty certainly equates to the amount of confidence he has in me; and if Alex believes in me, well, why can’t I believe in myself?
After the Fork I hastily grabbed my Mind Gym, and went to work. Having read the book nearly ten times, decorated with notes from the past five years and highlighters of every color, the book looks more like an artifact that would be found at the Smithsonian rather than my tack trunk. Luckily, mom bought me a new copy so I am desperately looking forward to scribbling, circling, highlighting, and dog-earring the new, unsuspecting pages of Gary Mack’s masterpiece!
Additionally, I contacted the esteemed Laura King, sports hypnotist and psychologist. Laura helped me a ton at the Junior Olympics in 2005, when Frodo and I were in contention for the top medal and I felt the pressure to be a bit overbearing. Knowing that I have a lot of work to do in the week ahead, I figured I would acknowledge and address my weaknesses head on so that I can firmly say that I will holding nothing back come the end of next week! I look forward to working closely with Laura in the coming week!
Aside from working on my mental strength, Al and I have been busy honing in on our skills in the flatwork under the tutelage of the perfectionist herself, Kim Severson. After our lesson today I could probably publish an essay explaining how to perform a correct pirouette that even Robert Dover himself may find interesting, as Al and I practiced our left-hand turn-on-the-haunches countless times until it felt like child’s play! Kim’s stern yet tender teaching skills really help to motivate Al and I, as we continue our quest in performing the best test when it counts the most. I constantly am joking about my lesson schedule because since Al is always on the trailer heading to a lesson or a gallop or a horse show, I have begun to call him my little “purse!” Poor guy....the funny thing is, I truly think Al enjoys the extra attention, and of course the chance to be rid of the smell of baby Higgins, the young calf that inhabits the field outside his stall.
So, we are six days out guys...Six days until the journey begins; six days until I begin to bite my nails; six days until I buy more sticky spray; and six days until Al and I live out our dream...until then, shoulders back, eyes up, and kick on! I’ll see ya in the Bluegrass state!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone!
First and foremost, I want to thank my gracious mother who agreed to drive home while I pensively jot down some of my thoughts from this weekend at The Fork. Sometimes we as event riders, who seldom live sedentary lives, forget the meaning of holidays such as Easter because we are in the midst of our hectic and exciting show season. However, it’s times like these, as I sit to the right of my mom (who is currently rocking out to Sugarland) that portray just how important family is to our foundation as athletes and as human beings because they are ALWAYS by our side, from our dressage, cross country, and show jumping rides, and, more importantly, on the ride home, where ever that may, Happy Easter everyone.
This weekend served as such an important milestone for Al and myself in our eventing career on many different levels. We arrived on Wednesday to perform our trot up as we had an early dressage go on Thursday morning. As I began my warm up the next morning, I was greeted to a stern shout “Lainey, SHORTEN UP YOUR REINS” coming from across the ring from a small person on a big white horse....from none other than the DQ herself, Kim Severson. I have been working closely with Kim for the last few years to hone my dressage skills but since I spend my winters with Buck in Ocala, and she winters in Aiken, well, let’s just say, Al and I were a bit rusty in her standards. I swear, if you could take a picture from the beginning of my warm up to my entrance into the main ring, Al’s frame changed exponentially, as I was made to shorten up my reins about six inches, and really “kick” him up into my connection. Al’s trot work in the test consisted mostly of eights, sprinkled with a seven or six here or there. However, the canter is where I lost the “lead” so to speak. Because of the different connection that Kim was able to extract from us, which was both foreign and tiring for Al and myself, Al managed to swap in the last counter canter, which brought our score from the mid to high forties, to a fifty, which was a few points shy of the goal I had set prior to the weekend. I was very happy with Al’s comfort level in the ring and although our test contained a few mistakes, I know we are well on our way to achieving a very competitive score in the MAIN ring.
The cross country course was a test of technicality and endurance as it offered more than six corners and undulating terrain that is constantly keeping both horse and rider on their feet (or we hope). I was very concerned about the technicality of the course as corners are Al’s and my hardest question to answer, as our past event record so immanently displays. The thing about cross country is things rarely go as planned, which parallels with horses in general. As I jumped into the first double corner combination, which was early in the course, I took a deep distance and opted to bend my line to both corners in place of the original plan which was to take the straight line. Although it may have seemed neat and tidy to onlookers, my decision to hold and wait costed Al and I a few seconds, which, at the four star level, is HUGE. As I went to the next combination, again, I “picked” my way to a deep distance to the corner, adding another stride that certainly didn't need to exist. After the water I managed to pull myself together and kick my horse in front of me and finish with a confident round, adding only 3.2 time penalties to my dressage score. Although I was ecstatic about my horse’s performance and fitness level, I was deeply concerned with my lack of confidence in myself. You see, a few years ago, forward thinking was something that came easily to me, something I probably took for granted. For a variety of reasons, I have become inconsistent in believing in myself and when something doesn't go exactly according as planned, I opt to wait, wait wait. Although I am constantly badgering my students that “the worst decision, is indecision,” I sometimes find myself in the same predicament, which, up until a couple years ago, rarely occurred. Somehow, I manage to let negative thoughts and nerves get the best of me, and rely on my assertive nature to get myself out of problem areas....however, at Kentucky, as with any four star for that matter, questions must be answered, and decisions must be made. In the next two weeks, most of my work will be done in my Mind Gym....because as Yogi Berra once infamously noted, “90% of the game is half mental.”
Alex couldn't have gone any better. A few years ago, had I ridden him backwards or put him to a wrong distance at the advanced level, he would have easily run out or given up on me. However, that’s what makes our sport so’s not about me as a rider, it’s about Al and I as a TEAM. Where he is lacking, I pick up the slack and vice versa. Al handled the course with ease, despite my mind’s imperfections and cantered across the finish line ears pricked and ready for more. I cannot express to you how long the road has been with this mighty little horse, and just how much faith I have had in his sturdy hooves to take us to the top level where we have FINALLY arrived.
Show jumping has always been my hardest phase. Hard because it’s enclosed and not as inviting as an open grassy field, and hard because those stupid colorful poles fall down so easily! I knew that I needed to redeem myself for Al’s sake, and to finish off our last outing before Rolex well, so that we could head to Kentucky bursting with confidence and excitement. As we meandered up the long path to the main show jumping ring, fellow BDJ student Casey McCissock yelled to me, “just ride it forward Lainey!” Coming from someone who just earned herself a clean round, I had better heed her advice. As I entered the ring I took a deep breath, gave Al a pat on the neck, and approached the first obstacle with Casey’s advice emblazoned in my mind. As we crossed the finish line, free from time or jump penalty, I smiled to myself thinking how such a small phrase could effect my riding in such a big way! Thanks Case!
Al and I finished off the weekend in seventh place, in a class of more than fifty very talented and eager horse and rider combinations. I now have a better grasp on what it is I need to work on, and things on which I can ease up. I will tell you this much, I am sitting on one of the most talented horses of all, and I would put him up against anyone world wide. Big words for such a small horse, but pending his pilot is on point, we will let you be the judge... Until then, heels down, elbows in, and eyes forward...we are at nineteen days and counting!