Monday, May 2, 2011

The Weekend That "Almost" Was...

Anybody that knows me can automatically assume that my results at this past Rolex were certainly not up-to-par with the expectations I had going into the event. Those that know me could also assume that it would probably be better to text me rather than call being that I have a very different way of dealing with my failures.

Truth be told I AM very disappointed with my results this past weekend. From a few unfortunate bobbles in the dressage, to a silly mistake on XC, to one of the most surprising and unlucky rails at the last fence in the SJ, things simply did not go the way I had originally planned. I would like to call this past event the Weekend of “Almosts”.

Allow me to elaborate: From the very beginning of the event (ie: the actual drive out to Lexington), things began to go awry. As mom and I were hauling through Staunton, VA my truck began to shut down during the long climb up the Appalachian mountain range. Once the shifting mechanism began to fail is when I started to get worried. With the help of my friend and fellow competitor William Coleman, I began calling everyone and anyone who happened to be in route to Rolex by way of VA in hopes that they could give Al a ride to the horse park. When I thought all hope was lost and I may have to saddle up Al and ride him to Kentucky, a tiny miracle came in the form of a large lorry slowly gaining on my now feeble and sickly truck. It was Allison Springer who came to save the day! After flagging she and her groom down, we were able to move Alex from my trailer to Allison’s lorry where he happily hauled next to his newfound trailer-mate, Arthur. Thank goodness for the benevolence of Ms. Springer as if she hadn’t come to my rescue, Al and I would probably STILL be in route to the blue grass state!

Al seemed to settle in quite quickly at the Kentucky Horse Park with ample hacks and hand walks from the Crow’s Ear A Team (Bronwyn, mom and myself). In fact, on Wednesday following the first trot up and the surprising and exhilarating evacuation of the horses due to inclement weather, I had some of the best dressage work of my career that was met with a high five and a smile from Kim as we formulated a plan for the following day of competition. Everything seemed to have settled down and it was now up to fate and hard work to be the deciding factor come the final round on Sunday.

On dressage day, Al’s first warm up was spectacular as I worked on “long and low” simultaneously pushing him forward encouraging him to use his back and soften at the base of his neck. He even seemed relaxed as we meandered down to the final warm up before our test in the palatial Rolex grandstand. I was mostly happy with his final warm up except for the fact that I never really quite got through to him in moving off my leg and accepting the bridle. I believe that this was the main reason why our winning scores from the trot work in the test plummeted during the canter work. Just that slight bit of tension that I was able to use to my advantage in the trot work simply escaped me in the canter which enabled him to spook in the counter canter and pick up the incorrect lead from the rein back. At any rate, my test went from being historical to “ho-hum” within one swift mistake which made me feel pretty disappointed in the overall performance.
Derek DeGrazia’s course was as big as it was technical. Every line and combination was filled with questions of straightness, precision and balance. It was a true testament of a four star course. However, I felt very confident despite the footing conditions that I could deliver a clear and confident ride...which I did (for the most part.) As I set out on course, my first goal was to keep Al relaxed and in front of my leg at the same time. After he jumped brilliantly into the first water, both he and I took a deep breath and turned our attention to the next question that loom ahead: the coffin. After a tremendous jump over the parallel oxer, I had my pace set for the coffin but before I could get Al’s attention onto the first element, he spooked at something outside the ropes, causing me to begin to pull to find my distance instead of leg him forward as a correction. As we crawled over the first jump, I was sure I could get him to jump over the ditch then quickly take the option for the C element in the coffin. However, the damage had already been done and Alex was extremely offended at my less-than-desirable decision to pull on his mouth before a serious four star coffin question....UNDERSTANDABLY so. I couldn't help but think to myself in the approach to the coffin that I should let go and that I shouldn’t pull but for some reason my reaction time couldn't follow suit. Following the stupid stop, I hopped over the ditch to the alternative C option, gave Al an “I’m sorry” pat on the neck and kicked on. The trouble with having a silly stop so early in the course is that many a time we riders get the “loser’s limp” being that we know we are out of the game so to speak. However, my initial plan following the coffin mishap was that I OWED Al a good ride around the rest of the course and to demonstrate to the selectors that even in adversity (even though it was self-inflicted), I could still keep my focus and finish even stronger than I had started. Al simply FLEW across that course, taking every direct route and making it look like child’s play. Even as we floated across the finish line I was happy to have a horse underneath me who wasn’t mired with exhaustion and fatigue. Thanks to my Crow’s Ear Crew (Abbey, Ann, B, April and mom), Al cooled out in minutes and was able to go back to the comfort of his stall to get some much needed rest.

The rest of the night was a gloomy one for me. Because I take this sport and my dream so seriously, I have a hard time of making light of my mistakes and simply moving on. Instead, I fill my head with self-loathing and criticisms and replay the mistake over and over in my head. Not only is it hard on myself, everyone around me feels the need to walk on eggshells so as not to say anything that may make me delve deeper into my misery. It’s just not right. In fact, that is the one thing that I have yet to learn and probably is what’s keeping me from achieving the greatness I so desperately long for: learning how to deal with mistakes in the aftermath.

Sunday morning I made myself promise that I would finish the event strong. I changed my attitude from self-pity to funnel vision as I walked around the twisty and massive show jumping course. After formulating a plan of striding in the combinations, it was time to turn that plan into action as I sprang aboard Alex and headed down to the Grandstand. I entered the arena confidently and organized as I turned toward the first fence. Al jumped superbly leaving all fences untouched...except one. As we landed from the last fence and crossed the finish line I looked up at the scoreboard to see if I had made the time and indeed had a double clear. I was rejoiced to see that I had added nothing to my cross country score and celebrated my round with a smile and hug to my amazing equine partner. My celebration was met with an unsurmountable cheer from the audience which raised my morale tenfold. It was only when I exited the ring that I learned of the ill-fated final jump where Al must’ve just touched it with his hind hoof. “You’re a work in progress” were the words that Captain Mark Phillips muttered as he set his attention onto another nervous rider ready to take on the tough show jumping course. Indeed, I AM a work in progress, but when will the work be over to achieve the results that I want, if ever? I knew on the XC course the mistake I made while I was doing it, but why did I even make the mistake in the first place? When will I stop having to learn things the hard way? The answer to that my friends, escapes me at the moment. Time and experience will only tell.

We ended our second four star sitting in 20th place and taking home the 10th place national title...a far cry from the top three goal I had originally set. The thing is, I know that Al and I have what it takes and have even demonstrated brilliance in all three phases, I just haven’t been able to connect the three at one time. Frustrating to say the least...

I am however, SO thankful to have above all, a happy and healthy horse while on my drive back to Virginia. My happy and healthy horse is currently being pulled by a recently fixed Dodge truck that just keeps tickin’ despite the 250,000 plus miles I have managed to accumulate on it. My amazing mother who rides with me through every course, combination, and movement and who can personally feel the disappointment in my heart when things don’t always go as planned. To my father who is slowly gaining back his faith in the event world after swearing against it over three years ago. To my steadfast grandparents who would travel to the ends of the globe to watch me achieve a dream that I so vehemently chase after. To Bronwyn for knowing when to give me my space and take Al for a graze. To my students and friends, for their devotion to my passion and my cause. To Dr. Douglas Berry, for donating his time and helpful anecdotes in order to push me along the path to success. To my friend and vet, Dr. Sarah Gold who made sure Al and I were “taken care of” despite our whereabouts and differing locations. To my farrier Ben Zook, for his open mindedness and yearn for perfection in the art of horse shoeing. To Tom and Jennifer Newton for putting my dreams before their needs. To my sponsors and supporters, for keeping both my horses and myself looking and feeling at our prime. But most of all, I want to thank my horse, Anthony Patch. It is only when I am aboard that tiny little creature that I feel limitless and unbeatable. Thank you Al for allowing me to feel like Bettina Hoy on a daily day, I WILL do you justice and your talent WILL be noticed. Until then folks, loosen your girth, undo the throat latch....and in the lyrical words of Pam Tillis, “Let that pony RUN!” Cheers!

Lainey Ashker