Thursday, November 7, 2013

In Which I Learn To Fly

I have such a story to tell you.

It's about horses, except it isn't really.  It's about learning, and persistence, and hard work, but it's also about a sort of kick-ass freedom that's hard to describe. 

I competed at a horse trial this weekend.  That's what we call our standard (non-international level) competitions in my little quirky sport, eventing.  On the whole it didn't go well.  Our final placing, the results of three separate phases added together, was awful, and the first two phases were, to put it bluntly, utter crap.  I could tell you a very long story about why, but I'll spare you.  Just trust me.  They were a "learning experience," which is code for, "Yikes, I'll have to figure out how to fix that."

But I once heard eventing described as "the only sport in which you can finish 35th and be unable to sleep that night for sheer transcendent joy," and that was how I felt after our third phase, cross country. 

Cross country means galloping a couple of miles, through open fields, jumping things that are big, wide, and don't fall down.  You go across ditches, up and down banks, and through water.  You're supposed to do it at a particular optimum speed, which varies by level:  the bigger the fences, the faster you go.  At the lower levels, however you can get penalized for going too fast as well as too slow, on the grounds that you're supposed to develop control first, then speed.

Historically, I've never had a problem with control.  My beloved Gully was all about control; any time he wasn't sure about a situation, he slowed down.  At our very first event we trotted most of cross country.  We had time faults up the wazoo.  We continued to struggle with time as we moved up the levels, and, despite all I could do to get him fit and try to move him forward, we never did make the time at the third level, which was the highest we ever accomplished. 

"Kim," my trainer Angelica once said, shaking her head, "Go faster."

It just never was that easy.  I know now that it took more than an average amount of effort to steer Gully around a cross country course.  He leaned into my hands; he wanted to go slowly.  I had to hold and kick and work--but he was my only point of reference, the only horse I'd ever evented, so I took him to be normal.   He also had metabolic issues--real, not man-made--and he was astonishingly hard to get or keep fit.  (On the plus side, he tried his heart out for me, jumped whatever I put in front of him, loved me and his job, and kept me from hurting myself when I did some very stupid things.)

So now I've got Sarah.  She's a big mare, with a broad butt and heavy bone courtesy of her draft-horse daddy, and the stamina and desire to run of her thoroughbred mama.  She's naturally balanced, carries herself well, and is a whole heckuva lot easier to ride cross country than Gully.  Sarah's young yet, and for this year--our first real year of competition--I decided to not wear a watch cross country, but to just let her go and work on our pace together.

There are all sorts of things to think about cross country.  When a horse gallops, it carries its weight on its forehand, its front two legs.  To jump, it needs its weight on its back legs--otherwise it can't get a good trajectory and risks hitting the fence.  If a horse hits a cross country fence, it risks flipping over it--which is, needless to say, very bad.  So as a rider you've got to monitor and change the horse's balance; how much you have to do that depends on the terrain and the type of fence you're approaching; how quickly you can do it affects your overall speed.

When I rode Sarah at the same venue two months ago, our course was set at 350 meters per minute.  Sarah got a little tired on the hills, and we made the time, but not by much.  Over the last 2 months I'd worked on her fitness quite a bit, but I couldn't really tell if I was making much of a difference.

Sunday's course was set at 400 meters per minute.  The optimum time was five minutes exactly--the course was two kilometers long.  We set out from the starting box, and from the first strides it was fabulous.  My best cross country round.  Ever.  Sarah was forward and eager, but came back into balance easily; she listened, she steered.  She was beautifully fit--at the top of the big hill I put my hands down to let her coast and catch her breath, and she accelerated.  It was so much fun.  Honestly, the sort of round to keep me up at night, smiling at the ceiling.

Then I looked the results up on my phone.  I couldn't believe it.  Time faults.  My old bugaboo.  That beautiful round, all the learning and work that went into it, and I had time faults.  "I really thought we were fast enough," I moaned to my daughter.  "I really thought we were going to make time." 

I sloped off to the scoreboard to see my actual time.  Ran my finger down the row of numbers, stopped, stared.


I had gotten penalties for going too fast.

Oh, it was six kinds of awesome.  Too fast!  My lovely wonderful beautiful round!  Too fast.  I laughed, I danced, I skipped around the horse park until my daughter made me stop.  I texted Angelica.

She texted back, immediately.  You go, girl!  I am SOOOOO proud of you!

Ridiculous the sort of things that can bring you joy.