Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Passing the Test

Back in the heyday of the British Navy, midshipmen, after a training period of about 7 years, would go to the Naval Offices, logbooks in hand, and take the exam that would allow them to become lieutenants. At first any man who passed the exam was automatically promoted; later, when there was more of a glut of officers, a man could "pass for lieutenant, but fail to pass for gentleman." Lacking aristocratic breeding or better-than-average manners, he'd be awarded his exam completion certificate, but not be promoted.

My daughter has spent the last four months working toward her C3 pony club exam. This is the first national-level riding exam, and it's a doozy--two days of formal inspection, bandaging, lungeing, flatwork including a training-level dressage test, gridwork including jumping 3' without stirrups, showjumping and cross-country jumping to 3'3" and then switch riding--riding another candidate's horse on the flat and over fences.

Back in May, between marathon tennis matches, my daughter and her horse went up to a prep clinic in which she was told she'd completely outgrown her dressage saddle and nearly outgrown her horse (she's 5'10", he's 15.1 hh). She was told she needed to get her leg back and her hips back, and both she and I interpreted those instructions incorrectly, which mean she felt fairly frustrated by the prep clinicians.

However. As soon as tennis ended, my daughter got to work. We tried to find another dressage saddle, one that would fit both her and her horse, but so far no luck, so she dropped the stirrups on her jump saddle and practiced her dressage that way. She read up on riding mechanics. She took a few very good lessons (we'd love to take regular lessons, both of us, but we live in an area difficult for that, and I've long realized we do better with infrequent good training than frequent bad.) She and I talked, and rode, and talked. I videoed her on her phone. She'd stop, look at the video, try again. She had a weird, unexpected epiphany in the wilds of Scotland--came back and aced the Pony Club championships. She coached our pony club's inexperienced riders at D rally. Last weekend was our pony club region's event rally, which we'd scheduled as the last stop on the way to her C3.

Because we piggyback our event rally onto the Virginia Starter Trials--don't ask, just go with it--everyone that wants to gets to school their horse over the cross-country course Saturday morning, before the rally begins. My daughter was competing Novice at the rally, but schooled at Training level, the next step up, to practice for the C3. And she nailed it. Saturday morning was, hands down, the best I've ever seen her ride. She and her darling horse--who right now does not look too small for her at all--went through tough combinations with precision and grace and exactly the right amount of control. At the end of the session happy tears dripped down my daughter's face. She knew how far she'd come.

I was volunteering in the stables or vet box for most of the rally, but I went over to watch my daughter's dressage test--the first of three competition phases--only to find her trotting a small circle in the warmup with intense concentration. Her coach said, "he's off on his left front."

I watched. My daughter's horse was off--limping--very slightly, but for real.

My daughter stopped. She patted her horse. She swung off him, yelled to a teammate, "You're riding for both of us now!" and said to me, "Will you call the vet?"

I did. The show vet was on an emergency call and couldn't come for a few hours. That turned out to be lucky: by the time she did arrive, both the horse's front fetlocks--ankles--were swollen and painful to the touch. One had cracked open and was oozing pus. Cellulitis. Unknown etiology: it "just happens." The vet gave him antibiotics and pain-relievers and wrapped his ankles. We got him home very late that night. The next morning we gave him more powerful antibiotics. He'll heal, it's just anyone's guess how long it will take. The swelling is down but not yet gone; the pus has disappeared, and the crack is clean and closing. This afternoon we'll find out whether he's still limping or not.

It's Wednesday. We leave for the rating--if in fact we do--on Friday morning. It's too late to find another horse for my daughter to take--we're still contemplating taking my mare, but I don't have a good feeling about using her for switch rides. It's a terrific blow, but it's also one that happens all the time with horses, which, for all their strength, sometimes seem like the most frail creatures on earth. This spring Zara Phillips, the daughter of Princess Anne and granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, shipped one of her horses to Kentucky for Rolex. As they were taking the horse out of his stall to go to dressage, he kicked out and cut his leg. She pulled him from the competition.

My daughter cried when her horse jumped so well, Saturday morning, but she hasn't cried about his lameness, not once. She's been practical and pragmatic and compassionate toward her horse. She hasn't bemoaned all the work she's done. Because two things are true: no matter what, she has become a better rider this summer; no matter what, bad things sometimes happen.

In short, she may not be able to take this examination, but she has already passed for horseman.