The voice on my answering machine was U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Director for Eventing Jim Wolf. His news put the crowning touch to a wonderful eventing season, after years of sometimes-disappointing effort (and tens of thousands of miles on my truck). The Team eventing selectors had named me to the squad for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Jerez, Spain–with both of my four-star horses: my $2000 ex-racehorse Poggio II and my student Leigh Mesher’s My Beau. In fact, I was the only rider short-listed with two horses.
How did I feel? Stunned. True, in 1999 I’d been selected for the Pan American Games squad after Rolex (my first three-star, where Beau and I finished 26th) and Punchestown (where Pogi and I finished 22nd). The next year, though, a fizzled four-star debut at Rolex 2000 forced me to look hard at how I was riding, what I needed to fix to move up to the next level, and how to do it while holding down a full-time firefighter’s job back in Washington state. (See Practical Horseman August 1999’s “Rolex-Really!” for how I fit eventing into “real life.”)
What’s brought all the pieces together since then? Along with making the most of every dollar and every minute, I’ve found ways to use all available sources of support and expertise, from eventing squad chef d’equipe Captain Mark Phillips to my long-time local instructor and my boarders. At the same time, I’ve learned to believe in myself and in the “home-grown” program that lets me compete at the top yet live where I live.
Helping a Good System Work Better
You won’t find my training program in any eventing book; it’s evolved out of my particular circumstances: As well as living 2700 miles west of “Eventing Central” on the East Coast, more than a day’s drive from the nearest advanced horse trial, and two-plus hours from the nearest schooling cross-country course, I have limited space for hacking to get horses fit. I don’t have a big name instructor watching me regularly (until recently, I did just one monthly lesson with Ruth Moore, who’s taught me since I was seven), or high-dollar owners (my husband Greg and I pay all of the horses’ expenses). But I make the most of what I have, and I’m not afraid to think for myself and solve my own problems.
I do more dressage training than most eventers, both for basic education and to compensate for riding out less. I rarely school even my advanced horses over stadium jumps bigger than 3-feet-9 or cross-country fences higher than 3-3; I want to show both my “big guys” and the off-the-track greenie I’m usually training for resale what they can do, not what they can’t. For the same reason, I don’t set them up to fail with awkward distances.
From my Pan Am Games introduction to the high standards of USET veterinarians and farriers, I took home a foundation for upgrading my care and management. I now jog horses weekly on our gravel driveway to check for soundness. I ice legs after every gallop and jump school (which I never used to do).
Once a supplements skeptic, I listened to other top riders and USET caregivers and now give my horses supplements (from the California-based Adeptus company) for joint health and weight gain, and they seem to recover better after three-days. Instead of administering the joint-health-enhancing drugs Adequan? and Legend? haphazardly (as in, “when I can afford them”), I plan so they can be part of my routine preparation for big competitions.
As I improved my management program, I kept on with the training/conditioning system that got me to Rolex 1999, the Pan Am Games and the USET Developing Rider list. But then I made my first trip to Florida, for the winter 2000 eventing season…
Fixing What Wasn’t Broke
Going to Florida entailed trading lots of shifts with co-workers, taking some vacation time, and packing my trailer with everything I’d need to live out of it for a while. But it promised to be worth the trouble. I planned to compete at my first four-star, Rolex, in April with Pogi and Beau; the January start of Florida’s eventing season meant I could start preparing for Rolex sooner. And I could attend (free!) a series of Mark Phillips’s East Coast clinics during the winter and spring circuits.
But as I watched the top riders in Florida (as I’d watched and learned the previous year at Pan Am), I started thinking my way of training was all wrong. Jumping schools, for instance: At a USET training session shortly before our first competition, Mark was helping us sharpen our horses by schooling over a 4-foot to 4-foot-3 course.
This was just what Woodstock (the then eight-year-old ex-racehorse I own with my mother and Chris Gianini) and Beau needed before their first event–but not Pogi. With him, it’s not about the jump, but about making him rideable to it. That’s something I can accomplish more easily over smaller fences and gymnastics; full-sized courses leave him wound up and harder to ride. But I didn’t have the confidence to say “Mark, I don’t think it’s the best thing for this horse right now”–so at the competition, Pogi was running through my hand, still wired by the big course we’d jumped earlier.
Then there were Pogi’s cross-country issues: He’s very sensitive, opinionated and strong, and I’d been letting him do things a bit his own way. He tended to speed up to the fences, sometimes running himself right to the base. Mark warned me that, to handle the technical questions we’d face at Rolex, my horse needed to be more willing to listen. He suggested I ride cross-country at a controlled pace until Pogi learned that staying tractable was as much a part of his job as jumping.
Unfortunately, I misinterpreted this good advice to mean I needed to ride at a canter, not a gallop–and Mark (busy preparing for the 2000 Olympics) didn’t see Pogi run again that spring, so didn’t realize I’d misunderstood. I started fighting Pogi to the base of every fence, and he stopped thinking about doing his job and focused on fighting back. We got to Rolex having spent every preparatory horse trial fighting around cross-country at 400 meters per minute (Training Level speed). Now we were supposed to switch gears and jump a four-star course at 570 mpm!
A little voice in my head told me we shouldn’t try this, but again I didn’t trust my judgment enough to act on it. We were technically more than qualified, having done well at two three-stars in 1999; a four-star was the logical next step. And I’d rearranged my entire life (and spent several thousand dollars) to bring the horses east for Rolex. But the partnership I needed with Pogi wasn’t there; we had a fall in the water jump. We finished the rest of the course, but I decided to withdraw before stadium. With Beau, I completed the event but had a stop cross-country. I felt I just wasn’t riding either horse well that day.
Sorting it Out
When Mark came through the barn for his usual post-cross-country talk with each of his riders, he sat me down and told me I couldn’t keep getting in Pogi’s face by fighting him with my hands. Using my upper body to slow the horse in front of jumps, he pointed out, I was actually making Pogi go faster by getting behind the motion. I needed to stay with the movement, keep my hands down and let him go. (Mark also thought the bit I was using, an “elevator” type of three-ring snaffle that had a mild mouthpiece but gave me more leverage on Pogi’s mouth than a regular snaffle, was part of the problem. Later, as I’ll explain, he helped me find an alternative.)
And that wasn’t all. If I hoped to ride for the Team, Mark told me, I’d need to improve my dressage. A double-clear on endurance day doesn’t assure you of a place in the top 10 unless it’s preceded by a great dressage test. Mark wants his riders to score in the 40s. My Rolex scores, about 60 with Pogi and 52 with Beau, were well short of that goal.
I had a long talk with myself on the 60-hour drive back to Washington. Yes, I’d made a green mistake in abandoning effective parts of my training program, but there were things I did need to change. And for the amount of driving, money and time off from work involved, I didn’t want to ship east with my horses again unless I felt they could do well, not just finish.
Back home, one of the first problems I tackled was Pogi and bitting. I needed control if he got carried away with himself, but his mouth is so sensitive that even a plain snaffle’s pressure bothers him. We do our dressage tests and almost all of our work at home in a soft rubber Nath? snaffle. I read up on different bits. Then I discovered, through trial and error, that Pogi went well in a hackamore.
Mark, consulted by phone, was fine with this solution for show-jumping (it’s what I’m using now), but thought a hackamore wouldn’t help me pick Pogi’s head up if he got too low in front galloping cross-country. Mark put me in touch with the makers of Myler bits, who designed an ingenious hackamore/bit combination with a straight snaffle mouthpiece that only comes into play when the reins are very short. It enables me to be soft with my hands. That makes Pogi happier, so he’s not always throwing his head up.
For new ideas on riding technique, I watched videos of British Olympian Ian Stark riding the famous Murphy Himself, who behaved a lot like Pogi on cross country–brilliant over fences but (at first anyway) basically out of control. I also read a book by Ian that described his experiences in the two or three years he spent figuring out how to ride Murphy, especially over combinations. (Later, when Ian and I were both at Rolex 2001, I got to talk about this with him in person.) His key to a good cross-country ride on Murphy was to adjust his stride and speed between the jumps; then, if he softened his hand in front of the fence, Murphy would lower his head (instead of raising it to fight the bit) and focus on the jump.
Now my job was to put the new equipment and the new information together. That meant learning to trust Pogi: The softer my contact, the less likely he was to run through my hand or overjump a fence. Instead of trying this out over advanced cross-country fences, we got comfortable with the softer ride at home and at little local shows. There I found that, yes, if I fought to keep him from running to the base of the fence, he fought back and made a stronger bid the next time–but if I softened my hand and stayed with his motion, he’d back himself off from the next fence.
To raise the quality of dressage for all my horses, I made a commitment to weekly lessons with Seattle-based Grand Prix rider Debbie (Fornia) DeWitt. She’s sharpened my awareness of ringcraft: how to use the ring, where each movement should begin and end, and exactly what detail judges are looking at.
The lessons with Debbie are a big increase in my formal instruction (and instructional budget). Supplementing that are three or four days a year riding with Mark at USET-sponsored winter training sessions on the West Coast, plus course walks and coaching at spring horse trials on the East Coast. (Thank goodness he’s accessible by telephone the rest of the year!) I’m also doing monthly sessions–not really formal lessons–with Ruth Moore, who watches me ride and shares her perception of how my horses are going.
And for additional eyes on the ground, I have my boarders: Novice, Training and Prelim eventers who can tell as well as an FEI coach if my horse is straight or my body is creeping forward.
I also use local shows for progress checks on both my greenies and top horses. If a horse pulls rails or gets strong and inattentive to the jumps, I go home and school over small gymnastics to make him think about where he’s putting his feet. Most organizers in my area allow cross-country schooling after the competition; that’s a bonus for all my horses and if (for instance) a youngster has a problem at the water jump, I can take him back out afterward and let him splash around in it until he’s comfortable.
A relatively light competitive year in 2001 gave me indications I was on the right track. At Rolex, my dressage focus paid off with a great test on Beau, earning a 44; though we had six cross-country time penalties and lowered two show-jumping rails, we still finished an encouraging 13th. At Chase Creek in Canada, riding Woodstock, I won the Intermediate three-day.
I planned to head east with all three horses in 2002 to give Woodstock his advanced three-day debut at the Foxhall MBNA CCI***, run Pogi at Rolex and–emptying my savings account to fulfill a dream I’d had since childhood–compete at Badminton with Beau. Of course, I knew the USET selectors would also be evaluating me and my horses, but I tried not to get too caught up in that thought–I’ve been around this sport long enough to know how quickly things can change.
We arrived at the southeastern eventing mecca of Southern Pines, N.C., in February. Woodstock and Beau won their Advanced divisions at Southern Pines Horse Trials (with dressage scores in the 30s!); Pogi was seventh. At the Beaulieu North American Classic, Pogi’s final run before Rolex, Pogi was eighth; Beau was third. And, being back on big Advanced courses with Pogi after a year of smaller stuff, I found that although I’d never be able to half-halt him five strides from the fence and set him up the way I do Beau and Woodstock, he and I were finally reaching an understanding about jumping.
The rest of spring 2002 was the kind of ride eventers dream about. In a sport where a stone bruise on the wrong day can ruin six months of preparation, I managed to have my three Advanced horses in the ribbons at major three-day events. Woodstock conquered cross-country and stadium without time or jumping penalties at Foxhall to finish on his dressage score of 52 for second place.
Despite an afternoon start time that put us on Rolex’s cross country in a downpour that caused many riders to withdraw, Pogi (who’d scored 55.8 in dressage) jumped clear with only four time faults; then he left all the stadium rails up to finish third–and win the Best Conditioned award. At Badminton, Beau had an impressive 42.6 in dressage and had only 6.4 time faults cross-country. Despite 12 show-jumping faults we finished 11th of 85 entries, the only U.S. combination to finish.
On the Tuesday after Badminton I was back in Redmond, Wash., and back on my “day job,” without a lot of time to sit and reflect on how great everything’s been. But it has been great: I brought Pogi and Woodstock from just-off-the-track to where they are now; and though Beau had competed through intermediate when Leigh bought him, he’d only jumped clear one time at that level when I started riding him in 1999 and got special permission to run him Advanced at Pinetop that year (he won the event).
Now, I feel the pride I imagine a parent feels watching a child get a diploma. I’m grateful that the Meshers were willing to let us ship Beau to England–and I’m grateful to Pogi, whose Rolex prize money paid the return-shipping bill. As for the WEG, since I’ve used up all my vacation, I’m trying to figure out how I’ll get the time to go.
There’s one more decision the selectors and I may have to make: If both Pogi and Beau are sound and ready when it’s time to ship to Spain, I know their shipping costs will be taken care of by the Team; and I’ve been lucky enough to get a U.S. Olympic Committee grant toward my own expenses. But at some point before competition begins in Jerez, we’ll have to choose one of the two for me to ride as I help represent the U.S. at the Games. That problem’s a luxury to have.
Amy Tryon rode Poggio II as part of the gold-medal-winning team at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain. Two years later, they were members of the team that earned a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.
This story previously appeared in the September 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For Amy’s opinion on the current debate concerning the short (“Olympic” or “without steeplechase”) format for three-day events versus the traditional long (“classic” or “with steeplechase”) format, see the “Center Aisle” column in the May 2005 issue of Practical Horseman.