For 2014, My Competition Plans Are Flexible

Alba’s competitive goals have always been shrouded in a bit of a fog.

I should mention her that Alba’s competitive goals have always been shrouded in a bit of a fog. The fog started when she was left with us five years ago, because her former owner thought she was crazy. We expected the 15.1-hand mare would make a nice novice horse for a teenager or a small woman, but she turned out to be a tiger on cross-country and a horse who hid her scope because she only jumped as high as she had too. Soon, she won my heart with her workmanlike attitude and grit. She moved through beginner novice, novice and training levels in less than a year, and so she spent 2010, 2011 and 2012 learning her craft at preliminary.

Then, last March I decided it was time to move her up to intermediate level since all the classic-format three-day events, which I’d planned to make her career, were now gone. It was a tough decision, because I wasn’t 100-percent sure she had the scope, and I’d hate myself if I asked too much of her and broke her spirit, or worse. But she quickly allayed me concerns.

In 2013 we completed four of our six intermediate starts, all four with clear cross-country rounds. (We didn’t complete two events because I withdrew her before show jumping due to minor injuries she’d suffered on cross-country.) We finished the year by completing the CCI1* at Galway Downs with a fabulous cross-country round and good efforts in dressage and show jumping.

It was a solid year, one in which we each learned a great deal and in which my respect for her courage and work ethic only grew, along with my devotion to the little chestnut mare. But the only ribbon we won was a seventh place in a 10-horse division, an event in which she had her best show jumping round of the year.

The hard truth is that Alba doesn’t have the jumping scope to move up to advanced and doesn’t have the scope in her gaits to be a top scorer in dressage, so she has to become steadier in the bridle to get better scores. But her biggest weakness is show jumping. A ring filled with jumps has always seemed to remind her of the barrel racing she did before she came to me, and when she gets tense she doesn’t use her back and drops her hind legs, pulling rails with her.

We’re working hard to improve our dressage and show jumping, but I’m just not sure it’s worth continuing to compete her in FEI-sanctioned events. Maybe I should just enjoy her and get experience in intermediate horse trials, especially since I’m fortunate to have four promising younger horses coming behind her? Just doing horse trials would be about half as expensive (a horse trial entry and stabling is about $350; an FEI event is $700 to $800).

I had been planning to aim Alba for next November’s CCI2* at Galway Downs, but I’m not sure if that’s the best plan for her or for my checkbook. She’s about to turn 12, and I can tell that intermediate events are an effort for her, so I have to be careful to make sure she has time to recover between starts. So I’ve planned a spring schedule that I hope will provide some answers to my dilemma. I’m planning to aim Alba for the spring’s biggest West Coast event, hoping our performance there will provide some answers.

The event is the FEI-recognized CIC2* at Galway Downs on the last weekend in March. A CIC is an international horse trial, and successful completion of one is required to start in a CCI (three-day event). In FEI-sanctioned events, the show jumping is 2 inches bigger than in a horse trial (3’11” vs. 3’9”). The cross-country fences aren’t any bigger (although they can certainly be more demanding), but will the bigger show jumping fences be just a bridge too far? Will the added size make show jumping an even bigger source of penalty points, putting us pointlessly out of contention?

Well, I’m hoping that the Galway Downs CIC2*, and the two events leading up to it, will provide some answers. No matter what, my 15.1-hand mare will always be a superstar in my heart and mind.

The 2014 plan for Amani is a bit more concrete. Amani, who’s about to turn 7, completed five preliminary horse trials in 2012, all five with no cross-country jumping faults. Her dressage tests were pretty solid, although none threatened the leaders, but she lowered one to three rails in all five show jumping rounds. Plus, she never felt comfortable jumping at speed on cross-country, although she hopped through all the combinations as if they were just gymnastics I’d set up in our ring.

I’d planned to run her in the Galway Downs CCI1* last November, but, after sending in her entry, Heather and I decided she really wasn’t ready and scratched her. We decided instead to put her in dressage boot camp, especially after Heather sat on her for the first time and declared her weaknesses were caused by the fact that I hadn’t succeeded in making her straight or truly on my aids. So we decided that, since she’d proven her jumping ability and her courage, it was time to take a step back and fill in the gaps.

I’m pleased to say that Amani is blossoming in dressage boot camp. She’s becoming increasingly solid on my aids, increasingly attentive and responsive, and she’s really starting to swing her back as she pushes from behind. All of that is because of Heather’s work with Amani, and with Amani and me.

We’ve decided to not be in a hurry to compete her this year, to give her time to develop the muscles in her back and hindquarters she needs to strengthen her gaits and improve her performance in all three phases, but particularly in the dressage ring. As Heather said to me, “She’s young and she could be really good, so let’s take the time she needs.”

That’s a luxury I can take that most of my younger competitors often cannot. I’m almost 54 years old, and at this age I don’t have any team or international aspirations, so I don’t have any competitive mileposts that have to be accomplished in a certain time frame. Sure, I have competitive goals, goals that frame my training plans, but if they get interrupted, I can just make new plans that suit my horses and me.

So my goal for Amani is the Galway Downs CCI1* in November, but she’ll continue ins dressage boot camp for a few more months and won’t compete in a full horse trial this year before May.

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