Why I Decided To Stop Competing Alba

A few months ago I came to the difficult conclusion that it was time to stop competing my wonderful Quarter Horse mare Alba (who competes as Firebolt), and allow her to become a schoolmaster here at our Phoenix Farm.

Heart and trust made Alba and I a great cross-country team.

I didn’t make the decision because of soundness problems or because of old age (she’s only 12). I decided to stop because she’s gone as far as the rules allow her to go in eventing, so there was no point in continuing to ask her to give her maximum effort in almost every event.

Plus, after starting eight intermediate events (and completing six of them without cross-country jumping faults), she’d accomplished far, far more than we ever thought the 15.2-hand mare ever would when her former owner left her with us without a word in October 2008. And she did it mostly on heart, because she tries her hardest every minute of every day. In fact, on some days I wished she’d try a little less hard!

Unfortunately, the show jumping phase was her nemesis, largely because the only thing she’d ever done before she came to me at age 6 was barrel racing, and it had fried her over-eager brain. I think that show jumping was her weak phase because the jumps in an arena, with people sitting around it, reminded her too much of barrel racing. So she’d become so tense and stiff in her back and rush the jumps, causing her to drag her hind feet and hit the rails. We tried everything possible to address this weakness, and her jumping certainly improved, but that’s mental baggage that will never go away.

At the 3’9” intermediate horse trial height, the result was that we’d lower three to seven show jumps in each round. Those results strongly suggested that it was unlikely we’d ever be able to qualify for a CCI2*, because we’d first have to complete a CIC2*, where the show jumps are 3’11”, with four lowered rails or fewer. That’s what I meant when I said she’d gone as far as the rules allow her to, although I don’t think she quite has the scope to go advanced.

So I admitted to myself that there was little point in continuing to ask Alba to compete at intermediate. But I’m still having trouble accepting that I won’t get the privilege of riding her cross-country again. She was just awesome—she’d fly across the ground, always looking for the next jump to attack, and I could always count on her to figure out the question and land on her feet. I can’t think of another horse I’ve ever ridden who approached a cross-country course with such enthusiasm.

The video above is Alba’s round at last November’s CCI1* at Galway Downs. You can see more than a dozen more videos of her in action on the Ride One Video and YouTube sites.

Training and competing Alba has been the center of my riding life for the last six years, and I’m still adjusting to that not being the case any longer. Fortunately, she’s still full of health and in the first stall as you walk into the barn.

What’s Alba doing now? She’s a schoolmaster here at Phoenix Farm. We have three or four teenage students who’ve been taking lessons on her, learning what it feels like to ride a sensitive and highly strung horse who has a lot of buttons. Just yesterday, I took one of these girls galloping on her, and Alba turned on the after-burners going up the hill. After we pulled up, the student smiled in amazement. “I’ve never gone that fast before. That was incredible!” she said, beaming.

We may also breed Alba in a couple of years. But it will have to be by using embryo transfer. Living through Heather’s extremely difficult pregnancy with Wesley five years ago took a few years off my life, I fear, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Alba struggling through pregnancy, or worse.

I’ll admit that my decision to stop competing Alba was made easier by the fact that I have three younger and very promising horses to compete now, two of whom we bred. It simply made more sense to use my time and financial resources to further their careers than it did to keep going with Alba.

But I will always believe that Alba contributed greatly to whatever success I may be fortunate to have with her successors. She helped get me ready for them, teaching me so much about controlling my body and balance, giving me experience of riding the upper levels after years of riding young horses at the lower levels, and, above all, making me feel comfortable and confident over the big jumps.

Alba also reminded me, again and again, what it feels like to ride a horse who has a bottomless heart.

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