Three-Day Jitters, Yesterday And Today

I’m writing this week’s blog at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event, where I’m running my wonderful mare Alba in the CCI1*. The days just before a three-day event are always a jittery time, and I certainly do feel jittery, but it’s a bit different this time than in the past. I’ll try to explain why.

Before we moved here to California and started our own training business, building up to a three-day event was a much more focused, more all-consuming thing to me than it is now—primarily because I was an amateur with only one horse to ride and compete. It was sort of an all-or-nothing deal: You build up for it with that one horse, and then, if he goes lame or gets sick, you’re done, reeling in disappointment.

Plus, when you have only one horse, every event you do—and you might only do six or eight in a year—is a big deal.

These days, I’m blessed to have five or six horses to compete, and I ride in 10 or 12 vents each year. So each competition isn’t such a big deal, and that’s a state of affairs that is, generally speaking, helpful. It’s certainly helpful as you’re getting a horse fit and sharp for a three-day, because it keeps the butterflies only flying low around your stomach and your brain for the month before. When you have several horses to ride in two or three other events before the three-day event, you’re much too preoccupied with all those other details to get worried about the three-day event.

That is until I load the horse in the trailer and get in the truck to head down the road. Then I start to worry—Is she fit enough? All I need is her passport, right, and no other stupid paperwork? She did get the stupid flu vac, right? And the vet put the proper notation for it in the passport, right? Those are the big things I worry about.

So we set sail for Galway Downs—550 miles south of us, in Temecula, Calif.—just after 12:30 p.m. on Monday, arriving here just before midnight. The drive is a mentally arduous one, because we have to drive through the traffic of Oakland and Los Angeles, and in between we have to climb and descend the 3,000-foot mountains known as “The Grapevine.” So I thank my truck at the beginning and the end of the trip.<

During this trip, I had a lot of time to think about Alba (show name: Firebolt) and this three-day event in relation to our journey together.

Alba and I have been together five years now, as I’ve guided her from a 6-year-old who’d only ever barrel raced up to eventing’s intermediate level. She’s done far more than we ever would have dreamed would be possible after she was left with us, and it’s largely because of her incredibly big heart and generous temperament. At only 15.1 hands, she’s the “Little Engine That Could.”

I like to say that Alba and I are on a journey without a destination. My only goal with her? To see what we can learn to do together. At this point, she doesn’t have to win any specific ribbon or ever reach any higher level than she already has. She has a place in our lives and our hearts forever.

But it does matter very much to me that we look like we belong there. I don’t want people to be saying, “Oh, there’s John riding that silly little red mare. I don’t know why he bothers.” I don’t really worry about that as much as I used to, because she’s proven that she can jump the cross-country jumps with most anybody.

These days, though, final places are more often determined by scores in the dressage ring and the show jumping ring than on the cross-country course, especially in the horse trials. And show jumping is by far Alba’s weakest phase, because it requires her to stay relaxed in her back, so she can bring her feet up. If we could do two cross-country courses and not have to show jump, we’d have won a lot more ribbons.

Perhaps this hasn’t felt like the usual three-day event build-up because I’ve really been aiming her for the CCI2* all year, not the CCI1*. Alba finished second in the classic-format CCI1* here at Galway Downs in 2011, but we didn’t achieve a qualifying score there because we lowered too many show jumps. The lack of that score has haunted us throughout this year, as we’ve moved up to intermediate. She’s completed four intermediate events, but, because of show jumping, only two have been qualifying scores, and they weren’t in the two events where we needed them.

When it became clear we wouldn’t qualify for the CC2* in early October, I decided to run Alba in the CCI1* to try to get that missing score, hoping that next year we’ll be able to run a CCI2* or two.

I don’t mean to suggest that it feels anti-climactic to “only” be doing the CCI1*, because that’s not correct at all. A CCI1* is very much a challenge —especially with what I’ve seen so far of the changes Ian Stark has made to his cross-country course— but I do approach this three-day event with a great deal less uncertainty than I did in 2011.

Last time the question “can she do it?” lingered in the air above us. This time I know she can do it—she’s two years farther along in her training, and she’s been doing much harder dressage and jumping tests.

But we have, in the last few months, reached a new level of mutual communication, the result of her increased strength and sophistication, especially her confidence in the aids, in my aids. So now she reacts correctly to half-halts that used to have no effect, which gets us to the jumps in a rather different attitude than we used to get there.

So this weekend I’m hoping that competing in the CCI1* will help us cement the correctness of that communication, that it will pave the way for our future work. If it does, we should be in the hunt for a ribbon in this 53-horse field.

I have found myself lately remembering what David O’Connor, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist who’s now our team’s coach, told me years ago. He told me, “In a three-day event, if you finish in the top 10, then it means you’ve done your job. To place higher, you have to have some luck.”

I’d like for Alba and I to finish in the top 10 among this big and competitive field. It would definitely mean that we’ve done our job.