Oct 27, 2009

We are safely home and finally able to write the conclusion to our Fair Hill 2009 story.

Saturday’s weather at Fair Hill could not have been less cooperative and the light showers that were meant to clear out Friday night were in fact torrential rain that dumped buckets all night and all morning.  Just driving to the event in the morning was precarious.  Meanwhile, in stabling, many of the horses found the circus tent style roof insufficient and had bath tubs for stalls, standing up to their ankles in water. (Don’t forget it was about 30 degrees overnight!) I was fortunate in that Finian was not one of those unlucky horses, but the constant dripping of ice cold water from the many leaks in the tent was still plenty enough to send a chill down your spine. All of this, unpleasant as it was, was nothing compared to the challenges of running an event on the water laden ground on cross country. 

The officials took an extra hour deciding what they could do. They debated canceling the event, weighing the risks of running, and racking their brains for ways to make the footing as safe as possible.  Ultimately they chose to run over a modified course where most of the technical fences had been removed and the speed had been reduced.  They were mindful that anything with a narrow face would have 150 horses jumping from the exact same spot, while a 16′ face would allow riders later in the day to pick a different place for take off and landing, and hopefully still have some turf to jump from.  With the choice to go ahead with the event, about half of the riders withdrew, particularly those whose horses had previous injuries.  This was my overwhelming instinct as well, but I was advised to give it a try and learn a thing or two about riding in the mud with the idea that I could always pull up if I didn’t like how it was going.  Since I went so late in the day, there was plenty of time for me mull over the situation, and plenty of horses to watch go.  Indeed, the first 10 horses went out and clipped around the now very straightforward course easily, but as each horse ran, the turf churned up to slop and the horses found less and less to push off of.  They began looking more tired from the exertion, and what was a very simplified course by modern standards, became a herculean effort within just a few horses.  While the crews tried to keep gravel at the base of the jumps, there was nothing they could do about all the galloping lanes and it was left to the riders to pick their way around the course, looking for the best path to slog through.

When I brought Finian out to jump I was impressed with how well he handled the mud, and while each jump was effectively 6″-8″ taller than it appeared because of the footing giving way, it didn’t feel like a slick mud, and he seemed to be jumping out of it wonderfully.  That gave me the confidence to set out on course with conviction and an attitude of “lets see what we can do”.  That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous.  He was pretty quiet out of the box, and settled in to a workmanlike rhythm very well.  He seemed to be very focused and rideable at the first few tables and through the sunken road at 5, so I was a little disappointed that he ran out at the 6th fence, a corner going downhill through the forest.  I think his attention was a bit too much on the forest and the crowd of people, and evidence that he is still green about those situations.  I felt like I gave him a good shot at it, so blame it more on a lack of training than on the particular ride I gave.  As I galloped on I had strike one in my mind for deciding if and when to pull him up, looking for the slightest indication that he was not right, or loosing his confidence.  He went on to power up the long hill the event is famous for, and to jump through the few technical questions on the course beautifully.  Even though he pulled a shoe at the top of the course, he was still powering along three quarters of the way around, when we had another right handed corner down a hill, off of a bend.  At this point he gave it a bit more of a legitimate effort than the first corner, but he was slipping and sliding down the hill, missing a shoe, and ended up putting his feet on the jump and sliding on past somehow.  For me, that was reason enough to call it a day and leave with what was left of his confidence intact.  He jumped the alternate corner very willingly and I pulled him up.

In the strange way that results often don’t reflect the reality, everyone, Mark Phillips and myself included, were very pleased with the ride.  Finian was galloping better than ever, and though I didn’t go quite to the finish, he was still full of running with only a little bit to go.  Many factors that are much harder to influence, such as rideability and frame of mind were greatly improved from the past, and as Mark said casually, “corners are easy to train”. So that’s our homework for the winter.  I feel like all the little pieces are falling into place, one by one, and oh so slowly, but none the less successfully.

On a very sad note, a good friend of mine had a heart breaking weekend when her phenomenal young horse severed a tendon.  He underwent surgery to try to repair it, and has had subsequent surgeries since.  She is also on the Developing Rider list and her horse is the same age as Finian, making the whole situation hit home even harder.  I can only imagine the devastation of such an abrupt end to such a promising career, and it is a fear never far from my mind.  These situations make me that much more grateful to have a healthy, sound horse on the trailer home, and serve as my reminders to ere on the side of caution, pull up when it seems like the right choice, and to take my time with Finian.  It is disappointing to end his season having not finished what we started, but given the opportunity, I’d do it the same again… with maybe a little less driving across the country.