Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shoeless Wonder?

I'm pretty sure this is an earlier event photo as the fence is a bit smaller. I don't have any other cross country photos. Somewhere there may be a video, if I have it, but otherwise, the photographers seemed to be pretty scant at my events back then. Ironic that both pictures have a barrel jump as I think they were at different venues. I love how forward he looks here. The jump is nothing to him and he's just galloping on. There's nothing quite like the feeling when a horse is committed to his job like that.
Horses I Have Known: Part 4

Current news: Scott and I decided to pull Tucker's other shoe, so he is now barefoot. The footing/snow/mud are going to be pretty bad for the next month, and I figured I'd be calling Scott every week to replace lost shoes. Scott took a good look at his feet and decided they were in good shape, so it was worth a try. He too agreed that we'd have trouble with the footing for the rest of winter. Please note: Scott also said, "Now it's going to be all over the Internet that you've gone barefoot." Guess he's right, but don't spread it around. *G* I have the supplement Caroline suggested on order since none of the feed suppliers around here seem to stock it. (Might have tried a bit further south, but chose a farmer's co-op near where I used to board.) We'll see how it goes.

But back to the story.

I don't seem to have many pictures of Russell eventing, and the little set of dressage pictures I did find are pretty bad, so you'll have to trust me on this one. I did find copies of a number of scored tests I rode on him, and at training, first, and second level, our scores were nearly all up in the 60% range so we did pretty well. At least one first place showed up, some seconds, and a few other scattered ribbons, so we were competitive. I schooled him to third level before we were done competing, so that wasn't too bad.

But Russell didn't want to be a dressage horse. He wanted to jump, and jump he did. Our first event, as I recall, was at Amwell Valley. The course is long gone, but it was a nice combination of forest and field. Russell ran out at the first fence, as he really had limited experience jumping cross country fences. (Princeton Riding Center had a small course, but not much and we were pretty green to the whole eventing thing.) But once he figured out we were supposed to go over things instead of around them, there was no stopping him. We finished the rest of the course clean and had a clean stadium round as well. I don't think we placed, but who cared? We had a blast!!

Best of all, I had discovered the sheer pleasure of knowing exactly when I was going to ride instead of suffering a long day at the show grounds waiting for my class to be called. I was hooked!

And obviously, so was Russell. He loved it. I honestly can't remember his ever refusing a jump until we moved up to a more competitive level and got in a bit over our heads. (Not our bodies, but our heads....more on that later.) Our dressage wasn't always the best but the rest was always wonderful.

My favorite was our first time out at Training Level--back then, fences of 3'3"-3'6". (It has changed now.) This was a course at what is now the New Jersey Horse Park in the rolling countryside of the wildlife management area. Some of the jumps are still there although the new cross country course--a three star international course--is in a much more confined area.

It had rained for several days before the event and the dressage footing was a bit "iffy." Our score was on the dismal side and had us lying in 9th or 10th at the start of cross country. I'd walked the course at least twice and had all my plans made. I had five fences that worried me a bit. The first was a rather narrow set of rails off line from another fence, the kind that invited a run out if you didn't get a good line. The second had (You'll like this, Caroline.) a hedge sticking up out of it close to 10 inches above maximum height. (The trick here is for the horse to brush through the greenery, so the added height was legal.) The third was a combination of fences. The first was off a sharp left turn, before a dirt road crossing, and the second was slightly off line, and down into the woods on the other side of the road. The fourth one was a hay bale "window" set at the bottom of a steep hill. The last one was a slight drop fence to a ditch. (Russell did not like ditches at all.)

I decided to really focus on my steering at the first one, close my eyes on the hedge and pray, take the long way around on the combination (all the other course walkers seemed to be deciding to cut the corner and approach the first fence from the left, forcing them to then turn right to take the fence into the woods.), and get a straight line to the second fence. For the hay bales, I intended to trot down the steep hill, not worried about whether Russell would jump, but rather concerned about galloping down the hill itself, and getting too flat to be able to jump. By the time we would get to the ditch, I hoped we'd have enough momentum to just go through before he realized what was happening.

We started off, and by the second fence-- a stone wall in the forest-- I was in tears. I could feel Russell's absolute committment under me, and I knew all I had to do from then on was steer and hang on. The narrow fence? Simple? The hedge? Well the photographer had a picture of me that later showed up in a national magazine and to say that I was left behind..."hailing a cab" is a suitable description, as was pretty clear Russell jumped the full 4'6" and didn't brush through anything. My choice of the long option paid off and we hit both fences at the road perfectly and galloped on. The hay bales? Well, Russell would have no patience with trotting anywhere. We galloped full tilt down the hill and through without a second thought. (I didn't have time to think anyhow.) I almost lost the track I was supposed to follow to the ditch jump which was set in a hedge row. Then I heard people yelling, "Heads up, rider coming through!!" There was another rider stuck in between the drop jump and the ditch, which her horse had refused. She dodged to the left just as I arrived. Frankly, I'm not sure I could have stopped if I tried. Russell knew his job and we sailed through, over the ditch and out with the stuck rider urging her horse to follow our lead. One more big log before the finish line flashed under us as I gave out a shout of joy and we were across the line, fault free. Despite my choice of the long option, we didn't have any time faults either.

When I looked at the results of the cross country, Russell and I had moved up to about 4th or 5th place. Apparently the short option at the road crossing had caught a good number of my competitors off guard. Now we were in the ribbons.

Remember the rain? The jumping field for the stadium was a quagmire. It was heavy mud. The kind where the horse sank in up to his pasterns and by the time my division was called, the footing was really sticky. There were some tricky lines again and one narrow fence on a turn to the right. I watched a few rounds before me and there was one refusal after another. Some missed the narrow fence and others simply struggled. Then it was our turn. To this day, I do not know how he did it. I'd get Russell to the bottom of the fence, and I could feel him sink in the mud, and he'd launch himself over. All I had to do was get him to the jump and he'd figure out how to get us up in the air. He never touched a rail and, as it proved later was one of the only clean rounds of the day. I'm in tears even now remembering that feat. There was one fence in a double combination that felt impossible once we got there--the take off footing was so bad. But every inch of Russell's body committed to getting us over it and over it we went.

The competition was over. I was sure I'd placed, but where? The announcer began calling the winners in reverse order. She passed fourth place and still didn't call our number. Third place...nothing. And then, I started to run up the hill to the secretary's stand. Second place...someone else. There was no doubt. We were in first. My marvelous, amazing event horse had won one of the biggest events in the area at that time.

Incredible heart. Super athletic ability. And all those hours of gymnastic schooling. Russell could jump almost anything within his scope from almost any spot, in almost any conditions, because that's how he had been trained. He knew how to jump. He won on that stadium course because we had jumped hundreds of cross rails and been faced with dozens of jumping questions in exercise after exercise. He'd learned to be supple in the dressage, understood how to adjust his stride, to change his balance, and knew his job to the letter.

He was an event horse.


  1. No, you were an eventing team.

  2. As I read through this I have to admit I got a little teary eyed. I love a horse like Russell, what an athlete and a horse with a lot of heart. He sounds like one in a million. You were a great team and he obviously loved you and his knew his job and most of all enjoyed his life.

  3. Anonymous5:40 PM

    Wonderful story! It sure argues for all around training. Keep the stories going!

  4. Bra-Vo Jean! What a boy! Whatta story! To mimic Kate . . . more please!

  5. I love the photo. It really shows hopw fit he was. Really athletic horse!

    Beautiful writing, I was in tears reading your story. What a horse of a lifetime!

    I have been thinking, it seems that in a rider lifetime came along ONE horse who makes the rider. In your case it is Russell.

    I laughted out loud about Tucker being barefoot. I thought that you saw the light at last ;-P
    Just teasing. I hope Tucker will strive barefoot and that you won't need to shoe him despise his club foot.

  6. Wow, what a boy. If Izzy has half his heart, I'll be well off.

  7. don't know how i missed this.... tucker? barefoot? hope he takes to it (although Scott won't earn as much LOL).

    well done Russell R & you on that show jumping....

  8. I'm having so much fun catching up on this story! And I don't even have to wait a day for the next part to come out!

    Russell sounds terrific; what a crazy event!

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