Monday, March 01, 2010

On to The Finish Line

Horses I Have Known: Part 5

Russsell and I evented successfully for a while longer. I know we placed again, but nothing compared to the big victory at the Monmouth County Hunt Club Trials. I think the next year the MCH altered the course to run the Young Riders Qualifying trials, and soon after, for whatever the reasons, abandoned the eventing concept altogether. It was sad because the grounds were a perfect venue. Now, of course, as I have said, there is an eventing course at the Horse Park adjacent to the Hunt Club, so the sport still has a home.

As I said, Russell and I were just rolling along, happy in the event world, until the dreadful day of discovering we were in over our least I was. Russell probably would have been fine with a bolder rider. We went to an event in south New Jersey, where we'd been before. But now they had upped the stakes. Added to the course was a drop fence off a bank with a jump at the top. You had to jump the jump to go off the bank. The bank was about 3'6" down with the perhaps two foot jump at the top, making the full drop at about 5 feet. Also added to the course was a trakehner jump. This consisted of a telephone pole over a ditch. The problem was that the ditch had absolutely no ground line and was simply a lined wooded box under the telephone pole. At the end of the course was a combination jump of a vertical to another trakehner and then a final vertical. That one was just big, at maximum height. I remember when I walked the course that I was a little concerned about the bank, very concerned about the first trakehner and interested in the combination. One of the trainers walking his students through the course told them to really gallop on at the combination, because you'd need lots of impulsion to get through. I had a different take. I felt the horse needed to be balanced and well in hand in order to negotiate the striding between the jumping efforts.

My dressage test was OK, and off we went on the cross country. Well, off I went, anyhow! At the top of the bank, Russell simply stopped, and I kept going. I must have somersaulted in the air because I landed on my feet at the bottom of the bank facing him, still holding the reins of the bridle that had slipped off his head. Back then a fall did not eliminate you, so I somehow sorted out my tack, clambered back on, and, nearly making the same mistake again of getting myself too far forward somehow managed to convince Russell it was OK to jump and down we went, as a team.

The trakehner was soon after. We headed for it and as we did, I felt Russell start to question. Had I been the proper, bold event rider, I should have kicked him on, but instead, I was as unsure as he was. We slowed to a walk, and finally, never once stopping his forward motion, Russell stepped down into the wooden lined ditch and clunked his poor chin on the telephone pole. We were done in for sure. I had no idea or the courage to tell him when and how to jump and he had no idea that the thing before him was actually a jump. To this day, I'm pretty well convinced that had there been a ground line...a raised element of some kind on the ground in front of that darn ditch, we might have figured it out. But the ditch was just there, totally undefined in front of the cross pole with no visual clue that it was there until you were right on top of it. We refused out.

But, again, back in the day, I was still allowed to continue the course for schooling purposes if the steward allowed it, and he did. Through the woods we went in fine fashion, mastering every other fence with no problems. Then, we headed out towards the combination. At this point, Russell knew we were heading for home, and was trying to gallop flat out. "Flat" was exactly what I didn't want, so I brought him down...all the way to a trot.

Here's the story from another viewpoint. Several of my friends were standing at that combination to watch. They said as we came back to the trot, the rest of the gallery gasped. "Oh, no! She's not going to trot up to this thing!!" My friends just kind shrugged. After all, they'd seen me take 4 foot fences from the trot plenty of times. What was a 3'6" fence to me? Sure enough, with Russell under perfect control, we cleared all three elements without the least bit of trouble. I think even I heard the second gasp as I left the fences behind.

We crossed the finish line, and we were done. Our eventing days were over. I knew that if we kept going, one or both of us was going to get hurt. The courses were posing more and more questions and I was not ready to answer them. Russell's trust in me had been proven when he'd walked into that ditch and had been willing to walk into it again...he never once tried to run out...and I had failed him. It had been fun, but it was time to admit I'd had enough.

I do remember doing one more event at a lower level just so we could finish up our career on a good note. But from then on, Russell became a dressage horse.

We still did some jumping classes. Russell even let a young rider win on him in a good sized equitation class. He put in an almost flawless jumping round for her. All she had to do was steer and look good--he did the rest.

And, we had fun. Some of the best competitions were the hunter paces. Teams of two riders ride cross country over optional jumps trying to match the time pace riders had ridden earlier in the day. The idea is to try to maintain a good hunting pace the whole way. There's no real strategy. You just go out, gallop in the good footing, trot when it's not so good, and walk wherever you need to to be safe. Russell and a partner won twice and placed a few times and had a grand time.

And then came the fateful day. We were about half way out on a pace when Russell took a bad step and pulled up lame. Fortunately, one of the huntsmen was not too far away and, although it took some doing, we managed to get the horse trailer to us--we lucked out as he broke down near an accessible road. He limped on board and I drove us over to the horse show at the Horse Park nearby. I knew, since a recognized show was going on that there would be a veterinarian on the show grounds, and I didn't want to fool around if something was seriously wrong.

As luck would have it, Dr. Stephen Dey, the one vet in the area I knew really well and had relied on for many a problem was the vet on the show grounds. I pulled the trailer up to his truck, unloaded Russell and before his last hoof hit the ground, Dr. Dey said, "It's his foot. You'll have to bring him to the farm for xrays." He told me to keep Russ on stall rest until the appointment, and we'd go from there.

A day or so later, Russell was much better, but we headed to the doctor's farm. Xrays were taken and it wasn't long before I heard the news--navicular.

The years of jumping had taken their toll. I no longer had a sound horse.

But it wasn't the end of riding, or competing. I won't leave you hanging with this one. A course of isoxuprene, which dilates the blood vessels and increases circulation was the treatment of choice and Russell regained his soundness. I still jumped now and then, but for the first time since I'd owned him, I realized my Boy was mortal. It was time to consider some options for my riding future.

Nothing, no matter how wonderful, lasts forever.


  1. Wow. Your adventures with Russell are riveting! It's so touching to read about his trust and faith in you. Good for you, that you didn't push him to finish the course when you knew one of you might get hurt. If only more people had that attitude today. I'm excited to read more of your stories as they come up.

  2. Anonymous2:30 PM

    An amazing horse, and wonderful stories about him and your partnership. I remember one of those telephone poles over ditch combos at an event I rode at in college - this one had a big horizontal x over the ditch - ugh!

  3. Superb story. I understand why you quit.
    We need to be the safety net of our horses. I fwe do not know what to do, why expecting them to be bolder than us.
    Wise decision.
    So sad for the navicular.

  4. Russell and you sure made a good team. You were wise to stop the jumping (although he probably loved it). Wish more people nowadays had the morals to do what's best for their horses. Love hearing about your adventures with Russell.

  5. What a journey together. Russell sounds like a horse with a lot of heart and a great partner to have.

  6. I'm always amazed when you so casually mention jumping four foot fences from the trot.

    You and Russell have some great stories--off to read part six!