Aiken, breaking my heart.

This is us.

With the new commitment to the dressage ring, I recently discovered that around me, recognized dressage shows in the winter are rare to non-existent. Queens either flee south or simply train and take lessons all winter in preparation for spring. Super if you only do dressage, but I am juggling dressage and hunter shows, which limits available weekends. I would like to take advantage of time in the ring if I can find it, and waiting until April to show was frustrating to me, since I was anxious to get started on First Level…

With a little research, I discovered Aiken offered both dressage and hunter shows. jackpot! Stable View Farm (new to me) offered a clinic with Silva Martin, followed by a recognized Dressage show, and the same weekend Highfields (not new to me) was offering an A (National) show for the weekend, including a national hunter derby. I couldn’t believe my luck. My only hesitation was Aiken in February has a somewhat impossible weather pattern to predict, and these were outdoor facilities. The heck with it, I sent my money in, found an AIRBNB host, and packed my bags. I had a horse for each facility, the well traveled and complacent Westin for the hunters, and the less traveled and sometimes anxious Sandoro, who had limited experiences away from home.

I knew nothing about Stable View, but as the gates automatically rolled open as we creeped up the driveway on Monday afternoon, I didn’t think I would be disappointed. There were carefully constructed and beautiful barns on either side, houses, paddocks, all unfolding around us, even one of the areas infamous Painted Ponies to greet us on the inside of the gates.

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We found our barn easily (all stabling info/maps/guidelines are emailed prior to arrival) and discovered the stalls we were assigned opened from either side, were 12×14, and lined with healthy interlocking mats. We chose which side to work from, bedded the stalls and set the horses up as quickly as we could after the long drive. It was warm, so they were happy to be undressed and roll in the fresh shavings. I poked around, found the bathroom immediately across from our stalls, and there was even a washer and drier we could use for $1 each in our aisle. The two wash stalls were also rubber matted, large, clean, held a shovel and broom, and the long hose reached our stalls. Perfect.

Then I discovered the rings. I nearly fainted from happiness. One large covered, one large outdoor, and one dressage size ring all with the all weather fancy footing we are seeing at all the best facilities across the country. The kind you have to pick the poop out of.

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Everyone picks up poop!

 

Atwood Equestrian Services set these rings up if you are curious.  http://www.equestriansurfaces.com/our-clients.html#client-1 

Just beyond the rings was an impressively constructed cross country course (built by Eric Bull) and as Maddy and I walked the two horses around sniffing and smelling all the pretty things, we snapped half a dozen snaps of the sun setting over the jumps, with the new rye grass giving the green glow of a little piece of heaven.

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We saw some activity in the covered ring, and I realized it was Boyd Martin and his minions setting a jumping course up. I paused. It was Monday evening. 48 hours earlier, Boyd was in Florida winning the Wellington Showcase for eventing. I know this because I had been following the event online. Does this man never rest? After the course was set, I watched him hop up on the tractor to drag the ring. Around 7 pm he and his minions had disappeared. Lord have mercy.

Maddy and I headed into town to meet our AIRBNB host, and find dinner. I had spent a large part of the drive describing various eateries I had remembered from a decade prior, mainly TakoSushi, and had guaranteed her eating experiences in Aiken would never be disappointing. Her faith in my ability to understand the importance of food would not be shaken this week. Food amazing, host equally so. Beds inviting.

Tuesday.

My first experience with a dressage clinic had to be partly explained to me, and I discovered Silva Martin would be spending about 30 minutes with me to a Ride-A-Test, which meant I would ride my test, she would watch, then she would work on improving it for the show. Easy Peasy. My time was at 10 am so at around 8 am we tacked up Sandoro, to give him a chance to be ridden around the rings, so there was less possibility he would embarrass me too much. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be anywhere without Westin, so Maddy walked Westin close by while I rode around the rings for 20 minutes. I creeped into the covered ring with all the jumps, which was already buzzing with activity, and immediately bumped into Boyd who greeted me with a friendly smile, so I fangirled him, stuttering a congratulations, and asked if he was also giving a clinic, he laughed and responded he was trying, schooling, showing horses to clients and teaching lessons, to which I tried to seize an opportunity by asking for a lesson. He shrugged and said sure! Great! I forgot to even introduce myself, but whatever.

Sandoro seemed relatively ridable after his warm up ride, so we headed back to the barn to get ready. I watched a few rides in front of me to get the idea, and at 10 am headed into the dressage arena to get drilled. Maddy recorded what Westin would allow her to, so I could refer to it afterwards, and if you never have experienced it, you might want to take a look. Silva is good. Like really good. I am pretty sure I impressed her by combining the two tests I had learned and inventing a new test, which I performed flawlessly and fluidly in my head, heading down center line proud of myself and completely clueless to my mistake. After a slight pause she said she had never witnessed anyone performing half of one test and half of another, and when the realization finally sunk in, I couldn’t do anything but laugh. WTF? only me. A bit of coaching and her reading the test out loud for the second ride proved much more successful, and my horse obliged to all of the questions asked of him. It was awesome. I enjoyed it very much. you can see part of it here..

https://vimeo.com/203367352

After we put him up I spent a few hours watching Boyd in the covered. He had two or three people warming up horses while he jumped one around, a jump crew who literally ran between the jumps to adjust them, or pick up poop, or take said schooled horse out to walk out after he was finished, and although I couldn’t count, through the day, it seemed he sat on about 30 horses. Clients came to watch, chat, or whatever, all the time his feet never touching the ground for more than thirty seconds between horses. I eventually just moved to the middle of the ring to watch closer and actually help set jumps and pick up poop too, because it was just all too fascinating. I gave up on my request for a lesson, because plenty of other people needed his attention, and happily settled for about 8 hours of visual education. Later, when I decided to ride Westin, I simply practiced riding like Boyd. With longer stirrups. His position is stellar, I mean STELLAR. His core is so super strong, his hands are quiet and soft, (I never saw much more than a snaffle, maybe a pelham with single rein on one strong horse) and all the balance in his leg came from the heel and calf encouraging the best canter the horse could physically offer, which meant they were more confident with each ride, (I am guessing that is super important to an eventer, having a confident horse). I snapped all day. After 4 pm, I watched him teach for a couple hours. When Maddy finally found me to let me know the horses (and herself) were ready for dinner, I reluctantly left the arena to address hunger issues. He was still going when we pulled out of the driveway, and he had horses on the show schedule for the next day, which the minions still had to get braided and ready. We had managed a few quick conversations with some of the working students (minions), learning it was quite the international group, representing other countries like Latvia and Ukraine. Interesting.  Boyd and Silva base their businesses out of Stable View for the winter months, there is little occupancy the rest of the year, and the wonderfully kind owner Barry is content to leave it this way. Amber Lee filled us in on the details, cost of dry stalls for the season, management of the apartments and facility, and the predicted expansion to a final 1,000 acres. It is impressive. There is a waiting list.

 http://stableviewfarm.com/

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our barn

 

Wednesday.

After listening to an entire night of heavy rain, I couldn’t imagine what the rings were like. Then, after stepping foot into the rings, I couldn’t imagine why I even thought to worry. There was NO sign of water in either show ring! It was unbelievable, and EVERYONE was talking about it. It was PERFECT. I had an early test, Sandbag had gotten over needing a babysitter, and it all went fairly well for the first time at First Level.

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Meghan Benge Photography, #testrideacounty 

 

You can see a bit of the farm behind this ring in this video, and keep in mind, behind Maddy is the second half of the ring we were competing in…that is where the rest of the exhibitors were warming up. It is a big ring.

https://youtu.be/7KJ_zw5Skkw

The buzz with all the excited ladies was palpable, and Maddy and I enjoyed the activity. My second test was much later in the afternoon, maybe by then, my overstimulated brain was getting fried, and well,  I went off course twice to which the judge added a little sarcastic humor in the notes…ugh. lol

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Yes. Yes, I am. ooops.

I was not far off the mark for a qualifying score, and I ended up third in that class, fifth in the first class, so it wasn’t really a bad day, but there is obvious room for improvement.

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Do we look as hot as William Fox-Pitt when he did this? Equi-Trek is seriously cool. I want one.

We hurried to pack and scoot down the road to Highfields to set up for the Cupid Classic. At Stable View, you are responsible for stripping your stalls if you want the cheap rate, ($50) so we made sure to leave everything in tip top shape before pulling out of the driveway.

Twenty minutes down the road made a big difference.

Highfields was one of the first shows I brought students to years ago during my time at Garrison Forest School. It looked almost exactly the same, except with the addition of a very impressive grass GP Field and overlooking stone pavilion, the rest I remembered immediately.

At our assigned stalls, we were greeted by a goat.

I have never been greeted by a goat before…. Within 20 seconds of pulling my ramp down and opening my dressing the room door, the goat was ransacking the horse treats and anything else he could grab and run with. We were kind of in a hurry to get the horses set up because after the long day at Stable View, we still had to get Westin in Hunter 1 before it closed for ticketed warm up that day and we had 30 minutes to make this happen, get the stalls bedded and equipment unpacked. The goat was not helping.  Somehow we managed to get me up on Westin and I left Maddy to figure out how to unpack only the minimal items we needed, as our available space was now limited to approximately 8 square feet, less than the room you have at WIHS in downtown D.C. The stalls were 10×10, cobwebby, and I instantly felt we were intruding on someone else’s personal space. Come to find out later, we were.

The rings are sandy, holding the water on top, so Westin and I splashed through the puddles from the overnight rain, but basically I thought he seemed pretty content with himself, and smoothly sailed around the ring just before we were kicked out at 5pm. Back at the barn, we met the rooster. Yup. A rooster. I am pretty fairly certain neither Westin nor Sandbag had ever met a rooster, and this was not a shy rooster…. My horses were growing increasingly suspicious of my life choices. Sigh.

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I shrugged it off, we played a puzzle game of how to get a trunk, saddle stand, grooming equipment, feed, and hay close enough inside the stable to not get wet from the weather, tucked everyone in, and, exhausted, headed out for food and a few hours of sleep. Once again it rained, and the winds came.

Thursday.

We had a plan for the morning arriving at 6am to get everything organized for a 9 am division, and all was basically routine for us, with no real science behind the preparation. We pulled in the driveway to hear an alarm going off from the office and equipment shed, a loud piercing wail that I am sure the campers just loved. No clue how long it had been going off but it continued for two more hours. Walking into the barn, Sandbag had us completely stumped. We arrived to find him bouncing around his stall like John Travolta, performing athletic feats I had never witnessed before. He seemed totally distraught. Westin was literally straight across from him in full view, the barn was packed, but he was violently searching for a way OUT of his stall. I couldn’t understand it. Westin was completely unfazed, but his friend was overcome with emotion, and neither one of us could figure it out. I blamed the cooing rooster, Maddy blamed the cedar tree branches scraping overgrown branches along the aluminum siding creating an alarming crescendo of intolerable noise. I started braiding Westin, watching Sandbag, scolding him every two minutes. It was tiresome. We tried to tie him, but that made it worse. Maddy finally convinced me to let her take him for a walk, but it was dark out, and windy, so I succumbed only when there was enough light. She attached the lunge line and off they went. I shook my head, no clue. She returned forty minutes later, after touring the grounds, and said he was fine, with the exception of being startled by the alarm restarting every ten minutes. oh, and the cow….

Christ, I thought. Now there is a cow. He returned to his stall and munched hay. We hadn’t seen any of that behavior at Stable View.

We busied ourselves with Westin who was basically fine but the wind made him friskier than usual, so we were basically just ok for the division. I went off course in the warm up and made life harder on myself. In the end, I just wished I had been a better professional, but no tragedy. By 10 am we were finished showing.

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After lunch we both stared at Sandbag and wondered what to do with him. He was looking at us kind of sadly, like he wanted to go do something. He wasn’t circling anymore, but he clearly didn’t want to spend the rest of the week camping out in a stall, so we tossed the hunter tack on him and dragged him up to the warm up ring. The rest is history. The next day his official debut into the hunter ring was an incredibly successful one, and he walked away champion in the baby greens. Not one step out of place, courageous and full of pride. What a weird horse.

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the moment we decided maybe we should show him

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first hunter show, first champ #drunter 

 

That evening we noticed the Sharps container…. I felt I had been keeping a pretty good sense of humor about the second half of our week until that very moment. Then the wind was sucked right out of me.

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I just stared at it, trying to make sense of it. This is what one step forward and two steps back FEELS like. The distance between the two farms and shows was less than five miles, and the worlds were just light years apart. Duck.

Ten thousand questions rolled up into my brain at that very moment.

Maybe it all started making sense when I looked into it. Sort of. Most of the occupants of our barn were actually there on a longer term basis, not just for one or two shows. Stalls were being rented for a kind of season thing, due to personal circumstances or whatever, which had not been the norm in the past. This explained the goat, (who had since been locked in a horse trailer) and the rooster, who still greeted us every morning (loudly), and the chicken coop, and the cow, and other things. But what if I hadn’t looked into it? What if I had misunderstood that this was not a weeks worth of needles and syringes, but a few months worth?

I am not pissed at the show management for not checking the container, and I literally have no idea if asking it to be replaced annoyed them or not, but what do you want me to say?

Now it is a competition of who has the most depressing photos?

Are we that far gone? WE?? Yes, you, me, the professional in front of you at the coffee stand, the grooms, the riders, we are all in this and we have all somehow done this to ourselves.

We can’t get out of this, can we?

When our USHJA prez sat in the airport after the last USEF meeting, and a dressage representative looked at her and asked why she wasn’t embarrassed, I knew she was embarrassed, and probably thinking, what now? The words she wrote the next day echoed in my head over and over again. http://www.phelpssports.com/viewarticle.php?id=10014876

That container right there is the difference, and I am walking a line between both worlds.

The Weekend.

The container was replaced by Saturday morning, and following the derby later that morning,  Maddy and I packed up and headed back to Maryland. Westin earned a ribbon, but I was tired. I genuinely felt like I had made the best of the week, and found sheer joy in some moments, using social media to involve people in my decisions about the horses, braiding in pink, touring Aiken, discovering another beautiful, pristine facility – Bruce’s Field, which is on par with Stable View, (and I discovered has dates in May and September, Yassss!) experiencing the horse shows, and I met LOVELY people, like really lovely, and had so much fun in our endeavors, we ate the best food, saw nice horses, laughed hysterically, and all the good stuff that goes along with horse showing.

However, my voice inside is wondering do I stay silent when I see things?? Is my blog going to close the doors on me in the future OR will it invite people to raise the standards of….well, everything? Do we want higher standards? Am I going to be squeezed out of the hunter world? Will it matter? Will I care?

I do care. I want to recognize good things, too. Like this…..

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NO CHARGE TO ENTER!

Uh, I think a $1,000 Scholarship is a pretty big deal, so I want to celebrate this a bit. Zone 4 riders, do you know how lucky you are right now? 

That is a fabulous class to see, and should be quite an honor to win. Mary Ann Parmelee did amazing things for her family, her grand daughter was featured here in a blog of Carolina’s Equestrian:

http://www.thecarolinasequestrian.com/special-features/in-their-boots?start=3

The people in Aiken definitely made my show experience at Highfields a good one. With only one or two exceptions, the atmosphere was exceptionally nice. If they would have me back I would definitely return. The shows at Bruce’s Field in May are peaking my curiosity, so we shall see.

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This team is heading to Pony Finals because she just won the USEF Pony Medal!! Rebecca Effron, Lainie Rubin and her pony Makloud

I guess I am willing to take the chance. We can do better, I am sure of it. It is all right there in front of us, like watching Boyd Martin ride for 8 hours. Free education right there. And priceless. God help us, hunter believers, I hope we find our way. It actually starts with better exhibitors, ones strong enough not to break my heart, I don’t think there is any other way… 

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go get ’em Lainie. Best of luck this year, you are one of the reasons some of us try so hard to get it right. 

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