The big ‘A’ – Why this milestone is just the beginning
When I called my trainer, Packy McGuaghan, after Carolina International to ask whether I could move up to Advanced, he gave me an answer I didn’t really understand. He said ‘maybe.’ Here was an Eventing god, a man with answers to any and all obscure training problems, a voice of wisdom from competition strategies to veterinary procedures to conditioning schedules, telling me for the first time that he couldn’t answer my question. Surely he knew if the horse had it in him, didn’t he?
You see, the thing about Bendigo is that he’s full of surprises. He can have meltdowns in the arena after a relaxed warm-up, and he can refuse to touch the bit for years and then one day take hold of it on cross-country. The other things about him are that he doesn’t ooze scope, and he doesn’t glide across the ground at the gallop. He’s an egg-beater and tucks his front legs as far as they’ll bend, but he doesn’t have the power to just lope over a five-foot fence. Packy mentioned all of these weaknesses over the phone, along with things about my own technique that still needed practice. But then he said, simply, that you never know until you try.
I tried. After having a crack at the level, I understand why he said ‘maybe.’ Lots of horses with average ability can do the dressage test and jump the show jumps. The technicality of these phases is unimpressive compared to their respective sports. The cross-country feels different though. You can’t exactly miss your distance to a ditch and wall that’s six feet wide and four and a half feet tall, and you’d better not look down while jumping it because you’ll miss the corner coming up six strides later. There’s an entirely new level of big, and with it, a whole new level of dangerous. At this level, I feel that the horse’s instincts matter more, and the rider’s reactions have to be so much quicker.
Ben got through the dressage, which for him was fine, given that he’s not quite sure about what it means to half-pass in canter. He jumped a sensational double clear in the show jumping while I just steered and enjoyed it. I gave him a little cluck out of the start box on Saturday, and he bounded forward with renewed importance. I never kick this horse – he’s a sensitive soul but a cluck was enough to convince him the questions would be a little harder that day. He really took care of me the whole way around, jumping with his knees up by his eyes and putting up with me when I accidentally added strides instead of riding the rhythm. I messed up my line to a double of corners at the very end and didn’t give him much chance to jump it, so we circled around and did the option. A seasoned rider would have had a smooth, clear round on him. The funny thing about the enormity of the tasks at the Advanced level – really, walking the course I was scared – is that they are still so much fun to complete. My horse didn’t get shy as the fences grew; in fact, when his back cracked that much he thought, well that was fun, let’s do it again! It was a fabulous feeling.
Reaching a milestone can sometimes feel a lot like an end, but this one feels far more like a beginning. It was hard just to finish the weekend, so it will take a lot more knowledge, training, and experience to master the level. All I can say is that I won’t forget that feeling, and I look forward to replicating it in the future. Here’s to a hardworking horse, and to committing to getting better.