Ellie Park photo.
As I started making plans for the fall and found out there would be no high school sports (I am an Athletic Trainer and work full time running Centreville High School’s Sports Medicine program. More to come on that later) until December, I realized that if I was ever going to do the Classic Format Novice 3-Day Event, this was the time. We had qualified the year before, but we had all of the experience and confidence of an additional year at novice under our belts.
A week before Solo and I were scheduled to leave for the Waredaca Classic Three Day Event, he was hopping lame on his right front foot. On Wednesday, I thought he had felt a little off and cut our ride short — choosing instead to proactively pack his feet and give him the day off — but my plan to nip any foot soreness was foiled. Thursday, my incredible farrier Allen Michael pulled his front shoes (which we had only glued on three weeks prior) and gave me the plan — soak and pack, cross fingers, soak and pack, drink a beer, soak and pack, swear, soak and pack, cry. Soak and pack. Get the idea?
Even though both Allen and my vet Dr. Joe Davis were confident that the sole bruise would resolve by the time I needed to leave for the horse show, I was fairly convinced that my lifelong dream of a long format three-day was dashed. I tried to be cautiously optimistic, and by Saturday, Solo was pissed he was on stall rest and dragging me all around the farm when I would come out to hand graze. We put his shoes back on Sunday, and he looked like a million bucks zooming around his field for ten minutes, so he quickly lost the privilege of turn-out! Naughty!
Monday, I started packing. Tuesday, I started getting hopeful, and Wednesday, we were on our way. I didn’t dare ride him — I was too worried and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I knew Solo and I were both ready to go — he was fit and he knew his job, and I was confident enough in our partnership to know I didn’t need to ride him in order to compete. We both were ready. The N3DE had been one of my goals for a long time. I kept the mentality of taking each day as it came — if Solo ever told me he couldn’t, I wouldn’t continue. His well-being and happiness was so much more important to me, and I was just thankful to have the chance.
Waiting for our turn to jog was like slow torture. I was on my own that day, but my barn aisle friends were so encouraging. I was so proud of my boy — his coat was shining, his braids were perfect, and he looked so damn handsome in his bridle with the sparkling lime green crystal browband I made him myself. I even made sure to match him in my black jog outfit with lime green ballet flats! My heart was pounding a mile a minute as they called us to the strip. As we stood for inspection, I took a deep breath and admired my horse. I smiled behind my mask, and when we got the nod to jog, Solo practically bolted down the strip — he felt so good I couldn’t keep up with him! Hearing his name, followed by ‘accepted’ brought me to tears — we’d passed step one!
Dressage day was early for me — we were second in the ring and I’d been the last one in the stables the night before braiding and taking care of him. I was still nervous, but I was confident that we both knew our jobs that day. We’d been competing at first level all year with good scores — as long as we stayed focused and I stayed accurate we would be fine.
It was chilly that morning, and the fog was thick. I still had a flutter of nerves that I would get on and he wouldn’t be sound, but he trotted boldly beneath me and never took a bad step. Our test was forward and fluid and accurate, but a touch behind the vertical in places. In hindsight, I feel we could have had better scores in a few movements, but considering I had not ridden him in ten days, I was thrilled with him. Solo has always been such a willing partner, and he really tried his best for me. We scored a 31.9 to sit in 12th going into cross country day.
Again, I didn’t sleep Friday night. Instead, I rode my cross-country course a dozen times in my head, visualizing each jump and my plan of attack. Of course, there’s always my moments of worry, of ‘what if’ and worst-case-scenario-itis, but every time I had those thoughts I refocused on the thing that kept me going all weekend — we are ready, we are prepared, and we trusted each other.
Karen and my dear friend Suzy Gehris were my pit crew Saturday, and I was so thankful for their help and support. I was so nervous I think I hit the port-a-john about six times before I got on, and the waiting was the absolute worst. But once I got my leg up and headed out on roads and tracks, I set my mind to the task. As we trotted along the countryside, I kept an eye on the time and watched my kilometer marks. I planned to come in each kilometer at four minutes, and I was really surprised how much I had to boogie on to make the time. It was not a casual stroll — but a smart trot and canter a lot of the way around. I was really glad I did those extra trot sets and gallops!
Despite having to walk in a few places in the woods and cringing every time Solo stepped on a rock, we made the time for phase A with about a minute to spare. My nerves set in again as we headed to steeplechase, but once we started it was so much fun! Solo is a Thoroughbred of course, and I’m still not sure I have felt him gallop full on, but we cruised around the steeplechase and made the time easily. He peeked a little the first time we jumped the brush, but more because he was balancing himself rather than spooking. Each jump got better, and by the time we jumped our last brush he was really flying — all the way to a long spot that really was right on! What a cool experience.
After a quick drink of water and a shoe check, we headed right back out to Phase C. I started out trotting to let us take a breath, and again lost some time when we had to walk in the rockier parts of the woods. I thought I was behind on my minutes when I got into the big field, and so we had a nice brisk canter up the big hill heading home. We came in about 90 seconds early.
Solo looked great coming into the ten minute box, and I felt okay, too. I was a bit tired, but I unzipped my boots and sat down and focused. I was grateful for the extra time I had since I came in early, because after six minutes or so I felt good and ready to go back out, so it was nice to have a few extra minutes to breath and think about my course. Having Suzy and Karen both there to take care of Solo was such a humbling sight. This sport is truly amazing in that it takes a village to make it happen, and to have both of those bad-ass women there supporting me and cheering me on was such a great feeling.
Karen and I had walked the course again that morning, and I had my plan in place as I got back on and headed to the start box. At go, we took flight and never came back down. Solo was bold and brave and an absolute warrior. He showed me his grit and his heart and his trust in me in so many ways. Our cross-country round that day was the culmination of four years of hard work — it wasn’t just the prep that I had done that year — it was the hours and hours and months and weeks and years I had spent with him, learning to trust him, and letting him show me the way.
I can’t tell you what my favorite moment was, because every jump mattered. I can still feel and re-ride every jump of that course, and when I get worried or stressed or anxious, I close my eyes and ride it over and over again.
When we crossed the finish line, bang on optimum time and clear over the jumps, I told Karen I felt like a real cross-country rider for the first time. I felt like I stepped up to the plate for Solo, and in turn, he absolutely smashed it out of the park for me. We moved up to ninth. We spent the rest of the day icing, packing, wrapping, grazing, and taking care of Solo. He jogged up well that evening, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
That night, I visualized the show jumping course over and over again. After our epic cross country day, I wanted a clear round in the worst way. Solo and I had been struggling with show jumping, and had two rails at our last horse trial. We’d also had a not so great jump school before his sole bruise. I knew it was in us to jump clear, but it was something we hadn’t done all season.
The second jog wasn’t quite as stressful as the first, but I was still nervous. I shouldn’t have been — he looked fantastic. All that icing and packing and wrapping and stressing had paid off. I was so proud of him, and my smile under the mask was from ear to ear. Since I was in the top ten, we went a little later in the order, and I was able to walk the course with Karen again. I visualized, I had my plan, and I knew it would be a good course for us because of all the turns — I would have to keep riding forward. Karen told me to ride the course like I rode the corner on cross country — with a canter that was bold and powerful.
I felt calm as we went into the ring. I knew that whatever would be, would be, and I was focused and determined to have a good ride. We almost cut the turn to the first fence too sharp, but I corrected him and it came up fine. He was jumping beautifully, and even saved my butt over four where he saw the long one and I saw nothing. Luckily I’ve learned the hard way not to throw my shoulders, so we cleared it. I reorganized and kept going, and after the two-stride, I remember saying, “Come on, Solo.” as we rounded the corner to the last two jumps.
He saw the stride to the second to last, and I trusted him, and when he carried me boldly down to the final oxer, I kept my hands light and my shoulders back and let him fly. We’d done it! Our first clear round at Novice in over a year. I could not contain my joy and I will never apologize for my enthusiasm. I wanted that clear round so badly, and Solo delivered. It was an incredible culmination to a wild year.
Coree with her trainer Karen Conk at the awards ceremony.
We finished the weekend in ninth, won the TIP Reserve Championship, and finished in third in the team competition with my awesome teammates, Tana, Stephanie, and Chrissy. Whenever I reflect on that weekend, or watch the videos, I still can’t help smiling, or tearing up. I am so thankful for him every day. I am proud to own him, privileged to ride him, and humbled that he chooses me to be his partner.
There’s a famous quote that goes something like, “When you throw your heart over the fence your horse will follow”, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think when you give a horse your heart, they wrap it within their own. They protect it, and carry your courage with theirs, so when you feel like you don’t have any, they quietly remind us we aren’t alone.