When I was a little kid, my friend Kim and I rode all over the place on her ponies. We lived out in the country in Wisconsin and had seemingly boundless fields to gallop over, ponds and creeks to splash in, and forests to spend the day tromping through. Even when I got older and had my more elegant hunters who would NOT have enjoyed swimming in a quarry, I still did fitness work and a little cross-country jumping up and down the hills next to the outdoor ring at my barn. When I got back into riding in my 30s, though, for a few years, I pretty much just stuck to the ring.
We all know hacking out is good for the horse who spends most of its time in a groomed ring. It’s good for us, too, as riders and horsemen. A nice, gentle ride out after a hard workout is a reward for both partners and a good way to cool down and enjoy some quiet with one’s horse. But how often do most of us H/J people actually get out of the ring and do other forms of training on our horses?
For the last decade or so, I have been training and boarding with eventers. In my current barn, I am the only jumper rider; everyone else events. Before I stumbled into this world, I had never even been to an event, and I certainly had not imagined I would become so familiar with dressage as I am now! Even though my horse, Steve is the quintessential show jumper (a comment I hear a lot is “Wow, he’s got some hang time!”), all of my eventer friends, at one point or another, have nudged me to take up their sport. What they cannot get through their thick-skulled, daredevil heads is that I’m a chicken.
Out for a hack with my friends who nudge me to join the “dark side” and run XC. Photo by Anna Fitzhugh.
This isn’t a function of me getting older; I’ll jump all sorts of big fences in the ring! No, this grew out of something that happened about 15 years ago, and I’ve never quite gotten over it. When I was still with my former trainer, we took a fancy show hunter out for a little cross-country school, to give us a change of scenery. This was going very well until it tripped on landing off a stacked log and forked me straight into the dirt. One broken collarbone later and I decided XC jumping was not for me. “I like the jumps to fall down when I hit them, instead of me falling down!” I’d say. And: “Stop talking about me jumping XC; you will make me throw up.”
So, no: I am not going to event; doing an entire XC course at speed would be like a waking nightmare. Also, I cannot for the life of me remember a dressage test, and that only leaves show jumping. I can already do that without the other two phases, and there you have it: I’m sticking to my stripey poles! On the other hand, these eventers do go all over the place doing fun stuff with their horses and this, at least, I have embraced, albeit reluctantly. It turns out that while all of this is good for us, Steve and I are sort of jumper princesses.
Schooling with Martin Videla. Photo by Jaime Loichinger.
First, it was going down to Aiken, SC, for a couple of weeks in the Spring. Aiken is becoming much more of a H/J destination, but it is the BOMB for eventers! Some of the biggest eventing talents we have are there much of the winter. There are events in the area, up in Southern Pines, NC, and now Tryon. Steve always heaves a sigh of relief when he sees the striped poles on our first hack out to the grass ring where we usually board. Until that happy moment, all one can see are XC jumps and a gallop track. One year, we squeezed in a trip to beautiful Hitchcock Woods for a nice, long hack — or, as Steve thought of it, The Never Ending March through Hell. We’ve been made to jump up and down banks and over ditches, both of us reluctant but game. Our rewards are the shows put on at Highfields by Progressive Show Jumping, or the jump school days offered at Bruce’s Field. We work really hard, training with different people (such as Martin Videla, from whom I bought Steve, when Martin and his wife Rachel were still in Argentina!), and watching competitions like the Eventing Showcase. In all, Aiken is a fun little horsey vacation where boots and breeches are the norm everywhere. I never would have known about Aiken if it hadn’t been for my eventer friends, and I have had a lot of fantastic adventures there with Steve, in and out of the ring. My dream next year is to hit Tryon on the way back home and show a weekend there to see if all of our hard work has paid off.
Me on Steve, showing at Highfields Event Center. Photo by Morgan Connelly.
More recently, we started going to Boyd Martin’s facility, where one can school XC or use the galloping track for fitness work. Steve and I have become regulars on the galloping track. This is an excellent resource to fold into one’s program, especially if one has been off, as we were last winter. Steve, being a WB tube, is not in love with the galloping track, but when we’re on it, with enough encouragement, we can almost keep up with the TBs. We haven’t been able to catch up with Steve’s frenemy Nate, an OTTB with a really good race record who now competes at Intermediate, but I swear my fat little tube really tries! As far as I know we are the only jumpers I’ve seen there; occasionally one will see a dressage horse, but it’s really an underused resource for the H/J people in the area.
After doing the galloping track several times, after which we generally just dorked around while everyone else in the group jumped XC, I decided to gird my loins and have a small XC school myself. This was a very big deal; not because we jumped anything much over Novice, but because (as mentioned) XC brings out my inner chicken. It’s really an outer chicken, to be honest. But, we came, we gulped nervously, and we conquered! We even managed to jump down into a bowl-shaped thing and then gallop up the other side and jump out. I think my expression during that little episode was some variation of Munch’s The Scream. Steve’s reaction to all of this was his usual one when he’s not super confident we should be doing something but he trusts me to get us both out of it. “Are you sure? Well, okay, I’ll do it. But it’s your fault if we fall in that hole!”
Finally, we are now at a facility where we flat and jump on grass in the warmer months, when the indoor ring is too stuffy. Steve has his shoes drilled and tapped so I can stud them when we jump out there (because the fragile little baby doesn’t like slipping), and I am now the mildly proud owner of a variety of grass studs. Flatting and jumping on grass has been an education in and of itself, for both of us. Steve has had to become more clever with his feet on this uneven, more challenging terrain, and I’ve had to figure out how to walk the line between letting him sort things out on his own and managing his balance and pace. We also do very forward trot sets, which has again helped with Steven’s fitness, and we practice transitions between medium canter and very slow collected canter up and down the field.
The woods in Aiken have plenty of terrain for cross training! Photo by Morgan Connelly.
And so on. This hodgepodge of cross training, along with dressage, has made a big difference to us in a lot of ways. We are both more fit, Steve is more adjustable and careful about his footwork, and we are also a bit more brave. When I first got Steve I could not get him across or in water, or over a ditch. From last summer I have a very silly video of Steve casually hopping over a ditch (as I laugh and say “Whaaaat???”) that a year before would have resulted in him standing up, doing a 180 degree turn, and trying to run away. He now happily marches through water (or tries to lay down in it, which isn’t great, but it is funny!), and I can take him just about anywhere, on all sorts of terrain. We will be okay, if not always overjoyed, by our outdoor adventuring.
Looking back on everything we have done since I threw in my lot with these crazy, generous, wonderful eventer folks I would not change a thing. I’m still not going to event, but you will see me and Steve out and about, usually lagging in the rear while the TBs zip ahead. Not only is it fun (um, usually), but it’s been so good for our training as jumpers. What cross training do you do with your horses? What do you think helps most when you get back into the ring with the striped poles?