Every time I swing a leg over one of my horses, it carries me a little closer to my riding goals. Frequently, one of my annual goals is to earn the privilege of competing in the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC). Here is the bumpy journey that brought me to the 2019 AEC.
Middle Tennessee Pony Club Horse Trials, October 2018
MTPC is my "home" event. I've been to it many times. Last year, I had two competition horses and my 35-year-old baby sitter horse, Colonel, loaded at 5:00 a.m. Saturday morning to drive the hour from home to Percy Warner Park in Nashville. I had stopped at a traffic light, sipping my coffee and mentally going over the details of the day when I heard a faint "toot-toot" from the car in the next lane.
I glanced over to see a young woman with a tentative expression looking at me. She was rolling down her window and pointing. I rolled down my window, and she said, "Um, I think your trailer tire is on fire...there were sparks and a lot of smoke…"
I looked in the rear view mirror to see clouds of smoke billowing from my trailer wheel. I was across the street from a gas station with a big parking lot, so I slowly rolled into the lot. The tire was not on fire yet, but I clearly could not continue. So at 5:30 a.m. I called one of my besties, Cheryl. She is an early riser and an equestrian with a horse trailer.
Cheryl was my HERO that weekend! She got out of bed, hooked up her trailer and came to me. She has a two-horse, so she had to put Colonel on the trailer and take him to her house before we could load Cody and Quigley. She then came back, and we hooked her trailer to my truck. I had thrown my gear into the back of my truck while I waited for her to get there. We put the horses on her trailer, and I was on the way--again.
Some other friends, Kelly, Anne, and Lisa, met me at Percy Warner to help. When I pulled in, I threw my gear on the grass, tacked up and was mounted in time for my first horse to have a 30-minute warm-up before we did our dressage test around 9:00 a.m. Whew!
Both horses had a good competition which gave me clear cross-country runs to count towards 2019 AEC. Sometimes it takes a village.
I am a Master Amateur who competes at Novice and Beginner Novice, so I’m old enough to have some orthopedic issues. Both hips had been painful for a long time, and failed conservative treatment. So in January, I had both hips scoped at the same time.
I had six weeks off from work, and eight weeks off from riding. During that same time, Cody had a recurring hoof abscess, which took several weeks to heal.
In March, just as I was beginning to get strong again, I got the flu and a sinus infection. Recovery from that took another couple of weeks.
After all that, both the horses and I had to rebuild our strength and fitness. I didn't want to return to competition until we were ready, so it was mid-summer before I did my first competition of the year.
Chattahoochee Hills Summer Series, June & July 2019
I had vacation for the two weeks which included Chattahoochee Hills Summer I and II series. My career is in anesthesia, and time off is difficult to get. I only had enough time off to get to those and one more horse trial to finish qualifying for AEC.
I entered Quigley and Cody in both Summer I and Summer II. Cody is 22 years old, and I had dropped him to Beginner Novice to preserve him but keep him competing as long as he was enjoying his job. Quigley was going Novice.
Dressage was a little rusty on Quigley, but pretty good with Cody. My first cross-country course in eight months was Quigley's Novice run. He is typically aggressive on cross-country, but not on that day. Whether it was less practice than usual or just a bad day, he had a stop at fence two. We jumped it on the second approach, but he stayed behind my leg.
When we got to the open oxer at fence five, he had a big hesitation then a straight up in the air deer jump. His front legs came down between the rails and I flew over his shoulder to the other side. He scrambled backward out of the jump and galloped away. And kept galloping . . . and galloping.
I was cleared by the medics, then an official in a golf cart took me to the other side of the county to collect my pony. I had about an hour until my next cross-country on Cody.
I tacked up Cody, and came to warm up. Cody warmed up great, and we were in a position to be in the ribbons. Unfortunately, the muscles in my neck and shoulder were getting really tight. As an anesthesia provider, it has been drilled into me to protect necks and never underestimate what might be a more serious injury than is apparent.
I scratched Cody less than five minutes before our start time. The next few days were miserable. My neck soreness resolved, which was the most important thing, but my head was spinning with frustration and disappointment.
Falling off the first time out on cross-country after surgery and an extended time off caused my confidence to falter. A part of me wanted to scratch the next weekend and skulk home.
Instead, I did what I do when I feel a little overwhelmed. I focus on one step at a time. When I get nerves waiting to do the jumping phases, I tell myself, "One jump at a time.” Out on course, adrenaline kicks in and nerves are forgotten.
Summer II came, and my schooling that week had gone well. Quigley was a little stiff from our cross-country mishap, so I scratched him. Cody was doing great, though, and we competed well in an open division.
We finished third overall, and our amateur finish was second! We only needed one more clear cross-country finish to go to the AEC. All my ruminations about the fall disappeared, and I drove home from Georgia with a big grin on my face.
Windridge Farm Horse Trials, Mid-August 2019
Windridge Farm Horse Trials finished only nine days before the AEC qualifying period ended. It was my last chance to complete my qualifiers for AEC.
This year was the fourth consecutive year I have competed at Windridge. If you haven't been, go! The venue feels a little cozier and more relaxed than some. Everyone is friendly. It is well run, and a beautiful place to visit.
Cody and I had a fun and uneventful (finally!) competition. We finished on our dressage score, and were qualified for AEC!
2019 USEA American Eventing Championships
We arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park a few days early to settle in before competition began. I really wanted Cody to have a good run. When your horse is in his twenties, every outing you have with him is a blessing. I wanted to savor it.
All of the Beginner Novice divisions started on Friday. We did our dressage test well, but so did most everyone. Many scores were separated by tenths of a point or tied by two or three people. I admit I was disappointed that we were 22nd out of 36.
I was staying in the RV park in my trailer and Cody's stabling was at the far end of the horse park. I try to be organized and bring everything I need when I head to the barn, but on Saturday morning, cross-country day, I got to the barn without my phone.
Since parking spots were hard to come by, I decided to leave the truck and ride my bike the mile back to the trailer. Once there, with phone in hand, I decided to walk to the start box for my final cross-country walk.
On my way, a lady in a golf cart asked if I wanted a ride, so I hopped on. We chatted a moment, and then she introduced herself, "I'm Bonnie Mosser."
I said, “Oh!"
She said, "Do you know me?"
I said, "Well, I've heard your name…,” and then I remembered my manners and I introduced myself to her.
Bonnie was the nicest person! She didn't know I was feeling disappointed in myself, but she gave me the best pep talk and advice for cross-country on our ride to the start box. I didn't ask for it, but without knowing, she provided exactly the words I needed to feel motivated for the rest of the competition.
That sort of thing seems to happen at the AEC a lot, and it makes the AEC special. I smile every time I remember that golf cart ride. Thanks, Bonnie!
Cross-Country at the AEC
Cody was enthusiastic in our warm-up for cross-country. We headed to the start box, and very soon were on course. The first three fences were a little sticky. I think there is often more atmosphere at the AEC than I sometimes appreciate, and perhaps Cody was feeling it, too.
There was a little galloping room between fences three and four, so I kicked him forward. He locked onto four, and suddenly he was on his game. He pulled me around the rest of the course. I looked at my watch a few fences before the finish and had to check up our pace to avoid speed faults.
Our time was 3 seconds above speed fault time, but we added no penalties to our dressage score. A good cross-country run can really fix what ails me. We moved up to 13th place and had hopes to be in the ribbons the next day.
I've been to KHP a number of times but never got to ride my horse in that arena. Sunday at the AEC would be the day! I had walked my course and watched quite a few rides to be sure I had it memorized.
Cody was spot on in his warm-up jumps, and we waited for our turn. Then we were in Rolex Stadium! As we entered the arena, I made sure to pass by the decorative bright blue water features flanking the last fence on course.
If the cross-country course had some atmosphere, Rolex Stadium definitely had a lot of it. Cody was the exuberant jumper I was accustomed to, but he was a little distracted by all the sights. He needed more leg than usual, but seemed to settle as we made our way around.
My heart almost stopped when at the last moment he took a huge peek at the final fence. It was the fence between those blue ponds and facing into the seating of the stadium. I used my crop and leg, and yelled, "Go!" Cody gave a big jump to clear it. We had finished our AEC on our dressage score!
Cody moved up another spot to finish in 12th place in our Beginner Novice Master Amateur division. We also participated in the Team Challenge as members of the Belles on the Bit team from Area III. Our team won Reserve Champions out of 14 Beginner Novice teams.
My teammates from the Master Amateur division were Brenda Hutton on WYO DunMaid and Lauren Wood on Sebastian. Ainsley Jacobs on JJ Spot was our fourth team member from the Amateur Division. She joined us in the winners' circle on foot. With her neck sash flying, she galloped herself around Rolex Stadium with the rest of us.
I got another surprise when they announced Cody received The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program High Point for our division. They put a TIP cooler sheet on him. When we did the victory gallop I noticed how slippery that makes the saddle! Cody thought he was going to race, and I thought I might be quite embarrassed if he decided to perform some airs above the ground!
This year has been challenging in so many ways. Getting to the AEC one more time with Cody was so special! There were plenty of moments when the possibility could have evaporated.
Thankfully, it all worked out. One baby step at a time . . . One jump at a time . . . Eventing is an adventure!
For more of Letha's story, visit her blog, www.ponypiphany.com.
The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Jessica Duffy at [email protected] to be featured.
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“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it was an amazing experience.” Twenty-five years ago, Kerry Millikin and her off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding, Out and About (who was only 8 years old at the time) won the individual Olympic bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, making her one of five females to have earned an individual Olympic medal for the U.S.