Mar 23, 2021

Now on Course: Fumbling Our Way to Success

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne competing at the Intermediate level at The Maryland Horse Trials. GRC Photo.

My longtime companion/teammate Fernhill Cayenne took me from Novice to Intermediate in a little over two years. He has been the absolute horse of a lifetime. He may not be the fanciest, bravest, or most athletically capable horse out there, but I wouldn’t trade him and the experience he has given me for any horse.

We’ve had our ups and downs trying to solidify ourselves at the Intermediate level – he is a horse who definitely wants and needs a lot of cross-country schooling of certain elements to build his confidence. There have been plenty of mistakes over the years, learning and figuring out the upper levels, but he has always kept me safe through it all.

I got into riding, and later eventing, too late to make it up the levels to compete at Young Riders. And as someone with a full-time non-horse-related job, I just ride on the side for fun, so the chances of me ever being on any sort of U.S. team or making it all the way to five-star are very slim. So my proudest accomplishment, and one that I will cherish and probably hold as my greatest riding accomplishment, was winning two USEA Classic Series long format events, one at the Training level and one at the Preliminary level in back-to-back years at the Hagyard Midsouth Three-Day Event. However, they weren’t “storybook weekends” – neither was exactly smooth sailing. Both had their ridiculous moments, which if you know me, is pretty par for the course.

JJ Sillman Photo.

The Training Three-Day Event endurance day was quite eventful. About 3-4 minutes into phase A (roads and tracks), we were happily trotting along when Cayenne’s Irish brain saw a blade of grass that looked scarier than the others and decided to pull his trademark “drop and spin 180.” I went from having a horse underneath me to just being suspended in mid-air, looking at the ground. Luckily, I semi-landed on my feet and then just fell on my butt.

He ran all the way back to the start flags, where someone thankfully caught him. As I was racing to get back to him, I was running through my head about the rules, which stated that we could dismount, as long as we were mounted when we went through each set of course flags. I figured that in the technical sense of the term, that was a “dismount.”

By the time I got back, checked him over, and then proceeded to get back on, I figured he was fairly warmed up by that point and that we should canter the majority of it to try to still make time. We got caught back up to where we should’ve been (after passing by and profusely apologizing to the competitor after me for having my horse run past them loose, and then cantering past them once I got back on) and had no trouble making time.

Long story short, we came away with zero penalties added on endurance day. We finished the next day with a double clear show jumping round to cement our wire-to-wire first-place finish in a field of 44 entries.

We were much better prepared for the Preliminary Three-Day Event the next year, as I knew what sort of shape we needed to be in for endurance day. This ended up paying off as we won “Best Conditioned Horse” in the Preliminary Three-Day. Aside from some wild antics at the first inspection (such as running and dragging me about 500 feet down the hill as the horse before us came trotting back down the lane), he kept his brain under control. I breathed a sigh of relief after getting through endurance day *without* falling off this time. Another double clear show jumping round also secured our wire-to-wire win in the Preliminary Three-Day Event.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been complete without me being so ecstatic about winning back-to-back long formats in successive levels that I forgot to secure the quarter sheet prize to the saddle so it didn’t fly off on the victory lap. Cue the quarter sheet flying off of him and the always-incredible JJ Sillman capturing the photo to cap off one of my most memorable accomplishments.

JJ Sillman Photo.

Nowadays Cayenne and I have been mostly bee-bopping around at the Intermediate level, learning along the way and just having fun. He isn’t a horse who would be fair to push to make time at Intermediate, so we just go out to have fun. It doesn’t matter how many time penalties he comes home with, because at the end of the day, he doesn’t know and he feels like the king of the world.

If you want to follow along on our future endeavors, along with Cayenne's new brother as of two years ago, Fernhill Fugitive (yes, *that* Fernhill Fugitive!), then be sure to follow Michael Willham Eventing on Facebook and Instagram!

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 Leslie Mintz at [email protected] to be featured.

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