Aug 19, 2019

The Road to AEC: Under Pressure

Liz Crawley Photography Photo courtesy of Crockett Miller.

Two years ago, at the AEC held at Tryon, I competed my first horse in the Junior Beginner Novice 14 and Under division. It was my third ever recognized event and I was very nervous because my stall was placed conveniently next to the massive cross-country fences. My little 16-year-old paint and I went into the dressage ring and scored the lowest I could ever imagine!! A 30!! I was so proud and excited to go into the next phase in 12th place.

But my pony reminded me what he was known for and stopped at the fifth fence on cross-country. Somehow, the odds seemed to be in my favor and the refusal didn’t count! As I stood at the in-gate of the massive stadium, I tried to wrap my head around the possibility of getting a ribbon at this huge event. To my disappointment, we came to a skidding stop at fence two, circled, and added several time and four jump penalties to put us in 29th. The disappointment didn’t come necessarily from the placing, but mostly that I still hadn’t been able to overcome his habit of stopping.

USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Then, fast forward about a year and a half and I’m older but still haven’t broken the habit. We came to the conclusion that he just didn’t love his job and I needed to find a horse that did (and was a bit bigger as well). So, after some half-hearted horse shopping, we took the amazing opportunity to go to Europe to look at some horses in England and Ireland. My trainer had ridden a horse at Aston le Walls in England and said he was a perfect fit for me.

Once we landed, we were met with a gangly 4-year-old with massive, ugly white rings around his eyes named Panda. We immediately loved the idea that there were other horses on the property as I got on him. My initial thought was, he won’t get round, nor will he stay round, I think I’ll pass. But after a week of trying other horses, I got back on him on the last day and rode him out in a cross-country field. Long story short, hopping over my first ditch-and-wall, he ended up in America within two months.

We started off our eventing debut at a small schooling Beginner Novice with a not standing still halt and a three-legged fence that took a pole. But we got a cute little white ribbon that I was so proud of. Then I started to realize that Panda didn’t see distances like my first horse, and a scary realization hit me when I found out I couldn’t see distances that well either. I didn’t find out the easy way either. We headed to a jumper show to try and get used to Novice height before we did an event at that level.

Liz Crawley Photography Photo courtesy of Crockett Miller.

For the first of many, many times, I choked. With every fence, the take-off spot got farther and farther away from the fence. Until finally, it was too long, but we were going too fast. Panda took off, second-guessed himself, tried to put his feet back down, but couldn’t get them back up in time and hit it with his chest. I probably wouldn’t be riding anymore had the jump been solid and I’m so thankful that both of us came out unscathed. But we moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind but after that, we started to have a huge bout of fortune.

Starting from our first Novice at a schooling show, through five recognized Novices, to my first recognized Training, Panda won every single one. Every time, I would finish the final phase and just stare at the accomplishment, mostly confused. I used to finish second to last with refusals everywhere and now I was winning everything I entered. I couldn’t - and I still can’t seem to credit it to my riding. I wasn’t winning, Panda was doing it, or the belt I was wearing was lucky, anything but me, how could I be winning? I could tell people thought I had bought a perfect Irish Sport Horse import and that was the reason, but he couldn’t score below a 30 before I got him. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t winning because I was a good rider, but I was winning because I had put all my effort into shaping this horse. Once again, not because I could ride well, but because I let my trainer get on whenever I could and let the side-reins be the Olympian teaching him what frame to travel in.

The last few shows I’ve been to have gotten stressful. The “streak” has started to take its toll and I’ve done my best to toss it to the wind when I go into the show jump ring last because I’m in first again. But it’s become a big battle mentally because I would like to keep winning. That’s human, right? But I don’t want to be the rider that never gets a bad jump in warm-up, goes into the stadium ring and chokes and misses at every, single, fence, and then gets to win because her horse’s dressage score and oddly careful knees saved her again. So now we’re planning on going to one more Training before the AEC and that’s the last time to practice staying calm before the “streak” shows itself at the Kentucky Horse Park’s beautiful Rolex Stadium.

About the USEA American Eventing Championships

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) is the pinnacle of the sport for the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of horses and riders from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. The 2019 USEA American Eventing Championships will be held August 27-September 1, 2019 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

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