The journey with any hobby (or general thing that takes tons of practice and constant improvement) is rife with turning points. Some of those turning points are for the best and some are for the worse. Thankfully this post is about a turning point that is GOOD!
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision at first, but I have made it an active one for the rest of 2022 to be the year of Coco Chanel. While working through Simon’s ailments it didn’t seem fair to put pressure on him to go hard on the weekends and endure long trailer rides so he’s having a year of horse yoga, fitness and general veterinary visits until we get him put back together.
Coco, on the other hand, is in her prime. She’s ten this year. (I fear even typing these words….) She’s sound, at least she has been all year and is as I type these words. She’s talented. She’s pretty. And she’s going to horse shows! I blogged after our show in February in Katy, which was a great growing experience, but I didn’t come away from that show feeling super great about our long term future showing. She was much hotter than I’d hoped. She was anxious. She got around the courses, but I didn’t see the spark of fancy I had hoped for. We have been lessoning almost weekly and it has been going great, but it was going great before Katy, too.
Definitely looking the part!
For the past few years there has been a USHJA/USEF rated hunter/jumper show in Fort Worth that I usually miss because I’m in Montana the week leading up to the third weekend in May. I went to the show during it’s inaugural year with Sterling, but hadn’t been back since then. Well, this year we made it happen again! My plan going into the week was to take Coco to the show facility late Wednesday or early Thursday to get acclimated, then show over the weekend. As things often do, they changed. My trainers convinced me to take her early Tuesday morning as that was the only day the rings were open for schooling. So my trainer schooled her on Tuesday and then we opted to have my trainer show Coco on Wednesday.
Slight rewind, Coco went to stay with my trainer for a couple nights for training rides the weekend before the show. She got two training rides then I had a lesson and brought her home a couple days before the show started. I could already feel some more polished buttons after only a couple training rides, so it wasn’t a hard sell for me to be OK with my trainer schooling and showing Coco at the show.
My trainer showed her in three over fences classes. The first, a warmup, was good. Coco looked anxious, but she jumped around fine. The second course was MESSY. Coco was MAD she had to go back into the ring to show. She was mad it was hot, She was mad there were flies. She was just cranky and it showed! I don’t think she’s had a full-on hissy fit like that before, so truth be told I’m glad it was with my trainer and not me. Trainer skillfully corrected her, but made her do her job and it was totally fine. Third course was fine with a lot more good moments.
Coco with both show trainers, one in the irons and the other providing guidance from the ground.
The primary thing I noticed consistently in all her trips was that Coco was working the bit a LOT. I ride her at home in a D-ring Herm Sprenger Duo. This is a super soft bit and I prefer to keep the bit I use at home to be as light and easy as possible since that is what is in their mouth nearly every day. I rider her at lessons and shows in a Neue Schule Tranz Angled Lozenge D-Ring. When I rode her in a lesson on Thursday before showing on Friday I asked my trainers what they thought about her bitting and they said, almost simultaneously, that they were already planning to talk to me about changing her bit! Great minds! Since she already knows the Duo we planned to switch back to it.
I bought the Bemer blanket for Simon, but I like to use it on Coco at shows, so she got some Bemer time after our Thursday training ride. I really think it contributed to her calmness the rest of the show.
Getting her Bemer time.
Friday came and I got to the barn fairly early so I could get her braided (I think I’m one of like 4 people who braids their own horse) and have plenty of time to chill out (and work) before my division went. My barn had 8 horses in my division (which had 21 in total) so we had to coordinate when each horse would go to spread our trips out over the duration of the division. Side note about horse shows, when there are more than about 5 horses in a class they separate groups into “rotations” where 3-5 horses take turns doing their courses (there are usually 2 or 3 if there is a warmup option), then start another rotation until everyone is done. Back to our regular programming.
We went in the first or second rotation and our first trip, a warmup, was great! Good pace. Good distances to the jumps. It was all good. Not great, but solid. The second and third trips had a few bobbles like getting to close to the jump (chipping) or taking off too far away from the jump. In all the trips Coco was chill and happy. She clearly was happier in the Duo than she had been in the NS bit, so I was glad we made that change. We also did our flat class (this is where all the horses are judged on how well they move, it’s based on foxhunting so the horse should move in a way that uses as little energy as possible so it will have energy for a long day of hunting, this explanation could be long so I’ll stop now) after everyone was done with their jumping courses for the day. I am DELIGHTED to say that Coco got second in the flat class! She FANCY! We placed in our warmup jumping class, but not in our division classes. This may be a pattern……
So cute. I just love seeing these pics of my sweet girl all grown up!
The second day of showing we just had 3 jumping classes; the warmup course and 2 division courses. Pretty much the same as the day before, our warmup was smoothest and the 2 division courses had some bobbles. I’d have to go back and look at our placings, but I’m pretty sure I used to do this with Sterling, too. I’d have a decent warmup course then they would get worse every time I rode again. Thankfully with Coco, the second trip tends to be the worst and the third one is better but not great. The mistakes I’m making (because it’s all me, Coco is just doing almost EXACTLY what I tell her to do) have their basis in my greenness to jumping and her greenness to jumping. The hunters are hard because every single step and jump matters and the steps between the jumps make the difference in how well the jumps happen.
This is where the turning point is coming. I can feel it. Literally. My eye for distances is getting SO much better, but I seem to choke in the show ring. I feel it getting better, but it’s not there yet. It is HUGE that Coco was so much quieter in the ring at this show. It’s a big environment with a lot going on outside the ring, in the stabling, and around the venue (The Pro Bull Riders PBR was having their World Championships at the same time as the horse show, talk about a mashup of crowds!) plus the weather changed quite a lot in a couple days. She handled it like a pro. She literally didn’t have a spooking meltdown until the moment I loaded her on the trailer to go home and she saw the pens FULL of bucking bulls. Needless to say she jumped on the trailer and was ready to get the heck out of Dodge!
October Hill’s Coco Chanel
We are showing again this coming week and I really really really hope that the changes coming are good and we have some solid trips with few mistakes. I’ve watched and rewatched our videos from this past week and she looks so good 90% of the time. I just need to give her the ride that will make her look that good ALL the time! Regardless, I’m grateful to Coco. My husband. My family. My trainers. My friends. All the people and the horses who afford us the ability to participate in this amazing sport!
Coco turns the ripe old age of 10 this year. I took things vvvveeerrrryyyy slowly getting her started for myriad reasons ranging from resources to preservation of soundness, and now I’m feeling quite behind in her development. Added onto that the COVID year(s) and my focus on foxhunting and she just isn’t where a 10 year old show horse should be in terms of dependability and consistency at shows. Not that Coco has any idea or cares at all!
With my increased flexibility at work and being able to lesson more regularly, it felt like it’s time to “hit the road” this year. I’m still not planning on showing a lot comparatively, but really anything is more than we’ve been doing. We had a great time at Tyler in October and made some huge progress so I was excited to head to Week 2 of the Winter Series in Katy last week. The show goes 4 consecutive weeks, but we only had the bandwidth for one week and we made that week count! We showed in at least two over fences classes every day from Thursday to Sunday and a couple of hack (flat) classes intermingled.
I’m not going to dissect every trip, or really even every day, but suffice it to say there were some really really good things and some not so great things. It is interesting to develop this horse and notice her similarities and differences from horses I’ve shown previously. My first show hunter was a thoroughbred that was bred to show not race. He was always a bit excited the first day of a show and generally settled more and more each day. Coco has proven to be more up on the first day of showing, pretty nice and consistent each additional day, but once she hits her proverbial wall she gets cranky. I’m still figuring out the “wall”, but I suspect last week had to do with the weather and being stalled for 5 days when she’s accustomed to 12 hours of turnout every day. It was sunny and glorious Wednesday to Friday, then a windy cold front blew through on Saturday. She was surprisingly good to show on Saturday, but she was DONE on Sunday.
What do I mean by DONE? Coco is a bit on the sensitive side and we are starting to get to a point in her development where she has all the basics and we need to work on the nuances of polish and detail. I’ve never really had a finished horse to show, so this is new to me and my habits tend to be to ask big questions which result in big answers. On Sunday Coco came out of her stall after spending the night with a tarp flapping against the building all night, a significant drop in the temperature and no turnout since Tuesday. I think she was tired and just a bit frazzled. So when I asked a big question (slow down, lead change, etc). She had a big response either by ignoring my aids (not slowing down) or not doing a tidy lead change (I looked down and didn’t ride straight). She needed a calm, relaxed ride to assure her she was fine and I gave her a frazzled ride.
I was frustrated with myself on Sunday because I knew I didn’t give my horse a fair ride and since it was the last day we didn’t end on the best note. However, it was a huge step forward in our development as a team overall. When I went back and watched the videos from Sunday the trips look 5 million times better than I would have imagined. When she was slow, she was absolutely beautiful. When I rode her to the fences well, her jump was perfection. The bobbles that felt like they were disasters were truly just bobbles. Things often feel so much worse than they look.
Outside of riding, it was a great week. I enjoy getting to know the other riders at my barn during shows. I don’t see most of them very often since I keep my horse at home and haul in for lessons on weekends. I braid Coco myself at shows because it gives us some nice relaxed time together and my braids are getting better again after not having done it much for the past few years. Oscur made friends with every single dog he laid eyes on! We even got one of the indoor arenas to ourselves after the show day ended one night and let our dogs off leash to run around the jumps, which was adorable.
Our next show will either be Pin Oak in late April or Fort Worth in mid May. We may try to make it to a local unrated show in between, just to get more time off the farm and at a horse show, but we shall see. Even with the frustrating and disappointing moments I know how fortunate I am to even be able to dabble in this sport and to have such a quality horse to ride!
There is a great deal of discussion in the world of hunters and jumpers right now (USHJA and USEF specifically) about how to define “amateurs” in the sport. Lots of talk about being a sponsored rider or a social media influencer or doing various barn activities for pay and whether those things prevent someone from being an amateur. And quite frankly, I think it’s all dumb.
Lets back up a little bit and I’ll share a bit about my and my family’s background in horses. I grew up in a very horsey family in Montana. My Dad grew up on big ranches and rodeoed in his younger days and when I came around he was active in showing Snaffle Bit horses (basically NRCHA now) and cutting. My Mom’s family raised and showed a LOT of Quarter Horses when she was a kid and she showed as well as rodeoed. She even went to college on a rodeo scholarship. When I was young she was doing mostly barrel racing, but she switched back to showing stock breed horses after I went to college. Before I was born my parents had race horses. Mostly Quarter Horses, but I think they had a couple thoroughbreds. Some of the mares they ran were broodmares that produced horses I rode as a kid.
Mom showing her homebred gelding, Casey a few years ago.
A few of my aunts and cousins are also still pretty involved in rodeo. One was Miss Rodeo North Dakota before I was born. One broke multiple arena records in barrel racing a couple years ago. One won the Goat Tying at the College National Finals while on a rodeo scholarship at Montana State University. Both sets of my grandparents raised horses in some form or fashion. My great grandfather was one of the founders of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma. My Dad was on the Montana Board of Horse Racing in the 90’s.
Dad cutting in Idaho on Athena Beau. Probably in the late 80’s or early 90’s.
My first few horses were more rodeo types. They ran the barrel pattern and did pole bending, albeit pretty slowly. We went to lots and lots of nearby playdays and rodeos. I also participated in 4-H, which was when I got exposed to showing Quarter Horses and was hooked from age about 10 to well past college. I also showed a reiner the last few years of my Youth career in AQHA and NRHA events. Quite a lot when I was 16-18 (it was the only thing I was into that my Dad actually liked, so he was more on board with letting me show more, LOL!) Fast forward to adulting and I’ve been showing hunters in local, regional and A rated shows in Texas since about 2013 as well as foxhunting since 2010.
Coco and me at a local show during the summer of 2020
I say all this because I think I have a pretty unique perspective in that I or my family have participated in a LOT of various equestrian organizations and events. And I think defining divisions based on amateur versus professional status is a huge waste of time and resources for all organizations that do.
Jaguar and me reining in Montana in the late 90’s
A person’s ability to ride well has absolutely nothing to do with how they earn an income. It has to do with natural ability, time spent in the saddle, good instruction and getting out there and doing the thing. If we want our sport to be attainable for the “average” person to participate we have to make it more affordable. And one of the best ways to make it affordable is for participants to find ways to cut costs. That may be exercising horses for their trainer, repping brands that give them tack/apparel/feed/etc, giving riding lessons, and other similar activities that would currently prohibit them from being an “amateur” in USHJA/USEF competition.
How do you “fix” this? While I don’t have a slam dunk answer, the basic idea to start from would be to separate divisions by Rider achievement OR Rider age OR Horse achievement OR Horse age OR any combination those things. I’m not going to spell out a rulebook in a blog post but the premise would be similar to what eventing does now, but with more separation. The AQHA has a Leveling program that is also a good starting point (but they also separate amateurs and pros, so throw that part out).
For Rider Achievement separation, riders would be required to win a certain number of blue ribbons or points or something to participate in classes with fences higher than 2’9″ and on up for fence height (I don’t do jumpers so I don’t recall the fence heights, but something like the .9m). Require those ribbons/points to move to the next fence height. If someone doesn’t show in their achieved division, say 3′, for 3 years, they have to “requalify” to jump that height again, but you could let them do it within the show season and then move up as soon as they get it. There would also be different Levels at each rated jump height. This would separate the rider showing 3′ at 4 or 5 shows a year from the rider showing 3′ 25 weekends a year. Depending how the levels were differentiated (points would make this easier than ribbons), it could also keep the Rider who only shows at a few of the big shows (Devon, Indoors, WEF etc.) but wins those big classes from being eligible to compete against the infrequent weekend warrior.
There could also be age separated classes at each height division if Riders generally felt like that was needed. I know in some of the stock breed associations there is a whole division for riders over 50. I don’t know that that would work and/or be necessary with divisions separated by achievement, though. However, if all the governing body had to do was keep track of show results to separate divisions, it would make the separation of divisions a whole lot more objective, which to me would be a lot more fair.
Photo by Jerry Mohme. Showing my first thoroughbred in the hunters.
The Horse Achievement division could really remain similar to what is in existence with the Green and age divisions. It would be great if horses imported from Europe with show records could come with their record and not “get” to start over in divisions for which they are overqualified, but I don’t really have a dog in that fight so I’d leave that to the US based breeders to influence because they are the ones who really get the shaft there.
At the end of the day, the hypothetical advantage that professionals have is that they show often and on many horses. If divisions are separated by achievement, riders who don’t show much won’t compete against those pros or amateurs who show a lot. And it might even encourage trainers who have clients with limited resources to take them to a rated show here and there because they would actually have a shot at a ribbon when competing against those who show as infrequently as they do. And that trainer could even show and not have to go up against a Liza Boyd or a Nick Haness just because they give beginner riding lessons.
Hit me in the comments. I’m sure this will be fruitful for discussion.
This past weekend my grey unicorn and I were back in the show ring and it was a GOOD weekend! The Winter Frost Fire show was held at The Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy, Texas. This was the first year to hold a show at this venue on this particular weekend. I loved that it was so close to Christmas, but since it was the first year for the show and amidst the holidays it was not a huge show. I don’t love crowds and have yet to attend one of the really big Texas shows so this suited me just fine.
Sterling is still dutifully toting me around as I try to figure out how to properly ride him around a course of 2’6″ jumps and by golly this weekend I made it happen more often than not for the first time ever! I intend for this blog to be interesting to read for my friends and family who don’t ride so I’m not going to go into great detail, but rather give a fun overview of the weekend.
Sterling in his festive braids waiting for his turn in the ring.
Since it was a small show I also took this weekend as an opportunity to practice my mane braiding skills. Most ‘A’ show riders hire professional braiders to braid their horse’s mane so that it looks perfect. When I showed Quarter Horses as a kid this wasn’t an option so I always banded my own horse’s mane (this is done for western stock horse events) and when I got the chance I would braid my English horses. I am a self taught braider so my technique was rather rough and inconsistent. My horsey bestie is a fabulous braider and we have practiced together a few times and she gave me pointers so I was able to braid Sterling myself for this show and it wasn’t embarrassing! She put the pom pom in his forelock and a snowflake charm on one of his mane braids, but I did the rest.
My perfect unicorn!
I showed in the Modified Adult Division at this show over fences that are 2’6″. My goal going into the weekend was to keep a consistent canter around the entire course and NOT try to find any distances myself, just leave it to Sterling. I’m so proud to say that I stuck to it about 90% of the time around all 6 jumping courses. There were a few times when I had a brain freeze and threw him away right at an oxer or thought I saw a distance and made him get close to a fence, but they were few and far between. We came home with TWO blue ribbons over fences! I’m riding much more consistently and I think I’m starting to actually be able to feel the proper ride. This has been the hardest part of learning to jump for me is learning the feel. Everything else has come to me so naturally when I ride, it can be maddening that I think I’m doing something right when in reality I’m doing something very wrong.
Sterling has been a saint through my learning process. Not many green horses would put up with the mistakes that I have made over the years as Sterling and I have learned this whole jumping gig together. Thankfully he LOVES his job and while he can be a goofball on the ground, he is nearly always the same horse under saddle. He LOVES to jump and he LOVES to horse show. I am by no means a proficient rider over fences, but I do think I’ve reached a turning point and can finally start working on more of the polished nuances of riding a course rather than just trying to get around without embarrassing myself, my horse and my trainer.
Posing in front of the award winning Christmas stall decorations of JNL Stables.
I even kept it together and had as good of a second day showing as I did first day. I made a mistake in the walk to canter transition in the flat class that probably cost us the blue ribbon, but even that was better than the last show. All in all we won two blue ribbons over fences, three second place ribbons and one third place ribbon in addition to our second place in the flat class. I’m SO happy with this show being our conclusion to the 2017 show year! Hopefully we will be able to move up to the Adult Amateur division in 2018.
The final night of the horse show was a $10,000 1.35 jumper class with a leadline division between the first jumper round and the jump-off. What in the world could be cuter than a little girl on her gray pony with all kinds of Christmas bling AND Santa?
Cutest little leadliner!