Fake It ‘Til You Make It? My Rookie Week at HITS Thermal

By Karen Terry

Here I am at HITS Thermal, riding in my first ever winter circuit show after a serendipitous turn of events led to time off from work and an opportunity to lease a wonderful horse. As an amateur who hasn’t been able to show for a few years (and hasn’t done the hunters since my first adult year in 1997!), the chance to ride in the hunters and equitation again was such a fun prospect.

IMG_0090After moving to Bend in 2009, I settled in at Some Day Farm riding with Catherine Cruger. When I’m home and not traveling for work I ride nearly every day but I haven’t been able to commit to showing more than sporadically for many years. Life, work, wedding, travel, budget… you know how it goes. Just lessoning twice a week can be challenging when life gets crazy! And let me tell you, life got really nuts when I was asked to work on George Morris’s upcoming autobiography Unrelenting, which took over my free time for the past two years.

All through my years riding on the west coast, when the SDF riders flew south to show at Thermal, I cheered them on from home. Never thinking I would be able to go myself, it’s amazing to be here now. In early October, I found out my jumper mare needed more time off to rehab from an injury and I was really disappointed because with the GHM book wrapping up, I was really eager to get back into full-time riding and show a little. When the idea to lease Carlos came up, I really jumped at the chance. He’s a 15-year-old Oldenburg owned by Chloe Green, a super talented junior rider who had moved from Bend to California for school and didn’t have as much time to ride and show. Chloe and Carlos were really successful together for years at the shows, winning all over the west coast in the juniors and even going east for Capital Challenge. Carlos, affectionately called “Losie” in the barn, is a gorgeous chestnut with a blaze, a beautiful jump, and a puppy dog personality. He is sort of a pony in a horse’s body. When I tried him out in a lesson, I loved him. He’s a little ‘stallioney’ to the jumps when he gets excited and can get strong, but he’s such a fun ride with a boatload of talent.

I had 10 weeks to ride Carlos before the first week of Thermal, which didn’t sound like very long but then again, I’d never ridden a horse with so much experience in the show ring before. My preparation was in full swing but we had to miss almost three weeks of riding due to temps in the teens and then getting the flu. After New Year’s, my preparation went into overdrive and I lessoned every day possible. Friends who knew I was trying to get stronger before the show let me ride their horses and Catherine let me hack some others at the barn. Just before the show, Carlos and I started having more consistent trips around the indoor. I still worried, though and wished we’d had more time to ride at home first. I sometimes got butterflies lying in bed at night imagining walking into the show ring with him. It seemed like such a big leap from a handful of nice trips over the jumps at home to the big, outdoor show ring.

Once I got down here last Wednesday, I really started feeling nervous. But while I was nervous on the inside, the beauty of the desert and the great riding friends I rented a house with were great distractions. The setting here is beautiful and unlike anywhere I’ve been before. It’s reminiscent of Florida except there’s no humidity and also, just beyond the palm trees to the south and west are huge, dark mountain peaks tumbling across one another. Every direction I look, there are purplish-blue mountains jutting up in the distance between palm and fruit trees.

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My riding goals for the first week was something I thought about a lot in the weeks leading up to this trip because I wanted to set myself up right from a sports psychology perspective. I wanted attainable goals. I’ve learned through the years not to arrive with unrealistic fantasies of walking away champion of your division without first setting some goals that are more in my control.

My first goal was to keep relaxed and focused on the riding mechanics themselves. I wanted to ride to the level I know I’m capable of when I’m at home. In the past sometimes I felt like my horse went differently at shows in part because I rode differently… I rode stiff and felt physically blocked by my nervousness, which led to my feeling disappointed that I didn’t ride the way I know I can – which is maddening when you work so hard at home!

My second goal was when I make a mistake (because let’s face it, it’s going to happen…), to learn from it and then put it behind me forever. Carrying frustration into the next class is not helpful and can be self-defeating. When I screw up and biff at a jump, my goal was to make a plan for the fix and go into the ring with a positive outlook and try again.

My third goal was to have a really, really good time just being here. I wanted to have moments where I intentionally took a deep breath and looked around and thought, “Holy $#!, I’m showing at Thermal and it’s beautiful here and how amazing is my life right now?!”

After week one, I can tell you that all of those goals were met and it didn’t take a miracle for that to happen. I wasn’t champion of any of my divisions but I totally nailed those goals. And on top of that, I actually got great ribbons! My first trips in the ring were a little panicky and my nervousness definitely took away my feel like it has in the past. Losie was a little bit strong and I was bracing and getting pulled past the distance on some of those pesky oxers on the long approach coming back towards the in-gate. But each day, things came together more and more. At the beginning, I was just trying to have enough pace to the first jump, ride a good track, and make adjustments when I saw the distance. Then, as I breathed a little deeper and went back and forth from the barn to the ring a few more times, my feel started coming back. The more basic things became automatic and I started paying attention to the more subtle things. I was balancing to prevent the swap, asking Losie to land on the best lead in the bending lines, and setting up our lead changes so he wouldn’t be late with them behind. Things were slowing down and feeling more like they do in a lesson at home – I’m still a little keyed up when I jump but I’m crafting the ride and creating a better, softer canter throughout the course. We definitely made some mistakes and I absolutely made the same mistake more than once. It happens. This sport is hard, dammit.  We all have to remember that! That’s why it’s so fun when things all come together. Catherine and Kendall have a great way of helping you focus on a couple of things at a time and not bombarding you with every little thing when you show. That really helped things getting rolling.

In my first hunter prix ever (judged by Sue Ashe, who I have so much respect for), we got called back for the second round and got tenth. In the Ariat Medal, I scored an 80 in the first round and ended up fourth. We were called back fourth to test in the Dover Saddlery Medal and ended up moving up to second! We even won one of our Adult Hunter over fences classes, which was our last class of the week.  And to top of off, every day and each night the incomparable SDF team had many moments of laughter and hi-fives and whoops and lots of empty bottles of wine. For me as a rider, it was a great week full of firsts in the show ring and I really had a blast.

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I am living proof that just because you haven’t been to a show that big before, and even if you aren’t the definition of flawless riding perfection on a horse you’ve ridden for a million years, you can have success. Don’t think you can’t go in there and rock it, because you can. It doesn’t matter if the judge has never heard of you before or if you’ve never seen a scarier-looking jump than the white and black lattice cowboys. Take a deep breath and walk in like you can win the class. Ride like you know you’re capable. Be there for your horse and don’t leave him hanging if you don’t see the distance. Sink in, put your leg on, and make something out of nothing.

Time for week two!