Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Blockhouse Steeplechase Amateur Race - Plus Helmet Camera Footage!

My first love is and always will be eventing. Nothing gets me going like executing a harmonious dressage test, followed by a bad-ass cross country ride, and polished off with a graceful stadium round. However, recent budget restraints have helped me start to think out of the eventing box to get my thrills and give me goals for exercising and training my horse. We started with Hunter Paces this spring; lucky for me, moving to South Carolina has opened up a great big world of paces I never even knew existed, thanks to the urging of our horsey neighbors and the Western Carolina Hunter Pace circuit. Hunter Paces are fun, casual, usually fairly bite-sized distance rides over varied terrain and trails. If you're preparing an event horse for show seasons, I highly recommend them as an excuse to get out in the open and just ride.

Recently, I attended a pace at the FENCE showgrounds, and as part of the course, we were directed to ride on some short sections of their steeplechase track. The foxhunters riding with me were willing to go at a good clip of gallop, so we had our own little mock race between the four of us. Tristan immediately went into racehorse mode (weird for a 15.3 hh pony cross who's never seen a racetrack in his life) and got super competitive with our buddies. Not crazy, definitely rideable, and a whole lot of fun.

Shortly after those little escapades, I found several posts online from the Blockhouse Steeplechase that an amateur race was open to the public for horses and ponies alike. This was just a flat race, no fences to worry about, and especially with a money purse, (not required to peak my interest, but winning is extra super fun when there's a check involved) what did we have to lose by giving it a shot? At $50 an entry, it was a lot easier to chew than a $250 show bill for an event (not counting food, hotels, travel, etc.).

Ermahgerd. Gergles.
We attended several rider meetings to go over the requirements of our tack (I did have to go out and buy a racing overgirth to keep my saddle firmly in place, plus jockey goggles to help protect my eyes), how to properly condition our horses, and even got to walk the track with a retired steeplechase jockey to help ensure our safety. The group we had pulled together for the race included a husband and wife barrel racing team (veterans to the amateur racing scene with 5-6 starts for each of them in previous years), a trail rider looking for some fun, and a fellow english show rider.

When race day arrived, a hurdle I never anticipated became quite apparent. They had told us at the rider's meetings, that we absolutely needed to have at least on person at our stalls at all times during the race day. The reason, we soon discovered, was not to keep an eye on the horses, but to keep an eye on the many, MANY spectators in attendance. I swear we saw several hundred people visiting our stalls, wanting to pet the horses and take pictures with them. From small children to the quite elderly, a love of horses was in the air. Many people looked like they'd never interacted with a horse so up close and personal before, while some would ask about breeds and what disciplines we rode in. If just one little kid left today with a newfound love of horses and the equestrian lifestyle, I believe our work in inspiring a new generation of horsemen and women was fulfilled. Tristan not only tolerated all the affection, he simply hammed it up between naps and peppermints to reward him for his exceptional behavior. He gently allowed the smallest children to leave him with a nice pat on the nose, and inquisitively peered into the many alcoholic beverages paraded past him by the adults. I was filled with pride by his super attitude all day.

The time finally came to head to the start, so we promptly tacked up and headed to "the paddock" to be instructed when to mount, warm up, and line up for the race. After waiting all day, the moment had finally arrived to see if a Connemara/Trakehner cross could be a legitimate racehorse. And they're off!

We may not have won, we may not have come close to winning, but I learned some new things about Tristan during this fun race! Firstly, when four horses start galloping at full speed right next to us, Superpony gets downright competitive! My original plan was to have an easy gallop on the first uphill, let him stretch out on the down, go easy around the turn at the bottom, then let it loose on the homestretch. That plan went out the window the second the flag went down. The closest parallel I can draw is to imagine sitting on a lit rocket, with minimal steering, absolutely ZERO brakes, and no seatbelt. Plus, you're loving every second of it as soon as you get over the sheer speed you're traveling at. I honestly didn't know we had that gear!

Whee! Go Pony, go!
 It was a bit disappointing to not stay with the big kids in the race, but we came out to have fun and try something new and that's exactly what we accomplished. The bottom turn came up quickly and was quite sharp, so I preferred to use the little brakes I had to ease up around the turn and come home safe, rather than run at breakneck speed and risk falling or hurting Tristan. So we gave up our fourth place position by playing it safe. Plus we got to enjoy the last haul to the finish line with the crowd screaming "COME ON NUMBER 3! YOU CAN DO IT NUMBER 3!" We crossed the finish line dead last, but I had a huge smile on my face and Tristan was ready to do another lap. (I swear, if we had another two laps on the course, we would have out-enduranced the whole lot of them!)

Still fresh and perky post- race - Photo courtesy of Eric Dierks
An exciting event like this truly isn't possible without the help from all the wonderful volunteers. We were graced by the presence of the divine Annie Lane-Maunder, a fellow event rider and amazing equestrienne, who helped us all tremendously throughout the day and got us all to the start in an orderly manner. Many volunteers were posted to man the gates and keep horses, jockeys and spectators safe, and facilitate a fun and action packed day at the races.

It's very easy to stay in your box, ride in just your favorite discipline, well within your comfort zone. What I love most about event horses and riders, is we create an athletic partnership based upon versatility. It's not enough to have excellent weightlifting and body building in dressage, or to just be a daringly bold jumper in cross country, and a agile show jumper. You need to cram all those talents into one horse and rider and accomplish these incredible feats back to back in a stressful, judged environment surrounded by your peers. Thus, we are a scrappy group of athletes capable of a great many things. Step outside your comfort zone, do a pure dressage show against the DQs. Try some distance riding to work on your endurance and your horse's partnership with you. Ride in a race and feel what it's like to go at a flat out gallop. Heck, go ride western once in a while and work some cows if it suits you. Gather those experiences and apply them back to your preferred discipline.

Tristan's going to enjoy a couple days off to munch on a good bit of pasture while I narrow down our next challenge, whatever it may be. Until next time.