Fall is finally upon us and with the coming of fall is fall hunter pace season. This is the time of year I have been looking forward to all year. I have taken several days off in order to attend these events.
On the 13th we kicked the season off officially with the Old Chatham Hunter Pace in Chatham, NY. I wasn’t exactly prepared for it but in the end it all worked out.
Not familiar with hunter paces? Think of a team cross country/trail competition. Teams of 2 or 3 will compete together and ride a marked trail anywhere from 8-12 miles (give or take). The trail winds through fields, woods, down roads, and across streams. Along the way you jump obstacles. Some are logs. Some are brick walls. Some are natural and others are more “spooky.” You have the option to go around any jump that you don’t wish to do.
Ideally, a seasoned rider will ride out first and “set the pace.” The idea is that the rider will ride as fast is safely possible for the current conditions of the trail. Walk through mud, canter/gallop when safe to do so and giving the horse breaks as needed. The team who rides the closest to that time wins. It doesn’t pay to be too fast nor too slow.
Of course that’s not always how the pace times are achieved…some organizers take the average time of all the teams and the winner is the team closest to that average time.
Old Chatham was the first pace we planned to do since last fall. Tiger and I have been working but not at the level we should have been. He was fit enough, especially after the camping, but we could have been more prepared. The week before the pace I was riding at home. We had practiced some flatwork, jumped, and took a calm easy stroll down the road. When we returned home I decided to take him for one last go around over the jumps in the backyard…more to drive home the idea that we can ride for over an hour and still need that little extra gas in the tank. He had it….bit I didn’t. COVID and a lack of self-discipline this year has taken a toll on my fitness and I lost my balance on our last jump….my blue wall. We landed fine but as I lost balance I threw Tiger off balance and I came off. Possibly the least graceful fall I have had to date. The ground was hard and I felt my shoulder hit, my knee, and lastly a scrape on the nose. I laid flat on my back for a while and had the wind knocked out of me. Luckily Zac heard everything and came running…my neighbor saw it and she also started to come over (and stopped when she saw Zac). Tiger casually grazed by my side, looking over at me but staying in place and minding his business. Once I could collect myself I got back on and YES I took the course again to end on a good note.
That night I iced and took a healthy dose of ibuprofen.
The next day I found that I couldn’t move my shoulder. The hand worked and the elbow worked but the shoulder wouldn’t budge. It was swollen and though a dull throb it wouldn’t move when my body told it to. The following day I was starting to be able to move it again with some pain so I took it easy. At least I was on the right path.
Unfortunately that night I rode in a lesson on a horse that doesn’t normally cause me worry; I have trail ridden this horse with no issue. This night, however, I had a lot of difficulty. She could sense I was tense…and I got more and more tense and felt less and less confident. You know how concentrating on the one thing you DON’T want to do is EXACTLY what happens? Yeah. That. I came off again in that lesson…on the same shoulder.
With my confidence shaken in a major way I went home and rested. I went to work that week and after a few days I managed to get on both Nahe and Tiger before the hunter pace. I took some good jumps on both and kept the height low to build my confidence back up and to rebuild Tiger’s confidence in me. We mostly focused on flatwork and riding through my mini cross country path.
Pace-day approached and though my confidence in riding over fences was low I was excited. I was excited to work on my relationship with Tiger…fences or no fences.
The last hunter pace in the fall was…not great. Tiger and I fought the entire time because he wishes to lead…but so did the other horses in our team. My goal for our Old Chatham ride was to make it fun and to develop better communication so he might someday settle in regardless of what position we are riding. It’s a goal that will take time and requires rides like this to build upon.
COVID-19 has of course made its impact on the equestrian scene. At shows no spectators are welcome. At the hunter paces all participants are required to sign up days before the event. On the ground we are required to wear our masks. At the conclusion of our ride we are to take our prepackaged lunch and leave the premises.
In other years, day-of registries were an option (but more pricey). We often did this in case a horse came up lame that morning, pulled a shoe, flat tire, or bad weather. In other years, everybody gathered for a fun lunch while the horses rested at the trailers.
Everything else about the pace was normal. We got ready, got on, and headed toward the starting gate. We waited for the countdown then we were off. For ten miles or so we galloped up hills, across open fields. We trotted through the woods. Walked along the edge of the cornfields. The hills took a lot out of our horses so we walked often.
This hunter pace had a lot of coops and they were all larger than I was comfortable with. No harm…we went around them. Tiger looked eager to take a few but for my own sanity and confidence boosting I played it conservatively. We did, however, jump stone walls and logs.
At our halfway point we stopped for our 2 minute hold. The horses got a break and we took a moment to appreciate the stunning views. It was right then that I realized how lucky I was. How lucky WE were to be out enjoying our horses on this lovely land.
Towards the end we let our horses lengthen to a full-out gallop. It didn’t last long as we ascended up our last really large hill but we all (horses included) had a smile on.
We finally came to our final jump and crossed the finish line.
As we cooled down and walked the horses I began to feel my legs cramping up. By the time we returned to the trailer I feared I wouldn’t be able to move.
I was correct.
As much as it hurt it was quite hilarious. I took agonizing baby steps to tie Tiger back to his spot with his alfalfa-filled hay net. I must have been dehydrated so my friends gave me two bottles of water which we gone in 5 minutes or less. I untacked, got Tiger HIS water, and continued to SLOWLY put everything back in order. We applied poultice, wrapped legs, and loaded up to return home.
I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing boyfriend; he greeted us roadside and helped unload Tiger and put everything away. Tiger was also incredible and walked slowly with me (yet he did pull for nibbles of grass).
It took almost a week for the cramps to fully subside!
Reflecting on the ride I see a lot of areas for improvement but we also had a great time and that was the goal. Tiger hesitated on a few jumps…and it was entirely me. I am learning that I stiffen before a jump which leads to Tiger hesitating and ultimately refusing. My lack of confidence translates to HIS lack of confidence. In time I hope to restore that confidence and once again commit to jumps that are currently holding me back.
I also realized my serious need to take my fitness more seriously. Having been away from the gym for far too long has taken it’s toll. My balance, for one, is among the top reasons my confidence is struggling. Simply starting my yoga/pilates again will do wonders.
Tiger was more relaxed on this hunter pace since he was allowed to lead…but he put up a fuss when he followed. We followed as long as possible and switched out to let him “chill.” Once he led for a while and led over jumps we returned to following for a little while. It was progress but it will be attained better in time.
The results were posted that evening. We rode the course in 1 hour 45 minutes. The ideal time was 1 hour 20 minutes. We ultimately came in 11th place but we had a marvelous time and listened to our horses.