I have learned that you have to read a map, while moving! And be able to read the little symbols. I have learned to pack my glasses in my pommel bag. Next year, I will be wearing prescription sunglasses, with antiglare, and hopefully, with non-breakable frames. Also, take into consideration the times! If you are going 4.3 mph, how long should it take to get from point 5 to point 6? Now remember to calculate in obstacles, time waiting for obstacles, remembering to tell the judge your wait time, and, if there is a P&R in that time frame, add in that 15 minutes. Now remember, that is without potty breaks, so if you get off your horse, count that time as your time! Now, get on and move out, because you’re already 10 minutes behind! I’ve learned to be on my horse at least 15 minutes to ½ hour before I ride out, and trot him around in his little pleasure trot. This puts him into a riding frame that I like to ride in. While he gives to the bit, it is a reminder to not pull on that bit during the ride. This warm-up takes the edge off of him, relaxes him, but most importantly, warms him up enough that we can begin trotting after we leave camp, to get 10 minutes ahead of our time! Then, maybe if we meet the judges a few minutes out of camp, my horse will settle and stand without jigging.
During my first ride, I could barely hang on to the map, let alone attach it, somewhere. Oh, my horse isn’t going to like this flapping around. He learned to care less! And I learned some of the tricks of the trade! You attach EVERYTHING to your breast collar or saddle! Next year, I’m going to take pictures of everything I see attached and flopping all around the horse! Maps, sponges, fans, water bottle holders. I loved the step someone made so they could get back onto their horse! I learned to tie everything on tightly, so there is no movement which could potentially cause back soreness.
Oh, and did someone tell me to take notes the night before each ride? That one is an important piece of advice. Was I suppose to turn at this red ribbon, or this red ribbon over here? Why are there 2 red ribbons on different trails? Oh, there is a yellow ribbon in the middle of those 2 red ribbons. What does that mean? What was I suppose to do when I saw the big tree? Where is the cabin where I turn? And where am I on the map? Where is the next P&R? Where could the judges be? Hmmm…
I have learned to look at the map and keep trotting. My horse doesn’t care what that crinkling noise is anymore. I have learned to see how fast I’m moving at the trot with my GPS. But if you look down too much, you better learn to duck fast when you look up and there is a tree branch! Oh, and did I say how much I can eat while riding? You better be able to take your coat off and tie it onto the cantle while riding.
I am learning what the judges are looking for: heavy in the cantle, upper body sway, centered riding, resistance in the horse. Yes, I said body sway. That movement that come naturally after riding for many years. The movement you get when you relax and move with the horse, especially when you ride a “trotter“ and not a “gaited” horse. Well, you don’t move with the horse that way on CTR’s. Oh, you can move your hips independently. Yeah, right! You “try” to keep that upper body from moving side to side going down hill, yet staying light in the cantle, with legs beneath you! Riders on Foxtrotters have it made! They don’t sway side to side because their natural movement is forward and backward. I don’t think that is fair! I have practiced and practiced the last 2 months on that upper body sway. I understand it better, but my upper body doesn’t! I’m practicing and something must be working, because something is starting to feel different going down the field terraces (where do you practice hills in eastern Nebraska unless you trailer an hour away?) Oh, I got it - no upper body movement! Then, in front of the judges, the body doesn’t cooperate with the brain and the horse’s movement. Trying to maneuver the obstacle within a short period of time, legs beneath you guiding your horse, maintaining contact on the reins, now control that upper body sway! We’ll work on that some more! That one is not coming natural. I am planning on participating in a Centered Riding Clinic in the spring. I will conquer that sway!
I am learning what to expect at P&R’s, how to cool off my horse, how to keep him quiet, how to keep him quiet when the horse beside him isn‘t quiet, or to keep him quiet when he sees riders off in the distance, and becomes instantly alert. When that happens, I can just see his heart rate go back up! I just stand in front of him, blocking his view or by distracting him by moving 1 front leg back and forth 1 step. I have watched while riders strip off their saddles, spray down their horse’s necks, pour water into their horse’s mouths from the “horse” water bottle. I have looked at how other riders have connected their sponges, fans, water bottles, and packs to their saddles and breast collars. I am learning what to do that will be an effective style for me and my horse. P&R’s are good for another reason …. knees! Oh, that last ride was cold, I was cold by 10 in the morning, and at that first P&R, I didn’t think my knees would unbend. I have never had that problem when I rode previous winters at my barn. But I probably was on and off my horse more often. I look forward to P&R’s now.
We are having better P&R's. I'm really happy about his conditioning. I'm sure that if the weather was hotter, his P&R‘s may not have been so good. (My rides were September through November). The previous ride was a little warmer, and he did have higher P&R's after rest time, even though they were still below the maximum numbers without losing points. I know we will have to step up his conditioning routine. I am used to conditioning speed event horses and reining horses. I will probably take a different approach than a lot of CTR riders, until I learn what has worked best for those who have done open for many years. I have had horses with strong legs that withstand the torque on the joints on turns. I will have to learn to condition a horse that will maintain soundness on steep hills or on various terrain over 40 miles. I read that it takes 3 months of slow work before adding speed, distance, and hills. Add one at a time. I better have a plan if I want to ride a March or April CTR.
Some of the trails have been sanded, some have been rocky. Most of the trails have been carefully negotiable. There were a few places where you were going up and down a trail that was solid stone with few areas to step in between stone. This ride taught both me and my horse to work on individual foot placing! We had some boggy areas - I like those the least as it could put a lot of strain on the horse's legs. Into muddy/boggy area, then back up (that was not fun - Finny backed up, 1 step and that leg sinks in, next step the other leg sinks in, and when he tried to lift his leg, he almost sat down. These wet areas make you look ahead and plan your path of minimal deep mud. We had a lot of log obstacles, standing over big logs (glad Finny has long legs). This has taught Finny to pick up those legs and quit dragging your toes! I loved trotting through the trees, easily trotting over whatever branch or log is on the path. I have learned to do this on a looser rein, with contact just a ½” away, and let Finny rate his speed for foot placing. Finny has always walked down steep inclines carefully and slowly, but he has had to learn to not rush the hills just because another horse is ahead of him.
I think a lot of the scoring is how well you and your horse perform the obstacles together. Riders need to ride centered and be up and off the horse‘s back. The horse needs to perform trail obstacles quietly and slowly. A horse can be conditioned and lose points on nervous behavior at obstacles or not performing the obstacle correctly. Your horse can be conditioned, perform obstacles, and if you don’t ride centered, you lose points. I love the partnership that comes between the horse and rider. I love that we are always thinking about the horse and thinking about how to do things better. I love that the care and welfare of our horses come first. And I love that we get to ride at fabulous parks with friends!