I hear number 62 called to the start box. I am number 102, and this is my cue. I gather the reins, bring my left foot to the iron, and swing myself up into the saddle. My legs fall into position from years of experience. I feel my horse’s excitement, and my blood is pumping rapidly.
My horse and I pad down to the practice field and come into view of contestants warming up. I watch the stereotyped black and bay, over 16-hands, thoroughbreds galloping under the cue of their riders. Coaches are yelling instructions to their clients, and the shouts of who is jumping wanders into my ears. It is the second day of “three-day eventing,” the cross-country stage. This is my sport. This is my life.
I start my warm up slowly, walking my little mustang in circles and stretching him out. I ignore the glances of curiosity coming from people around me as they wonder if my horse can really jump at the novice level. They’ll have to wait and see. I have no coach; I wear no watch; I use no whip, and my horse is naked of any contraptions.
We play our game. I kick him into a trot and rise and fall with his gate, increasing and slowing his speed with my seat. No one could possibly understand the connection we share. He is no ordinary horse to me, and I am no ordinary rider to him.
I tell him what is safe, which strides to take, and how to get where I want him to go.
He tells me what to question, if something is wrong, and when he is scared.
Together, we are one.
I squeeze him into a canter and we circle around. I point him to a warm up jump. “Cross rail,” I yell, so everyone knows we are about to jump. I tell him to shorten his stride and he willingly obeys. He perfects the distance and we close in on the cross rail. I feel his muscles contract as he raises off his back legs and glides over the jump.
Our warmup lasts 30 minutes, until I hear my number called to the start box. Nerves of excitement roll through me. They start in my toes, crawl over the veins of my feet and loop under my heals.
“Sixty seconds,” the announcer tells me. I walk my horse in and out of the start box. The nerves drown my ankles and work their way up my calves to my knees. Covering my thighs, they work their way to my core. My horse feels my emotion and tenses with excitement.
“Thirty seconds.” I feel my stomach knotting and curling as the nerves continue up through my chest and spread down my arms to my fingertips.
“Ten seconds.” My head is now swimming with anticipation, and I cannot see clearly.
“Five seconds.” My whole body is shaking, I stop my horse in the start box. He can barely stand still.
“Three, two, one.” And we’re gone.
My horse bounds to a gallop and I am with him every step of the way. My heart throbs in my ears. A high washes over me that no drug, no drink could ever induce. I am free. The first jump is in sight and my horse automatically lengthens his stride to close the distance. He clears the coup and his sensation increases. I push him out of the jump to gain speed.
We soar over a role top, table, ditch and steps. He catches sight of the water jump, and he questions me. I slow him to a canter to boost his confidence. Urging him on, he leaps into the water creating an aqua wall around us. I feel his confidence regain. We come out of the water, glide over a brush fence onto an angled rail and over the conifer rails.
We are in the home stretch now, and I feel my horse tiring. I increase my leg pressure to keep his speed. The last two jumps are in sight. We fly over the log; there is a large distance between the jumps. Everyone’s eyes are on us now. I tell my horse that we are all in and he gallops as fast as his legs can carry him.
He tells me he is tired. I tell him I am tired, but we keep running. My legs are burning, and my body is weakening. It seems as if we are in slow motion. The last fence approaches, and my horse gathers every ounce of energy left and clears it. We gallop through the end gates, off the course. Slowly we come down to a canter, a trot, and finally a walk.
I slide off of my horse and loosen the girth. We walk until our heart rates have slowed. I hear my time: 4 minutes, 17 seconds, right in the target zone. I pat my mustang for a job well done.
We head back to the stables and I put him up for the night. He is content in his stall eating fresh cut timothy hay, I tell him to get sleep for tomorrow. I clean my tack, make sure everything is put up for the night and go to the camper. It is only 5 o’clock, but I crawl into bed. I’m asleep in minutes.
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