DAY 23. Solar is aptly named, because he’s a shining star!
Technically there aren’t winners or losers in the walk/trot/groundpole class–everyone who finishes gets a beautiful participant ribbon–but Solar put in the lowest dressage score and didn’t knock any poles! He may not have been a winner at the racetrack, but he was this weekend.
We arrived at the Chehalis Valley Pony Club Benefit Horse Trials early so others from Nayborly Farms could compete in the bigger classes. This was the perfect opportunity for Solar to relax and practice standing calmly at the trailer.
Before competing we walked in-hand through the parking area, around the very busy warmup rings, through the vendor encampment, and near the performance arenas. On our walk we focused on basic ground manners. I kept Solar’s attention on me by working him through simple exercises like backing up, turning on the haunch, and disengaging the hindquarters. At first he was visibly tense and distracted, but with consistent reminders he began to let down and focus. I was pleased to see that he was not spooky in the new environment, and he was not bothered by horses galloping past on the cross-country course–this can be triggering for some ex-racehorses.
A brief walk like Solar and I took before riding is an excellent way for an inexperienced horse to soak in the show environment and for the horse and handler to establish effective communication before working under saddle. Remember that the mental state of your horse on the ground sets the stage for their mental state under saddle (same goes for you, the rider, btw!). It pays off at a show to help your horse find relaxation through groundwork before you ride them.
The horse trials consisted of three phases: dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country jumping. These are the same phases you would find at a recognized three-day event, but you ride all three phases over the course of one day.
Despite a camera hiccup, we did manage to capture some video highlights of Solar’s first show:
30 minutes before our afternoon ride time I tacked Solar, mounted, and we walked out into the crowed dressage warmup on a long rein. My goal was for Solar to achieve the same level of energy and frame of mind that we’ve been working to establish on the trail: calm, relaxed, obedient, attentive.
Sure enough, Solar mozied around the warmup just like he does now on the trail. He didn’t flinch, spook, try to speed up, or do any funny business whatsoever. He went right to work. He was so relaxed and attentive from the get-go that for a moment I forgot that it was his first show!
Even better, Solar was calm in the dressage arena. Some young horses spook at the judge or the flower arrangements, or they get tense from nerves and shorten their stride in the small 20×40 meter ring. But Solar was exactly as he is at home. Even though he’s not yet confirmed in balancing his weight over his hindquarters and carrying a consistent contact, he was obedient, focused, and confident–the perfect recipe for his first outing.
Solar scored 37.5 penalty points; the lowest in the walk/trot class!
I wish I had footage of how excellent Solar was in the jump warmup. He walked on a long rein past flapping rainbow banners, other horses cantering, spectators, and vehicles. He stood patiently as I talked with passerbys or adjusted my stirrups. We even warmed up over the hopeful-sized jumps–a cross rail, vertical, and his first oxar (2 feet tall). He was straight and steady down to every jump and cantered away in a controlled tempo. It was exciting to feel how rhythmical and correct Solar is over the jumps.
Any doubts I had prior to the competition about Solar being able to leave a group of horses, enter an unfamiliar arena, and navigate around a series of “jumps” quickly vanished when we started our stadium round. He walked confidently into the arena and was honest down to every groundpole pile. He wasn’t alarmed by things in the arena or the announcer, and he tried hard to think on his feet over the course of obstacles. I like how he had his ears up looking for the next jump, and he maintained a steady, forward rhythm. Truly, he was a pleasure to ride.
The XC course had added challenges including hay bales, large neighboring jumps, spectators, and floral decorations. Solar strode out in a confident trot away from the group of horses piled up at the start box. He was forward and straight and paying attention to the task at hand.
One of the early fences on course was a pole wrapped in brightly colored fake flowers bordering a large prelim-level table with kids sitting on it. This surprised Solar, and even though he swerved left and right to see if he could avoid it, he continued forward over the obstacle thanks to my assertive cues. Because there was no significant height to jump, I kept pointing his nose at the fence and applying forward aids, so that he learned that no matter what, he was going to go forward over the obstacle.
Clearing this “scary” jump boosted Solar’s confidence, so much so, that he wanted to canter! Though his canter is not particularly put together at this stage in his training, I allowed him to carry a canter over a few fences to build upon his boldness and affirm his willingness to move forward. It was especially fun to canter through the finish line!
We might not have won a major competition, but it felt like a huge success to me. I know now that Solar is capable of being obedient and focused in a show environment. He’s also starting to put together pieces of our training, such as analyzing new terrain/obstacles quickly while keeping a rhythm. I’m pretty sure he made a few new fans at the show too!
All in all, I think Solar was a wonderful ambassador for OTTBs. He put to shame many myths about ex-racehorses–such as that they are “too flightly” or “out of control”–and he showed the heart of gold that attract so many to this breed of horse.
Thank you Chehalis Valley Pony Club for giving Solar a discounted entry fee, making his first show experience possible. The show was very well run; classes stayed on time, the volunteers were wonderful, the food options were delicious, and the courses rode well. It was a fabulous day! Thank you pony clubbers for supporting off-the-track-thoroughbreds and the Prodigious Fund’s 100-Day Trainer Challenge!