Riding: Season Finale

“It is no longer about potential. It is about being kinetic.”

A national horse show has a way of drawing the best out of a rider. The stakes are well understood. A win can catapult a rider to greater heights. An unexpected finish can lead to new opportunities. Or, it can quash the loftiest of dreams.

Riding in their fourth, consecutive appearance at the Las Vegas Nationals, my daughters have caught the eye of a few professional riders along the way. They’ve watched them at work, and have come away impressed. Their horsemanship, work ethic, attention to detail, their intangibles. Most have been impressed with their ability to manage the anticipation and expectations of a national show, and the bright lights of an FEI World Cup tour event.

Compliments aside, it is about riding the ride. “It is giving their absolute best in the show ring,” says Trish. “They trust themselves. They trust their horses. They have a maturity that you rarely, if ever, find in a rider of their age. That is why they’re very, very good.”

With fewer wild card slots available, the World Cup Grand Prix field was expected to be smaller in size from the year before. A rider’s best chance to assure themselves a slot was a clean ride in the qualifier, the Welcome Speed Classic, held two nights earlier. No rails down, no time faults. Once the qualifier and wild card slots were filled, a field of 29 riders was set. Only Elizabeth qualified for the event; Deborah and Tara both failed to qualify with one rail down in their runs. Yet, these are the moments they have often practiced. Only one moving ahead to ride the headline event, the other two supporting in a second’s role.

Deborah and Tara walked the course build with Elizabeth, offering their insights on the Oscar Soberón designed course. Like his other courses – fair, challenging, exciting. After the walkthrough, Elizabeth worked through her notes and choosing her sightlines and riding line.

An hour before the event, it’s the quiet time for Elizabeth and Lilith. The routine is deliberate and methodical. When the first group of riders are called, Elizabeth and Lilith are ready. A final check of the rigging, they begin the walk from the stables to Priefert Arena, next door to the main arena, for warm-ups.

The pressure and anxiety of the moment wasn’t any greater than Elizabeth normally experiences. Thoughts of the ride and the course are far from her mind. Instead, the focus is keeping Lilith’s warm-up steady. When it’s time to move into the holding area, Lilith is ready, ready.

From the holding area, the riders were able to gain a sense of the arena. The atmosphere, the anticipation, was less electric than the year before. Perhaps, it was the arena being only three-quarters full. Or, the audience more subdued. A less excited atmosphere generally keeps a horse from becoming overexcited. A highly charged setting, like the year before, several horses, including Lilith, were overexcited.

tunnel walk: from the stables to Priefert Arena

warm-up: Priefert Arena, ring two (left)

While she prefers a later start position, Elizabeth drew ninth in the order. Riding later in the order gives a better sense of the course in terms of difficulty and footing. Riding early in the draw, there is little sense of the course. The ride becomes trusting yourself.

With Elizabeth and three other amateurs part of the field of 29 riders, the World Cup Grand Prix began. Per FEI rule, the amateurs would not be listed in the official results unless it is a top ten finish. Richard Spooner (USA) was the crowd favorite with Chatinus, a 10-year-old Hanoverian he acquired over the summer. He had top five finishes in the World Cup qualifiers at Sacramento and Del Mar.

The challenge of the Soberón course revealed itself quickly. The first eight riders had put down rails, at least one. Riding ninth, 1028 Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos/Lilith (USA), would she be the first to ride clear? Elizabeth was riding the course well, her split times good. They cleared the troublesome 1.60 m fence with ease. The three 1.50 m fences down the backstretch, clear. On the second to last fence, a slight brush on the top rail of the 1.50 m fence. Rail down. Time, a 1.5 second lead on the field. With 20 riders yet to come, an unknown rider with a penchant for detail is the leader for the moment.

The ride done, Elizabeth knew she missed her chance. It seemed, though, the event may not go to a jump-off. Rider after rider were pulling rails. Elizabeth’s lead was steadily being chipped away, then her time passed. The first clear ride finally came 12 riders later. Crowd favorite, Richard Spooner, rode clear at 24. Karrie Ruffer (USA), an amateur making her second World Cup start, also made the jump-off. Spooner won the jump-off by nearly three seconds over Alison Robitaille (USA), with Ruffer retiring after a pulled rail. She finished third, and a place in the official results. In the unofficial results, Elizabeth finished 11th, 0.18 seconds short of tenth place.

For some, Las Vegas was their season finale. After the holiday break, many would begin assembling their show schedule for 2018. A few were planning a trip to the Winter Equestrian Festival in Palm Beach, FL to watch the best ride. A pair of riders the girls know rather well have decided to call it a career in riding, but continue in the horse world.

And, a handful, including my girls, are riding at the World Cup tour event in Guadalajara, this week, to begin their 2018 calendar.

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North Ranch: Beginning Anew

It had been in the planning for nearly two years. Our appointment books were filled with meeting dates and times, post-it notes and flagged pages. Certain documents needed to be gathered. Applications were submitted, approvals waited upon. Before a final contract was entered, it was important to reach an agreement on a range of matters.

Once we signed the contract, there were no second thoughts. It is about looking ahead, looking at possibilities. The risks are few, but manageable. While our daughters were developing strong interests in pursuing careers in medicine, it did not change the course or purpose of our plan. Moreover, it would afford them greater options.

After she signed, Amanda invited us into her office. It was a special occasion for her too, taking out the beer she had bought for the moment. “E-Ram, are you allowed?” Elizabeth looked at mom; Andrea nodded yes. “On behalf of the JN Ranch,” Amanda began, “we welcome you. North Ranch is in no finer hands than yours.” A few minutes later, her parents, Tom and Judy, stopped in to offer their congratulations. “You’ll love it here. It’s Colorado from another time.”

the cattle guard view: North Ranch (Jul 2015)

A working ranch, North Ranch will serve as home to Team KRW, our daughters’ equestrian activity. Their primary aim is to develop horses for show jumping. Knowing not every horse is suited for equine sports, another role will be found for them. The secondary aim is to provide support for the working horses of JN Ranch.

Our preparatory work began in earnest, earlier this year. Among the first projects was replacing an older section of common fence with new wire and stakes. Also, a new barn and attendant septic system was constructed. With 15 months allocated for construction and finishing out the ranch complex, the work was largely completed by mid-November, four months ahead of schedule.

finish work: the loft level, new barn (Jun 2017)

inside the barn: new stalls on the floor (Jul 2017)

Rather than waiting until spring to move into North Ranch, we slowly began the process two and a half weeks ago. Several boxes here, several boxes there. The serious moving began over the weekend. Laurie and Andrea wondered aloud if we had enough furniture to fill our new 3,200 square foot house. We do have some in storage, plus Andrea’s baby grand in piano storage.

The North Ranch property is richly steeped in family history. It is the special place where it all began for the JN Ranch in 1883. It is our privilege to begin anew here also.

Riding: The Weekend

A few days of Indian Summer in late November and early December. A little trail riding. A brown-bag lunch in a forest clearing. They are days to be long remembered.

My daughters have begun their short break from riding. For the moment, they are casual, everyday riders. Their horses are regular horses. With such nice weather, they invited their riding friend, Stacy, and her younger sister, Dani, for the weekend.

Dani (light blue) and Stacy (dark blue) with Chessman and Magician
photo credit: Elizabeth

It was a weekend with plenty of riding, plenty of exploring, and plenty of fun. The sunny, warm weather likely played a role, but probably they would have had fun if the weather kept them inside the barn.

Side Note

While still sunny, our temperatures have decidedly become more “December-like”, with a cold wind behind it. Snow chances, not very good.

 

Riding: The Nationals

The Nationals in Las Vegas, they signal the end of the riding season on the West Coast, and for my daughters. Their readiness is palpable. Simply, it is the most important show of their season.

Part of the World Cup tour, the CSI4* rated show draws a very competitive field of riders. The best of the USA horse show circuit and professionals on the Cup tour are featured. While the stage is larger, the expectations greater, my daughters approach to the Nationals is that it is no different from any other show. It is about riding.

“It is no longer about practice and other shows,” says Trish. “It is no longer about potential. It is about being kinetic. To achieve it, a rider needs to trust themselves and their horse, especially at this level.”

ready to compete: 028 Lilith/Elizabeth Ramos USA

The horses, they’re ready too.

Time to ride.

“Ride now, ride forever”

Riding: New Territory, Higher Stakes

My daughters have rarely competed past the Labor Day (USA) holiday. Going to school, followed by obtaining their university degrees, precluded any notion of riding late into a season. When they did compete in the fall, it would be from a favorable calendar, or they had proven themselves in the classroom to gain a few days off. The time away would not cause them to fall behind. Mark and Trish both have placed a premium on studying and having good grades for their riders who are students also. It prepares them for life away from the show ring, away from horses. Moreover, a good student makes for a better rider.

The girls have found riding in September and October to be a challenging, grand experience. With the shows and events more national in setting, and higher rated, they draw riders that are among the best. The skills of their fellow riders are very polished, their experience level substantial. They are similarly detail-oriented in charting and studying their own riding, but are also watching the other riders and horses. It is about learning what other riders are doing to be better – on and off saddle, inside and outside the show ring.

the details: Elizabeth’s course notes and riding notes for season 2017

While the very best riders in show jumping win around 20-25% of their starts, making basic adjustments, including minor ones, are relatively few. They become particularly more reluctant late in the season. A rider will stay within their skill set, opting to trust in themselves and in their horses. A horse, knowing their rider trusts them wholly, gives them the certainty and confidence in any competitive setting.

My girls love the higher stakes. “In riding,” Elizabeth begins, “there are no automatics. Talent and a strong work ethic will open the door. The rest of it, the intangibles, the rider needs to bring them to table. They are what separates individual riders from one another. When it comes together, it all falls into a rhythm – the riding becomes more instinctive, much easier.” And, when the rhythm develops, its inherent consistency follows.

after the practice: Deborah and Comet (Del Mar Horse Park, Oct 2017)

“There is a crispness to the riding,” Deborah adds. “It is fast. It is precise. It is clean. It is focused. Yet, a rider cannot be afraid of making mistakes or taking risks.”

Finishing the thought, Tara adds, “When it comes together, it is as close to perfect one can imagine. Every move is fluid. What was hard is easy. And, what was easy is unreal.”

close to perfect: Tara and Cameron (Iowa, Aug 2017)

The hardest part – to keep it going.

Riding: Grand Prix Day

The day begins early, shortly after 5:30 am. The horses are beginning to wake and stir in their stalls. Soon, it will begin like every other day. My daughters are quiet during the ride in, studying their checklists and going over what they want to accomplish in their minds. Horses are animals with a set routine. Whether at home, or on the road at the show, it is about keeping with the daily schedule.

Though it seems quiet, the main horse barn is humming with activity. The barn crew is finishing their deliveries of stall supplies; the riders are slowly filtering in. Those riding in the first events of the day are the most busy preparing their gear and horses. Arriving at the barn, it is straight to work for my girls. The first order of business is a check of their horses and their stalls, followed by setting up breakfast. The breakfast is precise in what they are fed. It is a mix of ultra-premium hay, rolled oats and scientific horse feed, with the balance varying slightly for each horse. After getting them started on breakfast, along with fresh water, the girls check on the stall supplies they’ve ordered. And, so begins another day.

morning workout: Elizabeth and SAM on a circle exercise, the froth normal (CHP, Jul 2017)

In the early morning workout, a sense of the day begins to develop between my girls and their horses. Of importance is the energy, prompting and workout level. Though it is Grand Prix day, it is keeping it like any other day. Preparing for the event tempers the anticipation and expectations. They become an X-factor of sorts as the marquee event draws closer. No other event is greater, or better, than the Grand Prix. It features the best riders with the best horses in attendance, with a few riding it as their only event. Yet, the competitiveness is even. Anyone riding the GP can win. Deborah often compares it with the NFL maxim: “On any given Sunday …

During the morning meeting, the GP riders are briefed on the day’s schedule, weather and practice windows. With the event always scheduled for the late afternoon, or in the evening, knowing the schedule aids them in managing their time and routines. The most important part of the meeting is the blind draw for starting positions, with a preference for a later position. Between the short workouts and walkthroughs, there is much to do during the day. Though the downtime is very little, it is keeping the day very relaxed and routine. In their workmanlike approach, my daughters can often be found studying their practice video and leafing through their notes. It is staying with what they know, trusting in themselves and their horses.

finishing touches: flora and greenery for the 1.40 m Grand Prix course (CHP,  Jul 2017)

It is when the GP course build begins, a quiet anticipation grows among the riders. Having kept themselves busy for most of the day, they are ready to ride the event. The course length and its difficulty depends upon how the designer wants to challenge the horse and rider. Once the course build has been certified to specification, it becomes available for a walkthrough inspection by the riders. With a printed copy of the layout in hand, the riders will walk the course with an eye on every physical feature – from fence height and distances to the firmness of the footing material to sight lines.

the walkthrough: former RRC teammate and mentor, Megan (r), with her riding student Roxanne making her GP debut (CHP, Jul 2017)

While several riders will walk the course with their trainers (instructors), others will make it a solitary walk. My daughters walk the course together, quietly discussing their observations among themselves. They are also writing additional notes and observations. After completing their walkthrough, the girls secret themselves and talk about the best way to attack the course – which riding line is the safest, which one is the most aggressive, and which one is the best.

Once they finish their course analysis, my daughters tightly focus their remaining preparations on the event. It is their time to be alone in their thoughts, planning and visualizing their rides with no diversions and no distractions. The schedule and weather delays are taken in stride.

the golden boy: Mr. Ed receiving a perfect groom from Elizabeth before donning his show tack (CHP, Jul 2017)

A final brushing of their horses is a calming time between my daughters and their horses. They too are aware of the event before them. Soon, they will be dressed in their best show tack. The ground work is precise and methodical. Every hair, horse and rider, perfectly in place. My girls, absolutely perfect in their Grand Prix clothes.

It is time to be a champion.

the championship look: Captain Andrew Evan Stedman and Deborah (CHP, Jul 2017)

Riding: Iowa

It represents the halfway point of the back half of the 2017 season. Yet, plenty of riding remains. Practice for the two weeks away has been fairly straightforward. Much of it is staying sharp, staying crisp. Moreover, it is about staying with the technique that have brought them to this point. Consistency is valued at this point in the season. Trish is very pleased with how well the girls are riding. “They are riding better than ever before.”

Preparing on a short week has its advantages. It allows my daughters to have a steadier and narrower focus. The Iowa shows, though not CSI-rated*, are among the best on the AA circuit. They have the ability to draw some of the best riders from across the nation. My daughters know they must be on top of their game to be in a position to compete.

Tara and Cameron: deciding on the saddle pads (JN Ranch, Jul 30 2017)

Time to ride.

* CSI – Concours de Saut International, the rating system for show jumping events.