Well, I can safely say we are not ready to move up to Prelim.
I want to be fair. This was the first time this barn had done anything like this, so things are bound to go wrong. Mistakes get made, and that's how you learn. After a while, you've every mistake possible and you've figured out what works. When it comes to horses, the learning curve is especially steep, and confidence is easily lost.
First, I want to talk about what went well. Everyone was very friendly and willing to answer questions, the dressage was pretty well run, and the stadium course was pretty good. There was plenty of parking space, lots water for the horses, and the warm-up jumps were great. But the cross-country course was completely inappropriate and neither Royal nor I had a good time.
We got there early enough, since the x-c course opened at 8:30 and I wanted plenty of time to walk it and get ready. This turned out to be a really good idea. At first, I got my map for the Beginner Novice (BN) course and started walking, looking for the black on yellow numbers, which are customary for BN. Aha, there they are, but wait, why are they so big? And why don't they match the description and placement on the map? I went back to the office where they clarified the situation: the numbers for BN and Novice (N) courses got switched and I was actually supposed to be following the black on white numbers. But those jumps didn't make me feel better. Hello weird wagon jump. How's it going, wide table surrounded by HUGE SCARY spools? What's up, skinny slightly offset combination? It was hard to find jumps 6 and 7, as you had to ride on this skinny sandy "road" to small field. Jump 6 was a max height airy birch ramp covered in brush, which was proceeded by a narrow lane of tree, which cast a lot of shadows over the jump. Jump 7 was a really long ditch (at least 20 feet in length), filled with lots of black, semi-shiny clumps of dirt. Oh dear. Then you had to go back across a large marshy field to jump 8, an uphill pile of logs into the wood. Then a left to another combination, with the second jump being a drop fence. Seriously? A drop fence at BN? The jump was about 2' high, and the landing was at least 2' lower than the take-off, so it looked like you were jumping into nothing. The last five jumps, including the water, didn't seem to bad, but the design of the first ten jumps would have been better suited to a year-end Novice course, at a minimum, if not Training. They were NOT BN appropriate questions. To make it worse, almost all the jumps for all the levels were all really close together, making you have to duck and weave around them in order to get to your next fence.
I was really regretting my decision. Anna and Piper came to the event (yay!! :D ), and were entered in the Baby Beginner Novice. I walked part of their course with them, and it seemed like it should have been the BN course. Raise the fences a little bit, add a water crossing, and it would have been a very reasonable BN ride. No weird surprises, no tricky placements, very easy to answer questions.
I headed back to the trailers, only to get another nasty surprise: Psycho McCrazypants' trailer pulling in. GAH! Will I never escape her? I suppose not as long as I keep eventing in this area. I suppose I'll have to get used to it. And carry a camera, so I can record her bat guano craziness if it gets directed at me.
After getting tacked up, I tried to warm up for dressage. I say "tried" because they decided to combine all three warm up areas into one field next to the stadium course, with a huge hill. Some of the people in the BBN division were already warming up for x-c at the bottom of the hill, and people decided to congregate on the flat area at the top of the hill. So, I decided to try doing a big circle around the jumps, staying wide enough to stay out of the jumpers' way. It went pretty well, with Royal taking the contact very well. I think he liked the security of holding my hand in this odd place, and he was happy to keep the contact. The dressage ring was running a little late, so we cooled our heels while we waited, and my parents arrived. Then, it was our turn, and I couldn't have been happier. He started out a little tense, but then he remembered he could hold my hand and be steady in the contact. He even stretched out in the free walk really well. The canter was pretty good, and I thought we got every transition fairly accurately. We ended up getting a 40 (4 points better than the last test) with quite a few sevens! Yay!
We only had about 50 minutes to warm up for x-c, and the fences were nice. A cross-rail, an oxer, some barrels, and a jump with a pig painted on it. Royal spooked at it the first time, but got braver quickly. I'll admit, it was a lot of fun to yell "PIG!" as we headed towards it. I figured we'd be as ready for x-c as we could be, so we headed over to the course. I realized with about 5 minutes to go before I was supposed to start, that I'd forgotten to put on Royal's boots. Oh well, we weren't going to be going very fast anyway.
The first fence (the wagon) got a good hard look, but he jumped it. Fence 2 (a log) was a lot better. Fence 3 (the table with the giant spools) also got a good look, but he went over. Fence 4 was a plain skinny ramp, but I could tell he was having trouble when he almost refused that. We were able to get a good line to Fence 5 (the skinny combo), but the pair on course before us came out of the woods, cantering near us. It was no one's fault, just bad luck, but Royal's brain was rapidly short-circuiting and we had a run out at the A element. We circled around and jumped both elements, but I could tell I was losing him. We went down the road and I tried to find jump 6, but went down the wrong alley (yes, there was more than one). The jump judge directed me to the correct alley, but the shadows freaked Royal out and we had another run-out. Circle around, try again, and we were successful, but then we had to face the Ditch of Death. We trotted up to it and I though he was going to do it. Right until he slammed on the brakes. I heard a loud "whomph" as my helmet hit his neck and I slid off in front of his left shoulder. I hit the ground fairly softly and mounted right back up, but both of us were shaken. I let him walk back and forth in front of the ditch a bit to let him see it. When I re-aimed him at it, he went over, but like he thought a monster was going to pop out. Fence 8 went well, but the turn to fences 9 and 10 (the drop) was quick, and while he didn't hesitate over them, he stumbled a bit on landing from 10. How could he not? He didn't even know where it was. Fence 11 was half in the shade, so it got jumped oddly, with him trying to avoid the shadows. Fence 12 (the tires) went a lot better than I thought it would, but he went through the water (13) very gingerly. He's been crossing puddles and mini-lakes for weeks without a problem, but he was not trusting anything on this course. 14 (a little coop) was uneventful, but 15 (the down bank) got a major hairy eyeball before he stepped off it. We cantered through the finish, both us happy to have survived.
We had to wait a bit before stadium, but it went well. He got a little strong on the downhill stuff and through the combo, but mostly did well. Even though we didn't win any ribbons (how could we? We had at least 100 x-c penalties), we still got to do the victory gallop in Royal's halter and lead rope. To survive was to win, I suppose. I managed to get him back to his home safely, but I cried all the way back to my house. It felt like such a waste. I could have paid extra and schooled the course afterward, but it seemed like it would have been torture for him to back out there.While we were competing, he didn't want to canter on the x-c course. Usually he's very eager to go and I have to remind him we can't go too fast, but he did not feel comfortable going above a trot. And he usually gains confidence as we go through the course, but this time it was the opposite. He started out confident and eager, but lost that as we continued. It was just too confusing for him.
Again, I really want to be fair. It was the first time this barn had done anything like this, and they were working with a lot of space constraints. I can see why they had to put all the jumps close together, but in the end, I don't think it worked very well. Everyone I talked to had problems (including people who fell off at the very first fence), and I'd don't know if anyone got through without penalties. Which is the exact opposite of what it should have been; mostly everyone should have finished strongly and with confidence, and I don't think that was the case.
When it comes to BN, there should be no "challenges" or tricky jumps. For a lot of people, the challenge is simply getting out there and doing it. Jumping solid obstacles in the open is not something a lot of people do nowadays, and the lower levels should be very inviting and straightforward. I'm perfectly okay with BN and N becoming de-facto dressage competitions. We shouldn't see carnage on the x-c course in the form of lots of refusals and falls, and the jumps should look safe and jump-able to the horses and riders.
These are my pictures from the Steepleview HT last year and they all say "I am a jump. I'm safe and contain no monsters. Please jump me." That gives horses and riders confidence, and makes them want to come back for more. Whereas a lot of the jumps on Sunday were more like "I am a ?. I may contain monsters. I don't know what you should do with me." If this event had been held in 2011, I would have entered it. I probably would have entered in BN to see if we could do it. And we more than like wouldn't have gotten very far, and I may have decided to never event again. Which really saddens me. I love x-c, once I get over my pre-show jitters, and Royal seems to enjoy it once we get rolling. The thought that we may never have discovered that seems like a real shame.
I don't know where we can go from here. I was hoping to go to Roebke's Run, but that probably not going to happen due to financial constraints, and Otter Creek takes place during a family vacation. I'm more than likely going to enter us in Steepleview again, but that's in September. Until then, I'm doing to have to beg the barns with x-c courses to please, please, pleasepleaseplease let us school on them for an hour or so to get our confidence back. Hopefully at least one says yes.