After college graduation, my first stop en route to Middleburg was through Quebec, Canada. (It was the long route). George and I were contesting our first three day event at Bromont. After the event finished, I was relocating to Jimmy Wofford’s to accept a working student position with him for a year, before I got “a real job.”
(I would still be there five years later…).
My parents had come to Lynchburg to help me make the drive to Quebec and support me at the event. We planned to leave on Tuesday and drive to it in one day, so Wednesday could be spent setting everything up. The competition began on Thursday and lasted all the way to Sunday.
The night before left, we celebrated this milestone at a local steakhouse where we enjoyed a nice meal. I walked out feeling more than stuffed. My stomach started to sound like a cauldron of soup popping bubbles. By the time I hit the parking lot, I did not feel good. I was sure a good night’s rest would take care of it.
I was wrong.
I was violently sick for the next six hours with no control over my body. It finally ran out of anything and everything to eject and project, but it didn’t stop it from trying. Left to dry heaving, I felt like I had been badly pistol whipped in a bar fight. I had to wait for that to let up, so we ended up getting on the road to Bromont later than we planned.
That was one brilliant, fucking ride up the east coast to say the least.
We had to stop every hour so I could use the bathroom. It was the longest road trip ever, clocked at a record-setting slow speed. We were limping our way there. Finally, we acquiesced we weren’t going to make it and needed to stop somewhere and spend the night. My parents called David Hopper, who we had bought George from, and explained the situation. We were an hour from him, but he left the doors open.
You got to love horse people.
Still doubled over, I handed George’s lead rope off to David, and his crew, and crawled back in the truck.
The next morning my parents took me to the ER since there wasn’t any real improvement. They put me on an IV drip for the dehydration, and gave me a small prescription of muscle relaxers to relieve the cramping.
After that, we loaded back up and finished the last four hours of the drive. Bromont is a little ski town about forty-five minutes from Montreal. The landscape is stunning and so is the equestrian venue itself . Bromont is best known for hosting the equestrian portion of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. The fact that we still get to use this amazing facility all of these years later is remarkable.
(Bromont was my all-time favorite event to compete at throughout my career).
When we pulled in to the venue, a lot of people were already there and the atmosphere was palpable. I still couldn’t really stand up at this point, but did my best to unload my stuff and get George set up. Sitting in front of my stall on my trunk, watching everyone rushing around, I finally got the nerve to ask the person stabled across from me,
“Is there something going on? I’m watching people run around like there’s something happening.”
Without batting an eye, he said, “The jog starts in twenty minutes.”
I said, “What jog?”
This time the guy stopped what he was doing and looked at me.
“You know…the jog?”
Deer in the headlights.
Confused, I said, “Umm, actually I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He came out of the stall to face me like he had just discovered an android disguised in a t-shirt and cut-offs.
“You know? The jog? Where everyone jogs their horses for soundness before the Ground Jury. You don’t get to start the competition until your horse passes the jog.”
Deer in the headlights.
At this point, he had accurately summed up the plight of my situation.
“Okay, listen,” he said.
Pointing in the direction of a white tent, he said, “Okay, this is what you’re going to do. Right now, you’re going to go get your competition number from the secretary.”
Pointing in the other direction, he said, “The jog goes in numerical order over there. Brush your horse and make him as tidy as you can. When you walk over to the Ground Jury you are going to explain that you arrived late to Bromont because you were sick, and you didn’t have time to braid as a result. Apologize profusely to them for the lack of turn-out.”
And that right there is how I met Craig Thompson.
In my shorts and t-shirt, I walked my horse over to wait for my number to be called. I found a rock to sit on, trying to stockpile the few fumes I had left inside. When they called my number, I walked over, holding my stomach, and presented George in whatever bridle I had dug out. I explained my situation, apologizing profusely, just like I was instructed.
The Canadians are known for being laid back, fun, and generous, and the Ground Jury was no different. They tipped their hats at our lack of turn-out and said, “Ok, well then. Let’s jog. Off you go.”
I jogged down the aisle and back again looking like a dried up, withered piece of fruit. As I pulled up to a walk, the Ground Jury tipped their hats once again. The beads of sweat lined up on my face from all of that effort. I heard “passed” over the speakers and just kept on going until I got back to George’s stall and laid down on my trunk.
Craig came back over to my stall after the jog. Scratching his head, he said, “So…are you here with anybody?”
This was meant to indicate anyone besides my parents. Someone with a shred of knowledge about Eventing, which my parents clearly did not have. He was trying to find out if anyone was in charge of this grasshopper, so he wouldn’t have to be.
I told him I was meeting up with Jimmy Wofford, but he didn’t arrive until the next day. Craig’s relief was evident. The odds of the girl across the aisle being a statistic that weekend were now exponentially lower. His weekend improved tenfold just like that, before he even put one foot in the stirrup.
Craig and I still have a good laugh now and then about that Bromont.
I still thank the Heavens we showed up to the event just in the nick of time, by the skin of our teeth.
I had only ridden in a few clinics with Jimmy at the Virginia Horse Center while I was in college. When I graduated, I made one trip to Middleburg for lessons with him before meeting up at Bromont. This would be the first time Jimmy was officially my coach.
Up to that point, I had invested in the book, “Practical Eventing,” by Sally O’Connor, which was printed in 1980. The USCTA (now USEA) promoted and sold the book as the Bible of Eventing. I used it to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge about how to prepare for a three day event.
I must have skipped over the part that talked about the jog in the beginning because I have no recollection of that ever existing. However, I think this might have been more indicative of my reading style—erratic. When I had gone up to Middleburg to have my last jump lesson before Bromont, Jimmy asked what my conditioning schedule was for George.
I said, “Well, I trot him for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then we do three eight-minute canters, every four days.”
Lips pursed like he was sucking on a lemon, Jimmy’s eyes got as big as saucers. “You’re doing three eights??”
I nodded, but my eyes got as big as saucers, too, and I wasn’t sure why.
Jimmy started chuckling and said, “Jenn, that’s what we do to get the advanced horses fit.” He started shaking his head, still smiling. “I think you can back off a little now. He’s plenty fit. Normally you’d do three five-minute canters for this level, or maybe a couple sixes.”
So yeah, it’s possible I misinterpreted the book in a couple places…
(It’s people like me that contributed to the idiom “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I think every rider goes through this. It’s also called hubris.).
Jimmy did indeed appear at Bromont the next day. Luckily I felt significantly better physically, and we pulled George out for a short flat school. Standing in the middle of my circle, I imagine Jimmy was thinking “not much I can do with that right now.” But Jimmy had a knack for putting a band-aid on it, so you can get to the other side of things. Three Day Events were for competing, not training. We would start that when I landed at his farm.
Back then, in 1995, Bromont was a traditional, long format event with roads and tracks and the steeplechase included on endurance day. Jimmy explained how all of the timing worked—when to start your watch, when to stop it. I had done all of my calculations and wrote them down neatly on an index card which I taped to my forearm for clear visibility.
While I miss the long format (it was the most fun I ever had), the worst part for me was ‘Phase A,’ the roads and tracks. While it was only fifteen minutes or so long, the required trotting did nothing to curb my nerves or quiet my brain. Even though I had the calculations written on an index card on my arm, I kept going over them to be sure I had it all down.
At the end of Phase A, I had a little canter, with a tiny burst of speed, to open George’s lungs and prepare him for Phase B, the steeplechase. I arrived to the start box for the steeplechase with two minutes to spare. I had enough time to put my stirrups up a couple holes and we were good to go.
George got pretty jacked when he realized that start box was meant for him. I went in as late as possible knowing that George wasn’t going to stand still for very long. Once his head was in a corner, the timer announced “Go!” We spun away from the corner and George was off. I thought we were going pretty fast, but I clucked anyway, because this was steeplechase after all, and you’re supposed to go really fast.
George, being a quintessential thoroughbred, rose easily to the challenge. There aren’t enough words to describe what it feels like galloping a horse. First, you can’t hear anything but the wind, and their feet hitting the ground, in perfect rhythm with the in, and out, of their breathing. You become intoxicated in the moment, swaddled by a bubble of pure joy…and freedom.
Their power surges, as they push off from behind, lengthening their bodies as far as the tips of their feet will go. Their front feet hit the ground and dig in, causing their bodies to recoil, before they explode once again.
Your knuckles are white, pressed down in the withers. Your torso becomes the pendulum between your hands gripping the reins, all the way down to your feet jammed against the stirrups. Every muscle in your body starts to burn. But you don’t know that yet. You are still drunk on adrenalin and endorphins, the secret salve to sore muscles.
Jumping at speed is unbelievable. It seems paradoxical, but you can’t really miss going that fast. It was the best three minutes of my life. And yes, I had tears in my eyes and bugs in my teeth. (The last part of that sentence is more metaphorical).
After that day, I equated going fast with having tears in your eyes. So when someone would tell me excitedly, “We were going so fast! He was flying!” it was not uncommon for me to respond with, “So did you have tears in your eyes?” When the answer was “no,” I said, “Well then you weren’t really going that fast.”
(Disclaimer: The winters in Virginia could produce tears at a trot, so it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule. But close.).
After we flew through the finish flags on the steeplechase, we immediately started ‘Phase C,’ another roads and tracks. I pulled George up slowly from his gallop and eventually downshifted to a short walk break so he could catch his breath. Phase C was a longer trot, set up primarily to be a recovery period for the horse before the penultimate phase of endurance day—the cross-country. George and I picked up a trot after a few minutes and after about thirty-five minutes, we made our way to the ten-minute box.
There is a team of vets waiting in the ten-minute job for each horse to arrive. Their sole job is to evaluate each and every horse by taking each horse’s temperature and checking their pulse and respiration. All of the horses must meet certain specifications in order to be released for ‘Phase D,’ the cross-country, and you have ten minutes to get it done. (Hence the name, “the ten-minute box.”). If you go over the ten minutes, you have missed your official start time for cross-country, but the timer has started nonetheless. Making the optimum time for the course is hard enough without starting at a deficit.
I arrived to the ten-minute box a couple minutes early, which meant I had twelve minutes to cool my horse off; tack a shoe on if he happened to be missing one (he wasn’t); make any necessary equipment changes; check studs and adjust them if need be; and to apply grease on George’s legs. The Crisco would help protect George’s legs should he happen to hit any jumps.
This was a lot to accomplish in twelve minutes, and I still had to hop back on before my start time for cross-country. Where most riders had grooms to help them, I did most of the cooling myself. As nice as George was, he was wound tight, which meant he gnashed his teeth and kicked one hind leg out at random, otherwise known as “fly kicking.” My non-horsey parents would not be safe and I couldn’t manage all three of them, just George. They stood there wanting to help, but there was nothing they could do.
Except there was the one thing they could do. George had passed the vet’s evaluations and was considered well cooled-off and ready for cross-country. I put on a rubber glove and greased his stifles, while my mom held on to George’s halter over his bridle. I started putting some of my gear back on, pulling up the girth, so I asked my parents to finish greasing George. He really only needed the very front of his front legs greased and they had watched me do his hind legs, so I thought we were all set.
As I pick up the reins and put my foot in the stirrup, I notice there were little globs of Crisco on my reins. Panicking, I grabbed a towel and frantically scrubbed the reins clean. I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to grab a greased pig the whole away around cross-country! George had some grease on his belly too, but that was ok. When I hopped on, I noticed George had small chunks of grease on one ear and in his forelock. It might not have been the perfect grease job, but it was a grease job done with love.
George jumped like gangbusters around the cross-country. He was all class. We went back to the barn grinning until I saw the scoreboard. I was given 30 times faults on Phase C which equates to being 30 seconds over the time limit. It’s a hefty price to pay per second. I was so upset and thought for sure they had made a mistake.
However, like my interpretive reading of “Practical Eventing,” the odds were good that I was the one who had made the grave mistake, and I had. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
Yep. Got a lot of experience with that one.
On Sunday, George was ready and braided for the final horse inspection. That in itself was a massive improvement. He jogged great for the vets and went on to jump a clean round in the show jumping.
Even our drive home was smooth and placid.
Despite the hiccups, Bromont was a huge success. The doors of opportunity exploded open for me that weekend. Just like a dog tasting blood for the first time, I knew I wanted more.
Including more poutine…