I have not written a blog in over a month. I feel bad about that; not that people are missing out by not getting regular information about the nuances of my life, but because it is a symptom of a more pervasive and over-riding neglect of other areas of my life.
You see, I have been very pre-occupied with an ambitious goal since the first of the year. I readily admit that many areas of my life have lost focus and attention while I prepared.
Let me explain. And I warn you now, this isn’t a short story.
I have previously blogged about my cute little red mare, Freckles, who we bought as a someday-for-Annabelle horse last fall. I wrote about my first attempts to get her shown last October at the Idaho Reined Cow Horse Derby at the Idaho Center, and about how much I realized I missed showing after I returned to the pen following a nearly eight-year hiatus. I wrote about how getting that mare added something back into my life that I hadn’t realized was gone, and how much more fulfilled I was every day I got to ride her.
I OPEN MY BIG MOUTH
In addition to all that writing about my horse, I had done plenty of talking. I told everyone who would listen about my plans to enter the National Reined Cow Horse Association Stallion Stakes, one of the organization’s Premier Events, which was to be held in the South Point Hotel and Equestrian Center in Las Vegas this year.
Although I talked about this show for the past months, I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to enter it. As a Premier show, the entry fee is steep; the show takes place over several days, and the schedule for my class stretched over three days of individual events necessitating nearly a week of travel no matter how well I planned it. The competition would likely be more accomplished and certainly more current in their show experience than I.
It was kind of a crazy idea.
But, like a lot of crazy ideas, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had heard of how wonderful the South Point facility was. I had heard tales of valets who come with carts to unload your tack and accessories from your horse trailer and move it with your hay to the stalls for you. How the entire equestrian area, from the stalls to the multiple arenas, is climate-controlled and kept at a constant temperature of 70 degrees. Best of all, the stalls and show arenas are all within the hotel and casino – all of the equine facilities are housed underneath the building. You can leave your hotel room, hop on the elevator and go feed your horse in your slippers. If you don’t feel like leaving the room, you can watch the competition on closed-circuit television while lying in your hotel bed. To top it off the hotel has a world-class spa.
It sounded like heaven.
THE ROAD TO THE STAKES
In January I made the first move toward my goal when I asked my longtime friend and former trainer, Jake Telford, if I could move my horse to his training facility, which is just a few miles from our home. Freckles was receiving excellent care and reined work training at the barn where she lived in Kuna, but I found it difficult to get out and ride her very often because of the nearly two-hour round trip commute. Moreover, and even more importantly, if I wanted to enter a reined cow horse event I needed to practice on cattle. A lot.
Jake graciously agreed to board my mare and give me lessons to help me prepare for the show. As an NRCHA Million Dollar Rider and the highest money-earning rider in the National Reined Cow Horse Association for the past three years, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to mentor me as I prepared to officially re-enter competition.
It took a few weeks for me to get it together, but in mid-February I moved Freckles over and started our training.
IT ALMOST ENDS BEFORE IT STARTS
The first day I arrived at Telford Training I very nearly turned around and left. I got Freckles out of the trailer and saddled her, and took her into the indoor arena where Jake and his help were working cattle. There were several people loping horses around, including Annabelle, who I had brought over to ride Grumpy, and Jake’s two young daughters on their horses. A few two-year old colts were tied to the outside of the arena, and as they played and pawed the tarps covering the arena panels crackled and billowed.
Freckles was a little fresh, to say the least, and nearly jumped out from under me a couple of times. She was clearly very interested in the sounds of the cattle coming from the other half of the arena where Jake was working his horses. I was thinking to myself “It is definitely going to take several days of riding around here for me to get Freckles acclimated and settled down before I will be comfortable enough to ask Jake for a lesson.”
No sooner than that thought crossed my mind then Jake yelled across the arena “Come on in Paula, and work a cow!”
I felt faint.
I had stopped showing eight years ago after a bad fall while working a cow on this very property, and the last time I had worked in October I very nearly came off during the boxing portion of my derby work. And when I say I very nearly came off, I mean I VERY NEARLY CAME OFF. I realized the kindness of our new little mare that day, when I was hanging off of her left side by her mane and she stopped long enough for me to regain my seat before she addressed the cow again.
I rode into the cutting pen with quivering hands and tears in my eyes. I hadn’t realized until that moment just how much fear I had left over from my previous experiences. We cut a cow off from the herd, and Freckles engaged it with energetic enthusiasm. She ran across the pen, the cow stopped and Freckles wheeled and bolted after it. If I hadn’t been holding onto the saddle horn I would have come off.
The rest of the lesson was pretty much more of the same. Jake told me that we really needed to work on my mare’s stops; she was extremely hard to ride because she wasn’t engaging her hindquarters on those turns. Once we got her schooled up to property turn over her hocks she would be much easier to sit as she worked.
I don’t think Jake realized it that day, but I was intimidated and very disappointed. When I got home I told Desperate Hubby that I had probably made a big mistake. I told him that every time I ran across that pen all I could think about was falling off.
DH knows me pretty well. He knows Jake pretty well. He told me that I should admit to my friend just how frightened I was and see if he could help me. “No,” I told him miserably. “Jake doesn’t have time to help me at all, really, and he sure doesn’t have time to counsel me.”
I would just persevere.
So persevere I did. I rode at the barn every weekday, working a cow more days than not. For nearly two weeks I had nightmares about falling off. I would lie awake in bed every single night and visualize a correct and safe cow work before I went to sleep. At first it didn’t help at all, but increasingly my visualization was successful. Some nights I would sleep all night without one bad dream waking me in a cold sweat.
One morning I woke up and realized that I was fixed. For whatever reason, I wasn’t scared anymore. It was literally an epiphany! When I rode into the barn that morning I told Jake the good news. He smiled politely and said “Good, get over here and work a cow.” He didn’t seem all that impressed by my announcement. But I rode a lot better that day.
I don’t know if my trainer ever knew just how scared I was to dive into the cow work when I first started back riding with him. Whether he did or not, his approach to getting me back into the hang of it was perfect. He started slowly, getting a little progress each day and never letting me quit unless it was on a good note. Each day he built on what I had achieved the days before until I had the confidence to really enjoy the sport that I had once loved so much.
Things got a lot more fun after that.
I rode every single week day for the next week. Freckles got better and better at working a cow; and I got more confident with every passing day and successful work. With the entry date approaching for the Stakes, I asked Desperate Hubby what he thought. The show was over Annabelle’s spring break. Should I just go for it and take her with me? Or maybe just go watch and get the lay of the land?
Part of me wanted to take a “real” vacation, maybe stop by the Grand Canyon on the way to down to the show, then really take it easy once I got there…..sleep in, go the spa and share the sites of Vegas with Annabelle. Although horse shows are fun, a show of this caliber would be demanding. I had visions of middle-of-the-night schooling sessions followed by early morning warm-ups and waiting around for my class until mid-day, then cleaning stalls and preparing my horse for the event the next day before falling into bed exhausted early every evening. Would I enjoy that as much as just going to watch?
I knew DH thought I should enter, but I was reticent. What if I wasn’t ready? What if I had a relapse and fell off in the middle of the cow work? In the end, though, I did enter. I firmly believe that what you think about (and talk about) happens, and all I had thought about for months was going to this show.
So go we did.
DAY ONE: ARE WE THERE YET?
We rode with our friend Kris, the same generous soul who had loaned Annabelle her horse Chic to use all last year in her horse shows. Kris would also be showing a mare in my same class, and she looked pretty happy as we left. I don’t think she realized at that point that I would be content to sit over in the passenger seat for the entire trip there eating chips and drinking diet coke while she drove.
Annabelle was very excited to get on the road, and immediately set about watching a movie on the DVD player that Aunt Susie had loaned us for the trip. She interrupted her movies every ten minutes or so to inquire about the continued longevity of the trip.
We had persuaded our friend (and Batman’s girlfriend) Kristi, to come along with us and have a vacation herself, as well as keeping Annabelle entertained when I was busy riding.
She was a little camera shy at first.
We made it to Vegas in fair time, stopping along the way at several points for fuel and potty stops. As it turned out, we traveled in a sort of unofficial caravan, as we ran into Jake and his family and helpers at nearly every stop as well as pacing along with some friends from Washington who were also headed to the Stakes. It was a nice drive.
Our arrival at the hotel was met with a short line of trailers in front of us waiting to be unloaded. We bemoaned our timing at being behind Jake, who with two trailers and sixteen or so horses would be awhile unloading. True to the lore, though, the hotel had several staff members who were bustling about with trolleys and carts, and between Jake and his family and helpers they were unloaded in less than an hour. We were working on unloading at the same time, and with the help of a couple of the porters our hay, tack, and tack room supplies were all quickly transported to our stalls
We were able to check into our hotel rooms right at the stall office, and a bellman driving a big gator-type four-wheeler loaded up our copious bags and delivered them to our rooms.
Kris had everything we needed for a nice tack room setup, including a refrigerator, tables and chairs, saddle racks and enough hooks to hang all of our stuff plus more. She also brought along a nice selection of quality wine. I realized at once how lucky we were to share her stuff (and her generosity).
Our tack room was sort of a combination tack room/lounge/wine bar. It suited me perfectly!
DAY TWO: GETTING INTO THE PEN
I woke up early on Monday morning, anxious to get downstairs and ride Freckles. Jake was down there riding already, and he gave me tips and schooled me a bit in the busy arena to help me get ready for the next day. When I finished the girls took Freckles over for a nice long bath.
I’m not really sure who was wetter at the end of the bath, but Freckles was certainly clean and shiny!
Annabelle pulled the step up to her in the stall and went to work combing out her mane.
I was delighted to hear from Aaron, Freckles’ former owner and the person responsible for putting such a great training foundation on her. He and his wife Rebecca were there in Vegas, and they wanted to come and see Freckles. We met them and they walked to the stall with us. It was immediately evident that Freckles remembered her former owner. She put her head on him and snuggled up.
He seemed pretty happy to see her too, and I even convinced him to ride her a little that afternoon.
He got on and walked her slowly around the pen. Then he started bending her this way and that, and backed her up a long ways. Although he didn’t even have spurs on, he softened Freckles up considerably and she was noticeably more responsive with just a short thirty minute ride. It was impressive.
The girls and I spent some time cleaning up our tack and finalizing choices of shirts and saddle pads for the next day. That night we had an early dinner at the Italian place in our hotel, and got to bed so we could wake up for the next day.
DAY THREE: I SURVIVE THE HERD WORK
Tuesday would mark my first day of competition. I got up and headed down to the stalls early to get saddled and get into the cattle practice pen for my priority warm-up. At these major shows they bring in extra cattle to practice on, and each contestant in the herd work (also known as cutting) is allowed a slot to practice working cows before their competition. Your practice slot is generally two sets of herd work before you go, so that made my work sometime in the 8:00 hour.
Jake was down at the pens to help me, and he told me to go get checked in for my priority work. A contestant is not required to use their time slot, and if you don’t check in for your proper set you may lose your chance to another person who is showing later and who checks in early. I checked in only to find that my practice was going to be quite a bit earlier than I had planned. I hurriedly loped around for fifteen minutes before it was my turn, which was when Jake gave me some valuable advice that, while logical, had never been intuitive to me:
“When you only have half as much time to warm up; you need to lope twice as fast.”
It worked. I got Freckles warmed up and we had a very successful practice session. I felt confident and ready to go when I met my team by the in-gate to head into my first competition. Annabelle got busy doing a final tail brushing under Kristi’s watchful eye.
When I was all ready to go we posed for a picture. Note the large sign over my shoulder. I didn’t notice that sign once while I was there, though I rode through that same alley multiple times to practice and to show. It wasn’t until I was editing pictures for this blog that I read it. Dang. Could have used that advice last week!
The herd work event is when you enter the arena where a herd of cattle is held in place by four helpers who are there to help you get your horse shown to the best advantage. Your task is to cut one cow at a time out of the herd, and show your horse’s ability to manage that cow and keep it from rejoining its friends who are behind you.
I am pretty inexperienced at herd work, and though it looks deceptively easy it can be a challenge to make sure your horse is always in the right place at the right time and that you manage your time effectively in order to get two or preferably three cattle out of the herd to work during your allotted two-and-a-half minutes.
Freckles was very good entering the herd, and stayed quiet and engaged. we managed to get three cattle cut and worked before the buzzer went off to signify the end of our session. As I rode out of the arena one of my herd helpers, Ted Robinson, a legend in the reined cow horse industry and long-time acquaintance, said “Good job Paula. You’ll be the new leader!” That made me smile.
Unfortunately Ted wasn’t the judge.
But still, as my class ended I was in the middle of the pack, seven points down from the leading score. I was thrilled. Although I had made some big mistakes in my cattle management, I had not “lost” any cows and my horse had performed very well.
I was joined after I rode by Aaron, Freckle’s former owner, who was also very happy with her performance. He stood and watched the rest of the herd with me until my class was over.
Annabelle climbed on Freckles and cooled her out. She was just dying to ride, and completely un-intimidated by the professional riders buzzing around the warm-up arena beside her. It was pretty cute.
After she was finished cooling out Freckles, my girl got busy cleaning up our stall alley, sweeping up shavings and hay so we had a neat entry to our space. She is good help when she wants to be.
Watching my herd work video later was a great training opportunity to actually see what it was Jake kept talking to me about with regard to position, position, position (or in my case out-of-position, out-of-position, out-of-position, and WATCH the COW!!) I learned a lot that I hope will help me in my future showing endeavors.
LIONS AND TIGERS AND DOLPHINS, OH MY!!!
That afternoon the girls and I headed out to our first “Vacation” endeavor – a visit to the Mirage Hotel and Casino for a look at the famous white tigers. We bought tickets to the “Secret Garden” at the Mirage, and spent a couple of hours looking around at all the animals. The facility is beautiful, and the animal displays were fascinating for both of my young traveling companions (and me too).
These white lions greeted us as we entered the display. They were sound asleep, but woke up long enough to give us a once-over before dozing off again.
There was a cheetah display, with a few of the sleek felines moseying around the exhibit.
Next came the dolphins. There were a couple of big pools connected by a waterway, and we were able to catch two “Training Sessions” where the dolphins were put through their paces by the trainers to the awe and joy of the crowd.
You could get right up beside the pool where the dolphins could see you, and they were surprisingly social creatures, appearing over and over again to rise out of the water and “smile” at the guests in their house.
And they did some jumping tricks too, which were cool.
After we left the Mirage we headed back to the hotel, where we joined up with the group for an early dinner at the Asian restaurant. I had sushi (supposed to be good luck before a horse show, I’ve heard) and then we were to bed early again to get ready for the next event.
DAY FOUR: I GET IN TOUCH WITH MY INNER REINER
The next event I would compete in was the reining, or “dry work” as it is called in the reined cow horse vernacular. This is where you enter the arena and perform a series of prescribed maneuvers – circling, sliding to a stop, spinning, all in a specific pattern. I don’t know why it is called the dry work….maybe because some cow horse people think it’s boring? Because there is no cow poop? I’m not sure, but I was excited to get out there and give it a go.
I was up at 3:30am to get in the practice arena to school Freckles and then get her fed. I ran into Jake just as he was finished riding his own dozen or so horses, and he insisted on coming to help me school before he headed up to his own room to get some sleep. He really is a great guy.
I practiced for an hour and a half or so, then headed back up to the room to get ready to show. I dressed in my official sparkly “reiner” shirt and hoped it would give me luck.
Jake helped me to warm up again and gave me a few tips on preparing my horse right before I went into the arena. Aaron also joined me and gave me moral support before I headed in to show.
Freckles was a gem in the reined work. I rode a little slower than I should have, and might have scored higher if I’d been more aggressive, but in the end I had the second highest reined work score (by half a point) and moved up to second place in the cumulative standings. I don’t know if it was me or Aaron who was happier with Freckles that afternoon. I gave her a big pile of hay and some extra shavings before we headed off to our next vacation adventure.
WE VISIT VENICE AND I TRY TO MARRY KRISTI OFF
That afternoon we cleaned up and headed over to the Venetian, my favorite place to stay in Las Vegas, to take part in a tourist activity I had never before indulged in during all my trips to Vegas: A Gondola Ride.
We wandered around the beautiful shopping area that is decorated like the streets of Venice, stopping to pick up a couple of cones of chocolate-covered strawberries.
Our gondola ride was very fun, and I kept teasing Kristi about being on a date with the gondolier. He thought that was pretty funny too.
Once he found out she was of-age, that is.
Annabelle and I snuggled on the other side of the bench, as she asked a million questions about how deep the water was, what would happen if we fell in, could she swim in it…… that sort of thing.
We enjoyed ourselves so much that we actually purchased the official picture of all of us in the gondola with Kristi’s date.
After the gondola ride we went to Postrio, which used to be one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and had some delicious Italian food. I had a sushi-like Ahi tower (couldn’t hurt, right?) and the girls had pizza and macaroni and cheese. Kristi taught Annabelle to play tic-tac-toe, and they played happily together until my darling six-year-old figured out how to cheat.
Then it was home and in bed again, not as early as the previous nights, but there was only one event to go.
DAY FIVE: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THE COW
The last event of the three-pronged competition was the Cow Work. In this event you enter the arena and a single cow is turned in with you. For my class, you are required to approach that cow and work it back and forth on the fence at the short end of the arena. Your horse should work as independently as possible, and once again position and execution are very important in the scoring of the run.
There is a saying in the reined cow horse world that “It all comes down to the cow.” The cow work is always the last event you complete that contributes to your cumulative score, and the stories are legion of competitors going into the cow work with a seemingly unbeatable lead, only to draw a cow that does not allow them to score even the minimal number of points they need in order to secure their win.
You want to draw a cow that is active and wild enough for your horse to show their skills, while being just manageable enough that you don’t lose him or get beat by his speed.
Freckles worked amazingly well that morning in our cow work preferred warm-up. She was quick, light in the face and I had no doubt we were ready for our competition. I was only three points behind the leader after making up the points in the reined work, so I was prepared to do my best. It was anyone’s game.
I trotted into the arena, nodding my head at the gate-man at the far end where our cow would be released. The gate opened and Freckles gave a little jump and twist of her head in excitement.
A small black steer trotted out. He looked pretty good!
I rode up and engaged him, but I couldn’t seem to get him moving. I could hear Jake yelling at me to get up there and move him, and though I did the best I could at the time, we came out of the cow work with a far lower score than I had hoped for. Still, I was happy with my horse. As I watched the video later, I could see that there was more I could have done to get that cow moving, and I also had a pretty big “miss” when I looked away from the cow for just a second and he beat me and Freckles in a turn. Once again I learned a ton from watching that video and I am excited to apply it at my next show.
Overall, I was very happy with our performance. We ended up third in our class, and got Freckle’s first official earnings: $870!! It was a thrill!
I HAVE HELP CELEBRATING FROM MY CALIFORNIA FRIENDS
The best part of my day was not over yet. As soon as I was finished showing, we met up with my friends Sandy and Tony who were coming to Vegas to celebrate their anniversary and attend a friend’s 50th anniversary celebration. We’d last seen my friends this past summer when they came to Idaho and rafted and rodeoed with us in August.
We had lunch with them and it was great to catch up. A little later we met them in the lounge to watch some horse show action and have a few drinks.
They looked awesome!
We got to spend the afternoon with Tony and Sandy, then had dinner with them and the rest of the group. It was so fun to see them, and I wish I’d had more free time to spend visiting with them.
DAY SIX: A HECTIC FAREWELL TO VEGAS
We got up Friday morning with several things on our mind. Kristi had some shopping she wanted to do. We needed to fuel up the truck to leave early the next morning; and I had a plan to go to the spa. I had heard tales of the wonderful spa at the South Point, and after my busy week I needed a massage. The girls wanted to try out the salon pedicure (a first for both of them), and to top it all off we had tickets that evening for the Tournament of Kings show at the Excalibur.
The day seemed like a whirlwind, but we got it all done. The spa was fantastic, the girls loved their Pedi’s, and we got everything done just in time to get dressed for our evening entertainment: the famous jousting exhibition at the Knights of the Roundtable arena.
I took this (not very good) photo before I saw the “Absolutely No Photography or Video” sign……honest.
It was really cool.
We had a great time at the show. It was very theatrical, and involved lots of half-naked men and fireworks. Really, I’m not making that up.
Oh, and there were cool horses too.
We got back to our rooms exhausted, to pack and get to bed before our 6:30am meeting time to load up the trailer and hit the road.
Despite all the fun we had had that week, we were ready to head home. The non-stop go-go-go schedule hit us all hard. Kristi had a terrible headache and sinus pain. The air at the South Point is notorious for being highly allergenic, and we all suffered from it. Our friend took a big dose of Nyquil and was out.
I was trying to watch the bridle horse competition on TV while I packed, and my little angel Annabelle had a complete and total meltdown. “Turn the TV off!!” she wailed, “turn it OFF!!!” I tried to calm her down, but her wails just got louder.
I turned the TV off, as well as the light beside the bed, and she started up again. “Turn it back ON Mama!!” This continued for half an hour or so, before she drifted into a fitful sleep. My dreams of meeting Sandy and Tony for a farewell cocktail faded into the twilight. I finished packing and headed to bed myself.
DAY SEVEN: AN UNEVENTFUL RIDE HOME
I was up at 4:30am for a final round of packing, and we had our bags picked up and were down at the stalls to load the trailer at 6:30. The load-out went quickly, despite the lack of porters at that early hour, and we were on the road by 7:30. We made good time going home, and once again Kris was nice enough to drive the whole way while I sat in the passenger seat and ate candy. She is a gem.
We made it home in good time, and I managed to get the kids into bed at an early enough hour that the Easter Bunny still had a chance to arrive. Easter morning started with my six year old traveler bursting into our room at 7:30, crying because the Easter Bunny had brought her brother a larger basket than he had brought to her.
Ah, it was good to be home.
By the way, if you are still awake and curious to see the video of my three runs, you can watch them here:
I would be remiss if I didn’t extend a big thanks to everyone who helped me in my quest to go to literally “get back on the horse”. Although my accomplishment is minute in the big scheme of the horse show world, to me it is literally life-changing to be able to once again embrace and truly enjoy something that I love to do so much.
I have to start with Desperate Hubby, who supported me wholeheartedly in my goal and took on numerous extra household and child management activities during my preparation for and execution of “The Road to the Stakes.”
Nathan Kent with Nathan Kent Performance Horses out of Lucky Run Arena in Kuna was instrumental in getting my horse solid enough in the reining that I could get her shown despite my nerves and horse-show rustiness. He spent a lot of time showing me how to capitalize on what he had taught Freckles, and though I obviously didn’t absorb everything he showed me, I appreciate every minute.
I am grateful to all of my friends, both horse and non-horse people, who encouraged me to get back into the sport I love so much. Whether you loaned me tack, took care of my kids or were there with a sympathetic ear, it all helped me get through the process. To Super-Nanny Kristi…..I can’t say enough.
Last but not least, I want to thank Jake and Jessie Telford of Telford Training. Without the support and guidance from Jake I would have never even considered trying to ride a cow horse again. Your generosity of time and allowing me to share your beautiful facility, cattle, talent and experience means the world to me.