Pony Club member Alex Ambelang is back with more life lessons our members learn in Pony Club which help them in the real world. Alex is the head groom for Colleen Rutledge Eventing in Maryland. Follow along as she tells us how Pony Club has prepared her for this position as well as what she has learned since starting out. Alex will be a regular guest blogger, so if you have questions feel free to send them to us for her at Mandy@ponyclub.org.
Life after Pony Club: Rolex Competition
Thursday is an early morning; Luke (Shiraz) is the first down centerline at 9:30am. Pre-ride gallop at 6:30am, sharp. It’s cold and Luke gets chilled easily- no hosing afterward- just lots and lots of rub ragging and brushing and repeating. Must. Have. Shiny. Horse. Once Colleen is on and hacks towards warm-up, I pick up my groom bag with rags, brushes, and hoof polish, then grab a shuttle to meet her there. Even for the first ride on Thursday, the atmosphere is electric. I can feel my heart pounding; I counter it with deep breaths and intently watching Luke and Colleen’s every move. The time comes to send her down the chute into THE ring. One last wipe of the mouth and brush of the tail and and stand ring-side to watch. In the quiet moments before she enters the ring, I take time to absorb the atmosphere around me- the grand stands, the tents, the horses and riders that have stepped foot in this very ring before me. Those moments were quite surreal. Luke lays down a solid test and Rolex is on. Luke is rewarded with oodles of peppermints and a good roll. I take out his braids, clean tack, and get the operation organized for the rest of the day. I slip away to the trade fair for an hour or so while the boys nap. My favorite has always been the Three-Day Shop. Realization: the trade fair is much less fun when you don’t have a horse to buy for! While it saved me money, its isn’t the same when you can’t fantasize about the new girth or perfect saddle pad. I opt for some Rolex swag and head back to check on the boys. Ring familiarization for CR (Covert Rights) is that evening. I am instructed to bring the entire jar of peppermints down and stand in the ring while CR takes it all in. It is his first time in such a big ring with such an atmosphere; we just want to reassure him that everything will be alright. At one point I find myself standing, bucket o’ mints in hand, between the judges booths at C and M. CR and Colleen come by several times for mints, but in between, William Fox-Pitt and Michael Jung canter by, within feet of me. FEET. Another surreal moment in the books. Feed ponies, lock tack room, eat, shower, sleep. Start again.
Friday is a day of waiting. CR doesn’t go until nearly 2:30pm. The team and I get all four horses taken care of (did I mention we had two non-compete horses, too?) and go about hand walking them all. I start working on CR early- around noon- with the rub rags, marigold spray, and brushes. He had been braided that morning, so less to worry about now. His tack is clean and ready to go. I go over and over every inch of him; brushing hairs into place and getting the best shine possible out of his coat. About 10 to 15 minutes before Colleen is set to get on, I pull him out of his stall to brush his pasterns and coronary bands off, pick hooves out one last time, apply hoof oil, brush his tail out again, rug rag and brush again, and send her off. There are scores of people around the outside of warm-up, the atmosphere three times as electric as it was the morning before. CR is trying his best to keep calm, cool, and collected, but his nerves show every once and a while as his turn nears. I slip him one last mint and wipe his mouth and chest off before she canters down the chute for the baby’s big debut. Breathing becomes difficult at this time. I again take my place ring-side, nearly paralyzed by the nerves and excitement I have for CR and Colleen. I know what they are capable of; it was just a matter if CR was ready to show the world that too. And oh boy, did he. Confession #3: I cried during CR’s test. I still get goose bumps every time I relive those few minutes and the time afterward. Those moments of joy and pride are ones that I will hold onto forever. The rest of that evening is kind of a blur. There were lots of peppermints and pats for CR and even more smiles and high-fives and celebration- its not every day you’re the top American after dressage at Rolex. But Saturday was in the back of our minds; not just the course, but the impending weather.
Saturday was intense in more ways than one. As predicted, the weather was not ideal. The rain held off until Luke left the start box at 9:45 that morning and continued until the end of cross country, go figure. Luke was once again the first out. The prep started early that morning putting in carefully chosen studs, and making sure each piece of tack was placed just right and was there to stay. I grabbed a grooms shuttle to take our buckets, sponges, and scrapers out to the vet box to stake our claim for a spot. The final moments before they leave the box are calm ones. There is an eery silence filled with anticipation across the Horse Park. The unknown is about to become known. They take off, and I turn to go watch the round on the big screens in the rider’s tent although, surprise!, the TVs aren’t working. So, I’m left to listen as they gallop around. I don’t get too nervous with Luke, he was born to run cross country. Still, having the first horse on course is unnerving, it is the ultimate game of expectation. Luke rolls across the finish line 20 seconds under time. No Big Deal. Sallie and I set to work with cold water- on and off, on and off. The girls and Brian show up a bit a later to help with the effort. His temperature and respiration come down but his heart rate remains high, the adrenaline and atmosphere are still coursing through his veins. He and I walk back to stabling for closer inspection of legs and his celebratory roll. I keep one eye on him as I turn my attention to prepping CR for battle. We chose the biggest studs we can find, as the footing is deteriorating and we want him to have the most positive go-around possible. Tack and boots are set into place and Colleen hacks back down to warm-up. I take the shuttle down, re-fill our buckets, and grab ice. The atmosphere is hopping now as riders are being sent out of the box quickly in hopes to avoid the worse weather headed our direction. CR’s send off is a bit more nerve-racking. Luckily the TVs are working and I am able to follow them more closely. I could see him struggle to understand moving with such large studs, but I also saw him accept each challenge presented with little hesitation. He crosses the finish line tired, but wide eyed and ready for more. I am more cautious with his cool-down- his body type is heavier and his recovery after this speed and distance is unknown. He comes out well and we head back to the barn on the now slimy and slick path. We do more checks of each horse- for swellings and scrapes and any other off signs. I leave them to rest while I clean tack, boots, and studs. The rain continues and the adrenaline coursing through my veins wears off. We head to dinner early and come back to check again, wrap, and put the appropriate blankets on. A monsoon has taken over Lexington now. Final day tomorrow.
Jogs are bright and early Sunday morning. Getting two horses ready is a race against time, making sure both are shiny and turned out to the nines. The sun emerges as we walk around the holding area, waiting for the international horses to finish their jogs. Coolers are pulled off just as they hit the strip and quickly put back on afterward, the chill from the over-night monsoon lingered for quite a while. I quickly tack both horses up for a quick jump school between jogs and stadium jumping. Both boys look and feel great, ready for the final phase. They rest a bit more as I start the primping process one last time. Luke is first to jump in the second grouping of riders. I follow Colleen, leading CR. I sit with him on the grass median between general and final warm-up. The caliber of horses and riders is, of course, incredible and I take as much as I can in while and crane my neck to see rounds on the jumbotron. Colleen and I switch horses after her round on Luke with two rails down. CR has two rails as well, but finishes his first four-star strong! It is at this moment that I realize we have not one, but two horses in the top 20. I ask Colleen how we handle this and her simple reply? “You’re going in, darlin’.” Oh my. This was probably the last thing I imagined when I started this whole adventure 4 months earlier. Another surreal moment. Standing with the best of the best in the middle of that ring; Michael Jung in front of me, Phillip, Boyd, Holly and the whole lot of them beside me. In true Colleen fashion, she ponies Luke off of CR back to the barns, just as I had done so many times before around the farm in Aiken. Peppermints and pats galore. Smiles and hugs and laughter. Oh, and then packing. The celebration is fairly short lived, we have our minds set on the road home. We catch up on Facebook posts, emails, and EN live-stream as we drive, taking in the past week all over again. We return home at 4am Monday morning. Horses are released into green pastures and our beds welcome us home. The rest of Monday is spent catching up on sleep and getting over the feeling of being hit by a bus called Rolex.
It was a wild ride. There are so many other details that I cannot possibly write about. The small things that make me laugh and remind me how lucky I am do be doing this. Early morning Waffle House shenanigans, golf cart joy rides, and the being surrounded by the most amazing equestrians and people you could ever imagine. Its all kind of surreal- isn’t it?
Alex Ambelang is an H-A Traditional member of Five Valleys Pony Club in the Big Sky Region. She joined Pony Club at the age of 8 and has been an active member ever since. She has competed in Eventing through Preliminary and in jumpers and dressage. Alex has been a working student for two National Examiners and was a member of the USPC National Youth Congress in 2010. She served as a member of the USPC National Youth Board from 2012 to 2014 and is part of the USPC Visiting Instructor Program as well as the Regional Instructor Coordinator for the Big Sky Region. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Cultural and Medical Anthropology in December of 2014 and is currently working as head girl for Colleen Rutledge Eventing in Maryland.