Aside World Magazine

Summer 2019 Issue 

A Day at the Races!

Article by Jenny Kobilinski 

Photos by Stan Kobilinski, Wendy Hale, Maggie Johnson

A lot of us sidesaddle riders have breathlessly followed the fearless Irish ladies racing across country and over fences in point-to-point races. There is a really good film out there on the web of Susan Oakes winning the Diana’s of the Chase race, and I have always thought it seemed like something I’d like to try. So, in November 2015 when I heard about an upcoming spring race hosted by the Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds in Pennsylvania, I decided to make this a goal.

The only complication was that I was just getting gingerly back to riding after breaking both arms in August, and my trusty horse Penny (the only one in my arsenal of 3 that I would consider using for this kind of thing) had her shoes pulled 6 months before that due to an abscess. So, shoeless, unfit Penny and weak-armed unfit Jenny had a long row to hoe. But we were determined! So I called the blacksmith to schedule shoes with studs, and upped my arm exercises. The ground was frozen some mornings, but then we had unseasonable warm weather in December so Penny and I got out for early morning rides each day before work, it being dark when I get home that time of year. We extended our canters across the fields until we were cantering for 15 minutes without a trot break. We did hills. We went to jumper clinics, where I realized that maybe the snaffle I had always used was not going to be the right tool for the job. We did some XC schooling over fences similar to what we’d encounter at the race. We worked and worked and I still was not sure if we were going to be ready.

I signed up for the Annual Gathering – hoping to get some help fine-tuning my position with Heidi Opdyke, and getting some jumping tips from Emma Brown who races point-to-point in England. The first afternoon, Emma addressed some of my bad habits (raise those hands, they are too low – watch that left foot doesn’t creep forward) and we popped some crossrails. Penny dragged me down to them each time, so I decided to change to the kimberwicke for our Saturday lesson on the XC course. The Frying Pan Farm Park course has a variety of natural jumps from starter level through Training level heights. With the kimberwicke, Penny was much easier to rate into a good pace which allowed us to comfortably jump out of stride. We had a great time over palisades, drops, banks, coops and even jumped 3’3” coop with ease.  OK we are ready! Let’s do this thing. The entries closed that Sunday night, the week before the race. I talked to Mary Ann Ost, who was to be the course physician at the race and fortunately was also at the Gathering, and she said she’d forward my information to the secretary. I left Sunday afternoon from the gathering, with a hunting breastplate Mary Ann kindly loaned me for the race. Required equipment was hard hat, cross country vest, sidesaddle with overgirth, and breastplate. Those riders with no overgirth, an outside girthing system for example, would be loaned a racing overgirth at the race if necessary.  I got home and emailed the race secretary, and found out the bad news that the race was capped at 12 riders and was full! Oh no. I had not considered that possibility. But Kirstie, the secretary, felt bad and said I could be the thirteenth rider and if someone scratched, I could have their spot. OK – I don’t wish anyone bad luck, but I’m ready to go if someone changes their mind. Kirstie said the riders have until Wednesday to scratch, and she’d let me know.

Wednesday came and went – so did Thursday and Friday. I found out that Susan Oakes was flying over from Ireland to ride in the race! How exciting that would have been, riding in a race with her. Oh well, next year we can try again. On Saturday, with a house full of family over for an Easter Eve dinner, my husband Stan came outside and said there was a message from Kirstie on the machine. Someone had taken a fall during the foxhunt that day, where the sidesaddle racers had been invited to ride with the hunt. She was fine, but sore and was not going to race. Did I still want to race? You Bet! I grabbed my bridle and started in cleaning, getting my boots polished and some of the prep work done. Once everyone left around 9 pm, I hooked the trailer and packed it up. I got up at 4:30 am, fed and started in cleaning Penny. She lives outside and has the coat of a yak, which was beginning to shed big time. I curried, brushed and polished until it was time to leave at 6 am. We drove the 3 hours to Plantation Fields, where the race was to be held, parked and met all the other riders arriving soon after. The other horses, manes and tails braided, looked fabulous. I had about a half hour until the course walk at 10, so I quick got to braiding Penny’s mane in the trailer, finishing up just in time.  Penny, you look great too!

We started out on the course walk at 10, and I was pleased to see the nice, solid timber type fences were filled with lots of brush in front, making them inviting and jumpable. The course went along a flat portion with 3 fences, then a fence at the bottom of a steep hill, then crest the hill and back down. The course was set so we rode on the right rein, side saddle friendly. The downhill gallops were set along the diagonal, not straight down. At the bottom of the next hill was a post and rail, then up a steep hill to a telephone pole fence, then back down, then back up, then down the home stretch. There were 8 jumps in all. I fell in walking for a while with Becca Barker, who offered some tips: when you come up to the white flag it is racing etiquette to not knock people riding alongside you out of bounds. Keep well to the left of the white flag, and inside the red flags. Wait a minute – I am an eventer and you are supposed to ride with red on right. No, Becca said, in racing it is White-Right. Oh man, don’t horse people talk to each other when creating rules? I guess racing was probably invented in England where they drive on the wrong side of the road, so maybe this is backwards too.  But they event in England too, so that couldn’t be it. Oh well, white-right it is.

We got done walking, signed in and got our numbers (lucky #13 on my saddle cloth – oh boy!) and starting tacking for the race. We could ride up the hill and warm up over a practice fence if we wanted to, we all did. We followed each other over the fence, and jumped tandem. Soon the outrider came to bring us to the start line. We could also jump the first fence for practice if we wanted, which we all did. Penny soared over it nicely. Then we want back to where the starter was holding a red flag. We were to have a circle start – the riders ride in a circle, head to tail, and watch for the starter to drop the flag. Around we rode – it reminded me of musical chairs where you hurry through to the next chair and then slow down by the chair – the best place to be on the circle is at 9 or 10 o’clock, then if the flag drops you just go. I think I was at about 4 o’clock and didn’t really see the flag drop when all the horses started galloping.

Penny whirled – we’re off! She flew to the first fence in a flash and galloped away. Wow, Penny, where did this come from old girl? Penny was FLYING. We were right up with the first horses, in #5 position and Penny was giving no quarter. The second fence was coming up – she soared over and picked up the pace even more. Hey- Penny – c’mon you need to listen to me. Slow down a bit, there is a big hill coming. NO! Let me go! Penny, really, this kimberwicke is useless. Penny – slow down just a little. No! I can win this thing! I can beat that Susan Oakes! Do you want Ireland to win? Penny, really, you need to save something for the hills… No! USA! USA! USA! Penny – slow down – Mom! Lemmego-lemmego-lemmego!… Our conversation went like that over the third fence and on. We were coming up to the beacon – the white flag I was supposed to stay to the left of. There was a rider I was vaguely aware of to my right, we were heading to the flag. I whacked Penny hard with my stick on the left and she moved over – good, no racing faux pas of knocking a person out of bounds, and good to know I could still steer this galloping steed. We headed along the turn to the bottom of the first hill, took a fence and started to gallop up. I grabbed some mane and tried to stay up on my left thigh, off her back, to give her as much help as possible. The front runners pulled away from us on the hill, Penny rallied, made it to the top and we started down. We were unfortunately on the left lead at that point, and it was not comfortable galloping. I remembered reading an essay where a side saddle racer talked about windmilling – I think I know what that is now. I managed to get Penny on the right lead – ah, much better. Penny was determined to close up the gap that the hill had created between us and the front runners – we got close to them coming into the post and rail at the bottom. I remembered thinking while walking the course that I wanted to jump the second section from the right– it was the lowest section with the best footing. The leftmost section was higher by a couple of inches and I wanted to give Penny every benefit I could. As we galloped into position and jumped right where I wanted, I heard a thud to my left and saw a riderless horse pass me by and zoom up the hill. Rider down! I glanced back, she was getting up – good. Penny and I followed the pack up the hill – losing ground again. Boy these are steep hills! I saw the riderless horse jumping the fence at the top of the hill with the other riders. We got to the top, now another downhill. Penny tried, but only closed about half of the gap on this downhill section. Galloping full out downhill is quite different in a sidesaddle – and a bit tricky I noted. At the bottom, another rider overtook us as we galloped along back to the first hill – fence at the bottom and then up. I lost my stirrup – got it back – lost it again – got it back. Whew! We made it to the top and the home stretch – one more fence to go. The crowd cheered! I raised my crop and cheered back! This was incredibly fun. OK Penny – here is the last fence. She hit this one with her front hoof, the hills finally getting to her. We galloped on, over the finish line, to an 8th place finish. Good girl Penny! We did it!

There is a helmet-cam video from Susan Oakes on the Horse Network if you want to ride along on this race. I think this race ranks in my top 10 of fun things I have done!

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