The Final Chapter: Nervous Nellies UNITE!

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Lysa Hodgson and The Usual Suspect
Region 1

By Jennifer Keeler

Of the three amazing riders profiled in this inaugural Road to the Finals series for YourDressage, perhaps the competitor who believed she had the smallest chance of actually making it to Lexington was Lysa Hodgson of Aberdeen, NC and her PMU rescue The Usual Suspect (“Bogey”). But ultimately, she would be the only one to trot down centerline at the world-renowned Kentucky Horse Park on a crisp November morning. But first she had to drive all day to get there – and as any competitor knows, road trips can be just as nerve-wracking as waiting for the judge’s bell to ring.

Hodgson admitted that the week leading up to her departure was incredibly stressful between working, packing, cleaning and worrying. “I kept waiting for that ‘one thing’ to happen that would keep us from leaving,” she explained. “Would something happen to the truck or trailer? Would Bogey get an abscess or hurt himself out in the pasture? I thought that ‘one thing’ did happen when my 24-year-old retired mare decided to use my right foot as a launching pad when something startled her just days before we left. But thankfully no – my foot wasn’t broken, and since I already have to wear a compression sleeve on that foot as a leftover from the treadmill incident (Ed. Note: see Part II to read more), so that kept the swelling down. It looked like if something was going to stop this adventure it was going to have to happen on the road.”

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Lysa riding her horse, The Usual Suspect, at the Finals.
Photo by Kathy. Lanham

The drive from North Carolina to central Kentucky may be scenic, but it’s no fun when pulling a horse trailer. “I was terrified,” confessed Hodgson. “Not only were we driving through the mountains, but I was letting my husband drive the truck and trailer, which is something I never do. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice – I suffer from vertigo and because I knew the twisting, turning, steep grades and pressure changes would potentially cause an attack, I couldn’t take that risk. I realize that a nine-hour drive is very reasonable compared to what many competitors faced, and the mountains we have are nothing compared to any mountain range out West, but for me this was a BIG deal. In the end, I had to close my eyes several times and I made a lot of big gasps, but the trip was uneventful. Terry did a great job driving, and it also helped that we had my neighbor, Heather Mehal and her husband Don, following us in their truck. I had faith that between four adults and two trucks, we could handle one horse and one trailer.”

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Lysa and her husband Terry
Photo by Kathy Lanham

Hodgson was pleased to see that when the team arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park on Thursday, Bogey walked off the trailer and settled right in. This being her first time to the facility, she couldn’t help but be impressed. “The venue is spectacular. We have the Tryon International Equestrian Center close to home in North Carolina, and it’s also a phenomenal facility, but the Kentucky Horse Park just oozes an old-school royalty type feel. They’ve clearly ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to hosting world-class competitions. Everything was beautifully done. All of the officials and volunteers knew what they were doing and what was going on, the footing was always perfect, and the rings ran on schedule.

“I was lucky to be stabled in the heated Alltech barns, which were a saving grace when it was in the 20’s outside and I had to bathe and braid,” she continued. “I brought so many types of blankets for Bogey not knowing what to expect, but I ended up leaving him naked every night because it was so warm in the barn with the doors closed. But honestly, if I get to come back in the future, I’m not sure what I will do in terms of stabling. I definitely wanted the full experience this first time and that meant being in the Alltech barns and close to all of the action in the Alltech arena. However, all of the lower level classes are held in the rings up the hill, much closer to the shed row barns, and the small rentable round-pen paddocks are up there as well, something Bogey would have really appreciated. The shed-row barns are also right beside part of the cross-country course, so there is easy access to acres and acres of grazing. While the Alltech barns are just across from the same grazing area, you have to walk up a paved hill, and across and down a paved road. The shed-row barns really limit the amount of walking you have to do on pavement although they don’t completely eliminate it. I don’t think that’s a big deal if your horse is good, but for the explosive types like Bogey the pavement was very nerve-wracking. On the other hand, the Alltech barns offer heated bathrooms, as opposed to a port-a-potty for the shed-row barns. They also had real wash-racks with warm water, as opposed to just a fence to hitch up to and cold water for bathing. All of the barns have paved floors, so stall mats were definitely needed,” she advised.

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Lysa snapped a photo of Bogey “laughing” at Terry

On Friday, it was time to get back in the saddle for the pair’s first day of schooling. By this time, the show was well underway with six competition rings running concurrently, and even with the expansiveness of the facility, the grounds were buzzing with activity. “There were limited open schooling areas, mostly just a large covered ring on the other side of the competition area, and I HATE riding in covered/indoor rings,” said Hodgson. “To top it off, that morning Bogey was incredibly explosive. Just getting across the pavement to the lunging area was a feat. I couldn’t even handle him myself. Heather is much taller than me and that really helps when hand walking a very large, badly behaving horse. It also helped that she wasn’t worried about the pavement – it was his job to stay on his feet, not hers. We put 30,000 steps on our Fit-Bits that day walking him back and forth, and back and forth, until he finally settled down. Even though I’ll admit I was scared, my ride in the covered proved to be uneventful. I couldn’t get up the courage to canter, but there were no ‘episodes’ and we all considered it a success. In hindsight, I’m so glad we decided to arrive on Thursday even though my championship rides weren’t until Sunday because it gave us a good chance to see everything and get him settled.”

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Lysa and Bogey.
Photo by Kathy Lanham

Saturday dawned frosty but sunny for Hodgson’s first day of competition in a warm-up Training Level Test 3 class, part of the Dressage in the Bluegrass open show running in conjunction with the Finals. “It was more for my own nerves than anything else,” she laughed. “Heather took us back to the covered arena since he’d been in there the day before, and then to the designated warm-up area for that ring. I was so proud of both of us! The warm-up went great even though there were lots of other horses in the rings, and he was very relaxed and at ease with everything. The test itself was fine – it wasn’t spectacular, but I was happy to have a safe positive ride. I was thrilled later on when I found out how well we did – third out of 17 with a 68.400%!”

But on the big day, their newfound momentum fell a little flat. “Sunday morning I could tell Bogey was very tired – he didn’t need any lunging, he didn’t react to the slamming port-a-potty doors or zooming golf carts, and he didn’t jump at the horses acting up as he passed the lunge area,” Hodgson remembered. “He definitely peaked on Saturday, but on the other hand I felt safe, and it was such a good feeling. He warmed-up beautifully, but unfortunately in our Training Level Adult Amateur Championship he really wanted to stop to use the bathroom instead of pick up the canter in the second corner. That didn’t go so well and it definitely affected the rest of our test because we finished dead last with a 62.650%…..almost the same score we received when we did our very first Training Level test years ago. You can’t get any lower than dead last at Training Level.

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Lysa and Bogey on day three of finals, preparing for their freestyle

“Our First Level Freestyle Adult Amateur Championship class was a little more than an hour later in a different ring with a different warm-up area, but I still had my safe tired horse,” she continued. “Surprisingly, we ended up way ahead of our music – I’m not sure if it was the amazing footing pushing him along or if he was just that tired and heavy that we were freight-training our way through the test. We fared slightly better, placing 17th out of 24 entries with a 63%. Regardless, it wasn’t the test I wanted, but it certainly wasn’t the worst we could have done. And we survived!”

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Even with a disappointing final placing, Hodgson emphasized that she accomplished her goals. “We arrived safely. We completed our tests. We finished with a number, not a letter. Nobody died. We had fun, we made new friends, and we made it home safely,” she noted. “While the championship rides were far from our best performances, I had a horse who was relaxed in the warm-up rings and well behaved in the show ring. He wasn’t fazed by all of the beautiful flower arrangements around the rings or the large glassed-in judge’s booths. He didn’t even notice the large electronic leader board, something neither of us has ever seen before in a ring. He was super tired, but he was so well behaved for those rides without even a hint of squealing, bucking or bolting. It makes me want to go back and try even harder next time.

“The whole experience was so emotional, way more emotionally
draining than I expected. We had so many ups and downs over that five-day period,” Hodgson continued. “I was so worried about the drive, and then I didn’t even want to ride at all on Friday because of Bogey’s antics. I was honestly happy that we made it safely and was seriously considering just going home without competing. Then to have a great result on Saturday in preparation for the big day, only to have that big day be anti-climactic and a little disappointing. However, it was only disappointing because I actually rode and survived and he was well-behaved, and I know we could have done better. If he had been acting up and bolting and bucking, I would have been thrilled just to have stayed on and in the ring.

“I feel like we just returned from venturing out into a bigger world and we’re better for it, even if it was terrifying at times. I want to take a little of that new found bravery and try to apply it our everyday life here on the farm. Besides, we’ve already been to the Finals so if something happens while pushing boundaries at home….oh well! No one can ever take away our Finals experience. We finally made it thanks to a huge team effort and a lot of patience and perseverance. The whole thing was an amazing experience, and I’m still in awe that it actually happened. I’m not sure I will ever be able to repeat it, but at least we can ‘check the box’ that we’ve done it once!”

Well done, Lysa and Bogey. And we look forward to seeing you next year. – JMK

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