Sunday, February 25, 2018

Going South for the Winter: Not Just for the Birds!

Note: I'm struggling with Blogger's layout issues so adding lots of photos into a post is a bit clunky. There are so many good photos I want to share so just keep scrolling down to read more after the poorly laid out photo sections.

It has been almost three years since I wrote my first post about going south for the winter. Our family felt pretty strongly that part of the bargain in having a horse was that our daughter had to stay and suffer through winter. It was perfectly appropriate if annoying at times and even with last year's goal of Training Level eventing, staying in Massachusetts was workable.

After a reasonably successful year at Training, Elizabeth wanted to consider a move up to Preliminary. It's really tough to move up to Prelim in Area I (the geographic designation assigned to New England by the United States Eventing Association) in the middle of the season. Our mid-season events tend to be tougher courses so riders like to move up in the spring or fall. Elizabeth didn't want to have to wait for the fall but to be ready for spring, she would have to go south to start training in January. Prelim requires some real fitness and preparation. She can't just show up at the end of April and hope it works out. Even with this trip south, a move up is not necessarily going to happen but she will get a head start on the season and see where it takes her.

We spent the fall working on finding a new trainer and barn for both our horses. For the next step in Elizabeth's riding we wanted to find someone who was close enough to us in Massachusetts that Elizabeth could get to their barn everyday after school but who also went south for a significant amount of time and would be able to help Elizabeth prepare for the coming season. Living in Wellesley, there aren't a ton of eventing barns within an hour's drive. We chose to work with a wonderful trainer based in Concord, Massachusetts and Aiken, South Carolina. We shipped into Concord for a few lessons in the fall to make sure everyone got along and started to make plans for Aiken.

To be clear, I had no idea what I was doing. We started looking for places to stay, working on a plan for Elizabeth to continue school in Aiken, and I hardly knew our new trainer, Erin and really had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, Erin didn't have anywhere for Elizabeth to live and Elizabeth is too young to drive. My husband and I talked it over and decided that I would go too and we would bring both horses. Well, talk about a dream come true! But it was also really complicated.

Finding a place to stay was not easy. There are some apartment complexes but they charge a premium for short term stays and then you have to rent furniture and everything else. It didn't help that it was pretty late in the game by the time I decided to tag along. In the end we found an AirBNB in what I was told was a good part of town. I had to trust other people, and in some cases strangers, in making some of our decisions since we had never been to Aiken. Our AirBNB is very tiny and was quite pricey but it's super well located, close to all the shopping and conveniences and at the edge of the equestrian district.

What, you may ask, is the equestrian district? I know I asked that about a hundred times. You have to see it and walk through it to believe it. The equestrian district is right in Aiken, walkable to downtown shopping and eating. There are little farms with gorgeous old homes, three race tracks, polo fields, a little public jump field and all the roads are sand so when I'm walking my dog there I see horses trotting by and horse drawn carts going out for a drive.
There is a "Track Kitchen" which is great for breakfast. It's not really on the track and you can't watch the horses go from there but it's quaint and old and full of history.

One of my favorite things about the equestrian district is the signs.  This is an area that puts horses before people. When in doubt, horses have the right of way. I'll be out walking and suddenly there are 8 baby race horses crossing the road to the training track and we all stop to let them pass.

Entrance to the training track.
One of the polo fields.

Bruce's Field - track and show venue.

A jump in the Hitchcock Woods.
Our house is also close to the Hitchcock Woods which is the most amazing place ever. It is 2100 acres of woods and trails with some beautiful jumps. I've explored about 70% of the trails with Bridgit and every area is a little different. The hunt goes through twice a week but the rest of the time it's a great place to go for a walk or to take horses for a hack. The footing is mostly sand and it can get quite deep so you wouldn't want to trot or gallop through most of it but it is stunning and very special. We go there as often as possible. Hacking through the woods makes Elizabeth and Quizz very happy so I try to take them on Thursday afternoons after Elizabeth goes to school.

From the equestrian district, one can hack to the woods. There are special crossing signal buttons that are mounted up high so that one can press them from horse back. They really have thought of everything to make this place an equestrian paradise.

Being down here has been an amazing experience. Elizabeth is a working student so she works about 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. My primary purpose is to drive her to work and feed her. On her day off she goes to school for 4 hours at the Visiting Equestrian Program which has worked out really well. She's down here for one school term and we've worked out a plan with her high school so that she can stay on track with all of her classes. She's working hard and taking a great deal of responsibility for her academic progress. She knows that she needs school to go well if she wants to come back next year.
E turning out horses.
When she's on the farm working, Elizabeth is most in her element. Having worked in a large boarding facility for a couple of years coupled with all of her Pony Club activities, Elizabeth was well prepared for life as a working student. She enjoys her co-worker and is lucky to have a great boss. She has plenty of work to keep her busy but is also fortunate to be riding at least 3 horses most days and sometimes more. She and Quizz are doing well and are preparing for their first show of the season. They plan to do two shows down here to be ready for the season up north.

E braiding at a show.
On reflection, I am glad we waited to do this. I am also glad we did this when we did. Elizabeth was very ready so that the experience has been a very positive one. She doesn't feel overwhelmed. She walked into work on the first day and hit the ground running. She knows how to make up grain, how to care for tack, how to pack the trailer, she's great at cleaning stalls, knows how to wrap (thank you Pony Club!), clip, braid, bathe, drive the gator and more. She is young at 15 but her experience having gone to a number of camps, competed for 3 seasons at overnight shows including 2 long formats and a Pony Club Championship prepared her for taking on a working student role.

And I'm having the time of my life! I'm building a relationship with my awesome horse and hanging out with my dog. Bridgit (my poodle) loves life on the farm and in the woods. I fear the return to suburban life in Wellesley will not meet with her approval. I'm able to do some sewing, writing, and complete some projects I never had time for at home. The time is passing too quickly. We are halfway through and I fear I will not want to leave.

As a sidenote, I finally found my horse. It took awhile and I had lots of help. In the end, this timid, beginner eventer found her perfect thoroughbred, chestnut mare. She is 14 years old and has done it all so now she will try to cart me around at the lower levels.