December 2019 - First Person From China
Written by by Rachel Long
Sunday, 01 December 2019 09:20
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West Coast star enjoys a Far East adventure in the FEI Jumping Junior Nations Cup™ Tianjin CSIOJ.

by Rachel Long

China was a place that I had always wanted to visit someday. Little did I know that “someday” would be coming sooner than later. The US Equestrian Jumping email update arrived in my inbox: “Applications to FEI Jumping Junior Nations Cup™ Tianjin CSIOJ, China open soon.” The competition would be held at a polo club outside of Beijing on Oct. 31-Nov. 3, on borrowed horses. The U.S. was planning to send a team of three junior riders, but the application didn’t open for another week. Excitement and impatience kept interrupting my packing and organization for our upcoming show.

 


Jumping in the Junior Grand Prix (Friday).

After one long week my application was in the hands of the selection committee and I was focusing on the show. The phone call went to my grandmother and trainer, Debbi Long. Her expression gave nothing away, but once she signed off, she sang, “Guess where weeeeee’re going?” My confusion must have been evident: “China!” She exclaimed. The decision was in. I had been chosen to represent the U.S. alongside Madison Rauschenbach and Kyle Perkovich. DiAnn Langer was to be the Chef d’Equipe. At the moment I had no idea of the long, incredible, fun road we were starting on.

 

Opening ceremony with (from left) Rachel, DiAnn, Maddie, and Kyle.

We had a whirlwind week—plane tickets, visas, team uniforms, saddle pads and jackets. We organized the logistics and coordinated with the rest of the team. The day before we left, I rode almost every horse in the barn to refresh my borrowed-horse skills.

On Monday morning, my grandmother and I were off to China! The flights and navigating the airports were simple and we arrived in Beijing on Tuesday evening for a good night’s sleep. Once we were recharged, we met the rest of the team for breakfast. The three of us knew of one another, but we had not officially met before.

Jumping in the Junior Grand Prix (Friday).

After breakfast we joined the Jamaican team for a tour to the Great Wall. After some photos we eagerly went to climb the stairs up the wall. The area was very mountainous, and most of the sections of the stairway were quite steep. From the table in the coffee shop, DiAnn fixed us each with a stern expression, “If any of you have sore legs tomorrow when we have to ride I will not be happy.” With a grin, we nodded obediently and eagerly scampered up the wall… for about five sets of stairs. We made about a third of the way before we began eyeing the remaining distance and glancing at each other. Of course, we didn’t turn back, but the pace was definitely not as brisk as when we started. Photo op from the Wall complete, we made our way to the base for the return to Beijing and transfer to the Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club later in the evening.

Meeting the young riders in the square at the market.

Wednesday morning we were able to get an idea of how spectacular everything was. The hotel was incredible with everything from automated curtains to self-flushing toilets in the rooms. For all the grandeur, however, there were very few people around the hotel, polo club or on the streets. The part of Tianjin where the polo club is located is a relatively new part of town and although there are numerous buildings, most are still under stages of construction. After a nice breakfast, we headed across the street to check out the barn.

A barn is somewhere all horse people understand, no matter where in the world it is. All of the horses looked happy in their stalls bedded with rice hulls rather then shavings. After cruising around the show grounds for the morning, we had the horse draw and riders meeting in the afternoon.
    

Tasting a rice-based dessert with DiAnn in the square at the market.

The Draw

The format for the draw was very interesting. Each country would draw a group of three horses and were free to distribute the horses as they wished to the athletes. On schooling day, we were allowed to switch horses if need be. In each group there was one horse from each of three levels, they had show records of jumping courses 1.10M, 1.15M or 1.20M in height. After the official draw, each country was given one hour in the ring with the horses. Our three horses had very similar characteristics and records so we each drew out of the hat.

I pulled a gelding named Quintino, Maddie pulled the stallion called Lord M and Kyle had the mare, Chiquirina. We were able to take all the horses out for a ride to get to know them and hop over a few fences. Quintino went off to a good start. He seemed very simple on the flat but got a little stronger over fences.

Walking the crowded market streets.

Friday was the first competition that helped us get to know our mounts better. Once in the show ring Quintino perked up quite a bit. He was adjustable and jumped well for most of the course, but in one line he got a little heavy costing us the rail at the vertical. Maddie’s horse also jumped well, having one down and Kyle’s jumped well after a circle at the first jump.  Maddie finished up 4th, Kyle in 10th and I finished up in 6th. In the prize ceremony, Maddie and I were presented with ribbons, flowers and an adorable stuffed horse mascot.

That evening was the Welcome Gala. After dinner the Junior teams were called up to a small stage. Not knowing exactly what was happening, Kyle, Maddie and I glanced nervously at each other. We were given a clip board to play a quiz game. “Oh my gosh, this is not going to end well,” Maddie laughingly said. The first question totally threw us off. “How does China rank in size?” We threw out a wild guess and were completely wrong. To make us feel better none of the four teams got the correct answer, including the Chinese team. After the first question we got in our groove and totally killed it (with the assistance of some excellent sign language from our table) to take the win.

On Saturday, we had a chance to do some flat work with the horses before a tour of Tianjin. It was not crowded, but there were tons of mopeds and bicycles on the roads. We passed many shops, hotels and housing buildings on the way to the bustling market that was our main stop. The group split up into teams and were given a guide to help navigate the market. We stopped at various galleries of statues, clay sculptures and paintings that were nestled between the small shops. After spending time at each gallery, we gathered in a courtyard where there were groups of children waiting to greet us. They rode at a local riding school and were elated to talk to us. Many had small gifts to offer, pro tips on which vendors had the best snacks, and some even asked for autographs. I was given a bookmark, a paper with calligraphy that a little boy had written, and a hair pin. After attempting to use my hair pin in my ponytail, the little girl’s mother swooped in to show me how it was done. Lots of photos were taken and the kids were able to practice their already-great English.
    

Entering the ring for the opening ceremony.

Better Than Gold

Sunday was the day that we had really been waiting for. We had a great draw going in to the competition with Team USA going last in the three-team rotation. I would be the first American rider, Kyle would follow and Maddie would finish up. I really wanted to start round 1 off right with a clear score. I was careful throughout the course, remembering Quinitino’s quirks and customs. It paid off and we had the first clear of the class!

Kyle followed close behind me. He rode his hot horse really well and laid down the only other clear of the class so far. Maddie was next in and she finished with a beautiful four-fault round. After round one, we were leading with a score of four, China was in second with 12 and Thailand was in bronze position with 32.

The second round came after a break of only 10 minutes. Going into the second round I wanted to have the same consistent and smart ride. Quintino was a little stronger towards the end of the course in round two but I was still able to hold it all together and keep him clean. DiAnn’s face when I came out of the ring said it best—she was all smiles but had to rush back to the schooling ring to help get Kyle ready. Kyle’s second round was a little less consistent as well, with his horse getting a little bit tired. He kept her going and crossed the timers with a big 0 on the score board. Team USA was still leading with only four penalties.

All the flags lined up in the opening ceremony.

As Maddie started to warm up we all got quiet. Her horse tripped in the schooling ring and walked away very lame. DiAnn quickly found the show manager, vet and the horse’s owner to discuss options. All three concluded that because she started the competition on the horse, there was no option of a substitution and the horse was unable to jump the second round. The Ground Jury decided that we would take the Bronze position as we were unable to complete round two. Although by FEI rules, we should not have been awarded any prizes, the horse show decided to unofficially gift us each flowers, stuffed mascots and a glass trophy.

Although we did not have the ideal ending that we had been dreaming about, the three of us walked away with something much more valuable then any medal: experience. The experience of flying to a country that none of us had been to before, to compete on borrowed horses was invaluable. We formed lifelong friendships and just had a good time. I am incredibly grateful to DiAnn Langer, US Equestrian, and my entire team at home who all helped make this opportunity possible. The CSIOJ in Tianjin is an adventure that will be with me for a lifetime.