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Thursday, July 30, 2015

...On Tiny Tortures

Dear Reader:  Thank you for visiting.  Due to the distress that the above photo of me not wearing a helmet while sitting idly in my arena on my retired gelding has caused many readers, I decided that I should post a short caveat at the beginning of this blog for any future visitors.  (Spoiler alert!)  The moral of the blog below is that sometimes imperfect horsemanship inadvertently teaches a horse to be a better partner.  When choosing the photo, I looked for one of me performing very poor horsemanship as an attempt at humor, and evidently I struck a nerve. I assure you that I am an advocate of wearing a helmet and do so daily, but I also believe in the freedom of choice and helmet or not, everyone is welcome here. Thank you for being so concerned for my safety, and please enjoy what is meant to be a fun, noncontroversial read! 

I’ve always said that the coolest cats are raised by kids.  They are used to loud noises, being touched all over, keeping their claws to themselves, wearing clothes, being walked on a leash, giving Barbie a ride…they’re just way better than the prissy, self-centered cats that are raised by adults.  I would argue that a tiny amount of torture does a kitten some good.  I think the same can be said for horses.  Is there anything better than a horse that will pack a kid around the farm, a show ring, the trails?  One that gets jumped bareback and dressed up on Halloween?  One that will stand tied for hours upon hours while being slathered in gold glitter hoof polish and bound in pink ribboned braids?  No.  Not a thing.

So in early 2014, when I brought Megatron into my barn, I did my best to give him the kid treatment.  As a result he’s gotten pretty good about most things, and I get a huge kick out of intentionally performing poor horsemanship and then announcing, “Safety first!” to any mortified passers by.  However, because he was so difficult to start (see below), I’ve always treated him with kid-gloves when it comes to riding.  Don’t scare him.  Don’t upset him.  Don’t do anything sudden… (see below again)

When it came to jumping, I was pretty worried that I was going to create a dirty stopper.  I started training Megatron to navigate ground poles pretty much immediately after he [finally] allowed me onto his back.  Because this horse was started a year late and then had a grueling and painfully slow start, he was well behind the curve for his age.  We had some catching up to do.  Plus, he was always so focused on his rider that having to pick up his feet to go over poles was a welcome distraction for him.  Most importantly, I surmised that if I started trotting him over poles as soon as he could physically carry me over them, he would always just think poles were part of his job.  This is what we do - we go over striped poles, and it’s no big deal.

Still, when we started approaching those first ground poles Megatron was slightly less than what I would call "under control."  Additionally, I’m an amateur and am in no way a perfect rider, so I knew that as jump training progressed we would find ourselves in some sticky situations.  I was just praying that he wouldn’t hold a grudge, and was relying on his gorgeous trot in the event that we had to fall back on a dressage career (still am, by the way).  

When I initially raised the poles to small jumps I still had a very green horse that didn’t have much adjustability.  He’s a naturally lazy animal who was perfectly satisfied cruising around in first gear.  Thus, I found myself crawling to every fence, seeing a distance and always moving up to it because there was no option to take momentum away from our snail’s pace (note: I no longer endorse this particular strategy for a multitude of reasons).  It was my only choice, but it wasn’t always the right choice.  Thus Megatron learned to miss.  He learned to leave a little long if he could or throw in a chip if he must, but he never really got upset about it.  Tiny tortures.  

Even once his adjustability developed and we started jumping fences higher than a foot, he had to be okay with a miss.  As I said, I’m an amateur and he’s a greenie.  Imperfection is inevitable, and simply became part of his job.

Most recently, in my effort to get this now fairly well-trained greenie out to some shows, I started taking Megatron on field trips to local farms.  I wanted him to see all kinds of unfamiliar jumps, keep his focus in new environments, be around new horses, etc.  One day last month I took him to a farm down the street and hopped on, warmed up, and then jumped all the jumps in an effort to simulate a horse show.  Megatron was great and I was impressed.  We jumped some scary things for a youngster with no experience, including a large vertical with a wide liverpool beneath it.  Megatron took it in stride.  I came around to it again a few minutes later off of a short turn, saw a wait, requested one, didn’t get it, then asked more firmly at which point he slowed down to a near-stop and jumped with no impulsion or momentum.  He relied on sheer power and will.  I relied on him.  I’m an amateur and he’s green - shit happens.  

He probably should have waited when I asked, but barring that, he probably should have given me the middle hoof instead of balling up and jumping 5 feet in an effort to clear the thing.  But to him, we simply went over a striped pole, and it was no big deal.  We landed and moved on.  Tiny tortures.  

I’ve said before how important it is to have a horse that can handle a big ugly miss, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how to create one.  I was suddenly thankful for all the times that my eye didn’t work or that he didn’t respond the way I’d anticipated, and we got to a fence at an awkward distance and he had to figure it out.  It’s made him a better horse.

There are many other ways to turn a horse into a dirty stopper and I’m certainly not out of the woods, but today I’m actually thankful for some of my imperfections.  Next stop: gold glitter hoof polish...and possibly dressage. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

...On Teaching Swagger

The other day, in a rare moment of what people that don't own horse farms call “sitting down” between morning chores and afternoon hacks, I perused some of my favorite online equine-centric forums.  As I’ve said before, I’m always interested in becoming a better horseman, and there is a wealth of knowledge out there that I am happy to absorb without bothering with trial and error myself.  Often there is news of a sale on breeches, or a discussion of the veterinary treatment du jour, or some horse care issue that is debated to the point of the equestrian equivalent of a Twitter war.  

Sometimes I come away with useful knowledge.  Very rarely do I come away with an epiphany, but the other day I did just that.  In a thread about absorbing knowledge from many riding disciplines, “NancyM” wrote:

“I apply a lot of what I learned in thirty years of working with racehorses to my basic horsemanship…Keeping things fun for the horse. Letting a horse be himself, express himself, have opinions. Working with the horse you have, not trying to force a horse into a cookie cutter mould.”

I nodded along as I read.  This is how I’ve approached my horses as well.  

I continued reading:

“An old friend of mine from many years ago slapped her racehorse on the neck affectionately as he squealed at her in play... ‘He likes himself’ she told me with satisfaction. I like my horses to like themselves too. I like them to think that they are the fanciest horse they have seen all day.”

This was the epiphany.  I’ve never cared if a horse liked himself - I’ve never even thought about it in that context.  I’ve cared if he’s happy; if he’s healthy and comfortable.  I’ve cared if he likes me, or his job.  It never occurred to me to want him to like…himself.  What an epic fail on my part.

I am usually not a froofroo, anthropomorphizing, whispering horse guru.  Still, I have learned over the past few years that overall health and performance are strongly correlated to a horse’s general happiness and state of mind.  When I acquired my four-year-old, 17.1HH, mostly-unbacked, freshly-imported warmblood last year it took about two days for me to realize that if he wasn’t pleased I was either going to figure out how to make him happy, or I was going to the hospital.  Although he had been largely untouched, a couple of attempts had been made to ride him in Europe, and judging by the first several times I got on him, they didn’t go well.  Although I technically ordered a horse that had been lightly started, he simply didn’t take to the cookie-cutter training routine like most other horses do, and I realized that I didn’t just have to train this horse - I had to retrain it.  

Little known fact for those of you that have been following the Megatron saga from afar:  I got on him the third day I had him, and I didn’t get back on for two-and-a-half months.  This horse had a level of fear that made him dangerous, and he internalized it in a way that made it impossible to predict.  Throughout those terrifying fledgling weeks of training, I had incredible support from my husband who never once made me feel bad about importing a Decepticon sight-unseen, along with a bit of help from professionals and a lot of help from a really wise team-roper.  The photos have yet to surface, but my first thirty rides were in a roping saddle in a small medical turnout.  Surprise!!!

And you thought he was named Megatron because he’s big…

Once the riding became safe-ish, my trainer and I started working on trying to get Megatron to enjoy his job.  While sensible, he is also sensitive.  He will tolerate being pushed too hard, but he will remember it the next day.  Sometimes this is good and we’ve taught him something.  Sometimes it’s bad and we've scared him, but the more we work together and the more he trusts me, the less I see of this fearful horse.  

My trainer and I have spent months trying to figure out how hard to push him.  The first three lessons I had with Greg were literally trying to get Megatron to trot with his ears forward so that he wasn't always so focused on his rider.  That’s it.  My friend, Alia, acquired her young horse around the same time I got Megatron, and that same week that I was trotting oddly shaped “circles” and celebrating every time his ears flicked forward for a stride, she was jumping small courses on hers.

Some serious patience (and physical therapy) was required on my part, but we got through those initial stages of training.  Because Megatron was so stressed by a rider, I spent a lot of time trying to make riding fun for him despite the fact that many of our adventures were terrifying for me.  We went on trail rides, we jumped stuff, we went on lots of field trips, and then we took the entire winter off to decompress.  I have spent hours upon hours of my life devising a tailor-made program to make this creature enjoy his.  He is allowed to have opinions.  He is allowed to say no.  He is allowed to dictate the pace of his training.  But never have I considered that he should like himself.  

And how does one teach swagger, anyway?

I’ve had horses that are proud of themselves, but to be candid, they’ve all come that way.  My husband’s horse has a distinctly cocksure way of carrying himself when he knows he’s done a good job.  He likes himself.  And no one is going to tell my retired gelding that he’s not the fanciest horse in the neighborhood.  No one.  But Megatron isn’t proud.  Even when praised (abundantly and often) his response is simply more of the desired behavior.  Please believe that I’m not complaining about that, but…he certainly doesn’t have any swagger.  In contrast, Alia’s five year old is the equine Kanye West.  They are both very talented despite being naturally inclined to be different so I rarely compare, but it does leave me wondering if I’ve missed an essential step in this process.  I’ve done a great job of making Megatron confident in me, but I’m just not sure I’ve done a very good job making him confident in himself.  

Am I anthropomorphizing?  Sure, but if you’re one of those people who thinks horses are organic robots that have no opinions you’re probably no longer reading this anyway.  So my new goal is to get this horse to like himself, and although he’s not the extroverted type to squeal in excitement, I am fairly certain that as he learns, becomes confident in his job, and saves me from my amateur self a few thousand times, some semblance of pride will develop.  

There were times last year when I thought this horse would never let me sit on him.  But then he did.  There were times when I thought he would simply never, ever have a right lead.  But then he did.  There were times when I thought he’d never be able to go out into a new ring and jump new fences cold, or change leads, or deal with the traffic at a horse show.  But then he did.  

So I have faith that someday Megatron will like himself as much as I like him, and I’ll look back on this blog and say, “But then he did.”

Monday, January 5, 2015

…On Burnout

Three years ago I spent an entire summer traveling around the country showing my horse and having a fantastic time.  However, at the end of the year my horse, Johnny, sustained an injury that sidelined us.  The injury was difficult to diagnose, so I frequently began to think he had recovered only to take him to a horse show and spend the entire time (and all of my money) in the vet tent.  Horse showing - once the highlight of my life - became a torturous endeavor, but I continued to believe that the fun was always just around the next turn.  The fun was on the other side of one more shockwave treatment; one more chiropractic appointment; one more corrective shoeing.  Before I knew it, a year had gone by; a year in which I’d planned a wedding and gotten married, and this awful, self-induced black cloud had shaded the whole thing. I had spent an entire year of my twenties agonizing about how to get my horse back in the show ring.

Then one day, in a sudden moment of clarity, I realized it was over.  My dream was dead and it was time to face the music. Additionally, I was suffering from a serious case of burnout. 

Driving an hour each way to the trainer’s barn five days a week only to stare at my frustrated horse and what-could-have-been was excruciating.  It wore me down, and I knew I was going to end up in a straight jacket if I kept it up.  I brought Johnny home, thinking I’d let him “be a horse” while simultaneously letting myself be a human.  A real one.  The kind that sleeps at night instead of laying awake wondering where she could come up with the money to do just one more MRI…just one more.  Once Johnny was home, it didn’t take long before magical things started happening.  I practiced jumping on my retired horse that had never really jumped anything in his life.  I started riding bareback like I had when I was a kid.  I rode the boys down the trail with my mom.  Johnny made a miraculous recovery, and I started jumping him again.  I sat under a tree in the pasture and watched my horses graze.  I fell back in love with my first love, the horses.

Fast forward a couple of years. I’ve now got four of these rascals.  I spend my days taking impeccable care of them.  I’ve spent the last two years waking up every day and rushing down to feed, drinking my tepid coffee in the cold barn, leading horses to turnouts, hovering over them for hours because they are semi-suicidal and not to be trusted, carting hay and water to paddocks, cleaning stalls, sweeping, scrubbing buckets, leading horses back from turnouts (in a very specific order!), grooming, riding, sweeping, clipping, sweeping, feeding, sweeping, stuffing hay nets, changing blankets, dragging the arena, mowing the paddocks, night checking…and, of course, sweeping.

Hey, Thomas Edison, I’ll tell you what is often missed by people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work:  me.

I’m tired.

No.  I’m tired.  I’m aware that it’s an obnoxious first-world problem.  I know it’s absurd that poor Courtney’s show horses are exhausting her, but they are.  I am burnt out in a way that is reminiscent of the Johnny Injury Saga of 2012.  I’m losing it.  And by “it” I mean my sanity, any desire to ride, and if I’m being honest, that love of horses that drives me to do all of this in the first place.    

This expensive hobby has become a career…a career that I pay for!  A career that I pay for that, for two whole years, has kept me from even being in the general vicinity of my workaholic husband on the one or two days per week on which he is able.  It’s kept me from traveling, from seeing my family, from being a regular girl that has clean hair and painted nails, from keeping in touch with friends that I truly like.  I’ve missed bachelorette parties and baby showers and just regular old girls’ nights.

It was always worth it to me, and then one day this past November it just wasn’t anymore.  I missed my husband.  I missed my family.  I missed those carefree days of having one-too-many drinks and staying out a bit too late without the nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, “Careful, Courtney.  Even if you take the day off from riding, you’ve got 5 hours of manual labor starting at sunup tomorrow…and every day after that.”  I missed having a weekend!  TWO WHOLE DAYS OFF!!  What was that like?  Nate and I chose not to have kids so that we could always have the luxury of spontaneity, and quiet winter days by the fire, and sun-drenched vacations in exotic locations…and yet, we weren’t doing any of those things.

It took me a long time to admit it, but something had to give.  I love my boys and they aren’t going anywhere, but there are ways to take care of horses that don’t demand nearly the work that I am required to put in.  Things like stalls with attached turnouts…and hot wire…and automatic waterers…and dare I say, winter coats?  We did some research and happened upon a small farm that was available for rent in un-frozen, un-muddy South Carolina.  The setup was ideal, the flight from NYC was short, and I couldn’t sign the lease fast enough.  We shut down the farm in New York, and jammed the entire menagerie into the truck and trailer. 

It was a long, arduous drive with screaming cats, flatulent dogs, stir-crazy horses, and roosters crowing at every Truck Stop. Icy New York mornings and lugging 80 pounds of hot water to turnouts a quarter mile from the barn wasn’t looking so terrible at 3am, in the 14th hour of the drive.  Still, shortly after we arrived I turned my boys out in their big, grass paddocks.  They ran and played in good, solid footing, and the whole drive and weeks of planning were suddenly completely worth it. 

It’s only been a few days, and I’m still trying to devise the perfect system, but the boys are so happy.  It warms my cold, hard heart to see them so, and as if that’s not enough, I simply have to open the Dutch doors in the mornings and send them on their merry way to turnout.  “See y’all tonight!”  (Y’all see what I did there?  I’m trying hard to fit in.)  They run, but they don’t slip and fall in ice or mud.  They decide they want to go inside, and they just…do.  They don’t panic-run.  They don’t kick or scream or squeal or bang on the gates to force me to come running, halter in hand. They also don’t stand in stalls 20 hours per day.  They also don’t chew things out of boredom.

You know what else they don’t do?

They don’t care if they all have matching blankets.  They don’t care if their matching blankets match their water buckets that match the trim of the barn and the doormat and the damn haynets.  They don’t care.  As much as the horses have made life difficult for me by refusing to behave in turnout no matter how hard I try, I have made it difficult for myself by being a type-A, anal-retentive horse snob.  They must all be slick.  They must all be shiny.  They must all be fit, and clipped, and clean. And…and…and…

Burnout.  Complete burnout.  I even reached a point where I would occasionally have to consciously remind myself to breathe.  I think that’s pretty much a textbook anxiety disorder.  A self-induced anxiety disorder!!  So I find myself here in sunny South Carolina, all alone in a strange place that is very different from home, but I have happy horses, coffee with my husband on the mornings that he’s here, and multiple vacations to plan.  I’m already breathing involuntarily, and today, for the first time in two months, I patted Johnny affectionately on the rump and thought, “Maybe a ride would be fun.” 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

…On Growing a Pair.

As I mentioned recently – before my long blogging hiatus – my friend, Alia, and I acquired some giant baby Warmbloods this past spring.  They were nearly four when they arrived, and each had technically had a human butt on its back a handful of times.
Alia’s arrived first and we loved him.  Mine arrived six weeks later and we loved him, too!  We’d done our research, put our trust in an agent with a fantastic reputation, enlisted the expert eye of Greg Best, and thrown caution to the wind.  We thought, given the gigantic leap of faith, that we’d done a pretty dang good job picking our giant babies. 
I cannot imagine getting any luckier in my quest.  Megatron is quiet, sensible, pretty, a fantastic addition to my herd, and a fun divergence from all of my plain bays.  Still, it’s not like having a regular baby around.  When he decides to do something typical of a young horse, it’s big and occasionally he ends up on the wrong side of the paddock fence.   When he decides he doesn’t want to do something, he pretty much doesn’t have to.  When he decides he doesn’t want ME to do something, I pretty much don’t get to.  When a toddler weighs 1500 pounds, everything is a conversation.
I’m used to very broke horses whose favorite phrase is “Yes ma’am.  What can I do for you ma’am?” so this is new for me.  And I truly think it’s good for me in my journey to be a better all-around horseman...but that doesn’t mean I always enjoy it. 
Alia’s horse is similar in that he’s not like the true-blue broke guys that we’re used to.  Although he never says no to her the way that mine can, his responses are often less “yes ma’am” and more “HELL YEAH!  LET’S DO THIS!  ONLY… DO YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD MAKE THIS EVEN BETTER!? DO YOU!?...”
And then he follows that up with one of the following:
1)    “…IF I PUT MY FEET ON IT!”
2)    “…IF I COULD EAT IT!”
 Jumps.  Mounting blocks.  Umbrellas.  Alia.  You name it, and he can do one of the above to it.  So we both have our work cut out for us.  I have a bit of experience with young horses, and I liken a four year old Warmblood to an 18 month old quarter horse.  EXCEPT HUGE.  It’s an undertaking.
That said, one of the reasons that we undertook it was that we were tired of the show scene.  While we didn’t want to quit, we wanted to do it differently.  The usual cycle of “buy the horse, show the horse, sell the horse, repeat” has never, and will never work for us.  I didn’t want to buy something that was already jumping around courses with an amateur, and then be the new amateur that jumped it around courses.  While there is considerable challenge in that method, apparently it was not enough of a challenge for me.
I also have this subconscious idea that if a little is good, a lot is great.  Constantly.  It almost defines me.  That said, I couldn’t just go get a lightly shown 6 year old that could, oh, I don’t know, canter on both leads maybe, and bring it up the ranks myself.  No.  If I’m going to do this, I’m going to DO THIS (it turns out that I have some things in common with Alia’s horse). 
So we got these fours that we call The Megas, and we’ve made it our life’s mission to educate these babies in an unconventional way.  We want horses that can trail ride, jump logs, hold their own in a dressage ring, stand quietly, stay in a pasture all day, survive without daily poultice and ice and massage and supplements and and and…  
We want REAL horses…that show.  I often flip through my mental photo album to the picture of Snowman, a Hall of Fame jumper, swimming in a lake with 3 small children on his back and remind myself that this is possible.  
Additionally, Alia and I have realized that both of our horses are very smart.  Megatron is nearly as smart as my Doberman, and Alia’s horse practically IS a Doberman.  In the interest of our goals of having REAL horses, as well as keeping our toddler prodigies from being ring sour, we’ve decided that it is important to get these guys out and about as soon as possible.
A few weeks ago I took Megatron to Alia’s house for his first field trip.  It was the best ride we’d had to date.  Last Saturday I hauled him (200 yards) to my neighbor’s house and rode him in her arena for a change of scenery, and he was great.  Yesterday Alia had the genius idea of taking The Megas to the open land, which is essentially a trail system and hundreds of acres of hay fields that wind through my town.  I succumbed to peer pressure against my better judgment, and spent the morning taking deep breaths and trying to grow a pair. 
I consciously tried to take in the beautiful day and the perfect weather.  I rode my soulmate, Johnny, in case it was my last day with fully functional limbs.  I packed a cooler full of water for the ride and beer for after the ride.  I took the visor off my helmet to increase my peripheral vision.  I put on [one of] my Megatron t-shirt[s] so he'd know we were on the same team, and waited for Alia to come get me.
When we arrived at the parking area of the usually quiet preserve there were cars and people and bear-sized dogs everywhere.  Then a couple more horse trailers pulled in and unloaded.  Then a tractor came by with a giant scary horse-eating hay-making machine.  Then it dropped that machine off somewhere and came back with a gargantuan scary horse-eating squeaky hay trailer.  Then more dogs.  More people.  More horses.
In the midst of all of this we somehow managed to remove our wiggly babies from the trailer and saddle them (with some effort).  We finally climbed on and headed down the trail toward certain death.
And what do you know?  Our overgrown, green-broke, often scary babies took to the trail like a couple of old school horses.  It was easily one of the most rewarding horse adventures of my life.  And…drumroll…it was FUN!

I’ve shown at some big shows and won some decent prizes, and I’ve done a lot of really interesting things on horses (including galloping around Kenya on them), but it took some serious huevos to strap my extremely controlling self to a mildly-controllable Decepticon with less than forty rides and take it into an extremely uncontrolled environment.

I was proud of us for doing it.  We knew it was what the boys needed, and we went for it.  I was proud of The Megas for handling it so well.  Most importantly, it felt like affirmation that even though we’re not trainers and we’ve never raised young jumpers before, we’re doing a good job.  When a horse’s mind is in the right place, the jumping is the easy part.  We’re growing a pair of really solid horses that, despite their athletic prowess and/or willingness to jump big fences at a horse show, will always have a useful place in the world.  With a likely 25 years left on this earth, I truly believe it is the best gift we could give them.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

…On Silencing The Noise

Horse people are a funny breed.  There are as many ways to be a successful horseman as there are to skin a cat, but still most of us seem to have a methodology that is the best one and the only one and the right one.  Having grown up showing one horse both English and Western at the open shows, then APHA/AQHA, and now entering the rated USEF world, I’ve seen a lot of different approaches during what I like to consider my short time on this earth [wink].  Although I’m not a big believer in astrology, I am a Libra, so I tend to waver in my convictions.  My best/only/right is always changing. 

The one constant for me is my desire to learn.  When I was winning 8 classes per day at the open shows as a kid, my family stepped up to the breed shows where I got my butt kicked.  When I was routinely winning my favorite class at the breed shows I got a new horse and moved into the hunter ring.  This led to the jumper ring, and who knows what’s next?  The point is that I’m an eager study and my journey has been as much about learning horsemanship as it has been about coveting blue ribbons.  I’ve certainly not mastered anything, but I’ve got a fairly well-rounded education.

That said, I think that the perfect equine partner would be one that was trained from the beginning with methods from many disciplines.  I think the same can be said for riders.  As much as people have discounted me and I’ve discounted myself in the recent past due to my lack of experience over fences, I wouldn’t change a thing about my riding education. Am I behind the curve for my age and current discipline?  Yes.  So what?  Riding for me is about learning, not competing.  The competition is the place where I go to put what I’ve learned to the test. 

Last summer I started clinicing with Greg Best.  My friend, Alia, and I went to one of his clinics in July where we immediately fell in love.  On the first day of the three-day clinic we were a few minutes late to the ring because of some commotion on the farm, and one of the other girls in our session said, “You guys are late.  You were supposed to be in here at eight.”

Greg’s response:  “They probably took the extra few minutes to put their hair under their helmets.”

We knew then that we were going to get along swimmingly.  But more importantly, he helped Alia transform her horse from a nervous stopper into a willing soldier.  He helped me so much with Hauns that weekend, but what I really took away from that clinic was that I wasn’t a bad rider.  I had many technicals to learn, but the basics were there. 

For months before the clinic I had spent time with several different trainers and, with the exception of one, none of them took the time to help me get better.  I had adopted Hauns from my husband who had used him as a beginner mount, and was ready to move on.  Hauns was a solid citizen but had his own style.  He liked to go around out of frame, head upside down and tilted to the side, getting kicked every stride in an effort to keep him going, but always behind the leg.  I knew how to fix that using my Quarter Horse training methods, but I didn’t want to be unfair to a horse that was trained differently, so I sought help.

With each trainer it was the same routine.  They looked at my horse, assumed that I didn’t have the skills to fix it, and gave me mediocre help trying to ride what I had while happily pocketing my checks.  One of them told me to give him away, which was at least better than watching him rub my leg down the entire long-wall of an indoor and saying, “Good.  Sit tall.  Good.”  It was incredibly frustrating.  I was ready to sell the horse and started looking for eligible buyers.  I attended the Greg Best clinic in an effort to make him a slightly more desirable sale, but instead came away with a horse that was in frame and in front of my leg, not to mention actually jumping jumps instead of lazily flopping over them one leg at a time.   And do you know how Greg helped me accomplish all this?  By not saying, “No, don’t do that!”  He actually encouraged my instincts and my confidence soared.  It was literally a life-changing weekend. 

I’ve taken many more clinics with Greg.  Alia and I are groupies and are absolutely shameless about it.  There is nothing in the world that I want more than to learn how to be a better horseman, and if being a little bit of a weirdo groupie is the answer it is fine with me.

Interestingly, last summer Alia and I stopped going to horse shows almost entirely.  We didn’t need to gauge our improvement via competition when we had periodic visits with Greg.  Subconsciously, our goals changed from managing to get a horse around a few jumps one time to beat some other people at a show, to beating the riders we were just a few weeks past.  Every time we were faced with an opportunity to go to a show, we would look at each other and say, “Eh…” 

Skip ahead eight months.

Maybe I’ve given up too early, but I feel like I’ve gotten Hauns as far as I can get him.  I’ve had good help for a while now and Hauns does his job as well as I think he will ever do it.  I only get out of him what I put in, and at a solid 17.2hh he’s a lot of horse to manage which means he requires that I put in quite a bit.  Additionally, I think having all of my eggs in his basket put a lot of pressure on both of us.  I began to consider getting a new horse so that Hauns could be my trusty backup and I wouldn’t have to push him to work so hard every day. 

As people often do, I spoke with my friends and acquaintances about my plans.  Everyone had input.  I got a lot of “don’t dos” and a lot of “you should dos.”  I finally sat down and thought about what I wanted.  I realized that I’d gotten more gratification out of taking a horse that was a “giveaway” and turning it into a horse that could be successfully shown in the high adults (if I stayed on course) than I ever would have imagined.  I like being the underdog.  I’m competitive and having something to prove drives me to work hard.  It’s probably not healthy, but it is what it is. 

But I’m still a Libra, so when someone says “don’t do” I start to question what it is that I should do.  Finally I decided to silence the noise and negativity around me, I stopped talking to people about it, and with the help of three people that I respect very much, I bought an unbroken almost-four-year-old off a one minute and twenty-four second free-jumping video from Holland.  It was ballsy, I know, but I didn’t do it alone.  Of course my partner in crime was right there with me, and Alia now has a Dutch four year old in her barn, too. 

I’ve had my young gelding in the barn for three days, and I can honestly say that I’ve never before been so fond of a horse in such a short amount of time.  I’m aware that this might backfire.  This might literally kill me.  This might turn out to be a disaster, but no matter what, it will be an adventure.  There will be days on which I feel elated.  There will be days on which I feel that this was a huge mistake.  There will be days on which I fall off and days on which I reach milestones and days on which people will say “I told you so.”  But the point, as always, is to become a better horseman, and I can think of no better way. 

Plus it was cheap. 

So the secret is out now.  I’d like to introduce the world to Megatron. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

…On Riding Lessons

I spent the last two weekends basking in the sun at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, FL.  I’ve been short-term one-quarter leasing a few horses at a training barn down the road to get more jumps under my belt, and the plan all winter was to head down to Florida in March and experience WEF in all its glory.  However, as the winter closed in on me I started to have confidence issues and felt that I had no business flying in to one of the biggest horse shows in the country and riding horses that don’t belong to me in classes with people that have been doing this their whole lives.

I talked to my long-distance coach about it and we agreed that, given my propensity for beating myself up for 6 months about something that lasted thirty seconds, maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea.  I was afraid that I would have a terrible round and would relive it in my head and in my dreams until it consumed me and I quit.  It was settled, I would fly down to ride around and experience WEF, but showing was not in the plan.

Still, as I packed my bag I shoved my show clothes down into the bottom of my suitcase.  One never knows. 

I arrived on a Wednesday and immediately hopped on a horse and rode to the show.  I jumped around a bit and all went fairly well.  My ride was status quo, and although I wasn’t thrilled with it, there was nothing out of the ordinary to send me into an internal tailspin.  Still, one of my goals during my trip to Florida was to find a horse for my husband, so that afternoon I headed to a barn near the showground to try a big gray gelding.  I arrived and threw a leg over the horse, only to immediately realize that the majority of the Irish Olympic team was sitting on the rail watching.  I choked.  I mean, I CHOKED.  I was literally willing the horse to crash me into something and put me out of my misery.  At the end of my ride I climbed down and basically ran to the car. 

I spent that entire evening lying awake berating myself for sucking so badly.  I relived the entire day in my head, and really tried to dissect my performance.  It came to me then, in the middle of the night: I need to do less.  My instincts are pretty accurate, but my maniacal, mechanical, oh-shit-there’s-a-jump! technique entirely negates any natural ability that I might have.  I’m sure this is something I’ve been told by several different trainers several different times, but apparently this was one of those riding lessons that I needed to figure out for myself.  

I spent the next three days fighting the overwhelming urge to turn the corner, increase my pace, and then pull until I saw the perfect distance.  It took a couple of days, 3 rounds in the show ring, and 5 more trials before I felt like I had really figured it out.  I went home and spent five days trying to remember the feeling of doing nothing, and when I returned to the show the next weekend I was like a different rider.  It felt great. 

Fast forward two weeks.

The ground at home has thawed and after the longest, most treacherous winter in Courtney history, I can finally ride my boys again.  I moved all the jumps around in my arena, walked the lines, set up some combinations, and jumped my horses around.  Not only did my new wisdom stick and work on my own horses, but I was shocked at how much I’d learned about arranging a course, walking the lines accurately, and giving myself lots of options to practice a long approach, a bending line, a rollback, etc.  For the first time since August I feel like I’ve really turned a corner in my riding education.

But still more importantly, after a winter of regularly riding and showing broke, talented, athletic horses, I was happy to be back on my own.  All three went back into the ring like they’d had no time off whatsoever (except the girth was a few holes lower than usual for all of them).  Even though I needed the experience of riding other horses, and I needed to jump 10,000 jumps, and I needed to go around a small course in a show environment several times, there is nothing in the world like taking the blankets off, grooming and saddling on my own, and quietly riding in the sunshine with one (or three) of my favorite souls on the planet.