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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. 


Sunday, February 16, 2014

…On Riding With Confidence, Part II (All Jokes Aside)

Alright, so I had really good intentions of writing a serious blog about my recent struggles with confidence in the jumper ring yesterday.  I apologize for being one of those people that makes jokes of important stuff because they need copious amounts of therapy or something.

The truth is, I genuinely have been struggling with my confidence as a rider lately.  The funny thing about riding is that it's unbelievably difficult, but half of the battle is belief in oneself.  A rider can have all the tools in the toolbox, but if they are questioning each decision as they make it (or in my case, in the car on the way to make it), well, disaster. 

I’ve never been one to think I’m amazing without cold, hard proof.  When I first started showing Richie in the Hunter Under Saddle in 2010 one of my trainer’s biggest critiques was that I didn’t go out there and show like a winner.  I didn’t give off the impression that it was just one more class out of the hundreds I’d already won.  “Boooooring.  This again?”  Of course once half the season was behind me and Richie and I were undefeated in our division, I started to get a little swagger. 

That said, I’m new to the jumping.  It’s really hard for me to admit this to myself, and even harder to write it on the internet. However, in the absence of a licensed therapist, I decided it’s important for me to say out loud(ish), in public, no takebacks:  I don’t suck.  I’ve been at it consistently for about 12.5 months, and sometimes I get so focused on where I want to go that I forget where I’ve come from.  It’s really hard for me to truly believe I’m any good when I don’t have a plethora of wins under my belt.  In fact, it’s one of my biggest peeves that so many people take for granted that they are wonderful riders.  They don’t work hard, they don’t listen to critique, they don’t eat/sleep/breathe it…and yet when they don’t ride effectively they pout and (an even bigger peeve of mine) buy a new horse. 

Stop the music!  WHAT?  You show up for 45 minutes twice a week and you have tantrums at the shows when you aren’t the winner?  Who is your fairy godmother because I need to ask her for some of the bullshit confidence she gave you?

Yeah.  It's a hot-button.  I digress...

I got bucked off a very large, very athletic (read: gravity-defying) mare on the backside of an oxer yesterday afternoon.  Hard.  I stood no chance.  After we caught her I got back on, the mare and I came to an agreement, and we had a couple more goes around the course.  I’ve thought about it all night and all day today.  I really thought it was important to go ride again this morning, but there are parts of my body that disagreed, so I took the day off.  I didn’t think it was important because I got bucked off and I wanted to go “get back on the horse.”  What I thought about all night was that even though I put the mare in a perfect spot for takeoff, I was infinitely weak with my upper body, and maybe if I hadn’t thrown myself over the front of her she wouldn’t have pulled the front rail and scared herself.  I’m not going to say she wasn’t being naughty, but if you asked her she would probably tell you that I was being a cow, too. 

My point is that getting bucked off does absolutely nothing to my confidence; it doesn’t scare me, and it doesn’t make me any less secure in my basic abilities.  Knowing that I probably got bucked off for a reason…well, that hurts.  But the worst part – the very worst part – is that I’m sitting here writing about it now.  The more time that goes by the more time I spend convincing myself that it was my fault, and that I should have done X, Y and Z differently.  I like to think that this is how I learn from my mistakes, but at some point about 18 hours ago the learning ceased and the self-flagellation commenced.  

“I’m not that good of a rider!  I'm horrible and the horse is perfect and it's all my fault!” said no Olympian ever.  So here I am, not joking, vowing to be a little easier on myself, and to believe in myself a lot more.  I have revolved my entire life around competing with my horses.  I’ve all but eliminated time with friends, missed a lot of important events, and spent every dollar I ever made in an effort to do this well.  I’ve got the right instruction, I’m getting access to the right horses, I’ve got the will and the work ethic to do it, and now it’s time to get my mind in the game. 

Sometimes it takes getting whacked in the head (and left shoulder and lower back, combined with a little bit of whiplash) to start to see clearly.   Today I see that there are a lot of things in the world that will hold me back, but I’m certainly not going to be one of them. 

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

Saturday, February 15, 2014

...On Riding With Confidence

Sometimes I have issues with my confidence as a jumper rider.  One of my favorite instructors tells me that jumping is not a sport for perfectionists, and if I try to be perfect I’m going to drive myself crazy.

He’s right and I do.  I have spent the last few weeks vacillating wildly between elation (“Yes!  I did that right!  I rock!”) and despair (“Oh my god, I’m terrible.  I’m TERRIBLE!!!").

Seriously.  I spend too much time wondering if I’m good enough – if I’ll ever be good enough.

Then I came across this, and I just want to say…

Bitch please - I ride just like Beezie.

Beezie Madden, World Cup Winner and Olympic Gold Medalist

Me.  Yep.