I wrote the first installment of my blog entitled Couples Therapy last week. It was the end of a long month where my horse and I battled constantly. He hated to be groomed, he hated to be caught. He hated to walk hack, to flat, to jump. And I was over it. I didn’t crave the ride that I had previously.
I went to the barn and tacked up Mak, and then Kennedy, and then stood in front of Nixon’s stall and stared at him. Contemplating if it was worth tacking up, contemplating if the stress of the ride was worth the risk of reward.
Would he be good? Would he actually trot and not jig? Would I be able to canter him without grabbing for the brakes every stride? Would I be able to stop him without turning him into a fence – and if I did turn him into the fence, would he stop? Or finally just jump?
And I wrote the blog explaining this exasperation because I wanted people to realize that it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. That, just like any relationship with a human, there are good days and bad. You will have arguments, and disagreements, and sometimes – you will just want a day or two of no contact with the outside world at all.
With the invention of social media, we are immensely exposed to each others lives. There is a beauty in this, as it allows me to stay connected to friends from afar, and family members have access to my daily minutiae that they otherwise would not get to experience.
But the problem with social media is that we get to pick and choose what others get access to. My friends who are mothers post of their children’s dance recitals, but never mention them talking back or breaking that window with a baseball. My friends in relationships post of their loved ones surprise flowers and immense generosity, but never write of picking up socks or being infuriated by their lack of romance.
And those with horses post relentlessly – which I can’t complain about, because I do as well. We post of blue ribbons, and automatic changes. Flawless rounds, and horses galloping to the gate when called. We talk about finishing on our dressage scores, and how the stadium round was PERFECT with “only one cheap rail”.
My own Facebook page reads no differently. The majority of my horses are for sale, and even if they’re not, I’m cognizant of how easily social media can be stalked in the future. Mak was never meant to be a sales horse, but is currently listed – and I know that if prospective buyers scroll through my page, they will just see flawless photo after flawless photo and captions describing the athleticism, ease, and scope that he possesses. I did that intentionally. I did that with a purpose. No one wants to read the bad, they only want to hear the good.
And I tried that with Nixon. I kept our problems away from social media all of last summer, and instead tried to focus on the positive. I twisted bad rides into good moments, and never let anyone know that he was so tough. And, at the end of the day, it worked.
He turned into the horse that I had verbally proclaimed him to be. He ended up being the most ridiculously talented, athletic, winning horse I had ever owned. And win we did. We won combined tests, we won the dressage portion of the Retired Racehorse Project TB Makeover, we won jumper shows, and he won my heart.
And because of my exaggerations, and my ultimate lack of truth, I began to hear people talk about Nixon. At shows, fellow competitors would mention the fact that of course Called to Serve won. Or my friends would message me saying that they were happy that I had been placed into a different division. Heck, my amateur status was questioned by USEF simply because another competitor was concerned about their chances against him. He got the reputation of being good. Really good.
I began to realize that this was mostly my fault. I didn’t spend much time talking about the struggles. The toughness. The arrogance and the cockiness. The horse salesmen in me had a hard time admitting his flaws, but was good at promoting his strengths. They only saw him win, and didn’t see my lack of sleep the night before the show as I worried if he was even ready.
So I began to post more honest statuses, but always dubbed them “Conversation’s with Nixon” which my friends and followers rather enjoyed. I would explain some aspect of his poor behavior from his point of view, explaining why he had done exactly what he had. If he had bolted during his walk/canter transitions that day, I explained from his point of view that he just “wanted to win the gallop” in Tokyo. If he attempted to bite me while grooming, I told my followers that he had just been letting me know that his salt lick was finished and my sweaty arm would suffice. And my friends and followers ate it up. They laughed and commented of their own struggles with their horses.
But then three months ago, Nixon popped a splint. He spent 4 weeks on stall rest and 4 more weeks with no riding and controlled turn out. And then we began legging him up again. In these eight weeks, he gained about 200 pounds, and his ego inflated alongside his belly.
I got the go ahead to start legging him up about 6 weeks ago, and went about it hesitantly. At first he was great. Out of shape and without much steam, he began his trot sets like an angel. And then as his fitness increased, combined with his newfound size and strength, he got hot. And we began to brawl.
I wanted to know where my 2nd level dressage horse had gone. I wanted to know why we were suddenly charging cross rails again. I changed bits, I changed martingales. I tried to hack before, or hack after. We tried less riding, or possibly more. And nothing worked. I would come home upset and defeated, wondering what it was that I was doing wrong, or what lack of communication was going on between the two of us. Was it the heat? Was he in pain? Ulcers? Kissing Spine? EPM? A brain tumor?
I wrote the last blog during this time, and the response was pretty intense.
Because everyone who responded saw the situation in black and white. If he was misbehaving, it was either 100% my fault because I sucked at riding. Or it was 100% his fault, but solely because he was in pain, or telling me something was wrong. Many people messaged me and told me that they feared for my safety and that I needed to get rid of him before I got hurt. And others told me that I needed to find a horse better suited to my skill level, and let him go to a real professional. That it was obviously black and white – and he was black, and I was white.
And I’m here to tell you that horses are not just black and white. Well, they are, but they are also bay. And chestnut. And spotted, and dappled. And sometimes, they’re a beautiful grey.
There is so much grey in this sport. In these relationships with these animals. Because they are exactly that – living, breathing creatures with a brain, a heart, and four extremely strong legs.
Not all people are made for every horse, and I support that statement strongly. I have written blogs about finding the right horse for you, and I truly believe this to be true.
But, if you ride long enough, at a high enough level, you are bound to find both good times and bad. The horses underneath you have opinions, and emotions, and sometimes they just wake up on the wrong side of the stall.
And we as riders have stress from our jobs, our boyfriends, our income and our families. Sometimes we go to the barn as a stress release, with a clear mind and a clear heart, and sometimes we walk into the aisleway begging for a fight. Or as I like to say, cruising for a bruising.
I believe that you should be matched with a horse who is well suited to you, but we all must also understand that horses are not robots. And we are not dictators. This sport is a conversation, a partnership, and a relationship that continuously ebbs and flows, growing and regressing daily.
Last month was tough. I’m not going to lie and write a fluff status saying that it was a great time in my relationship with Nixon. Both Nixon and I were not in a good head space, and we battled because of it.
Because I have met a horse just as stubborn, tough, intelligent, and cocky as myself, and because of that – we can, and will, brawl.
But after writing the initial blog, I went back to the barn and regrouped. I tacked up, swung on, and reached down and scratched his neck. I draped my legs loosely around his barrel, and gathered my reins. I sat up straight and I asked him to bend, to soften, and to relax his poll.
And for the first time in many weeks, we had a fantastic ride. He remembered how to half pass, and how to do haunches in. The next day I set fences, and he calmly and softly cantered towards them and over them.
We are happily in the middle of Couples Therapy. Where there isn’t yes or no, life or death, black or white. Just a lot of conversations, negotiations, happy mediums, and grey area.
“He hit me again.”
“Can you see this bruise?”
“It wasn’t his fault, I was in his way.”
These were the messages my girlfriends received most of the last two weeks. And if it was anybody else, any other woman – in this entire world, their responses would have been different.
I would have been told to go to the nearest shelter, or call 911. I would have been told that he would never change, and that he didn’t love me. Or that he had mental issues, and needed to be left – running, and screaming.
Instead, I was told the opposite.
Because the man I’m in an abusive relationship with, isn’t a man at all. He’s 1400 pounds of solid muscle, shod hooves, and raging adrenaline.
It’s not my boyfriend — it’s my horse.
And the responses back are the opposite of what I would expect to read.
Instead of being told that I don’t deserve being thrown against a wall, I am asked if his back is sore. Instead of photographs of bruised arms and battered hips invoking rage or sympathy, I am told to change my bit. And each time that I write my girlfriends in a rage over being taken off with, or tossed into the air, nose bleeding and hands blistered, I am told that it is my fault – not his.
And I wonder – why is there this juxtaposition? Why is it ok for this massive beast of an equus to toss me around, when it is so NOT OK for my 180 lb. manfriend to? Why am I told every day that it is always my fault, and never his, when the opposite would be said if it was a human? If it is never your fault as a woman to be abused by a man, why is it said to always be your fault as a horsewoman?
I posted a humorous status about exactly this on my Facebook page a few days ago. Explaining this relationship based on abuse, after a long day at the barn where I ended up sore and exhausted. I wrote (jokingly) that if nothing changed in a few weeks, I would be admitting defeat and someone else could get the bastard. And I watched as comment after comment was posted telling me how this entire situation was my fault. How I was doing SOMETHING wrong to ask for the abuse. It’s not his fault, it’s just yours.
And I started off agreeing. Just like a woman who had been cheated on, I had to admit that I was warned. I had been told by his previous lovers and relationships that he was a jerk. He had never lied to me and tried to convince me otherwise. Just like a woman who might google a man before entering in a serious relationship, I had done the same – and had found horror stories of his past indiscretions.
He had mugshots and a jail record, and I had known all of this before signing on the dotted line into this marriage of horse and horse owner.
I entered into the relationship as any woman does – believing that I could train him. Put the seat down, do the dishes, grill a steak, not kill me on cross country — ya know, the basics.
But as all women in the past 2016 years have found, the man could not be trained.
Sure he mellowed as his six pack turned into a beer gut, and his glistening coat got a little muddy. He let me believe that the improvements were being made, while secretly plotting his future midlife crisis.
He knew all along that he had me duped by his stunning good looks, his $500,000 salary, and his pristine pedigree. He lured me in with a few good nights out on the town and a couple of blue ribbons. He waited, and he plotted, and right when my heart was full and my commitment to him for life secure, he snapped.
He forgot how to half pass, he forgot how to jump. He couldn’t seem to figure out how to trot, and definitely didn’t remember his lateral work. But he remembered how to gallop, and he remembered how to bite. He found a renewed love for spooking at invisible mythical creatures, and a stunning ability to avoid all contact from water while being hosed off.
And I hung my head, feeling like this was entirely my fault. I had married the beast, making the bed that I would be forced to lie in. It was my fault that I was being assaulted on a daily basis, and not his. He was bred and raised to be this way. His entire life he had gotten away with these bad habits, so who was I to try to change him?
I heard over and over about how the tough ones are the best, and how they make us greater riders and better horsewomen and men But I’m also here to tell you that sometimes these tough ones just suck. They’re cocky. They’re arrogant. They know how ridiculously good looking they are. And, at the end of the day, they’re just jerks.
But I’m not a quitter. I’m not yet filing for divorce.
But I did ask him if we could do couples therapy, and he agreed. So for the next few months, a few times a week, we are going to go to therapy (a lesson), take long walks holding hands (road hacks), and joint bubble baths (bran mashes). And I hope, and I pray, that we can get this relationship back on route. We’re going to see if the chemistry that made us fall in love can be reignited, but contained. We’re going to see if this marriage of horse ownership can be save. If not, there is going to be one sexy lawn ornament in Lexington, Ky, and one bitter divorcee in me.
“Riding isn’t a sport,” the article reads.
“YA? Well you try to control a 1200 lb horse with your pinkie,” the meme retorts.
“Why doesn’t Valegro get the medal? He did all of the work?”
“Oh my gosh. If you think riding is so easy, why don’t you come ride my horse? He’ll show you how hard it is!”
These are the conversations I have been reading on social media these past two weeks. With every Olympics comes a new wave of anti-equestrianism. Anti-horse. And even, from our own corner, anti-sport.
I grew up hearing these same things on a daily basis. I was that girl.
The girl who never attended the after-prom party because she had a show the next day. The girl who quit softball because the coach wouldn’t let her miss a game for a clinic. The girl who left school early on Thursday’s to travel across the state for an event. The girl no one understood.
I was tormented, I was bullied. I was told my passion wasn’t a sport. I was told my horse was stupid and smelly. I was labelled the rich kid. Equestrianism was not understood in the small industrial town of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Being an equestrian was not only not understood, it was picked on.
But I have lived in blissful ignorance for some time now. I moved to Lexington, Kentucky – the mecca of all thing horses.
I went from defending the intensity of my hobby to trying to convince my friends that eventing isn’t actually that dangerous. I am surrounded by friends and loved ones who don’t mock my passion – they relish in it. And those friends and family members from yesteryear have come to terms with the fact that at the age of thirty, there is minimal chance of me ever changing.
My weeks are spent as a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky – in one of the only programs in the nation that has an entire department in place to study everything about The Horse. My mornings are spent collecting stallions and breeding mares. My evenings are spent riding my numerous thoroughbreds.
Friday nights of my younger years were spent missing out on the latest party, but are now replaced by a glass of wine in the stands of the Grand Prix. Saturday’s are spent at the races, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others who will have to wake up on Sunday, and hungover or not, put on a bandage, muck a stall, or hack a set. And at the end of the day on Sunday, I am snuggled up on the couch with my Super Significant Manfriend – a Broodmare Manager himself.
My life IS horses. It is the Kentucky way of life.
So in blissful ignorance of the last 8 years of life, existing in My Old Kentucky Home, I thought that the rest of the world had changed.
But 20 years later, I have come to realize just how little it has. I watch through social media as other young girls are tormented. These young ones, whom I have met through the local events or just through social media, are still posting the statuses about how tough their sport is. How dangerous horses can be. How hard we work for our passions.
And then the Olympics came. Immediately my Facebook blew up, with an argument going back and forward between them and us. They said our sport wasn’t that at all. That the horse did all of the work. That the horse deserved the medal. That this snobby hobby needed to be dismissed from the Olympic Games and replaced with a hobby that requires more skill – like beer pong, or needlepointing.
And this has all occurred in an Olympic year where we have witnessed everything that makes this sport great – skill, ability, horsemanship, finesse, and heart.
I turned on the cross country portion of eventing with the intention to watch Boyd, and then write the Materials and Methods of my latest manuscript, and then turn it back on for Clark, and repeat.
But I couldn’t turn away. It was mesmerizing.
The course ate people for dinner. I watched on abated breath, but not scared. I hadn’t witness any extreme falls – a la Burghley. But I witnessed William Fox Pitt have a run out; something I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime. I saw Michael Jung make a line that made me want to vomit ride like it was a grid in a lesson. I watched a woman from Zimbabwe execute a smart, brilliant, and skilled ride to complete the toughest technical course I had ever witnessed.
But at the end of the day, no one was seriously hurt. But there were crashes, and there were dramatic moments.
Just like, maybe, gymnastics.
And then I turned on the stadium, anxious to see if New Zealand would finally clinch a gold medal. And I watched as eventing seemingly appeared to transform into the combined training’s of yesteryear. The leader board had already been mangled by the cross country, and then was further altered by mere 4 pt faults for rails. Endurance had been tested the previous day, and with that came tired horses. And again, I watched on abated breath as Mark Todd effectively knocked his team out of contention for a medal.
It was devastating. It was emotional. Like someone had scripted it for a major movie.
Just like, perhaps, soccer.
And then dressage began. This horsey dancing that can either entertain, or as my Uncle Bob used to say, be comparable to watching grass grow. But it was BRILLIANT. Watching Laura Graves and Verdades bring America back to the podium was enthralling.
And I knew that I was abnormal, as most people in the general population would have no clue what a piaffe, or a pirouette was. This can’t be interesting to them, can it?
But then I realized that no one knew the movements that were being performed on the uneven bars. No one watching NBC could ride one stride tempis, but hell, I can’t balance on a beam. And while many don’t understand why it is even called dressage, or where it originated, I also have no idea why the hell people needed to learn how to swim like a butterfly.
But, while I had no idea why anyone would swim away from a shark on their back, I still watched.
Because dressage became so similar to, could it be, swimming?
I still cheered for all of them. So why can’t they cheer for us?
I think the first thing we need to do is to chill for second and think. Take a moment to reconsider what aspects of the sport that we are utilizing to bring in the fans. Because all I am seeing on social media is that our sport is both boring, and scary.
And our rebuttal is based on fear. On the size and strength of the horse. On the size and spread of the jumps. But why is it always the thrills and spills? Why is our rebuttal to those who think our sport isn’t a real sport always concerning danger?
I’m pretty sure that I don’t expect Michael Phelps to drown every time he swims. I also don’t think that Simone Biles is going to snap her neck when she vaults. Those sports don’t need danger, so why does ours? Why is our immediate response to the hate that we will put them on a horse, and they will immediately REGRET ever riding one? That they will probably fall off, most likely be injured, and heck – maybe even die.
Because I am certainly not watching the swimming, the beach volleyball, the soccer, the gymnastics, or the track because I want to see people be injured, or even die. I am watching because of the skill.
We watch because each of these things were sports that we tried as a child, or a hobby that we entertained as an adult. We have all swum. We have all jogged. We have all attempted a cartwheel, and kicked a ball. But at the Olympics, it is on another level.
And we are cognizant of this because we know how horrible we are at cartwheels.
So I ask all of you equestrians this. Don’t post on social media about how scary horses are. Don’t respond to the hate by saying how dangerous our sport is. Instead, invite that hockey player to the show. Convince the football team to go to the Grand Prix. Take your sorority sisters to the races, and convince your boyfriend to go to Rolex.
And more importantly, find your nieces, your nephews, and the neighborhood kids, and go to the barn. Find that trusty lesson horse at your barn and encourage them to all swing up. Not in order to scare them, or to prove a point, but in order to show them the basics.
I learned how to kick a ball at the age of 2. I learned how to swim at that age too. I could do a cartwheel at 5, and ran track all through college. And I did those things because they were considered safe, inexpensive to do, and a fun activity for a child. I also got a pony at the age of 2 – and that skill set has held me through life. It is more than a sport, or a hobby, it is a passion.
So lets make riding that again. Encourage children to be around the barn. Bring equestrianism out of the television and back into the lives of Americans. Only then will we lose the fear and find the skill in this sport. Only then will the hate dissipate, and become understanding. I look forward to that day, and I know the children of our future will too.
We have all been in a trust exercise at some point in our lives. The boss of your latest employment gathers your coworkers, or the RA your freshman year of college gathered your fellow undergrads. They talk of how trust is so essential in the functionality of your “team” – and whether that is in selling medical supplies, or being a cohesive unit of giggling sorority sisters, trust is key.
You line up in groups of two, stand with your back facing your partners front, and while keeping your eyes closed, you are asked to drop back into their arms. If you trust your teammate, you merely drop safely into a comfortable embrace. But if you do not trust them, you stagger backwards, stepping towards them. And if they don’t trust themselves to catch you, you go crashing into the floor.
So with trust, you get a warm embrace. And with lack of trust, you go smacking into the cold, hard ground.
I find this exercise, and the outcomes that it induces, so comparable to my riding. If I trust my horse, and he trusts me, we win. We go stride for stride in sync, with cues and aids so seamless that the people surrounding us have no idea why he is suddenly soaring over a fence, or half passing to centerline.
Without trust, we lose this cohesiveness. We lose the symmetry. The respect. The response.
This is so apparent to me, and because of that, I put my horses through trust exercises quite often. With Nixon, it is a hack on a loose rein, with my feet out of the stirrups and my mind wandering. I trust Nixon to an extent, although that trust is growing exponentially as he further settles into his routine as a sport horse. He has never offered a buck, rear, or spook, and I have begun to realize that the only direction that this horse is going to go is simply forward. It might be at breathtaking, death defying speeds, but the only way with Nixon is forward.
But with Mak, I can take it a few steps even father. I trust this horse with every fiber of my being, because he has never given me a reason not to. I got Mak off of the track at the young age of four, and even then he was more whoa than go. He was happiest on the buckle, loping along a field. He was so quiet, so simple, and so brave that I thought he was actually sedated. And had I not gotten him from a friend, I would have pulled bloodwork to determine exactly that.
But alas, that was just Mak. He was, quite simply, easy.
With Mak, I know that I can trust him to pack a friend around a XC course after they have taken a considerable break from riding. I know that I can teach an up-down lesson, or pop someone over their first vertical. I can put a nervous friend in the middle of a field and have a herd of cattle chase her, because I know that he won’t put a foot wrong. He will compete in the 1.0m jumpers one week, and take a 4 year old for their first ride the next.
Why have I always trusted Mak? Because I know that he trusts me. I have tried so hard to never overface him. To never put a fence in front of him that he cannot jump, or a question that he cannot read. I moved him up the levels slower than most, and by the time we were ready to go training level, my friends were exasperated by my nerves – deeming me the most ready person to ever take the leap. And the minute we took that leap, Mak caught me, and guided me along to safety.
And with Mak, at the end of a bad week of rides, when I am frustrated and confused by our lack of understanding, I have learned that a trust exercise is the key to finding a solution.
I know that all I need to do is take off my stirrups, or take off his bridle, and let myself fall back into his safe embrace. Just like the trust exercises of freshman year, I have to let my guard down to ever realize the true relationship that we have. I have to close my eyes, relax my aids, and pray that he catches me.
And with Mak, the minute that I do these things, he becomes the best partner to have. Because Mak has never not caught me.
We have now soared over great heights bridleless, including a XC school. I have galloped him at his greatest speeds over fields without a saddle. And at the end of the day, my best dressage schools are when I drop my stirrups, realx my body, stop trying so hard, and let him prove his training.
People question this behavior of mine. Every time that I put a picture or video of Mak and I having one of “those days”, I am bombarded with comments of how and why I do this. How can I trust a horse to not take advantage of not having a bridle? Why would I let him jump around without a saddle?
What if he takes off? What if he spooks? What if he becomes a crazed rodeo bronc?
Or gasp, what if you’re not perfect?
It all comes down to one thing – trust. And a great horse who deserves the trust. It can make or break a relationship. Whether it is between you and your boyfriend, your roommate, or your coworker, trust is key. And without trust you will never grow in that relationship.
So go out there and get on. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. And every once in a while, try one of those trust exercises with your mount. I can almost guarantee that the horse you love will catch you before you fall.
I went on vacation last week, and as a guilty pleasure, I picked up one of my moms romance novels. It was titled “Love The One You’re With” and by Emily Giffin. About a woman who reconnects with an old lover and through a tumultuous summer, contemplates leaving her nice, comfortable, and lovely husband for the thrill of the ex. A man that brought her passion, who was exciting and sexy. But in the end, she remembers how much worse of a person the previous relationship made her, and decided to stay with her husband – a man who was possibly more comfortable than exciting, but who was good for her.
And I thought how similar of a situation I have been in with my horses.
There have been so many days — heck, months, where I have been frustrated by my current mounts. Where we have had rides that have ended up bloody and disgruntled, and shows where I have driven home exhausted and in tears.
My current horse Nixon is the perfect example of this. He is big, he is gorgeous, and he draws attention everywhere we go. He is capable of scoring a 20 in dressage, and jump brilliantly and with amazing scope over the fences. He has the strongest gallop I have ever sat on, and just OOZES potential.
But what so many don’t see is that he also has unlimited potential to harm. To grab the bit, strangle the reins from my hands, rummage his face in between his forearms, and simple RUN. That he can go from 0 to 60 in 0.6 seconds along the long side of a dressage arena. That I can be leading him quietly from his pristine stall only to be hip checked into the wall, or grabbed by my sleeve and tossed to the side.
Most people only see the good. They only speak of his potential, his future ability, the confidence that he exhales into the atmosphere around him. They wonder why I don’t show every weekend, they ask why I am not moving up a level or entered in the next recognized event.
They see the Nixon that is behaving at the shows, or portrayed on social media, but they don’t deal with him on a day to day basis.
And I have seen many of those same people go through horse after horse, getting frustrated and giving up on the horse instead of recognizing the problem might be in their own inabilities, their own deficits. And they sell the horse, and find a new one. A fancier one. A sexier one. More well bred, taller, fitter, with a stronger record.
And then they fall right back into the same predicament. Because it’s not the horse…it’s the rider.
I refuse to let that happen with Nixon. I refuse to finally check out, to admit defeat, to ignore my own flaws as a causation for his.
I sent a video to my friend Meghan a few weeks ago of me riding another horse on the flat, exclaiming to her that he was finally relaxing, finally bending, finally listening. And instead of commenting on the ability of the horse, she wrote back that I had improved drastically as a rider in the past year.
That while I might have been recently eliminated from a Beginner Novice event when a year ago I was confidently and competently running around Training level on another horse, I had improved drastically. And this improvement correlated directly to my time with Nixon.
He is the harder horse. He is the tougher ride. He exasperbates my issues and highlights my flaws. He sends me home from the barn battered and sore, muscles screaming in agony. He blemishes my record just as often as he embellishes my trophy rack. Everyone else notices the handful of blue ribbons, instead of accounting for the thousands of black and blue bruises.
But I see both. I see the difficult horse, but the horse that I love. Who is teaching me to be a better rider every day. I see a horse who might not get me back to a Training Level event for years, but will teach me how to sit a half pass. A horse who might knock a tooth out dropping into water, but who will teach me to finally sit up off a down bank. A horse who might never accomplish a true walk-canter transition, but who lets me experience the feeling of flying every time that I take him on a gallop.
My leg is finally down. My back is finally straight. My eyes are up. My hands are soft. And why? Because this bold, brilliant, cocky, and somewhat unhinged horse taught me there was no other way. He accepts nothing less than the best riding from me. And because of that, my riding has improved.
He might not be the easiest horse, or the most expensive. He hasn’t ran a 3*, and honestly, he might never. He is not the most well bred, nor was he imported from Ireland.
But he is perfect for me. He is exactly what I need; right here, right now.
So instead of throwing in the towel and getting frustrated, I am going to love him. I am going to cherish the lessons he has already taught me, and look forward to the instructions he has laid out for the future. I am going to ignore the fancy horses that are listed for sale on the websites, and stop the notifications on the posts about others success with their blue ribbons waving in the wind.
I am going to stop considering what is considered perfect for one of my Facebook friends, and consider what is perfect for me.
And unlike so many of them, I am just going to love the one I’m with.
I got the text message last week.
“Do you want to run barrels after you’re done judging the hunter show?” My friend Amy wrote.
I was traveling back to my old stomping grounds of the Crawford County fairgrounds to judge her Denim and Dust Hunter Schooling Show, a part of their Weekend Extravaganza. Hunters on Saturday, Poles, Barrels and Keyhole Saturday night, and all of the normal 4-H classes Sunday.
Amy knew me well, having watched me grow up under the tutelage of her mother Rose from the age of 4 on. She knew that although I had been strictly Eventing for almost a decade, that I had the eye to score the Hunter rounds. That even if my background screamed jumping tables and dropping down banks, I would be fair but tough. And maybe more important, that although my largest claim to fame was in winning a dressage competition, there was nothing more I loved than swinging onto my Billy Cook at the end of a long day.
So I immediately responded with a capitalized YES and didn’t ask any other questions.
I arrived at the judges booth of the Fairgrounds bright and early Saturday morning. I took my seat and surveyed the arena. The jumps were set beautifully, with a rated show feel.
And for the next 8 hours, I scored everything from crossrails to a Derby. It was such a fun experience, watching the next generation of Amy’s and Carleigh’s while sitting next to my own Amy. She announced, I judged, and we heckled each other back and forward all while giggling over the realization of how old we had become and how far we have come.
And then I changed gears. I took off my khakis and donned some jeans. Unlaced my Merril’s and found my Rod Patrick’s. And I replaced my sun hat with a Stetson.
It was barrels time.
I met my mount and immediately giggled. Beemer was only about 15hh, and looked miniature compared to my thoroughbreds. She had a look on her face that said “don’t even try to snuggle woman” and an ass that screamed V8. Her glossy bay coat rippled over striated muscles, demonstrating hours of time logged in the gym. She was fit, and she was ready.
I swung her rope halter on and led her to the trailer to be tacked. The infinitesimal differences in routine immediately gave me flashbacks to Wyoming.
A rope halter instead of glistening leather and brass straps adorned her face. A 30 pound saddle was swung on her back, along with a large leverage bit connecting a severe twisted wire. No mounting block was offered, and for the first time in years I was forced to reach for a horn, possibly popping a hamstring (and the seam of my jeans) in the process.
And then I was on.
I meandered around the tiny warm up area, trying to remember how to neck rein left and right. Glancing around to see if Beemers owners were watching. Petrified of messing her up, I slowly urged her into a posting jog, and then softly sat before asking her to lope. I expected a willing and eager horse, albeit with some possibly high octane energy, but instead felt a sluggish and somewhat bitter mount beneath me.
Her back rounded underneath my seat, and I felt the inner workings of a futuristic buck. I immediately pulled back on the reins and begged her to halt, not wanting to risk coming off. And I stared over at her owners, trying to use ESP for some assistance without causing a scene.
Her “mom” waved me over and asked if I wanted to take her into a nearby field, with the option of kicking her forward that I didn’t have in the tiny warm up arena. I breathed out a yes, and we regrouped.
She told me that Beemer was a really good mare, but offered some advice. She said as I was approaching the barrel, I needed to bend Beemers head towards the inside, while using my inside leg to maneuver her shoulder around the obstacle. To keep my eyes up and fixate on the next barrel, and as I “candy caned” around the first, to switch to my outside aids to straighten her through the turn and gallop off.
I was told that before I approached the second barrel, I would need to sit up and “check her” and the repeat the process to the other direction. She asked me to go out into a large circle and practice that–the bending and lateral work I would use in the arena.
And I realized something. Barrel racing is a lot like dressage.
Ok, I get what you’re thinking. What? But hear me out.
They might have different terminology, different tack, and a different scoring system. One might have more screaming and less golf clapping. And one might have a much shorter test, with a better chance of winning some money.
But they are so similar.
I had a comprehension of what she was asking me to do, because I do something so similar before asking Nixon for a trot or canter lengthening. Shoulder in through the corner, and then a few strides of haunches in before asking him to straighten and lengthen across the diagonal.
Just like in barrel racing, you ask for every ounce of contained forward motion that you are willing to risk across that straight line. And then it’s another shifting of the rib cage, increments of shoulder fore and the maneuvering of the haunches. A half halt being just a different term to describe the “check” that we hear screaming from the rails of a barrel pattern.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I still went into the arena slightly petrified. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself, letting the kids see their “judge” fall off during a barrel pattern. I wanted to prove to the owners of Beemer that they weren’t crazy for letting me ride their horse. And most importantly, I wanted to give Beemer the ride she deserved.
But as I circled to the right, I realized that I was prepared. I had cross trained for years. My dressage lessons would come out, I was sure of it.
And off we went. Straight. Shoulder fore right. Haunches in left. And straighten. Forward. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. Half halt. HALF HALT. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. And with that straightness ask for the run – go for the 9, not the 6!!!!
We got home clean and with a time of 19.2, putting us firmly in the middle of the 2D group, which left me with a huge smile. I didn’t win, but I also didn’t suck.
I heard my friends and Beemer’s owners hooting and hollering as I patted Beemer on the neck and swung off to give her a hug.
Such a good horse. A great barrel mare, and maybe even possibly a great dressage mare.
Because that’s what I learned this weekend. That’s all barrel racing is. A dressage test around some cans. Something that maybe all of us “English” riders need to experience. To cross train. To recalibrate. To experience something new. To keep your brain and your body fresh and excited for the next ride.
And me, well it’s something I would love to do again.
I can remember the woman striding towards me down the cement aisle way, the heels of her paddock boots clinking with each step. Her bright blue eyes squinting into the dark of the interior of a barn, and her black hair swinging along with her hips. She pounded the pavement to my location, hovering in my horses stall.
“What are you doing? Why do you have a wheelbarrow out?”
I hesitated, perplexed at how I was already being reprimanded at this new barn afet having only been here for 12 hours. I chose my words carefully, and decided that less was more, “Um. I’m just cleaning Levi’s stall? Is that OK?”
She raked a hand through her hair and in a louder voice replied, “Mucking his stall is something that you’re paying us to do. Thats my job, not yours.”
I was stumped. I had arrived at Kerryman Stables in the summer of my 15 year old year. My parents had told me weeks earlier that we were going to spend two weeks at our lakehouse on Chautauqua Lake, New York. Devastated over the thought of taking that long of a break from riding, and desperate to keep my competitive edge for the events and shows that were coming up, I asked if Levi could possibly vacation with us.
I promised to get my riding done before family activities begun, and negotiated with them that this wouldn’t interfere with their own time. I found a barn that accepted seasonal boarders with abbreviated stays, and calculated the distance to our house. Kerryman was only 5 miles away. I told my parents that I would bring my bike and get myself to and from.
So on August 2nd, 2002 Levi was loaded into a friends trailer and hauled an hour away from my hometown and the barn that I had boarded at since the ripe young age of 5. The consummate pony clubber, I had my tack and trunk packed meticulously, and my stall card printed. His feed was portioned out into labeled zip lock baggies, and his bandages wrapped tight. We were on our first truly solo adventure.
I arrived at the new location in the evening, as the sun was setting over the lake and the horses were being turned out into their paddocks. I was only briefly introduced to the owners and operators of the farm, Marian and Jeff Colburn, before thrusting Levi’s stall card and list of supplements in their face. I would learn years later that the two had exchanged looks, grimaced, and acknowledged that they had a terror on their hands.
So it came as no surprise that I was already annoying Marian within hours of arriving. I had never kept my horse at a full care facility, and was uncertain as to how to relinquish his care to others. I was perplexed by their eye rolls when they saw his hyper-organized feed and supplements. And I was confused by their evening trail rides which left the safe confines of the arena and adventured out into the wild unknown.
My fifteen year old self only knew one way with which to react – I held firm to my course.
I arrived every morning at 7 am and carefully groomed and tacked Levi, hacking to the outdoor arena and putting in 45 minutes of flatwork. I hosed him off, meticulously picked the knots out of his tail, and left him drying in his perfectly cleaned stall for the day, one that I chose to clean instead of allowing the owners to do their jobs. I would ride my bike back to my family’s home and partake in wakeboarding and tubing, bocce ball and fly fishing, and then navigate back to the beautiful red barn at night for a final check.
When I arrived, I would find Marian in the barn blowing any lingering sawdust while Jeff belted show tunes as he mended a fence or fixed a waterer. A mini fridge was located in the maintenance room, and an open beer would be sitting on the bench in the aisle. Happily in charge of their own farm, this had been a lifelong goal of theirs, and the intrusion of a bossy fifteen year old was not high on their list.
But we began to talk. They heckled me for my pony clubbing ways, and shook their heads as I reached for the pitchfork time and time again. They mocked my matching saddle pads and polo’s, and harassed me each time I mentioned my ribbon’s and trophies.
And yet I persevered. Day in and day out, I showed up and felt my horses legs. Tacked him up and swung on. I got braver as the days rolled by, first leaving the ring to hack around the farm, and then further exploring into the miles of trails that surrounded the farm. And as the days passed, the glances that they shared became less. The head shakes were fewer. And I began to be greeted with a smile and a headlock.
At the end of the week, Marian sat me down and asked if I wanted a job. They were looking for a new “barn girl” for the following summer, and since I seemed to have such a connection with my pitchfork, would I want the title? I had never worked at a farm before, having only ever being a paid boarder, and I jumped at the chance.
The following summer, I worked morning chores six days a week. The summer after that, Marian became pregnant with her first child and asked if I would take over the entire farm, hiring me as her Farm Manager. I was seventeen years old, and it was a dream position.
My time at Kerryman was idyllic. I not only went from obnoxious boarder to paid employee, but I also became family.
The summer after I graduated college, I moved back to my families lakehouse to take care of my brother, and earn some money before moving to Lexington, Kentucky. By this time, Kerryman Stables had been sold and Marian and Jeff owned their own smaller farm outside of town. I saw Marian and Jeff rarely, as I kept Levi at a friends private farm, and worked as a waitress and bartender to support myself.
Only a few weeks before Labor Day, with the soft deadline for the termination of my waitressing job approaching, I received a phone call from my mother, telling me to give my notice and come to Pittsburgh. My father was not responding to his treatment, and the doctors thought it would be a matter of days before he was gone. I hung up the phone and climbed into my car. I didn’t know where to go, but felt myself steering towards Marian and Jeff’s home.
I let myself into their back door and just pulled on Marian’s sleeve, leading her out to the barn. I told her what was happening, and she simply sat there and listened. She held me as I wept and then continued on with her evening barn chores as I raged. And as I stared at her in confusion, I watched as she handed me back my pitchfork and nodded. We picked the stalls and fed the horses, swept the aisleway and topped off buckets. And by the end, my eyes had dried, and my life felt intact.
I am still close to those two people who guided me into this world. Who took on an obnoxious teenager and gave her a job. Who took a chance on a young woman who had never held a real job and entrusted her with their livelihood. Who supported a college student as she tried to pave her way into the world. And who now, can crack open a beer with an adult me and share stories into the night.
I hope that you found a Marian and Jeff. A role model. A boss. A friend. And at the end of the day, a barn family.