One of my motto’s in life is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I apply this to my professional life, my personal life, my relationships, and my horses.
If I study the same way for my exams, and repeatedly get C’s, it is no ones fault but my own, and I should probably begin my preparation weeks in advance and with a different strategy.
If I get only five hours of sleep and still wake up exhausted and tired, I have to find a new strategy for an earlier bedtime.
And if I repeatedly shift my weight to the right while riding my left lead and my horse swaps behind, it is no ones fault but my own.
We live in a world where the minute that something goes wrong, there must be a reason. And for our horses, it is no different.
You have a bad ride, and instantaneously think that your saddle doesn’t fit, or the chiropractor needs called. Your horse refuses a fence, and you immediately think that he needs his coffin joint injected. Or you just can’t get that transition to the canter, and immediately add draw reins.
We live in a land of constant change. A constant need for things to change, and change quickly. It is almost the antithesis of the insanity clause. Because if the definition of insanity is that we repeatedly do the same thing and expect different results, than the definition of sane must be that you change your strategy or your plan and expect the same results. Right? Obviously that doesn’t make sense.
I have been thinking about this a lot, and what exactly complies the definition of sane in the sport of riding.
In this modern era, we have become so good at trying to change what isn’t working – or finding the flaw in our training – that we tend to over react to the slightest thing. A bad ride. A single refusal. A few rails. Tenseness.
And we reach out to a new trainer, a new veterinarian, or a new forum online and demand “fixes” or “answers.”
It is the inverse of insanity, at least by definition. It is a constant change.
But it is possibly a form of insanity in itself as well.
This sport is not linear, and we rarely see exponential growth. I have written before of the plateaus that we reach and how they can be followed by the dramatic crash. And how it is so hard to ride those waves, and still find passion for the sport after the crash. And some of that can be chalked up to insanity.
We repeat what we are doing, and little things go wrong in our training and are left unaddressed. Or maybe our horse is truly experiencing back pain, and needs the reflocking of a saddle or an adjustment. We ignore the slight disruptions in an otherwise pleasant ride, and carry on. And this leads to the resentment of work from the horse and rider, and the crash that follows.
But another way that I have seen this occur is by changing what does work. It is the inverse of the insanity – or what we always call the sane.
It is having a perfectly sound horse, a perfectly good trainer, and a perfectly good plan, and changing it for no rhyme or reason.
We have a perfectly sound horse and a perfectly good ride, and yet something goes wrong. We forget that the horse is a living, breathing animal, and that his opinion to things may change. It is not always due to pain, and it is not always due to poor riding. It may be merely due to him waking up on the wrong side of the stall.
And yet you see the bigger name, the brighter lights. The new therapeutic, or the quick fix, and you reach for that – hoping for instant and immediately gratification. The change is what you crave, thinking it might be the answer to all of your “problems” that aren’t in fact problems at all – but simple growing pains and adjustments as you develop yourself and your horse.
And I think in 2017, in this modern era of riding, that this is what we see the most often. Not the insane – not the repetition of the identical and expecting different results, but rather the opposite. We as riders change too quickly. We make adjustments to our plan too rapidly. We want the quick fix and the rapid improvement.
And while this might be the opposite of the insane, it makes it no more sane. Remember that.
Not all of the time – but perhaps sometimes – sticking with a plan and knowing that the results aren’t immediate is the best plan. And that is the sanest decision you can possibly make.
A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message.
It was a screen shot of a status itself, and simply a cutout of a comment. A comment written in a lot of rage. A comment about me.
The woman commenting was stating that I was a horrible human being due to the fact that I falsely spread stories about thoroughbred breeders and owners who cared. That I constantly wrote of how aftercare organizations existed. And that I believed in the programs such as CANTER, RRP, TIP, and others that promoted and supported this breed that I love.
She was saying that I was a horrible person because it was all lies. She claimed that thoroughbreds are all too often ran until they’re broken and then shipped to an auction house. She wanted me to retract my comments, and get on board with the facts. The facts that stated that racing should be banned and outlawed, and that the industry that I loved was full of animal abusers.
She wanted to address the bad, while I wanted to promote the good.
And she is wrong.
I feel as though this blog finds a good balance between uplifting stories of the good guys, and downtrodden stories admonishing the bad. I have outed just as many industry insiders or aftercare organizations for neglect as I have showcased the breeders who do whats best.
And I will always keep is that way.
Because there are enough Facebook pages, websites, and organizations which only showcase the bad. That are so focused on the subpopulation of this industry which is negative that they are unwilling to admit that there is a majority who give a damn. Who care. Who do the right thing.
And I will keep telling those stories because they often go unspoken. Unknown. And that is due to a variety of things – both because these owners are often very private in their affection for these horses, as well as in their attempt to not burn bridges with the trainers and other owners which may have owned the horse along the way.
But even moreso, I have seen that these stories aren’t told because they don’t become clickbait. In our current state of affairs, in our current political climate – we love to see the world as glass half empty, and ignore the good in the world.
But I saw the good this week.
I live on Mt. Brilliant Farm. A beautiful and historic land, which has raised and nourished so many grandiose equines. The barn that Man o’ War lived in during his stud career is a stones toss away from my backyard, and Creator was born just across the polo field. They breed about 20 mares a year for racing, and another 5-10 for polo – as they support both of those equine sports with their efforts.And yet I have never worked for this farm. I am the girlfriend to the broodmare manager, and keep a relative distance as such. But occasionally, I watch a mare foal or a bandage be changed. I cheer on their yearlings at the sales and their racehorses at the track. The attachment and fondness is there, simply because I want my super significant manfriend to succeed. To do well in this job; on this farm.
But a few months ago he mentioned a horse. There was a 6 year old gelding that they wanted to retire and retrain, maybe even potentially with my assistance. The only problem with this amazing plan was that they didn’t still own this horse. In fact – they hadn’t owned him in almost 4 years.He had been born and raised on the lush Bluegrass that adorns these 700 acres, loved on by all of the staff as well as the owners. Hutton Goodman said the he had become more of a pet than an entity, and was affectionately nicknamed Shrek due to his massive size and frame. He was the farm favorite, and was the one that they all loved on for an additional few minutes at the end of the day.
And then when he was almost 2 years old – he was taken to the sales where he sold for $350,000 – a great price as far as everyone was concerned.He ran in New York for a while, and then moved out west. But he ran well, and he ran hard. He won a few stakes races, and earned almost $350,000 during his long and storied career over 33 starts.
But then he dropped in class. For the last year or so he ran solely in claimers, and this eventually dropped into the lower levels of claiming races. The farm owner knew that he wanted this horse when we was finished with his career, and reached out to the current connections to let this be known. He eventually offered some money as incentive, but his phone calls fell on deaf ears.
And so he rerouted. And last Sunday, he entered a claim on the 6 year old gelding, won it, and shipped the beloved farm favorite halfway across the country to return to the place where he was born.
Shrek arrived yesterday, and the entire farm hopped into their vehicles to meet him at the barn. It was a reunion that no one ever mentions, and very few see. A smile was plastered on Hutton’s face as he reached up to pat the massive geldings neck, acknowledging that there was no more worry of where this “pet” would end up.
Because, he was finally home.
I do not know what the future holds for Shrek. As of now, he is simply going to be a horse. Have his shoes pulled, his belly let down, and enjoy some time on the same Bluegrass that he was bred on. That he was born on. That he was raised on.These are the stories that are so often untold, or looked over. The good guys doing the right thing, and the horses within their care. We hear of the higher caliber of horse – the colts retiring to stand at stud and the fillies to be bred. We learn of the first foals for the big race mares through announcements in the TDN or the Bloodhorse. But we often never hear of the gelding. The hard knocking horse who ran hard, and ran well, and the farms, owners, trainers, grooms, and managers that backed them.
Those are the stories I will keep telling. I hope you enjoy them.
I have a big horse.
Heck, he’s not just a big horse, he’s one of the tallest thoroughbreds I have had the pleasure to work with-and that’s saying something.
Kennedy is 17.3hh, he is grey, and he is a gentle giant–leading facebook friends and blog readers around the world to fall in love with him and affectionately refer to him as The Elephant.
Big and grey they say. You’ll never go back once you go big and grey! And while yes, I find him beautiful, I also find his ogre-like frame exasperating at times. So here I am to tell you why you not only don’t need the 17hh+ horse, you also shouldn’t want the 17hh+ horse for fun.
1. At least twice a week, I almost die while dismounting.
And this is only increased in the winter when my toes are frozen. Have you ever dismounted gracefully from a 10 foot roof top? No? Well that’s what I do every day as I slide down off of this Elephant. There is no such thing as grace, and every single time, the ground is mysteriously 8″ lower than I expect–leading to me rolling an ankle or just collapsing.
2. Nothing fits him. Nothing.
This includes tack, boots, and even trailers. Kennedy barely fit onto my 2 horse Featherlite, and so with that in mind we purchased an extra tall/extra wide Hawk. Luckily with a collapsible manger and extra space, he now willingly loads–but until then, his tail just hung out the back. And that’s just one thing. None of my standard sized horse equipment (bridles/boots/bits) fit him–leading to expensive shopping sprees all in the name of love!
3. He’s clumsy, and extremely hard to bend.
You know how you watch those 7 foot college basketball players and giggle as they literally roll down the court with a 10 ft stride? That is me on this horse. A two stride suddenly becomes a stride and a half, and a 20m circle feels as though we are compressing a body for 4th level dressage. Because let’s be honest, it’s hard to dressage when you’re an Elephant.
4. It’s almost impossible to get on him without a step stool or fence line.
I’m 5’3. And with my small stature comes tiny little legs. Normal mounting blocks do not suffice, and when I still try to attempt to utilize them in a pinch at shows, I either rip out my pants or pull a hamstring.
At the age of 31, my flexibility is more limited than back in my glory days, and onlookers get a laugh as I attempt to climb my way up to the top of this beast. Therefore wherever I go I either require a step ladder, or a large man for a leg up–not to mention just to groom him!
5. Fences never look as big as they are.
I entered Kennedy in his first Beginner Novice event (2’7) a few weeks ago and immediately wondered myself if they even had the fences set correctly after watching the videos. The 2’7 fences barely came up to his knees, and he rarely had to even exert effort to get up and over them. This might seem like a good thing-until you are looking for that money shot of pure brilliance and athleticism and every single fence looks like a caveletti!
I love this horse, and I am so blessed every day that I get to be with him. I giggle each time that someone comes up to me at a show in shock and awe of how tall he truly is, as if I have been lying this entire time, but I am here to say that these massive beasts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Very few people need a 17.3hh horse, and even fewer can afford the lifestyle changes that come with them! So keep that in mind the next time that you demand something over 17hh when you yourself are a measly 5′ tall. These gentle giants are a blessing and a curse all wrapped into one, and quite often more trouble than they’re worth!
I can remember being 16 years old, and feeling the tears streaming down my face.
I can remember walking off of the cross country course with my head hanging down, and my pelvis tipped forward, as waves of tears wracked my body.
And as we walked past the fields full of horses that lined the cross country course at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club, one took off running, and with it, my horse flew sideways.
And in a rage of temper, I picked up the reins and began spurring my horse in rage. I had finally snapped. I had finally lost it.
I had been told that in order to test for my C-3 in the United States Pony Club, that I had to complete a recognized event at training level. On my own horse. Because unlike many of the neighboring pony clubs in the tri-state area, there were no 3* horses sitting around Meadville, Pennsylvania that I could borrow or lease. No upper level riders were offering their own mounts, and therefore I was stuck with Levi.
Levi was an amazing horse. We were competently competing at Second Level in dressage, and up to the Horse 2 level in jumpers (roughly 3’6). And when the fences on XC were solid, he had zero hesitation. But when anything involved water, Levi froze.
So for a solid year we fought. We would go into dressage and throw down a sub 30 score. We would go double clean in stadium. And then we would leave the start box on XC and gallop the first 10 fences out of a beautiful opening stride. And then as we cruised to the water, I would feel his body tense. And a stop, and another stop, and then an outright knock-down drag-out fight.
Followed by me walking the fence line back to the trailers with my head hanging low.
And this was always followed by one discussion after the next. With my trainer. With my parents. Sometimes even with my priest.
I didn’t have the option of leasing another horse to make the move up. I didn’t have the funds to buy a second horse, nonetheless board another. And I refused to sell the horse I owned. And loved.
So I burned out.
And I stopped competing.
For eight years I rerouted. I went and worked as a wrangler at a ranch in Wyoming. I hung up my Charles Owen and bought a Stetson. I covered my Crosby and bought a Billy Cook. And for the longest time, I just tried to remember why it was I loved this game.
It took years, but I came to the realization that I loved one thing, and one thing only: The Horses. Not the shows. Not the ribbons. Not the certificates, or the trophies.
I loved the grooming, the hacking, the tacking up, and the cooling down. The feeling of early morning mist as it brushed my face as I galloped through the Big Horns on a horse that I trusted – that I loved. The cadenced rhythm of hooves as they agily maneuvered over the rocks and brush, and the heavy breathing of a horse who loved his job.
It took years of exactly that for me to find my balance again. For me to want to compete again. For me to find the fire again.
And I sit here, now at the age of 31, and I watch the next generation go through the same thing.
Only in this modern day and age, it appears that the horses aren’t kept. And the riders don’t reroute. They simply burn out and become ashes of the fierce competitors and beautiful riders that they once were.
Most of these talented kids are on the rat race known as Young Riders, and their horses become byproducts of the race. And as a horse seller myself, it becomes both a selling point and a fear.
We take these young horses and get them going to beginner novice, or maybe novice. We make sure that they are amateur friendly for a capable teenager in a good program, and then we sell them off into the beautiful unknown. And for the first few years it is all rainbows and butterflies. The move ups, the ribbons, the smiles.
My Facebook feed is full of these teenagers – both boys and girls. They have just purchased their first “real” horse at the age of 13. And from 14-15, we see nothing but gushing posts and love for their new acquisitions. Ribbons at their first novice – for both horse and rider, and successful shout outs to loved ones and friends.
And then they get the hunger. They start craving that 1*, and they realize their timeline. If they are going novice at 14, then they need to be going training at 15. Because they need to be going preliminary at 16, and aiming for that 1* qualifying ride at 17.
The timelines are set, and the rat race begins.
And then we stop seeing the happy posts. They are replaced with pictures of icing legs and bandages applied. Horses who were happily packing around novice are suddenly shutting down at training level, and instead of moving backwards, we see more pushing, and more kicking.
This usually lasts for about one season, before we see the horse advertised as for sale. With holes in a record, and a distaste for the “upper levels.” And the teenager has one of two avenues = they either have the funds and the connections to buy or lease that “been there, done that” horse, or they quit.
I have seen too many of them quit. I have seen too many of them become remnants of their once vibrant selves. And yet it doesn’t seem to stop the next wave from doing the same thing.
And then I go watch the competition at Young Riders, and think to myself – these aren’t always the best riders. The rat race doesn’t weed out the weak, it weeds out the unlucky. The poor. The small town rider like me who didn’t have access to the older advanced horse. The young girl who’s parents thought that $5,000 was a LOT to spend on a horse. And the girl who loved her first horse too much to sell him and obtain another.
And that doesn’t always take away from the riders who make it. Who get there. A large portion of them deserve every ounce of that reward. Of those ribbons. Of that reputation.
But not making it doesn’t make the other riders any less. It doesn’t make them any weaker, and it isn’t a predictor of future success.
As long as you don’t let that single failure define you.
And that is what I have seen happening.
Riders who are quitting. Horses being tossed to the side. The future members of our sport running away from it, instead of embracing it.
Young kids who should be enjoying the moments with their horses instead of resenting the failures that they are pushing the horses towards. And kids being the key words. Fifteen and sixteen year olds who are defining their futures based on a riding competition. Kids who should still be jumping on bareback and going on adventurous trail rides with their barn mates.
And I was one of them. Granted it wasn’t Young Riders that broke me, it was my own rat race through the level of the United States Pony Club. But I burned out. I faded. And it took a long time for me to find joy in the sport again.
And I don’t know the solution.
I don’t want Young Rider’s to be eliminated, because I think that the riders who achieve victory within the program deserve the praise and accolades that they have obtained.
I do think that the ages need to change. I don’t think that at the age of 19 you should suddenly be forced to do a 2* to consider yourself a worthy rider, and I do think that 14 years of age is quite young to be considered a competent enough rider to gallop around a 1* track. Just as Pony Club has increased their age limit, the Young Rider Organization needs to as well.
I don’t think that selectors should be able to choose the teams, and I think that the politics need to be removed. It should be a points system, and an average of the scores obtained at the qualifying events. We have discussed this at length for our Olympic teams, and I think the same needs to be considered for these teams.
And I think that it shouldn’t be considered a make or break scenario for this younger generation of our equestrian sport. These kids need to see the bigger picture.
Our sport is one of the few that doesn’t have an age limit. We just witnessed a 61 year old Mark Todd cruise around yet another olympic course, when his olympic career began over 30 years prior.
And we see the entry list at Rolex filled with both USPC ‘A’ graduates and USPC flunk outs. We see Olympians get eliminated, and riders who have never been selected to represent our country place. We see Young Rider gold medallists, and others who never made the team.
And more importantly, look past Rolex. Looking past the Olympics. Looking past the podiums and the pedestals, you have riders like me.
Adults who might never run a 4*. Hell – who might never run a 1*. But who love this sport just the same. Riders like me who got stuck on a rat race, burned out, and somehow regrouped. Who found their foothold in another destiny, in another avenue.
I might never be a world champion rider, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a world class horseman. A title that no one can deny you. A skill set that only you and yourself alone can achieve.
Because that is the greatest victory to obtain. Not the gold medal. Not the asterisk next to your name.
Pride is great, and accolades are awesome. But strength is better. And having the strength to overcome the rat race and still become an avid horsewoman or horseman is the true highest achievement.
Two and a half years ago, I accomplished a goal so few of us get to:
I got my horse back.
But the horse that I had kissed good-bye at the age of 4 didn’t return to me.
Where he was once glistening a steel grey, he was now almost white.
Where he had once rippled with athleticism, he came home sore and thin.
And where he once nickered out in appreciation every time I approached him, he now stared at me with a dead eye.
I lead the horse to his field, with crumbling hooves and a massive right hind and told myself to suck it up.
No, he wouldn’t be going to Rolex like I had dreamed. Hell, he wasn’t even sound to ride. But I reminded myself that he was safe, he was home, and that is more than I had ever dreamed.
And for fifteen months I would think of Kennedy and just shake my head.
I had tried for so long to get him home. For years I had contacted trainers and owners and offered him a retirement. For years I had begged, bartered, and pleaded. And for years my plea’s had fallen on deaf ears.
It took him dropping down to the lowest of ranks, and eventually coming out of a race sore, for me to get him.
Because Kennedy didn’t have owners that understood that that one last race might mean the difference between a second career full of cross country schools and trail rides and a slippery slope.
They kept going. They kept running.
It didn’t matter than he was almost 9. Or that he had won almost $500,000. It didn’t matter that his almost 18hh frame defied gravity and his soundness was variable. He kept running.
And I know what this sounds like. I write constantly of my love for this industry, and of the good people within it. But in Kennedy’s case, parts of the industry failed him. And I admit that.
And the only way I can write this story, and still support the industry that I love, is because other parts of this industry saved him. That helped him. That did the right thing.
Because of people like Drew Nardiello (Kennedy’s breeder), Kennedy got a second chance.
Because of Drew, Kennedy had a home for almost 18 months while his feet grew strong and his belly grew soft.
Because of Drew, Kennedy had a safe spot and a commitment to a good life.
And then because of Jeff Larsen, Kennedy found a transition team.
Because of Jeff, a 10 year old horse who hadn’t been sat on in almost 2 years wasn’t overlooked.
Because of Jeff, a horse was taken in without question, simply because a girl beseeched it upon him to trust her.
And that’s where I came in.
Because I was that girl. And I had made a promise to Kennedy almost a decade ago that I would uphold.
I promised to this horse that I would never give up fighting for him. Never give up believing in him.
And that took us on quite the journey. A graded stakes win at Aqueduct. A demonstration at the Retired Racehorses Thoroughbred Makeover. A few trips around the schooling jumper rings.
And today? Today Kennedy – or as we affectionately call him The Elephant – competed in his first Beginner Novice event. And not only did he complete it, but he finished in 2nd place–conquering each of our goals in the three ring circus.
And I left the show with the biggest smile this world has ever seen, and choking back some tears as I called my mom.
This horse owes nothing to me, and therefore every day that I even get to pet him is a prize. Every day that I can wrap my arms around him is a victory-a goal that for years I was unsure of.
And for this team of dedicated horsemen, this team of upstanding citizens, to take on this horse and cherish him as I do is incredible.
For him to reward us back by rising to the occasion each time that we put a new obstacle in front of him is just the icing on the cake of this long and wonderful journey.
At the age of 3, Kennedy broke his maiden by 9 lengths. At the age of 6, he won the G3 Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct. At age 9, we told him that his racing days were over and that his new life was waiting.
It could be anything he wanted it, or needed it to be.
And today, at the age of 11, he chose eventer.
The Elephant came into the Big Top and showed us that he might be done racing, but he’s definitely not done trying. And so for now, we’ll continue down this journey for as long as he wants.
Because happiness, and getting to experience that happiness with a horse you would turn the tide for, is all that matters.
I had an English writing professor once tell me, “write what you know.”
It was in a Creative Nonfiction class, and he was telling us that our personal stories were the greatest. We knew our own memories the best. And because of that, we could explain the scenery and the emotion because we could still feel it.
There was no better person to tell your story than you.
And I admit, I don’t know a lot.
I’m horrible at geography. Literally couldn’t tell you if a country was in the Middle East of Africa. I am pretty bad at history. Sure, I can remember big ideas about a war, but I could never remember the specific dates of battles or the commanders names.
So I stick to writing about what I do know.
Grief, and the rolling emotions following losing someone.
Equestrianism, and my love for running and jumping big solid fences.
And the thoroughbred breeding industry.
So I write a lot about my own experiences. Most because the two farms that I worked on were amazing, but also because they let me. But it worked out, because Chesapeake and Hinkle Farms did things the right way, the slow way.
Neither were foal mills, and both were in this game for the love of the horse. Neither were in for a get rich scheme, and yet both were financially savvy. And neither knew what they were getting into, but both hired me.
And both of them allow me to tell their stories now, many years later.
They are just two of the many who get overlooked when the headlines come out damning our sport. Two of the thousands who are too boring, too conventional, too contradictory to the headlines to mention.
Because these men and their families are not rare. I have also gotten to be treated as family on the farms my boyfriend has managed-from the illustrious Mt. Brilliant, to Bode’s Alastar, to the newly blossoming Don Alberto (think Unique Bella).
And I have witnessed horses be raised as pets when their race careers are halted. I have watched owners spend $5,000 without hesitation to claim a homebred home. And I have seen the look of pride in their eyes when one of theirs unloads from the trailer at the end of a good career.
Some of these stories I have told, but I usually leave the names of the owners out simply because they didn’t sign up for me. Chesapeake and Hinkle did–and I have their permission. But just because I don’t always mention the owners name, doesn’t mean that the stories of the good guys and their good deeds aren’t endless.
And I know that I always write of the staff of these farms, because in my mind they are the true heroes of this sport of kings. The ones who are there at 6 am and mucking til 12 hours later. The ones who set an alarm for every 2 hours to get a finicky foal to stand and nurse. The ones who earn 1/200th of the worth of a single horse in their care, but treat them as if the millions are in their own account.
But the owners deserve so much credit as well. These men and women who don’t hesitate when the staff makes the call to go to the clinic with a foal who might not be worth the amount on the bill. The men and women who track every homebred and offer retirement homes without question. The men and women who pull foals, drive the trailer, show the yearling, and mix the feed when the farm is in a pinch or short staffed.
You don’t hear about these owners, or their staff, because they aren’t contraversial or click bait. No one is starved, no one is abused, no one drugged or neglected.
Their horses aren’t brought into this world and raced based on greed, they’re brought in and race based on love. For the horse, for the legacy, for the industry.
It might not earn me a Pulitzer or an Eclipse, and I might not make millions off of this blog, but those are the stories I will keep telling. Of the good guys. The ones I know. The ones who get looked over when we’re damning the few bad. I hope you enjoy.
I left the ring with a huge grin on my face, and signaled my student with a thumb’s up as we made eye contact.
I knew she was nervous about my reactions – as four of those pesky sticks had come down during our round. And for a horse who rarely has ONE rail, nonetheless FOUR, my friends were on abated breath to see my reaction. Four rails is a lot. Four rails effectively puts you at the bottom of the pack. I had lost.
But where they expected tears, I was all smiles.
Sure, I should have kicked instead of picked at two of those verticals. Sure I could have helped my horse over that first oxer that came down. And yes, I could have gotten him 6 inches deeper to the last.
And I know, four rails seems like a lot. Sixteen penalties added to my score dropped me firmly into second to last – only beating a rider who had fallen off. But that didn’t take the smile off of my face as we sauntered back to the barn.
I was the happiest loser in the barn, and truly considered the weekend a victory.
Because I had started this year by demanding that my student set realistic goals and stick to them. And in response, she asked that I set my own.
The goals would fluctuate based on the show, the climate, the horse, and the funds. But we asked each other to set goals that we could at least moderately control.
Because you cannot control the horses you compete against. You can’t control if you are placed in the first or second division. You can’t control if the person who enters the ring before you had her parents import three horses from Europe. And you can’t control the fact that the judge hasn’t seen the trials and tribulations that lead to this minor success.
But you can control your riding. You can control your preparation. You can control your warm up, and control the levels that you enter. And I set goals for each of my horses this weekend that were controllable. That were obtainable.
For Kennedy it was simple: this was his second real show, and I wanted manners. I wanted relaxation and obedience. I wanted our walk/trot transitions to be smooth and our circles to stay round. I knew that he loved to jump, and had very little concerns about the stadium portion – but for an almost 18hh horse, dressaging is hard. So our goals were mostly set towards that phase.
For Mak is was different: he was a seasoned veteran, but one who had taken a backseat to his younger brother for the better part of two years. When funds were limited and time was short, Nixon drew the exercise stick and Mak stayed out in the field. But now was his time, and I had more specific goals. I wanted a dressage test that was rideable. I wanted him to make the minor adjustments asking for those incremental 0.5 points without fuss. And then in stadium, I wanted a relaxed horse that stayed in front of my leg. I wanted forward motion, good distances, and a lack of hesitation.
Kennedy warmed up for dressage in fussy form, and we did not come out victorious of any of the goals that I had set in the sand box. And as I shrugged my shoulders while making a grimace to the judge, I began to wonder what I had done wrong, and how I could fix this. He had never been fussy, but spent the majority of his test flipping his head – effectively turning his mostly sedate Elephant self into a self-proclaimed Giraffe.
But as we wandered back to the barn, my friend Caroline reached for the rein and sighed. Kennedy’s noseband had somehow pinched his cheek and created a blister – one that was now bleeding. His anger and resentment to the contact had nothing to do with baby moments and moreso to do with pain. So I took a deep breath, cleaned the wound and put some calming salve on it, and found my figure 8 for jumping. A goal maybe not completed, but with a valid excuse. I knew that our dressage score would be fairly miserable, but was excited to move onto the fun stuff.
Next was Mak’s dressage test. Mak had never been a tiara-weilding DQ, but when he was relaxed and listening, he could hold his own. And as I warmed him up through the paces, my smile grew. I felt a Mak that I usually only felt at home, and knew that we would be able to put in a good test.
But I knew that if I relaxed too much, or went into my normal fetal position, that this beautiful warm up would disintegrate instantly. I brought my chin up, pushed my shoulders back, and forced myself to RIDE.
And ride I did. I finally got through an entire test on that horse without shutting down. When he pushed his shoulder in, I asked for it to move back out. When he resisted a transition, I used well practiced aids to ask again. And when he grew tired and bored in the sandbox, I was able to reinvigorate him with my seat.
We left the arena in smiles, and felt proud of 90% of the movements within the test, only to see a score pop up that was about 6 points higher than I would have judged it, and realized that yet again, we were firmly in the middle of the pack.
But I didn’t get sad. Because as I had stated to my student – we were setting controllable goals. I can control my aids, and I can control my seat, but I can’t force the judge to wear beer goggles. I can’t bribe the scribe to turn 6’s into 8’s, and I can’t fudge the scores online.
So my 38 might not have made anyone else whoop and holler, but it sure as hell made me smile.
We moved onto jumping, and as expected, Kennedy was a phenom. He has really turned into a packer over fences, and just exudes ease. Like an old equitation horse, he finds a distance, has a lead change, and just guides himself to the fences. But I had never ridden him in that large of arena or that big of a setting, and therefore the ease with which he handled it made me smile even larger. Today was a good day.
And then they set the fences for training level. This show is the first show for many of us eventers here in Kentucky, and most of us use it to brush the dust off of our winter-weary bones, and the organizers set the courses as such. But not this time. This time the fences were a maxed 3’3, with spreads that gave me anxiety.
But again, I can’t control the course. I can’t control the lines or the spreads, but I can control the canter that I take them in. I can control my warm up and my horses instincts.
And that is exactly what I did.
I went into the ring with a larger than normal canter and just tried to support Mak as much as I could. I attempted to give him help when he needed it, and stay out of his way when he didn’t. And although I heard rails fall from tired legs and an exhausted horse who had sat all day during the first hot day of the year, I didn’t feel any hesitation.
And. That. Was. Awesome.
My new tradition with my student Claire is to force her to list three things that she is proud of and three things that she needs to work on at the end of a show – attempting to keep it into perspective and not just have “WE LOST” or “WE WON” feelings. And as we headed back to the barn, she asked me to do the same.
I told her that I was upset at myself for picking to the verticals, but proud of Mak for continuing to stay forward even after I had made that mistake. I told her that I should have rode deeper into my corners, especially up to a massive oxer that I winged to – thereby having Mak drop the rail with his unbalanced hind end, but that I was proud of myself for continuing to ride even as I heard the rails falling.
And mostly, I was proud of myself for finally setting some goals, sticking to them, and not letting others opinions change them.
Kennedy finished 12th out of 14 horses in the starter division, and Mak finished second to last in the training, but I was ecstatic.
We didn’t even earn a ribbon, but both horses earned respect. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like I am actually riding.
And I know that the keyboard warriors might be looking up the scores and going “Oh wow, Carleigh had 4 rails on Mak, she must have ridden like crap” or “That horse should NOT be doing training level right now.”
I know that the expectations are high, and the behind the scenes judgement is real. But as my student put it on Saturday – it is as though every one else has higher expectations for me than I do for myself. And my opinion of myself, and my riding is all that truly matters.
I didn’t let the lows get me down, I didn’t let the rails set me back. I never once went into the fetal position, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t care about the expressions on others faces as I left the arena.
Because this game is a competition against no one but yourself, and on Saturday, I finally felt like I won.