About a year ago, I rode in a clinic with my young, and very difficult, horse Nixon.
Immediately before the clinic, my friend Brooke reached out to me and asked how I was doing with Nixon. Was I making any progress? Any training advice? Any bit changes? Exercised, or even gimmicks?
Because she had taken on a quirky thoroughbred herself, and was about at her wits end with him. We commiserated on those tough horses, and lamented on how they mentally did us in on a daily basis.
And then we both tacked up and headed off to that clinic.
True to form, neither Kulik nor Nixon behaved. Both were hot. Both were strong. Both were freakishly talented, and both big fancy movers. But when they decided that they were done, they were done. And both Brooke and I were exhausted. Ready to throw in the towel. Ready to admit defeat before either of us got hurt, or worse.
And after the clinic, we both hit a wall. Kulik strained a tendon, and Nixon tore some more brain cells, but Brooke and I stayed in contact.
I watched as she leaned on her other horse for comfort in the dressage arena, as I found my own confidence return with my steadier horse Mak. And occasionally, we would message each other to ask if it was even worth it to bring our other horses back. She lamented on the fact that she was, quite simply, scared. She only felt comfortable in that dressage arena on that safer horse. But what would she do with Kulik if she never threw a leg over him again? How do you sell that hot of a horse? How do you give away a horse that you fear can hurt someone?
And yet, after months of rehabbing his injury, the springtime found Kulik sound, and in need of a job. But after all of those months only weakening her confidence in him, Brooke wasn’t sure she was the one up for the task.
But, being a true equestrian and horsewoman, she knew she couldn’t just throw away a horse she had committed to. So she reached out to a friend for help.
For most of the summer, we got to watch as Tay brought Kulik’s body back. But with each ride, it was evident that she was also rehabbing his brain. At first it was just some small cavelettis, focusing on adjustability. But then the jumps grew bigger, and it became evident that both body and brain were being healed.
Raised in the equitation and jumper world, Tay truly vibed with this more sensitive ride, and was able to ride without an ounce of doubt or anxiety – which was exactly what Kulik needed in this transition. And with each ride with Tay in the tack, it became evident that he was coming back. That he could come back. That he would come back.
And yet, as happens so often, social media blew up. As we see too often, people felt the need to offer an opinion or give unsolicited advice. Friends began asking Brooke why she wasn’t riding. Why wasn’t she the one on in the videos? The one jumping the big oxers or the bending lines? Why was she scared when he looked like such a simple ride for Tay? Why wasn’t she showing him? Why wasn’t she braver? Better? More involved?
And I would wonder…why do they care?
Because each time, Brooke would then reach out to me, and in frustration and sadness, she would ask how I handled these suggestions. How did I explain to people that my horse was too hard for me? That I was in over my head? That I was just, quite simply, scared.
Because I of all people knew what it was like to have my confidence be shot, and the vicious cycle that it ensues when you are riding backwards on an already mentally damaged horse.
A mentally imbalanced horse with a mentally damaged rider never ends in success, and Brooke knew this without me ever having to say a word.
She knew that one part of the equation needed to be remedied for any hope of success. She knew what the outside didn’t have the tact to realize: that by removing herself from the equation, she could rehabilitate that one half, thanks in huge part to a rider whose frame of mind and bravery were fully intact. And on the other side, she could still build her skill set on her other horse, all while playing owner with Kulik – something she quickly realized she quite enjoyed.
It wasn’t admitting defeat, or giving in to fear. It wasn’t tossing in the towel or listing the horse for sale in frustration. Brooke chose the hard road, removed her ego from the equation, and reached out for help – something so few equestrians readily do.
And as the months went on, we got to watch their relationship grow inward from opposing ends. Brooke found her confidence renewed in herself while riding other horses, while Kulik became a more confident horse under the tutelage of Tay.
We knew it was working when summer began to turn to fall, and I began to get different messages from Brooke.
They were no longer lamenting or full of strife, but instead inquiring into what I thought about her entering a little jumper show, or maybe a combined test. Would this particular mini trial be appropriate? And how did I think that recognized event would be designed? Would the jumps be maxed?
I slowly watched the spark come back into my friends eye, where once there was simply fear. I watched as this fear of eventing turn back towards excitement. And I watched as she found happiness in her horse again. I watched as she finally swung up onto the saddle and listened to Tay’s advice on the ride she needed to give. I watched as the reins were handed over, and Brooke took back the ride that had been so carefully repaired.
This past weekend, she entered in the culmination of our eventing season in Lexington, KY; Hagyard Midsouth and Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The courses are maxed. The park exists in a frenzy. And to top it off, the weather is always brisk.
And yet with each phase, we all watched as Brooke got her groove back.
A steady dressage. A flowing stadium. And finally, after a full of year of trials and tribulations, a double clean cross country. Where once fear and anxiety existed, there was a cool confidence in both of them. Where my inbox would have been filled with a meltdown, the messages were replaced with photos and videos and exited updates. But maybe more important was that instead of being obsessed with the scores on Eventing Nation or the ribbons adorning the stalls, I found my friend focused on her reinvigorated spirit.
A horse so many thought was done. A rider who was ready to call it quits. A friend who could become trainer and help repair the two entities.
And, at the end of the day, a renewed love of the sport.
I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this duo, but am also wanting to just take a moment and exist happily within the current moment. Forget the plans for winter trips to Aiken, or move ups to Novice. Ignore the idea of AECs or clinics with Olympians.
Let us all relish in this one day.
One where we got to watch a horse woman do whats right by her horse, regardless of the outside perceptions. A horse who was able to be reversed dangerous hothead to capable partner. The ability to remove ego, ignore keyboard warriors, and reach for outside assistance. Because at the end of the day, all of those things were needed to repair this relationship, and with that repair, Brooke and Kulik have their groove back, and now the future looks oh so bright.