“I hauled him back and tacked him up, hesitantly walking to the warm-up. I was petrified of even the most minor error. A bad distance. A downed rail. Or GASP, a stop.
But even in my blind terror, in the back of my mind I knew I had the greatest ally. The greatest team.
I went into the Novice division with my shoulders hunched and my eyes down. I glanced around at the fences wondering how they could possibly be only 3 feet tall. I kicked my horse into a canter, mumbled a prayer to the Horse Gods, and tried to keep my hands low. I told myself that as long as I didn’t tell Mak to stop, he would go.”
–an excerpt from Vicious Cycles, published February 2017.
This was my life only 9 months ago. I was scared of jumping my horse. I was scared of showing my horse. I was scared of what people would see, or think, or say.
I was scared of the very essence of my sport, and because of this, I had stopped competing him. I had placed him directly in the epicenter of the swirl that is a vicious cycle, and due to it, on a scale of 1-100, my confidence was at a -15.
I had entered him in one combined test in 2016: Octoberfest at the Kentucky Horse Park. Although we had competed at training level successfully in 2015, we had crumbled in the confidence game due to time off, harsh winters, bad schedules, and more importantly my inner psychological devilish banter.
I told myself over and over that people were judging. That people knew he was for sale and therefore even a small blemish like a rail was laughed about or sarcastically spoken of over dinner. I thought everyone was watching, and I couldn’t take the heat.
So I entered him in the novice level combined test, too scared to even do XC. And I warmed up for the dressage last year thinking “he’s tense, this is going to be terrible” and “if he scores a 40, no one will want him.”
And then I trotted down centerline, tracked right, and raised my hand.
The judge stuck her head out and asked me what was wrong. He was sound. He was steady. I needed to carry on.
But my mental instability had gotten too great. My anxiety too high. My need for perfection too much. And I withdrew.
That was a year ago. 12 months. A short time by anyone’s count, but a million miles away for me.
Because, with the encouragement of an amazing group of friends, I decided to kick my own ass this year.
I needed to get over myself. I needed to get help. I needed to remember why I used to love this horse, and I needed to remember why riding and competing was fun.
So we did those low pressure jumper shows all winter and I got my mojo back at 3′, and then 3’3. I saved my nickles and dimes and tried to take more regular lessons with amazing 4* riders who could help every level of my riding. And I asked friends to come XC school with me, and get my gallop back.
And in May, I entered Mak into his first event in two years. At training level.
It didn’t go perfectly. Our dressage wasn’t phenomenal, and we had a rail in stadium. And when I came up on a large table on a half stride, I pulled him off of it, resulting in a big fat 20 on our record.
But I came off the XC course with a smile instead of a tear. I had remembered why this sport was so fun in the first place. And for the first time in a long time, I didn’t really care what everyone reading the scores thought.
So I entered him in another, and another, and another event. I took another, and another lesson. And I worked my ass off, week in and week out.
I worked on our dressage-something that we have always struggled with. Mak is not the fanciest mover, and his conformation encourages him to fall on his forehand. But this year we got him more supple, more forward, and more accurate. And my 38’s and 40’s were replaced with 33’s. I even shaved it down to a 31 at Flying Cross.
I worked on our stadium–something that has never historically been a problem for him, but one which is psychological warfare for me. I always ended up with ONE rail, and knew that he was too tidy of a jumper to deserve that. But Mak is a soft and cadenced jumper with a flawless 12′ stride, so I always just kicked and prayed. And this year I decided to instead ride. We taught that stride to constrict, for me to ride to the base; and also the begin the lesson of staying out of his way over the jump instead of doing my happy release: the praying mantis.
And finally on XC, we worked on loving it again. Mak is a careful horse, one who thinks about things as he approaches them, as he goes over them, and as he gallops away. He will never be the type that runs blindly at a jump and then just hops over. Instead, he needs a confident ride, a forward ride, and an accurate distance.
And this led to a stop here and a stop there on my record. Two of which were 100% my fault, two of which were his. All of which I decided were justifiable and not the end of the world, because a 20 doesn’t seem so bad when you stop riding for your record.
Because if you looked on my record on USEA, it wouldn’t look great. You might not think Mak is a packer or perfect.
But what he is? And what I love him for? He’s safe.
He will never take a jump from an unsafe distance that he can’t clear. He will never blindly run at a jump without knowing he can safely jump it. And he won’t dart off the side at the last minute, or stop sliding into it. And I might have some 20’s, but I also have that.
I also know that my horse has my back.
And this weekend, he definitely did.
I decided to end the 2017 season on a highlight. So we entered that same Octoberfest CT, only this time at the preliminary level. A vast improvement from being scared at novice. Preliminary, a level that for the last 31 years I didn’t think would be plausible.
I have always owned the horses that would either do the dressage and never jump that height; or vice versa. But I have never owned the horse that could do both.
Mak went into the dressage test with his ears forward and a studious face on. His leg yields were flawless; his trot work earning him 8’s. He stayed on his correct lead during all of the counter canter work-something that I never thought would be possible. And in his lengthening, he actually lengthened.
And then we went into stadium and I looked around the jumps, assessing the fact that they still looked massive.
The oxers looked wide, the verticals looked tall. The triple looked daunting, and the turns looked tight.
But unlike 9 months ago, I wasn’t scared, I was excited. I knew I had an amazing horse underneath me who was ready. I knew I had an amazing team of friends outside of the in-gate to cheer me on. And at the end of the day, I knew that this show was just the cherry on top of an otherwise goal-cracking season.
And as we cantered around this massive course, ticking off fence by fence, I realized just how much each represented an individual small goal that I had achieved.
1. Improve his canter work.
2. Find comfort in combinations in stadium.
3. Improve suppleness.
4. Learn not to pick to big tables.
5. Get comfortable on drops into water.
6. Actually lengthen his stride when asked.
7. Stay centered over his back over fences.
8. Improve gallop and find his happy speed.
9. Do 10,000,000 transitions to improve downward transitions.
And 10. Have fun.
I left the ring feeling like Mak and I were 100% in sync with a massive smile on my face, because all of these goals had been accomplished if not improved, and I was FINALLY having a blast again.
I had gotten over my own mental issues and found my horse again. I had found a way to afford multiple competitions and then forced myself to enter them instead of letting money, or time, or energy be an excuse. And I had learned to love this sport…again.
2017 was an amazing season for me and Mak. My record might look mediocre, but my record is not my brain. It’s not my heart. It’s not my truth.
My horse is back. My mind is better. And my season was amazing. I kept my goals small and obtainable, and because of that, I accomplished them one after another.
I hope you did too.
HORSE FOR SALE:
Are you looking for the proverbial unicorn? Well look no further, as Lucky Strike, or “Sig” is exactly that.
Sig is the best of all worlds – he is 100% thoroughbred, by the esteemed stallion Northern Afleet out of the Chilean mare Godiva, but unlike the many other thoroughbreds in the world, Sig was not bred to race. In fact, he was bred to play polo for ten goal players, and therefore was conceived via artificial insemination, and is not registered with the Jockey Club. He even has a brand on his hip – a star with “KY” in the middle – leading us to affectionately call him our Kentucky Warmblood.
Sig was allowed to grow up as the warmbloods do, had 30 days under tack as a 2 year old, and then was brought in this summer for another 60 only to find that he had *gasp* grown. Sig now stands roughly 16.1hh, and will most likely finish around 16.2 – which is perfect for you and me, but not so much a polo pony.
So his breeders offered him to me. And for the past month, Sig has learned the ropes of being a sport horse. He has a soft mouth at all three gaits, has zero stop and has now schooled small XC fences in addition to being entered in his first show in the 2’3 jumpers – where he exceeded my expectations. Sig goes in a rubber snaffle, is sound barefoot, and fat off of air – but maybe more importantly, he has that polo pony brain – nothing ruffles his feathers, he can tie for hours, and truly seems to enjoy any and all attention.
He is located in Lexington, Kentucky and will be competing in the Octoberfest HT at the Kentucky Horse Park October 28th. Asking $7,500, and price will increase with training, as the sky is truly the limit for this shiny unicorn.
Video of Sig
Any and all inquiries can be made to CarleighFedorka@gmail.com!
I was involved in one of the scariest moments of my life on Friday afternoon.
Having just walked my cross country course in preparation for Saturday, I was hustling up the hill to the trailer area at the Kentucky Horse Park.
With the immense growth of the infrastructure of this park, those of us who haul in daily for the shows are relegated a good mile or two from the stadium and dressage rings, and our hacks back to the trailers can be long, can be relaxing, or can be dangerous.
And as I hurried up the hill, I looked over to see a horse and rider heading back to the trailers themselves. In jump tack and with a smile, I assumed they were heading home from a good stadium round and gave a head nod–recognizing the rider but not knowing her well enough to actually speak.
And then I heard the deep exhale of a horse that was either spooking, or running, or bucking. And I turned and just froze.
I watched the rider sit the horse for a solid 4-5 bucks even though her reins were on the buckle and she was holding a drink in one hand. And then she was unseated, falling, and finally–the worst part–drug.
And I stood there with this horrible realization that there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could make better. I was too far away. Too helpless.
And so I simply watched as she finally came off and the horse went running up the hill.
I screamed over the fenceline to her to see if she was ok, but she did not respond.
I looked over the fence line to see if she was moving, but she was not.
So I threw my body into motion and jumped the two fence lines separating me from her and ran to her side. And what I saw made my stomach churn.
She had landed face down in the gravelly sod, and was not moving. I yelled her name and she did not respond. But my CPR and emergency training from the dude ranch kicked in, and I began to triage.
I checked her breathing and saw that she was, and knew that meant to leave her where she was lying. I did not want to risk placing her neck or spine in any malposition and risk paralyzing her.
Her pulse was strong and I didn’t see any gaping wounds that would need pressure applied to, but still didn’t move her arms or legs to investigate further.
But she still wasn’t responding or conscious, and I knew I needed help.
I screamed at golf carts passing by to no avail, as they either (hopefully) didn’t hear me or didn’t care.
So I pulled out my phone and dialed every number of every rider I knew that was at the stadium arena–only 500 meters away, but oh so far.
I finally reached one of my best friends Courtney Calnan, and she picked up on the first ring.
And it was the best person to reach. I simply said “I need the ambulance and medics on the horse path across from the Walnut Ring NOW” and she just hung up.
She didn’t ask questions. She didn’t try to get gossip. She just hit End on the call and went into motion.
I knew that Courtney would not only know how to get medical assistance, but that she also personally knew every show official, judge, and member of the board.
I could focus on the woman lying next to me while I trusted my friend to do the rest.
What felt like an hour, but was actually only a few minutes passed by before the EMTs arrived. And as they hurried to her side, they asked me her name-which I fortunately knew. And then they asked me her age, which I had no clue.
I stepped away, trying to continue to hold it together, and looked to my left to see Courtney running up the hill towards me. She grabbed me in a hug, and with that exchange, she took over and I took off to find the riders loose horse.
I called another dear friend Holly and quickly told her what happened and asked that she begin the hunt for the horse from the opposite direction, and she, like Courtney, just hung up and began searching.
The horse was caught, and quickly brought back to the trailer where a team of amazing women and men untacked him and got him settled. And as he was walked towards his rig, I noticed one man standing there looking confused.
It was the riders husband, awaiting his wife from her hack from the ring. And I calmly walked up to him and told him that his wife had fallen, and that the EMT’s would need information from him. Without a word, he jumped into his car and hurried down the hill to his wife.
And then I sat at my own trailer and just dissolved. All of the adrenaline seeped out of me in tears and I just weeped.
But suddenly my phone rang and I looked down to see it was Courtney and answered. She wanted to know how the rider had fallen, how long she had been unconscious, and how long she had been unresponsive even after coming to.
I gave her my answers and then looked at my own horse, realizing I needed to head to stadium myself.
Courtney texted me updates throughout the next hour, letting me know that the rider was finally talking, or being placed on the backboard to go into the ambulance. And I watched the police escort the rider out as I made my own hack down the horse path on my way to stadium, just trying to focus and hold it together.I learned a lot from this situation; a situation I will never forget. I am far from a safety obsessed rider-but Friday changed me.
First and foremost, I believe that riders should be required to wear medical arm bands in ALL phases of showing-and this goes for dressage riders, hunters, and jumpers. Maybe more importantly, that we should be wearing these armbands OUTSIDE of the show ring.
These medical arm bands should NOT require scanning in order to access pivotal information such as your ICE (in case of emergency) contact or essential medical information such as allergies, heart conditions, or the decision to be an organ donor.
I used to believe that these bands were useless, as I was in the arena and had already written this information down on my entry. But I realized on Friday that after her horse left, no one knew what number this rider was. Her information would not have been found had she not been surrounded by people who knew her by name.
These barcoded or scanner arm bands are smaller, and therefore popular in our discipline, and that is fine. But either on the opposing side of that plate or in an additional band, your name, DOB, and ICE number should be easily accessible, as none of the first responders who able to scan this code at this specific event to access any of this information.
I also realized just how scary this situation would have been had this not been my home turf, and had I not been literally surrounded by my contact list. Had I not known that Courtney was on the grounds and near the ambulance, who would I have called?
I thought about calling 911, and was told by numerous people that that was actually the worst thing I could do. The horse park, like many other large breeding farms in our area, are a literal nightmare for these first responders. Addresses to individual barns or arenas are not accessible, and the ambulance driver then ends up driving in circles as crucial minutes tick by.
The show officials can call 911 and then send an escort to the main entrance to give the ambulance a lead, but not me.
And I didn’t have the contact info of any show official in my contact list. In retrospect, could I have logged onto USEventing and found this information? Yes. But in the heat of the moment, that was the last thing I thought of.
My boyfriend made a good point that (if possible) it might be prudent for these large horse parks and show grounds to create their own security number, or emergency number, and then advertise/promote the crap out of it. Have it hanging in every barn and every phone pole.
Make it 311, or 411, and have it immediately call either the security office, or the show office. Have it easy to remember, easy to access, and readily available in situations like this. We have medics on the grounds for these shows for a reason, but we need to be able to access them swiftly and easily.
And finally, find the safest route with your horse. I realized while watching this happen that we were so lucky. That she was so lucky. She had taken the horse path when so many others take the shorter route on the actual paved road. She had landed on grass, albeit hard grass, instead of cement. And that simple decision may have saved her life.
But this accident didn’t involve a high pace or a large fence, just a simple spook with a rider who wasn’t ready for it. And that can happen to any of us.
I am so thankful it was on grass. I am so thankful that she was wearing not only a helmet but also tall boots-proper footwear that can get you out of a drag more easily. And in a strange way, I am so thankful I was there.
I learned that night that this rider will be ok. She was concussed, and obviously banged up and bruised, but she was talking and she was with her family and friends. And I read that message and just closed my eyes and thanked whatever guardian angel was watching over her that day.
But we can all learn from this.
We should all take a first aid/CPR/triage class, and be prepared.
We should all ride with proper identification on us, whether it is at a show or at home.
We should all know how to access medical assistance at these shows, whether it is through a show official or a friend.
We should all ride with proper safety gear-helmets, footwear, etc, on EVERY RIDE.
And we should all hug our ponies and our loved ones tonight, because anything can happen in the blink of an eye.
That is what I learned this weekend. I hope you learned something too.
Almost a year ago I entered my talented but obnoxious horse into a clinic with one of the top eventers in America. I had ridden with this man numerous times with this horse and knew that he just “got him.”
Good ride or bad ride, I came home with plenty of homework and tools in our arsenal for when my horse woke up on the wrong side of the stall.
And on this particular day, he not only woke up on the wrong side of the stall, but also the wrong side of his paddock and perhaps the great state of Kentucky.
But in true Doug Payne fashion, he swung on my majestic steed with a smile and put him through his paces. And I stood on the ground, watching my pony try his damndest to enrage even cold blooded Doug. It didn’t work, and after their conversation, I got back on and had a good jump school.
But as I walked him back to the trailer to untack and process, a complete stranger came up to me and in an obnoxious voice told me that my horse was dangerous. That I needed to get rid of him. And that life was too short for “horses like him.”
I stared at her with my jaw slack and eyes bugging out of my head, finished the final 30 foot walk to my trailer, and promptly burst into tears.
A part of me fearful that she was right, another part of me sad if she was. A part of me horrified at being called out in public. But a third, and final part, just appalled that someone had the nerve to say that.
I did not know her. I did not ask her for her opinion. I was not paying to take a lesson with her. And maybe most important was the fact that she was making this obstinant opinion of my horse based on a snapshot in time.
She was not my trainer. She was not my barn owner. Hell, she wasn’t even my friend. I didn’t ask her for advice, and I sure as hell wasnt paying her for it.
Had Doug gotten off of my horse and said “I think this is a recipe for disaster. You are way over horsed and this will end with one of you getting hurt” my head would have snapped to attention, and I would have listened.
But he hadn’t. He had giggled while saying “wow, you were right about him being in a mood today. The talented ones are never easy.”
Because he had seen him before. He had seen the good days alongside this one bad. He had witnessed the talent and appreciated my ability as a rider and my horses ability to be (yes) a dick, but also not malicious in his intent.
And yet this woman; this STRANGER, felt differently about my horse and my skills and made her voice known.
And for what?
It didn’t appear to be in my best interests based on the tone in her voice and the look on her face.
It wasn’t solicited by me or any of “my team” and therefore not encouraged.
And it didn’t sit well, as I still think about it to this day.
Yes, I shrugged it off and carried on. Yes, I still own this horse. But no, I am obviously not over it. It still affects me.
And isn’t that the world we live in?
Just this week an heiress to billions of dollars fell off of her horse.
She proceeded to get up, chase him towards an oxer, and belly kick him before dragging him from the ring at a jog.
And the social media peanut gallery came out of their dark dungeons and caves and attacked.
Was it pretty to watch? No.
Should she have been reprimanded and not allowed to show for the remainder of the show? Yes.
Should it be called animal abuse and should we demand she be barred from USEF? No.
It was gross. I won’t sugar coat it. I can remember my mother ripping me off of my pony for lesser behavior at the age of 8 and locking me in her minivan.
I can remember having my mouth washed out with soap for talking back to my trainer at the age of five.
And I think of those things every time I feel my blood boil for a miscommunication between my horse and I.
And this woman was 36, on a VERY nice hunter.
But we all have bad days. We have all felt road rage or wanted to punch a wall. We have all picked fights with loved ones because we are enraged by another aspect of our lives.
Only our temper tantrums aren’t videod. Our last names aren’t Johnson. And at the end of the day, most of us get to sleep it off and move on as better people.
But for some reason horses bring out the best of the peanut gallery. And the wealthier you are, or the better rider you are, or the higher podium you have stood on, the more we love to weigh in. To tear down. To criticize and critique.
The comments I have read barely even focus on the actual issue. They’re too busy criticizing her riding (based on one jump) to really even notice the belly kick. A kick that most likely hurt her big toe more than his rib cage. They harass her for being unbalanced, unseated, sitting too low with legs too far back. They pretend to be God’s and Goddesses of this sport who have never had a bad day. A bad jump.
But is it facebooks job to do so? No. Is it the armchair quarterbacks who visit their own horses once a month for a carrot? No.
It is up to her team to criticize. It is up to show organizers and governing bodies to reprimand. And it is up to herself to change.
This world that we live in needs to change. We need to do more and talk less. Mind our own business when matters are insignificant and demand change from our government bodies when they aren’t. Find empathy for both teams in the picture: horse and rider.
Social media can change things when done appropriately; I have seen it happen. But it can also tear apart people who don’t deserve it. Who are judged for a snapshot of an otherwise good life. I have no dog in this fight and don’t know if that is the case here, but I do try to see the best in people. Maybe we should all try to see the best in people.
I hum this in my head to the tune of “Where have all the Cowboys gone” by Paula Cole at least once a week, and even moreso this last week as I worked the Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
The leg man.
The horse whisperer.
The foaling guy.
The breaking girl.
The bread and butter of our industries, people who used to be revered and applauded. The cowboy you would send to get your horses broke, or the barn foreman who could feel a tendon strain weeks before an ultrasound would pick anything up.
The men and women whom we hear are missing from our vocal elders. Men like Denny Emerson and George Morris. Those who are willing to stick their neck out to the guillotine as they lament the good old days. Where riders were horsemen and women first and foremost and equitators second.
And this goes out to so many aspects of this equine industry.
I watch as the majority of my friends move off away from the barns of the Thoroughbred breeding industry. Men and women who I considered the good ones, who I considered the true horsemen, moving away from the daily chores of mucking and bandaging for the comfort of heated offices and 9-5’s. Christmas off and open toed shoes.
I lamented of this to a fellow farm manager last week during the sales when he asked about my manfriend and what his plans were. His plans? He planned to do what he was phenomenal at. Being a horseman.
Luke is a broodmare manager, and one of the best birth attendants I have ever seen in a foaling stall–and that is coming from me, someone who has her doctorate in equine reproduction.
Year in and year out, Luke is the first human face that these future champions see. He can reposition the worst dystocia, calm the most panicked mare, and assist the first steps of the most leggy foal. And I watch in appreciation of this greatness. This skill set. This mastery.
But this mastery will never make him millions. His job is one that is at best under-appreciated and at worst over worked. From January 1st until July, he works 100 hour weeks. A herd of broodmares and their progeny depend on him never sleeping in, never being ill, and never taking a personal day. It does not matter if there are 2 feet of snow on the ground or 100 degrees with 80% humidity-he is there.
I have seen him leave the house after cradling the porcelain gods, riddled with the flu. I have seen him put chains on his tires and haul a generator to the barn without electricity. And I have seen him miss weddings, funerals, births, and parties simply to give that foal a good chance at a great life.
But in exchange for this, the rewards are simple. He appreciates the first gutteral whinny of a filly and the first wobbly steps of a colt. He earns smiles as they accept their first bit and a pat on the back when they sell well. And occasionally, very occasionally, he gets a mention in an article if they win.
It is not a lucrative lifestyle. It is not a comfortable existence. It is filled with constant sleep deprivation, long hot days and even colder nights. A phone permanently attached to your hip and truck keys in your fist.
Not many want to do it.
And because of that, few do. And fewer stick around.
But that is the problem. We are losing those fine men and women who are innately born with these gifts. The feel of a hot leg. The scent of impending parturition. The detection of a disgruntled stomach.
And why? Because it’s undervalued.
These men and women are worth their weight in gold and grain, and yet they are often dismissed for someone cheaper, albeit less experienced. Or they are under appreciated and dismissed for their undying effort to keep their herds well, leaving them disgruntled and restless.
You look around the horse shows and see fewer and fewer of these select few to exist. You look around the yearling sales and see a similar predicament.
And it is not because we are not creating these magical creatures. No, no-they exist. But they are choosing to move off into other realms. They find those jobs in the comfy offices with weekends off. Weekends where they can compete themselves or watch their horses gallop across the wire from a covered box.
Its the duality of the job. Those who love the creatures the most are found caring for those that they do not claim ownership of.
I was one of them. I devoted my entire life to 30 mares and their progeny that I would never get to call my own.
And in exchange for my undying devotion, I never got to ride my own horse. I never had a weekend day off to compete my own horse. And at the end of the day, I couldn’t afford either.
I sacrificed my own personal equestrianism in order to encompass and assist a larger herd. And it wore on me.
I loved being a farm manager. I loved being a horseman. I still work the sales, even now having finished my doctorate and being considered “above” the job of yearling showman. But I love reading those young horses too much. Getting into their brains and unlocking the chains. Figuring out how to make them walk better, stand better, behave better. It’s an addiction for a true horseman. An addiction that’s impossible to break.
But I left the role as farm manager because of the lifestyle-just like so many before me. I wanted to own my own horses. Have time to ride my own horses. Afford my own broodmare or racing stock.
I fear for these industries if this is the path we continue to head down. Dismissing those skilled horse whisperers and allowing them to run away and leave the cherished cement walls of the foaling barns and training tracks for a more comfortable existence.
I don’t know what the solution is, but a part of it is in celebrating the true horseman. Thanking them for their expertise. Praising them for a job well done. And acknowledging that without them, our industry will fail. Because I know where all of the horsemen have gone-away. And we’ll never get them back. Let’s keep the good ones we still have.
I walk up the show ring – back and forward, back and forward. Stand and pose.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
It is the annual Keeneland September Yearling Sales, or as us thoroughbred officienados refer to it: The Marathon.
18 days of 5-5. A hundred shows a day per horse. Millions of dollars sold, and hopefully millions of dollars earned.
And each time that I arrive on that first day, I have this wave of awe overcome me. I watch these 1000 pound yearlings tolerate so much with so little prep. There is no schooling show or warm up round.
They ship here to a new place–many times their first trip off of the farms they were born on. Happily loading on and off the scary trailer.
They stand for a bath in an unfamiliar place.
They accept the bit and a change of halter.
They lead to and from an environment they’ve never seen without putting a foot wrong.
I have long been a supporter of this magnificent breed known as the thoroughbred and am a hardcore advocate for retraining the ex racehorse. And when people ask me what I love so much about that journey, I always respond that it’s because it’s usually so easy.
The racehorse is so exposed by the time they get to you. They’ve seen numerous tracks, numerous riders, numerous routines, and numerous lifestyles. They have a lead change and 4 beautiful gaits–the least of which is the gallop. They travel both ways happily and take things in stride.
But even before they get to that first start, these animals are so trained. And why is that? That is because of the breeder, and maybe more importantly the broodmare manager, yearling manager, and plentiful staff that lays their hands on these horses every day.
After these pivotal few weeks the breeder gets much less press than is deserved. Occasionally they get the shout out in the TDN or DRF. And sure, if the horse runs in the Derby, there may be background story on NBC. It is short, it is brief, and the blurb is simply not enough.
But where the breeder does get the attention is potentially moreso in the negative ways that are undeserved. The entity that is the breeders gets blamed for the seeming abundance of thoroughbreds (crop size is down almost 40% since a decade ago). They get blamed when a horse is found in a bad situation, even if the horse has exchanged hands countless times since it left that pivotal homeplace. And they get blamed for the route of the horses life–from the nursery, to the sales, and then the track. Being told that it is too much, too quick, too careless.
So much of this animosity or targeted behavior is so unwarranted. So much of it is unfair.
But what is maybe more unfair is the lack of thanks that we give these men and women for the amazing horses that we now have access too, and the behavioral attributes that we relish so much. Things we take advantage of without considering where they originated.
Because of Mill Ridge, Mak loads on a trailer and happily stands for hours.
Because of Chesapeake Farm, Kennedy lowers his 18hh head and willingly accepts a bit and bridle.
Because of Shadowlawn Farm, Nixon happily ties and stands for an hour long bath.
We all need to thank those men and women a bit more often. Look on Equibase, find your horses origins, and then whisper a thank you into the universe. Each of them was mated with purpose, foaled with care, and then raised with the upmost consideration and thought.
Your horses race trainer might have taught your horse to break from a gate. And your horses retrainer may have taught him how to jump a crossrail. But it was your horses breeder who gave your horse his first mint, taught him his first steps on a shank, and nurtured him through his first wound.
So thank them. They deserve it. Every single ounce of it.
I walked off my XC course on Sunday and just shook my head. A grimace was plastered across my face, and my reins draped across my horses neck. Sweat dripped from his neck and mine, and I took one deep slow breath.
Because two jumps from the end, we had had a stop. And not just one stop, but two.
Mak had never seen the duck pond at the Kentucky Horse Park, and yet at the Area 8 Championships, it had popped up on course. We had a log pile 1 stride to a severe decline into the boggy water. And the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey had deposited an additional 4″ to the bog.
We had cruised around the first 7/8ths of the course in harmony. It was our 4th event at training level, and our goals were finally starting to synchronize.
It was less kicking and praying and more plotting and organizing.
It was less “let’s get through this” and more “let’s improve on our training.”
And it was less “finish on a number” and more “finish strong.”
And I thought we were.
Until my horse decided he was petrified of that bog, and I mentally watched that glaring TWENTY pop up in front of my cerebellum.
I circled back, tried to get him in front of my leg, popped him off his forehand and approached again.
And he stopped…again.
The twenty switched to sixty, and I felt my shoulders drop and my brain shut down. I was fully prepared for my horses first elimination in his 5 years of eventing, and contemplated simply retiring. He was legitimately scared of this obstacle in front of him, and rightfully so.
I almost raised my hand, and then quickly lowered it back down.
Because I realized something in that millisecond.
My horse was still young, and in a sense, green.
My riding was still improving, and I was by no means a professional.
And I needed to stop caring about the record and start caring about the progress.
I circled back one more time and achieved the canter I had wanted the first. I picked Mak up, wrapped his barrel with my legs, half halted 4 strides out, and DROVE.
And in 3, 2, 1 he lifted from the ground, popped over the log pile, took one stride to the water and cantered right through.
We popped over the last two fences in a strong gallop and then came back to the walk to cool out.
And as I shook my head, trying to dissipate the grimace from my face, I saw my trainer Allie. And where I expected a similar expression on her own face, instead I saw a huge smile.
Because Allie told me that she finally saw me RIDE. She has watched my riding progress for the last 5 years and knows that when I panic, I PANIC. I go into the fetal position and lean, instead of sitting up and driving.
And yet this time, it was different. This time, my brain functioned like a true equestrian. She said she could see my thought process from 100 yards away and that it was awesome to finally see me think my way through a problem instead of growl.
And with those simple words, I realized that I had accomplished yet another goal of this year.
My record might not be progressing, but my riding is.
And isn’t that why we are supposed to be in this game? 90% of us are out there competing as a hobby, and those 4’s and 40’s don’t effect anything but our brains and ego’s.
And yet this “hobby” is all consuming to so many. We live and die by it, and therefore we log onto our accounts on USEventing and grimace and sigh at those blemishes.
I jokingly said on Sunday night that I wish there was a comment box next to each event on my record.
Next to our stop at the down bank 3 years ago I would write: “Rider developed strange phobia of down banks and halted willing horse.”
Next to our 12 jump faults from two years ago I would write: “Rider decided to enter horse into in and out at angle, and then epically failed.”
And next to this past weekend I would write: “Boggy water had actual swimming sharks, and after an initial appraisal, rider remembered how to ride and convinced horse to go swimming with them.”
Because that is how I feel right now. My horse was legitimately scared of something, and yet he trusted me enough to try it. It might have taken 2 circles and 45 seconds, but he did it.
And we both grew from the experience.
I know that the next time that damned bog is on course that Mak will be much more willing.
And I know that the next time I am faced with an issue like that that I will ride.
For the record, I am a better eventer than I give myself credit for.
For the record, I own a horse that is trying his heart out every time I saddle him.
For the record, I had a lot of fun this weekend even if my record looks like I should be frowning.
Because for the record, I’m done riding for my record.