Within the past month, social media has become a frenzy of opinions. From politics to ponies, and everything in between. It wasn’t abnormal by any means– at least not if you consider yourself a horse person. But there was one abnormal topic. A topic that caught fire in the frenzy not once–but twice.
With the announcement of American Pharoah heading to Australia, and California Chrome heading to Chile, the keyboard warriors took aim, fired, and missed.
The comments ranged from accusations of animal neglect to inquiries into why the industry doesn’t allow artificial insemination, and everything in betweeen. And a good friend of mine reached outand begged that I explain the science. So that is what I will attempt to do–in a blog, of course.
Let’s start first by explaining the Hemispheres. Breeding hubs such as the United States, Ireland, and Japan exist in what we consider the Northern Hemisphere-indicating that our longest days exist between May and September–aka “summer.”
Conversely to this, other breeding hotspots such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile exist in the Southern Hemisphere, indicating the exact opposite. Their longer days exist between November and March, and their summer is the inverse of ours.
So why does this matter? Well, quite simply, because the horses entire reproductive tract is controlled by those precious hours of light controlling the length of day. That sunlight tells the brain to actively secrete the hormones that make our mares tease hot and ovulate, thereby enabling them to get pregnant. They even control (to a lesser extent) the amount of super swimmers that a stallion can produce.
Through artificial strategies, we have manipulated this to enable our mares to cycle earlier in the year–in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Mostly by placing them under artificial lights–or turning the light on in their stalls–we are able to convince their brains to do this earlier, thus allowing us to begin breeding season on February 15th, and ensuring a Northern Hemisphere birth date as close to January 1st as possible.
The Southern Hemisphere does this as well, only because their summers are the inverse of ours, they strategize for a different time. In Australia and New Zealand, the overall Thoroughbred birth date is August 1st, but this is actually not true for Chile, who recognizes July 1st as their annual Thoroughbred birth day. The varying Jockey Clubs of the numerous countries select their own rules, and minor variants such as this exists between them, but one thing remains true to all:
All thoroughbred stallions must breed their book of mares by live cover–and this eliminates the option for artificial insemination, embryo transfer, or cloning.
Because of this, we shuttle.
The process of shuttling a thoroughbred stallion means that they are transported from one hemisphere to the next, and due to the daylength being long at a constant state, they are able to produce testosterone – and therefore sperm – at a steady state.
Most stallions travel via air, which has become a routine form of transportation for a plethora of disciplines and is rather simple and straight forward. They are assisted by their grooms and a veterinarian for every flight, and the majority ship in a box stall–without the bumpy roads to annoy their fragile legs.
But more importantly — they then breed a second book of mares in that season. And with some stallions breeding books of greater than 200 mares, this causes concerns to the public of increasing that book size to 400-or double.
It has to decrease fertility, right?
They have to eventually burn out, right?
They couldn’t possibly breed that many mares, right?
The average stallion produces enough sperm to breed 7 mares a day in the wild.
So–by that math–a stallion produces enough sperm to cover 2,500 mares a year.
So why don’t they?
The limiting factor to book size is not the amount of sperm that can be produced, it is the number of mares you can excite the stallion by. In most live cover scenarios, this is approximately 1-2 a day. At most, I have witnessed a stallion breeding 5 mares in one day. Again, not even close to the natural limit.
So does shuttling have an effect on their fertility? It has to, right? They have to eventually burn out and stop getting mares pregnant, no?
An awesome study done by Texas A&M was recently published in Theriogenology, a journal which studies animal reproduction. Headed by Dr. Stephanie Walbornn, the study examined the effect of shuttling on a variety of outcomes that are used to evaluate stallion performance: seasonal pregnancy rate, first cycle conception rate, and pregnancy rate per cycle.
Each of these things are indicative of a stallions intrinsic fertility. They are each taken into consideration when choosing a stallions book size. Because the stallion owners understand a few things better than the keyboard warriors:
A healthy stallion is a productive stallion.
No, but seriously. Body condition, increased temperatures due to viral or bacterial infections, and joint health all impact sperm production and libido. A sick stallion cannot breed at a high capacity.
A stallion that is not getting mares pregnant is not profitable. In the thoroughbred industry, the majority of these lavish $100,000+ stud fees are only paid when the mare produces a foal that is able to stand up and nurse. If the stallion has passed his book size capacity and is therefore either shooting blanks or simply refusing to breed, the farms are making $0.
And increasing blood in our pedigrees is essential. We would not have both Zenyatta and Winx, two of the greatest race mares of existence, if Darley had not shuttled Street Cry to Australia. We would not have Animal Kingdom if Leroixdesanimeux had not arrived from Argentina. And we would not have beautiful Galileo foals in my backyard if travel to breed was not encouraged. Limiting outselves to just America, or scarier- just Kentucky, would be devastating.
But the outcomes of this necessary study by TAMU were simple: there were no negative effects of breeding a stallion in dual hemispheres (both North and South). In fact, one of the only significant outcome of the variables evaluated was that the stallions had better fertility in the Southern Hemisphere in comparison to the North.
And once finished with their sexual adventures in the Southern Hemisphere, these valuable stallions then hop back onto their jet planes and return to be bred for the Northern Hemisphere breeding season. Let me repeat: California Chrome and American Pharoah will come home after a 5-6 month vacation to the sunny south.
If anything, they get to exist in a constant state of summer. Longer days. Green grass. 5 star meals. And a line of women, I mean mares, waiting to be satisfied.
It sounds like a pretty darn good life. Shuttle On.
I wrote a few months ago about my struggle setting goals, and how for the first time in a long time I was forcing myself too.
I was riding the peak of a high – having taken both my seasoned veteran and my hardass youngin’ to a local jumper show. The seasoned veteran proven to me why he has been my go-to man for the past 4 years, and the hardass finally stepped up to the plate to demonstrate the progress that with a horse is so immeasurable on most days.
And I left the show thinking good thoughts. This was my time. I would finally have MY year.
Visions of galloping fences, half passes, and rosettes filled my head. Crossing through the finish flags with a smile plastered on my face and a fist pump in the air. Beers drank at the trailer in celebration, and vetrolin baths in the warm summer Kentucky air.
After two extremely frustrating years – full of injuries, empty bank accounts, and failures – it felt like it was finally my time. My hard work and dedication might finally pay off.
And with it, I set my goals. For Mak it was simple – get more mileage at training level. And if all went well, I hoped to end the summer with a preliminary combined test. It all went EXCEEDINGLY well, maybe even an event at preliminary level in late fall, or early spring next year.
For Nixon, I finally felt as though we were on the correct path. He had cantered around the jumper show at 2’6 with a calm, steady, pace. He was finally brave without being brazen, and I wanted nothing more than to finally move back up to beginner novice at a recognized event. My goal was to finally canter a cross country course – as his MO was always to run off, and trotting had become our safety net.
And after this show, I finally felt as though both of these things were possible.
And then in true equestrian fashion, it all came crumbling down.
I hit post on that blog, ran to the barn with a smile on my face, and loaded two of my horses up for a hack with friends. We ventured into the freezing tundra for a walk hack, covered from head to toe and shivering the entire way.
There was no time to be a fair weather rider when you had goals to accomplish, and therefore, off we went.
And after a truly frigid ride, we loaded Nixon and Kennedy back onto the trailer for the measly 4 mile journey home. We got home and began to unload, and found the pin to the butt bar on my 2 horse straight load severely bent, prohibiting Nixon from exiting. And in an attempt to release him from his entrapment, the following ten minutes became some of the scariest of my life.
I won’t go into the gory details, or the calmness that came over me as I stood trapped between my 17.1hh horse and the metal wall, because none of that matters. What matters is that Nixon effectively kicked the butt bar clean of the welding that attached it to the wall to release himself – destroying both the trailer and his second metatarsal – or hind splint bone.
And with it, my goals were destroyed as well.
The following few days were encompassed by waves of emotions. The height of the wave lied in the farm manager resting deep within my soul. The farm manager went through the motions of emergency triage. Sedation and banamine were administered, bandages were applied, and veterinarians were called. Radiographs were taken, and rehabilitation strategies set. As a farm manager, I knew that this horse was in no better hands, and that it would do nobody any good to sink into a severe depression or worse – panic.
I had dealt with worse. I had rehabbed more extreme. I knew as a farm manager that this was just a bump on an otherwise long road. And I knew how quickly 2-3 months could pass. I had done it before, and I could (and would) do it again.
But those horses in previous years were not my own. And it is so easy to deal with someone elses crushed dreams while attending to their horses fractures and tears.
And as the horse owner, or the equestrian, the low of the wave hits. When it is your own dreams that are crashing, and your own goals smashed alongside the frail bones of your horses leg – the pain is exponentially worse. You question every decision you make, and you panic over any outcome predicted.
And I watched myself go through the paces of good horsemanship as the farm manager, and then crash as I climbed into my truck and dissolved into tears as horse owner.
But after two weeks of rehab, and two weeks of the rollercoasters of emotions, I have learned a few things. These things have kept me going during this path, and will continue to motivate me as I journey through this winding path through the next 6-8 weeks.
And as I repeated them to myself over and over as I drove the back roads through the Bluegrass to treat my beautiful Nixon, I began to realize just how applicable they were to not only my horses, but in life in general.
You cannot control the actions of others, but you can control your reaction to them.
I could not have prevented Nixon from fracturing his leg, but I could control how I handled it – and I knew that I handled it well. I stayed calm, I assessed the injury, and I went through the motions. I had to find reassurance in knowing that he was in no better hands at that specific moment, and that the veterinarians agreed. And in that, I found comfort.
Years of emergency situations managing hundreds upon hundreds of horses had prepared me for this moment. In retrospect, I might no longer be a manager of a commercial farm, but those years prepared me for this exact moment. And I find comfort in knowing that my horses exist within the level of care that I have garnered through my past.
You might be devastated and at a low point, but it could always be lower.
I whisper this to myself each time that I pull Nixon from his stall for a hand graze. Sure, he fractured a bone and effectively halted our spring (and possible summer) season, but he is alive. The outcome of the situation could be devastatingly worse had it not been handled as calmly and effectively, and I could be walking to an empty stall instead of a stall with a happy, albeit stoned (yay – reserpine) face.
My life has taught me just how low low can get, and this is not my lowest. Yes, my horse is broken. Yes, my plans are shot. But we are – in all terms of relativity – OK.
The goals you set might not be accomplished in the timeframe desired, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set them.
I saw the dry comedy behind the fact that my horse injured himself right as I finally stepped up to the goal setting mound, with a massive swing and a miss. But that doesn’t mean that I should hide behind my fear of failure for the rest of my life.
Because I have learned in my 30 years of life that this crazy world known as horse ownership is full of these setbacks – both major and minor.
We have all showed up to the barn to find our horse 3-legged with an abscess. A pulled shoe the day of the show. A lacerated hock the day before a lesson. I have heard devastating stories of horses getting loose while grazing at Rolex and slipping on pavement, or breaking from their stalls at Pony Finals to eat an entire bin of grain.
Because life, and the life of a horse owner, is not an uphill battle. It is not linear. It is peaks and valleys. It is a wave. It is knowing when to surf that high, all the while acknowledging the crash that may follow it.
And the battle is not in how high you can get up that brink, but rather how well you find your surfboard back on the beach, and how hard you paddle back out to try again.
I am there. I am stranded on the beach watching my fellow surfers peaking over the massive waves of their own highs. I am currently searching for my surfboard. It definitely got a chunk taken out on the coral, and I might be a little battered and bruised, but I’m ready to paddle back out.
I am ready to pick myself, and my horse back up. And I am ready to set those goals again. We will be back. We are at an all time low, but I can see the highs ahead. Surf on.
I was once told that I was anti-racing.
That because I was a part of the second career movement, I obviously didn’t respect the first. That because I believed in not pushing for one more race that I didn’t cheer for the twenty before it.
And that it, just simply, wrong.
I won’t lie and say that I don’t respect the second career. I do. And why? Because in most cases, it is the most lengthy. The average horse runs for 2-3 years and then has only a few options. To be bred? Turned out? Or retrained. And if the average horse lives for 20 years, another 15 are going to be spent with that second choice.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect, love, and appreciate the first years of that thoroughbreds life. I used to be the one that woke up at 2:17am on a 20 degree night in February to deliver them into this world. My black lab puppy was the first friend they encountered after drinking their first drops of colostrum.
I was the one who woke up and rubbed their bellies when they felt a little colicky, bandaged their wounds when they felt a bit too fresh and tested the fence line, or wrapped their hooves when they pulled their first shoe.
I was the one who taught them what a surcingle was, and how to walk with those weird fandangled polo wraps. I was who taught them to stand on the scale as we measure their growth and progress, and who hand fed sweet feed to convince them that it was just as delicious as their pellets.
I was the one who taught them how to walk, and how to stand. I taught them how to load on a trailer and get to their first destination – whether it be to the clinic, the sales, or Florida.
And I was the one who walked back to the truck after loading them up and sobbed quietly.
I acknowledged that it was up to me to set these horses up for future success – and in my mind, that was as both a racehorse and a sport horse.
If I kept them safe and growing strongly, they would blossom into beautiful yearlings. Beautiful yearlings received interest from the good guys, and were more likely to end up in their good hands. The good guys broke them slowly and trained them well, and their chances of winning a race were much greater. And their race record could then pad the sales page of their mothers – mothers that I adored and was still watching pace their stalls as they waited to deliver their next foal.
And because of one horses success, the future foals out of those mares could be just a little bit safer. A little bit better. If she produces just one graded stakes winner the other progeny would receive those looks, make those long lists. And as long as I could continue doing my job of bubble wrap and preparation, that look could turn into a short list, and maybe even a purchase.
It is a cycle.
And at the end of the cycle, the race connections only have a few choices: breed them, use them as a pony or a teaser, or rehome them.
And if they are a gelding, the number of choices drops tremendously. And if they’re not sound, even moreso.
And that is where I come in. I loved those foals. I loved the long nights and the longer days. I loved staring at them as they streaked across the field, or slept in their stalls.
So, I do cheer on those races. I scream at the top of my lungs while staring at my Twinspires app on my iPhone from restaurants around the country – mortifying my boyfriend in the process. I want them to run well, and to run strong. I want them to add black to their mothers page, and hopefully boost their brothers and sisters futures just a little bit.
But I also want them to retire sound, to have a chance. I want their managers, owners, and trainers to ask themselves if that one last race at a level 4x lower than their highest is worth it. They have to ask themselves if that horse is running at that level because of lack of desire, lack of ability, or worse: pain, and then further ask themselves if a horse needs to run if any of those things are true.
Because for the next 15 years, that horse is going to face those consequences. One last race might mean one chipped knee. One torn suspensory. One bad experience. It could make the difference between an easy adoption or sale, or a horse who lingers in the field eating his weight in grain and being shod. It could make the difference between a life being loved by an aspiring upper level eventer and one hobbling along a field in constant mild pain.
It could make the difference between life, or death.
I have always wanted to complete the cycle on one of my horses.
I have watched as fillies return from the track to produce their own foals, and have also seen colts go on to stand as stallions. I have gotten to watch from afar as some of “mine” have journeyed on to second careers, but I have never actually been able to be the one to ride them.
So I travelled from Lexington, Ky to Boyd’s Pass, Md yesterday to do exactly that. A horse who was raised by Hinkle Farms under my watchful eye, but was purchased for $160,000 by Nick and Jacqui de Meric to pinhook into the 2 year old sales. A horse who ran only ten times over the span of two years, but who received our adulation and cheers in every single start. A horse who’s connections chose to forfeit that one last race and instead placed him at New Vocations Thoroughbred Adoption in Lexington, Ky to secure him that second career.
And a horse that I then got to watch flourish in that second career for the past three years.
He goes by a lot of names now, for I still call him Spring, Tom Hinkle refers to him as The Malibu Moon, his racing connections only know him as Excess Liquidity, and now his current owner puts him on competition entries as Crossfire, but affectionately calls him Eddie in the barn.
I hadn’t seen Eddie, or “Spring”, since the fateful day where the gavel came down at $160,000. I was the one who led him to the ring, and I patted his neck on the way back with tears streaming down my face – uncertain as to who purchased him or what his future was.
But I was lucky. The de Meric’s kept us in the loop and told us that they adored the horse just as much as I had. And for years I got to watch on platforms through the world wide web as he raced.
And at the end of his race career, his connections did what the good guys do – they gave him to New Vocations to adopt. And because he was still stunning, and more importantly, he was still sound, he was adopted quickly and sent to Maryland.
It had been almost 7 years since I last saw Eddie, but I swear he still knew it was me. The girl who 7 years ago giggled as he came in from the paddock on his hind end. The girl who massaged his joints and meticulously picked the straw from his tail. The girl who would grab him in bear hugs to be lifted off the ground.
And as of last night, I got to check another thing off of the list. I got to become the girl who rode him.
And I loved every minute of it.
But celebrating that hour of bliss doesn’t forfeit how important his pivotal years were. It doesn’t null en void his ten starts. And it certainly doesn’t ignore his life before. But it was celebrated nonetheless. With each circle, shoulder fore, and lengthening that I got to push him through, my smile only widened.
A life begun on a farm in Paris, Ky has now journeyed to so many places. From the lucrative Keeneland sales to a training facility in Ocala, Florida. From racetracks all along the Eastern seaboard; Florida, to New York, and even Maryland along the way. To arrive at a rehoming facility only a few miles from his birthplace, and then a quick trailer ride back to the state of his final race at Laurel Park.
All of it is astonishing and great. A good upbringing, a trip to the auction ring, some breaks through the starting gate, and then a retirement at the perfect time.
And now? Now he can add over 15 starts at recognized events. Currently competing at training level, with preliminary in the near future. He can add hundreds of fences jumped, thousands of circles trotted, and a few blue ribbons won.
And to me, that second career doesn’t take anything away from the first. It is not a one versus the other. It is not black and white. It is not linear. It is not anti-racing, or pro-sport, it is simply thoroughbred-centric.
Last night proved that. This journey with these thoroughbreds should be cyclical. And last night, one circle became complete.
“How much will it cost if you do the whole thing?”
“About $150. I’m just doing this to pay my way through grad school.”
“Uh huh. Sure. We’ll see you back here next weekend….”
That is the conversation that I watched be repeated most weekends during the winter. The weathered old men eyeing me up and down as I saunter down the shed row. The cat calls from the young grooms and the dirty looks from the women.
I enter the establishment layered from head to toe, but quickly remove the layers as I do my job. First the jacket, and then the fleece. My arms begin to ache, and my lower back burns from constantly bending in ways I should never bend.
As I sway to the music pulsating in my ears, acknowledging that I hate every minute of this ridiculous dance, I remind myself that if I just finish this one, I can pay for that event. If I do 3-4 more, I can pay for that clinic. And if I keep going and come back weekend after weekend, I might just get that saddle I have been eyeing.
But with each arrangement made, and each wad of cash handed, I acknowledge that I hate every moment of it. And I acknowledge that this is no way to live, constantly hating what you do.
But that is the life of a clipper.
I am broke. A graduate students salary doesn’t exactly cushion the pockets in a way that would be beneficial to an equestrians lifestyle.
I live on ramen so that my horses can eat alfalfa. I wear hand me downs so that my horses can get new blankets. And I cut my own hair so that I don’t have to cut my budget.
But I am scrappy. I clip, braid, pull, and trim my own so that I can pay for that one show or that weekend clinic.
And slowly, somehow, people began to notice. The clean lines and the even spacing. A well turned out horse standing next to a gaunt girl who looked like she would do just about anything for a bottle of beer instead of a can.
So I fell into the rabbit hole, and began to pursue a life of clipping.
Most patrons assume that we do this because we like it, if that is even possibly. But how we could ever like being struck by our patrons as we dance around them, attempting to just finish the job.
How we could appreciate coming home sore covered in slobber and hair, with a lower back that screams in pain and knees that constantly ache.
It is a vile, disgusting, unappreciated way to make a living.
I show up and am immediately told that handsome studs named Bobby and Ed will be gentle, and that anyone could get the job done on them. I am forewarned that occasionally Freddie bites, but it’s just playful-he’s not actually mean. And I’m told to not even attempt to get the job done on the asshole named Luke unless he has someone else there to restrain him.
I do my job with a forced smile and tense shoulders, fully acknowledging that I despise every moment.
But I envision that ribbon, or the flashing crystals of the new rhinestone encrusted browband, or even the beautiful round edges of the number 0 on balance needed to pay my vet, and off I go to clip.
Once done, I rush to leave. My body actually quivers as I get into my truck, and I hit the gas pedal, wanting nothing more than to get into a shower and wipe the filth off of me.
And I remind myself that clipping is no way to live.
But only for now. Only until I can afford to not be a clipper. Only until the dollar bills don’t hold the same luster as they do now, and it’s unnecessary to clip my way through school. Only until I can become the patron instead of the worker.
And the day that I can afford to become the patron instead of the once doing the dance, I will throw Benjamins around to the clippers like nobody has ever before.
I should have never told anyone I could clip, but I did, and it’s ok. Because even if it is a thankless job, it’s also a means to an end.
A job that pays the bills and puts food in the stall.
So the next time you make that call to hire that hidden warrior, be nice. You might have all of the power, and all of the money, but she has the skill and, more importantly, the need.
And as you watch her begin to sway to the music in her head and whisper sweet nothings into the patrons ears, think to yourself–have you thanked your clipper lately?
And if the answer is no, dig deep into your pockets and show your appreciation. Us clippers need it. We deserve it. Because we might be clippers, but we’re people too.
“What do we need?”
These are the words that echo in my mind each time I ride Nixon and he is in one of “his moods.”
I own a very forward horse. Some would even say the most forward horse. A horse that by all other means should now be standing in a chandelier draped breeding shed in Lexington, Kentucky and covering 200 Zenyattas a day.
But regardless of his speed, and moreso because of his opinions, and therefore the removal of his, em, cowbells, he is not. He is instead living with me in the pursuit of $3 ribbons, and more importantly, XC schools that do not end with abrasions and a blown air canister.
And each time that I ride him and feel those gorgeous thoroughbred muscles clench and that engine start to hum, I know it is time to do the one thing that the neurons in my brain can’t seem to fire. The one thing that my body is screaming no although my brain is saying yes.
I need to add leg.
Or as I often think; cowbell.
We have all seen the skit on SNL where Will Ferrel thrusts his beer gut around in a belly shirt while hammering a cowbell as hard as possible. It is unnecessary, it is annoying, and it is the last thing that the song needs. But each time that the band leader (Christopher Walken) halts the song and demands a fix, the only thing he can come up with to solve the problem is to add MORE cowbell.
It is the opposite of what the band thinks. It is the opposite of the obvious.
It is, simply, more cowbell.
And that is what goes through my mind each time I feel that hotness, that tensing of his core. When your body is staying pull, when you should be hearing push. When you want to go into the fetal position, when you actually should sit up and ride.
When every fiber in your being is telling you to grab his mouth and pull, even though the truth is that you should be sinking your weight down, lifting your hands up, and adding leg.
Your leg is your cowbell.
And yet it is so hard to convince yourself to do the exact opposite of what you have been programmed.
Horse goes fast, you pull on their mouth, horse slows down. Horse goes slow, you kick with your legs, horse goes faster.
But in this case, with this horse, it is the opposite.
It is not as simple as horse goes fast, as Nixon knows whoa. He has the training and the tricks up his sleeve to behave when he wants to-hence the accolades adorning my mantle.
And it’s not as easy as pull back and whoa. For every time you touch this horses mouth, he accelerates harder. Faster.
It has come down to realizing what triggers the speed, and what acts as the brake.
Balance, or the lack thereof appears to be the trigger. He is such an innately balanced horse that he appears to float over the ground, and in fact did for many years and $500,000. But when he feels unbalanced, his immediate reaction is to find balance yet again. And as a 1400 pound, 17.1hh thoroughbred who ran long and hard, a gallop is his sweet spot.
He knows that if I would just let him run, he would feel comfort. It is easier than shoulder in, or haunches out. It is simpler than a canter/trot transition, or a halt.
Nixon didn’t leave the track because of lack of interest or lack of wins. He left because his owners wanted to finish him before that one last race, that one bad step. But in his mind-the racetrack is home. And maybe even more importantly, the gallop is comfortable.
So I have learned that instead of searching for or demanding an E-brake, I had to find a new comfort zone. A down shift. And that comfort zone is my legs. My cowbell.
My friend Alexa jokingly referred to them as his Thunder Blanket, and that couldn’t be any closer to the truth. Because when I wrap my legs around his core, I am supporting him. And more importantly, I am able to use that training and those tricks to rebalance him. To reassess which part of his body isn’t in comfort. I can use the haunches in to slow, or the shoulder fore to flex.
And for a horse who demands happiness, and more importantly, balance, this relaxes him.
It is not an argument with my hands. It is not a punishment with my spurs. It is simply a support. A comfort. A Thunder Blanket.
And it is my cowbell.
But it is still so hard to convince myself to do something that goes against every fiber of my being. My body is aching to pull back on the bit, and my shoulders are tipping down towards his neck. His gallop intrinsically demands that I lean forward into two-point.
But my brain knows that it is time for the down shift. The cowbell.
It is time for the thing that might seem so counter productive and so counter intuitive, and bang away with force. With gumption. Without hesitation.
I hope to be the best cowbell player out there for Nixon. Put on my best Will Farrell game face. Ring that cowbell with abandon. And support my horse.
More leg. More cowbell. Rock on.
In most aspects of life, I am an extremely goal oriented person.
I am as competitive as they come, and constantly striving to better myself. I want to be the best of the best. But more importantly, I need to be the best me I can be.
And yet somehow, I own horses. And horses have the ability to make even the most type-A or hyper-planned person fail.
I’m sure all of us have shown up to the barn the day before a show to find a 3-legged pony, or a stream of blood.
I’m sure all of us have scheduled a plan for show season, only to have the furnace go out or need new tires.
I’m sure all of us have gotten back into riding only to start a doctoral dissertation, and find their salary cut down to a quarter of what it was. Wait, that might just be me.
Regardless of which of these have happened to you, we all appreciate how humbling this game is. You might finally find yourself to have all the money in the world, only to be forced to spend it on the vet. Or you might find yourself to finally own a horse of a lifetime, but without a penny to your name for lessons or shows.
It is a perpetual and cyclical ride on the struggle bus.
When you have the money, you don’t have the time. And when you have the time, you don’t have the money. Or worse, your horse decides that that time would be best spent soaking his hoof.
I have been there for the past few years. And it is so frustrating and so hard to not let jealousy consume you. Or worse, to simply give up.
It is also so hard to not let yourself use money as an excuse to not set goals. And in the last few years, I have failed. I have done exactly that for the past two years. I am so scared of not achieving these goals because of the reasons stated above, that I simply don’t set them.
And I then I sit back and watch my friends set their own goals, and tackle them with gumption. My friends goals are what I want mine to be. Run a 1*. Move up a level. Get that bronze medal. Place at championships. Qualify for that show. And I get so viciously jealous.
Because their goals require money. Money I never seem to have.
How can I move up that level without the money it takes to take consistent lessons? The money it takes to compete numerous times at the level below to gain the confidence and skill necessary to tackle the next. How can I prepare myself for that bronze medal if I’m not even currently able to exercise my horses on a regular basis. I am not only not in Wellington, I don’t even have an arena up here in Kentucky.
And it is so easy to focus on what they have, instead of finding contentment and happiness in what you do. You can’t change your entire life, but you can change how you look at it.
It is so easy to stare at Facebook statuses of success. Pictures of XC schools in sunny Florida, or videos of foot perfect jump schools in immaculate indoors.
It is easy to throw your cell phone against the wall after as you check the weather app yet again to see if it will even warm up enough to thaw the outdoor. It is easy to hang your head after checking your bank account to see if you even have enough money to take that lesson.
And it is so easy to watch your soul turn into the shade of green that dictates jealousy, before realizing that your XC color is in fact blue, and this will clash horribly.
So this year, I am changing that. I am ignoring the things I don’t have and focusing on the amazing things I do.
I am setting goals. And I am setting goals that are plausible even without that trust fund. Without dollar bills and expensive shows.
Because I want off the struggle bus. I want to stop using jealousy as an excuse, or money as a reason. I want to be the best that I can be, and that best might be your worst – but thats ok, because I am not you.
My Rolex might be your schooling show. My bronze medal might not be from the Olympics. And my best day might be your worst. But that is fine, as long as I am still aware of the fact that I am smiling. And aware that I cannot control your frown.
For one horse, this might mean finally achieving that downward transition from the trot to the walk without falling on our forehand. For another, this might mean cantering a cross country course without swear words and strained muscles. And for a third, this might simply mean riding more and staring at less.
My goals don’t have to be yours, but it is beneficial to set them nonetheless. They might not be grandiose, and they might not mean a full show schedule or copious amounts of money spent. They might not mean levels accomplished or ribbons won, because if I finally obtain that money, I hope to spend it on lessons and education.
But thats ok, because they are mine. And while sharing might be caring, we don’t have to share our goals.
And maybe more importantly, my one goal is to strengthen my teams. This sport is supposedly beautiful because of the individualism within it. But in actuality it is a team sport. And the team is two members strong: you and your horse.
So this year, my overall goal is to be a better team player. To support my mate when he is weak. To pick him up when he is down. To cheer him up when he is low. And then to hope he helps me when I need that hand as well.
And if I can accomplish just that, I will consider 2017 a success.
One of my students came up to me a few weeks ago and started listing her goals for the season. And being a goal oriented person I was intrigued to hear her own.
Claire had gotten a thoroughbred off the track or year ago, and had struggled with him all year. She had reached out to me last summer after I had written of the trials and tribulations of turning “professional” to ask if I taught lessons, and I responded not really. She explained that her horse sounded a lot like one of mine, and with the successes I had had, she had thought that maybe, just possibly, I could help her.
But I balked. I don’t consider myself a true professional rider, even if USEF defines me as such. I am not an upper level eventer, I do not do this for a living. And there are plenty of people in Lexington who can check both of those boxes.
Only six years ago I wasn’t competing at all. Just two years ago I completed my first training level event. Just this past summer I did my first AA hunter show. In a nut shell, I’m not sure how much skill I can pass on or how much help I can be.
But one of the few things that I do feel competent in is retraining young thoroughbreds. And so hesitantly, and cautiously, I told Claire I would meet with her.
And because of that, for the past 4 months, I have now gotten to watch firsthand as Claire and Johnny develop into a beautiful relationship.
One of the first things that we both realized was that she was going to have to wipe her drawing board clean. She was scared of her horse, and he knew it. He wasn’t malicious, but he was smart. And he had her number.
But the beauty of trying to help a rider like Claire is that she is both willing and able. Every lesson, every day, held an “ah ha” moment, a breakthrough. And as Claire and Johnny built confidence in their relationship to each other, I found confidence in myself.
So when she approached me about her goals for the year I was excited to hear them. The excitement on my face quickly turned into a grimace as I heard her say that she just didn’t think she wanted a horse show all year. She said that horse shows stressed her out, and the stress seem to then flow into Johnny. Her stress would cause his bad behavior, and then we would all be back at square one.
And I tried to put the words together to tell her that I appreciated her willingness to admit her own flaws, all the while ready to explain to her that we needed to fix them, when I suddenly realized how similar Claire and I were. And how hypocritical I was being.
I also hate showing. I get extremely stressed out by the thought of people watching and judging me. I panic over the idea of a bad ride on a sales horse being seen, or recorded. And I completely hyperventilate over the idea of that bad ride costing me $500.
And I have realized that this fear of showing becomes a vicious cycle. You get scared to show because you are convinced that your horse is going to misbehave or hell, just be imperfect, so you don’t enter. You don’t enter and then you constantly think it was a good idea because your horse would have in fact misbehaved, or you wouldn’t have ridden well. And then you don’t enter the next time because neither you or he had a chance to prove each other wrong.
The anxiety and the fear overpower the confidence. The confidence you can only get from a good experience. An experience you didn’t get.
This fear might have nothing to do with the horses behavior or performance. Lord knows I have gotten there on Mak, a horse that has rarely made me question either. Sometimes you lose this confidence after a great show, wondering if it’s even possible to top it. I’ve been there on Nixon.
And as I explained all of this to her, without admitting my own phobias, I realized how hypocritical I was being. But nonetheless, I encouraged her to reconsider. I told her that there was a small schooling jumper show only a week away. I told her to at least come, and bring Johnny. Best case scenario? She hopped on and trotted cross rails. Worst case scenario? I would get on and trot the cross rails for her.
The day of the show rolled around, and we planned to get there early to let the baby horses get used to the environment. Not only would Claire be showing Johnny, but another one of my so-called students Caroline would be taking my baby gentle giant Kennedy in the same division.
I told both girls in warm-up that there was no need for fear. Both horses were over 16 hands (Kennedy being 17.3h) and could easily step over the fences. I told them that that is exactly what I expected them to do if either horse slowed down or stopped. This was a learning experience. And it was crucial for the babies to learn straight and forward.
But neither stopped. Both Claire and Caroline went into the cross rails division like they had been doing it their entire lives. They came out with smiles on their faces, but more importantly they came out with confidence. And I convinced both to enter starter, hoping their confidence would only grow as they jumped 2’3.
And again, they were both flawless.
But as we loaded up the trailer I made the comment that the weather was beginning to turn. It was pretty cold and starting to drizzle, and I said out loud that maybe I would just cancel my own horse. Knowing full and well that it had nothing to do with the weather, and everything to do with my own confidence.
I hadn’t shown Mak in almost 9 months, due to no fault of his own. When my confidence was up and my bank account was full, Nixon always drew the short stick. He “needed” the experience more, and Mak was my packer-he already had the experience. But because of that, and because of this vicious cycle, I was scared.
Luckily, in true role reversal, my students became the teachers. They gave me a swift kick in the ass and threw me the keys, demanding we go get Mak.
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.
And go he did. We moved up to the Training level division and he packed my ass around there too. And I also left the ring with a huge smile, and more importantly, with a lot of confidence. Something that wouldn’t have happened without taking a chance on a little schooling show at Antebellum Farm for their “Winter Staycation Series”, amazingly sponsored by Bob Mickler’s Tack. It was exactly what we needed.
I’m hoping that the vicious cycle is broken, and if not, that it’s at least been rerouted. I have entered into another show, and I’m hoping to soon get him up to WEF for some rated jumpers.
And that’s all that really matters. Small goals achieved. Goals that we didn’t plan to set, or maybe even rerouted to. Smiles earned; confidence gained. And at the end of the day the partnership with a great horse, and some good students.
Students that, in this case, constantly teach the teacher.