Worth her weight in gold: A clinic weekend with Lillian Heard

I can remember moving to Lexington, KY a decade ago and thinking: 

“Now. Now is when I finally learn to ride.”

I had grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had dabbled in a variety of disciplines and industries. From 4-H to Pony Club, Western Pleasure to Pleasure Driving, and Morgan Horses to Quarter Horses, we did it all.

With my childhood trainer, later in life at the 2010 WEG.

My trainer was an amazing woman.

 With a depth of knowledge in a variety of things, she was never short sighted or slight in her knowledge, and at the end of the day, horsemanship was her primary goal.

Whether we were in a jump saddle or western, our horses understood our aids. Whether we were jumping an oxer or running a barrel pattern, our horses were supple. And whether we were aiming for a western pleasure championship or our A in Pony Club, our equine care was the same.

Her name was Rose Watt, and in retrospect, she was amazing.

But at the age of 22, the black 4 plank of the Bluegrass was calling. I thought that if I moved to The Mecca, that simply by osmosis I would become one of the greats. 

A young Carleigh. Thinking my training wasn’t good enough.

These trainers were all highly successful–with accolades adorning their websites and sponsors lining their trailers. And I arrived and thought “Now is my time. I will finally learn to ride.”

I thought that the big names and the fancy barns meant better lessons. That the dollars spent equated the knowledge gained in a linear fashion.

And I was wrong.
I quickly realized in lesson after lesson with these big names just how amazing Rose was as a trainer, and just how little the last name of your trainer meant.

No one in Lexington may have heard her name, but they were impressed with my base of riding. And I quickly, and justly, switched routes. I found one or two trainers that reminded me of Rose, that were more concerned with the quality of riding than the ribbons, and I carried on.

Fast forward a decade, and this weekend I drive away from a clinic thinking this exact principle.

A few months ago, my friend Courtney returned from a week in Aiken and asked for a girls night. She ordered a drink, sat down next to me and raved about her trip. Her horse had been fabulous, the weather had been perfect, and she had ridden with a new trainer who had, quite simply, “got her.”

Her name was Lillian Heard, and Courtney was hooked.

Courtney and Lillian this weekend. Photo by JJ Sillman

Lillian was a 4* rider with numerous horses running at that level, but without the cult following that we see some have. I knew little about her, but knew I could trust Courtney. 

Courtney knew that I had a ((difficult)) horse similar to hers. She demanded that I take a lesson with Lillian in the future, because she knew that Lillian would “get me” and knew that I would obtain vast knowledge and homework from just a few lessons in a weekend long clinic.

I agreed, and Courtney quickly began to roll the wheels.

Within weeks, she had a clinic set up on a shoestring budget. 

Friends offered their farms; Courtney offered her house; and the bells and whistles of a fancy clinic were replaced with smiles and helping hands.

A variety of riders signed up, and a variety of riders attended. From starter to preliminary, with every single age and sex represented.

But what united us all was the smile on our faces at the end.

Photo by JJ Sillman

Lexington is unique in that it attracts big names to come do clinics simply by the sheer amount of eventers per capita. Most are riders that are standing on the podiums at the Olympics, and because of that, the organizers, and the fancy farms that host them, they cost more than what most of us make in a week…or a month.
And while it might be on your bucket list to ride with that person, or maybe you simply thought that the $500 spent was worth the selfie you were able to take, I have personally backed away from those clinics because my childhood taught me that the money spent doesn’t always equate the knowledge gained.

Lillian was an amazing clinician, and worth a hundred times the moderate amount that I spent on the weekend for two horses. 

Just like my childhood instructor, I gained more this weekend than I bargained for. 

The Elephant loved learning from Lillian. Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

She had my training level horse in a frame he had never found. She had my beginner novice baby jumping lines he had never seen. And all of these things were taught with careful consideration, a lot of praise, and a big smile. Even the auditors (aka friends and family who grabbed a folding chair and a bottle of water) were enthralled.

Signing autographs for the next generation. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It was an amazing clinic. With an amazing rider, but more importantly, an amazing instructor. 

One who I see adorning the podiums in the near future and gaining that cult following. 

But for now, with this group of us in Lexington, we are just so happy that Courtney figured a way to get Lillian here to us. For keeping it affordable. For keeping it fun. 

Cost doesn’t equate return. Olympic medals don’t equate high level instructorship. And a fancy farm is a fancy farm, but your horse will still learn to jump whether the standards cost $200 or were made of old bourbon barrels. 

I am so happy that I rode in this clinic this weekend, and am looking forward to the future dates that Courtney is attempting to set. The knowledge gained vastly outweighed the price paid, and that is exactly the math I like to see while computing my budget for things like this.

Lillian sharing her lunch break with Mak. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Because if I have learned anything in life, at least in regards to my life with horses, is that high price doesn’t always equal high talent. 

And a good instructor is worth their weight in gold-not dollars. 


Two left feet

I strive for perfection…but I own horses.
There is a duality in this lifestyle that is so hard for people like me. And by me, I mean my fellow adults or teenagers who play this game day in and day out.

I have dedicated my life to horses. I own horses, I ride horses, I deliver baby horses, and I research horses. I hold a doctorate in equine reproduction, and every day I wake up with not much more on my brain than thoughts of my equines.

But because I love horses, I also realize and understand that they are living, breathing, moving, changing creatures. They have opinions, and moods, and sometimes they just don’t want to play. 

But because of who I am, and my very specific type of personality, that frustrates the crap out of me.

I grew up an athlete. At a young age, my days consisted of soccer, softball, dance, riding, downhill skiing, and any other athletic endeavor that my parents could find me. In addition to that, I was a straight A student, and a classically trained pianist. 

I went to college and decided to focus on two things: biology, and javelin. And I did well in both.

I was a damned good javelin thrower

I didn’t realize I was abnormal until my boyfriend pointed it out. He oftentimes jokes that I’m the clumsiest athlete he’s ever met, but also laments on the fact that there are few things I am not good at if, and when, I put my mind to it.

I just am that type of person.

I like hard work. I like long hours and the blood, sweat, and tears. I like getting that A or moving up that level. 

I like to win.

But in my mind, winning isn’t a blue ribbon. Winning isn’t a pewter trophy or a big fat check. Winning is setting goals for yourself and achieving them.

And if you are an equestrian, that can be difficult at times.

Because unlike softball, or javelin, or even piano-we equestrians have a partner. A 1350 pound breathing animal that tango’s alongside us.

And there are days where we want to dance, and they don’t. And other days where they’re ready to dance, and we wake up with two left feet.

I had a day like that today. My horses weren’t bad, per-se, but my rides weren’t exactly good.

My goals were fairly simple: I wanted confidence building rides and to leave the XC schooling on both horses with my head held high, knowing that I had done everything possible to get them that encouraging schooling and a positive lesson.

Good XC schools

And I failed, on both. 

Both horses got sucked behind my leg, and both times I flailed instead of supporting. I grabbed instead of kick. 

In a nutshell, I didn’t dance.

But because they are well trained animals that *usually* have a decent rider for a mom, they packed my butt around 90% of the course. But both had stops. And the stops were unfair–at least to them.

And I called my girlfriend Courtney on the way home from the first round to lament. I was in a funk and didn’t know the answer.

But like a good friend that she is–she didn’t sugar coat it. She didn’t blame my horse, and she didn’t outright blame me. She offered calming words of wisdom and ideas for the reasons behind my lack of drive and my horses lack of will.

Getting them back in front of my leg

And at the end of the conversation, I felt better, although not great. I knew I still needed to work on me.

Because I am good at a lot, but I want to be GREAT at something. And I am unsure of what that something is just yet, but I do know that at the end of the day, I want to be a great rider.

And this doesn’t mean I will ever gallop around Badminton, or jump a 1.60m fence. It doesn’t mean I will be selected to any team or earn that red coat.

No, I just want to be great at being me. I want to be the best rider that I can possibly be; the best rider for the horses I have underneath me.

I can be better. I will be better.

I wasn’t that rider today, and my frustration over it is evident. But tomorrow is a new day, and both me and my horses hope to wake up on the right side of our beds and carry on.

And I hope when they ask me for this dance, I can say yes and actually lead. 



A year ago today, I loaded the love of my life onto a trailer for his new home.

I thought I was doing the right thing. I was letting him go to teach the next generation. I was letting him go into a world (the hunters) that I thought would make him happier. And I had matched him with a kid that I thought would always love him.

Mak in the hunter ring. Photo by Anne Gittin

My gut instinct told me that these were good people. And for the first time, at least in regards to horse sales, my gut instinct was wrong.

Less than a month later, I got the call. It ranged from telling me that my horse was falsely advertised to lamenting about teenage behavior.

 They tried to tell me that my horse was sold to them lame, even after he had undergone the most extensive pre purchase examination I had ever been a part of. They asked me if I had sedated him for the trial ride, even after pulling blood for a drug test.

And at the end of the conversation, they ask that I take him back. 

I walked into my living room with my phone on speaker, and stared at my boyfriend as tears streamed down my face. And my boyfriend simply took the phone from my hand and glaringly stated that we would be at their farm the next day.

I was devastated.

My tears were driven by a range of things. 

Feeling as though I had somehow falsely advertised him–was he actually harder to ride than I thought?

Feeling frantic at having another horse back–as I had sold him because I couldn’t adequately pay for two.

Feeling betrayed by buyers who falsely represented their goals and their experience–as I later learned this horse was bought to heal a fractured relationship between a teenager and her mom.

And feeling disgusting by myself for putting my horse in a situation that wasn’t the best for him. I thought I had asked the right questions. I thought I had heard/read/found the right answers. And I was wrong.

Mak coming home

Mak came back from Virginia relatively unphased. He was a couple of pounds lighter and bursting with skin disease, with thrush in all four feet. 

But his brain was unchanged. And I knew I could fix the weight, the hooves, and the skin, but his brain was the most important thing. And he still had his intact.

For my own sanity as well as legal purposes, we had a post purchase examination done. One of the top sport horse vets in the country came out to investigate, and left the farm with the statement that this horse was sound and ready. 

I was to carry on. 

So carry on I did.

Carrying on with eventing. Photo by JJ Sillman

I took that horse with that amazing brain, and got back into a rhythm. We went to AA hunter shows and demonstrated that he truly could be a adult amateur hunter ride. We went to combined tests and events and demonstrated that he was still a kick ride on XC.

And yesterday, in front of the largest crowd he will ever be ridden in front of, Mak walked into the Rolex Arena and demonstrated that he was still the best off the track thoroughbred that Kentucky has ever bred.

I had been at the Kentucky Horse Park early that morning to braid a pony for a friend. The Pony Clubbers had the duty of carrying the flags for each of the nations represented in the competition for closing ceremonies, and needed to look like Rolex ponies themselves. 

The pony I was initially there for. Making him look beautiful. Photo by JJ Sillman.

And I sat in the stall while chatting with a tiny red head standing on the other side of the door. A girl who was in charge of this herd of Pony Clubbers and their ponies. A girl who had become a dear friend in the past year. A girl who had been the agent for the sale of my heart horse.

A year ago Courtney had heard about Mak and reached out to her husbands family to come try him. She had acted as agent during the PPE, and hugged me as I watched him load up and leave.

But then, three weeks later, she had held my hand as I sorted out his retrieval.

Courtney had watched the sale fall apart and had been the second phone call after the request for retrieval. She had offered to help me go get him. And she had watched the last year unfold as I regrouped with him.

She knew I had been honest. She knew I had sold her family a good horse. And at the end of the day, she knew that she had met a good person. A horse sale may have failed, but a friendship blossomed in its place.

Making dear friends out of dire situations.

And as I braided, we chatted. Giggled about random barn gossip, and awed as we watched videos of the XC rides the day before. 

I finished my braids, and she convinced me to walk to the morning jogs. But we made it no farther than 10 feet before encountering a problem.

One of the flag ponies was lame, and one of the Pony Clubbers was in a pinch.

I thought about it for no more than a few seconds and quickly offered up Mak.

The horse who had been returned to me for being falsely advertised. For being too hot. For being crazy.

Because I had had a year to regroup, and a year to process. And I knew none of those things were true. I knew he was the safest horse I owned. And I knew that no other horse would become trained to a flag, an audience and immense noise, as quickly as he.

So in under an hour we had Mak bathed, braided, and at the Kentucky Horse Park to tack up.

 It was a massive fray of excitement and enthusiasm his young rider Keely grabbed my saddle to clean it, my dear friend Alyssa jumped on a bucket to braid, and I ran frantically around to detangle his tail and polish his feet.

Mak and Keely heading to the big ring!

I told Keely that she would be fine. To stay out of his face, and when in doubt, to add leg.  I told her that I didn’t think he would mind the flag, or mind the crowd, but that he might fixate on the jumps. He loved to walk, but he didn’t always love to stand still. 

And at the end of the speech, we gave her a leg up, and off we went.

Photo by Taylor Pence, Copyright US Equestrian

An hour later, Mak marched into a sold out Rolex Arena with a rider in the irons that he had never met. He carried the American flag with pride–with gusto–and pranced around the entire circumference of the arena with his ears up and his eyes proud.

As they announced the American riders one by one, the crowd rose for a standing ovation and went wild. And Mak, the “crazy” and “hot” off the track thoroughbred just held his head high and continued his strut.

Photo by Smith Equine Media

It was one of my proudest moments as an owner. As a horse mom. I wasn’t even in the tack, but I was so proud of my horse.

And I realized something at the end of it all. Life happens for a reason. And while it will constantly throw you lemons, you can always make lemonade.

My lemonade is made up of a few things: 

I have an amazing friendship with Courtney–a girl I only met a year ago. A girl I wouldn’t have met without the sale of this horse. She went through one of the most difficult journeys of my life by my side, and stuck by me even when “her team” became divided from mine. She has become one of my inner circle, and one of my biggest supporters, and I see her friendship as one of the most amazing takeaways from this experience.

I became stronger with my boyfriend. Luke showed me through this journey how much he was in my corner. He drove 18 hours in one day to go get Mak back from Virginia, and then helped me cover his living expenses as I finished up this doctorate. He showed his true colors in a stressful situation, and threw everything to the side to help me and my horse.

And finally, I have my horse. He showed his soundness, his talent, and now his sanity for the umpteenth time yesterday. A horse that is truly one of a kind. Athletic enough to run training level in a few weeks, with a preliminary move up hopefully in our future. Brave enough to march into the Rolex arena with a flag flapping over his head.

I have my horse. Photo by JJ Sillman

And sane enough to trust to put a young rider on him that he has never met.

I am so blessed. 

I think of this journey as one of the pivotal turning points in my life. I learned that my gut instinct isn’t perfect. I learned that horse buyers aren’t always honest. I learned that you can build friendships out of the ashes of devastation. I learned that my support system runs deep. That it runs strong.

And most importantly, I learned that my horse is one of a kind. 

He showed the world that a thoroughbred is sane enough to march into a high stress scenario and hold his own. He showed a group of young Pony Clubber’s that the catch ride aspect of their ratings are there for a reason.

And he showed me that he is the best. The bravest. The strongest. The most resilient.

Yesterday, we made lemonade out of our lemon of a horse sale. And it tasted oh so sweet. 

With Keely and the best OTTB to ever exist. Photo by JJ Sillman


The definition of sane

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.


Waking up on the wrong side of the stall. <<often>>

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.

Sane 2

No instant fix.  Just sticking to the plan. 


The untold stories

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.

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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.


The girlfriend to the broodmare manager.

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.

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Shrek as a foal.  Photo by Mathea Kelley

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.

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Shrek as a yearling.  Photo by Mathea Kelley

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.

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Shrek at home.

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.


Big horse/little human problems

I have a big horse.

The day we got Kennedy off of the track…

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.

Big horses are scary

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. 

Dressaging is hard

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.

Kennedy at Beginner Novice

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!


The Rat Race

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.

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Eventing at EHSC, 2002

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.

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The best horse.

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.

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Cowgirl Up

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.

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Less posts like this

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.

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Kids should be having fun, doing kid things.

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.

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Finding joy in the sport again. Ten years later. Photo by XPress Photos.

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.


For the love of the horse. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog