Our Magnificent Leader Patricia recently asked us bloggers how blogging has helped our riding, and I just so happen to have gone through an event that perfectly embodies why I blog and how it has improved my riding.
Let’s set the stage. You’ve been riding your lease horse for almost two years and have made so much progress. He is quirky but enthusiastic and talented enough for what you want to do, and now that you’re past the bucking he is a ton of fun to ride. You buy him with grand plans – not to take the eventing world by storm, because that would be unrealistic for this particular gelding – but to never get a cross country jump penalty because he’s just that game.
It was July. I had my quirky but fun gelding, and we were signed up for our first rated horse trials. My first. His first. Many firsts. The show was held at a facility that I schooled at often with my barn, which I thought would give us some extra help with Princess Murray’s nerves. I signed up for Beginner Novice because, though we had schooled Novice plenty of times before and were jumping higher at home in lessons, I wanted everything to be easy and lucky and free for our first show together.
Dressage was perfect. We had the most relaxed, obedient dressage test we have ever put in, and Murray only let out one karate kick right in front of the judge to remind her that he was in control of this ride. We succeeded in breaking the sound barrier – i.e. we squeaked in under 40 with a 39.2 – and even before seeing my score I cried with happiness over our ride.
The next day was cross country. Murray is brave and confident and fast on cross country, so I wasn’t extremely worried about anything. The course was big, but we had schooled pretty much everything on it before, and the speed wasn’t so fast that I thought we’d get into trouble. There was only one question I was really worried about – a quarter round on a slightly downhill approach facing the newly-constructed observation tower that Murray has found spooky in the past. But I knew that my friends would be on top of the observation tower so if I just kept my eyes up and my leg on, we would clear it even at a trot.
Then we had three stops in cross country warm up. Murray was blasting around the warm up at top speed, then sucking back and coming to a dead stop in front of new fences. I managed to get him over everything the second time, but suddenly I was not so confident. This was not the bold and forward horse I had come to know on cross country. In our shows at Intro though, Murray had done similar things: he was nervous in warm up due to the activity, but once we got out on course where it was just us and the jumps he was great. My trainer told me to keep my leg on, my eyes up, and ride forward to each fence.
Approaching the first fence I felt Murray hesitate, but I kicked on and as it was a pretty inviting log, we were fine. Fence two rode well, and then we had a nice long gallop to fence three, where everything promptly started to break down. Murray side-passed left at the canter, and nearly came to a stop by the jump judge, whose canopy chair he started at angrily. I managed to point him back at fence three and got him over it, and he blasted away to the next fence. At the downhill log Murray slammed on the front brakes – but not the back ones – and nearly bounced me out of the saddle. I moved him forward and we jumped it from a trot. On to the next obstacle.
After two stops at a trakehner we had easily schooled just a month prior, a kick ride to a bench we have been jumping for over a year, and a mad dash of a gallop in between every fence I was completely confused. Murray was galloping headlong at every fence, refusing to listen to my half halts and just ducking his head and running, and then about four or five strides out he was like “nope, nope, nope, not doing that” and I had to really encourage and cajole him over the fence before we would then BLAST off to the next one. My attempts at steering were limited to the coarsest of pulls, and whenever I put a leg on either side he would EXPLODE off in that direction. And then, about 12 strides before the last fence on course, I could feel Murray veering off the path. I put my right leg on to correct him and he decided that enough was enough and dumped me. I actually fell on my feet, tried to take advantage of the new USEA rules and get back on and head back to the fence, but Murray was d-o-n-e and dumped me again not two strides later.
I was exhausted and frustrated and confused. I was furious. I was heartbroken. I took care of my horse and cried and used the running water from the hose to hide my tears. I cried for hours. My friends brought me lemonade and then beer. I cried into that too.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which sounds pathetic for someone with aspirations to go prelim. Worse than being eliminated were my feelings of disappointment and betrayal. Murray had never behaved like this before, and I had done absolutely everything I could think of to ride him through that course, and he had done everything he could think of to get out of it. I had just bought a horse that couldn’t even make it around a Beginner Novice cross country course and I delusionally thought I could someday go prelim with him.
When a friend told me that the head of the ground jury told a jump judge not to give me a refusal at a questionable fence because I was “working really hard” it made me feel worse. I had worked hard. And Murray had not. I had been so nice to him – I didn’t beat him to the fences or call him a single one of the expletives that leave my mouth on an hourly basis. I had cajoled him across 17 questions on an 18 fence course, and he couldn’t show up enough for me to get us over the last one. I hated him for changing the game on me. I hated him for being green and confusing and unpredictable. I hated him for being six and quirky and a horse nobody else would buy. I hated that he had made me love him.
I don’t write these things because I’m proud of them. I’m not. This isn’t the way “good” horsepeople feel about their horses, after good rides or bad ones. But I think that these are probably feelings that more people than just I have encountered, and, well, good or bad, those were the feels I was feeling.
If you haven’t yet come to the conclusion that I was being a giant asshole, don’t worry. I hadn’t realized it yet either. If you already have, don’t worry. I realized it soon.
The burn of my ride was soothed somewhat by a successful post-elimination cross country school over the last few fences on course, including one at training level that put a huge grin on my face. The words of my trainer and friends who had watched the ride started to seep into my brain. Murray was worked up and scared by the jump judges, and every fence was less a conquest and more of a hellportal that simply led to more jump judges. Instead of thinking “oh great, that jump judge didn’t kill me, probably the next one won’t either!” Murray’s lizard brain screamed “WE GOT AWAY FROM THAT RUN FAST ONE… OH SH*T! THERE IS ANOTHER ONE COMING”.
At the time this was little comfort. Why couldn’t my horse come to logical conclusions about not-actually-scary items he encountered, instead of absurd ones that made no sense? My friends’ joking that Murray’s curious calm after the ride was pride that he had successfully saved us both just made me angrier. He hadn’t saved us, and he hadn’t listened to me. Why didn’t he listen to me?
The anger carried on when I got home. Murray had decided jumping was not safe at all, and in response my lizard brain decided that I would give him something to really be afraid of. We fought. I won. It was not pretty.
Blogging is as much journaling as it is self-therapy for me, so eventually I sat down to write about my experience and try to sort out my feelings. I had decided Murray was worth keeping around, but I still harbored strange and uncomfortable feelings about the event. As I was writing, nothing sounded right. I wrote about how Murray had not listened to me and instead tricked me and confused me, and it sounded like I had not listened to him. I wrote about how Murray had betrayed me and been unwilling to carry me across the course despite his fear, and it sounded like I had betrayed him. I wrote about how Murray was being completely unreasonable and refusing to learn from his mistakes, and it sounded like I had unreasonable expectations.
Murray wasn’t the problem here.
I was being an asshole.
I spent the next few weeks muddling through another wave of emotions, this time mostly centered around feeling like both a terrible person and terrible rider. I had not been able to figure out what Murray really needed from me on course. I was not skilled enough to take what Murray was telling me and give him the ride he needed. I was not compassionate enough to do right by my horse.
When I think back on my first horse trials, my anger is gone. Instead I feel sad and guilty. I feel determined to do better in the future, but not by finishing events without cross country penalties. Instead, I want to prove myself as a better rider and equestrian, and listen to my horse.
This is how blogging has made me a better rider. It makes me listen. It gives me enough distance to reflect upon myself and my riding. It lets me know when I’m being an asshole.
Last week Murray and I completed our first rated horse trials at Beginner Novice. Without a single jump or time penalty.