There are two cliches about villages: that every one of them has an idiot, and that it takes one to raise a child. I feel like I’ve been the main character in both of those recently.
When I moved in December, 2012, to Helgstrand Dressage in northern Denmark, it was to get three months of training before moving my life back to North America. I’d had five years of incredible experience working and training in Europe, but I was tired, homesick, and in uncharted territory with my mare as we approached the Grand Prix. I was making a lot of mistakes and needed more consistent help than my fabulous boss, who’s a very popular clinician (meaning he’s gone a lot!), could give me.
So off I went, being a client for the first time in my life, riding under the same roof as two- and four-legged Olympians, horses and riders that had been to the Young Horse World Championships, and champions of stallion licensings. Everyone was very nice, but it was intimidating as all hell. Constantly in awe of the talent around me, I definitely felt like the new idiot in town.
After about six weeks, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I understood everything they were telling me NOT to do, understood why I shouldn’t do it, but there I was, doing it anyway. The things they said I SHOULD do, I also understood, I felt the difference, felt the improvement, but damn if I could do it again the next day. Idiot! So I asked if I could stay longer because I knew that six more weeks wouldn’t be enough to really let me own the things I was learning.
A few weeks later, I knew we were getting a little better and some of the riders were entering a show. I knew we weren’t going to dazzle anyone if we entered, but I was curious to see how our progression would be judged. When I asked Andreas about it, his reaction was hysterical. Imagine having polite conversation at a fancy dinner party when you notice a terrible smell and you know someone at the table farted. Pretend not to notice the offensive odour, try to keep on with polite conversation, but dear lord it’s killing you softly. That was the face he made as he politely explained that no, he didn’t think I was ready. Not a poker player, that one.
So we continued to train. I not only worked with Andreas but also often with one of his young professionals, Daniel Bachman. It would sometimes annoy me that one so young was telling me what to do, but you just can’t argue with talent, a good eye, and good communication. The Boy, as I call him, knows his business and started to make some very solid changes in my riding and my horse’s way of going.
Gradually we started to hear more positive feedback. One of the other riders commented how my mare started off so much better already in the warm up, and I was happy. One of the grooms said that her passage was really getting better. Another groom commented how much talent my mare had for the piaffe. All of these little things really made a difference in how I felt every day. Like a child learning how to walk, all of this was helping me learn how to ride. Suddenly it started to feel like we were part of this team, this village, and the people around were supporting us in this journey.
I continued to work regularly with the Boy and each lesson I had with Andreas he always seemed surprised at our progress. Finally one lesson he said, “Yes. Now you can ride Grand Prix.” I asked about the upcoming show, and without making the something’s-a-little-stinky-in-here face, he said I could enter.
I knew we were far from perfect, far from winning form when I entered the show. But I also knew how far we’d come. We continued to prepare for the show when about two weeks before, I found out that neither Andreas nor Daniel would be there, as they would both be competing at CDI*** in Hagen, Germany. So I started to take some lessons with one of the other riders,Thomas Sigtenbjerggaard (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that one!), who would be at the show. Then the final start list came out (the day before the class, because that’s how they roll here in Denmark) and we saw that Thomas and I were too close in the order of go for him to warm me up, so another of the riders, Andrea Woodard, helped me at home on Friday so she could warm me up at the show.
Saturday was the Intermediare II, a class I’d ridden about three times before. Andrea warmed us up wonderfully and I felt confident going into the test. It was good, but not great. I had some mistakes, I went off course, but even still I honestly had hoped that the last four months would have made a bigger difference in my scores. But both my horse and I had a good experience and I also had more important things to focus on, the next day’s Grand Prix debut.
Sunday, when the judge rang the bell and I cantered down centerline to halt and salute for my first time in the Grand Prix, it was so quiet. People were watching us. I had friends there, one having flown all the way from the US for this. My support system from the stable was there, likely amazed that their little idiot had been raised to a child taking a pretty big first step. It was cool.
Then the music started to play, and when R. Kelly’s super duper over-inspirational “I Believe I Can Fly” started to play, I actually laughed as I trotted off. I mean, come on!
Our Grand Prix debut, complete with inspirational music!
It had been a while since I worked on sport psychology with Sommer Christie, but I still have all my notes from our conversations and had been doing my homework. I had expected to be pretty excited, wound-up and nervous but instead felt oddly calm going into the test. I was prepared and that seemed to be all that mattered.
It wasn’t a test that would set the dressage world on fire, but it was okay. We made some mistakes, some in expensive places. Let me tell you, things come really fast in a Grand Prix. Those elegant riders and athletic horses that make it look easy? I still don’t know how they do it.
But it was done. I had a Grand Prix horse that I developed and finished, and I could really say I am a Grand Prix rider. I was happy with my score – we got our first 8 together – and in love with my horse, grateful beyond expression to her owners, and amazed that I have been able to have the experiences in my life that led me to finally accomplish this goal.
But despite this big moment in my world, life goes on. We keep training and we keep getting better. The Boy gets mad at me when I completely stop riding in the piaffe to passage transition and makes me do it again, do it better. Andreas keeps sounding surprised when he says, “good” after we do something right, and when he says, “super” then I really am happy.
One month later, we were entered for another Grand Prix and for various reasons, I ended up being the only one from our stable to go. I didn’t have one of the talented people to make my horse’s braids look professional, but I did get lessons from one of them the week before and I made, for the first time in my life, braids that didn’t suck.
I had no coach on the ground to warm me up, but had Daniel’s advice in my ear. I had no one watching to tell me to do more or less or that it was good, but I had support from the people back in the village, telling me I would do great as we loaded up the van. I might also mention that my car was in the shop for repairs and I am so grateful that I was able to borrow the small two-horse van of one of the other riders to simply get to the competition!
Saturday’s Intermediare II was, without a doubt, the best test I’ve had with Countess. No big mistakes, but better than that, I just felt her give me absolutely everything that I asked for. I repeated Daniel’s instructions as we went: don’t over-ride the trot, let the nose out in the extensions, be softer and bouncy in your hands in the passage, hands forward out of piaffe, sit deeper in the canter, give the right rein more in the changes… I rode well, but there is still so much more in the horse that I will learn to access. We finished with our highest score yet for our FEI classes and just out of the ribbons behind some very nice combinations.
Sunday I could see that Countess was tired. I tried to keep the warm up short, but lack the confidence in ourselves as a Grand Prix combination to really shorten it as much as I should have, and I’m pretty sure I did too much. In the test, our second Grand Prix, we had the best trot work ever. But once we got to the canter, my wonderful horse just ran out of power and I didn’t change my riding to support her, just sat there expecting her to give what she normally does. So I made mistakes in every single movement. Actually, our extended canter wasn’t bad, but that’s about it. Seriously, the two’s, the half-pass zig-zag, the ones, and both pirouettes. Terrible.
(A very kind, total stranger took the video for me. My ego says edit the video so you can only see the first half, but I tell myself it’s an educational opportunity for you horse junkies, a free lesson on how NOT to ride the canter tour. You’re welcome 😉 )
With all this, you can imagine my surprise when our score was higher than that of our debut, and we finished third. Our trot work had been strong enough to pull the marks up; between the three judges we scored five 8’s in the half-pass left, halt and rein-back, and the piaffe. And the canter work is normally very reliable, so despite all of our mistakes I wasn’t terribly concerned. It’s experience and learning these lessons along with the coaching at home will make us better still the next time.
It’s not a story of international success. I am no Charlotte and my horse is no Valegro. But it’s an amazing, difficult, wonderful journey that somehow keeps getting better and better. I am the oldest one training at the stable, but the support of all these kids means the world to me. When someone goes online to the live scoring and sends me a “Congratulations!” text message right after my class, it means they cared enough to check. When someone asks me when’s the next show, it’s because they think I can do it and keep getting better.
I went into this new part of my life frustrated, a bit disheartened, with short term goals and no idea how it would go. It’s six months later, and I write this from a plane, on my way back to Canada to teach a clinic where I get to share more of the great things I’ve learned. I’m super excited to see my friends and family, and the many riders and horses I work with regularly. But more than that, I know I am already looking forward to getting on the plane again, to get “home” to my horses, my coaches, and all the people I laugh with, that I call friends, the little village that is my life.
Riding can be a solitary endeavor, which can be good and bad. Whatever our discipline, if you’re competing it comes down to only you and your horse in front of the judge or clock. But without the right people around you – the coaches, the vets and farriers, the stable workers who feed, muck, and tuck in your horse at night if you can’t do it yourself, the amazing, incredible horse owners who give you the opportunities, and your friends and family, near or far, to tell you it’s okay, it’ll be better next time – well, then it’s a helluva lot harder. I’m so grateful to have all the amazing people around me, helping me each step of the way, from Idiot, to Child, and eventually to Rider.
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