A lot of horse-crazy kids out there have a need for speed; they dream of galloping around bareback in a field somewhere, as fast as their horse can go.
And then there’s me.
At some point in my riding career – I was probably 11 or 12 – I became terrified of moving faster than a medium working trot. Nothing ‘bad’ had happened, I hadn’t gotten run off with, or dumped, or fallen in any way…I just had no interest in sitting on anything with any desire to move quickly. At all. Some lessons, I was scared to even canter.
That nervousness slowly waned, but it never really went away. I became a stronger rider, and more importantly, I didn’t want to look like a wimp – so I sucked it up. But I still hated going faster than my comfort level. That feeling of no longer being in control was the quickest way for me to stop riding and turn into a total passenger on top of a horse.
So it makes *TOTAL* (insert sarcasm here) sense that I would adopt a rescue horse who likely had never even been cantered under saddle and train her myself.
I remember my coach at the time telling me to put a grab strap on my saddle, shut the arena doors, and let my mare gallop until she could figure out how to balance with a rider on her back at the canter (Note: we were doing a lot of cross-training, lunging exercises, ground-driving, etc. to get her canter stronger as well, not just letting her gallop around with me flopping on her back). I was terrified of my own horse for a long time, at least at the canter. Luckily she has good brakes and is endlessly forgiving, but I know through my own cowardice, that I impeded her training at the canter. Again, over time, her canter became more manageable, and I became more comfortable with the speed she cantered at, but everything was very controlled. By me.
Fast-forward through teaching her to jump and showing through the jumper ring, in which we had a similar learning curve all over again – and again, with me trying to control every last footfall.
Fast-forward to moving out to Indiana for Vet school, and ENTER Eventing Trainer. Who literally from Day 1 was gunning for us to convert to Eventing. Now, don’t get me wrong – in retrospect I could not be more grateful that she continued to ask us if we wanted to join every time they went XC schooling, or had a clinician out; but at the time I thought she was crazy. ‘Me, cross-country school? This horse? SUCCESSFULLY?! Nope. Hard pass.’
In the year-ish since we have been at this barn, my mare and I have pretty much been working on re-setting everything. Changing how I ride, changing how she moves. Working on me not controlling and pulling every. single. step. Getting her to use her topline and engage her hind end.
And it’s funny; once I stopped pulling and leaning up her neck (as instinctive as it is when they get quick) and added more leg (always more leg) and sat up…turns out my horse might actually be secretly lazy – at least a little bit.
Her whole way of going, my whole way of riding has changed. She has a true 3-beat canter (most of the time). And when I get off her back and send her forward, she goes, but not at some crazy gallop; as soon as I sink in the tack, she’s already coming back. I have more control than I ever have, but it only came after I learned to let go.
So after schooling XC quite successfully at the beginning of the summer (read about that adventure here), Trainer mentioned a few events this month for us to go to; both low-stress, smaller venues. I didn’t even know what dressage test I needed to learn, let alone ever practiced it; and we hadn’t schooled XC all summer. I didn’t have a vest, or an armband; my horse didn’t have brushing boots…but I said yes, and we ended up deciding to go to a Horse Trials like a week and half before the actual show; and just like that, The Mare and I were entered Beginner Novice in our first ever event.
I managed to get everything my horse needed in time for the show, and anything I couldn’t get for myself in time, Trainer let me borrow. The Mare hopped on the trailer without a second look, and we headed down to the show to school the night before.
With a bunch of horses schooling, judges boxes, and a dressage ring she’d never seen before, The Mare was a little peppier than I would have liked – but she wasn’t being bad. The first time Trainer saw me school my dressage test was the night before the show, and I was praying that I would be able to remember my test the next day.
We walked XC that evening as well, and I was worried I wouldn’t remember where I needed to go, but felt pretty immediately at ease once we started walking. I took pictures of the fences as we went, as well as any weird angles I might need to approach from, or remember which direction I was heading.
I spent the rest of the evening worrying. What if she started tension snorting in the middle of our dressage test? What if she was super energetic again; had I schooled her enough today? I didn’t know how much prep she’d need, and I didn’t want to take too much out of her since we were going to do all 3 phases in 1 day. What if I trotted down centerline and just forgot the whole test? Or forgot it halfway through? What if The Mare threw her head in her canter transitions? And then, what if I make it through dressage and then forget XC? And what about show jumping? Watch us go in there and be terrible, since that would be my luck, even though that’s the discipline we actually know.
The show nerves were in FULL force. I’ve always had show anxiety. I don’t remember a single show growing up on the 4H circuit, or on the intercollegiate team, or with my own horse in the jumper ring where I was not a ball of nervous energy. In the jumper ring, I would get over the first fence and then blank. There are a few videos of my rounds where you can hear my trainer yelling where I needed to head next.
I recognized that the negative voice in my head was screaming just a little too loudly for my liking, so I told myself that I knew my dressage test. I repeated my XC to myself until I remembered every fence and every turn. We’d walk stadium the next morning, so I told myself that my horse and I both know our job in that ring. This was our first event – the goal is just to make it through all 3 phases and make it a positive experience for us both, and to have fun. I actively told myself I would not turn into a passenger. I would remember where I was going; I would not let my brain shut off, and that it was going to be great.
The next morning, The Mare warmed up so nicely, we ended up walking around for about 10 minutes before our dressage test. We trotted down the centerline, and I remembered where I was going. There were a few bobbles on my part, but we made it through the test! ‘Very consistent!’ Trainer commented, along with how relaxed she had stayed. ‘She could have looked like a llama for all I cared, as long as I remembered where I was going!’ I called back. ‘My best dressage test yet!’ I joked.
The Mare looks a lot different than she feels, so when the live scores went up and we were in 2nd (2ND?!), you can imagine how surprised I was.
We went back out to warm up for XC, and she was again, very quiet. At the last second before we left the barn, I opted to bring my crop – which I almost never ride with – but I am glad I did. At the first warm-up fence, she slowed down and peeked pretty hard. Not that I can blame her; she’s only schooled XC really once in her life.
We finished schooling, with lots of “let her go forward” and “get off her back”, and walked over to the start box. The first 3 fences were sticky (again, glad I grabbed my crop), but by fence 4, I was grinning, and my brain was actually still working. The plan I had repeated to myself was in tune with my riding. A few places required me to really get after my mare – and instead of being a passenger, I did, we kept going, and we finished clean and clear, ears pricked and looking for more after our first ever XC. I came off the course grinning like an actual fool – who knew that eventing was this fun?! (The answer to that question is: everyone except for me, apparently).
We had only a little bit of time before stadium, and I made the mistake of looking at the live scores. We had moved up to first after XC. Being under pressure is another thing that makes me nervous. So we went back out, took a quick lap at the canter and popped over the warm-up fences, and made our way into the ring. Again, my brain didn’t stop working, and I didn’t stop riding. It was one of the nicest show jump rounds I think I have put in; I was actively making decisions, planning our path, choosing to wait or move up. Over the last fence in one of the photographer’s photos, you can see me smiling – which, for someone who usually looks like they might burst out in tears when they ride, is huge.
The Mare was so exceptionally wonderful, and I give credit to her time and time again; but at the end of the day, I was proud of myself for once – because I knew that I had actively ridden her, made decisions, stayed present, and kept the negative self-sabotage to a bare minimum…and it had made a huge difference in our performance.
The Mare and I were newly minted eventers, and champions to top it all off.
I picked up our big blue ribbon and trophy, along with our dressage test. I read through the judge’s comments and felt my heart swell. No where on the test was the word ‘tense’, or ‘tight’ – the usual adjectives given to a horse who tends to get behind the vertical, and very uptight through her topline if I ask her to do anything more than travel in a straight line. Our trot was “lovely”, and there were comments on moments of lovely longitudinal suppleness at the trot. Our walk needed more energy (when has my mare ever needed MORE energy?!). Definitely a lot to improve on, but the comments were spot-on to all of the things we are working on in our lessons.
So now, I just purchased my own vest, and am working on rounding out all the rest of the supplies I need to be fully outfitted for the next event. Morgan Grand Nationals and the jumper ring there is still on the horizon, but I definitely see us joining the eventing crew in the future as well. It is never in a million years where I pictured us, but I am so glad to have a Trainer who saw the potential in us, and helped (and continues to help) us improve and transform into the best athletes we can be…and maybe more importantly, to remember to have fun.