The Less I Weep, The More I Wonder

Never do I generally provide a warning for my thoughts, but the rain has been nothing but stormy and recent life transitions has me looking back. Consider this a warning.

I had a horse in high school that was too good to me. I mean that in the most honest, not-at-all humble way ever.

This horse did not stop. Ever. Even if the jump was on fire. Even if I was hauling on his mouth. This horse lept over everything, and all we had to pay in return was a touch of sass. A little buck after a big jump. Nippy in the cross-ties, that sort of thing.

While I am not a subscriber to the theory of heart horse, this horse would hold that honor if I ever bestowed it on one of my past rides. He was a spicy, brave, difficult, forgiving liver chestnut trakehner. And I loved every bit of him, especially the ragged bits.

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My memories of him are so cherished, that when I think of my best times on horseback, they are behind his ears.

When push came to shove, we simply could not afford him anymore. With no resentment, I do not envy my parents’ position, telling a sobbing child that they have to take away her best friend.

I could write for decades on Riley (and likely will continue to), but my loss of him is most interesting to me at this current juncture. Already in life, I have allowed many things to cycle in and out, but the loss of Riley rocked my foundation. My sense of security was at the barn with him, 5 times a week. He appears as a horcrux, something that split my soul, part of it may always reside elsewhere.

Once I was able to rebuild normalcy, which took probably a full year before I could even unhide all my photos of him and not cry upon sight of him, I had a new battle-tested composition.

Other breaks in my heart, both horses and people, hurt and continued to build my tolerance for departures. Confidently at my age, still young by definition, I am borderline blase about those who enter and leave my life.

It is not horses specifically that did this, I have them to thank for everything about my sensitive and sympathetic tendencies. But I can look at the systemic requirements of ownership and sigh a bit.

The years of leasing, years of letting go, and years of never being able to financially hold on to the horses I loved. They have changed me.

It has made me strong, but also formulaic.

How has losing horses contributed to your overall sense of self?

The Nightmare Show

While I am still swimming underwater (seriously, when will it stop raining, California?), I am dreaming and scheming up ways to make the horse industry better. What else would one do with their spare time, certainly not taxes or anything useful?

To grow into good, we have to reflect on the bad. Rarely does change happen without friction and those people who demand it.

While I don’t consider myself a showing expert, I have done experienced a gamut – A’s to locals, collegiate to long stirrup, 1.15m to crossrails. All riding too many horses to name, with too many trainers to name as well. The breadth of my experiences does give me a large sample size.

Of course, my experiences are not conclusive. I encourage everyone to add their own pain points. Maybe the next steps are to prioritize and determine what is solvable, and what is just tough.

Without further ado, I present to you, the nightmare show.

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Day Before / Arriving at the Show Grounds

  • Parking is few and far between. You park in a field (which, if it rains, good luck getting the compact city car out of that mud pile) approximately 10 miles from your barn stabling.
  • Show communications has been mum on where you are stabled. Walk Dobbin around as he reenacts a Lipizzaner capriole until you stumble upon signage or someone who may know a clue (usually identified by the level of stress shown on face, or a pulsing temple).
  • Stalls are parked in a valley, in the height of the summer, in the midst of the heat, with limited outlets for fans. Remind yourself that you skipped the gym this week, so exercise?
  • Closest water source is a pilgrimage to premium stabling.
  • Schooling in the show ring is not available past 6pm (because screw working riders?).
  • Dobbin is elated to be at the show and must smell and subsequently spook at each average piece of grass.
  • Tween girls are tearing around on golf karts and dirt bikes, which Dobbin does not bat an eye at, but nearly stops the heart of his rider.
  • Check into the show office and get verbally attacked for asking a mundane question. Clutch checkbook fervently.
  • Overnight it rains. A lot. But the morning is hot and sticky as molasses.

Schooling Ring

  • Footing is questionable, at best.
  • Ride around a schooling ring with 85% of the horse show riders. One trainer insists on giving a full lesson to a group of juniors, complete with lateral movements across an entire half the arena.
  • Kids a quarter your age warm up for the Grand Prix sharing the same space as the beginner hunters.
  • Get yelled at for being off the rail. Get yelled at for being on the rail.
  • Dobbin wants to eat the adorable short stirrup ponies. Dobbin also has a panic attack when you will not let him eat the short stirrup ponies.
  • Crackly announcer sound system makes your name sound very similar to 3-4 other people. I can’t have 6 entries, right?
  • Call jump loudly twice. Then a third time for good measure. Still almost collide with someone.
  • Dobbin is so well behaved, you suspect something. You though conveniently have forgotten how to ride after 15 years.
  • Lose an ear puffy to the ring and accept it as a sacrifice to the show gods.

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Show Ring

  • Beautiful weather in the schooling ring turns into a downpour monsoon on brand new saddle.
  • Hunter course is set unevenly, with one line obviously riding very long, and the other quite short.
  • Awkwardly placed angle is aligned for the in-gate, creating a treadmill movement away from the gate and a freight train towards.
  • Show crew has cut down Christmas trees on certain jumps and created an electric-green mini-golf course on others.
  • Hay jump is haphazardly created. Did they run out of brush?
  • Oxer is unevenly set. Or is it just on a weird lump of sand?
  • One poor show crew person is manning 3 rings, doing Usain Bolt impressions to keep the show going.

Over Fences

  • Trainer gives you a pep talk, which you realize half-way through that you should have been listening more carefully to.
  • Walk into ring, pass through the next Great Lake in the process of creation. Dobbin takes the opportunity to splash muddy sand, which miraculously makes it directly into your eyes.
  • Canter to first jump, realize ring is set on a hill. Chip.
  • Canter to long angle, freight train approach, downhill. Waterski for 4 strides.
  • String together fences through flurry of sheer panic. Dobbin questions your sanity, but saves your butt everytime.
  • Leave ring, and notice trainer is already talking to the next rider. Bad sign.
  • Round 2, slightly better than the first, except for a spectator who has opened a green umbrella while Dobbin is in flight over the oxer, which causes Dobbin to turn into rocketman.
  • Survive. Remember when you were a competent junior.

Under Saddle

  • After over fences rounds, wait 2 hours on an empty ring for one trainer with a conflict. Internally debate for full 1 hour hiking the full 2 miles back to the barn stabling.
  • Finally go back. As soon as you take off your helmet, you hear them call your undersaddle over crackly loudspeaker. Apologize to Dobbin fling tack back on. Trot back to the ring without your number.
  • Trainer hastily makes a number from a napkin with ketchup stains and a broken hair tie. Get told, you will never live this down.
  • Spend 30 minutes at a sitting trot.
  • Question why the entire 20 person class is traveling in a pack mentality.
  • The 500k hunter that goes to Florida in the winter insists on cantering (erm, floating/gliding/levitating) next to you. Dobbin pins ears at his fancifulness.
  • Realize the judge is enamored in a conversation with a show personnel, complete with laughter and wild gestures. Is she writing anything down, even?
  • Rain gives way to stiffing heat. Sweat profusely.
  • Really, sitting trot, again?
  • Line up, Dobbin is done, leaping in place when he has never been antsy at the halt.
  • Spend 10 full minutes in line up. Continue to do standstill aerobics.
  • Receive a reserve call (Woo hoo! Or maybe it was a mistake and they couldn’t read my number). Beg trainer to end on that.

Show Grounds

  • Eat hot dogs, crepes, and chicken wraps. All for 15 dollars each, cash. Gastrointestinal system begins revolt.
  • Lust over European brands you’ve never heard of but have a strong Instagram presence. Bank account begins revolt.
  • Hand walk Dobbin in parking lot / grazing area, because stall’s temperature is appropriate for frying eggs.
  • Close out show account. Get verbally attacked again by office staff. Sigh heavily. Promise not to stop for snacks on the way home to save money.

Leaving Show Grounds

  • At 9pm on a Sunday, you have 2 hours to drive to get to the barn, and you have a meeting at 8:30am tomorrow.

Despite all this, you are smiling because you had the best day ever at a horse show with your barn community.

I must reiterate, I do love horse showing. I hope this provided a humorous and over-exaggerated read. Any pain points, common experiences, or aspects you feel like I missed?

 

Happiest Time on Horseback

Still underwater over here, but the end is n(e)igh! (har, har).

While snorkeling in my backyard, I am on a contemplative streak.

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When it was still only soggy, not swampy….

There are so many happy moments in my life, and I am lucky that many of those happened to be on the back of a horse. Excluding horses, my happy moments are still plentiful, but they take away a large chunk of availability in my tremendously awkward “growing up” phase.

I had this thought earlier today, when was I most happy while riding on a horse? I would say there have been times I have been champion, high point rider, and other notable honors, but none of those strike me as the happiest. Especially now, as an adult, where the color of the ribbon means relatively little to me.

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That little speck is me…

Over the course of my quarter life, flashes of nostalgia do stick with you though. Memories that are warm, rosy, and fill you up with joy. Here are a couple that immediately float to the surface of my mind.

  • Riding in a faux fox hunt, galloping across a field as a young girl who was used to city riding in a cramped, havoc-ridden indoor
  • Leading a trail of my camper-students on the Appalachian Trail in the Southeastern U.S.
  • Being lauded by Bernie Traurig in a clinic where I jumped grand-prix level heights (with my no-business-being-there trakehner)
  • Ending a particularly good O/F round in University and receiving a personal and loud cheer from my team

Each of these bring a smile to my face and a warmth to my heart. None of them are related to winning. I particularly enjoy the moments of relief in the midst of struggle. A lot of these memories I called out were bookended by times where I was questioning my capabilities and was losing faith in myself.

Riding is cyclical. And the weeks of “what am I doing”, “I suck at this”, and “why am I wasting money” can be so handily broken by a piercing optimistic burst. It’s in that moment, where Bernie calls you a natural, and it all christens the memory.

What are your favorite memories on a horse?

The Least Desirable Job in Horses

On the plane back to home, I was dreaming up interesting topics to ponder on this blogspace.

As a kid, I would have happily lived at the barn for free. Of course, this was before the acknowledgment that all my food, clothing, and time costs money. I still might live at the barn, but I would also need to be able to afford toilet paper, pringles… the necessities.

This train of thought, what I would and would not be willing to do as an adult, pushed me into thinking, is there any paying job related to horses I had no interest in due to the nature of the work?

I am a flexible and amiable person enough to see merit in most horse-related jobs. Farriers have a deep importance, vets are a trusted resource, massage therapists encounter dedicated horse owners, barn managers care deeply for their herd, show officials create these fabulous events….

The one I was actually stumped on was a trainer.

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The brilliant Charlotte Dujardin; Photo by Allie Conrad.

To me, nothing sounds better than riding horses and getting to teach interested students. That aspect of the job creates community, and positions you to watch progression. Notwithstanding difficult clients (of which, there are a number in this industry), I could jive with this part of the job.

What I think would be hard is selling horses for profit. It carries a lot of risk – financial and reputational. The people you are selling to are often your competitors (fellow trainers). It’s a people business, but also one that feeds on gossip.

I think the stress of pushing horses out the door would get to me, as I am a softie that builds connections with each of these animals.

I will be the first to recognize many trainers look out for their sale horses welfare in such a way that commands deep admiration. But, to do this requires extra effort and honesty. And you have to be, at times, willing and capable of taking a loss.

What do you think is the least desirable job in the horse industry?

Trajectory

There can be real frustration in riding so many horses over your lifetime. Sure, it is really wonderful and valuable to sit on a lot of different types and get to refine the asks.

But, sometimes there is not a sequential progression as a rider. I step into bad habits on specific horses and jump to another before I fully resolve them.

Because of that, I feel as though I am a library of slightly-aggressive, make-it-work methods. In fact, my recent solo hacks has been really restorative for me to focus once again on the fundamentals.

In my collegiate and early adult riding, much of the focus has fallen on the needs of whatever horse I was riding, and you can see the evidence of that in my weaknesses.

A dirty stopper encouraged me to drive with my tailbone.

A heavy mouth gave me broken wrists and open fingers.

A speedy, flat jumper gave me quick, over-active shoulders.

All of my mishaps originate from poorly-executed attempts of correcting a behavior or dealing with a quirk.

 

Some flavors of this definitely happened.

I’ve become this patchwork of the past horses I’ve ridden. In turn, this has made me cautious, skeptical, and untrusting.

I need to become a better partner in the future, because they do not deserve to be haunted by the horses of my past.

I continue to struggle with linear growth as someone who, by the nature of my circumstances, will always be hopping from horse to horse. I can ride almost anything, but I want to excel and really communicate better with the animals that I sit on.

I do think I am getting more opportunities for specificity now, and I am hoping that when I one day own my own horse, all my tools and tips will help that horse as a well-rounded rider that can handle curveballs.

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Loved this horse, and trusted him wholly. I am hoping to return to that.

 

 

 

Is Horseback Riding a Sport?

So many of us equestrians have been in conversations with a skeptical and bombastic uncle that assures us that “horses do all the work”. I don’t even engage these people anymore as most of them introduce the topic with a smile on their lips and watch for a theatrical reaction (nice try, you are talking to the person who after hours on hold with customer support will still use “sir”, “ma’am”, and “please”).

It does bring into the forefront why we treat horseback riding as a sport, and also why it even matters how it is defined.

There are two main ingredients to the definition of sport – skill and physical exertion. Skill is less arguable. Because my general practice is to keep my passion for horseback riding quiet around new acquaintances, I’ve managed to shy away from stories of disastrous trial rides on family vacations. But most are willing to acknowledge that they could not imagine taking the quarter horse they rode in the Rocky Mountains over a course of 1.60m jumps. Skill brings tact, and both are necessary inputs.

Skill is undeniable. But physical exertion remains a question mark.

I don’t know about you guys, but a day spent at the barn leaves me feeling tired. When I owned my horse, I did everything myself. Turnout, tack, cleaning, grooming, feeding, picking stalls, etc. The work does not stop there, once you swing your leg over the saddle, it is pressure, release, softness while strong. Most people recognize the effort involved in dancing with a 1,000 lbs+ animal.

This, Stephen Colbert, does not qualify as a sport.

Playing devil’s advocate, when watching a cross-country course for instance, the horses physical feats are very clear to an uneducated eye. Foaming, sweat, leaping over obstacles. What is not present to these new observers is the rider’s fitness. Let me say, their stamina is no joke.

Not shockingly, I claim we check boxes of skill and physical exertion (and danger, which may bump it up from a hobby level as well).

Why does it matter? Who cares if it is not a sport? Whether we qualify horseback riding as a sport may be phrased as whether what we do is worth-while.

Often my “is horseback riding a sport” or “does it belong it the Olympics” will eventually boil down to us explaining why we our commitment meets the minimum threshold of worthiness in the eyes of others. Equestrians dedicate hours to bettering ourselves and advancing in our passion, and it invalidates our time by dismissing what we do as “not even a sport”.

There is a lot of sleep to be lost if you worry about the opinions of naysayers. I don’t allow those dissenting thoughts to affect what I love and how I spend my time, but as we advance this sport, it may be a valuable to consider the barriers we face in the general audiences.

Why do you categorize horseback riding as a sport? Or, better yet, why do you not?

We are the Lucky Ones

I am so grateful.

Thanksgiving is one of those underrated holidays that sneaks in without much fanfare, but brings warm feelings. I am leaving its questionable origin out of the equation when lauding the day for its whole-hearted moments with family and appreciation for life’s blessings.

Since I primarily write about horses and riding here, I will keep my list to a strict equestrian theme.

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Exceptionally thankful for this peeking derp.

This year, I am thankful for –

  1. Riding Regularly. I get to spend time with these magnificent and kind creatures that center me and generate giddiness.
  2. Good Education. I am so happy with the instruction I am receiving. Objectively, I am doing more simple work, but focusing on so many details that I had let slip. It feels good to progress.
  3. Bystander Support. My friends and family, bless all of them, will continually ask me how my “horse races” are going, and I love them dearly for inquiring about my passions.
  4. Online Reading. These days, you can learn so much about horses and horseback riding online. Whenever I feel stuck, it seems like someone online had a similar problem and mapped out solutions.
  5. Happy Horses. All of the horses I ride have not been over-worked or unsound. They have guardians aside from myself looking after them and that can be elusive in certain areas.
  6. Black Friday Deals. Okay, I know we are thankful for what we have and all… but it doesn’t hurt to get some deals too!

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What are y’all thankful for?