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Amy Nelson

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3 Common Myths Perpetuated by Horse Movies

  1. YOU CAN LEARN TO RIDE IN A WEEK.

An actor from Hollywood falls and hits his head, so he’s forced to stay at a ranch in the mountains for a week while he recovers from a concussion (because he can’t fly home).  So he learns how to ride. In that week. With a head injury.

The reality is the person in that movie, the real person, the stunt person, has been riding horses for years. I’m sure it looked liberating and fun as you were sitting on your living room couch in the air conditioning, smelling good, dressed to the nines. But the reality is riding horses is dirty, boiling hot, freezing cold, and everything in between. It’s hard work. It takes years to master.  And you certainly should not be learning how to ride with a head injury, Luke Perry.  In spite of what you may have seen on TV, you’re not going to gallop over the mountains, bringing in the herd, in your first week of riding.  And in this particular movie, the main character actually took the horse out without permission from the owner, in the middle of the night, in the mountains, to bring in the herd. I’d be furious.

  1. YOU CAN TAME THAT WILD STALLION.

It’s ok that he’s a snarling, wild beast, and totally feral. Because you’ve looked him in the eye, and have an unspoken bond, you can get on him bareback (probably in shorts or a dress and barefoot) and ride him. Perhaps you can tame him and ride off in a great race and win against actual racehorses, or use him to stake your claim on free land in the west.

The reality is it takes weeks if not months to start a horse under saddle.  And longer if they are wild. The ones that have been handled since birth are a challenge enough, and certainly won’t let you just jump on and ride off into the untamed land of the west immediately. It takes time and training, and chances are you will fall off at some point. You’d be left in the bushes somewhere in Kansas while the others in the movie claimed their land on…I don’t know…horses that are broke to ride?

  1. YOUR RANDOM PAINT/20 YEAR OLD MORGAN/GRADE PONY WITH 3 LEGS CAN WIN A HORSE RACE WITH A KID JOCKEY

Seriously? It sounds great. You train your backyard horse/wild stallion you just found in the mountains to race, and WIN against the actual racehorse so you have money to save your family farm.  Of course you don’t use trained professionals to train your horse.  A kid with no riding experience (he’s small like a jockey and looked into the horse’s eyes) and his grandpa can do it. And they win. And save the farm. Bareback.

The reality is jockeys have years of riding experience and need a license these days to race.  There are restrictions, and you have to earn your way on to a racetrack.  Even in the “oldy time days” where there weren’t as many restrictions, surely a sanctioned match race would have rules in place about child labor?  And if it they didn’t, as much heart as your paint/20 year old morgan/grade pony with 3 legs might have, and as much love as he has for you because you looked him in the eyes when you tamed him in the mountains while barefoot and wearing shorts, he likely doesn’t have the physical ability to win a race against a horse who is young, athletic, and bred for the job.

So when your social media friends snicker about Eventing, thinking they could do it, just smile.  They probably believe they’ve “galloped” on a horse (because that one time on vacation they did a fast trot on Fluffy the 25-year-old trail horse), and they saw Luke Perry learn to ride in 3 days with a head injury.  They watched a movie about how easy riding is while in the air conditioning, with tan legs and no bruises. You know the truth.

But did you try looking your horse in the eyes? That always works. For real.

3…2…1…have a good ride.

‘Sleepaway Camp’ for Adult Eventers

When I was a kid, we went to sleep away camp. More exciting than day camp, we got to experience a trip away from home, bunking with new friends, generally including activities like archery, arts and crafts and canoeing.  Adult Rider Camp for eventers is way, WAY better.

Amy Nelson and Hummingbird’s River. Photo by D & G Photography.

This past weekend I attended the 3rd Annual Adult Rider Camp for eventers in Area IV. As my adult student and I loaded up the trailer to head to Otter Creek Farm, full of anticipation, she looked nervous. While I had gone to Adult Rider Camp last year, it was her first time. It was not the typical pre-camp jitters of a child, like, What if I get home sick? What if they don’t like me?

The nerves of an newbie adult event rider who works at a law firm by day, and is a weekend warrior adult amateur starter level eventer in her spare time, were legitimate concerns.  “Do you think their starter level logs are bigger in Wisconsin?” I laughed, but I knew what she meant.  “Will Dom and Jimmie Schramm make me canter my jumps?” “What if I fall off?”

As it turns out, she stayed on in all three sections of the clinic at camp.  I, however, took a rather gymnastic dismount, not unlike a balance beam routine, off my training level OTTB in stadium. I did manage to land on my feet, and knowing all eyes were on me, I raised my arms like a gymnast as my final bow.

“9.7” the photographer shouted.  I laughed it off, knowing that as a trainer, I come off some horse at least once a week. Jimmie Schramm asked if I was OK, and then gave me an enthusiastic leg up (she must work out, as I almost went flying off the far side of my horse when she did!). I grabbed mane as I was not about to let her throw me to the ground. I shook it off and was back on course.

Amy Nelson and Hummingbird’s River, with Jimmie Schramm teaching. Photo by D & G Photography.

In cross country, I had a blast. Aside from learning new techniques, schooling new questions, I had the opportunity to make new adult rider friends. As it turns out, we tend to all have the same struggles.  Balancing jobs, families (one Intermediate rider at camp had just gotten back from having a baby), and trying to fit in our passion for eventing.

We all faced the highs and lows of the sport, as Dom Schramm put it: “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.” We bonded over how we all look down over ditches and drops, and laughed telling one-up stories of falls and forgotten courses. We came together as a cheering section when a rider struggled with getting their greenie over that super scary log cabin. We roared watching the “pocket rocket” 14-hand pony with a 17-hand personality soar over the Training level course with ease, with the look in his eyes that said, “Is this all you got?”

Adult Rider Camp in Area IV was held at the picturesque Otter Creek Horse Farm in Wheeler, Wisconsin, nestled in an echoey valley in what seemed to be an eternity from the daily grind. Because of the location, and I can only assume the rolling hills surrounding the facility, NO ONE had cell service on course.

I was able to squeak out a text here or there to my husband anxiously waiting for news back home. Texts like, “I survived XC, dressage later” had to be resent seven times, holding one arm up in the middle of the road, with a coat hanger in my teeth to finally send. But to me, this was the BEST part of camp. Because at lunch, when we all gathered under the pavilion like excited little campers, we actually had to talk to one another.

We couldn’t hide, and bury our noses in phones, posting on social media and texting loved ones back home. Just like in the 80s, when I went to camp for the first time, we nervously asked if that seat was taken. We made small talk about the delicious lunches, and by the end, exchanged stories and experiences with our new life-long friends.

Amy Nelson and Amanda Kothe

We are now back home, tired, but hopeful. Our new-found skills in tow, ready to face the next horse trials. And instead of writing letters, we are Insta-Face-Ering and will meet up at the next show.  “Eventers are soooo nice,” I heard as we were packing up. A few of the campers came from the fill-in-the-blank horse show world. “You guys are so supportive.  I never saw that in my other horse world.”

I guess it’s because we’ve all been the bug at some point. This sport is hard enough as is it.  So let’s be friends. Let’s go to sleepaway camp.

3…2…1…Have a nice ride!

Giving Back to the Horses Who Give Us the Sport

We announced the finalists in the 7th Annual EN Blogger Contest, and now we are bringing you their first round submissions. Leave your feedback in the comments, and please offer your encouragement and support to the finalists! We hope you enjoy their creativity, insight and love of the sport.

Amy Nelson and Ruby Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

She doesn’t halter well and has poor manners when leading because she’s scared. She’s head shy. She doesn’t pick up her feet. She doesn’t do well being bridled. She gets very scared in a trailer. She is 7 and has only been ridden four times. She can’t be fly-sprayed or bathed. She was neglected and came in 200 pounds underweight, but we have the weight under control! Would you have room to foster her, and help find her a career, and a new home?

I’ve helped out Crosswinds Equine Rescue in Sidell, Illinois, on and off for the past 10 years. Before I had my own place, I volunteered as a trainer at their farm by training and riding some of their rescues. One of my favorites was a bay Thoroughbred. Now, a decade later, I have found another way to give back to the animals I love so dearly.

I had two open stalls, so I agreed to take on two of their horses. Many of their volunteers at Crosswinds are excellent with grooming, feeding and other tasks, but lately some of the rescue horses have needed extra work when it comes to riding. They needed a professional trainer to ensure the horse found a job and a perfect forever home.

Conquering the world … one trot pole at a time.

Over the winter we fostered a cute 3-year-old Mustang mare named Tayah. She was an adorable grey that looked like a miniature Andalusian and quickly took to hunters. She had a rocking horse canter, was a total “push ride,” and would never hurt a fly. She was scooped up by a family with a young mom who rode, and the kids adore her.

Now we have a 3-year-old Tennessee walker filly named Amaretto who is learning the ropes of gaited western riding. She is a lovely mover with a quirky personality, and typical of her age, the attention span of a gnat. She was an orphan, so in my downtime in the evenings I groom her and allow her to lick my arm.

But the biggest challenge has been Ruby Tuesday. This 16.1-hand Hanoverian mare came in to us essentially knowing nothing — a 2-year-year old in a 7-year-old’s body. In her short life, she had been starved, neglected, abused and then finally seized by the ASPCA in North Carolina. No wonder she hated everything!

One day at our farm, she nearly lost her mind when the wind blew the barn door closed near her stall. This is going to be an eventer? I thought to myself. The first few days I spent every spare minute sitting in a chair in front of her stall. I ate my lunch there. I talked to her as I cleaned stalls. My working student would sneak in and brush her while I was teaching. My husband would steal kisses from her nose.

In a short time, Ruby has made an amazing turnaround. She is starting to come out of her shell and learn new skills. As it turns out, she is a lovely mover! She has trot to die for in the dressage ring, and even shows a desire to be an eventer as she jumped over an 18” pile of logs with me on a lead line. (Look out, Kentucky!)

She has months of foster training ahead of her, but I’m thrilled to be a part of her journey. If you have a spare stall, a spare hour, a spare dollar, I encourage you to give back to the animals who give us the sport of eventing. Because at the end of the day, I’m finding it’s not the clear rounds that give me the greatest joy. It’s a ground pole I walked over on a rescue horse, who now believes she can conquer the world.

About the Author: Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, Illinois.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses and eventers at her Hummingbird Stables. She has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover and hopes to compete at the one-star level this year. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Eventing Shorts: How to NOT Get Eaten by a Panther in Eventing

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

If you can’t be an example … be a warning. Chances are your trainer has made (thousands) of mistakes … and you can learn from him or her without having to go through the agony of doing it wrong yourself. They’ve been “eaten by a panther” in eventing, and can spare you the same feat.

My husband gave me the most wonderfully ridiculous pep talk, after I made a huge mistake at a three-day event. I was “eaten by panther,” he said. ”But the positive side is that people will learn from you, your students will learn from you, so it won’t be in vain.”

My husband runs the Emergency Operations Center for our state, so he’s full of wisdom to encourage people and get them to rise to the occasion in the face of fear and challenges.

“Thousands of years ago,”he begins, “as a rite of passage young hunters used to go into the jungle with sharpened sticks to hunt panthers.”

*I roll my eyes* This ought to be good … as I’ve just thrown away a solid 7th place finish at Open Training level by making a detrimental mistake in stadium.

“Let’s call this hunter Bob.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t named Bob.

“Bob would find a panther, and when it leapt into the air to attack, the young hunter would hold the sharpened end of the stake straight up. As the panther pounced onto the stake, Bob stuck the other end into the ground to snare his prize. But do you know what happened?”

*I groan, being forced into engaging with this ridiculousness.*

“No,” I croak, between tears.

Amy’s husband, Darryl Dragoo. Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

“The panther would land on the stake, only to slide down, still snarling and clawing, and eat Bob in its final moments of life! Bob’s family got a nice panther pelt, but he had perished.”

I’m pretty sure he made this up.

“The point?” I struggled.

“The point is … every hunter AFTER Bob, who saw what happened to Bob, put barbs on the end of their stakes. So the panther wouldn’t slide down. And wouldn’t eat them.”

He continued, “Every rider out there LEARNED something from you today. You got eaten by the panther. Today, you were Bob. But no one will make that mistake again.”

If you can’t be the example, be the warning. Watch others, as many as you can, and learn something! Take lessons. Because at some point, your trainer, let’s call him Bob, has been eaten by a panther.

Learn from Bob.

3..2..1. Have a good ride.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Taking a Show Horse on Course: Tips for Making the Switch from Hunter/Jumper to Eventing

Photos courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Many hunters and jumpers see eventing friends having a great time on cross country, and want to make the switch. Their horses jump 3’ or 3’6” comfortably in the arena, so how hard could it be? Making the switch from the ring to the field isn’t impossible, but it’s not as easy as you might think. There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you and your horse are properly prepared for the task.

First of all, pay attention to the types of questions. A showjumper or hunter has two basic types of fences: the vertical and the oxer. In higher levels you have the triple bar, which is still very similar to the first two. Everything tends to have the same basic elements — poles and standards. Then you make a right hand turn to poles and standards. Maybe a left hand turn with poles and standards; perhaps a brick wall filler, or some flowers, or bushes, but still with poles and standards.  

In eventing, it’s way more! The USEA Cross Country Obstacle Design Standards book lists around 36 types of obstacles you might encounter on cross country. Mind you, not all will be seen at lower levels, but as you climb the ranks it will be everything from ditches to drops, banks, water, coffins, corners, trakehners, helsinkis and everything in between. While some of them are not appropriate at lower levels, your horse will see them as you pass by to go to your particular question. This can be scary for them!

Next, let’s look at terrain. Your horse needs to be confident on all sorts of terrain, from jumping uphill, to downhill, off a turn, in and out of water. When it rains, or is rock-hard dry, your horse has to jump confidently in spite of what the footing is like. It won’t always be consistent footing like in the arena. This might worry your horse.

What about atmosphere? How about the golf carts, people, and barking dogs? Maybe it’s raining — watch out for umbrellas! Or wildlife. I have been on course and actually almost trampled a wild turkey! Not to mention the herd of deer that darted by as we were in the start box. Your horse is supposed to be concentrating on the 36 specific obstacles, not worrying about atmosphere.

Finally, let’s throw into the mix that the horse cannot see the course ahead of time. Just like your jumper round, except again, you are dealing with terrain and dozens of different possible questions. It’s not as straightforward as simply different colors of jumps like in a stadium.

Maybe your show hunter will jump a log pile. How about a log pile that’s a different color, that’s on a hill next to a lady with an umbrella and a barking dog and a golf cart, as four deer scamper by into the woods. What then? How do you prepare your show horse to become an event horse? The answer is practice, practice, practice. Start him out at a level where he is going to feel confident. Take him out on schooling days. And when you do his very first event, start small.

Have you ever wondered why the top of show jumping is around 5’3”, but top level eventers jump 4’1”?  Sure, the horses and riders get tired. They do three disciplines instead of one. But perhaps, it’s also because the sheer number of obstacles, plus terrain, plus footing, plus the atmosphere of an event is difficult to master.

Maybe a good rule of thumb is start one foot smaller than you jump at home. Jumping 3’6” – go Beginner Novice for your horse’s very first event. Or even Starter Level. It’s better to take him on course and find it’s too easy, and make him feel like Superman the first time out. Don’t be ashamed of the SIZE of the fence. It’s not about size. It’s about all the other elements in play.  

Go Eventing.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Six Ways to Reduce Stress at Events

Keep it cool out there, Eventing Nation! Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Horse trials and three-day events can be very stressful. But there are certain things you can do to prepare to help reduce anxiety for yourself and the family members you dragged along! Here are a few tips to help keep you from becoming a frazzled mess at your next event.

Step 1: Learn your tests.

Start memorizing your dressage test as soon as you sign up for the event. The test will be posted and you can even practice this in your living room or in the breakroom at your office by walking out your pattern. Don’t worry, your coworkers will think this is totally normal, as you pretend to canter a circle while waiting for the coffee to finish. In all reality, it’s one less thing you have to worry about when you arrive at the show.

Step 2: Make reservations.

The day you sign up for the show, make reservations at your hotel or campground. Summers in certain areas get busy, and if you wait until the last minute, you might find yourself camping in the parking lot of a nearby equestrian center because it’s 100 degrees and that’s the only place to plug in your living quarters trailer within 50 miles (believe me).

Step 3: Make a list.

This is something you can do a week away from the show. Start writing down all of the things you need to bring with you, and all of the things you need to arrange before you go. Show clothes? CHECK. Saddle? CHECK. Wraps? Boots? Stud kit? CHECK.

Step 4: Pack.

Organize all the tack and show clothing you will need for the event a few days before you hit the road. If you are able, load the trailer a couple days in advance. If it is the same tack you use everyday, set that aside and make sure you allow an extra hour the night before you leave to clean tack and load in the trailer. Do not try to do it the day you are trying to leave, because inevitably you will forget something at home!

Step 5: Do not over-schedule yourself the day you aim to leave for the show.

Many of us have jobs, and families, and other commitments. Make sure you schedule yourself a day off when you plan to leave, and even the afternoon the day before you hit the road.

Step 6: Final trailer load.

The only things that you should leave for the day that you plan to hit the road are immediate items like hay and water buckets. Wrap horses’ legs, and don’t forget to put your horse in the trailer! You may laugh at this, but you know deep down you’ve had that fear of forgetting your horse. Make sure your polo wraps are clean and rolled in advance so all you have to do is put them on.

Tips: Plan to leave at a specific time but know that things come up. Allow yourself an extra hour before you leave, and an extra hour on the road. Traffic, construction and other time-stealers can be found along the route. Being on time and prepared will greatly help reduce the stress level.

Additionally, if you keep your items stored in tubs, labeled and always put back in the same spot when you are done, it will greatly reduce the stress at the show. Then you are not having to look for items in a panic! When you unload the trailer, make sure you have everything you need for that day. It’s not fun asking your husband to drive all the way back to the parked trailer to get your stud kit 20 minutes before your posted ride time (believe me!!).

Events can be stressful, but with a bit of organization and time management, you will be more relaxed and able to concentrate on what to do when you’re on course or in the ring. Was it trot at C, or was I supposed to trot at M???

3 … 2 … 1 … Have a good ride!

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Be the Tortoise: Win at the Upper Levels By Losing at the Lower Ones

Amy and her tortoise (“Well, he desperately wants to be the hare!”) Photo by Merrick Studios.

How do you get your young, enthusiastic event horse to win at the upper levels? By losing at the lower levels. The key is helping your hasty hare to think like a thoughtful tortoise.

“Never win a speed class until you are at the highest level you want to be.” A Grand Prix level jumper trainer told me this years ago, and it stuck with me. As he has had students represent Germany in the Olympics, and has gone to the Grand Prix level in jumpers (as well as dressage), he knows what he’s talking about. “Slow DOOOOOOOWWWWN!!” he would bark, with his thick German accent and imposing stature. “He has to be CAHFUL!!!” (careful). He explained to me that if your goal is to do 5’3”jumps, there is no point in going as fast as you can at 2’6” just to win a 50 cent ribbon.

The same can be true in eventing. Is your goal to be Champion Beginner Novice Level Eventer? If it is, by all means, go fast. Go for the first place ribbon! Let your experienced horse stretch his legs and have some fun. If you goal is to go higher, whether it be Prelim level or all the way to four-star, if you are on a young/green horse who is new to the level or the sport — throw away your watch. Don’t set your timer. Slow and steady wins the race.

Remember the tortoise and the hare? Teach your horse to be thoughtful, and careful, and take his time before you add the complication of speed. There’s no shame in coming in last place when you had the best ride to set him up for higher levels. It’s not about winning. It’s about showing your horse how to play the game.

Recently I took a six-year-old to his first Training level event. While he is full of speed and enthusiasm on cross country I did not even set my watch. The rulebook says you can go at your own pace with the only penalty being time, so long as you stay under the time limit. Make sure you pay attention to the jump judges — if you are about to be overtaken they will give you instructions on when to pull up to give the other rider the right of way. But you can use every bit of that time limit to get your horse’s head in the game.

My goal was for him to listen, not to win. I wasn’t worried about time faults or NQRs. There is no point in going as I could at Training level when my goal with him is three- or four-star. Pay attention to where your feet go. Listen when I ask you to come back and soften. Focus on the multi-element questions. He went clear with a handful of time penalties (well under the limit) and I was happy! He was thinking. He was rideable. He was confident.

This is not to say move your horse up a level before he’s ready. That’s a recipe for disaster! But don’t be in such a hurry to win over smaller fences when you have your sights set higher.

How often do we see horses that seemingly “came out of nowhere.” They were unnoticed early in their careers and didn’t win a lot … until … BOOM!! They hit a hot streak. Maybe this is by design. Maybe they were taught at the lower levels to be focused and thoughtful. They became proficient at the fundamentals so that at the higher levels adding speed was the easiest part of the game.

So how do you win at the higher levels? By losing at the lower ones. Be the tortoise.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Reaching for the Eventing Stars After Age 40

Bunnie Sexton and Rise Against at Rolex 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Some days I think it’s too late. Maybe I should hang up my vest for the last time and pick a different passion. I know, the sport of eventing is full of highs and lows. But as I get older it feels that I don’t have enough time to battle back from the lows. Or I don’t have enough resilience. You’ve only got one shot, so they say, and what if I’ve already missed it?

In society emphasis seems to always be on youth — Young Riders, Young Horse competitions, 30 influential people under 30. But is there hope for getting to the TOP of the sport after 40?

My path to eventing started out more typical of the weekend warrior. While I have been riding on and off since I was 12, I did not own my first horse until I was in my mid-20s. I did not become serious in the sport of eventing until I was in my 30s. At that point I had a full-time job, a full-time farm, my second marriage, two stepchildren and an elderly mother-in-law who lives with us.

I am now 36 and trying to make my way to the stars. I hope to compete at a one-star this year but keep coming up empty-handed. This weekend after a fall with my horse at Preliminary I began to doubt myself. Is this a silly dream? Is it too late to get started?

Not according to these riders.

We all remember the story of Japanese rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who first went to the Olympics in 1964. He returned after a 44-year hiatus to compete in dressage at the 2008 Beijing Games. He was 67 years old. He returned four years later to compete at the 2012 London Games at 71.

Kevin Keane and Fernhill Flutter at Rolex 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

In 2014 we watched as Dr. Kevin Keane, a full-time veterinarian and amateur rider, went on course at Rolex for the first time at the age of 59. When asked how he found the time to be a four-star rider when he also had a very demanding and time-consuming job, Kevin replied, “The eventing community is very fraternal, and even though we are all competitive, we still want each other to succeed. You have to have people around you to help you through a journey such as this.”

Bunnie Sexton and Rise Against at Rolex 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Then there’s Bunnie Sexton, who completed her very first three-star and four-star after the age of 50.   We cheered her on at the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and EN had the chance to ask her a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

EN: For those looking to reach their dreams after the age of 40, either by going to the upper levels of eventing or even just going eventing for the first time, what advice would you give them?

Bunnie: “Get excellent instruction, which means going to people who don’t just tell you that you are great, the ones who are willing to be honest even when it hurts at the time. Then work like the devil to fix what is not good enough and continue to seek those who challenge you to be better.

“Eventing is full of ups and downs. The ups are great but the downs are where I have to dig deep and learn the most. In the end, set your own goals. There is great beauty in being the best partner to your horse at Beginner Novice. It should be no one else’s decision on what each pair’s ‘four-star’ truly is!”

EN: What made you decide to go for a three-star and then a four-star after raising four children?

Bunnie: “It was only when Bea di Grazia told me that Ecko and I should just keep going and that we were capable of whatever we set our minds to. It never occurred to me that it was OK to pursue a four-star after I was no longer in my 30s!”

EN: What is something you learned through competition that a younger version of you might not have picked up on?  

Bunnie: “I now know that every moment is a gift and that issues that come up are opportunities to work on weaknesses in my program. It becomes less about making the teams and more about getting the best out of each horse I am lucky enough to ride. Taking each horse to their own peak is a thrill, whether that is Rolex or creating the horse that at 25-years-old is still winning Training on scores of 25 with their person.”

EN: Do you think it is easier to reach the higher levels of eventing as a young rider or as an adult?  

Bunnie: “As a young rider, you have less life experience but often more financial support, a less worn body and usually a less complicated life situation. You have momentum that adult life often interferes with. As an adult, I feel much more solid in knowing that it’s about the process and enjoying the ups and pushing through the downs.”

EN: Was there a time you thought about giving up your four-star dream?  

Bunnie: “There have been many bumps in the road. In my 30s I thought I would never go further than Advanced as I couldn’t travel with my family obligations. In my 40s I had figured with back and neck surgeries my window had closed. In my 50s when we fell at Jersey Fresh, I doubted that I had what it took.

“Then after fellow trainers kicked me in the shins and told me to go to Bromont, where he finished sixth, I rallied. Then his feet got cut short and I doubted he would be able to get back to competition when he had to sit out Rolex 2014. This was all while I found I was ill and would be dealing with a chronic condition for the long-term.

“The point is, we keep working and striving. The journey has to be the point. The achievements are just the cherry on top of the joy of partnership with your horse.”

So, is it too late for me? No. Is it too late for you? No. Setbacks will happen. There will be bumps in the road. But the cross country course doesn’t care how old you are, and eventing is about the journey, not the destination.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, Illinois. She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables. She competes with OTTBs in upper-level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover. Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.

Eventing Shorts: Chin Up!

I’m sore. I’m mad. I’m embarrassed.

In the sport of the eventing I know there are highs and lows. Although I guess it did not expect to hit a low (or the ground) at a schooling day in front of four students, two pony clubs, and our resident photographer.

The footing was perfect. The weather was a beautiful 73 degrees and sunny at Queeny Park in St. Louis. I had brought my up-and-coming 6-year-old Thoroughbred to work on some of the Training level questions, along with a handful of students who wanted to practice their levels before the upcoming horse trials. My young horse is bold and opinionated, and forgets to listen sometimes when he gets on course. But he has been to Queeny Park many times and stays relatively relaxed there, so I figured it would be a great day to show my students how it’s done.

From the get-go the day started out rough. While lifting the electric scooter out of the trailer for our photographer to use, it got stuck. It’s pretty heavy, so I gave it one final TUG to set it free, where I managed to pull the seat off of it and punch myself in the face with it!  My adult pony clubber/photographer was just walking up to witness this misfortune. Laugh it off, it’ll be a good day, I thought as my jaw throbbed.

Then, as one of my students was tacking up a lesson horse, she asked where I had put the bridle and girth. My heart sank. I realized I forgot to bring it! In my haste to pack the trailer, I left it hanging in the tack room! Thank goodness one of the other students met us there with her own trailer, as she had just come from a show. She happened to have spare tack, same bit and everything, that fit perfectly. Our lesson horse got to wear fancy show tack at the schooling day and was the best dressed all day! People forget things, it’s OK, we made it work!

We hacked about a mile or so to get to the first set of questions that we were going to tackle for the day. A couple of coops, logs, and a smaller bank complex. We started by walking up the small bank and over the grass. Then let’s trot up the slightly larger bank. Easy peasy. Even the less experienced students were having a great time.

“I’m going to do the larger up bank, three stride, to the down bank, before we move on to the next set of questions,” I said. I would show them how to ride it. “Your shoulders are the most important piece. Use a longer rein on the drop, let your horse use his head and neck for balance, shoulders back and look at the horizon!” I’ve done these banks a million times and do a 5’6” drop with my upper level OTTB.

I started by trotting towards it, but my over-enthusiastic thoroughbred decided we need to canter. No big deal, I’ll slow him down before the drop. Now mind you I have a very bad habit of looking down over drops. I have built drops at my farm specifically it to practice this issue. I just can’t help myself. So when he got going too fast, and I couldn’t get him slow down for the drop, my poor instincts kicked in. Surely I should lean over and look down!

Photo by RL Boston.

I know this is wrong. I can’t stop myself. My shoulders dipped forward. I know this is also wrong. So when this eager young horse launched himself into the abyss, and “bam” … landed hard on the flat ground, then lurched forward with a commanding canter stride, I crumpled right off the side of him. I was STILL looking down. The whiplash I felt through my body was minimal compared to that of my self confidence.

Photo by RL Boston.

The good thing is he did not run off, so I did not have to chase after a young Thoroughbred in the middle of a 200-acre cross country course. However, I knew when I hit the ground that I had an audience. I heard a crunch when I hit the ground. Was that my neck or my pride? My students were silent. Pony clubbers and their parents were silent. The photographer had stopped clicking. I am supposed to instill confidence in them, not come flying off my green horse. I popped up like a gopher, trying to laugh and smile.

“I’m okay, I’m okay, let me get back on and do that again.” (laughs uncomfortably) I explained to my students that that is NOT how you were supposed to ride that. “You should actually look at the horizon, not look down. Now we can all learn from what I did wrong!” In my heart I was devastated. How can they look to me for guidance when I come flying off at a simple bank complex? Will they be nervous now the rest of the schooling day because their trainer fell?

These are the highs and lows of eventing. No, I didn’t fall off at the Head of the Lake at Rolex. I did not forget my dressage test at Badminton. As strange as it sounds, while I never wish for upper level riders to have a fall, a run out, or make a mistake, I take some comfort in the fact that those four-star riders are in fact, human. I’m human too. I made a mistake. Time to get back on. Pick my chin up. Try again. And be certain to not look down! Because as low as this sport can make you feel, I’ll take that any day if I get to experience the high of leaving that starting box one more time.

“3, 2, 1 … Have a good ride!”

Eventing Shorts: Fixing the Problem Horse – Don’t be a Dictator

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

How do I fix a problem horse? Don’t be dictator. Be a cheerleader!

“My horse keeps refusing jumps. In fact now he won’t even go over a pole on the ground.”

What do you do when he refuses?

I squeeze harder, or tap him with the whip. Then what do you do when he jumps it? Nothing, he’s supposed to do that!

“My horse tramples me when I’m leading him and he has no manners.”

What do you do when he acts up? I give a tug on the lead rope. I scold him and tell him no. What do you do when he walks nicely? And he behaves? Nothing, he’s supposed to do that!

Is he?? They do that because we teach them to do that for us. But I’m pretty sure in the wild there are not horses standing quietly and cross ties, loading themselves in trailers, or teaching themselves nice canter transitions.

The best way to fix a lot of these problems is celebrate every single little victory. Your future jumper walked over a ground pole? Give him a big pat: “You’re the best horse in the world! You’re going to the Olympics! Good boy!!” Step up to crossrail … “Good boy! Best horse in the world!” Build their confidence as you build the task.

Your problem horse stopped when you asked him to … from a walk? “Good boy, you’re the best horse in the world!” Don’t take the simple things for granted. As someone who deals with these so-called problem horses and young horses on a daily basis I can tell you from experience that there are many horses that will not stop when you ask. They will not walk over ground pole. They will not simply walk when you ask him to walk. Do not take this for granted.

Think of your horse like a cat. A 1,200-pound somewhat aloof animal that may or may not want to play today. If they are interested, confident, and trust you, they can do anything.

When you’re training, celebrate every correct answer they give you – they will remember! That halt from a walk will become your halt X, salute, at your next event. That ground pole will turn into a Prelim trakehner.

Teach them to BELIEVE that they can jump the moon and in the eventually they will.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Eventing Shorts: Insanity in the Middle

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

They say that is eventing is the horse sport for the criminally insane. While it is true that we gallop a 1,200 pound animal, with poor depth-perception, at solid objects in hopes that they jump them, oddly enough this is not our only affliction as eventers. Many of us suffer from a whole host of crazy, outlined below. If you have any of these ailments, sadly, there is no cure.

Equus Selectus OCD – Every one of my 27 bridles are all in order, neatly wrapped, cleaned daily, and hung in order of color and which horse they belong to. In the house, I live out of a laundry basket, that has been sitting on my floor for three months. Sometimes I go to the hamper and grab an outfit, after the “smell check,” because honestly it’s just going to get filthy anyway. You cannot switch halters. My horse has a halter. It is his. Do not use it on another horse. It’s my horse’s halter. But can I borrow your deodorant and hairbrush? I forgot mine.

Equus Selectus Germaphobia – Similar to the OCD but more related to germs. I just cleaned 15 stalls and picked my horse’s feet. I’ll eat this sandwich and not wash my hands. But I’ll hide my hand in my sleeve to open the door of a public restroom. Why? People are gross.

Fanatic Foodie – My horse will get a mix of high-fat, high-protein feed, beet pulp, supplements, and salt. I will eat a peanut butter and pickle sandwich in half of a bun that I just dropped on the ground at a horse show.

Animal Amnesia – So many times people say hi to me at an event. I respond with, “Hey YOU!” Because I have no idea what that person’s name is. I can tell you she rides the 6 year old grey named Sensible Spartacus Kitten Fluff but is her name Sally or Jennifer? I have no clue.

Anti-Social Socialite – Eventers are totally inept in social settings. My entire social media is littered with horses, pictures of horses, videos of horses, talks about horses, horse tack, and horse trailers. Speaking with one of my students about this topic (which involved horses), she admitted to actually practicing for social settings by writing down topics that normal people discuss throughout the week. Things that she sees in the news, current events, etc. She puts these on flash cards and studies them so that when she has a social setting for her job, she does not seem like a total equine-weirdo-outcast.

This seems like a lot of work, but worth it in certain situations. But to be honest I would rather just put my sweatpants on at 7 p.m., and relax while looking at pictures of horses, horse tack, horse videos, maybe watching a horse movie or looking at the virtual course walk of my next event. Horse, horse, horse.

Conversationally Challenged – I had whole conversation last week with a client’s horse. My client walked up. “Oh I thought you were on the phone!”
“Ha ha. No,” I said. “I don’t use my phone for calls. I’d have to talk to people that way. I only text. I was talking to him (points at horse).”

If you suffer from any of these afflictions, don’t bother calling a doctor. There is no cure. But eventing really is the best medicine.

Eventing Shorts: ‘This Old Trail Horse’ Vs. ‘Flashy Young Prospect’

Rebecca and HS Roll Call. Photo courtesy of Clayton Mason.
Rebecca and HS Roll Call. Photo courtesy of Clayton Mason.

So often when riders want to get into eventing they do so because they see how exciting it is. They watched the top riders gallop around a four-star course on TV or at Rolex. “I want to do that!” they say. But you don’t start at the top.

The reality is when you get into eventing you aren’t galloping full speed. You aren’t doing a three-mile cross country course, with a 6’7” drop into water. You are jumping small, manageable fences at an easy canter, trotting small banks and simple water crossings. Don’t buy that top level event horse you see online. You don’t need “Flashy Young Prospect” to get started.

While he may not be as exciting, with his wooly coat and bare feet, you need a level-headed, steady Eddie horse that will be brave and safe. He does not have to be the best mover in dressage. He does not have to have the scope to go four-star. He needs to have a brain and not be spooky on a trail.

That is why I recommend “This Old Trail Horse.” An older trail horse has the experience of an event horse and all you have to do is teach him to jump. Chances are he’s already walked or trotted over logs and through water, and gone and up and down hills. It’s an easy transition to get him to jump.

Let’s look at Gus Gus. We bought him as a project for $1. He was standing in a pasture at an older couple’s home and they could no longer take care of him. He was a 15 year old trail horse who needed a job. We fattened him up, got him some routine vet care and pointed him at jumps. He took to it like a fish to water.

Eventually, my student Rebecca (an adult rider wanting to try eventing for the first time) bought him. She has put lots of time and miles into perfecting his dressage and jumping, but she wanted something that would be safe and easy to motor around a cross country course. Her goals do not include going four-star, but having fun, being competitive, and learning the lower levels.

Gus Gus has shown under the name HS Roll Call, and starting with his (and her) very first event, they have always been in the ribbons. They plan to go Beginner Novice this year, and as it turns out, he has the scope to go higher! Not bad for a 14.1-hand POA-looking grade pony who was a fuzzy teddy bear pasture pet.

Even a young rider who is looking to get to the top of the sport should consider “This Old Trail Horse” to get them started. I can give countless examples of similar horses who have come through our farm and took on this job. They are quiet, safe, easy-to-manage mounts who easily pick up their feet over a fence. The riders learn the sport without having to a handle a hot, young horse while they do it.

Low-level eventers don’t have to cost a fortune, but the experience they give their rider is priceless.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

7 Ideas for Building Your Own DIY Cross Country Jumps on the Cheap

I need a day off and like, 20 million dollars. How do I practice eventing without having access to hundreds of thousands of dollars of cross country jumps?

Creativity and hard work.

Unfortunately, I’m not independently wealthy. I did not have a long lost uncle leave me millions of dollars. My dad is not a famous rockstar. I’m not an actress who does this as a hobby. So I’ve had to get creative to prepare my horse properly for events. Many of the questions on our course at Hummingbird Stables were built because my horse was worried about it at a show, so I recreated these, on a budget at home.

Here are some simple ideas you can do at home to practice, outside or even in an arena if you don’t have the land or if it’s winter.

🐴 Ditch – This one I literally went in the woods with a shovel. It took half a day, but easy enough for a BN ditch. I secured it with wood beams we had laying around and filled with gravel to keep weeds out. You could make a faux ditch in the arena with a tarp/poles. We also use natural ditches on the farm reinforced with beams as ditches. No digging needed!

Total cost = $20 in gravel and some sweat.

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Log/Trakehner – A former student of mine had connections to the local drainage tile company (those 2′ chunks of plastic drain tubes farmers use). We got ours for free as it was a 10′ scrap they couldn’t sell. You can like buy a scrap for cheap. Just pick up. We balance it on top of logs over the ditch to be our trakehner. The plastic is big enough like that to be a prelim jump, but light enough that I can move it myself.

Total cost = $0-??

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Brush Fence/Palisade – Pallets are free when you pick up at your local farm store. Prop them up with wing standards and add trimmings from trees. Inside or outside!

Total cost = $0

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Log cabin – again a farm store burn pile steal for free. It was already the square shape as it was a shipping container. I added sides, cut to fit and sanded edges for a smooth finish. Poles piled on top can make it anywhere from 3′ – 3’9″.

Total cost using scrap wood from the pile = $0 and a day of work.

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Drops – Look for natural spots in the land…dig away the excess with a shovel and reinforce with boards. Total cost $0 plus scrap wood.

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Indoor logs – Plastic rain barrels are awesome. On their sides they are 2′ high. Three across for lots of room, 2 for a skinny, stood up they are 3′ tall, add poles on top for higher jumps. Total cost = $20/each.

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

🐴 Indoor Jump Markers – Pool floaties stuffed in cones. Pool floaties are cheap at the dollar store, come in yellow (like white) and orange (like red). When stuffed into your cone you can mark you indoor cross country course! Total cost = $20.

Enjoy your practice on a budget!

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

The Morning After: Why Post Horse Show Depression (PHSD) Is a Real Thing and How to Cure It

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson. Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Your adrenaline-fueled cross country round is complete, show jumping is over, you’ve packed your trailer in a sleepy haze and are headed home. How long will the Horse Show High last? Not long. Then it’s back to work, back to normal, on a Monday. And you’re depressed.

Where exactly did this depression come from, and how can you cure it? Well, not to say an event is anything like having a baby … but in a way, it is. There’s a big build-up in the months leading up to it. There’s preparation. Physical exertion. You pack bags of items. You wait and wait, until on that special day, when your horse show is to arrive, it’s so exciting!! There’s adrenaline. There’s pain. There might be tears.

You definitely have not slept enough. Even the immense joy of bringing home a brand new bundle of prizes and ribbons is short-lived. And when you return to the daily struggle of laundry and bills and work, you get depressed.

What’s the cure?

Step 1: Pictures!!!

Ease the pain of PHSD by looking over your photos and video of the event. Be sure to post them on social media — the support of friends will help soften the depression. This could help a lot in the first week, especially if you didn’t get a ribbon. Or didn’t even finish. But look at that amazing dressage test! Look at your form over that fence! Nice work my friend.

Step 2: Have a plan.

Start looking at your calendar for the next event or, at the very least, the next local jumper/dressage show. The excitement of the new plan helps tremendously!

Step 3: Take lessons.

While your show is fresh in your mind (and you’re dwelling on that awful drop into water or the horrible triple combination and how your horse knocked down two rails), set up a lesson! Work on what needs attention, and be proud of what you did well.

Step 4: Pack for your next event. Here … we … go!!!!

And REPEAT.

But the good news is, you’re not alone. We all get Post Horse Show Depression. The bigger the show, the worse it is. So get going on the cure!

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Read more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row

Eventing Shorts: A Little Bit of Humble

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson. Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

As Macklemore says: “a little bit of humble, a little bit of cautious.”

Quoting rap lyrics for a reason. Stay humble. If you know everything already, go home.

Don’t take the lesson. Don’t ride in the clinic. Sure as hell don’t cry. Lessons are humbling. I’ve ridden with Mr. George Morris, Mr. Peter Trappmann, Mr. Grand Prix/Ms. Dressage-Event pro. Every time I come out humbled, but never defeated. I don’t make excuses like “my horse” this, “my equipment” that, “this never happens at home,” etc. etc. etc. … STOP.

Did you ride in the lesson for them to lie to you and say you’re amazing and brag to all your friends how perfect you are? Or did you ride to learn? To improve? To grow? Save your tears for the truck on the drive home.

Everyone struggles. I can tell you it was a shock — SHOCK I SAY — when I discovered that I wasn’t the perfect rider and didn’t know everything already! And it’s tough to find this out in front of an audience. But I didn’t pout. I didn’t blame the trainer (surely that Olympian doesn’t know as much as Susie Q Eventer!!). I didn’t quit and go home.

I’m a trainer and I have trainers. My trainers have trainers. Their trainer’s trainers still train.

The more I know about this sport, the more I realize I don’t know. Stay humble. Learn something. Or go home and give advice on the Internet to others who can’t cut it either.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.

Eventing Shorts: The ‘Mini’ Eventer and the Future of Our Sport

Photo courtesy of RL Boston. Photo courtesy of RL Boston.

“Jump the middle one and kick, kick, kick!” I yelled, gasping for air as I ran alongside my student on her cross country course. I was beet red, lungs burning, thinking to myself, why did I agree to do this? Because this tiny 9-year-old girl on an 11-hand pony is the future of our sport.

It started out a normal mini event. Dressage test done. A few rails dropped in stadium, and at one point getting lost. But the cross country course was semi-serious business.

The course went up and down hills with 13 questions (things like logs and straw bales in the “Green as Grass” 18-inch group). But to my young rider Leila and our little lesson pony Shilah, it would feel like a three-mile course at Rolex! This was Leila’s very first event (in fact, her first show) and would make or break the sport of eventing in her eyes.

What if the pony stopped to eat the hay bale? What if she just ran around it and Leila fell off? What if Leila got lost just like she did in stadium? As a coach and someone who loves the sport of eventing, I couldn’t let that be her first experience. So I marched down to the show office to ask permission to run with her.

“It’s a mini event. It’s not USEA sanctioned. I understand at a sanctioned event the rider is not allowed outside help,” I explained. “But the little girl is only 9. Let me run with her, just so she doesn’t jump the wrong jump or get lost.”

The office staff wholeheartedly agreed, and granted permission. “The Avalon Horse Farm Mini Event was designed to get new people interested in the sport,” they said. “Go ahead and run.” The lady behind the desk had a devilish grin.

The course did not seem too long when we were walking it. A trip down a hill, around the pond, up a steep hill through the trees, make the turn, and go back the way you came. But when those little fuzzy legs started trotting as fast as they could go, and at one point accidentally cantering, I thought I was going to DIE. I kept telling myself, keep going, she’s counting on you.

When she made the turn at the halfway mark and started heading back down the hill, I was wheezing. Now, I’m in good shape. I am a Prelim event rider myself. I ride five to seven horses daily. But I am NOT a runner.

“Should I have Shilah walk down this hill so you can catch your breath?” little Leila asked. Wow, I really must look like I’m in pain for her to notice …

“Yes,” I agreed. “Well, so Shilah can take a break.” Yes, for Shilah, of course.

We got part way down the hill and she picked up a trot again as she approached fence 9. Four more to go, I told myself. We can do this. She cleared the final straw bale and had two more straightforward logs to jump. At this point my lungs were giving up. I waved my arms and with my final breath yelled, “Goooooooo. Keep goooooooooinggggg …. You can finish. Stay to the left and kick kick kick!” I wheezed.

She cantered her final fence to my horror (she had never cantered a jump ever!) and cantered across the finish line. Arms flapping, legs kicking, a supersonic white fluffball and her passenger. As I was about to lay down in the grass at fence 11, I heard the announcer say “Rider 70 has crossed the finish line and is clear. The coach has not finished and may need a stretcher.”

Photo courtesy of RL Boston.

The future of our sport is in these mini events. Inviting to a 9-year-old girl and a tiny old lesson pony. Forgiving enough for a young horse experiencing an eventing setting for the first time. Kind enough to allow a coach to literally go the extra mile (or three, I can’t be sure), and run the course with her student. And to ensure that another rider is forever hooked on the sport of eventing.

Watch out Rolex 2037.

And no, I won’t be running that course with her.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Read more of Amy’s “Eventing Shorts” series on EN’s own Blogger’s Row

Eventing Shorts: Listen for the Clicks

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson. Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Riding a horse is like breaking into a safe. Just “Listen for the clicks.”

“How do I get him in a frame?” “How do I get him balanced?” “How do you know what a horse already knows?”

I listen. I feel it. They tell me. There’s no simple “Do XYZ” answer in any of this. I guess as a horse trainer I’d consider myself a safe-cracker. Have you ever seen a movie where a criminal breaks into a safe by listening to it with his ear up to the padlock? He turns the dial until he hears the pin drop in when he’s on the correct number. Then he turns and listens for the next number, and so on.

Maybe your leg falls in a different spot, or my legs are stronger, or you sit more upright.

Every rider is DIFFERENT. Every horse is different. There’s no set exact way to get these results.

The more you practice, the more you FEEL your horse and pay attention to what you do to get a certain result, the easier it will be to break into the safe.

As a coach I tell my students I will tell you when the safe if wide open. It’s your job to listen for the clicks.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.

Eventing Shorts: A Jump is Like College

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Everything I need to know about self carriage and jumping I learned in college.

Well … not really.

But every week riders struggle with releasing their horse over a fence. They are worried that he’s going to speed up. Or take off. The fix will not be made over a fence but how they ride on the flat.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a complete control freak OCD rider just like you. If you didn’t care as much you would have a cat or a dog. But because we are all overachiever control freaks we have horses. The key is on the flat, allowing your horse to have moments of freedom. Even a fast, forward, young horse needs a couple of strides where you release him on the flat and allow him to try to carry himself. This self carriage will translate to jumping.

So what does this have to do with college? If you grew up in a very strict home or you didn’t have a whole lot of freedom and your parents guided everything you did, and then you went to college … wooooooo party! You would go a little wild! You finally had freedom and you didn’t know how to handle it because you weren’t allowed small bits of freedom leading up to it. The jump = college.

If you don’t allow your horse little bits of freedom and responsibility on the flat, if you don’t trust them enough to carry themselves for a stride or two (which can become 10 and 20 in the future), then the second you release them over a fence they’re going to go wild! Even though it’s inevitable that they will fall out of balance or speed up or make a mistake on the flat you have to allow them to try. The few strides of self carriage will turn into many as they practice. But if you are always holding them in a speed or in a frame they will never learn to do it for themselves. Then they will go to “college.”

If my parents are reading this right now this has nothing to do with me. I was a saint.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.

Eventing Shorts: Fear Breeds Fear

We are excited to welcome Amy Nelson as an EN guest blogger! Look for more of her “Eventing Shorts” series in the future on Blogger’s Row

Photo courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Fear breeds fear. Confidence builds confidence.

All too often I see a combination of a fearful horse and a fearful rider. Why? Why is this such a common occurrence? I’m pretty sure a nervous rider doesn’t go out and look for the spookiest, flightiest horse. Just as a confident experienced rider does not need to look for a quiet deadhead mount. So why do they tend to end up this way?

Because they feed off of each other. It doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg. It doesn’t matter which came first, the spooky horse or the scared rider. The problem is that they build and build. When one is fire and one is gasoline that partnership is not going to work.

I tell students all the time, “If your horse is going to be fire you need to be water.” And if you can’t be water then be an actress so he thinks you’re water. And if you can’t be an actress … then he is not the horse for you.

Why then is it so much easier for a young rider or a teenager? Because they are still “invincible.” They aren’t necessarily the best riders nor do they have as much experience as we do 25 years later. But they ride around confidently and the horse feels confident because of it.

I remember when I was 20 and had no fear and nothing could hurt me. When I was a teenager and I would ride my bike down the hill in the snow with no hands to visit my friends. Nothing could stop me. Now at 36 when I fall things hurt. I remember and don’t want to fall again. I’m not invincible.

Many times people cling to those horses that are not a good fit because of guilt, or love, for whatever reason in spite of it not being a healthy relationship. Just like maybe you have dated or married someone that wasn’t a good fit but you held on for whatever reason. There’s no shame in realizing that horse is not a good match.

Even though it’s hard to see it at the time, you will both be happier in the long run. Because a fearful horse with a fearful rider will just escalate, only instead of dividing the furniture and fine china, you will wonder why you’re bruised and sad in a sport that is supposed to be fun.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.