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Amy Nelson

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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.