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Lila Gendal

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The T Series: 20 Step Forward, 5 Steps Back

Last weekend my friend and I decided to go to an indoor jumper show at Stoneleigh-Burnham, in Greenfield MA. I’ve taken Mr T to two schooling events last fall, in addition to two indoor jumper shows this winter.

Stoneleigh would be our third jumper show together and I naively assumed he would react similarly to our previous outings. One crucial lesson this horse has taught me: never make assumptions or sweeping generalizations about any horse until you truly know that horse like the back of your hand, and even then, give your horse the benefit of the doubt. I take these lessons extremely seriously, and am grateful to continue my education.

So there I was warming up in Stoneleigh’s smaller indoor and all seemed well in the world. I knew Mr T was slightly on edge, but gave him plenty of time to settle into the seemingly foreign atmosphere with lots of encouragement. In fact, I am not sure if I’ve ever ridden a horse that responds so quickly and positively from praise, and human contact.

Although I am clueless about what life is like raising a teenage boy, I often equate Mr T’s personality to that of an arrogant teenage male who wants nothing to do with his mother, but surreptitiously wants his mom to be around helping him through life’s more challenging moments.

From the smaller indoor, competitors headed towards a narrower “waiting area” before entering the ring. I sat there, semi-loose reins, relaxed body and mind and when our number was called, we entered the ring.

Although I was unable to actually enter the ring. Some major switch turned on or off inside T’s brain and the idea of entering the ring triggered some insecure memories I am assuming. He went from nervous to defiant in a matter of seconds.

Ten years ago I would have been clueless in this situation and therefore, terrified and or irrationally upset. However, I’ve been riding long enough now to know that most horses are not evil menaces waiting or hoping to destroy your life and end your career.

“Mean,” or “nasty,” or “defiant,” horses are reacting out of fear. Fear will continue to act as the base, and whatever issues we run into after fear resides is simply the aftermath from that original trepidation.

In order for me to deal with this horse, or any horse I have to become a detective. I must figure out what makes this particular horse so nervous, and then devise a plan that will ensure comfort and confidence. This should go without saying, but this process will not occur overnight!

Mr T chillin

Mr T chillin

I finally managed to get Mr T into the ring, but he was on such a high alert, that every jump, and everything inside that building was instantaneously terrifying. By that time, I had no intentions of jumping a round, I wanted to give him time to see everything and understand that his life was not in imminent jeopardy.

I never hit him with my crop and got into any sort of fight. I felt he was so on edge, and his acting out, bucking, leaping, spinning was all steaming from fear. Why would anyone want to “beat” a horse during a time like this is beyond me?

I did encourage him with my leg and talked to him, as his heart was pounding noticeably through his chest. If I had fought with him, I am 100% positive, he would have fought harder, lost trust in me, and shut down even more.

All the volunteers and organizers were incredibly patient and encouraging, giving us the time we so clearly needed. They said I could keep trying as the classes continued, or I could school the course at the end of the day, which was very generous of them!

At that point, I had no idea where the rest of the day was headed, but I was going to continue to get him in and out of the ring in a non-confrontational fashion in order to get him feeling more confident.

He was not afraid of the jumps and he certainly does not have a jumping problem, he has a confidence problem and has trouble trusting. He has been all over the world, and in eight short years has had at least five different riders, which I’m sure has contributed to his deceiving lack in confidence, which is nobody’s fault, but rather an unfortunate situation for the horse.

We returned to the warm up and I meandered around, and then jumped some stuff. Took some time to let him chill out and did a lot of transitions, especially halting, as I needed to lower his rpm’s and wait for that sigh/deep breath of relief.

When I first started riding Mr T I actually had a lot of trouble just having him halt. At times, he would feel like a nuclear explosion was near, even though he usually did nothing … you could feel the buildup of fear. Hence, when things get spiraling, sometimes just stopping, and resting my hands on his withers and taking a deep breath helps tremendously.

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism! October 2015

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism! October 2015

The next time I entered the ring, I had my friend lead us inside and she stayed with us until I gave her a thumbs up. From that moment on, things got increasingly better and better. We ended up jumping four rounds and sort of last minute decided we would take a crack at the 3’9” class and he jumped around spectacularly, and without touching a rail!

I wasn’t planning on jumping this round, but then again, I wasn’t planning on not being able to get my horse into the ring. I was reacting to the horse beneath me, and letting him tell me what he was able to do. He felt so confident by the end of the day and so proud of himself. I was impressed with where we started and where we ended up and how much I keep learning about this horse.

It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the amazing moments, and the competitions, and the ribbons. But there are always going to be setbacks, and things unexpected coming our way.

At times I feel like I am making immense progress with this horse, like we have taken five gigantic leaps forward, and then something like this happens, and you almost feel like you are back at square one, or even negative square one. This is what we call horses!

There are constant roller-coaster moments and times where we feel defeated, exhausted, and unsure of how to proceed. It would be so easy to give up and throw in the towel, but seeing something through, committing, learning, and adding to our wealth of knowledge seems far more alluring than finding a new more exciting and shinier project to polish.

Just Keep Plugging Away

Hacking Mr T in Jan, checking out the scenery in Hartland VT! Hacking Mr T in Jan, checking out the scenery in Hartland VT!

January can be brutal; there’s no need for sugar coating. As I sit here typing these words, I can hear gusts of wind traveling through the woods and smashing into our home. Temperatures have reached single digits, and when you factor in the glorious wind chills, numbing thoughts simultaneously travel through your soul. I’d like to toot my own horn by saying that New Englanders are resolute and truly gritty folk, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be sitting under an umbrella right now while listening to waves crash in on some tropical island.

I may not be the toughest New Englander there ever was, but if nothing else, this formidable winter wonderland has taught me to be a realist. While I would love to be lounging around and exploring some arbitrary island, off the coast of never-ending bliss, I am here right now, and this is my life, so I am going to cope and keep kicking forward because I am event rider with serious goals and ambition.

The middle of January often becomes quite daunting for some event riders stuck in the frozen tundra. The holidays literally feel like they were decades ago, and with no clear end in sight, one’s fortitude and ambition can seem wobbly at times. While I am extremely lucky and beyond grateful to have some lovely horses to ride and work within the comfort of a non-dusty and brightly lit indoor arena, I would be lying if I said there weren’t times or moments where I am literally stuck inside my own head and wondering what the heck I am doing with my life.

Keep plugging away no matter what!

Keep plugging away no matter what!

There are countless days where I’m tempted not to ride because it’s ridiculously cold, or the driving might be challenging. There are also days where I am wondering if one, or two, or three days off will actually ruin or hinder the progress my horse and I are making? In the winter when the sun sets around 5 p.m. and sweatpants are the only pants you really want to wear, there are a million and one reasons or excuses one could make up to avoid the barn and not make the effort.

And yet, this lazy, excuse-driven, motivation-less human is not who I am, particularly when it involves horses. I have to travel about 45 minutes to an hour one way to ride in the winter. I am not made of money, nor can I afford to take three lessons a week, and yet I go and I ride, and after awhile I begin checking off the days on my calendar that I spent in the saddle. I write down what I did with the horses, how they went, and what I can work on for short-term goals, as well as long-term goals. All of sudden I begin to realize I am riding quite a bit, and I begin to notice, or someone points out how fit and polished my horse is starting to look.

When you are not galloping in Aiken, or hacking around some lucky person’s farm in Ocala, or jumping some incredible round in Wellington, and instead you are literally trying to avoid getting frostbite, you begin to wonder what’s this riding life worth to YOU? Where am I headed? Where are all my sponsors? How can I ever get noticed, if nobody knows where I am or what the heck I am doing?

Where’s my spotlight when all the lights are so clearly pointing towards others who seem infinitely more important than me? Can I ever become “famous” or noteworthy if I am stuck in the northeast? Can I be an upper-level event rider without a string of expensive horses? Basically, the real question this all boils down to is … IS RIDING ONE OR TWO HORSES FIVE TO SIX DAYS A WEEK IN THE WINTER BY MYSELF REALLY GOING TO HELP ME IN THE FUTURE?

The answer is YES! I have to admit, this entire blog has been inspired by a post I read of Denny Emerson’s basically saying that he used to ride in a dusty, frozen indoor by himself at night and then all of a sudden he got the horse of a lifetime three years later that basically set his career into motion. If he never rode or worked hard at something he was so obviously passionate about, then who knows where he would be now.

Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography.

Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought Denny’s post could not have come at a better time. There are so many of us hoping and wishing for a chance at greatness. We wonder when our lucky time will come. We wonder how to get our foot in the door. I may not be the next William Fox-Pitt or Michael Jung, but I’ll be damned if anyone deters me from trying and continuing to work my butt off for this life.

There’s no guarantee, as Denny said, but if you stop trying or working hard, that’s a guarantee nothing great will ever come your way. If possibly being given a chance at success one day means working diligently, then that’s simply what we have to do. You may think what you’re doing is pointless at times and you’re headed nowhere, but really you could be headed somewhere amazing if you just keep plugging away!

The T Series; Part 1

My first jump set with Mr T! Oct  2015, THF. My first jump set with Mr T! Oct 2015, THF.

“One of the coolest things he ever taught me is sometimes you can’t tame crazy, but if you redirect it amazing things can happen.” I recently found myself Facebook stalking one of my buddies, Anna Loschiavo, and came across this pretty stellar quote from her.

Anna used to compete an extremely talented, but dare I say quirky, Danish Warmblood who was purchased as a dressage horse but wanted little to do with that discipline. After Anna purchased the gelding, she quickly turned the non-dressage-loving and terrified-of-trail-riding horse into a successful upper level event horse, who went on to compete at the two-star level! To read more about their story, click here.

Since seeing this eye-opening quote online, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it’s meaning and how it applies to my life as an event rider. If I had a nickel for every time that some rider, or non-rider came up to me and said, “Wow, cool horse, but he does NOT look easy…” I would be a rich individual.

Sometimes I wonder if I am the only rider who gets these remarks, or if countless riders do. Then I think to myself, how many horses do I actually see at an event that make me think, “Now that horse looks incredibly easy and straight-forward,”?

What makes a horse easy, or pleasant to watch? How many variables are we talking about here? How much is it the rider and how much is it the horse? Do these talented but quirky horses find me, or do I seek them out?

Regardless of how I got here, this is where I am. While I enjoyed my time with Vinnie immensely and will never forget him, I don’t want to get stuck in the past; instead, I want to take the lessons and confidence Vinnie instilled in me and utilize these skills on new projects.

Which bring me to Mr T, who I began riding this fall. We completed two Novice events together and since then have gotten to know one another much better. Mr T is a 2007 imported Irish Sport Horse who has been all over the place and successfully competed through Prelim, and was gearing up to go Intermediate.

From England, to Florida, to Vermont, to North Carolina and back to Vermont, one would assume this horse has “seen the sights” so to speak.

If only we could ask our horses questions, like, “Why are you so terrified right now?” Or, “What are you seeing through the woods that I am not seeing?” Or, “I thought everything was going well, what changed?” Or, “Haven’t you been on a trail ride before?” Or, “Just trust me and I promise I will not put you in harm’s way.” If only our horses could talk to us, right?

I have been watching this particular horse for well over a year now. In fact, the second he showed up for a lesson at Tamarack Hill Farm with his owner a couple summers ago I instantly knew I liked this horse a lot! Something about him intrigued me.

While he didn’t exactly look like the most straight forward ride I had ever seen, the sheer athleticism, combined with his gorgeous conformation, combined with a noticeable quirky and goofy personality lured me in.

Weirdo!

Weirdo! Photo by Lila Gendal.

Even though I have only been riding Mr T for a few months, we have been through a fair amount together. Every time I begin to understand this horse, more layers unfold in front of me that need deciphering. Every time I regrettably make sweeping generalizations about this horse, it backfires and he proves me wrong. Every time I think I understand the type of horse he is, and where he has been, he tells me otherwise.

This is the horse that unintentionally nearly ripped my arm out its socket on a trail ride a couple months ago. I watch the moves this horse pulls off in his paddock and am astounded by his athleticism, but am simultaneously aware that those moves could surface under certain situations or pressure building moments.

This is the horse who I have had to get off of and lead in hand down the driveway, or in the woods, or out in the middle of a field because he has panic attacks. I walk beside him until I notice the look in his eye has changed from a terrified deer in the headlights look, to a more relaxed and innocent expression.

This is the horse who I have to teach that standing still and being comfortable in his own skin must become the norm. This is the horse I have to stop on trail rides, take a deep breath in, then exhale, all the while telling him he is a good boy and nothing scary is going to happen.

This is the horse who wants his hand held, but doesn’t actually want anyone to see. This is the horse with a deceivingly huge ego that actually lacks major confidence.

Mr T has so many amazing qualities, but for every amazing quality he has some mental obstacles holding him back. While it is not my intention at all to point fingers and discredit any single person who has contributed to this horse’s journey, I find myself wondering at what point in this horse’s life did things start to go wrong?

How could a horse that has literally seen the sights all over the country, and world, be almost crippled in fear at times when hacking alone? How could an almost Intermediate horse lack so much confidence?

Again, I would never blame any person in this situation, but perhaps this particular horse would have benefited from being with one rider. Some horses can go from one owner to the next, and others are more fragile.

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism! October 2015

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism! October 2015

With all that being said, I am fascinated by this horse and cannot wait till our relationship develops beyond where we are now! With all the insecurities, and lack of confidence, I am beyond crazy about this goof ball of a horse.

He has one of the most elastic and powerful jumps I have ever sat on. He has an amazing work ethic and gets over difficult moments faster than I anticipated. He builds throughout every ride, which I personally love.

He has a lot of blood running though him, which makes him quite a bit more sensitive than what I am used to, but that won’t hold me back. He loves jumping and he loves to gallop. You don’t have to tell this horse when to go, you just stay in the saddle and allow him to go.

I don’t want to change who this horse is, that’s not my intention. I don’t think I’m some amazing horse trainer who has all the answers all the time. I was never expecting the two of us to end up together, but here we are. I’m not trying to “fix” this horse.

My biggest goal with Mr T is to make him feel as confident as he so obviously wants to feel. I want to develop a relationship, which I know takes a great deal of time. I want this horse to trust me, and vice versa.

I want to hone in on what this horse is good at and listen carefully to him so I know when we are ready to go beyond and ask for more. I’m not trying to qualify for Rolex anytime soon, I simply want to make this horse feel comfortable doing something I truly believe he wants to do.

In the words of Anna, I don’t want to tame his (at times) explosive energy and idiosyncrasies, but rather I want to redirect that power and see where we can go.

Revolving Doors

Wrapping up a GREAT XC school in southern pines, on the best horse ever. March 2015 Wrapping up a GREAT XC school in southern pines, on the best horse ever. March 2015

If some arbitrary person with the power to look into a glass ball and read my future told me five years ago where I would be today, I would have raised both eyebrows at that mendacious glass object in total disbelief. Of course I would have assumed I would be riding and competing, but that’s sort of a given. I would never have imagined that I would have spent the better part of 2014 and 2015 riding a horse that I used to daydream about. In fact, the past two and half years have felt like an incredible journey through revolving doors, where opportunities seem endless.

During the last ten years at Tamarack I watched this horse time after time come over for jump lessons with Denny. I usually did whatever I could do to make sure I was on the ground setting fences. I couldn’t help but notice his casual attitude combined with a seriously powerful, yet effortless jump.

I would think to myself, “How could I ever get a horse like this? Where do horses this great even come from? If I could ride any horse in the world, I would wish that I could ride this one … Yeah RIGHT … An amazing horse like this never falls into the life of some no name rider like me. And, snap! Daydreaming over. Reality sets in.”

For those of you who follow my blogs, Theatre Royal, or “Vinnie” (owned by Gayle Davis) came into my life in June of 2014 after I decided to call it quits with my mare, who evidently was not suited for eventing. When I found out Gayle was graciously offering her all time favorite horse to me, I melted into a thousand pieces. Dreams really can come true.

Not only did Vinnie take me from a timid training level rider to a confident Prelim rider (and took me to my first CIC*), but he helped me conquer fears and trusting issues that I had been battling with for such a long time. He showed me what a true partnership was like and he allowed me to reach a level that I had been dreaming about for so long with ease and confidence. Vinnie will always be that incredibly special horse that changed my life.

I’ve been holding back making this announcement for reasons sort of unknown, but I figured it might be time to share what’s currently happening in my horse life. For me, sharing my life through these blogs has been sort of exhilarating! I am definitely the more reserved type, but opening up and offering little tid-bits into my life has been extremely rewarding, on multiple levels. Furthermore, I enjoy writing about what’s currently happening in my horse life, so here it goes.

At the end of this season, Vinnie’s owner and I jointly decided it might be a good idea to trade horses for the time being. Vinnie is getting up there in age and we accomplished great things together and it’s so incredible to end on a high with him.

We completed eight Prelims together, winning three of those, and placing in the top three at four of those events. We were on the winning 3’6″ team jumper challenge at GMHA this summer, and he took me to my first one star in August! We had lowest Prelim score at a couple events, and we won some indoor jumper shows. I have never smiled more on any horse I have ever ridden.

For now, Gayle has taken Vinnie back to continue riding and hopefully compete next summer, and I have taken over the ride on one of Gayle’s younger, up and coming horses, an eight-year-old Irish Sport Horse, named Mr T.

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism! October 2015

Mr T showing off his jumping skills and crazy athleticism!

Of course I will miss that familiar and laid back ride that gave me more confidence than any horse ever has, but at least I get to see his sweet face several days a week! While Mr T might be Vinnie’s polar opposite, as far as energy level, personality, and exuberant jumping style, I am sort of shocked at how well we get along.

Mr T has been all over the place, from England, to Florida, to Vermont, but lacks some confidence, especially trail riding alone in the woods and a real partnership with someone who he can trust. In many ways he feels like an eight-year-old, going on five-year-old. In other ways he feels more like a confirmed ten-year-old when he jumps over 3’10” like its nothing!

He is not the most straight forward ride, he has quirks, and insecurities, but he tries incredible hard and wants to be a good boy, which only makes me believe in him more. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever believed in a horse this much, this early on.

We have already completed a couple events together this fall where I got a very good idea of the type of horse Mr T is. Our first outing we had a very telling run out and I learned a lot about him. There’s a very good reason why a horse would run out at literally a tiny row of hay bales on a Novice course, even though he has successfully competed through Prelim!

But this is what’s so fun about riding a new horse, getting inside his head and understanding who he is and why he does what he does. Our next event we ending up winning on our dressage score and I went into the event with a very clear plan and then executed that plan, which proved to be successful, as the horse really trusted me so early on in our partnership.

Ears back, tail twirling, ready for take off! Mr T Oct 2015 schooling at THF

Ears back, tail twirling, ready for take off! Mr T Oct 2015 schooling at THF

I have recently taken him to an indoor winter jumper show and am learning the horse at home versus the horse at the show are two very different horses, hence my determination to get him out in public frequently.

Most importantly, we need to spend a lot of time together, where we can get to know each-other and gain one another’s trust. He needs time out hacking alone where he can turn to me for guidance and support. I want to make sure he is having fun, while pushing him within reason to step up to the plate and become more bold and feel more comfortable in his own skin.

The training with this horse almost seems like the easiest part, while his fake confidence must be transformed into genuine confidence and Im thrilled to help him find his way.

I am beyond grateful for these opportunities and to have a support system, with amazing coaches who guide me and believe in me, and the most amazing owner, friends and family and people I have never even met cheering me on is like nothing else in this world.

Even though I do not have a glass ball in which I can easily look forward into the future to see our progression together, I am extremely excited about this new ride and the ability to transfer the confidence and knowledge Vinnie instilled in me and offer that over to Mr T! Stay tuned.

It’s Not All About Me

GMHA Team Jumper Challenge 2015. Winning 3'6 GMHA Team Jumper Challenge 2015. Winning 3'6" Team.

Yesterday afternoon, Michael Bateman’s gargantuan horse van pulled in the driveway at Tamarack Hill Farm just in time to load all nine horses, boxed up items, hay, wheelbarrows, etc. before we lost precious light.

I’ve been a part of the Tamarack “crew” for almost ten years now, so I’ve seen this van a number of times, and yet the arrival and departure always amazes me in more ways than I can calculate. The sheer size of this trailer would make any person’s jaw drop. The ability to drive one of these enormous metal boxes also deserves a round of applause, not to mention the stress involved maneuvering the van, and being held responsible for dearly loved critters in the back.

Within what felt like a nanosecond, all the accumulated “stuff” sat right there in the barnyard, including the horses, and then all of a sudden everything just vanished. Nothing and nobody was around. I found myself in the barn aisle alone, tending to some last minute cleaning of stalls, sweeping and such, and understandably had some time alone with my thoughts.

Normally this time of the year makes me feel abandoned and incredibly sad. Most of my friends and their horses head to warmer climates to continue training, schooling, and competing while I am “stuck” in (what will soon be) the frozen tundra. Normally I feel pretty low when the van leaves and one of my best friends heads to Southern Pines, and I cannot help but feel low and slightly depressed.

Usually I feel incredibly negative and pathetic this time of the year. The summer season is so evidently over. No more competitions anytime soon. No summer docktails with friends, while we sit on a deck overlooking the pond, ducks, and horses on the hillside. No more long hacks up the mountains in VT. No more jumping outside and no more t-shirts.

Although this time I had some different thoughts. In lieu of recent catastrophic events, namely in Paris, I cannot and will not feel anything at this time for myself. Hundreds of innocent lives were stolen in a heartbeat and even more lives are struggling on a daily basis.

Refugees are being turned away while more blood baths and destruction occur which can be witnessed via the internet, radio, news channels, and even more devastatingly can be witnessed first-hand. How could I stand there and feel bad for myself, or lonely when such evil prevails and when such horrible things are happening to people not that far away?

At this time I have so much to be thankful for. I have an amazing family, friends, trainers and people who believe in me. I have a roof over my head and I am lucky enough to be able to ride horses basically for a living.

I am beyond lucky and appreciative of the good fortune that has come my way. I cannot dwell in what I don’t have. I cannot think about anything missing in my life. I am lucky to have a life, while others were ripped away from them for reasons beyond what I’m capable of understanding.

If you are sitting reading this now, please take a second to think about how lucky you are as a rider, a trainer, or a student. Think about all those positive things in your life and be grateful.

Think about paying it forward and helping others. Think about lending a hand. Think about doing something completely altruistic and wanting no recognition in return. Think about making a difference in this world, even at the most basic or minute level. Every positive action can make a difference. Even if only in this moment, please let’s stop thinking about ourselves.

Just Keep Going

Lila and Vinnie! Xc school, photo: Ashley Neuhof, or AMN Photography Lila and Vinnie! Xc school, photo: Ashley Neuhof, or AMN Photography

For so many of us, life seems to revolve around instant gratification. This new digital age has created a double edged sword. Patience seems to be dwindling, while everything and anything you have ever wanted or needed literally sits in the palm of your hand.

Seconds go by, and some of us are desperate for updates, or comments, or likes, or feedback. Communication never seems to have an ending point, and yet nobody actually appears to be talking to one another. Ten people sit down for dinner at a restaurant and the very first thing they do is simultaneously check their iPhone. It’s exhausting, addicting and terrifying.

What’s the rush? Where are all the one and one conversations, in person, you know, as in speaking to a live person standing in front of you? Where are your thoughts, and what’s happened to critical thinking? Where are those moments and those memories that are sacred and not for the world to see?

This idea of patiently waiting for something and not giving up recently came to mind as Ive experience some turmoil in my life, some good, some great and some sad.

Throughout my life, no matter what, riding horses has remained a constant. Even though my riding has gone through waves, like all riders must feel at some point, I have never given up on this sport that I have basically dedicated my life to.

I don’t know a single rider who has never had doubts, or felt like throwing in the towel. If anyone ever said that eventing was an easy sport, that person must have been under the influence of some sort. Eventing is not an easy sport and can be incredibly humbling at times, and painful, and absolutely amazing.

Of course I have gone through times in my life where I thought, I will never reach certain goals, or I’ll never have THAT horse, or I am just not good enough, or what is the point of all of this, I’ll never get there, or probably the most reoccurring theme, I can’t afford this, I’ll never have enough money.

And yet, the alarm clock goes off every morning. I get out of bed, I feed my horses and I keep riding, no matter what, whether I have ten bucks in my bank account or a thousand. Maybe I’ll never get to Rolex, but I sure as hell won’t get to Rolex if I stop trying now.

Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography.

Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography.

I am 29 years old. I have literally been dreaming about becoming an upper level rider since I discovered this sport. It wasn’t until last year that I went Prelim and it wasn’t until this year that I completed my first CIC*.

There are practically kids who have gone intermediate. There are tons of young and talented riders who met these goals much earlier than I was able to. Lucky for me, this sport isn’t limited when it comes to age. You can ride and compete for as long as you want. There’s no cap, or cut off.

I also realize how pointless it can be to compare any rider to myself. If you are constantly comparing yourself to some other rider who has accomplished more, or has way more experience, you’ll always feel defeated and slightly worthless.

Eventing revolves around TWO variables: HORSE and RIDER. Not that horse and rider, or the one over there, but YOU and YOUR horse. That’s the only relationship that matters. You can only worry about and control what happens to you. Every horse and rider combination is different and there are no pairs that are identical.

Life throws us curveballs all the time. We can be blind sighted and we can feel totally defeated. I am constantly worrying about making enough money to support my dreams and to support my actual, every day existence.

I have my undergraduate degree, but sometimes I think, this is absolutely pointless. I should sell my horses, and go back to school and become a doctor or something, or a lawyer and actually have some money, or maybe I should find a 9-5 job and ride in my spare time.

Well, I don’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer. I want to ride horses, and that might sound incredibly naive, but that’s all I know. Horses and riding are what I know. How can I change routes now? How could I go sit in an office all day?

And then I think, just keep riding. Just keep getting better. Keep getting instruction and be a nice person. Other people are more likely to lend a hand, or support me if I am a nice individual.

One of the best pieces of advice that Denny has ever given me was this exact concept. Of course I have learned more than I can write down from this indivudial, but stepping out of my shy comfort zone and learning how to be more a likeable, and more outgoing person has turned my life around.

Being scared and shy had been so limiting and even though I continue to struggle stepping out of my shell, it’s literally the best pieces of advice I have ever received.

So until my debut at Rolex, I will continue to ride. I will continue to improve. I will continue to seek instruction. I will be diligent and practice everything I have been taught.

I will be patient and I will keep riding even when I am broke, and even though I am sore, and even when the going gets tough. The best advice I can offer anyone in a similar situation to myself is to JUST KEEP GOING!

Experiencing Something New Towards the End

Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography. Vinnie in Open Prelim at King Oak. 2015. Photo by Spotted Vision Photography.

Autumn in New England has an indescribable feeling about it. The aromas, the crisp air, the crayon box colors filling in the scenery, the scarves, the pumpkins, and the list goes on.  This time of the year really is spectacular in every way, even though this particular season represents change from one series of moments to a new series of moments ahead.

This idea of change seems exciting at first, and almost bittersweet at a second glance. Those series of moments that were enjoyed, those goals that were reached, and those intense training sessions that paid off all can be marveled in when thinking about the end of the season.

This may be a little after the fact, as I competed in this event over a week and a half ago, but the memory feels like it was yesterday. King Oak was not exactly a last minute decision, though I wasn’t sure if I was going to this event or not, but incredibly happy with my decision!

The fall GMHA and King Oak ran on the same date due to a late Labor Day weekend this year, leaving some Area 1ers at a crossroad. Even though everyone I knew was going to GMHA, I decided to head to a new destination. I have competed several times at King Oak, though had not gone Prelim there yet and was dying to know what it was like.

Several family members offered to make the VERY early drive with me two Sunday mornings ago. For several reasons I decided to go completely by myself. For some odd reason I wanted to prove to myself I didn’t need help from others, coaching, holding my horse, helping me with directions, companionship, etc. I wanted to do this alone, just me and the Vin man!

Sunday morning arrived quite early for me. The alarm went off at 3 a.m., and I could barely open my eyes. Even the mini Dachshunds didn’t get out of bed. To make this situation more enticing, it was cold, and the rain was coming down with vengeance.

Even though I am ridiculously competitive and eventing really is the most incredible and adrenaline seeking sport, I stood in my bathroom that morning straining to look in the mirror and thought to myself, “Why the hell I am doing this? I’m leaving my warm cozy bed at 3 a.m. to go drive almost three hours to compete in cold, wet and miserable conditions?” I’m sure other event riders have had similar thoughts under similar conditions BEFORE an event.

Though I never once considered not going until I almost couldn’t catch Vinnie. I headed over to his paddock in the pitch black, with a head lamp strapped to my head. I saw Vinnie hanging out in his shed and almost got the halter on him when he decided to take off like a bat out of hell. “Seriously, is this seriously happening right now?” Mud flying everywhere, a fit horse on a cool morning who doesn’t want to be caught. Hmmmmm.

I took the head lamp off, which was obviously upsetting the wise old 16-year-old. Finally I was able to catch him, walk over to the main barn and load him on the trailer in the dark, cold, raining morning.

To add to my stressful morning, I decide to get off at an exit where I know they have diesel and delicious breakfast goodies. I pulled up, saw lights on in the market and people inside, though they didn’t open for another half hour. “SERIOUSLY?” I didn’t have a half an hour. I had enough time barely to get to King Oak, walk my course and get on for dressage.

So I kept going with about a quarter tank — and about a quarter tank until I reached my boiling point. Luckily I found diesel before the dreaded low fuel gas turned on, and we made it to the event no problem. I was short on time and of course had no idea where I was going as I sprinted around my cross country course.

I finally figured out where my course went, and I had about negative five minutes until I needed to stud my horse and get on for dressage. Luckily Vinnie requires a very brief warm up, as he is one lazy dude and peaks early, and if I time my warm up just so, he peaks as I’m heading into my test! Luckily, this was the case!

Even with my 15-minute warm up, Vinnie managed to tie for first after dressage, which I didn’t find out until after show jumped. Also, a very exciting bonus to the day was added when I realized it wasn’t raining at all. Furthermore excitement when I realized how great the footing was on cross country. The only difficulty would be on the turns, as the grass was slick, but there was no mud or deep footing anywhere on course.

This was literally the best cross country I have ever had with this horse. I always have fun with Vinnie on cross country, as I think it is his best phase, but I learned a lot at this event, particularly about our relationship. Vinnie is a teacher. He is a very safe and very smart horse. He will jump boldly when he understands the question and doesn’t need to see it closely before trusting he can jump out of stride.

“He will also start back peddling to certain questions, not out of fear or because he will quit, but because he needs to get closer to the jump and understand the question. This horse will never blindly launch into water or boldly gallop towards a technical line. I appreciate his self preservation so much and, in turn, feel quite safe knowing his instincts are so on point.

Vinnie in a June 2015 jump school. Photo by Denny Emerson.

Vinnie in a June 2015 jump school. Photo by Denny Emerson.

When I first started riding Vinnie, I didn’t know when to ask him to jump more boldly and when to give him more assurance if he wanted to take a look at a particular jump. I didn’t know when to step up and make decisions and when to let him just do his thing. This event was so exciting for us as a team because it was all give and take.

There were times when I knew I could step up to the plate and let him know that certain ground lines were not boogey men, like a feeder table with pumpkins as a groundline I knew he would look at, and I rode more determined to that fence on course because he needed that support.

Then there was a stupid decision that I almost made that he turned into a brilliant decision when we ran up a mound to a large ramp, down a hill, 90-degree turn to a large corner. I saw a bold three strides, which he rebalanced and shortened into a quiet and deliberate four strides.

Every outing I learn something new about this horse and what to expect on cross country and when to back off and when to add to the conversation on course. I have never experienced this relationship with a horse before, as I have never had a horse that truly enjoyed their job like Vinnie.

Even though it has taken over a year to get to this point where I am getting inside Vinnie’s mind and understanding how it works, it’s been an incredible journey and well worth the wait. This horse really is a horse of a lifetime and has given me more confidence than I ever thought possible.

Riders Enjoy GMHA’s September Horse Trials

Madison Gallien and Beau Voyageur won the Prelim Rider division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Madison Gallien and Beau Voyageur won the Prelim Rider division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Fall has arrived in the lovely New England area, and for event riders in Area 1, this means the September event at the one and only GMHA was the place to go! Most of my buddies competed at GMHA, and I actually decided to hit up King Oak instead for a different experience.

Emily Eldride and Boo Ya Winners of Jr. Beg Novice B! Flatlandsfoto

Emily Eldride and Boo Ya, winners of Jr. Beginner Novice B. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

 

We completely lucked out on weather that Sunday in Southampton, Massachusetts, and I heard GMHA had a spectacular day on Saturday for dressage and show jumping, though had a soggy day for cross country on Sunday. I had the chance to catch up with a couple winners from the event, and here’s what they had to say about their GMHA experience.

Kitty (Katelyn) Aznaran and Electric Daisy Winners of the Jr. Novice! Flatlandsfoto

Kitty Aznaran and Electric Daisy, winners of the Jr. Novice! Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Madison Gallien, won the Prelim rider division on her horse Beau Voyageur AND won the Novice horse division on Royal Landino, owned by Ann Kitchel of Huntington Farm (as a side note, Royal is for sale!). “As always, GMHA put on a fantastic event,” Madison said. “It is always so much fun for me as a local rider to come support and compete against friends. The environment is friendly and social, and the courses are beautiful. Despite torrential rain on Sunday, footing seemed to stay fine for cross country day, and I had two super rounds.”

Allison Henson and Gurraun Jeseabelle Winners of the Jr. Training! Flatlandsfoto

Allison Henson and Gurraun Jeseabelle, winners of the Jr. Training. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Allison Henson, who won the Junior Training, said: “We went to all three of the events there this year, and each one was progressively more fun. It’s such a fun atmosphere, and everybody is so happy to be there because it’s so lovely. Even with the gross weather on Sunday, it was still an awesome event. They got everybody going ahead of schedule, and the footing stayed rideable. The horses didn’t seem to mind the rain much, and although there were quite a few scratches, I saw lots of happy riders/ One woman from our barn said it was the most fun she’s ever had on cross country.”

Of course, Joan Davis from Flatlandsfoto was there during all the rain and sunshine to catch some incredible moments. Thank you, Joan, for these winning shots, and thank you GMHA and volunteers who made this event possible.

[GMHA September H.T. Final Scores]

Larkin Hill Hosts Another Wonderful Horse Trials

Flatlandsfoto.">John Roach and Royal View were winners of the Prelim/Training division. Flatlandsfoto

John Roach and Royal View won the Prelim/Training division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

While I had a fairly laid back weekend filled with teaching lessons, trail riding and hanging out by the river, other riders were hanging out at Larkin Hill in  North Chatham, New York. I have heard wonderful things about Larkin Hill, and I’m sad to admit I have not competed at this event yet for one reason or another, but it is on my list.

Luckily I was able to catch up with a friend and fellow competitor, Kay Slater of True North Farm in Cape Cod, who competed in the Prelim/Training division with Caraway Archer. Kay competes all over Area 1 and had some great things to say about this particular venue and why she drives more than four hours to compete at Larkin Hill each spring and fall.

Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.">Michelle Chester and Paladin won the Training B division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Michelle Chester and Paladin won the Training B division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

“Eventing at Larkin is a treat for our up and coming event riders and horses. The courses are always very well prepared with interesting questions. This fall’s show jumping course presented rollback, square and dog-leg turns, making it a great tune up for the fall events,” Kay said.

“The Intro division at Larkin always makes me think that Intro should be a USEA recognized division so that such beautifully built Intro level cross country courses would be available to all new eventers and horses. It would provide them the opportunity to see high quality riding and courses as they enter into our sport, inspiring them to train well and correctly.”

Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.">Emily Peairs and The Tin Man were winners of Novice B division. Flatlandsfoto

Emily Peairs and The Tin Man won the Novice B division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Kay said Larkin Hill was also a great event for her son Ben and his mare, Poetic License, “who are new to Novice and had yet another confidence building experience on the cross country, getting to ride all of the questions they may see at Training, but in exceptionally well built and presented Novice size and scope. When a kid comes off cross country saying his horse felt challenged but like she enjoyed herself, you know it was a great course.”

Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.">Elizabeth Scruton and Argentum were winners of Beginner Novice A division. Flatlandsfoto

Elizabeth Scruton and Argentum won the Beginner Novice A division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Of course, Joan Davis of Flatlandsfoto was at this event capturing all the glorious moments and smiling faces on camera. Here are your winning shots from Larkin Hill courtesy of Joan. As always, thank you to all those who put on this event and to all those who volunteered. Go Larkin Hill. Go Eventing!

[Larkin Hill H.T. Results]

Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.">Susan Mallery and Ayel Yes were winners of the Intro B division. Flatlandsfoto

Susan Mallery and Ayel Yes won the Intro B division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Joan Davis Captures Huntington Farm’s August Horse Trials

Daryl Kinney and Rosie's Girl, winners of the Open Prelim division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto. Daryl Kinney and Rosie's Girl, winners of the Open Prelim division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

This past weekend Huntington Farm pulled off another lovely and seamless event in the quaint and peaceful hills in South Strafford, Vermont. I wasn’t able to compete because Vinnie has been on vacation since we completed our first CIC together.

Winners of Open Novice B, Jasmine Jencksand D'Paradi . Flatlandsfoto

Jasmine Jencks and D’Paradi, winners of Open Novice B division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

I’ve spent the last two weeks doing things I rarely do: dress in normal people clothes, hang out with friends and family from literally all over the world, and proceeded to cook for an entire week with my Mom for the adult camp at Tamarack Hill Farm. Cooking and dressing in normal non-horsey attire are not things I usually do. But every now and again, it’s good to step away from the chaos and intensity of the summer competition and training schedules and enjoy life from a different perspective.

Back to Huntington Farm! Even though I wasn’t competing mister Vinster, I enjoyed coaching, and it’s always fun to watch any event. If you’re not able to ride, the next best thing is to actually watch and observe. I was there for most of the day on Sunday and saw some familiar and some new smiling faces. Horses were down by the river enjoying a drink and splashing around. The sun was fairly intense, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Winners of the Junior Training: Hannah LoChiatto and Meant To Be II . Flatlandsfoto

Hannah LoChiatto and Meant To Be II, winners of the Junior Training division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Since I didn’t ride any of the courses myself, I caught up with my buddy and Tamarack’s barn manger, Daryl Kinney, who WON the Prelim division on her dressage score on the lovely Rosie’s Girl (an OTTB) owned by Denny Emerson. Here’s what Daryl had to say about the event overall: “I always love competing at Huntington; everyone is so nice and the courses always ride so well. The last water proved to be a bit spooky, but Rosie jumped through very boldly. I was really happy with how she took everything right in stride.”

Winners of Junior Beg Novice: Hanna Slater andKynynmont Black Tuxedo. Flatlandsfoto

Hanna Slater and Kynynmont Black Tuxedo, winners of the Junior Beginner Novice division. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

And, of course, the incredible Joan Davis of Flatlandsfoto was there to capture all the awesomeness and provide us with beautiful shots of some of the division winners. Thank you Joan for the pics, and thank you to Huntington and volunteers to putting on another wonderful event.

[Huntington Farm H.T. Final Scores]

My First CIC*

Vinnie and ME in our fist CIC, over the corner, one jump away from finishing! Photo: Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography Vinnie and ME in our fist CIC, over the corner, one jump away from finishing! Photo: Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography

This past weekend I reached my biggest goal to date: I completed my very first CIC*, at The GMHA Festival of Eventing, in gorgeous South Woodstock VT, and boy was this outing a major learning experience for me!

Saturday 7:30 am: So there I am. Trailer parked. Horse happily munching away on the trailer. Passport in hand. Confused and possibly, but not limited to, an incredibly anxious and nervous look printed across my face. I grab Theatre Royal, aka, Vinnie, and quickly brush any excess dirt off his already shiny and primped body. Throw the bridle tag on his halter and head over to where I think the vets are waiting for us.

“Hi, we’ll be right with you,” the vets say. “I can’t believe we have someone waiting for us for a change!” they say while they smirk and casually walk over to me, so nonchalant, like to them this is another day at the office. But to me, this is it. The moment I’ve been waiting for. I spent literally months getting Vin’s passport renewed and shots and boosters up to date. Was not as simple as 1,2,3, but I got it done!

One of the vet’s starts running the weird little micro-chip mechanism across Vin’s neck for a while and nothing comes through. DUH, I think to myself! “I am so sorry, I forgot to tell you I was told by the passport people at the USEF that Vinnie is exempt from this microchip rule because I believe he was grandfathered in as he competed internationally in 2007,” as I am saying these words I am desperately hoping this information is accurate and that I can continue on with my event. “Yep, looks like you’re all set,” one of the vets say. “Just jog him down there and back please.”

I cluck and pull on Vinnie trying to get him to trot which is not his favorite thing to do. Vin is one casual fellow and prefers to be standing still while stuffing his face with grass! So there I am pulling my 16.3 ISH along, like I’m a little kid trying to get her pony to trot! Was sort of hilarious! The vet was amazingly nice and educated me for future events. He told me I was good to go and to have a fantastic weekend. First in barns and first jog done…CHECK!

Saturday midday: There I am putting the final touches on Vinnie before making our FEI dressage test debut! I had my shadbelly, my dressage coach, my buddy who is a photographer, and I assumed we were good to go! I knew my test in and out. We had practiced all the movements in various schools and in lessons. We have also been placing quite high in dressage all summer so I felt confident. I thought Vin and I looked amazing – how absolutely thrilling to wear a shadbelly! This is when dressage gets exciting! Large arena, perfect footing, and more than one judge!

I start warming up and the unfamiliar dressage nerves start creeping in. Normally I am anything but nervous for dressage, but there I was, feeling tense and anxious. I don’t know if I had too much time or not enough time, but before I knew it, we were meant to be in the ring. “Please leave your whip with us, thank you,” say the officials checking me in. WHAT? NO WHIP IN DRESSAGE? DID I MISS THAT IN THE FINE PRINT? Damn! I should have studied the rule book more closely.

Vinnie and me, first ever CIC test! Photo: Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography

Vinnie and me in our first ever CIC test! Photo: Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography

I don’t know if it was the overall atmosphere, the expectations I had for Vinnie and myself, the no whip rule, or a culmination of all of the above, but I basically went into the daunting sandbox and did not ride to my best ability, or at the level I know I am capable of riding. Vinnie was super and did what he was told, but no more and no less! He is a smart guy and goes according to the way you ride him. He will be magnificent if you are on it and mediocre if you don’t rise to the occasion. All in all, I had two mishaps in the counter canter which landed us a couple big FAT and disappointing 4’s. And some of our transitions were a bit late. WHOOPS! Our test wasn’t horrible by any means, but we did not perform to our best ability, or at least I did not!

Saturday 5:30pm: I figured at this point I had less pressure on myself. We were sitting in seventh place in the CIC* heading into show jumping with almost nothing to lose. Many times with Vinnie, I have gone into showjumping either in first or in second place and have felt serious pressure. Even though we have done well together, it is still daunting! Of course wouldn’t you know it, Buck Davidson is the first to go in the CIC and then me. SERIOUSLY? I have to follow Buck? The guy who competes a gazillion horses and has been around the hardest courses in the world?

Ah well, here goes nothing! I was as ready as I was ever going to be. Someone told me before I went into the ring I had the most evil and most defiant expression written across my face. And that’s how I rode my course! I have to go to this place mentally where I am sort of a badass, motorcycle driver, risk taker who doesn’t give a damn kind a gal, otherwise fear takes over and I crumble.

We went in and despite one rail and one stupid decision I PERSONALLY made on a very challenging 5 stride to one stride line, Vinnie was amazing and was right there with me. I heard nothing and saw nothing when I entered the ring, but after the last in and out, I saw everyone and heard everyone cheering for us, and I have never been more proud or felt more amazing after a show jumping round. We did it! It wasn’t a tiny course nor was it a piece of cake!

Sunday 11:00 am, 30 minutes before XC! At this point my heart is racing, sweat rolling off my face, heart continues to pound. All my friends and family keep clear as they know I literally cannot communicate or make small talk before cross country. Vinnie is ready to go. Studs in, braids out, boots on, tack on. He knows I know. I know he knows. I was, no joke, dry heaving in the trailer just minutes before I needed to get on. I was ridiculously nervous even though I never wanted anything more in my life! We were prepared and Vinnie has so much experience, though the butterflies would not leave me alone!

Final words of advice from Denny! Photo: Janet Spangler

Final words of advice from Denny! Photo: Janet Spangler

I get on and head over to the cross country warm up. Body almost trembling. Nerves rising. Heart still pounding. I can hear my breathing and I can hear Vinnie’s footfall. I start warming up and Vinnie feels super! Denny is there warming me up and gives me the thumbs up. The starter says “5, 4, 3, 2,1…have a great ride, good luck!” Andddddd we’re off like a canon to the first jump. All of a sudden Vinnie makes the hardest line on course feel like a gymnastics line.

Phew! Before I know it we are dropping into water, and on a unintentional long rein head to the corner after the water, and he was foot perfect, locking onto that corner like nobody’s business! That was the moment I knew I was almost going to cry. We were about to go clean, even with one last fence to go on course. That moment on course was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. And then we did it! We completed our first CIC* together and I could not have been more elated, more ecstatic, or more thrilled!

Even though I did not make this horse, train this horse, nor can I take any credit for his overall amazingness, I can take credit for the unique relationship that is true to me and to Vinnie. Not his owner and him, and not his former upper-level rider in England, but ME and Vinnie as a team. We have our own relationship and have developed a partnership over time, and I absolutely adore this big, friendly Irish Sport Horse!

He is one of a kind, and it would have not mattered if we placed second or dead last in the CIC, the feeling of accomplishing what we did together is unlike anything I have ever been a part of. Thank you EVERYONE who came and cheered us on. The support means the world to me! This horse has allowed me to move forward with my riding and has made me feel like any goals are attainable and that dreams really can come true!

Weeeeee! Over the white barn we go! Photo: Denny Emerson

Weeeeee! Over the white barn we go! Photo: Denny Emerson

GMHA Festival Of Eventing a Landmark Event for All Riders

Winner of the Open Intermediate division is Buck Davidson riding Wundermaske.  Photo by Joan Davis Winner of the Open Intermediate division is Buck Davidson riding Wundermaske. Photo by Joan Davis

South Woodstock, Vt. was one hoppin’ town this weekend with tents set up, vendors, prizes, dogs,  ice cream, children, photographers, videographers, shadbellys and so much more! The annual Festival of Eventing is GMHA’s most exciting, most anticipated, and most attended event of the summer — and it was exciting this year!

The Festival kicked off with a clinic several days prior to the event featuring instruction in dressage, show jumping and cross country on nearby Birch Hill Farm property with Bonnie Mosser, Kylie Lyman Dermody, Sharon White and Scott Keach. Watching and following friends and fellow competitors all over social media this week, it appeared to have been a very successful and fun clinic with great weather and enthusiastic participants.

Immediately following the clinic came the event, starting with Beginner Novice and Novice on Friday, with some other Novice riders and those through Intermediate, including their relatively new addition with the CIC*, running over Saturday and Sunday.

I had the amazing opportunity of running my very first CIC this weekend with Gayle Davis’ Theatre Royal, aka Vinnie. I won’t go into any great detail, as I have a special blog dedicated to this event, so stay tuned! Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy some winning shots from the amazing Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto! Thank you GMHA and to all those amazing volunteers for your hard work.

Becoming Part of the Equation

Vinnie at Stoneleigh-Burnham in Prelim B. Photo by Denny Emerson. Vinnie at Stoneleigh-Burnham in Prelim B. Photo by Denny Emerson.

As far back as I can remember, eventing simply revolved around memorizing one’s dressage test and jumping all things on both the cross country course and within the confines of the show jump ring. No more and no less. Ribbons were always anxiously waited for, and falling off, even though not desirable, seemed like a fairly common occurrence. I’m specifically referring to my eventing career, if that’s what you’d call it, PDEE, or Pre-Denny-Emerson-Era.

When broken down to the most common denominator, yes, eventing still falls along a similar line. Yet, there’s a great deal more to the puzzle than memorizing one’s test and getting from one side of a jump to the other! All you had to do was get your horse from one side of the jump to the other. That’s it.

There was no seeing of the distance. There was certainly no concept of a “jumping position,” or what one might look like over the top of any given fence. There was definitely no sense of what one might want to feel in their horses canter on the way to a jump, and there was absolutely no further thought process or decision making skills going on. No wonder I fell off and was eliminated so frequently! I suppose ignorance is bliss, am I right?

So there I am on Sunday in Greenfield, Massachusetts, getting ready to go Prelim at Stoneleigh-Burnham on my main squeeze these days, Vinnie. We arrived mid-morning, overcast weather looming nearby and a thick layer of heat plastering us down. We set out to walk our course, and everything looked quite doable, though perhaps more technical of a course than my limited experience at this level had prepared me for.

I figured with Vinnie’s expertise, and my growing confidence, we would be able to tackle this course as a team, no problem. This feeling has started to become the norm since taking over the ride on this once-in-a-lifetime horse, a feeling that at one time seemed totally foreign to me.

I headed over to the indoor for dressage, and Vinnie was feeling totally with me. My last few schools on the flat had been less than desirable, so to feel all our mistakes, bad habits and incorrect instincts fly out the door just at the most opportune time was a lovely surprise.

Of course, I did not give myself quite as much warm up as I would have liked. Normally I give us about 20 minutes of actual warm-up time, excluding any warm-up walk time, but when I arrived in the mini indoor before heading into the ring, I realized there were only two riders, then me! We pulled off a decent test and headed back to the trailer.

Show jumping went exactly as planned. I probably struggle the most in show jumping with this particular horse, so nailing this round meant a lot to me. It’s not just about leaving the rails up in my world, it’s about looking like I belong, making good decisions, not getting in Vinnie’s way and staying totally in tuned with his canter. I can honestly say I would not change a thing about our round. He was amazing, and we are more in sync every time I compete him, which is the most amazing feeling.

Cross country was immediately after show jumping, so fortunately there wasn’t a tremendous amount of time to get nervous and feel the butterflies land in my stomach. This is where the magic happens. Vinnie is absolutely one cool dude on cross country. He knows his job. He looks for his next fence. He has the most earnest expression on his face, with his ears always perked forward. He leaves the box catapulting with energy and and then settles into a nice rhythm as fence one.

Vinnie SBS 2015. Photo: Jocelyn Van Bokkelen

Vinnie at Stoneleigh-Burnham. Photo by Jocelyn Van Bokkelen.

Preliminary is a new level for me. Vinnie and I have completed six Prelim events together, which is thrilling in itself! Each outing has been educational in more ways than I can count. I either learn something new about Vinnie on course or realize something about myself. Stoneleigh was really exciting for me as a rider because I realized how much I am part of the equation now. I had to make quick, but thoughtful decisions in the heat of the moment.

For instance, the first water was a palisade, six or seven strides to a feeder table in the water. I cant quite recall the distance, as they moved the first jump back a stride or two after I walked it. Both jumps were smooth, though somewhere after the fence in the water, all I knew was that I found myself hanging on Vinnie’s side about to fall off after he tripped somewhere.

Luckily, this horse is super quiet and conservative and felt me doing nothing in the saddle but dangling like a monkey from a tree branch, so he stopped, put his head up, and I shimmied my way back into the tack and away we went!

Several other times on course, I had a couple plans coming to certain combinations. I had decided if we come into X line with X kind of energy and he seems bold and ready, I’ll do X number of strides, but if plan A fails, I’ll be ready to sit up and add another stride.

A few combinations I thought my Plan A would go into effect, but in actuality, Vin had a better plan, and I was right there with him. What an amazing feeling to be a part of the conversation and not just randomly galloping your horse towards a jump, like we see so often on cross country. Obviously not ever rider does this, though there are countless individuals who simply go from one side to the other and that’s about it — no finesse, no thought process, no in the moment or last minute decisions.

Even though I am riding a former CCI2* horse does not mean I am along for the ride and enjoying every second of Vinnie packing my butt around every course. This could not be further from the truth. He is one outstanding horse but requires a great deal of riding and took me well over a year to figure out the ride.

I am still perfecting the ride and learning more every time I ride him. I do not wish to be a passenger. I do not wish to let the horse make every single decision required on cross country. I want to be a part of the conversation. I want there to be a dialogue throughout the course. I want to check in with my partner and for him to know I am there for him, and that he is there for me.

I came off cross country feeling more emotions than ever before. Pure joy? YES. Total high adrenaline? DEFINITELY. Shocked from almost eating it halfway around the course? YUP. Most of all I felt overwhelmed by how far I have come as a rider and what this horse has allowed me to do.

He has offered me confidence. He puts my mind at ease. He picks up the pieces when I misjudge a distance or combination. He allows me to make decisions as long as I am fair and don’t put him in harm’s way. He is kind, and he is a teacher. His mellow, yet innocent expressions make me smile. I am allowed to make mistakes, though I am never allowed to take him for granted. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I owe this horse more than he’ll ever understand. Till next time!

Huntington Farm HT Feels Like Coming Home

Eleanor Bola and My Valentine Winners of Junior Beginner Novice. Photo courtesy of Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto. Eleanor Bola and My Valentine Winners of Junior Beginner Novice. Photo courtesy of Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

This weekend I drove the super convenient five minutes down Brook Road to the lovely and familiar Huntington Farm, owned by Ann Kitchel. Huntington Farm almost seems like a home away from home.

I grew up in Strafford and, as a young, wide eyed child, I would bike down to Ann’s farm, nervously knock on her beautiful Vermont home and timidly ask if I could go peek at some darling and brand new foals. Of course Ann always agreed. To this day, I still enjoy peeking my head in the stalls at some gorgeous foals cuddled up next to their proud moms.

I have been competing at Huntington Farm for as long as I can remember, and to this day it’s still one of my favorite venues. At Huntington, you won’t find any carved squirrels, or keyhole type fences on cross country.

They make improvements and add new jumps as they can, but the galloping fields that go on forever, along with some difficult terrain in some places. There is also some intense galloping in the woods towards the last series of fences makes this event one of the best around, and more challenging than some might think.

I think some competitors take this event for granted, and arrive thinking they will bomb around the course without batting an eye. Well, anything can happen at this event, and it reminds us to respect the level we are riding and never take for granted a certain venue.

I took Gayle Davis’s Theatre Royal, or “Vinnie” around our fifth Prelim together and it was probably one of my best events with him to date. Even though the sun was beating down hard and sweat was running off competitors in sheets, it was a super fun and well organized event.

I was a normal amount of nervous before leaving the box, but my fear never overwhelmed my ability to ride nor my trust in the amazing horse beneath me. The way Vinnie jumps the first jump on cross country truly sets the stage.

Not only does he put my mind at ease, he makes me feel like a million bucks because he knows the drill and absolutely loves cross country. It’s a privilege to ride such an incredible horse with such a big heart.

Overall I thought the course ran very smoothly. The first few jumps were very straightforward and got you into a lovely rhythm in the beginning. There were definitely a few challenging questions on course, but nothing seemed out of the norm.

There was a hard angled line question at fences 5 and 6, though they were separately numbered so you did not have them in a straight line. The water was a ramp slightly downhill, three short strides, to a decent drop into water.

There was a full coffin, a ditch and wall, a trakehner, and a fairly difficult line at 17ab towards the end of the course, where you came down a very steep hill, to a slightly skinny ramp, one stride to a ditch.

I asked several other riders in both the Prelim and Training divisions and they also said the courses were great.

Luckily the super amazing photographer Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto was there catching all the action and excitement on camera.

Thank you Joan for these winning shots and thank you Huntington Farm, Ann Kitchel, the judges, volunteers and anyone who helped out! Also thank you to Bit of Britain and Strafford Saddlery for some awesome prizes!

When Confidence Comes Knocking at the Door

Vinnie in a June 2015 jump school. Photo by Denny Emerson. Vinnie in a June 2015 jump school. Photo by Denny Emerson.

Yesterday I did something I rarely do. I did not ride a single horse, and I wore a dress. I know — brace yourself! And I was rocking some seriously cliché event rider tan lines, but I didn’t care. I was having a great summer afternoon celebrating my sister’s wedding shower.

I am extremely close with my family, and when my two sisters and my mom and I get together, we usually are borderline out of control — laughing, teasing one another, crying and yelling. You name it, we do it! We have no shame and get along like the characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I’m truly fascinated by the personalities in my family. My two sisters are anything but shy, and I tend to keep to myself and lean towards completing a puzzle, while the other two would rather bungee jump off a cliff. In some ways, my sisters would make great event riders, particularly my younger sister, Anya, who exudes confidence.

She was born with that extra sparkle and will never go unnoticed. She is always ready for a challenge and thoroughly enjoys proving others wrong. She is brave, assertive and eager to learn, which can become a good recipe for an event rider.

Then there’s me. I am not afraid of the world and everything in it, though I tend to skip to my own beat. I walk on a different path. I see things differently than others, and too much conversation makes me nauseous. More than one hour in downtown west Lebanon, and I want to scream, get away from the “city,” and take my horse up on a mountain and hide out for a while.

I enjoy spending time by myself … oh wait, isn’t that what people refer to as a loner? Yes, I am one of those! I do not have all the ingredients that make the ideal event rider. But I don’t care, and this is why:

Eventing, riding and horses are my life. I have always been drawn towards horses and have never looked back since. No matter how broke or broken I am or beaten down, I have not once given up on this sport. I want it more than I have ever wanted anything.

As luck would have it, I am currently sitting on THE HORSE … well, at least in my modest opinion, he is the horse. He has been around the block and has given me more confidence than any other horse I have ever sat on.

I have been riding Gayle Davis’ Theatre Royal, or “Vinnie,” for just over a year now, and he has literally given me wings I thought I would never find. It definitely takes longer than I imagined to get to know a horse. I thought I knew Vinnie pretty well last summer, but that wasn’t quite the case. I can honestly and confidently say I am really getting to know this particular ride now, and it has been an amazing one at that!

Vinnie Stoneleigh Burnham 2014. OT.

Vinnie at Stoneleigh Burnham 2014 in Open Training.

So what the heck is confidence and where does it come from? I believe confidence derives from being successful at what you do repeatedly and over a period of time. Where does success come from? In this instance, and for me and Vinnie when it comes to jumping a bigger fence, success comes from getting to that more or less perfect take off.

But, how do we get to that perfect take off place? This idyllic point at which the horse leaves the ground is not random and is the result of a more or less “quality canter.” How do you get that quality canter you speak so highly of? Practice, practice and more practice and a lots of trust that occurs over a period of time!

I am really and truly starting to feel what the right canter is for Vinnie, and I am trusting him more and more, as I have had trust issues with several non-event type horses in the past. I am stripping down my guard and riding like I think I am capable of riding. I am not the shy and awkward girl that so many believe I am. I am strong and I am determined, and I will be damned if anyone thinks I cannot or will not succeed.

I am beginning to think I am so much more than a Training level event rider. I am looking towards the future and am seeing things I once deemed impossible. I am seeing new goals coming into vision, and I could not be more pumped. I owe this newfound confidence and insight to this very special horse, some very special instructors and an amazing owner.

I am becoming more and more confident every time I sit on this horse, which is why I want to tell other shy or quiet or reserved or timid girls that you can fight for the ride you want. You can prove others wrong. There is not just one type of personality that is suited for eventing. You can be anyone you want to be.

Riding and eventing teaches us so much about ourselves — things we didn’t know about ourselves or things we wanted to keep hidden. This sport is very telling, and the truth always comes out.

Maybe you are the quiet computer nerd at work Monday through Friday and a crazed event rider by the weekend. Or perhaps you have never been a thrill seeker or a pusher of boundaries. This does not mean you cannot compete. You can be deathly shy or afraid of all things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ride a horse.

Keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and you will learn and experience a life you never thought was an option. Be anyone you want to be and keep kicking on.

This Is My Fight Song

Vinnie at June GMHA 2015. Used with permission, Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto Vinnie at June GMHA 2015. Used with permission, Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

I’m pretty sure Rachel Platten did not have horses or eventing in mind when she wrote “This Is My Fight Song,” though the underlying intentions of this song speak loudly on so many levels regardless of its original meaning.

This song just happened to be playing on the radio the day after our jumper show. I was driving to a friend’s farm to ride a couple horses and as I sat there totally engrossed in the lyrics I realized how empowering her words were in that moment and how those words translated in my tiny universe.

So, being the inquisitive nerd I am, I immediately came home after my rides and Googled this individual in hopes of a possible interview or insight into this song. Here’s what I found when an interviewer asked Rachel about the meaning behind this song:

“I wrote “Fight Song” when I was at a crossroad in my life: on the outside there was a lot of hard stuff going on and a lot of reason to give up on myself…but through writing this song, I made the decision to not listen to that small mean voice that was telling me I wasn’t good enough. I decided to keep believing in myself no matter what.”

Back to our jumper show here at Tamarack two days ago. The day started at 10 a.m. with little kids and their ponies and everything in-between jumping 20” and we worked our way up to 3’6” by 3:45 p.m.

I decided to ride Vinnie in a couple classes and felt very confident going into the ring. I have been riding this amazing Irish horse for just over a year now and have learned more and gained more confidence than any horse I have ever sat on.

Though despite the familiarity of riding at one’s home turf so to speak, there’s still a degree of pressure no matter how you slice the cake.

I have been riding at Tamarack for nine years and have been in and out of THAT particular jump ring more times than I can count, and yet, having your trainer’s eyes and strangers eyes, and bright eyed students eagerly awaiting you to either rise to the occasion or fail miserably can be daunting.

I went in the ring, picked up a canter and had a very good 3’3” round, plus one of the best jump offs I have ever ridden. I ended up winning that class and needless to say I felt pretty confident and prepared for what was about to come.

All of a sudden the jumps started looking quite large. Yes, I have jumped some huge jumps (in my book, not Margie Engle’s book) and yes I am competing at the Preliminary level, but the jumps were solid and there was certainly no time to coast during this course. Jumps came up quickly and you had to make decisions.

I went in the ring, though this time I felt my heart pounding. I tried so hard to drown out the beating heart with sounds of the perfect canter rhythm in my head, “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…”

I managed to keep it together for the first five jumps and then I came to the triple without anything. No rhythm, no balance, no engagement, no timing…no nothing.

Vinnie was a trooper and jumped through the line awkwardly without touching a rail and without stopping, even though I put him in a horrible position to jump. I became frazzled and did not ride the rest of the course.

At the end I took a deep breath, listened to what Denny had to say from the sidelines and proceeded with my jump off, which turned out to be slightly redeeming.

We all want to go in the ring and perform. No matter what level you are at, no matter what your goals. Whether you are gearing up for novice, or you’re preparing for the Pan Am’s, most of us want to go in the ring and ride to the best of our ability.

We want to succeed and we certainly do not want to let our horses down, or our coaches, or anyone who watches you or admires you. BUT, we are going to fail and we are going to mess up, and that’s what makes us human. We are going to have our ups and our downs and we have to pick ourselves up and keep trying.

So many of us are obsessed with this sport and have been riding for most of our lives. We work very hard and for most of us it’s not about a glamorous shot in a magazine, or prize money at some CIC3*, and it’s not really about the twenty-five cent ribbon.

It’s about putting your skills to the test. Everything you have worked so hard for and all the hours spent practicing are suppose to pay off. Sometimes under pressure we ride to the best of our ability and other times we will crumble. But we have to keep trying, otherwise we’ll never get over this anxiety!

Just like this song, we have to keep fighting for what we want. Even if nobody believes in you, or even if you have a huge following, you have to keep pushing forward. At the end of the day, it’s not about how everyone else thinks you rode, or whether or not your sponsors will keep sponsoring you, it’s about what you want and it’s about staying strong … “and  I don’t really care if nobody else believes cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me…”

That Familiar Feeling at June GMHA

Sarah Grice and Simply Solitaire (currently working at Tamarack Hill Farm)  winners of Open Training. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto Sarah Grice and Simply Solitaire (currently working at Tamarack Hill Farm) winners of Open Training. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

This past weekend was GMHA’s annual Spring Horse Trials, and we could not have asked for a more pleasant weekend. After several days of pouring rain and a gloomy atmosphere, the sun finally made its appearance just in the nick of time. Area 1 lucked out with mild but sunny temperatures and dry conditions.

GMHA has been a staple in my eventing career, as I started competing at this event when I was a teenager. There’s something so comforting and familiar about competing at a venue you are already acquainted with.

Nancy Johnson and Canequin's Otter Creek, winners of Beg Novice Rider. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Nancy Johnson and Canequin’s Otter Creek, winners of Beg Novice Rider. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of pressure one feels before entering the show jump ring or heading into the start box, but the overall familiarity of the event somehow offers a sense of security.

I’m always fascinated by the seemingly ironic and unfortunate timing of getting sick right around the time of a big event. What’s up with that? I think the event gods were punishing me by testing my strength and commitment to this sport under less than desirable conditions.

Marah Lueders and Palmerston North, winners of Novice Junior. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Marah Lueders and Palmerston North, winners of Novice Junior. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

My ears were popping, my throat was on fire, and my head felt like a ticking bomb under pressure. But I’m an event rider, and event riders show up and ride whether there’s rain, shine, sleet, or miserable colds holding you back. Even my 4 a.m. wakeup call both mornings didn’t stop me from loading Vin on the trailer.

This was my fourth Prelim with Vinnie, and I could not have been more ecstatic on Sunday. Dressage was decent, show jumping was spectacular and cross country was amazing.

I am still very new to this level, and I found the Prelim cross country course pretty challenging, even though it rode really w

Kylie Dermody and Lup The Loop Winners of Open Prelim. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

Kylie Dermody and Lup The Loop Winners of Open Prelim. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

ll for us. Fence 4AB was a difficult question that caught some horses and riders off guard, starting with a skinny in a dark lit area in the tree line, then downhill five strides to a skinny brush.

Some riders said they had some difficulty with the log drop into water followed by a skinny wedge off a left hand turn out of the water. Overall, though, there were tons of smiling faces crossing the finish line.

Lucky for us, Joan Davis, from Flatandsfoto was there to catch all the action on camera. Thank you Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto, GMHA, and all the volunteers who helped make this event possible!

Completely Within Our Reach

Vinnie in Southern Pines, 2015. Photo by Ashley Neuhof. Vinnie in Southern Pines, 2015. Photo by Ashley Neuhof.

I’ll never forgot my first trip to Europe. I was a sophomore in high school, and every year they offered a trip abroad, typically through the language department. Not everyone could participate in the overseas journey, though the option was there for any students who could afford it to attend.

My French and Spanish class put together a trip to France and Spain. My older sister had gone on a similar trip when she was my age, and all of my closest friends were going, therefore I made up my mind. I was going, and that was that. I attended all the pre-trip meetings, had excellent grades in my language class and felt fairly prepared, except one minor detail … I had NO money whatsoever.

After the first introductory classroom meetings to go over various details and information pertaining to our upcoming journey, our teachers began collecting weekly checks from all the participants. You could either pay for the entire trip in one fell swoop, or you could pay weekly installments. I had a job catering on weekends so I did actually have a little bit of money, at least to cover the first installment.

But then, all of a sudden, the money was running low and, unfortunately, I had no assistance whatsoever. Even though my family was incredible supportive, financial backing was not exactly an option. I wanted to go on this trip more than I wanted anything else. I was going, and that was final.

I sat down and began writing letters in hopes of sponsorship from my town, neighbors, friend, extended family members and online scholarships for this exact sort of situation. A few weeks went by and the money came in. The trip was amazing, and it was worth every difficult letter I sent out!

One moment I am sitting on a balcony looking over the vibrant city of Barcelona, and the next I am sitting on Vinnie in a jump lesson in Strafford, Vermont, in 2015. We had a very interesting lesson the other day. Of course, I have been riding at Tamarack Hill Farm for nine years, so most of the lectures, theories, strategies and demonstrations I have witnessed on more than one occasion, which I am grateful for. Though, Denny never ceases to amaze me with alternative perspectives or offering varying methods when solving the same equation.

This particular lesson was really geared towards TWO jobs that the rider has when jumping: 1. Getting your horse to (more or less) a good take off place, and 2. Getting to that jump from a good canter, i.e. a canter that combines both impulsion and balance. The five of us in that lesson nodded our heads, agreeing these are our primary jobs when jumping.

Obviously there are other contributing factors, like how broke your horse is, or your horse’s innate jumping ability, or your position over the fence, and several other factors that ought to be taken into consideration. But when you look at jumping at the most basic level and strip this concept to down to bare minimums, this is what you’re left with: Getting to a good take off place from a good canter.

But how do we get there? What do we need in order to achieve such immense goals in our riding? Even though conceptually this sounds simple, in practice or when push comes to shove, this job we have as serious competitors is not as easy as 1, 2, 3. Or is it? How many people consistently get their horses to the right take off point from a very good canter? Five hundred? Thirty-two professionals? Fourteen people every other year? Do you need expensive horses to practice on? Do you need to practice this over huge fences

I have REALLY good news. Actually, Denny offered some very exciting news. This ability to get our horses to more or less the right take off place, from more or less a good canter, is completely 100 percent within our grasp. If we are really assiduous and totally committed, we can achieve these goals.

We can practice on our horses over rails on the ground, or imagine a pole on the ground, or look at a hoof print in the sand and get your horse in right to that footprint. If you really want to become a better rider or even the best jump rider you can become, you have to put in the hours, not because someone is telling you that you have to, but because you want this more than anything else.

The mind is a very powerful tool and your will to succeed will take you places you never thought feasible. But you have to start with that fire and that drive!

Area I Back in the Game at King Oak Horse Trials

Winners of the OPA-Daryl Kinney and Union Station

Daryl Kinney and Union Station, winners of Open Prelim A. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

While some event riders just wrapped up their weekend at Jersey Fresh and Badminton, others, particularly in Area 1, just got out for the first or second time for the season at King Oak Horse Trials in Southampton, Massachusetts. This past weekend was my second outing for the 2015 season, and boy did it feel great to be competing back at hom.

My first outing at Carolina International was a learning experience to say the least, considering I felt like a fish out of water. So getting a good Training run in before moving back up to Prelim was exactly what King Oak offered me and Vin!

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Katherine Lambert and Samwise Gamgee, winners of Open Training A. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

The event ran over two days. Saturday ran Beginner Novice and Training, and Sunday offered Novice and Prelim. Even though a group of friends and I had to do some minor truck and trailer rearranging before leaving for the event, everything seemed to fall into place, and the four of us who went to King Oak together all had a fantastic outing.

Sometimes not having enough time to stress over the course or have too much time to analyze your courses can be a beneficial thing in the long run. I literally ran round my cross country course twice, with just enough time to get my 25 minutes of dressage warm up in before entering the ring.

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Tom Davis and Little Miss Tennessee, winners of Open Novice. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Overall, I thought King Oak did a fantastic job running this event. Everything ran really smoothly and on time. The volunteers were super friendly and the atmosphere was calm, yet exciting! The Training course was a blast, offering a decent variety of typical Training level questions with the perfect amount of galloping. There was a definite flow to the course which is always appreciated. Plus, the footing and the weather were pretty spectacular, too.

Fortunately, the very talented Joan Davis of Flatlandsfoto was on site and captured all sorts of exciting and lovely moments. Her husband Tom Davis, who comes from a well-known eventing family in Vermont, had a couple horses competing at King Oak. He has competition mileage through the Intermediate level and is a USEA ICP Level 2 certified instructor. Here is what he had to say about his experience at the event:

“What a great venue to get going after that crazy winter. Well-designed courses that got everyone back in the game when so few of us had a chance to get out schooling this spring. Hats off to Fran Cross for another well run event.”

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Lilah Whitcomb and Maximum Velocity, winners of Beginner Novice Rider A. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

And, of course, Joan has kindly shared four winning shots from King Oak. Thank you Flatandsfoto, King Oak and all the amazing volunteers who helped put on one of my favorite events in Area 1. Go Eventing.

[King Oak Final Scores]

The Shape Of The Canter

Vinnie at the THF Jumper  Show. Vinnie at the THF Jumper Show.

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I spent the better part of my weekend completely glued to live scores, Facebook, USEF Network videos and anything I could find covering Rolex.

After several days of non-stop feed and coverage, some spectacular and disappointing dressage tests, ups and downs on the intense cross country course and some startling show jumping rounds, I came to the sweeping generalization that one of the most crucial components that makes a four-star horse or any talented event horse revolves around the ability to produce a quality canter.

Needless to say, these horses also need to be incredibly scopey, fancy on the flat, bold and seemingly fearless, allergic to wood and the list goes on and on. Obviously the rider plays a huge role in the quality of their horse’s canter as well, though some riders have to work harder than others, as some horses have a more readily available quality canter.

But to go back to my oversimplification of one of the most grandiose events in the world, the shape of each horse’s canter, or the quality of each horse’s canter and how that canter both negatively or positively affected each horse in each phase, fascinates me. Perhaps this conversation would seem dull and infinitely obvious to any upper-level rider, but I am not an upper-level rider, so I am here to offer an outsider’s observation.

One thing I noticed while listening to the various commentators was the emphasis on the canter. You would hear phrases like, “She needs to shape the canter before coming in to that triple,” or “Riders cannot neglect the shape or quality of the canter.” I heard the same thing over and over again, particularly in show jumping. I didn’t actually listen to any commentary from dressage, but I’m sure there were countless canter comments as well.

Well, what the heck are we talking about when discussing “shaping the canter” or “the quality of the canter”? What does all the malarkey boil down to? How do we define these seemingly vague phrases? Personally, when I think of a quality canter, I envision a canter that provides a clear demonstration of under and up, meaning the horse has the ability to crouch, become more engaged, become more underneath themselves (or sit), which subsequently allows the front end to come up, all while maintaining a soft but apparent connection.

Furthermore, such a quality canter should also allow you to go forward, slow down or stay the same at a moment’s notice. Great canters give the rider options. Great riders build options into their horse’s canters. These ideas are inextricably linked.

I just found the final day of Rolex shocking, mind blowing even. Some of the best horses and riders in the world had rails flying left and right. Some couldn’t touch a rail if they tried. I have no idea or concept of how nervous, fried, tired or intimidated any of these four-star riders and horses were. I only saw what I saw.

The horses that seemed to do the best the final day had quick, uphill canters with seemingly soft connections. Some horses who came in to the triple on a “less than perfect canter” either barely made it through the line, demolished the line or had a run out. The shape or the quality of the canter seems like one of the most crucial components when searching for a clear round.

Again, I have no personal upper-level riding experience to base this theory on, nor am I discrediting any of the countless talented individuals and their horses. Their commitment, their perseverance, their strength, their sheer guts and their willpower will never cease to amaze me. Same goes with the unbelievably courageous and determined horses.

I am in awe of what these riders and horses are able to do. Whether they came home with a giant trophy, a Land Rover or they were eliminated on course, they made it that far, which is truly incredibly and inspiring.

Ridiculous Cross Country Rules That Don’t Actually Exist

Lila and Vinnie cross counry schooling in Southern Pines 2015. Photo by Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography. Lila and Vinnie cross counry schooling in Southern Pines 2015. Photo by Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography.

I live for cross country. I would argue that most die-hard and thrill seeking event riders would share similar feelings towards this sport. Cross country seems particularly amazing when you’re sitting on a horse who not only knows his or her job, but a horse that loves his or her job. Not all horses are created equal, meaning that not every single Thoroughbred, or Irish Sport Horse, or (insert any breed here) is going to turn into a competitive event horse, or has what it takes to become an event horse.

And yet, when you’re out galloping in the fields, or woods, or jumping into water, or just crossing the finish line knowing and relishing in the fact that you and your equine partner just accomplished something great together, even the most stoic or expressionless type of rider will undoubtedly let out an unrestrained smile.

While there exists an official USEA and USEF rule book with chapters, sub-chapters, and sub-sub-chapters on requirements, guidelines, levels, errors, unauthorized assistance — you name it, it’s probably in one of those thick books — there are certain things that riders ARE allowed to do while on cross country, even if other competitors, or trainers gawk, point fingers and sneer at you as you walk by. Here’s my short list of perfectly acceptable, and totally legal things to do while on cross country.

1. Smiling: It’s my favorite. I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to. I was actually told last summer on my way out to walk my VERY FIRST Prelim cross country course, that it was acceptable to smile and be happy while galloping on cross country at Training level and below, but when you go Prelim, it’s extremely serious and you are not allowed to show emotion through expression.

I almost choked on my ice cream, or whatever I was eating in total shock. How could someone tell me I couldn’t smile on cross country because it looks stupid, or childish? Seriously? Why else to partake in this sport if we don’t thoroughly enjoy it at the end of the day?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not smiling, daydreaming and laughing hysterically around my entire course, in fact I usually look very serious and intense, but there are moments, or jumps that might bring a smile to my face. If you, or we, or I want to smile on cross country, go for it! Who cares? Why not!

2. Talking to your horse. If I could take all of my eventing buddies and line them up in a room, half would stand on the “we talk to our horses non-stop on cross country” and the other half would stand on the “we would NEVER say a a word to our horses on cross country.” I have met both types of riders.

Again, you are permitted to talk to your horse. Heck, you could sing your nervous horse a lullaby if you felt so inclined. There are rules enforces that others are not allowed to talk to the rider on cross country, which would result in unauthorized assistance. However, I am pretty sure that the USEF or USEA has nothing to say about the rider who says “GOOD BOY” after every single fence on a 21 jump course. So, if you are one of these riders, have no fear. Chat away!

33. THREE-TWO-ONE-JUMP!Some riders, including myself, have learned how to see a distance to a fence through this counting system. Denny was the first to introduce this counting concept to me. I have spent the last nine years thinking and counting in my head, one-two, one-two, one-two, in accordance with the canter I want, and then when I know I see three or four strides out, I will start counting in my head, three, two, one.

Some people actually say it out loud. Some people don’t count or say anything. Everyone has their routine and their own system engrained. Though to be polite and respectful of your fellow competitors, do not laugh when you see someone coming to a fence and saying THREE-TWO-ONE. If that’s what they need to do, that’s fine. Again, no rule saying otherwise.

 … So, have I left out any rules that aren’t actually rules that YOU would like to add?!

Are You Willing To Be Critiqued?

Lila Gendal and Vinnie schooling in Southern Pines. Photo by Ahsley Neuhof/AMN Photography. Lila Gendal and Vinnie schooling in Southern Pines. Photo by Ahsley Neuhof/AMN Photography.

Human beings are constantly being judged, critiqued, analyzed, studied and observed by others on a routine basis. Whether you’re handing in a 20-page analytical essay to your professor, or you’re competing against your rival in the 200-meter dash at a local track meet, or you’re being interviewed for a state nutritionist position in Vermont, your skills and your experience will be carefully examined.

Although this statement might come across as very black and white, I would like to be so bold as to say that in life there exist two kinds of individuals: those who are willing to be critiqued and those who are not.

I have learned immeasurable skills in the last nine years while “studying” at Tamarack Hill Farm. My riding as a whole has undergone a serious transformation since I arrived as a timid and oblivious 20-year-old, and I have Denny Emerson to thank for this transformation, as well as a couple other close instructors.

In no way, shape or form do I think of myself as complete as a rider. I am aware of the level I am currently at, and I know there’s a long road ahead of me. I am competitive by nature and being good at something I love will never be acceptable. I am attempting to achieve greatness according to my standards — not Phillip Dutton’s standards or Charlotte Dujardin’s standards — but my own personal standards.

One of the first things I learned while riding at Tamarack is that sugarcoating does not exist. There are the plain and sometimes painful facts and realities, and whether you want to listen and hear those truths is up to you. You can either chose to become a better rider or you can whimper in the corner like a sad puppy who just got scolded. You can either face the cold hard facts, or you can go find somewhere else to ride and someone else to ride with who might be more willing to coddle you.

I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed firsthand a rider who trucks over for a lesson, or better yet, a working student who chooses to not listen to the advice and the knowledge of someone who has way more experience and knowledge than you’ll ever dream of having. The snide remarks, the rolling eyes and the look like “I actually know exactly what I’m doing, so why don’t you leave me alone” are unfortunately more common than not.

If you ask, or pay someone for their help, their advice and their input, but in actuality you only want to be told how amazing you are and that you are in fact ready to move up to the next level, then you are in for a rude awakening.

Lila and Vinnie! Xc school, photo: Ashley Neuhof, or AMN Photography

Lila and Vinnie cross country schooling. Photo by Ashley Neuhof/AMN Photography.

I do not understand those riders who are not willing to further their education. If you are competitive and you have any sort of goal, whether you’re comfortable topping out at the Preliminary level, or you’re on your way to Rolex, or you’re just starting out as an event rider, why wouldn’t you be open minded to advice from a variety of different instructors?

I’m not saying that every rider needs to go to a clinic every other weekend or have 15 different instructors, but making yourself vulnerable and seeking instruction will ultimately add more tools to your ever-evolving kit.

Let’s say you are a very confident rider who has solidified their skill sets over the past 15 years. You are recognized as a successful equestrian with a solid foundation. Let’s say a clinician comes along and has some tips and pointers for your riding, even though those tips are seemingly polar opposite than your skill sets. Just because one person has a certain style or an effective way of riding who has been successful does not mean that there aren’t other styles or other effective ways to ride that also simultaneously exist.

What makes YOUR way the right way? What makes THEIR way the right way? Does it come down to personal preference? Does it have to do with how many medals and trophies and giant blue ribbons you possess? Or perhaps how many followers you have on Facebook?

Again, even if you are confident in your style and your way of riding, this does not mean that there aren’t pieces or components of the seemingly polar opposite instructor’s lessons that might be incorporated into your riding. Even if those pieces are not able to be fused into your program, it does not mean that those lessons and that experience was not beneficial. There’s always something to learn, even during a “bad” or “difficult” experience, lesson or clinic.

Bottom line, if any of us want to be successful as event riders or dressage riders or what have you, we have to constantly be seeking more education, whether that information comes from a book or from real life experiences. We have to be willing to learn more, and part of learning more stems from having other experienced trainers help guide us through this process.

Some of these lessons are trying, and some are incredible. Some lessons make you want to curl up in bed and cry while re-scheming your entire purpose in life,and others make you feel like you could actually conquer the world.

We have to be open to new ideas and thoughts and become better critical thinkers. So much of this life seems to revolve around who’s who and who’s the best rider, but what about the good riders with minds that want to absorb information like a sponge? What about those willing to go the extra four miles to better themselves?

We have to be willing to be open-minded, and we have to be willing to be critiqued, whether it’s on a regular basis or it’s only once in a while; we need to put ourselves out there in the world so we can learn through the process of crumbling and rebuilding.

Carolina International: Live And Learn

Our last jump school before the event! Our last jump school before the event!

What a whirlwind of a weekend spent at the Carolina International. I competed in the P/T division this weekend and all I can say is that the event was a huge learning experience for me. Spending the last three months indoors, honing in on my flatwork and trail riding in the snow in some ways prepared me and in other ways left me feeling like a fish out of water.

That’s simply the reality of the situation. You want to play with the big boys, you better be prepared to warm up and jump with the professionals.

Luckily, none of the four-star riders even know who I am, and even if I had introduced myself to each and every celebrity type rider, they still would not have cared about my score, or the fact I was riding this weekend. Isn’t it funny, or interesting how they could care less about me, and yet, the pressure someone like myself, (a rider new to the Preliminary level) feels from riding with, or warming up next to is monumental. If they don’t care about me, why should I care about them?

I have been riding, hacking, and jumping in Southern Pines now for a couple weeks. Ideally, I would have competed at the first Southern Pines, but the timing, and our trip from Vermont did not seem to fall perfectly into place. So, instead of not competing at all, I somewhat naively entered the Carolina International for my first event of the year. Genius idea? Doubtful. Big mistake? We will soon find out.

Day One

My division had dressage on Friday, followed by show jumping on Saturday and ending the weekend with cross country on Sunday. I felt pretty cool and calm for dressage, other than the fact that my teeth were chattering during the wee hours in the morning. Yes, I am allowed to complain about the temperature, even while temporarily living in the south, because that’s my inherited Yankee attitude. We enjoy complaining, even when the conditions are agreeable!

The one and only waiting patiently after dressage!

The one and only waiting patiently after dressage!

Back to dressage. I am becoming more acquainted with Vinnie all the time. I started riding this amazing Irish gelding last June, and since that first ride, our relationship has really blossomed into a partnership.

I really enjoy riding Vinnie on the flat, and because we spent countless days indoor this winter, I had time to really practice and finesse our ride! Of course, there were some mistakes, and there will always be room for improvement, but considering it was our first time in public this year, I was pleased with our test, and our score.

Day Two

I was scheduled to show jump at 8:17 Saturday morning. We arrived with enough time for me to go walk my course twice. By now my heart was pounding. The course was immaculate, and the jumps were not quite what you see in little Area 1. There were giant sunflowers, and rainbow jumps, and the list goes on. The jumps were real size preliminary fences, not sort of Prelim height, but the real deal, with real spreads. Almost every line was a related distance, which also made my nerves build up.

I warmed up while my adrenaline was running high. I never really calmed down. My warm up went considerably well, though my round was not great at all. My first few jumps went well, and then the rails started falling. I immediately lost my canter, panicked, and things quickly started unraveling.

Vinnie was very good and soldiered his way through the course with little help from his pilot. I let my instincts overcome my training, and for that I am truly disappointed in myself. Not only was I mortified to have several rails on a horse who has the ability to put in consistently clean rounds, but I was horrified by my riding, and I was worried I let Vinnie’s owner down, and my trainers. To say this experience was humbling would be an understatement.

I sauntered back to the trailer with my tail between my legs, feeling ashamed and mortified. What the hell is wrong with me? Why did you let those nerves take over? Why didn’t you ride like you have know how to ride? That was one of the worse rounds I have ever had. I don’t belong here. I should have entered Training. What the hell was I thinking?

I decided to go walk my cross country course and watch some upper level riders. I needed to move on. I recognized what just happened and realized exactly what I did wrong, and was trying not to dwell too much on the negative, and look forward to the next day.

Not too shabby for our first outing in 2015!

Not too shabby for our first outing in 2015!

Day Three

Sunday morning arrived before I knew it and previous feelings of frustration and disappointment quickly subsided, as I geared up for cross country. The Training course could not have been more appropriate and inviting. There were typical Training level questions, but everything seemed to ride very well.

I will not go so far as to say I felt totally “in it” on Sunday, considering I haven’t galloped and jumped outside since October, but cross country did feel amazing, and Vinnie really is a remarkable horse who knows and loves his job.

This weekend proved to be more challenging than I anticipated, which was eye opening for me. In hindsight I should have entered Training, to make the first outing of the year a bit more straight forward. However, that’s not the level I entered, so I had to pay the consequences of riding under that much pressure, over much larger fences, in a seriously intimidating atmosphere.

In a weird way, I am glad I entered a harder level, because now I know what exactly I need to work on and what I need to practice in show jumping. If I didn’t put myself out there, I would never understand what it’s like to ride under pressure. If I never messed up in front of people, I would not be human.

Not that these are great results, but there were countless riders who had tons of rails too, not just at the lower levels, but at every level. There were falls in show jumping, eliminations, rails flying every which direction, and some great riding and some disappointing riding. We all mess up, and we all get nervous sometimes, but staying at home and not putting yourself out there will never get you anywhere!