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Mindy Hutchison


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Love at First Leap: A Story of Risk and Reward

Some horses have the kindest souls. They do what you ask, even when you ask wrong, and they try to please you despite the lack of carrot-flavored rewards. Certainly, we horse fans tend to personify the horses we care about and can be rather lavish with our adjectives of praise.

I have had long conversations with my fellow riders about how much I love my horse, how wonderful she is, and how far she can go in the world of dressage and eventing. With a top rider, I am sure she could go much further than I can dream in a short period — with me, she might make it to Fourth Level in 10 years if I could get my act together, ride several times a week, and cross-train. She has the scope to jump higher than seems reasonable for someone afraid of a few potentially broken bones.

I watch my fellow riders jumping Novice and Training level with sympathetic butterflies in my tummy. Elementary and Beginner Novice jumps that I once took in stride look like five foot tall and four foot wide monstrosities that only the bravest Olympians and four-star riders would even consider. Despite my own hesitation, I encourage the other riders in my barn to go jump those things. I know they can do it, but lately can’t seem to find the courage myself. Jumping a course just a few months ago made me think I was ready to show — but sometimes you take one step forward and two steps back.

I tell myself — and my horse — that she’s the best horse, and if I had more free time and available resources, we could make it big. I try to tell that to the people in my life — and they tell me that’s nice and hope to change the subject. That’s mostly because my parents, family, and other friends find the topic of horse sports little more than a passing fancy. “What a beautiful horse!” they tell me, and I can only agree because she’s one of the most striking black horses walking on God’s green earth (if I do say so myself).

Only other horse people seem to get it, though. Who else thinks you’re not crazy for spending all your free time tracking saddles on eBay and texting them to your trainer when you already have two designer-name saddles in your tack room? Whether we’re riding for pleasure, fun, personal achievement, or some combination thereof, the horse bug is a disease that only those also infected can relate to. Whether realists or dreamers, we like to set goals that can only be accomplished with a horse more capable and athletic than the rider or her back.

Zahara is a talented and brave jumper. This quality is no doubt thanks to her excellent training along with her natural ability and bloodlines.
She’s even so brave that she let me jump her, a returning rider who left her athleticism back in college when she had time for exercise like tennis, yoga, martial arts and aerobics. The real world of working full-time and going to graduate school doesn’t lend a lot of work-out moments, and coming back to any sport, let alone one that involves guiding a 1,000 pound animal over obstacles without losing life or limb, is a challenge regardless of your general fitness level.

My brother and his family came to see me ride, and encouraged me over a small crossrail as my heart leaped into my throat. Sometimes the emotional support is what you need — to know you’re not in this sport alone, and the people who care about you want you to succeed whether it’s mastering the canter after a bout of unresolved anxiety, jumping a crossrail, or going to your first show and hoping not to get eliminated (judges: please don’t ring the bell if I go off test!).

After years of studying human behavior as an anthropologist, I still find the horse’s ability to adapt a lot more impressive than most people I have met. One of Zahara’s best friends left the barn, only to come back again, only to leave and go to horse heaven after an illness the veterinarian could not cure. In my mind, I thought all the horses would be devastated to lose their pasture pal. My horse was so excited to see her friend return as she galloped up to the gate and whinnied. I had serious concerns that she wouldn’t be able to handle the loss as I cried into my coffee at work about a horse who wasn’t even mine.

Those of us who get involved with animals know their general life span will not be as long as humans. It’s hard to believe that the horses I rode and loved as a child are grazing in that great pasture in the sky now. We get used to horses coming and going with the ever-changing needs and whims of our fellow clients and riders. Losing a horse is something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

For the first few months, Zahara became very attached to other horses, but now she seems to get over it pretty quickly. She’s happy to play in the field and eat her grass during her daily turnout sessions with her herd. She seems much more adaptable than I am when I lose a friend or loved one.

She takes other things in stride, too. I was present the first time Zahara jumped with a rider — long before she was to become my horse. I could see her mind working as she was trying to process what was being requested of her. I have seen a lot of horses in my day, and long before my emotional attachment, I saw what an intelligent and capable horse was in front of me. At the time, I did not foresee that I would spend the next year caring for and getting to know this special friend. I simply knew I was impressed by an awesome horse that my new trainer was riding. As a teen, I got to see a lot of horses of different levels being trained – to me, it’s always exciting, always new, and never a dull moment. I knew in that first jumping session that what I was seeing was beyond impressive.

Looking back, I realized I was definitely falling for this horse. I think the universe, or fate, or some other force brought us together — we both needed each other at the time.

Later, my trainer and I decided to try out free-lunging. Zahara loved it. Then we introduced free-jumping which she took to like a fish to water, or a pegasus to flying (take your pick). After our session, as my horse was cooling off, my trainer told me to stay in the corner to keep her from running in and halting. I flicked the lunge whip at Zahara, who turned tail on me, trotted over to the free jump and jumped herself right over by herself as both of us almost collapsed in laughter. Horses have that knack for surprising us when they give us their opinions about us and the world around them.

There are a lot of horses out there — especially Thoroughbred ex-racehorses like Zahara with the potential to find a new horse career after galloping their hearts out as baby horses, even sometimes winning their races. There are also horses that may be better suited to someone’s current riding ability or pocketbook. But those of us with that horse bug know sometimes you find the one special horse who can be the best friend you never knew you always needed.

Many greater writers and greater horseman than I have waxed poetic about the love and friendship found between people and horses. Whether it’s one ride, a few months, or years, the horse has a way of teaching us lessons and making us better and stronger people, even when we don’t necessarily want to be. Horses can try our patience and make us sometimes rethink our own world views.

Certainly, we ask a lot of our horses as eventers — extreme collection in dressage and then galloping full-out in cross country only to wrap everything up with a clear show jumping round. In return, we feed and house these cuddly critters and try to give them a pat on the back for helping us fulfill dreams they don’t necessarily share.

Some would say that eventing is an extreme, dangerous sport. Sometimes the upper level jumping is just too much for even the most talented athletes, but that’s a different topic for another time. Any time you’re around horses, you’re subject to injury, and I can personally attest to being bitten, kicked, bucked off, and stepped on this year.

In fact, simply mounting itself may be one of the most dangerous activities — especially if you tried to mount bareback with a halter and lead rope in the barn off of an empty tack trunk that slipped from under your feet (whoops). But I submit there’s something even more dangerous than the risk one takes by riding, cantering (yikes!), and jumping horses who have minds of their own. And that’s the risk you take with your heart.

Riding in Zaharaland

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

There’s something magical about the show ring. All of the sounds and noise just fade away, and for five minutes, it’s just you and your horse. I imagine cantering down center line to halt and salute, splashing through the water, defying gravity on a huge drop, making the impossible cross-country corner to corner to vertical, and galloping top speed through a beyond-tricky triple combination to win my Olympic (gold) medal.

Later, at my next foray, the crowd is struck with awe and wonder after my Grand Prix dressage freestyle which is dramatic, fun-loving, and beautiful all wrapped into a perfect package. My fist pumps into the air in elation as they announce my highest ever score of 99.9%. We missed a percentage of 0.1% because (in the judge’s opinion) either Zahara or I had a hair out of place. But we take our adulation on the chin, and don’t mind being only near-perfect.

After a recent clinic, I think the instructor was even surprised by my amazing ability — to lose focus, that is. I’m pretty sure that along with actually looking between my horse’s ears — (wait, she has ears at the front end??) instead of the direction I want to go while allowing my horse to go the opposite — we learned about making small goals.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

For me, the goal may be focusing on my horse from “H” to “C,” and by “C,” refocusing my way from “C” to “M,” and so on. Out of all the potential horse and rider problems, actually paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing, and then trying your damndest to do it seems like a no-brainer. So how do I tell my trainer — and my horse — that as much as I want to say “yes” to what we’re doing, my mind is screaming “no?”

As a child, I’m sure my teachers thought I had horse ADD, or whatever the equivalent of ADD was back in those days. I was often caught in Mathematics class reading my horse book from the library or a coveted Saddle Club novel rather than doing fractions, or doodling horses rather than anything else. Like many horse crazy girls, and let’s face it, probably most of my classmates, my mind would rather be anywhere other than the inside of an institution of learning composing dry book reports and filling in worksheets. Long division and multiplication are only helpful when calculating days, weeks, or months until your next horse show, after all.

Even my beleaguered PE teacher raged at me for my lack of interest in any sport that wasn’t riding horses. (I was actually pretty good at kickball and putting some spin on a pigskin.) She confronted me one afternoon “Do you expect we buy a horse for every student to ride?” her scolding tongue castigated. “No; I just prefer riding horses.” I told her. But why can’t the school have horses? We have this big field used for baseball and running laps. It would be much better used as a cross-country course, I thought (and still think, although half of it is now filled up with teacher parking and the other a mini-track.)

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

The message was clear: my love and interest in horses was not in the approved curriculum. (Except when we read King of the Wind and my teacher humiliated me for pointing out the wrong paragraph to answer her question, but that is neither here nor there…) Nevertheless, I would not lose my resolve. Horses were my passion, and I was on my way to Olympic glory, my own Australian horse ranch near Snowy River, and the purse money from the Grand National.

At home, it’s almost impossible for me to ride with distractions. A horse canters up from a nearby field, the neighbor’s dog passes through the arena to hunt for chickens, fellow riders park their vehicles and start tacking up their horses, visitors drive through the gate, the barn cat chases a bird, the next student in line for her lesson checks in with our trainer. All of these seemingly innocuous actions on the part of others result in me losing focus and becoming increasingly frustrated.

How the hell am I supposed to put my horse on the bit, be round, bend, put my lower leg back, and oh yeah, not lose my balance and fall on my face with all of these THINGS happening. All these people, critters, and machines are doing STUFF while I am trying to FOCUS! Is my weekly half hour to hour arena time by myself really too much to ask?

To make matters worse, my horse senses my fear of the scary arena’s water hose, and tries to run in the other direction. With all the activity going on around me, unwelcome to me, my horse actually wants an excuse to think about something else — her friend galloping up to her out in the field, or horses whinnying from the nearby barn. After all, her goals are more like “not getting consumed by coyote whilst consuming as much grass, hay, and carrots as possible.” (In my mind, my horse is very refined with a British accent although she’s an American Thoroughbred).

My horse may love to jump and gallop, and have a beautiful canter stride, but a 65% or above on our next dressage outing is not on her high list of priorities. She wants food and friends and the occasional begrudging grooming session from some of her stable assistants (i.e. me, my trainer, kids who have carrots).

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

We all heard from our beginning riding lessons — “heels down, toes up, chin up, eyes up, shoulders back, chest up, hands together, close your fingers on the reins” basically, whatever you’re doing, please do the opposite, and by the way, every body part is in the wrong position. Amazingly, we stayed on thanks to good-hearted school horses and their overly shaggy manes used for gripping, not to mention the inexplicable force gravity has for keeping kids on the top-side while learning to ride horses.

As a returning rider, I now hear ‘Ride every stride — fix something — hands together — shoulders back — OK, your one shoulder that is impossibly forward and insanely crooked needs to go back; your other shoulder is fine.’ Now that I have gotten my hands steady, my right leg is beginning to wiggle. Now that I’ve gotten my right leg properly back, my left leg is headed to California while my horse is leg yielding to New York. There’s something not quite right with my shoulder, hip, and lower leg. My left leg can apparently support 90% of my body weight and my right side could barely support an undersized hummingbird feather. One area shifts, just to throw another area of my body completely out of whack (a technical term for ‘proper riding technique’). Once my body is actually straight in the saddle, I feel vertigo rushing over me as I am sure to topple off to the right of the saddle.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Hutchison.

There’s always something to make better, and when you master one concept, there’s another to learn. Apparently, I’m told, every time they rode Valegro (pre-retirement) was to improve his way of going and make him a better horse. We all want that level of achievement, the next-to-impossible perfection — to take the natural ability of the horse and transform its way of going — to take a rider on its back, leap over Sequoia-like logs, gallop at full-speed, and dance in the dirt. But what to do when one feels like every ride is making things not better, but frighteningly worse?

When I lose focus, which for me, is almost inevitable, I have a few tricks up my sleeve (and sometimes hidden in my riding glove). My trainer asks me to talk my through it — I describe what I’m doing. I tell my horse “Look at K! Look at K! Wait you’re not looking at K! — Good! Now look at C! You’re not looking! Darnit!” I count my trot rhythm “1-2, 1-2,1-2.” I try to think about each step ahead of me and create the feeling I want in my body and my mind. And I imagine cantering down center line on my way to the Olympic Games.