‘If You Have Lofty Goals, You Better Have a Lofty Work Ethic’

I am a Michigander through and through. I love the state. I love the land. I love the horse opportunities, despite how the state’s agricultural efforts have been struggling over the years at the hands of politics. I grew up in a smallish farming town near Ann Arbor, home of University of Michigan (GO BLUE!) on my family’s farm, which was a good size but not quite big enough to make a decent living off. My parents both worked “normal jobs” to keep it up and leased out the land. We have never been wealthy.

We always had to work on the farm despite it being leased out. The goal was always just to keep the farm a farm. It has been in our family for 150+ years and we intend to keep it that way. We helped our 80+ year old relatives who farmed the land, working on equipment, running wagons back and forth, and of course getting rides in the combines (very helpful). We baled hay and straw on multiple farms and had our own animals to do chores for at the beginning and end of each day. We learned hard work.

Maria, age 4, riding Pretty Boy, a rescue from Alabama. Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Maria, age 4, riding Pretty Boy, a rescue from Alabama. Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

My mom was a horse nut who didn’t grow up with horses. She begged to ride the neighbor’s dairy cows growing up and eventually was able to get horses, when she married my dad and moved to the farm. I inherited the horse crazy gene as well. I wanted to train for a living from the time I was young. I worked with harness racehorses in middle, high school, and after, saving every penny I had. At the same time, I was a working student for a small hunter/jumper barn.

I learned a TON about horse care and training. I worked my butt off and traveled all over the Midwest and Canada with the racehorses. We trained about 24 head on average, some seasons many more, some seasons a few less, and specialized in crazy trotters. I got a great foundation with the hunter/jumper barn and learned how to ride just about anything. It turns out, if you spend enough time as a barn rat, eventually people start letting you sit on their horses.

Eventually, I was put on the lesson horses that weren’t being used. Then, I became the honorary crash test dummy for most all of the people around me. If someone had a horse that liked last-second, nasty runouts, I got the ‘privilege’ of working the kinks out. I learned how to ride aggressively.

I also got to ride some really nice horses. I was taken to try out all the sale horses, auction finds, and break babies out. I learned a lot. But none of those horses were my own. We had some backyard horses that were trail broke or barely started. If I wanted to ride them or eventually show, I was basically told that I better figure out a way to teach them what they needed to know, even before I knew how to train.

And so I did, and was very successful at open shows and in 4-H. None of my own horses had the physical ability to jump anything besides crossrails and as I got older, all I wanted to do was jump. All of this led me to thoroughbreds off the track. After high school, while the horse industry was thriving, I started buying and selling thoroughbreds off the track. I had been inadvertently starting enough other people’s OTTBs; I figured that I might as well try with my own.

It went really well until the market crashed. At the same time, my two horse worlds combined and I became a crash test dummy for two different ventures. My harness racing connections started learning about my riding abilities and while I was grooming (or paddocking as we called it) at the racetrack and the outrider was unable to ride, so the trainer I was working for drug me to the front paddock, gave me a leg up on the outriders horse, and told me I was outriding for the rest of the weekend, “…. Uhh, whaaa???.” I ended up riding a few different meets and “catch riding” for others when they needed days off.

Around the same time, I was approached by my boss again and she told me there was a lady looking for someone to break out harness horses off the track, Standardbreds when they retire from racing. It turned out it was one of the daughters of the founder of New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, who lived a few miles from me. I had already been riding all of the racehorses out to their paddocks (bareback, with a halter … very smart) so figured I might as well do it for a good cause. This led to around 12 years of riding almost every Standardbred that from Michigan that went into their program, equaling hundreds of horses.

This connection also led me to my current horse, Chief (Jockey Club name: Giant Chieftan). He is a 17.1-hand chestnut Stormcat gelding that embodies everything that Stormcat babies and chestnut Thoroughbreds stand for.

Maria's OTTB Giant Chieftan. Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Maria’s OTTB Giant Chieftan. Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

My friends at New Vocations called me and said, “Hey, we have a horse that needs to be picked up from a home that isn’t working out. The story is a little fuzzy so we don’t know what exactly is happening with him but either way he need to be picked up … oh and we think you need to keep him.”

“Um, no. But I’ll pick him up,” I said.

So … four years later, I still have him. Haha. Oops. The day I walked him out of the stall at that barn, I thought to myself, “Oh crap, I have to keep him now.” He was and still is one of the best conformed horses I’ve ever seen (reflected in his almost one million dollar sale price at Keenland as a baby), he knows how to use his body entirely too well, and is always one step ahead of me. He also happens to have the entirely accurate nickname of ‘the big chestnut a-hole’ because … ehem … Stormcat.

He developed some issues when he was at the farm I removed him from. His shoes were nailed into the quick; he had 4mm of sole in his front feet. He bit, kicked, body slammed. You name it, he did it. He was dumping riders left and right at the previous barn.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Chief hurt. He was screaming that he hurt and no one was listening. I knew that if I sent him back to New Vocations, they would have to expend a lot of resources to get him in a home in his current state. He was almost feral. I started gluing shoes on and trail riding on the grass. If you rode in an arena, he would stand still and not budge, other than to bite, ring his tail, pin his hears, and threaten to buck.

The first time I got him to trot, I thought that must be what upper level riders feel on when they sit on their four-star horses. He was pure class and had gaits that put literally every horse I had sat on to shame. I knew that if I could rehab him, I would have a shot at having a competitive mid-level event horse or more. I had/have my work cut out for me but everyone that saw him was in awe of him. He had a presence that I can’t describe.

The first year or so, he blew 40+ abscesses to get all the bruising that had occurred out. We spent more time going backwards down the road, because he would walk two steps, throw a temper tantrum, I’d turn him around and back him until he got sick of it, turn back around and walk another five or six steps … lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, we got ½ mile down the road. Then one mile. Then we could ride in the field. Then on the harness racetrack where I was boarding him. Two years later, he could ride in an arena again. Then we started jumping. He was still blowing the occasional abscess (usually once an entry fee was submitted, like clockwork.)

I was just finishing nursing school at this point. I had been working full-time and going to school full-time. He is a horse that likes to work eight days per week. This led to inconsistent training and now working as a nurse, with 12-hour days (14-hour days, in all reality) we still fight with a consistent training schedule but now he’s had a couple years with a better foundation that he can handle my schedule a bit better — if I can handle him after a few days off, eek.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

So now I’m an adult with student loans, a mortgage, a giant accident prone red horse, and an adult schedule. I still fight with being able to get out there and event.

But I’m still trying to learn. I’m still trying to become a better rider. I’m trying to keep up with my red horse’s abilities. I ride as much as I can. I work overtime to afford my horses. I audit clinics so I can get some education when I can’t afford to ride in them. I am an honorary barn rat and help out at a local event barn so I can get lessons from a genius on the back of a horse.

Chief and I have only competed in one event, a few years ago, when he had a full-fledged meltdown in front of the water leading to an elimination. We have entered four others, to which Chief didn’t want to go: abscess, bone bruise, Potomac Horse Fever, bone bruise …. So for a little while, we have taken a step back on trying to show because poor people can’t waste thousands of dollars on entry fees for shows that we don’t even get to ride in.

But I still get a few lessons per year, keep auditing clinics, watching lessons, and taking what I see and using it as my homework. I watch YouTube videos of Lynn Symansky and Michael Jung. I ask questions. I try to stay humble. I try to learn as much as I can so one day I’ll be able to take Chief to the level he deserves to be at and will be ready to pilot him successfully.

He is one of the best broke horses at his level but has no show record. He is bored at three-foot but since we don’t have the show miles, I don’t have the consistency over fences, and he’s bored with dressage, we will keep attempting to complete a Beginner Novice. He LOVES jumping and has miles of scope, clearing the standards regularly as a greeny. He is a handful. He’s not ‘quite’ as feral as he once was but likes to make sure I’m on my toes (see: running around loose as I sulk after him when he jerks the lead from me when I give him an inch of trust at a show jumping practice). Our life together is a comedy of errors combined with a strong love/hate relationship.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Photo courtesy of Maria Perkins.

Moral of this: if you listen enough to trainers, watch enough lessons, and are willing to work hard, you can learn everything that you need to know.

I still believe in that principle. I didn’t always have a horse that had the abilities as a jumper or eventer, and now that I do, my finances and schedule really interrupt my attempts but I keep trying. I can count on my fingers and toes how many lessons I’ve had paid for me in my life. But here I am, 30 years old and still plugging away. I took a different route in the middle of my adventure that led me to a career in nursing but horses still rule a different part of my heart.

I still don’t have a lot of money. I still struggle to be where I want in the horse world and WILL get to where I want, eventually. BUT, in the meantime, I still know how to work hard, keep my eyes and ears open, and know how to learn. I want to learn. I thought I knew EVERYTHING until I really learned how to ride.

It turns out, I know nothing. I hold onto that because, that’s how I’m going to get better. I won’t have opportunities unless I place myself in positions that open me to them and prove I’m willing to work hard to deserve them (We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!).

Use knowledge that you have gained to help people, even if it just setting fences while you audit at a clinic. If you want to be a four star rider, help the people that are there. Be a barn rat. Become a working student. Work your butt off. Let your work ethic align with your goals.

If you have lofty goals, you better have a lofty work ethic.