Knowing When To Stop: Easy or Hard?

A famous fork in the road in event central Chester County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Holly Covey.

Who are we, as eventers? Are we good at this horse thing? I think we like to think so. We encourage each other on social media. We “like” things that resonate with us. We “follow” people, we read their stuff, we link to it. A lot of upper level riders write wonderful messages and blogs to their followers and friends. It is a delight to be included in the ups and downs of our favorite riders, and it does mean a lot to those of us who follow the sport. I appreciate these riders for their honesty and willingness to share their lives with fans.

On occasion, and usually associated with something that happens at a competition, something goes awry. A mistake is made, a horse is spun, or something happens out on cross country. At times, social media becomes the water cooler, board room, or even courtroom when these incidents occur. Attention is paid, usually beyond all reason. Excuses are discussed. Rhetoric hits the gas. And what it really does is make everyone gun-shy of publicity of any kind, and that hurts us all — because we need fans in this sport desperately.

I have always been fascinated by the “story behind the story.” To me, the apology or message with lots of “love” and “if I knew” and “I owe everything to my horse” is probably fairly true, but there always seems to be something really in the background that precipitates the change or expression. We don’t always know the whole backstory — and sometimes that is because if we did we’d be horrified, but sometimes it’s because adversity is more comfortable under the covers.

One of my longest eventing friends who has mostly lower-level horses withdrew after dressage in an unrecognized event the other weekend. It’s a horse she’s had a while, she knows him well, and she knew he could do the job of show jumping and cross country; it wasn’t that she was unable to do it. She felt he was un-level. She thought she ought to stop for the day, take him home, address the problem and try again another day.

This exemplary action to me is what eventing really truly is all about — the HORSE — and how HE feels. Not how the sponsors will react, how the coach or trainer feels, what the rider thinks, the honor and prestige and expense and longterm effort … none of that means even a half-full hay bag to any horse.

If you train a horse for years to perform at competitions, don’t be surprised when he thinks he is there to perform. Of course he’s going to feel good and try for you. You trained him to do that. Because he is fit and expecting to go and do things at an event, we get a little crazed by the whole thing — and why not? We’ve worked hard, the horse probably looks like a million bucks, and we want to go on. But it’s so hard to say, “maybe not today.”

And we all will face that question — nobody wants to, but if you are going to mess with horses, someday you too will press that button and send in the entry, then go out to the barn just after the “no refund” deadline, and find Big Daddy stepping on a clip. It will happen. And you will have to make a decision — do I go on, or do I say, “not today?”

Sometimes it is clear and easy to make a decision and sometimes the outlines are blurred and the answer isn’t clear. Is he really lame? Is he really not wanting to jump? Is it too much for him? Is he too old? Is he too young? Can he manage with that condition? What should I do? And, if you are competing on the world stage, the rest of us expect you to be able to make that decision clearly. (Pause for wild laughter here.)

This is a hard thing for our sport — when it’s a thing that might be clear to others but not to the one who has to make the decision. The horse goes fine at home; he’s right, he’s experienced, he’s fit — and then out of the blue, he tells you that big brush corner is not something he can do today, and it ends your whole world. How we wish we knew that before … but sometimes the horses don’t want to let us down until they simply can’t. In National Velvet, Velvet says The Pie “burst himself for me and I asked him and he burst himself again.” Yes. We know that feeling.

I think because our horses are fit, their condition disguises stuff — the vets can chime in here — but that’s my suggestion. They think they are world-beaters. We get fooled. And if I get fooled, I want to be a fool in this case. It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be sitting on a fit horse who is ready to fly — there is nothing more to life than that, is there?!

And there are repercussions for stopping. Trainers, coaches, owners to answer to. Criticism for being chicken, afraid, not ready, under-conditioned, etc. It takes a village to get a horse to the upper levels but the village finds other things to do when a rider sticks out their neck and makes a decision to stop and reroute to something else down the road. Consequences aren’t always great.

And all I can say is, we’ve all been there with horses. There are horses I’ve made mistakes with — as we all have — and times I’ve gone, or not stopped, when I should have. And there are times when I’ve used my brain and said, “not today,” and it wasn’t the end of the world, and I’ve learned from that, too. The point is: Stopping is a thing you gain with experience, just like going on and moving up are things that are also gained from experience. And all that, and we will err because … well, because we just don’t want to stop believing. We’re wired that way.

So, stopping is tough. And that’s not a bad thing for a horse, is it? All they really want is good things to eat and not to hurt. Everything else is our “never mind” as my dad used to say. I just hope if ever I have to that it will be easy and clear to decide to stop. That in itself is a difficult thing, so I wish for that for everyone else, too. That’s who we are. Go Eventing.

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