Slow and steady wins the race. How many times have we all heard that saying? It’s a much loved mantra of equestrians everywhere, but it’s simultaneously difficult to remember when times get tough.
When I purchased my OTTB, Fawkes (Jesse), I took a deep breath and told myself that taking it one day at a time would, in the end, pay off. It’s a big decision, purchasing a horse. For me, it seemed even bigger as I carried the fear of commitment and self-doubt with me.
I had an advantage with this one, as he didn’t come straight off the track. He’d been retired after two unsuccessful races and had been turned out to pasture for the past year before coming to me. So I had the leg up with let down time and adjustment to life off the track.
This was one thing I was looking for, as this would be my first OTTB and my first horse to produce myself — I wanted to set myself up for success from the outset.
Tacking up for our first ride, my heart was in my throat. “What if he bucks me off? There’s no one here to help me if something goes wrong.” Thoughts such as these kept circulating through my brain as I nervously wrapped Jesse’s legs and fastened his bridle.
I shouldn’t have worried, though. Our first ride was proof of his incredible brain and maturity. Though just a four-year-old, he exhibited calmness and responsiveness even though he was in a new place, with new sights and sounds and a new rider. Nothing seemed to faze him, and I dismounted with a silly grin on my face.
I’ve worked with green and/or young horses in the past, but I’ve never started from (essentially) scratch before. I have access to some really great trainers, but unfortunately I do not have a trailer with which to transport Jesse to said trainers, so much of the work has been done on my own.
I’m fortunate that, in my lessons, I am able to ride horses and practice techniques that will help me with Jesse, and I owe my coach the world for her sage advice.
It’s overwhelming, though, starting a young horse fresh. I have a terrible habit of doubting myself every step of the way. As I wrote about previously, validation is something I seek, and it’s hard when you don’t have a coach on the ground to give it or take it away.
But I chipped away. I spent time working Jesse on the ground, establishing the trust that we’d need to move forward. I worked from the bottom of the training scale, focusing first on rhythm in all three gaits.
Everything wasn’t made of rainbows and butterflies, though. While Jesse established himself as a solid citizen, the fact remains that he is green and I am not a professional. So we struggled a bit. I got greedy and started asking for contact, in my opinion, too early. We both got frustrated and had several rides where I felt nothing was accomplished except confusion.
Fast forward about three months. After suffering from a cold winter where my barn time was limited, I approached my rides over this past weekend with a new attitude.
So what if there are countless other four and five-year-old horses out there running Novice or jumping full courses at home? Comparison is your worst enemy in any situation, and it’s something I’ve had to police with myself.
I have enough self-doubt as there is — I don’t need to find sources of more by looking at some upper level rider (who is a professional, by the way!) with a horse who is heads and shoulders ahead of mine.
I spent a lot of time soliciting advice from experienced friends and watching a lot of Ingrid Klimke’s series, Just Paul. I decided that Jesse, being a bit short in the neck, needed to establish a long and low frame to encourage a lengthening of his neck.
Before, I tried to rush into asking for a higher frame and ended in frustration when he just didn’t understand. That isn’t his fault — it’s my responsibility as his rider to make my instructions clear and simple.
So, I spent three days working only at the walk. We walked in serpentines, we did leg yields, we did turns on the forehand and the haunches. By the end of the first ride, it was like a lightbulb switched on in his head.
He softened through his jaw, and his frame elongated into the soft, flowing shape that I sought. It was the best ride we’d ever had — and it was just at the walk! I was amazed at how great such a simple concept could feel.
After working at the walk, I decided to step things up to the trot. We went outside for the first time in weeks, and it was immediately evident how much happier Jesse is outside. After warming up considerably at the walk, I asked for the trot … and once again, I felt we were on the same page.
Jesse was flowing into the bridle, and his back was up underneath me. Changing directions was no issue, it was as if I was riding a seasoned horse and not a green four-year-old. I didn’t want to stop riding, but I reminded myself not to be greedy.
Yes, Jesse still has inconsistencies with the contact, but that is to be expected. We ended our last two rides with ears pricked and big pats, feeling as if we’d just knocked out a big dressage test. A nice long hack through a neighboring corn field was our reward for a job well done, and I couldn’t stop thinking about our ride the entire drive home.
I am not a professional. I am an amateur, part-time eventer. That is my “label”, for the time being at least. Sure, I have gigantic dreams of someday galloping around Rolex. But I’m not putting the figurative cart in front of the literal horse.
When working with horses, it’s important to taste the small victories. The most rewarding part of producing a horse is seeing the milestones come and go and knowing that you are the one responsible for them.
Jesse and I have grandiose plans of taking the Starter divisions by storm this year. It’s been a couple of years since I competed, and I want him (and I) to be very confident in everything he does.
Would Sinead Halpin take him out at Beginner Novice or even Novice this year? Probably, sure. But I’m not Sinead — trust me, I wish I was! — and that’s fine with me. I will celebrate each tiny victory and enjoy this journey. That’s what it’s all about, right?