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Kate Rakowski


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Quitting Is for Winners

I give, Uncle, I quit. Why is eventing Kissa like banging your head on a brick wall? Because it feels so good when you stop. That’s it, we’re done. I’m out of this rut (see my last blog for thoughts on ruts).

I guess I’ve probably known this was coming for years but I’ve finally decided to allow Kissa to be the hunter princess she’s always wanted to be. I totally admit to solving most problems by running away from them, but I think five years of struggle to make eventing work is enough persistence. How did we get here you ask? It involves a few more stories of bad clinics.

She does look pretty in a D bit and her back is oddly less sore with that tiny foam flocked saddle instead of the ones that are fitted to her. 

Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Since things started opening back up again, mom and I have been trying to take advantage of living in the center of all things eventing and go to school and clinic at other places. In late May we did a clinic at Phyllis Dawson’s Windchase Farm (lovely place) and Kissa was an irrational idiot. I guess I could pick more positively spun words but I’m sort of a straight talker and that’s about what happened. She spooked and stopped at the telephone pole on the ground warm-up jump. My little sale mare Pinkie who has jumped about six times would have done it. Kissa spooked and tried to or did stop at about half the other jumps. When I rode hard to get her to go, she essentially bolted and met every jump at a half stride and hung a leg. Feeling a lot like we’re going to have a rotational fall at Beginner Novice height jumps is not a good feeling. She has done this before; I’ve never been a fan. 

We went to school at Red Gate by ourselves. She only stopped at one jump where I didn’t ride perfectly. We went on a hunter pace; she would follow my mom’s mare Puff anywhere but only if she can literally be touching her tail. Also not a wonderful feeling when jumping but it was fine. We kept up with chiropractic visits every six weeks or so. I wasn’t really having fun anymore. 

Then finally we got to go to a Boyd Martin clinic. You know, the Boyd who is how Kissa came to be (see our first blog). The Boyd whom we’ve been waiting to clinic with since she was born. I had high hopes since I had gotten some good ideas from Phyllis, we had schooled, we were ready. She was an ass. There was a HORSE, IN A PADDOCK. Can you believe it? That apparently meant that she was unable to go in that half of the field. Even after we had gone over to see what was happening (nothing). She stopped eight strides away from an ankle high coop as the warm up jump. She barely even got over it with a lead from another horse. She proceeded to try to stop at most of the other jumps. She started balking and refusing to go away from the group. She was in a white lather sweat for an hour and half. She was once again running when she did go and meeting things on half strides and hanging legs. It was awful. Boyd tried to be helpful. His assessment was that I really had to get after her when she balked. But then she does the other things which are terrifying. He is a nice guy and he sweetly appreciated the story of how she came to be and his connection to her. He posted our story on his FB page and it was cute. And I sort of hated my horse. I stopped riding her for a week. 

Photo by my mom, Emily Graeser.

I wrote a three-page set of organized notes reflecting the possibilities of how to proceed: different techniques, different types of riding, more vet work, three layers or ramifications of each option. Yeah, I’m that person — if you’re happy and you know it, overthink. Enter sports psychologist Andrea Waldo to my story (again). I did a phone call consultation/lesson/therapy session with her. She knows me and Kissa and our history and the things I’ve done. She told me that I’m in an abusive relationship with my horse and my sport and she’s totally right. She assured me I have gone above and beyond with vet work, different approaches, etc, etc. She talked me down from every one of my objections. It’s over. She’s right. 

So I hope they welcome me back to the land of postage stamp sized close contact saddles (luckily I still own mine), fluffy pads, standing martingales, laced reins, D-bits, a bajillion tiny flat braids, knee patch breeches (this slightly makes me cry but it’s OK, I can hold on to the neck strap of the martingale), standing around forever waiting for your class (this is hands down the worst part), the slow canter, the long and slightly weak distance, the 12’ stride at all times for everything, the crest release, the automatic flying lead change, and always having a warmup round. My plan is to let her do one thing and one thing only which is the one thing she seems to like most for six months or so. It’s going to take a little while for her to settle back down and trust that that’s the only thing she has to do. We did go to one little hunter/jumper show and she was a little wild but I think she’ll get it soon. And I’ve started to remember why I do love my horse (she is really so very incredibly comfortable and sweet).

Knee patches😢😢😢😢. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

If we get to the end of the year and I’m dying of boredom and she’s happy and settled, I may try to compromise with her on the jumpers. Or maybe my little covid sale horse who’s game, sensible and honest but not particularly naturally talented (you know the exact opposite of Kissa) will become my new eventer. Or she’ll get sold and I’ll find a new eventer. I’ll be back. Just not with this horse. In the meanwhile, you’ll see me out there volunteering. Have fun, go eventing.

Observations on Ruts, Rough Roads and New Paths

I started saving memes about ruts vs. changing your life about four months ago with the idea that I’d write a blog reporting in a year later from the other side of completely changing my life. But then this virus happened, and everyone had to completely change their lives. Then I realized that just means that you all have been forced to be brave enough to do it, I chose to do it. But here we all are. 

So let me start with a defense of ruts, literal and figurative; this too may not be as hard now that the rest of you have felt the loss of balance that comes with having no ruts to follow. All those of you who have dragged your wheelbarrow through 18” of snow, know that the more times you follow the same path, the easier it gets. That’s what ruts do for you — they make your path smoother, faster, easier. Also those of you who have driven your Prius with its vast 3” ground clearance along the ridges between ruts on Vermont spring muddy roads know that riding the rails between ruts takes skill, balance and commitment (you can’t wimp out halfway through the low spot or you’ll fall in) but that too helps you get where you’re going more easily. 

The figurative ruts (read neural pathways) in your mind carry the same benefits. They allow you to shower or commute to work or do barn chores without conscious thought so you can turn your brainpower to pondering that knotty problem you’re struggling to untangle. I clearly remember a time in my life when I was waitressing five days a week, student teaching four days a week, doing graduate classes three days a week and doing barn chores to work off my horse’s board both weekend mornings (I had four total days off from January to April).

There was simply not enough mental energy to focus on all those things, so barn chores were my brain time. I would feed, water, do stalls, sweep, throw down hay and magically, without having consciously thought through anything, have made some decision about something by the time I was done. My brain did it for me when I followed the conscious rut and let the subconscious have time to work. 

The problem with ruts is when you’re not using them anymore, but they’re using you. Then they get deeper and harder to get out of and you forget to look around and see if there are other routes you can take. Those other paths are almost always there but they are no doubt going to be hard for a while until you find the right one or smooth out the one you chose. 

When you’re stuck in a rut and you know you’re in a rut and your rut is so deep that you can’t see outside it, you start posting memes and wishful thinking statuses on Facebook and hating your life. Then pretty soon you end up hating yourself for having that life and not finding a way out of it.

And here’s where your personality and your support system come in. If you can look around inside your life and say, “There are some things here I don’t like, but overall this is where I want to be,” that’s fabulous. Live your best life, enjoy the things you love, rely on your network when you get down, vent about things now and then, go on vacation now and then, and carry on.

However, if you look around and think and feel that you no longer belong where you are there are two choices: change who you are or change where you are. I have never been successful at the former but I’ve alway been willing to do the latter. I’m not saying it’s easy, and it might take you upwards of eight years (note the dates on the status below) but you can do it. 

Here’s the thing about forging a new path: It means full mental energy for everything, and it requires trade-offs. If your current life is sucking your soul, you probably don’t have much mental energy to spare. I took the gap year approach to give myself some time to think, which I get is totally not possible for lots of people. However, it’s possible that our currently enforced global stall rest may provide some people with a moment of pause to examine what’s important and what they actually want. 

I have a wise friend who once posted something about reframing your conversations to reflect the choices you have. Instead of saying, “I don’t have time to do that,” say, “that’s not my top priority right now,” because then, you can decide when “that” does become a top priority. Instead of saying, “I can’t change that,” say, “I’m not sure where to start,” or, “I need to gather more resources before I can do that,” because then you can make a plan to save money or vacation days or whatever.

When I was a math teacher, I used to insist that students ask an actual question not just say something like, “I don’t know how,” or “I don’t get it.” I found that forcing them to ask an actual question first of all gave them ownership of their learning instead of dumping it back on me, got their brains unstuck which often meant they could answer their own question, and allowed me to give them the kind of help they actually wanted instead of guessing what they needed resulting in both of us getting frustrated.

I think life choices follow the same rules. I realize there are some people in our world who are truly stuck, but for the vast majority of people it’s just not true that you “can’t” do anything different. You might decide you’re not ready, you might think you need more help than you can find right now, you might not know what you want to do instead of what you’re doing now, you might not really want a full-scale change but rather a little break. There are all kinds of reasons you are in your rut and not all of them are bad, but if you don’t recognize it as a rut, you can’t decide if you want to be there or not.

Wilderness etiquette says that if there’s a path follow it, if there’s no path, stay spread out so you don’t wear down a path in a new place. I’m not sure it’s a perfect metaphor for life choices, but I think there is some benefit to each of us doing our own thinking about where we belong instead of just following the path we’ve always followed. I’m here to say that you can do it if you’re willing to give up a lot of things you have now in order to gain something new and hopefully better.

Right now your life is upside down, whether you’re working or not, whether you’re home with your horses or not able to go to the barn. So, if you do decide you want some major changes in life, know that it means you cannot follow your comfortable ruts, you will need to forge new paths on everything from the supervisory structure of your new job to who’s the best farrier in town to where your favorite stuff is in the grocery store. It’s not easy, but easy isn’t alway the best choice. 


No Breakfast for Kissa

For the past couple years EN has been following the story of Kate Rakowski and her mare Kissa, who came into this world in a rather happenstance manner: Kate bid $380 on a breeding with Ronald Zabala’s show jumper stallion, Wonderboy, in an online auction fundraiser for Boyd Martin after his barn burned down in 2011. She won, but had no mare. So she found an OTTB who fit the bill, Kissa was born, and it’s been a roller coaster ever since! Click here to read previous blog entries. 

Forsythia are really tasty. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Are you ready for a new game called “What’s wrong with my horse?” It’s part bidding, part crying (this may be me not you), part sleuthing. Play along as I describe more and more symptoms and rule out more and more diagnoses. If you don’t remember or you haven’t met my horse, the short version is that she’s an 8 year old, homebred TB/WB princess who’s always been “complicated.” 

Background info to get you started: 

1) She’s always been a little anxious when I buckle up the girth which is just one of her princess characteristics. I’m 98% sure that a girth has never been yanked up on her. I usually take four steps to tighten it a hole or two at a time. I bought her a special equalizer girth for her jump saddle to solve the problem of having it be long enough to buckle up loosely but short enough to not go all the way to the top of the billets which is super bulky and annoying under my leg when I ride. I realize I have some princess leanings too and, yes, I can feel that pea 38 mattresses down.

2) She has a super weird habit of peeing during almost every ride. She’s done this for over a year now. Usually after a dressage school. But also out on hacks or between jump rounds. She has always drunk a lot of water, gotten a lot of salt and sweated and peed a lot. It’s not very princess-like but that’s her. 

3) She’s never come into heat on a normal cycle, consequently I’ve never been able to tell if any of her behaviors are cycle related. She may or may not be a rabbit — they cycle when they meet a likely mate. She acts like she’s in heat when she meets anyone sexy; she likes the dominant older mares, but can also be into a studly guy too. 

4) In the past, as a result of her challenging and unexplained behaviors, I have done trials of Bute, Progesterone, Mare Magic, Vision calming supplement, Ulcergard and probably a few others I’m forgetting right now. Mare Magic made her wild; none of the others made any noticeable change in her behavior or way of going. 

Are you ready to start your mental bid on what’s wrong? Or do you need some current symptoms? It’s always hard to know where to start with her. 

Our last outing of the year in late November was … um … a challenge?! You can read about it in my last blog. But also around that time, she was getting a little grumpy and girthy. I didn’t think much of it because she’s like that, and she was getting six weeks off anyway.

Started hacking again in late December. She was back to a normal level of girth anxiety but seemed not quite lame but not quite sound either. I figured she’s just weak from her time off. So we did three weeks of increasing length hacks with more hills and more trots. Two ring rides with some dressage schooling. The first was awful; she was so crooked I literally couldn’t get a contact on my left rein. The next was not so bad.

What are you thinking? Lame? Weak? Front? Hind? I wasn’t sure.

More hacks, more hills, a dressage ride and she felt great: lifting, balanced, even. A tiny jump school at another ring: super quiet, no problem. Some bigger jumps at Win Green: fine but pretty crooked — she lays on her right side in the air and grabs for the left lead. Went to the Beverly Jumper show with dual purposes of a few rounds of jumping on nice footing and making Kissa and mom’s mare, Puff, deal with being in public together with other horses and do their jobs. Blessings to all low-key winter jumper shows and I’m so glad they’re like this in Area II also; they let us be in the ring together and both mares were very good. Funny story, if you teach your horse to stop when you say “whoa-oh” in that particular tone, she will. Even if you’re a dope and you say it in the middle of a line — oops. 

So we’re OK right? Maybe nothing is wrong? Except not really. She still didn’t feel quite 100% — you know like when they feel really different on the two trotting diagonals. She was also bad about picking up her left hind leg for me and the shoer in the last week.

Thursday, Jan. 16: my birthday! I got a really well recommended performance vet. He did hoof tests (both front a little tender) and flexion tests (a little sore in both front and left hind and difficult to hold up left hind). He watched her lunge (like a nutcase but to be fair it was windy and the greenhouse door was flapping). He watched me ride (tense and strong but comparatively quite sound). It is really interesting to note the level of detail a really knowledgeable person can see. He saw weakness in the right hind. He thought the being bad for the left hind was from not wanting to stand on the right hind. Fair enough. 

OK, you have to pick a diagnosis or two now: SI? Saddle fit? Ulcers? Something cropping up from an upper hind end tweak she did in the winter two years ago? Those were my top candidates. 

He thought she had a little tenderness in her loin area and near the SI but nothing dramatic.  He thought it not likely that ulcers or saddle fit were causing the problem. He recommended Robaxin and lots of back strengthening type riding and lunging exercises.

Side note: It was also really interesting to talk to him about “alternative therapies.” Massage: good but only for about 24 hrs; chiro: best in conjunction with acupuncture; PEMF/Magna Wave: can actually hurt; Back on Track: good; Pessoa type systems: good for improving lunge work; hacking out and hills: good but even better if you leg yield and you really don’t need to have them on the bit to benefit; cavaletti: good.

The Robaxin made her super runny for a week and then she was colicky — just gas; 10 cc of oral Banamine worked fine. Stopped the Robaxin and started probiotics to see if they’d help. And it had rained and been miserable several times so I can’t really tell if it helped. Add Robaxin and probiotic trials to the list of things that I’ve tried but I can’t really tell if they help. 

Last week of January: We got footing in our ring! Yay! Although that meant it was hard to ride for a week, what with dump trucks in and out of the driveway and large equipment moving large piles of dirt all day for a week. I made a full jump course with all the jumps we own. She had been hacking and flatting pretty nicely when we could get out and do it.

Our footing and the full jump course. And the dramatically cloudy sky because Noah would feel a little wet with all the rain we’ve had around here. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Sunday, Feb. 2: Tacked up quietly. She was a crazy woman when we started working. I hopped off and lunged for a few minutes. Interestingly she just ran in circles which is unusual for her — usually when she’s fresh she’s full of bucks, twists, airs above the ground and general Lippizaner impressions. But she settled and I got back on and went to a few jumps. She was back to a year ago with bolting at the jumps, diving right, and launching herself indiscriminately to the other side of even quite small jumps. We got a few slightly better and called it a day.

Tuesday, Feb. 4: Tried again with the jumping. She was generally quiet this time but very strangely for her she had a lot of trouble making the distances in the line. And I had actually wheeled them to make them correct, and the footing was good. And she used to have a huge stride. Then she also started getting super tense and crooked and worse the longer I rode. So again, we quit. 

Have you changed your mind? Sound but spring fever? Still lame in RH? 

Wednesday, Feb. 5: She pulled a shoe in the muddy field and got it back on a few days later but was super grumpy about any kind of touching on her chest/girth/stomach. Really crabby about putting blankets on and off. This is very unusual for her. I figured she had probably pulled a chest muscle when pulling the shoe. And mom’s horse was also off. So we kept them on stall rest in our huge stalls with run-out pens attached. We built these to board rehab horses; turns out they were our own. 

What do you think? Related? Unrelated? Who knows, I gave her time off and stall/pen rest for a few days. 

Tuesday, Feb. 11: Colicked again — same as last time; a little Banamine and she was fine. But I called the vet again. 

L: pathetic princess colic. I should have done video so you could hear the moans. I was picking up the piles from her night in while she was lying there dying. Don’t worry, Banamine was already on board when I took the pic. R: 20 mins later, we’re better but still looking very sad. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Wednesday, Feb. 12: She got shod all around and was still super sensitive about touching anywhere on her lower half.  Vet drew blood for a Lyme titer and ordered an overnight fast to do an ulcer scan.

Have you changed your mind? Internal? External? Have you been betting on ulcers or Lyme all along?

Friday, Feb. 14: Valentine’s Day but no love here; a terrible tragedy happened. My poor neglected horse did not get breakfast. And it was morning! And EVERYONE ELSE WAS EATING!!! Seriously people, I’m 98% sure that this horse has never missed a meal in her life since I’ve fed her the majority of them. 

The scan showed no ulcers. A few bots and a little roughness in the lining of her stomach at one spot which are clinically insignificant. Lyme titer is negative. 

What now? Not ulcers; not Lyme. Still fluctuating levels of sensitivity on her underside — some days just girth, some days, all the way from the chest to the stifles. Does it depend on how distracted she is by other things? Maybe? Is there actually anything going on or has she just become grumpy? Who knows. 

She’s back on turnout and I haven’t ridden since our last disastrous jump school. I could probably sit on her, not tighten the girth much and go for a hack. But I know something is wrong and I don’t see the point. 

So here’s my proposal. I’m going to start a 50:50 raffle. You all can buy tickets with your bid on what’s actually wrong with her. I’ll pool all the money and you win half of it if you’re right. I’ll put the other half toward paying my vet bill — I figure if about 7,000 people read this and send me money, I should be able to cover it. Did I mention that I’m trying to start a new business here and we only have one boarder so far so I’m not actually making any money at all? Start sending me anyone you know who wants to board their horse in north/central Virginia. I promise that I can take care of any medical issue since my horse has had them all. Then start sending your proposals for the pool — $50 each: hind gut ulcers, a mineral deficiency, uterine issue, pulled muscle, Leaky gut syndrome/IBS, she’s just a princess (actually you can’t have that, my mom has that one). It could be months until we figure this out but I’ll keep your money safe, I promise. 

Sometimes They’re Donkeys, and Sometimes They’re Jacka$$es

This is what happened when we met the neighbor’s donkey, Lugnut. Note Kissa hanging back; this will become relevant. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

This is a story about how I thought we had been making progress but then my horse gave me a big ol’ smackdown. I’ve written a few blogs but haven’t published any since they were all so boring. 

Since we moved to Virginia, Kissa has been doing super well. I don’t know if it’s the climate, the more consistent work, the greater availability of places to go school or what, but she’s been great.

She finally figured out how to move her ribcage to step up under herself a little in dressage and our scores have improved by about six points. She’s been jumping around stadium courses, even ones with walls and pillars and stadium seating nearby without being spooky. She’s schooled about six cross country courses including some challenging combinations, like a few different Training logs into water, some Modified banks, ditches and combinations, a pretty hefty wedge, some steep terrain questions and all kinds of ups and downs and tracks through water. She’s had a few confused, poor-riding stops here and there but basically has gone and done all these jobs with no drama and some eagerness. 

Video: proving at the Sharon White clinic that we practiced going away from our friends and jumping around happily. Video credit to the mom of the other woman in the clinic with us. I cannot remember either of their names but thanks to her!

In late September we went to the Virginia Horse Park for Saturday schooling and a Sunday starter trial. The behavior in the barn with her friend of lifetime, my mom’s horse Puff, was completely atrocious but the good news was that she went and did her job. She was a nut to start dressage warmup and we had to stage manage the whole day with one of us in the stalls and one in the trailer, but she did her job and jumped around and was 4th place in a quite large Beginner Novice division. Side note, it is not possible for her to canter at 300 MPM — we were 20 seconds early at the slowest canter we could do while still maintaining forward motion.

Then we did a Sharon White clinic (see notes above about schooling Modified questions with ease) and two starter trials at Loch Moy, one Beginner Novice and one Novice. She rocked the clinic and was second in the Beginner Novice trials later that week. The second Loch Moy cross country started out away from home with a long gallop past the trailers with nothing else to do between fences 1 and 2. She was pretty sticky at 2 and 3 but then remembered her job (and turned toward home) for fences 4-7. 8 and 9 were away from home again and she got a little sticky and had a stop at a little gate, got a smack and jumped right around the rest of the course. Not a terrible conclusion to her first Novice trials and I appreciated that she totally covered my a$$ when I totally, 100% missed at the last jump in stadium.

Doesn’t Beginner Novice stadium look easy and boring and like we should move up to Novice? Video credit: my mom, Emily Graeser.

And then there were donkeys. Or she forgot. Or she thinks she can’t do Novice even though she can school Modified. Or the eventing gods hate me. Or she heard me start to talk about making competition goals for the first time in her life. Or …Or… Or… I am a reasonably patient and persistent person and rider (as evidenced by the facts that I am still trying to event this horse and I taught middle school math for years) but the thing that defeats me more than anything is when I can’t figure out what is wrong. Why couldn’t we do it? 

We went to a new place for a last Novice starter trial to end our season — I thought the course would be soft, but when I walked it it was actually pretty bulky. However, it was super cute and fun with a bunch of different kinds of jumps and height has never been our issue, so I was looking forward to it. On the way to dressage warm-up, we saw the two miniature donkeys in the field between show jumping and dressage. She’s not a fan of donkeys; the ones next door in Ocala last winter induced some lovely passage. But she was only mildly distracted by them and broke into the 20s with her dressage.

Warmup and show jumping required a bit of strong riding to convince her that she could do her job even though the donkeys were there. The good news, and a change from what used to happen, is that when I got strong with her, she did go.

Not our prettiest stadium round but she went; note white paddock fence in the background where the evil creatures live. Video credit: my mom, Emily Graeser.

She walked over to the cross country start box (which was away from evil creatures) totally quietly. I practiced one gallop from a standstill like I’d do out of the box just to check that our aids were working and she did it fine. What follows is my Facebook post from that evening:

Fence 1-plain log: leave start box, canter 3 strides, prop, pop, attempt a whirl, slide to a stop, trot a few strides, get smacked twice, stop, circle, trot the jump

Fence 2-brush: drive forward like a steeplechaser with my spurs in her sides and a loud growl saying get going and do your job.

Fence 3-log hanging between giant spools: stop 8 strides out, get smacked, dance around, walk 2 strides closer, attempt to whirl away, circle back, stop 5 strides out, get smacked again, dance around, back up, stop, take a deep breath and look around and settle down, walk up to the jump and sniff it, circle back and trot it with me in the back seat, spurs in her sides and reins slipped

Fence 4-ramped table: stop 8 strides out look around for a minute or two, circle around and trot it

Fence 5-box: leap sideways and stop as you go through the tree line, stop and survey the world as soon as you enter the field, actual go trot toward the jump and break into canter to jump it- yay we jumped one.

Fences 6&7- fence line coop across the road into the tree line to a log: stop 3 strides out, circle around, trot the coop, skid to a stop upon landing, trot the log

Fences 8&9 – another fence line coop and fence line bench: stop upon entering the field each was in and survey the scene, trot the jump.

Fence 10 – hedge along the tree line: actually go forward and jump it which is funny since this is the only fence of a type she hadn’t ever seen.

Fence 11- fence line rails: stop 5 stride out to look into the field and spook at the fence judges, trot the jump

Fences 12&13- fence line coop across the road to rails: come down to trot but maintain forward motion and jump both; note the traffic backup that we’ve caused on the entry road – 5 cars waiting for us. 

Fences 14-18- roll top 2 stride, palisade on the tree line, ramp, log, boat/house thing: actually jump from a canter only being slightly spooky looking like you may have jumped a cross country fence once or twice in your life.

End the course in a white lather sweat with somewhere between 4 and 7 actual refusals and at least 4 other complete stop and stare moments — scores haven’t been posted online yet and for obvious reasons I didn’t wait for them to be posted at the show. I think I’m just out here making Bad Eventer feel better. 

The most frustrating part is that I don’t know why, therefore I don’t know how to go about fixing it. I am proud to say that I swear on my 30-years-of-being-in-a-hunter-two-point I did not get ahead of her once. I was in deep in my saddle with my legs around her the whole time. She was chill before going out on course. We had schooled the previous weekend at new place, and she jumped everything including much more challenging things than anything on this course. We can hack out alone pleasantly and quietly and ride away from others in a clinic to go jump. Why can’t my damn horse go around a cross country course? How do I train her to do it? I guess we’ll both have some time off through the holidays and then we’ll try again but that’s not really the way to end a season.

Headed to Area II

It came down to this: the easier option with less long term potential or the one with more potential but much more work needed to get there. 

Since I quit my job and ran away to the circus last winter, I decided that I couldn’t take six months of winter anymore but I also know I can’t take six months of summer. So we started looking for property in the mid-Appalachians. Three trips and about 20 properties later, we were down to the first one I looked at that I still liked and one fresh on the market. Since we had accepted an offer on our place in Vermont it was decision time. At this point you’re probably thinking that your links got switched and you’re wondering why I’m telling you about my real estate problems on Eventing Nation. But as soon as I realized the horse metaphor in the houses, I knew which one was right. 

#1 is a chunky, short strided Irish Draught gelding. He’s only foxhunted so he’s not quite perfect for eventing but he’s safe, quiet and comfortable. It’s the right kind of place in the right location but it doesn’t really do dressage and it’s scope is limited. It’s move in ready with a cute little barn, nice three- oard fencing with a run-in, a flat ring with nice stone dust footing. But the property is a little small, and a big chunk is wooded and on the side of a hill. 

Photo via Zillow.

#2 is a 9-year-old, war horse OTTB mare fresh off the track with all the athletic ability in the world. She’s got some questionable x-rays but she’s still sound after 65 starts so really, you can’t break her. She’s done some steeplechasing so you know she can jump and she’s already had one foal who’s successfully competing. It’s more land, open pastures and has a new barn. But there are no stalls, no fencing in some fields and barb wire in the others (since the neighbor’s cows have grazed it for as long as anyone can remember). The giant shade trees are black walnut which made us panic briefly but the county extension officer assured us that he’s never had a problem with them and horses. There are five outbuildings including the chicken shed, the farmstand and the original outhouse that went with the house when it was built in 1804. This horse can do everything but it’s going to take a lot of time, skill, energy and creative thinking to get her there. 

Photo via Zillow.

Photo via Zillow.

So, which one do you pick? 

Have you been reading about my difficult horse? Do you remember that I taught middle school? Of course we put in an offer on potential. I am an eventer after all. You can check it out on your favorite real estate website — 4975 Orange Rd, Radiant, VA. Oh and we’re looking for naming ideas: The Makings of a Farm? Winging It Farm? Potential Farm? A Little of This a Little of That Farm? Is there a good idiom in English or some other language that means we’re figuring it out as we go along?

So Area II, you better get ready for us. Let us know where the cross country schooling and un-sanctioned events are in Madison county. If you spot an unfamiliar pretty bay mare being a dipstick about something, It’s probably Kissa and me. 


Plug and Chug

After spending the winter in Ocala training with Tik Maynard, EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski has returned north and shared this update. Read Kate’s previous blog posts here

I’ve been home from Florida for about a month now. Back to teaching as a long term sub for the spring, working off Kissa’s board, a bunch of judging jobs coming up, working at the tack shop, catching up on vet appointments, dog licensing, getting the crown on the tooth that broke in November, gathering my ponies when they get loose.

Meatball and Spaghetti are not quite as cute when they went on a 3 mile walkabout but it is adorable they they got hay and water from the sheep farm up the hill. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

You know, the usual level of crazy busy. There hasn’t really been anything going on so I haven’t had many ideas of what to write. But then I read someone else’s blog about improving everything by just a little bit and making great gains in the long run. I realized that nothing going on is what’s going on. I’m making slow and not entirely steady improvements in cleaning up my house and readying it for sale. I’m starting to plug away at making some decisions about where to move and what house to buy and what to do with myself when I get there. It’s amazing how much is happening when nothing is really happening. And that’s what’s going on with Kissa, too.

She shows up to work every day and that is an incredible improvement. She’s been boarded at my friend Sue Berrill’s Greylock Farm for the month so I could have access to her indoor, a quiet road to hack out on and a transitional lifestyle between the action of Florida and the boringness of my backyard. She’s been out in two different paddocks, lived in three different stalls, been ridden in the indoor and the outdoor and hacked up the road alone and in company.

She had one day when she was tense and distracted (I took her away from her newly acquired boyfriend) but she still tried to be obedient — one day in the whole month when she wasn’t perfect! She is getting steadier in the contact without being heavy, she’s listening to my seat for both bigger and smaller trot and canter steps, she’s bending her body correctly. She jumped right around all the jumps when we got the course set up outside: super skinny, baby corner on the end, triple combination, wishing well — didn’t bat an eye. She’s being amazing. Every day, I think how close I was last fall to giving up on her, and how much I love riding her now. Don’t get me wrong, there are still tons of things to work on but I don’t mind working on things.

We went to a dressage lesson with the ever-awesome Deb Dean-Smith. There was no drama, just working on improving Kissa’s self-carriage and shifting her balance. You know, like most people expect dressage lessons to be. We went to ride at the place my mom keeps her horses. There was some tension but then she remembered her job and jumped around all my weird homemade jumps. You know, like most horses do at places they’ve been. But a year ago, I gave up going to ride there because she was so impossible when her friends were up at the barn out of sight.

My biggest focus now is to not ruin the gains we’ve made. She is being so good that I probably could ask for a whole lot more. I could ask her to lift her front end and sit more, I could jump bigger jumps, I could ride longer and harder. But it took seven years to get this pleasant horse and she damn well better be sound for another 15, so I want to make extra sure that I’m allowing her muscles time to build correctly. I want her to always like her work so I keep it short and just 1% more each day.

When I taught math, I noticed that after I taught a few new concepts there was this time period when the kids didn’t really need much instruction, they just need to process and try. That’s the appropriate use of worksheets — I mostly let them choose how much of the sheet they needed to do so it didn’t become drilling. I always referred to this kind of practice as “Plug and Chug” — keep putting the inputs in until you consistently get the right outputs out. So here’s to all of us who are doing our Plug and Chug practice until it’s time for a jump to the next plateau. And here’s to the rain stopping so venues can dry out and the short New England season can start. 

This is what happens when Meatball runs through Kissa’s stall while she’s eating dinner. Photo by Kate Rakowski.


10 Deep Thoughts from Ocala

In December EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski spread her snowbird wings and flew south to Ocala, Florida with her horse, Kissa. The mission: training with Tik Maynard. Today, with just two weeks left down south,  she reports back with some Ocala life lessons learned. Read Kate’s previous blog posts here

Smiling at sunrise in a great hat. Must be jump judging. Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

  1. MTG and Chlorhexidine are good and you can put Dex in your Desitin for scratches/summer sores/rain rot, but the prescription meds are really the only thing that’s strong enough for Florida crud.
  2. Area 3 eventers are really friendly too and everyone loves my $.65 hat.
  3. When you take it easy for a little while you realize just how busy and frazzled almost everyone is, and you know that’s how you are back in reality. You wonder if that’s really a good way to live and what your animals think about you rushing around all the time. Check out this really good article that came across my news feed recently.
  4. Even when you run away to Florida with your horse and try to escape, your life and all its baggage follows you. You still have to worry about money, and where you want to live and what you’re going to do with your life and how to balance family and horses.
  5. Volunteering is actually selfish — it’s so fun to see who’s doing what and, if you’re as extroverted as me, it’s really fun to chat with horse people all day. Plus you get schooling passes so you and your horse can finally go play at all the places.
  6. Big name eventers are super friendly and real people too. Sharon White invited me to visit her place after chatting all day. Even Jessica Phoenix, when she’s riding her cute but tense mare laments, “Why do we have to follow the big floaty chestnut.” Words that have come out of my mouth. I held the Bad Eventer’s phone and whip for her a few times and I didn’t even go crazy fan girl on her but she was really nice.
  7. New favorites: horse name — Alfredo Saucy Pants (if anyone knows the people who have this horse, I want to meet them); Thoroughbred stallion — Saketini (he’s gorgeous, scopey and soooo quiet and kind); dressage test to watch — Snow Leopard doing Intermediate so relaxed that his lop ears were flapping.
  8. There’s no feeling like that first cross country school after a long break from it when your horse is now more rideable and braver because of the work you’ve done with her.
  9. Eosinophilic Keratitis and eye problems in general suck. If you come to Florida, get your horse insured so your vet bills don’t start to exceed your mortgage for the year.
  10. Everyone is somewhere on the 1-10 “[email protected]#k it, I’m out of here” scale; many people are living above an 8. This number changes daily. And even when you’re in fantasy land, you’ll start to feel this way and that’s how you know it’s time to go home.


In December EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski spread her snowbird wings and flew south to Ocala, Florida with her horse, Kissa. The mission: training with Tik Maynard. Today she reports back on their slow but steady progress. Read Kate’s previous blog posts here

Photo by Kate Rakowski.

It’s starting to look a little like progress around here. Tiffany hasn’t shown her voice since I called her out in my last post. Kissa has demonstrated several moments of significant maturity as well as a general attitude difference in her flat work. Even her eye and her hind leg scratches/summer sores are better.

I was on a hack with a friend and her Morgan gelding when he spooked at a horse head on a pillar. In order to appreciate what happens next, you need to know that riding out has never been amongst Kissa’s strengths. You know how ads for horses say, “Rides out alone or in groups.” She does neither. Riding out alone in a field near our house at the end of her 3-year-old year was how she exploded, porpoising so much I went off over her back end. She ran into the road and it was only luck that brought her home with road rash but no injuries to either of us. So, she saw Mario look at the pillar, she stepped up to it (I swear, I didn’t even add leg, she just did it), sniffed it and the horse head on top, stepped back, sniffed Mario’s nose to tell him it was OK and stepped up to it again to invite him up. She was so clearly being the brave one and showing him that it was OK. I had never seen her do anything like that.

Another lovely sunset from my door at the front of the barn aisle. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Out on a hack with Tik, we walked and trotted together for 15 minutes or so. Then Tik wanted to do some gallops so he cantered off across the field. And Kissa only got a little bit jiggy for a few steps, then just quietly walked on a lose rein back to home. Just walked, when another horse had just cantered off!! Do you understand that teenage girls never go anywhere alone. He left! and she walked!

There have been several times that she’s been around horses in distress and she hasn’t picked up their energy. She used to be all for any kind of wildness that anyone offered. She was turned out in a paddock next to a new horse that had just arrived from Germany; he was running around and screaming and she just stood calmly eating hay. There was a mare getting ridden who was lonely because other horses were eating dinner and getting turned out. I was finishing my after ride walk nearby and when the mare whinnied distress, Kissa nickered back in a deep, “it’s OK friend” kind of way instead of also screaming matching distress.

And then there’s the Red Dragon incident. A fiery young, chestnut Thoroughbred was losing her cool, spinning and running backwards toward the barn when we walked by. Kissa remained totally calm and provided the horse a lead back to the jump field and back home. It was challenging because Kissa didn’t know the mare and Tik, who was the one riding, said, “Be as close as you can, but be aware that I’m like 90% out of control.” So, we had to go close, stop until the mare came forward a step, go quickly when she started walking, but stop so as not to get out ahead of her too far and lose her. Kissa was a perfect leader. Where did this good, thoughtful, responsive horse come from?

In our daily flatwork, Tik said, “I feel like I’m finally actually training her now. She’s looking to find the answers instead of overreacting and avoiding.” And I feel the difference too. If we can take that attitude change back to the jumps, I think his prediction that this work will fix 80% of the jumping problems will be totally true.

My friend Melissa once posted a video of us teaching/reteaching a horse to relax about dropping into water and mentioned that many parts of horse training are about as exciting as watching paint dry. But I had good fun that day and I’m having fun riding my horse now, even though it’s been almost two months since she’s jumped and I do really want to get back to that before I have to go home.

A Little Less Tiffany and a Little More Andrea

In December EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski spread her snowbird wings and flew south to Ocala, Florida (see blog post here) with her horse, Kissa. The mission: training with Tik Maynard. Here’s her latest dispatch. 

I sat down and had a chat about horses and riding with Tiffany the other day. She told me that I bred a nice horse and have really screwed her up, probably because I don’t really know anything about training horses. Also, she said I broke the last three horses I rode. You know, Cider started stopping and probably the suspensory damage was old and is really just an excuse for my bad riding causing him to lose confidence. Plus, she reminded me that I never really got anywhere with Mighty or Sassy and clearly that’s because, as she’s mentioned, I don’t know anything about training horses and I should probably just quit riding now since I don’t have enough money to buy a nicely trained horse and obviously, I can’t ride well enough to have any success with anything else.

I know what you’re thinking. I need to get rid of my friend Tiffany because she’s just mean, but I’ll bet you’re friends with her, too. You see she’s not real; she’s the voice in my head with all the negatives and doubts about what I’ve done in my life and my ability to do anything else in the future. She often reminds me that I suck as a rider and I’ve failed at training every horse I’ve ever had. While she’s at it, she keeps suggesting that I was probably a bad teacher and even though I am just a quitter, maybe the kids are better off without me anyway. And she frequently points out how bad a wife I am. The worst part about what she tells me is that there is just enough truth in what she says that I can’t totally ignore her.

I realized yesterday that this voice in my head was keeping me on the very thin edge of mental stability lately and was the reason I’ve had way too many face-crumpling, body-sagging, snot-dripping, bawling fits in recent months. Of course she tells me that she’s really the truth and it’s just hormones or my inability to face the truth that are making me cry and I should probably stop being such a baby and just deal with it. I decided today to give her a name with the hope that would help me shut her up sometimes. I knew it had to be a woman’s name because I don’t know any men who spend that long in their own heads, no less mine. Apologies to any pleasant people named Tiffany, but I’m a child of the ’80s and that just seems to me like the worst middle school mean girl name.

My Tiffany is probably one of these girls.

I do have another voice in there too and I decided today to name her Andrea in honor of two supportive and helpful Andreas in my life. Andrea Waldo’s book Brain Training for Riders is what gave me the idea and I’m currently reading it for the third time. It’s awesome; go get it.

Image via Horse & Rider Books.

I used to think that a lot of her information on fear didn’t apply to me because I’m not really afraid of going and doing things. But turns out I’m afraid of what I’ve already done. That’s where my lizard brain spends its time.

My college roommate Andrea is one of the kindest, most supportive and positive people I’ve ever known even though she’s had well more than her share of hits from life to make a different person turn bitter and angry. I decided to hear her voice in my head counteracting Tiffany with another point of view on most things.

My Andrea. Photo by Connie Booth.

Andrea reminds me that almost every horse I’ve ever had has been a slightly broken soul and I’ve done more with many of them than many other people would have been able to. Neither Cider nor I had gone higher than Novice and his little 15.1-hand half-Arab self is not really what most people think of as an eventing prospect. But we had some pretty good runs at moderate Prelims and even won a few times.

A bucketful of loot for winning the Groton House P/T division. Fun fact: Cider was 6” shorter than any other horse in the division. Tiffany says it’s not that big a deal since there were only seven horses in the division. Photo by Emily Graeser.

And it’s possible that the suspensory damage was there longer than we knew and was the reason why he started losing his A game.

Steeplechase at Waradaca Training 3-Day. Photo by Connie Walker.

Tiffany tells me that this doesn’t make it better because it just means that I jumped a lame horse, but Andrea reminds me that he seemed game and I tried to find causes for the problems and as soon as I felt any actual lameness, I withdrew and got him examined.

Andrea points out that Sassy was a half broke, show Morgan and she really just didn’t want to jump. So I probably did right by her to send her back to people who would do what she knew instead of forcing her into my mold. Even Tiffany acknowledges that Mighty had some serious PTSD from the racetrack but she tells me that I obviously didn’t know enough about OTTBs and I shouldn’t have tried to retrain him mostly on my own. Andrea politely breaks in with the reminder that I did try to take him for lessons but there was no one nearby who was at all helpful. And Andrea reminds me that I allowed him to retire when I noticed his neurological signs and intermittent lameness and I have been making sure he is well cared for and happy for six years now and will continue to do so for the rest of his comfortable life.

Tiffany has been trying to tell me lately that even if Tik succeeds in helping Kissa understand her job more, I won’t be able to ride her. And I probably shouldn’t try to get her to event because obviously she doesn’t want to and I should just find her a show hunter home where she’d be happier. Andrea is pretty sure that no one else will be able to ride her any better and I’m giving her the best chance to learn eventing now. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go do something else with her. Those athletic avoidance maneuvers she’s been using look a lot like fancy dressage pony stuff if she’d ever consent to allowing leg and hand at the same time.

Tonight, when I go to bed and I can’t sleep for the 9,731st night in a row, I’ll to try telling Tiffany to shut up and go talk to Andrea. Tomorrow, when I experience some small frustration, that isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things, which Tiffany tries to blow out of proportion and tell me that it’s because I’m just a crap human being, I’m going to tell her where she can put her ideas. And maybe someday soon, when my horse has had some help from someone who’s better than me, I can go back to riding her with more education of my own and we can start moving forward. And even if we have a setback, I will ask Andrea’s opinion on the matter before I let Tiffany tell me that I suck. Maybe I’ll even call my husband tomorrow and someday soon I’ll decide what to do with the rest of my life because I am really happy that I retired from teaching.

‘She’s Complicated’

In December EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski spread her snowbird wings and flew south to Ocala, Florida (see blog post here) with her horse, Kissa. The mission: training with Tik Maynard. Today she reports back on their (slow but steady) progress. 

Photo by Kate Rakowski.

She’s Complicated: Conversations Real and Imaginary, Voiced and Unvoiced

Tik’s first ride on her

Tik: When I ask her to go from leg through to hand, she has a lot of avoidance.

I did not say, “Hello, department of the obvious calling,” as I watched her throw her head up, root her head down, curl her head under, run, stop, swing her haunches out, throw her shoulder in, buck, kick, hop, run sideways and probably swear at him as he continued to calmly ask for a connection — which I thought she’d known how to do for at least a year and half now.


My friend: How was your ride?

Me: Well, Tik got on her.

My friend: How did that go?

Me: Well, he’s going to try again tomorrow.


Second ride

Tik: Today she’s moving from my leg but just running through my hand. She has a lot of little things that go wrong and it’s difficult but important to focus on the right one at the right time.

I did not respond with, “Ya think.”

Tik: She’s not hard in that she doesn’t have one really hard habit to change, but she’s complicated.

I still did not say, “Well, no duh.”

Tik: When she stops at jumps, it feels like 50% bad habit and 50% anxiety so it’s hard to both reprimand and support.

Once again, I refrained from, “No $h!t, Sherlock.”

Tik: I’m optimistic that we can fix the little things and really help her.

Me: I’m glad you are.


Third ride

Tik: “I’ve never ridden a horse with so much ability to wiggle all the parts of her body out of straightness, therefore avoiding connection.”

I did not say, “I’m glad it’s not just me. My horse really is a jackass.”

Tik: “She acts like she’s using her tension, overreaction and distraction to get you to leave her alone and not make her work.”

Me: “Well, I’ve spent her entire lifetime trying not to let that happen but that doesn’t mean that it worked.”

Tik: “What I’m asking isn’t really that hard. In fact it’s not as hard as all the work she’s putting into avoiding it.”

Me reminded of teenage boys at boarding school who put more effort into making it look like they took a shower than the effort required to just take a freakin shower already.


Rides 4-6

Some version of:

Tik: Kissa, can you try to respond correctly with connection instead of avoidance?


Tik: Really, keep your shoulder in line behind your head and your haunch in line with that and it will help you carry weight on your haunches and lift your back and you’ll like it. It will feel better.


Tik: Really, you can. Almost like that. You tried a little. That was good.

Kissa: Maybe a little. Kind of, sort of. But only for two steps at a time and not twice in a row. If I think you’ve asked too much, I’m throwing my head in the air and running sideways.

Tik: Good try. Can you do it again?


Repeat ad infinitum


After ride 6

Me: Do you feel like you’re making progress?

Tik: Yes but slowly. Not that slowly really, I did this for four months with Larry.

Frantically thinking, “Oh crap. I’m already out of money and was only planning to be here another six weeks. How would I propose to my husband staying longer? If I stay, I’d really have to get a job. What job can I get?“

Me: OK

Toshi the barn cat. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

20 Things I’ve Learned in My First Month in Florida

In December EN blogger and Vermont eventer Kate Rakowski spread her snowbird wings and flew south to Ocala, Florida (see blog post here) with her horse, Kissa. The mission: training with Tik Maynard. Today she reports back! 

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

20 Things I’ve learned in my first month in Florida:

1. There is a very high D/M (Dollar Store Per Square Mile) ratio here. And you can get large storage tubs, a pair of tweezers and two bottles of wine in one outing to Dollar General.

2. You should tie wheelbarrows down in the back of your truck if you plan to drive down the highway.

3. Hives, scurf, rain rot and all manner of gross are to be expected on any horse who arrives.

4. Everything molds instantly. Nothing ever dries.

5. Despite never having skipped winter before, you instantly forget what the depression and misery feel like.

6. It takes four sets of clipper blades to body clip a really furry Vermont horse over the course of three days while it rains on and off; it’s so hot and humid that she will still be wet in some parts and already sweating in others after you bathe her; and you’re plugged in to the back of the house holding her while you clip. And she will look awful, making you feel like a redneck hick from the northern sticks.

After two sets of clipper blades. The other side had less done. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

7. GPS is only moderately helpful here. It often thinks that dirt tracks are roads.

GPS said to turn here to get to Tik & Sinead’s place. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

8. On downward transitions, keep her hind legs trotting while her front end walks and the other way around in the upwards.

9. Despite the fact that she doesn’t think so, it is possible to move her feet with her neck long and low.

10. Despite the fact that you thought you’d taught her #9 since starting under saddle, you haven’t taught her well enough.

11. There is an age limit to living with roommates and I’m above it.

12. The hay in the burn pile will still be smoldering after 3 ½” of rain.

13. Your shoulders are connected to her shoulders; if you want her to lift hers you have to lift yours.

14. Using too much rope and not enough stick while doing groundwork is just like using too much hand and not enough leg while riding. And even if you can spot others doing it you’ll still do it too.

15. The frozen compartment of a mini fridge is not cold enough for ice cream. It’s OK to cry over a wasted Ben and Jerry’s pint.

16. Seat gives them confidence; leg gives speed.

17. It is possible to have a lesson in which you have 20+ stops at five jumps and still not feel like all is totally lost but only if you have a kind, patient and thoughtful instructor.

18. Having an efficiency apartment that is really a converted stall is pretty awesome if you sit in the front of the barn with your morning coffee and watch cute horses as the mist lifts every morning.

Christmas morning. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

19. Wrapping Christmas lights around palm trees is a thing, but it doesn’t really feel like Christmas when it’s 80 and you go out for the evening in a t-shirt.

Downtown Ocala from a horse-drawn carriage. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

20. Even if you only knit a little at a time, you will eventually end up with a finished thing (yes kiddies, this is also a metaphor for training horses).

10 Days to Run Away: A Vermonter Flies South to Florida

How to quit your job(s) and run away in 12 days


10 days to insanity


Diary of a run-away


The 12 days of Quitsmas

First let me say that all of this didn’t actually happen in the last 10 days before I left; it was really more of the last three weeks but they were really long to live through and would be even longer to write about so please honor my poetic license and don’t be too hung up on dates.

Wednesday, Nov 21: Record setting cold all over Vermont. I think it may be my fault that January is making an appearance in November. Don’t worry mother nature, I know what I’m missing, you don’t have to remind me.

The person I’d been in contact with about Kissa and I staying at her place, just down the road from Tik’s has just messaged saying, “BTW your room is unfurnished. I have an air mattress.” That seems like it would have been important information to know when we were discussing arrangements. It also makes me wonder what other things I was assuming that aren’t true. So I asked for the contract she mentioned once before. She sent a photo of the blank contract. Not quite what I meant.

Someone got in touch with me online about a ride for her gelding from Virginia to Georgia. It’s roughly along my route. She’ll pay me and help find a spot for Kissa to spend the night on both ends of that day of the trip. Seems like it will work out well for both of us.

Thanksgiving morning: -3 degrees is not OK in November. It’s not really even OK in January but at least it’s expected then. And my friend’s horses, who I’m taking care of, don’t have blankets, and their water trough only has a small thawed hole. Lots of hay and everyone’s OK.

Thanksgiving dinner, in which I bring my husband to crash my friend’s family’s party for about the fifth year in a row, is very yummy. But then the chunk falls off my molar. Yup, chunk. Gone. BTW, I don’t currently have dental insurance; good thing it doesn’t hurt.

I spent an hour making a road trip/warm weather/you go girl/follow your dreams playlist from my iTunes. I have more than 12 hours of listening fun waiting for me. The young dog is not acting quite right — found a tick on her a few days ago. Probably has some kind of virus. No emergency so call the vet tomorrow.

Friday, Nov. 23: Last day of work at Job #1. Found the sewing machine needles that I bought a week ago and then lost. Fixed the couch covers, my quilt, my husband’s pants from the dog bite hole (he’s a mail carrier), and put the trim back on Kissa’s Rambo rain sheet. That seems like a normal sewing pile doesn’t it? It worked. I’d really like to wash the sheet too (and believe you me, the fact that I have a top load washer which does all my laundry doesn’t stop me from washing rain sheets) but in true New England style, it will be raining soon and she’ll need to wear it.

My husband got his knee replaced in September and we hadn’t gotten a bill yet, which I’ve mentioned seems weird numerous times. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I signed up for paperless billing.” Oh that lovely patient portal. It does not require 20 years of math teaching experience to know that $16,000 is greater than a supposed $600 deductible. And the billing office is on Central time. And they are only open during regular weekday business hours. Puppy still isn’t quite right.

Saturday, Nov. 24: Busy day of work at job #2, but it’s a tack shop so still a good day. Horse has six weeks since last shoeing but her feet aren’t at all long and I usually go at least eight weeks at this time of year. But I don’t really want to go to a new place on old shoes. But she might be able to go barefoot in the sand down there. I guess I should figure this out before he comes; but since I haven’t texted him yet … maybe it won’t be an issue.

Another reminder and still no contract. When I talked to her on the phone she laughed and said, “Oh, ha ha I bet you want to be sure you have a place to live when you will have driven so far.” Yeah, not laughing. I have a sleeping bag, a tent and a lawn chair. I’ll be fine.

Another person might want a ride for a horse from Massachusetts to Virginia. That might work out too. She wants to know what’s the latest she can tell me. At this stage, pretty much at least one exit before I pass your exit. If I ever actually had any plans, most of them are shot, so whatever. 

Sunday, Nov. 25: Delivered ponies to their winter home. They walked into the paddock and directly to the hay pile to munch. Her horse was a bit afraid of them so she backed off to the other end of the paddock. Meatball promptly walked to her hay pile, straddled it and peed. Little boys, am I right? Good thing he’s adorable.

Do you see why he’s called Meatball? Don’t worry I can pretty much count the number of grains he gets in that bucket — just enough to take his meds.


Spaghetti and Meatball the morning before they left.

Vet might be able to come today for the puppy buts she’s actually looking better. Shoer can come tomorrow. Still raining and 32 degrees. Looks like I’ll have to shovel ice and snow out of the bed of my truck in order to pack. At least I have two days off to finish packing, clean out my barn, etc. Notice you haven’t seen hide nor hair of my horse in the description of these last few days, neither have I. She’s had six weeks off riding and pretty much I feed her, clean her stall and leave her. She spends most of her time hanging out by the bathroom window whinnying to anyone who goes by. It’s very sweet and pathetic.

Monday, Nov. 26: Since the shoer showed up in the car only ready to pull and trim (which is what I told him I wanted despite continuing to waffle about whether to reset), that’s what she gets. The goal for today was to have all things that are going with me assembled in piles in my house. That means I’m ahead of the game since I decided I can pack the back seat of the truck because the front bench seat is just as comfortable to sleep on as the back. Of course I decided to rearrange how I’ve packed everything before putting several boxes in the truck.

Truck in to get the slow leak tire checked; only a $75 sensor so no big deal. 8” of snow predicted for tonight and tomorrow. Puppy totally better but vet came anyway; it’s fine because we needed meds and she has my old horse so I wanted to give her money toward his winter upkeep. My tooth started feeling sensitive to pressure and cold today. That’s going to be fun.

But the good news is that she furnished my room.  If she could tell me what size bed it is, I could bring sheets and blankets.

Tuesday, Nov. 27: It was supposed to be last day of work at job #2. But then there was this:

And then the power went out. Load of laundry with the blankets I wanted to take in mid-wash. Load of all the clothes I’d been wearing recently still to go.

I win at Truck Bed Tetris.

Wednesday, Nov. 28: I think I did pretty well packing; I saved room for the stuff that goes with the horse I’m shipping from Virginia to Georgia. The Massachusetts to Virginia horse is lame so it can’t travel. Snowing a little again. Good news is that, since the power is still out and it gets dark at 4:15, I went to bed at 7:30 last night and got a really good night’s sleep. But since I can’t make coffee with no power it’s sort of a wash for productivity. Is it OK to load everything and just leave instead of waiting until tomorrow? I’m very done with this.

Got everything packed. Was just debating about going down to the local laundromat when power came back on. Wahoo for linemen. Finished laundry and packed it in a laundry basket (that could come in handy anyway) since all the other things were tucked into the truck bed.

Showered and went out to a very nice dinner with the very understanding husband.

She knows something’s up.

Thursday, Nov. 29: Finally time to be out of here!

We skipped all the east coast megalopolis by heading out I84 and down I81. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, Kissa schmoozed a random stranger into buying her a bag of peppermints. Seriously, this horse. I opened her door and went to the bathroom. When I came out, the woman was at the register asking me if it was OK to buy my horse a bag of peppermints. It was very cute. The score for the day was 13 hours, eight states, four tanks of gas.

Stayed at a very cute place in Ashland, Virginia, where we were picking up the other horse tomorrow. Kissa slept well in a snuggly stall; I slept in my truck out behind the barn. Turns out my sleeping bag is perfectly warm in the mid 30s. However, if anyone knows any auto engineers could you please ask them for me, “What idiot makes a bench seat truck with seat belt receiver thingies that don’t fold/push/retract down?” Seriously people, what do you think a bench seat truck is for?

Heading out on day 2 with Mylo. I missed the pic in which they were both putting their noses in the same water bucket.

Friday, Nov. 30: Drive went mostly smoothly although it appears that the entire length of I85 is under construction and everyone else on the planet is driving to Florida.

Somewhere in South Carolina at a gas stop, a preacher came to chat with us and tell me about the horses she used to ride when she was a kid. Then she blessed both horses. They seemed unimpressed by the honor. I’m realizing that I always have to plan 10 extra minutes at gas stops to chat with people and let small children and scared adults pet the horses. These two love it anyway.

Got in to the very fancy place outside of Atlanta and unloaded which of course meant that she had to be separated from Mylo. She ran around the field for 15 minutes screaming with no response from anyone. She settled a bit so I gave her dinner but then she ran for another 10 minutes. She did settle down eventually but was sweaty since it was a balmy 65 degrees. I figured she was fine and would walk herself cool anyway. I realize that I’m a bad mom and you all can report me to the authorities. She had shelter, water, grain and hay.

I spent the night on a lovely air mattress in the apartment of Mylo’s mom. She just moved in today so she gets major credit for having me in her place with all the boxes, etc. but that shower felt really good.

Saturday, Dec. 1: Last day of driving and it should be a short one. Arrived at the barn in the rain to see that my little princess was not using the shelter and was now wet and shivering. OMG, I am such a bad mom! Put her in the trailer with two coolers and most windows closed and gave her breakfast. I would have let her chill there for a little bit but then they started bringing other horses in for breakfast so she started fussing and pawing which resulted in dragging a bale of hay under her which resulted in kicking. So I headed out.

Downpouring rain and slow driving the whole time. Stopped every hour to check on her, peal cooler layers off, etc. What should have been 6ish hours ended up as 8ish. 

Not what I was envisioning for my Florida welcome.

Got in to Citra and following GPS directions ended up at a dead end a mile down a dirt track. Did eventually find my way back around the other way and arrived. Rain had slackened a little so I was able to unload her and some stuff without having a meltdown.

Not looking our best but we made it.

Bed is queen sized and I only brought double sheets. Headed out to Dollar General where I got some groceries, sheets, etc. and it took about 25 minutes to check out. The machine froze and they restarted it. It wouldn’t read my card, then the card reader froze and had to be restarted but it wouldn’t restart, etc. etc. At this juncture I realized that I had been hitting the gummy bears a little hard on the drive and was crashing off a sugar high so I was a little shaky from low blood sugar. I adulted well and didn’t meltdown but it was close. Headed home, heated up some mozzarella sticks, put the sheets on the bed — they have a hole in them. I decided I didn’t care so I went to bed anyway.

Sunday, Dec. 2: First full day in the sunny south. Goals: bathe and body clip the woolly mammoth. Bathed her reasonably successfully but it took her so long to dry that she was already starting to sweat while her belly was still wet. Started clipping in the backyard while holding her because that’s the only place there’s a plug. She’s being a moderate ass so I’m starting at the front where I can hold better while clipping. I used the wide #10 blades until they wouldn’t clip anymore then I used the regular ones until they wouldn’t clip anymore. Then I had this: 

I gave up, showered, lunched and napped. I decided I’d go out and find Tik’s place and then the tack shop. I went in circles trying to follow GPS directions that didn’t lead me anywhere for a little while.

GPS says to turn here to get to Tik’s place. Ummmmm.

Decided that I would go on to the tack shop. But then I realized I had a hitchhiker.

Tried to remove it but saw that there was another one and gave up and drove on. Acquired a third set of clipper blades, headed home. Since it was storming and she was soaked, there was no more clipping.

Exchanged my sheets at Dollar General and had the rest of the Kraft Mac & cheese that I started for lunch. Once again, early to bed.

For a happy ending, I’ll just let you know that I made moderate progress in at least finishing clipping her body, got to Tik’s place Tuesday morning and started fixing fences. (The deal is I work 15 hours a week in exchange for two lessons), got lessons Wednesday and Thursday, and things are starting to settle down. I’ll report again when we have made some progress toward some goal.

Five Clinics in Six weeks

Lions and tigers and bears,

Oh my!

No, wait, that sounds too much like a bad trail ride in Vermont; let me start over.


Denny and Eric and Bobby,

Tik ‘n Domm! (Sorry for the extra syllable, I just can’t squeeze it all in — metaphor for life.)


Yes, I did five lessons with five great instructors over the course of a little more than six weeks earlier this summer. I’m not usually this person, but a confluence of events led to them all happening in that short time frame. Sneak in our first schooling Beginner Novice horse trials and you have one packed month and a half of riding and thinking for me and my sassafras, smart-as-a-whip and athletic-as-can-be, pain-in-my-ass, it’s-a-good-thing-she’s-pretty homebred. I wore this t-shirt …

Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

… to two of the lessons, and when asked whether it applies to me or the mare, the answer was, “Yes.” When I got home from the last clinic, I realized that I needed to do a little higher order synthesizing ideas and figure out what were my takeaways and how to integrate them together in our training program.

Somehow, turning 6, her first winter off, boarding for the first time, or something else made my formerly brave mare who came out of the womb with her jumper breeding giving her the instinct of what to do with her legs and body in the air, had become very tense and quick and was stopping at cross country jumps much more than just the occasional spookiness or confusion that had been happening before. Aside from a short, totally predictable, stint as a 4 year old when she decided that not going over jumps would be easier than going over jumps, she had usually been pretty brave. So what happened? And how would I fix it?

Since I live close enough, I thought a lesson with Denny Emerson using his great baby cross country jumps to see if he really thought we needed more slow puttering, just more exposure or something else would be helpful. I told him I wanted to go school his tiny cross country jumps but he had us start in the ring instead. And she acted like she’d never seen a cross-rail before. So we slowly puttered in the ring — different crossrails, little gates, little walls — all at a slow “flop down the trail” trot (if only he knew how it’s taken us almost three years to be able to go down the trail in some semblance of sanity, he’d realize that wasn’t a great metaphor for this mare but I got the point). He thought we needed to do that until the habit was fully installed to just go to the other side of every little thing with no drama. I asked why, even though I’ve started her slowly, she’s never had a bad experience, and I’ve never jammed at her when she does stop, did she get so anxious. Denny said it doesn’t matter, but I’m still bothered by the “why” and I haven’t come up with an answer.

Next up was the clinic with Eric Smiley that I organize at Hitching Post Farm twice a year. I’ve ridden with Eric more than a dozen times and I generally like his simple, straightforward style. However, he is very different from Denny in that his principle is, if it’s a fair question, the horse is expected to try to answer it. Jumping cross country at a place where we’ve done them all before and she has absolutely no physical difficulty with any of them seems fair, but with Denny’s advice to putter over small cross-rails until she’s totally settled, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to ride with Eric this time around. But I did. And she popped over the little stuff, and the bigger stuff and the way bigger stuff. And once again we fit the category that riders of athletic young horses know, “schooling Training, still getting eliminated at Elementary.”

She only stopped a few times, once each from different mistakes from me. She often feels like she isn’t listening to anything I say but on that day, as long as I kept my contact soft but didn’t drop her and kept my leg on but didn’t chase her, she went. In other words, she’s fine as long as I ride perfectly — no pressure there. I feel like I should have been thrilled that we jumped all the things, including several at Training level but really I now just felt confused. How can two totally different methods of schooling work? and how do I know when to do which?

Home for some thinking, not very consistent riding because of family visits, vacation, and a job interview, I concluded that basically Denny and Eric are both right but in different circumstances. Maybe on cross country we have to do more shut up and ride; in stadium we need more calm, easy relaxation. Or maybe we just need to make sure we can do both. So off to Green Mountain Horse Association to school and again, we had total panic when asked to trot to the pre-elementary log. However, we did calmly school a number of small jumps with at least a few that we jumped the first time. Quiet, calm, puttering — check. More confusion as to when we are brave enough for Training, when we need Elementary — check.

After that, I wanted to go back to HPF to school one more time before the schooling trials, but since they had Bobby Costello there to do lessons, I figured why not see what he has to say. I introduced us and our T-shirt (Bobby said he could get 10 of them handed out in a week) with a rather long explanation of our difficulties, inconsistencies, etc. Then she proceeded to be perfect in the ring and on cross country. No stops, totally rideable, jumped all the panels and fillers without looking, went out to the first three jumps on the cross country course with no hesitation. Went out to two other jumps on cross country with no hesitation. It was Wednesday; the schooling trial was Saturday. I thought we would be good to go.

But in the meanwhile, there was Tik Maynard. I was signed up for a two-day groundwork and riding clinic with him in April, but then she tested positive for strangles three weeks before the clinic. She just had a little fever and acted colicky for three days then had two negatives tests before the clinic but the barn manager was nervous and, fair enough, asked me not to come. So, when I saw that he would be at Mt. Holyoke college for one day, I jumped at the chance. There wasn’t enough time in the day to do both so I opted for riding. We started with walking over a folded liverpool. When she was a yearling, I did horse agility and the first time she saw a tarp, she dragged me to it, pawed and played with it, wrapped it around her legs and picked it up with her teeth.

Kissa doing Horse Agility when she was 2. I love her “what is this and why are we doing it?” face. Photo by Heidi Potter.

You guessed it — today she had never seen anything like that, made a huge production out of it, couldn’t possibly go near it, needed the OTTB who had probably never seen one, to lead her over it multiple times each way. OMG, teenagers! But, as everyone says, ride the horse you’re on now not the one you had yesterday (or four seconds ago in her case). However, her panic allowed me to learn Tik’s method of working with a horse who’s spooking and I really like the clarity of what you’re asking for — reach toward the jump or past it with focus on it. So, even when she stops, I have a fair question to ask that she knows the answer to (touch the jump) and she can be right and I can praise her for trying, even if we didn’t get to the other side. She really likes to be praised — did I mention teenager?

Maybe because of this work with the liverpool or maybe because of her mood that day, she then became extremely bold, brave and actually very strong and difficult to hold back in the lines. We did a lot of halting. Tik thought this forwardness was bravery not anxiety. Great, now I have another type of wrong answer from her and yet another way to handle it. But OK, so now we’re bold and brave, that schooling trials should be no problem.

You already heard about the ride at that schooling trials in the last blog. I have no earthly idea what my horse does, why she does it and when she’s going to do what. I’m beginning to think I have no idea about anything when it comes to this horse.

So finally, we come to the weekend away. We went up to Kennebec Morgan Farm in ME where I camped for the weekend to do two days with Dom Schramm. I had signed up for this one long before deciding on most of the others and there was no real reason to back out, so we plowed ahead. Domm is just as nice as you think he is from his Evention series and social media presence and he’s a lot more precise and well-planned out than you might think a goofy Australian might be.

After my explanation of our inconsistencies and attachment issues, his first question was, “Have you tried Regumate?” (Spoiler alert: tried that later in the summer and it didn’t help.) It turns out that I had the really strong, brave bold horse, except for the first cross-rail each day. We did several great cavaletti, gymnastic type exercises and then jumped some courses. It was pretty much always hard to fit in 12-foot strides and she jumped all the walls, cross country jumps, panels and the liverpool.

Dom mollified me with a story about a two-star horse he had that stopped at the first cross-rail each time and he just planned on it, didn’t make a big deal, started small, never turned away (just back a few steps until you can trot up and hop over) and then the horse would remember his job and go on ahead with it. He was absolutely sure that the forwardness is being keen not being anxious. His suggestion of opening reins on the turns and low wide hands to funnel her toward spooky jumps were very helpful resulting in a lot less arguing and a lot more focus from her.

So where did we go from there? We practiced raised rail exercises with opening reins and precise rideability. We practiced approaching jumps and touching them and looking at them. We got worse. We stopped trying to act like an eventer and started riding like a hunter and she was happy in the ring. I assume each time we jump, we need to start with a plop around trot until she remembers the job and settles down to it. I try to ask fair questions and give her time to answer them. If she makes a mistake and stops, I reward her for trying to go to the obstacle with a forward attitude. I did a second clinic with Eric in which she was terrible the whole time. I did a second clinic with Tik in which she was so perfect he couldn’t even help me with any problems since she didn’t show them.

And now I’m going to head to Florida for three months to get her into a program with Tik and see how he can help us.

If you didn’t see this go around Facebook, it’s exactly how I’m feeling.

On Risk Tolerance

I mentioned in my last blog that I have pretty high risk tolerance. Maybe that explains why I quit my teaching job after 24ish years and am leaving the frozen tundra of Vermont to run away to the fantasyland of Ocala. In just a few weeks, I am loading Kissa, aka The Princess, aka the Bad Baby, aka the Mullet (there’s a story to this one) and heading south for the winter. You may very well ask why and that’s fair, but you know that relationship status on Facebook “it’s complicated,” yeah that.

Hopefully I’ll have time to fill in some of the gaps of our life as she grew up but here are a few pictures because, well, look how cute she was.

Kissa at about a month old. Photo by Kate Rakowski.

Photo by Kate Rakowski.

She takes her naps very seriously. Photo by Danica Messerli.

Starting under saddle at age 3. Photo by Danica Messerli.

Now she’s 6 and I’ve described her current level as “schooling training, still getting eliminated at elementary” for almost 2 years now — yup that’s right in the last two years we have not made any reliable, steady, consistent gains. That’s not to say that she hasn’t learned anything or that I haven’t figured out more about her, but we are still schooling Training, getting eliminated at Elementary. I’ve had some major meltdowns (it’s OK to sit in the truck hysterically bawling in the feed store parking lot right?), some terrible clinic experiences and some glimmers of progress here and there but mostly I’ve been doubting everything I do with her. I used to think I had learned a little in 40 some years of working with horses but this one has let me know that Bo don’t know Diddly.

The highlight of the summer was two stops at fence 2, including me falling off so slowly that I actually just stood on the mini-coop we were not jumping, then a third stop at that coop before I just skipped it and moved on to have four more stops around a grasshopper cross country.  Lest you think I was asking too much, we had schooled most of those jumps at least twice before. That’s right, on Wednesday she jumped them like a dream; on Saturday she was non-functional. Why? Beats me but maybe because my mom’s horse who used to live with us a year ago was there in warmup! with her! and other horses! Do you understand how teenage girls work? If not, I’ll give you a hint, only if all their current friendships are functioning and stable (approximately 10% of the time). Did I mention that most of my teaching was in middle school and now I have a teenager of a horse?

So, over the course of the last year, I’ve come to realize that I don’t really have a jumping problem, I have a horsemanship problem or maybe a horse management problem. And I want to find a solution, but I also want to jump and she’s super good at it when she wants to. 

Photo by Bekki Read.

Photo by Bekki Read.

So, who do you learn from if you need horsemanship and eventing help? After doing two clinics with him this summer and reading his book, I decided Tik Maynard was my guy. So, I sent him an email (yup, just cold emailed him) and asked if I could come down. He’s been super kind and helpful and put me in touch with people and I’m doing this thing. I might sort of be channeling my inner teenage girl to match my horse. I think Tik still thinks I’m a little crazy and he’s not really wrong but, as midlife crises go, this is pretty safe and less expensive than a high end Tesla. I hope I will have fun, skip winter, and learn to work better with my horse. I’ll keep you posted.

About the author: I am currently designing the perfect mid-life crisis after 24 years of teaching mostly in middle school. I grew up at my mom’s 40-horse barn where I got started on a little white Shetland named Snow White. I was young enough that I don’t remember learning to ride, learning to post, my first canter or any of those milestones. I did learn a lot and spend about 30 years riding, training, judging and teaching hunters, jumpers and equitation. Ten years ago, I moved to Vermont, discovered eventing and have wondered why I didn’t start sooner. I’m running away for the winter and will figure out what to do with the rest of my life when I get back. There are few things that I know, but one of them is that it will always involve horses.

A Barn Fire, a Bid and a Baby: How Kissa Came to Be

Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

School teachers know that skipping an assembly on a Friday in May to hide in my classroom and troll an online auction fundraiser for Boyd Martin after his barn burned down is really for the benefit of the 6th graders. So, what could I do to support him that would maybe bring some benefit to me? I’m too far away for lessons, too poor for high end items; I know, I’ll bid $380 on a breeding with Ronald Zabala’s show jumper stallion, Wonderboy. My Vermont Sport Pony (some may use the term Morgan) doesn’t want to jump and I don’t want to do saddle seat so I kind of need another horse. It’s only been 30 years since we bred and started our own; I can do that again.

I won the breeding — one dose of frozen semen, no live foal guarantee so I needed the perfect mare. Not a 10 year old maiden, not a 20 year old who hadn’t had a baby in 8 years. The perfect mare. And I found her! An OTTB who had been dropped off as a rescue: 12 years old, two previous babies, well-bred (Stormcat Granddaughter, what was I thinking?), moderately successful ($170,000 winnings seems pretty great to me). The fuzzy cell phone pic looked like good conformation with big lop ears which I love.

Vet checkup the next morning showed that she was ovulating now. Cue many Facebook posts about follicle size, semen shipping across the country, and sperm motility that made my non-horsy husband very uncomfortable. Three days later, at the reproductive specialist vet clinic, I had to explain that I had never met the mare, never met the stallion, never met the owners of either mare or stallion and never met the vet that did the work — I don’t recommend this method unless you have a really high uncertainty tolerance.

The ultrasound pics on Facebook with no explanation gave my mother-in-law some hope for a grandchild but the mare settled and had a happy, easy pregnancy. She was pleasant to have around and got along well with my lame, and slightly neurologically damaged OTTB gelding.

I planned to start sleeping in my truck bed above the small paddock about 10 days before she was due. School ended Friday; the milk test kit only barely registered Saturday morning and I worked all day at the tack shop so I was tired and wanted one more night in my regular bed. Big mistake. 5:30 Sunday morning groggily heading upstairs, I looked out the window, baby standing up and mare herding the gelding away from her. “Oh shit! … No wait, if she’s standing there, it’s OK.” Baby was still wet and mom hadn’t even passed the placenta yet so I figure she wasn’t more than a half hour old. My not-a-morning-person husband still talks about how he woke to me screaming at him to carry/usher the fresh baby up to the clean straw bedded stall while I led the mare.

Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

Photo courtesy of Kate Rakowski.

She’s been pushing the envelope since she was born 10 days early. Her show name is Cattitude and no name has ever fit a horse so well. She’s 6 now and we’ve had adventures, challenges, and growth in all its convoluted and roundabout ways. I still haven’t made it to a clinic with Boyd to tell him the story and introduce him to my good fortune that came out of his bad fortune, but word from those who know him is that he’d like our story. Stay tuned for more of the story of our life together including several near death experiences for both of us, some successes, a lot of frustration and still some hope that she will eventually grow up to be as good as I know she could be.