For nearly seven years, I had the lucky fortune of being able to hack ten minutes over to my late coach and mentor, Packy McGaughan’s, farm for lessons. The geographical proximity made it natural for me to train with him, and for all those years I didn’t really appreciate how lucky I was to work with him so regularly. As his working student during most summers, I learned so much about the sport and about producing young horses. I also galloped my horses in his jumping field, which was a playground of show jumping and cross country fences where we trained many horses. On days when we weren’t jumping, I would often gallop in that field on my own during the lead-up to three-day events.
Packy died in 2020. Without him, I have done my best to train as if he were watching. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel lost without him, and sometimes still do. There are reminders of him everywhere I look, but maybe my favorite way of getting closer to him is to go up to his jumping field and gallop my horses every week. The land has stayed in his family, and I am very grateful to be able to still ride on it.
Packy’s field is gently rolling. The left half of it is flatter than the right, and although most of the jumps are gone, a few ditches and a mound remain for you to dodge during your fitness work. It takes about 7 minutes to make three laps around the field at preliminary speed. If you wake up early enough, and come up the more gradual hill tracking clockwise, you get to experience the magic of what feels like galloping straight into the sunrise. When you go counter-clockwise, on the left lead, you can teach a horse to accelerate up the steeper hill and then maintain their power as the terrain levels out. You might feel the horse take a big, deep breath there, which is where you let them pause for a minute, pat them, and then urge them on to dig a bit deeper.
It was over a decade ago when I first had lessons up in that jumping field. Packy would arrive in his battered golf cart, with his little Jack Russell, Bandit, riding shotgun. I’d normally trot on the way over to make sure I made it there in time. He first taught me up there on my rocket-ship Morgan pony, who I seldom got on the bit. Then he helped me for years with a quirky horse called Bendigo, who went on the bit sometimes, and, more importantly, taught me how to jump big jumps. With a lovely thoroughbred named Joker’s Win, he helped me refine my galloping position and taught me how to navigate terrain. Bronte Beach jumped her first logs in that field, and now, several years later, she has successfully contested a number of four-stars. We started them all there. I also rode lots of his young horses up in that field in my capacity as his working student.
On one occasion, Packy decided that he wanted to see if Bendigo jumped better in a hackamore. It was a hot, sticky, summer afternoon. There was one problem: we didn’t have a hackamore up at the field (it was miles from the barn). Packy reached into the back of his golf cart and pulled out a halter and lead rope. He took off Ben’s bridle, put the halter on him, tied the lead rope to each side of the halter, and handed me my “reins.” Off we went, to jump the same 4 foot course we had been schooling with a bridle. After I finished, he said the horse had jumped a bit better, but I needed to work on my turns. Of course, all I was thinking was that I was lucky that Ben hadn’t galloped off back home to his paddock, because I wouldn’t have had much say in the matter!
On another occasion, I rode Ben over for a jumping lesson to prepare for Great Meadow 4*. It would have been an ordinary school—we were just crossing t’s and dotting i’s in preparation for the event—but for the fact that just the day before, I had suddenly lost a promising young horse after he broke his leg in the field. I arrived at the lesson and there wasn’t much of me there, just a shell. But I knew that continuing to ride would help me get through such a horrible time.
Packy was nice to me that day —- he didn’t yell, as he often did. We just jumped through some exercises, and he told me that we looked prepared. At the end of the lesson, he said to me that I’d now experienced what every horseman and horsewoman has to deal with at one point or another: the loss of a horse. It is inevitable to lose one in this sport if you’re doing it for long enough, he said. But, as he told me, that didn’t mean it was easy. He knew how to do that—how to put a figurative arm around your shoulder when you needed it, and also how to give you a kick up the ass when you needed that, too.
On yet another occasion (as you can tell, I have so many memories in that field, but I’ll end with this one), Packy worked with me and Ben on our cross country accuracy and lines. He had set exercises on forward distances, which tended to be hard for Bendigo and me. His stride was not very big, and he often jumped too high to cover the ground between the jumps. I remember that it took us a couple of attempts, but eventually we completed the exercises as prescribed. At the end of the school, he said that it was encouraging to see our improvement, but that Ben would not be a five-star horse. He would not have the scope or the gallop for it. Still, it was good, he said, that I was getting experience at the Advanced level on this horse.
A little over a year after Packy died, Bendigo and I had a clear cross country round at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. It was one of the best rounds I’ve ever had in my life. It was my, and Bendigo’s, first five-star. The distances were not too long; he had the scope. Packy wasn’t wrong about many things, but he did turn out to be wrong about that one.
Whether it’s an early morning or a late afternoon, galloping at Packy’s brings me both peace and confidence. I know that it’s the place where I can get a horse fit for a big three-day event. But it’s more than a field where I do three interval sets to get the horses’ lungs blowing and their muscles working. It’s somewhere I go to remember all those things he taught me—whether in loud admonishments or in letting me make a mistake and learn from it. And it’s a place I go to remember to take a big, deep breath—just like we ask the horses to do—and then to keep digging a bit deeper when it gets tough.