You can ask my family, I am probably the most unlucky person on the planet. I can’t even win a free ticket on a scratch-off, but despite the handful of lemons life throws my way, every once in a while I manage to land a big win. So when on a wild hair one morning I decided to message pro eventer Meghan O’Donoghue to see if she could squeeze me in for a lesson while she was home for the winter, I never expected her to message me back with an enthusiastic, ”Happy to help!” There I was two Saturdays later loading up my mount Joey into a trailer and making the trip to Le Cheval de Boskydell, Meghan’s home barn, for the lesson of a lifetime.
While in college, I rode for my University’s IHSA Equestrian Team and we would travel to compete against nearby colleges, which is how I met Meghan’s mom, Jill O’Donoghue (coach of the SIUC team). Jill is one of those coaches who always dons a smile, despite your placing, and supports all the riders in our region. With Le Cheval being just a short hour from our home base in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, we were regulars at the schooling shows they host. Even after coming back from my hiatus from riding, Jill spotted me in the crowd and made it a point to give me a big welcome and a hug.
It is easy to admire Jill and in my time getting to know her, I also learned of her family, including her two daughters Meghan and Kelty who were in the pursuits of establishing professional riding careers. It was my junior year in college when Meghan took her own Pirate to their first Rolex and several of us on the team would ooh and ahh when we saw him in the barn on our visits to Le Cheval. I was mesmerized by her success and small-town roots and challenged myself every day to work as hard as she had to make her dreams come true. So when I saw Meghan at one of the Le Cheval schooling shows shortly after my return to the saddle, I decided to get in touch with her in order to help take my big dreams to the next step of becoming reality.
Back to the Basics
My horse, Joey, is a green OTTB with just a year off the track. I am bringing him along in the hopes of moving towards the rated jumpers and he is still in that moldable stage where every ounce of education we can get is beneficial. I rode into that lesson with hopes that by cross training with an Eventer, I would not only gain some great experience in the jumper ring, but also in improving our flatwork skills. I am a firm believer that your horse is only as good over fences as he is responsive on the flat. Thankfully, Meghan shares that thought process!
We started with a good thirty minutes refining Joey’s trot and my canter seat. The first thing Meghan had us tackle was achieving a more aggressive trot. In a majority of the video captured during the lesson you can hear Meghan telling me, “Trot. Trot. More Trot. Make him take you somewhere. More. More.” Just as we adjusted to trotting with a purpose, it was time to perfect our transitions. Our main focus was to be able to slow into the walk without the use of my hands. I struggled with the concept at first, I have relied a lot on my hands in the past which has led to some frustrations, but Meghan continued to encourage me to place my trust in Joey and allow him to understand my body, not just my hands. The first time I loosened my reins and sat back, Joey slowed down. After that successful demonstration, it was time to canter.
Let me tell you, at this point I thought I might be dying. Two days prior to this lesson I read a post by Denny Emerson about the importance of the warm-up and how too many people call a 5-10 minute ride on the flat a warm-up to fences and thought to myself, ‘do people really do thirty minute warm-ups?’ I can now answer that — yes they do, only I don’t so I was pretty darn out of shape.
We talked a lot about my seat and my posture. I can be a bit of a leaner, and Meghan explained how my position on the flat and over fences inhibits Joey from getting into the correct frame. Since purchasing Joey, I have ridden in a half seat because he has always seemed to go forward better. Meghan opted to have me sit, and I truly mean sit, the canter. “Think like dressage,” she said as I considered seat belting my butt to the saddle to make it stay there. At first, Joey and I were both a bit bewildered by the new amount of contact, but then I began to notice how his head was coming up into place without me having to pull him there.
Finding My Seat
Then it was jumping time! Thankfully, after our great warm-up on the flat Joey was not his typically chargy self to the fences. We jumped around a few singles and then Meghan made up some fun courses for us. Reminder- my horse has been jumping hunter courses. So when Meghan assigned us this really cool, but slightly intimidating five-stride bending line in a somewhat S shape, I was sure I was going to die. Joey is game for anything, though, and took each question in stride, even when I struggled to find the right distance the first few times around.
Meghan’s personality made working with her an uplifting experience. As we topped the last fence in the line with the correct striding to each fence, Meghan called out loudly, “Good for you!” Even though my back was to her, I could hear the sincerity in her voice. She was truly happy that I had succeeded at this challenging task. I have seen so many trainers/ professionals use negative reinforcement to ‘teach’ their riders, but this environment was nothing like that.
As we continued to jump courses with new challenges for us to puzzle out, Meghan stressed the importance of me being able to find my seat at the canter, especially before the fence. As Joey grew strung out over a particular line and kept charging out of the first one and barreling into the second, Meghan sent us back out on the rail to work on our canter again. As we came to the corners, Meghan had me picture myself picking up Joey’s ears in preparation for a fence. I did so by pushing my seat down and into my saddle, allowing my body to scoop with the movement, and giving a gentle lift with my hands. Instantly, Joey had his head up and would lock onto the straight-away in front of us.
Then it hit me- up until this point I had been riding Joey comfortably in a half-seat but to compensate for my slight lean (which I am still working on, it’s totally a posture issue on my part), Joey was ducking his head down and becoming too heavy on the forehand. By rocking back and engaging his back, he began to rely on his hind end more and was able to keep his head up in preparation for what was ahead of him. We took the next few fences with this thought in mind and I felt it all click together.
One Step Closer to the Dream
Joey and I had a lot of firsts in this lesson, but we also improved a ton on our basics. From jumping our first skinny (I knew I was going to knock a standard over but, darn, my horse is a perfect saint and didn’t blink at it), to adjusting my posture over the fence, I learned so much in that one hour that will continue to impact my future riding goals with Joey.
The best part of the whole day was that while I was afraid I was going to be nervous, I wasn’t. Meghan made this lesson such a positive experience and never made me feel like I am just some wanna-be jumping 2-foot fences with unobtainable dreams of the Grand Prix ring. My legs were wobbly when I dismounted, but I couldn’t stop beaming. What an exhilarating and enlightening experience! My husband and my coach attended the lesson with me (Wayne was the designated videographer, Cassie was excited to watch and learn from another professional) and even they were excited about mine and Joey’s future after seeing him adapt to these new challenges with ease.
Being a small town girl, it was so inspirational to ride with another small-town girl who made her dreams come true. Meghan was so welcoming to work with and riding with another trainer gave me a lot of positive things to work on and a new perspective on my partnership with Joey. I am so very thankful for the opportunity to get to ride with Meghan and hope to ride with her again one day.
Until then, you will see me sitting on a cushion because nothing will break in your tailbone more than cantering like a Dressage rider. You win, Dressage … You win.
Meagan DeLisle is a regular contributor at our sister site, Jumper Nation. To see more of her adventures and interviews, be sure to swing by and check out JumperNation.com!