Like many of you, I began my life pretty much crazy about horses, and when my family moved to Ohio, my hopes of having a horse of my own—an equine partner to travel through childhood with—were realized in the form of a little quarter horse trained to be a cutting horse. Although I grew up riding my horse bareback in the fields, I always wanted to learn to ride English, and more than anything else, to jump. And not just over silly white poles, either; I wanted to ride cross country, able to tackle any obstacles that might come my way.
Due to seclusion, financial woes, etc. (do you know any small farmers who actually make a living at it?), I never got that opportunity, other than jumping fallen trees, gravestones, etc. as they came up on our daily treks—again, always bareback, since my western saddle was too heavy for me to lift. At grad school, a friend who had a friend who rode in the ICTA (Indiana Combined Training Association) said they needed volunteers to help out at the Spring and Fall Horse Trials, so my roommate and I eagerly signed up. From 6 am until 4 pm we were jump judges—that is, we sat next to our x-country jump, reporting after each jump as to who had gone “clean” and if there were any difficulties/penalties (refusals, falls, etc.). It was exhilarating to watch them all—rank beginners trotting tentatively, and the bolder preliminary riders sailing over fences that made me quake on the ground. We soon scoped out the “best” jumps (those that horses were least familiar with, such as the water jumps) and requested those. For seven years, I lived vicariously through those riders!.
Then life got in the way again: My first “real” job at University of Michigan, marriage, and kids filled the void…or so I thought. Still, every year I would watch Rolex, Badmitton, and anything else equine I could catch on TV. But my dream deferred was suddenly back on track when my husband and I were offered teaching positions at Texas Tech.
Knowing that county fairs often meant horses, I dragged my kids to the coliseum at the fair, and, to my great delight, there was a hunter/jumper show going on. I began chatting with several folks there, and I found that there was a thriving horse community in Lubbock. I visited almost every barn in the area, and settled in at Lonesome Pine. There I purchased Smoothie, a TB mare off the track who taught me to jump (and a whole lot more). Carol Ford, my trainer, insisted that we start doing some dressage, too, and I started to realize how important dressage was to my own riding. The dressage work made me more conscious of my body and made Smoothie more responsive. As we got better, our improvement permeated other aspects of my riding as Smoothie learned to use her “engine” when she jumped. I was on my way to fulfilling my dream, but not before a major setback or two.
As many of you know, Smoothie died in the summer of 2001, leaving me with a young, untrained, wild-eyed three-year-old gelding I had originally purchased for re-sale. Through Carol’s hard work and persistence (uh, and a little of my own), this horse, Paycheck, soon became a trusted partner. We started him in dressage immediately, then added hunter/jumper. Still, aside from a trip to my husband’s ranch, I hadn’t ridden cross country, and Lubbock was so….well, flat…that I didn’t see how I could.
Then I met Su Miller and Donna Hamilton, two women who weren’t afraid to travel the 6+ hours necessary to get to a cross country field. Su invited me to a schooling weekend at Greenwood Farm, and there, for the first time in my life, I actually schooled over the type of jumps I used to sit beside in Indiana. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. About six months later, Donna and I went to another schooling weekend, and again, the experience left me giddy.
This spring, Donna told me she was going to a training horse trial at Curragh Equestrian Center, between Weatherford and Ft. Worth—and with that invitation, my childhood dream was within grasp.
We spent Saturday schooling over fences. Paycheck was wary about ditches and water—two things we don’t have in abundance in Lubbock—so we concentrated on those, although we did get over some stadium jumps at least one time. The rest of the evening was spent on memorizing my dressage test.
The Trials began with the dressage test. I was riding Beginner Novice (you’ve got to start somewhere, and the 2’3”-2’6” fences were close to what I’d been jumping at home), and the dressage test was similar to the Training 1 test. I knew we’d give a strong performance, since we had done well earlier at a LEDA schooling show. Wrong! Paycheck spent the entire test looking for his schooling buddy from the day before, and we barely made it through the test. I was deflated; this was the event I’d counted on to bolster my confidence!
We had time only for a quick tack change and a few practice jumps before it was time for our Stadium Jumping. I was worried--we’d only done hunter courses before, and this one was tighter, with more sharp turns. But hallelujah! our dressage finally kicked in. With some coaching from Donna (who makes a fantastic “show mom”), I sat back between fences, rebalancing, and Paycheck responded with solid turns and flying lead changes. We had the best course of our lives! Thrilled, I figured that I couldn’t top it in cross country, which was coming up in only 20 minutes. After all, I was out of shape, and while we’d schooled over fences, we’d never taken 18 fences in succession—nor had we galloped for almost 5 minutes (the optimal time was 4:51). I figured that we’d canter the first few fences, then when we got tired, we’d trot; my goal was to merely finish the course.
We settled in the timer’s box…5-4-3-2-1 GO! …we were of! We cantered the first fence without a problem, and I looked to the next. As we cleared the second fence, I couldn’t help myself--I started giggling. Then Paycheck realized that we weren’t going to stop and school each fence over and over again, his pace became bolder and he, too, started giggling—I swear it! He didn’t blink over the ditches; this was fun! Ah, but there loomed the dreaded water jump. I’d better slow Paycheck down, since he didn’t like it yesterday. I transitioned down to trot--for about five steps. Then Paycheck said “we’ll have none of this!” and galloped through the water.
The final ditch came much too soon, and even though I was exhausted, I have never felt such complete and total elation. We’d done it! When I learned that we got time penalties for coming in too quickly in cross country (we were 40 seconds early) I laughed out loud—not bad for someone who was worried about simply completing the course.
I’ve since learned that there are others in Lubbock who are interested in combined training, and I would like to encourage you all to take that long, six hour drive, and to put your dressage and hunter training to the test. I learned that dressage really is the cornerstone for all riding; that you can fulfill your dreams, even if you’re over 40, with kids, job, etc.; and that as much fun as cross country looked sitting next to a jump, it’s even better on horseback. It’s more fun than grown ups should be allowed to have. I've repeated this experience twice more, and each time it gets more fun, for me AND my horse. Donna and I are going to try our first non-schooling horse trails in June--Rolex will be my inspiration. Does it get any better?