Sometimes as a teacher I find myself in this constant battle of perceived reality versus actual reality. The perception of how my classroom runs versus the actual reality of the chaos that sometimes happens.
I definitely think the same is true of myself as a rider. All humbleness aside I have never come naturally to the sport. It’s always been something I’ve had to constantly struggle with and work on. On the bright side, it is a passion that I’ve never lost—so I’ve had plenty of practice in the past 19 years. If I could use a word to describe myself as a rider it would be “busy.”
As my husband will affectionately attest to, I am a bit of a control freak. How that translates over into my riding is that I am constantly doing something in the saddle: assessing our pacing, checking for lightness, testing responsiveness to the leg, ensuring suppleness, applying outside leg for straightness. Whenever I watch videos of myself riding the actual reality doesn’t look nearly as busy as the perceived reality. However, I always feel like I lack that look of quiet ease and natural lightness I admire in other riders.
In contrast Capone is a lot more laidback. He’s always the leg ride to the fence with an easygoing attitude about life in general. He’s perfect for the amateur owner as he’s forgiving to a fault.
We can have the worst possible experience at a fence and he won’t bat an eye to try it again. As he proved in my lesson a few days ago when we had a bad chip-in to a fence. All the while I’m cringing internally and muttering, “Sorry George,” as I veer off course to loop around to try it again. Because I’m a perfectionist—a trait that can be extremely discouraging in this sport.
I definitely wouldn’t be the rider I am today without having started my own horse. Sure, I had the professionals break him his first 30 days under saddle but ever since then it has been just me on him with a professional coaching me from the ground. It’s equally reaffirming and frustrating when others at the barn comment about how “easy” it is to have it on Capone.
He’s got the auto-changes, great gaits, and makes everyone, including myself, look good. I know that I have won the lottery of lifetime horses, which hardly ever happens when you choose to breed over buying already foaled young talent. However, it hasn’t always been butterflies and rainbows.
Every great thing that Capone has in him I have had to work scrupulously to perfect. As I’m sure we’ve all heard from GHM, “You are either schooling or unschooling your horse.” It is a phrase that I took to heart when I decided to start my own horse. My first horse before Capone was the epitome of every barn rat’s childhood: small horse, cantankerous mare, paint Quarter Horse that was made for barrel racing but converted with my passion for hunters. It’s safe to say that in her journey to survive childhood with me my mare was “unschooled” a lot.
When I got the opportunity to breed for my dream horse I wouldn’t settle for less than perfection when training him. A lofty ideal for an amateur to tackle but it’s worth every tear of fear or frustration when my trainer hops on Capone and comments about how wonderful it is to ride a horse who is so well schooled.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as we prepare for our clinic with George Morris. While I’ve put every great “button” on my horse that also means that I’ve also put every flaw into him. An idea that causes the perfectionist in me to cringe and quickly calculate how many more rides I can get in before GHM.
Unfortunately, our preparations for the clinic have hit some unexpected speed bumps. Capone was off for almost a week from a bite wound on his back—an injury I am sure he fully deserved as he has a tendency to torment the elderly geldings in his pasture. The week following that I was sick with the flu and unable to ride. It was a truly horrifying experience as I ticked off the days remaining until GHM (49 days and only 18 rides in case you were wondering—I only get to ride three days a week as I half-lease Capone to another rider at the barn).
Then the other day I received a text that Capone’s ear had been bitten pretty severely (seriously, you’d think he’d learn) and that he was extremely head shy. I literally assembled my bridle on him so that I wouldn’t have to slip it over the ears and I could still get my ride in.
The perfectionist in me is screaming that we are never going to be ready. I know you are never really ready for GHM, but I’d rather die trying to be. On the plus side, no-stirrups are getting easier (still can’t get over 30 minutes in) and Capone’s time on the treadmill is really starting to show. If nothing else my horse will be perfectly conditioned and schooled for this clinic and while I might never be the natural rider I aspire to be that’s what enlisting in this opportunity is all about—the drive to be better than I am.
Tiffany Elmer, 30 and from Texas, balances her work as a teacher with riding her homebred horse, Capone. She’s been riding since she was 11—through high school, college, dating, marriage and her career—and has competed in the hunters, equitation, jumpers and a bit of eventing. Capone is her “forever” horse. “I bred for a paint eventer mare, and got a lovely chestnut hunter gelding!” she said. “We currently are working on cleaning up our 3’6” hunter rounds with an end goal of international derbies.” She’s also aiming for a clinic with George H. Morris.
“Capone’s favorite hobbies include asphyxiation—he likes to roll his tongue, put his head in the air, and suck on it. I always have to leave a sign up at shows or people will call me thinking he’s choking (weird, right?). And he also likes to torment the elderly gentleman in the gelding pasture,” Elmer said.