Back in early December, my good friend and fellow Sweet Briar alumnus, Sasha Moran, messaged me about doing a Bernie Traurig clinic in Southern Pines, N.C. I spent about two years in Raleigh, N.C., finishing out my senior year of high school and starting my first year at Sweet Briar College. It was a lovely area, especially during the winter.
I debated a little. My first thoughts were absolutely not! I’m not ready for this! I just started jumping 2’3″ and I have no idea what I’m doing and I can’t possibly jump 2’6″ at a clinic!
After a short-lived “discussion” with myself and words of encouragement from Sasha, I emailed the person in charge, Tiffany Teeter and secured the last spot in the 2’6″ section. I forgot to mention—the clinic was also at Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm. So, I killed two birds with one stone that day and took three items off my bucket list—traveling to Southern Pines, a clinic with Bernie and Tamarack Hill Farm!
I spent a good bit of December and January worrying if I would be able to get off work Friday and Sunday for the clinic. Unfortunately, working for a very small department makes it extremely difficult to take off, especially since I’m a paramedic too. Luckily I was able to do a shift trade with a coworker on Sunday and just use my regular leave for Friday.
In my last blog post, I finished with our bumpy end to January/beginning of February with a trip to the vet, some feed changes and adding some Ulcergard to the mix. So with all of that plus work, I had to push back body clipping Finn until Thursday, the day before I was to leave for the clinic.
So just my luck, it was maybe a high of 30 and windy! I was able to fully clip, pack my tack, trunk and all of his stuff that afternoon. I finished up my packing and food prep for Sean and the kids.
I woke up Friday, headed to the barn in about 8 degrees, fed Finn, hooked the trailer up, loaded up and off we went. I was nervous! It was me and my horse on the road, ALONE! I had never driven alone with a truck and trailer for more than an hour or so. I remember asking myself, “Am I going to make it? Are we going to be OK? Put your big girl panties on—you’ve got this!” I stopped several times throughout the trip, checking on Finn and giving myself breaks.
We finally made it. I remember turning down Youngs Road, it was like Christmas morning for a crazed horse girl. Farm after farm, all beautifully laid out with jumps and gorgeous horses peacefully grazing in the fields.
I made the right turn into Tamarack Hill Farm and it was gorgeous. I found the barn and my friends—they were patiently awaiting our arrival. Sasha, her barn owner, Lisa, her daughter Kinzie and Sarah helped me unload my trailer. We let the horses settle for a few minutes and then got tacked up. We headed down a wooded path that took us to the cross-country field and to the massive outdoor. We strolled over to the dressage arena and hacked our horses before nightfall. Every one one of them almost perfect! We ended the night with a girl’s night out at Texas Roadhouse followed by night check on all our horses.
I was in the first section of the day at 8:30 a.m. I woke early and headed to the farm with Sasha in the darkened hours of an early Saturday morning. All the horses nickered to us as we pulled in.
We fed the horses and turned them out in the paddocks we had available to us, an unexpected bonus while I let my nerves settle. I quickly got myself together and tacked up Finn.
I remember walking up to the ring down the same wooded path, I wondered if I was truly ready for this. What would Bernie think? Would he say we weren’t prepared? Would everything I’ve been doing with Finn be wrong?
I took a deep breath as I turned the corner and headed to the ring. I signed my waiver and got myself “wired in” with the headset. I did about five or 10 minutes of flatwork with Finn to loosen him up; he doesn’t need much. We introduced ourselves and our horses to Bernie and he followed with a tack check. Phew! I didn’t have any issues.
He watched us warm up and had us trot over a pole. He called on me. I immediately thought, “Oh, crap, what am I doing wrong?!” Bernie asked who I rode with. I stuttered for a minute and then blurted out, “I went to Sweet Briar College!” Sasha evidently also chanted out, “Holla, Holla!”—a little Sweet Briar thing we say. Immediately, Bernie said, “I knew it! You have a great foundation and you are an excellent example of the American system of forward riding.”
Bernie asked us to all come to where he was and asked me to step forward. He had me get into a half seat, a connected half seat and shift my weight side to side. Finn immediately moved under me to capture my weight. It was something so minimal, but really sank in with me.
I knew that was the piece to the puzzle that I’d been missing. I applied that new skill and we proceeded on with the morning’s exercises. Trot and canter rails that turned into approach jumps and later jumps. We adjusted our strides, taking a stride out, adding one in.
Bernie adjusted my stirrups up two holes to help my heel depth. That was a struggle at first since I’m also a runner and do Crossfit.
I now nailed every fence we went to that morning. I was able to sit up, sink down and ask for that more forward ride with more fluidity. Between each exercise, I watched, soaking everything up like a sponge.
Bernie changed a bit for one rider and spurs for another, explaining every thought process behind and asked each of us for our input as to why he did such a thing. He explained the importance of cantering and how it was way more productive than just trotting. You throw in transitions from the halt and walk and back down to the walk or halt. You ask them to back up, if they pick up the wrong lead, use it as a training exercise to build strength and balance.
For me, holding a counter-canter was a foreign language! We finished the morning session with a Q&A with the audience and everyone thanked him for his time and knowledge. He told us to be prepared—“Tomorrow is horse show day!” I was relieved—I survived Day 1!
I was able to watch Sasha’s session, which was the 3’6″ section. There was something that really stuck with me about Bernie in that section. There was a young girl who was extremely stiff and restricted through her body with her lower leg being extremely behind her. He introduced the “bracing forward leg” as he called it, something he did in our section. But the rider wasn’t making any corrections and continued to ride her way.
Bernie stopped the session and said, “If you don’t want to learn, I can’t teach you. You’re a bad student because you don’t want to learn from me. There is nothing that I can teach you if you don’t want to learn. You might as well go and get your money back.”
I think everyone was surprised to hear him say that! All the auditors paused. The rider continued on. Her leg was braced out in front, settling into the correct position as she approached each fence, her body relaxed and no longer stiff. You heard Bernie say, “I take back what I said about you. You’re a very good student!”
I can honestly say that is what made me have even more respect for him as a clinician and teacher. The honesty and willingness to want you to be a better rider was something I had not seen in a long time. It was also one of the reasons for my own “burnout” I’d experienced from my last trainer, who was more of a dictator. The more riders I watched, the more it hit me—he’s made all of this fun and educational at the same time without shaming anyone or yelling in some way shape or form. That was something I’d never really experienced before. It was a nice change!
We finished up with a lovely dinner and a Q&A session with Bernie at one of the local resident’s home. I was able to snag a seat next to Bernie. We watched videos of the top equitation riders and grand prix riders past and present. We also watched a few clips of early eventing days that Bernie had available.
We all asked questions and he pulled attention toward those who had been used as examples. He said, “There was a rider who beautifully shifted weight from side to side and her horse shifted right underneath her—who was that?” I piped up, “Me!”
We continued on for almost two hours! Sasha and I heard about the possibility of private/semi-private lessons on Monday. I asked Bernie if that was an option for me and Finn. He immediately responded, “No!” I pondered for a moment and he said, “You don’t need a private lesson; you’re doing an excellent job. You just need to do your homework and come see me again later this year.” I’m pretty certain I had the deer in the headlights look going on as I scrambled to say yes sir and thank you!
Day 2 was extremely warm, a high of 80. Sasha and I joked that our weekend trip counts as “going south for the winter!” We all warmed up on our own. We each jumped the lines and moved on to a new one as we went.
Bernie had some of us add strides due to the height. I picked up the right lead and headed toward the diagonal line. I heard, “I love this horse’s stride.” An effortless seven strides, we landed on our counter lead. I heard, “That was probably the best ride of the whole day—yep! That was the best ride of the day!” and held it through the next corner and long side.
After a few more “introductions” as Bernie called it, we did our horse show course. Finn was awesome!
Now for the “handy” round—Finn was getting flustered as I’ve not worked much with halt-to-canter transitions. Bernie asked me to immediately pick up the canter from the line-up. We started off on the wrong lead, we took a warm-up fence, and I heard “You’re now on course!”
Great, I thought. The first fence was a vertical off the right to a tight rollback to a single oxer. I opted for the longer step and Finn pulled the rail. We kept going. Single vertical to a move-up six or seven strides to an oxer, trot fence to a long gallop back to the single oxer. We were flawless, except that one single oxer which we had down both times. I survived Day 2! He had us loosen our girths once we were done and we all waited for the rest to finish.
Continuing with the same closing as Day 1, we added pictures to the mix. I was able to snag a great photo with Bernie to memorialize our weekend. Again, I thanked him for taking the time to teach me and I looked forward to doing my “homework.”
I stayed and had lunch with the girls before packing and heading home. I did accomplish backing my trailer up on my own without help, a first for me! We all joke that I can drive and back a fire engine all day long, but can’t back a horse trailer.
The girls helped me load and I left Tamarack Hill Farm around 3 p.m. I knew it was going to be a rough drive home with being exhausted, the extreme weather changes heading north and the lovely storm that was set to meet me halfway. Sean called me multiple times on the way home to check on me.
I was probably about an hour away when the sky opened up. It was pouring rain and had 50+mph wind gusts. I was scared to death being on the interstate and having zero visibility. Thankfully, there was little to no traffic at 10 p.m. on I81. There was also a tornado watch or warning, I can’t remember exactly.
I finally was able to make it to a crawl to my exit, then like a magic wand waved and it went back to a soft rain. I finally made it to the farm.
Sean met me at the barn. I did a blanket swap to our trusty Rambos, pulled wraps and unloaded my equipment. I turned Finn out and he promptly did his little parade trot he does to announce that he’s home. I made his dinner up and took it out to him and he galloped back up to me from the far corner of his field.
A huge sigh of relief—we made it in one piece. We left the truck and trailer hooked up and Sean drove us home. I walked in the door and collapsed in bed, an exhaustion that I had been longing for since my horse show days eight years ago.
The following day, I wrote a thank you with the photo taken with Bernie. I tagged him in the post on Instagram and Facebook. A day after I made the post, I saw on EquestrianCoach’s Facebook page, a shoutout with my picture and my post!
It was a once in a lifetime experience for us. I learned more in those 72 hours of adventure and six hours with Bernie than I have in the past 10 years! This past week, I was able to secure a spot with Bernie down in Southern Pines at the end of September in the 3′ section. We’ve got a lot of “homework” to do during that time and of course some shows to keep it fun.
I had some fun over the past month or so following the clinic with work and family. I can’t wait to share it with everyone in my next blog post!
Elizabeth Grubbs fits riding her off-the-track Thoroughbred hunter, Finn, around her full-time job as a firefighter/paramedic and two part-time jobs. She also juggles that with her life as a wife and stepmother to three girls. You can read more about her in the Amateurs Like Us profile “Elizabeth Grubbs’ Bumpy Road Led To The Right Place.“