Amateurs Like Us: My Summer With Giants

Feb 28, 2018 - 5:08 AM

It is all too easy at times to sell yourself short. To tell yourself you cannot or should not do something, that you are not worthy. It might be because you are an amateur, or a new professional, or because you lack the financial means, time or support. You tell yourself, “Now is not the time,” or “That would be nice someday,” or “I don’t belong.” Sometimes you sigh, relegate things to just being dreams, and simply walk away.

But dreams are meant to be chased.

It has been three months since I lost my heart horse, Soon. I would be lying if I said I was feeling better. Yes, some time has passed. Yes, I have a brilliant, fun, talented and sweet new young horse (whom I will update you all on next time!) and a totally new journey to look forward to. Yes, I am blessed to be where I am, and to have had the time and experiences I had with Soon. But I have still spent the last 24 hours crying uncontrollably. I just miss my best friend.

Soon. Photo by Hannah Jones

In these moments of sadness, deepened by the gloomy winter weather and recent lack of saddle time, I reflect on the summer of a lifetime I had with Soon in 2017. A summer spent training with the legends of sport. My time amongst giants. A season of dreams coming true.

I think of my summer with Linda Zang, Joe Fargis, Stephen Bradley and George Morris, riding my $1,500 off-track Thoroughbred that I reschooled myself. This is a story of humility, passion, a little humor, and a whole lot of hard work, all for a reward that I cannot hang on any wall.

And I smile.

2017 Is Our Year

Who am I, after all? I was an amateur rider, often going months between lessons. I hacked out a lot. Part of it was because I just wanted to enjoy being on my horse, part was my lack of motivation and drive to train more seriously. I had brought Soon along on my own, and while we came a long way, I knew he had more potential. There were so many opportunities to train and learn from the best, and I had squandered them all up until then. With only a year or so remaining in the D.C. area due to my active duty military service, I was beginning to feel like time was running out.

I decided late in 2016 that 2017 year was our chance. I found inspiration in my barn friends, who helped give me confidence that I had what it takes to ride with the big names, that average people like us do it all the time, and why waste such an incredible opportunity living in this horsey-rich area. I agreed. My newfound motivation started in October 2016, when I signed up for my first lesson with dressage guru, Linda Zang.

I had grand visions of Soon and I dancing together in our first lesson with Linda, but in reality, it resembled something closer to a high school wrestling match….an awkward junior varsity one. Some poor timing on my part and a schedule running well ahead of itself left us with no warm-up time on our first visit to that property. This was not what I planned. He was not loose. I was not ready. I got tense. He got tenser as we stepped forward to meet one of the most famous names in dressage.

I introduced myself and Soon, but what I probably should have said was, “Greetings, my name is Petrified, and this is my feral steed, The Terrorist Giraffe. Let’s do that dressage!”

Linda actually called him a gangster at one point, so that should help illustrate how the lesson was going.

The next 40 minutes were a series of carefully coached circles, getting Soon to release some through his neck and shoulders, and for me to ride him from behind through to the bridle. It was not what I envisioned—it was ugly, but it was a breakthrough. The fact that Linda saw us at our absolute worst and did not kick us out was itself a victory. What I love about Linda is her ability to isolate and identify the problem, simplify the solution, and explain it. That is a gift. If you ever ride with her or audit a lesson, you will always see a notable change in horse and rider from the start of the lesson to the end. Some more than others, but always a change, and always a clearer understanding for the rider. She is such a professor that you cannot help but walk away feeling inspired.

While Linda is tough, she is also kind and incredibly funny. I laughed at myself several times during that first ride. It was hard work each time I took a lesson, but I loved every minute of it.

Me nerding at Linda’s place in the USDF Hall of Fame.

We continued to ride with Linda over the summer of 2017, and he was a different horse from when we started. He went from, “He’s such a gangster!” to a complete gentleman, earning an “I love this horse!” from Linda.

Also, somewhere in there she taught me how to ride. We continued to focus on moving him more through the shoulders, which helped keep him straighter and keep the outside hind under his body for better balance and control. Linda also helped me work on my weight through my seat bones and how that was affecting our right lead canter, and how to use the counter bend to keep Soon more up in front, all of which was an enormous help in our jumping.

In early April, I signed up for the September 2017 George H. Morris clinic at Beverly Equestrian, and immediately afterward I began looking for ALL THE TRAINERS to get us prepared for George that fall. I need to give a big shout out to the wonderful Katie Domino at Domino Equestrian in Harwood, Maryland, for getting Soonie and I on the right track and being my trainer/sanity check between clinicians. It was at Domino that I started working with Olympic eventer Stephen Bradley.

Our monthly clinics with Stephen were always challenging, but so incredibly positive and filled with progress. Big takeaways from jump schools with Stephen were to keep Soon up more through the head/neck in corners, to stay soft in the hand, and keep the leg on so that he stays active and forward through the turn. Of course, when I kept my leg and softened my arm to the fence (something Katie had already identified and had me working on), the flow and rhythm of the course just started to happen, as Soon learned to stand himself off from the fence and find the base on his own.

Mostly Soon was perfect, and I was adequate. We did have an explosion one day over the introduction of the liverpool, which inspired some no-kidding Tony award-winning antics from Soonie (because it was a theatrical masterpiece complete with horsey jazz hands). After approximately 384.5 passes over the liverpool, I can honestly say I have never been so exhausted in a lesson. But I learned how to better handle and prepare Soon for liverpools in the future (they would absolutely be in the GHM clinic).

I also learned that it is OK to have a bad ride in front of someone you respect. I hated having that kind of episode with the World’s Most Perfect Horse in front of Stephen, but he was calm, understanding, and somehow got me to laugh about it by the end. That was so important. Growth does not happen when everything is going perfectly. Growth happens during and after the struggle (and The Struggle™ was very real that day).

Post-liverpool shenanigans. Photo by Christina Dale

At the end of May, I traveled to Upperville with Soonie to ride with Joe Fargis for the first time. The man needs no introduction. My barnmate had ridden with him periodically over the years and kindly invited me to attend her summer training sessions. I had driven by Stoneleigh countless times in the years that I lived and trained in the Middleburg area, but it had never occurred to me to just call Mr. Fargis up and ask if I could lesson with him.

After all, I was a nobody. Why would he let me ride with him? How on earth was I qualified for that? How does one even go about doing such a thing?

Well, it turns out that there are these really neat devices called “telephones.” You use them to speak to people far away and can even schedule a lesson with famous people. Magic, right?

I was probably more nervous to ride with Joe than anyone else. I have an immense amount of respect for his style and horsemanship. It should be no surprise that when it came time for me to introduce myself, my horse and our goals, I completely forgot to be polite and stop to discuss. I just kept trotting in a circle around him and gave the required information. Round and round and round and round…

There I was, at arguably one of the most beautiful farms I had ever seen, riding with one of my heroes, and I had turned into a rude Panic Tornado.

Great.

Joe took pity on me, and I was very politely informed that I am not wasting his time by stopping to talk. That we did not rush things in these lessons. We took our time; we stayed relaxed. And after the initial embarrassment, we had the most incredible ride, and I drove home on Cloud 9, a true bucket list item accomplished.

The next four months I rode with Joe as often as I could, usually visiting every two to three weeks, but almost weekly toward the end of the summer as we drew closer to the GHM clinic. I so value my time working with Joe. If you look up the word “gentleman” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Joe Fargis next to it. As one might expect, he is exacting and has high standards in riding and horsemanship. He is such a classic horseman, and it was easy for me to put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of every minute of those lessons. Sometimes, that got in the way.

The grand prix field at Stoneleigh Farm.

I had one difficult lesson out on the grand prix field, where I could not make decisions. Soon was trying but getting rather sick of my poor riding. He stopped going into a bounce, he stopped again going into a straight forward two-stride after I came out of the turn, took my leg off, and pointed him at the standard.

I just pulled up and sat there for a few moments, not scolding Soonie, as none of that was his fault. That was his way of telling me to wake up because as much as he tried, he could not do it himself. Joe knew I was frustrated. I was embarrassed that I was riding like that in front of him. I felt like I was wasting his time and letting my horse down as well.

Joe calmly and quietly told me to let it go when I make mistakes. They happen. Getting upset and replaying them over and over does not solve anything—it only makes the next decision worse. It gets you and the horse tense.

Relax.

It was the totally nonchalant way in which he delivered it too that helped dissolve the choking pressure I was putting on myself. If I was wasting his time, he did not act like it. He had all the time in the world for me in that moment. It was the perfect zen, a vital piece of sports psychology, and exactly what I needed to get my head together, sit up and finally ride. The result was this:

The last dream for us in 2017 was the George H. Morris clinic (there is a full clinic report so you can live the terror experience too!). Over the course of the three-day clinic, I knew exactly when and how Linda, Stephen and Joe set Soon and me up for success. George complimented us on how straight, adjustable and balanced Soon traveled on the flat (and over fences); that was Linda. The supporting leg and non-drama over the liverpool was Stephen. The soft hands/arms, poise, precision and attention to detail was Joe. George’s comments over the next three days tied it all together.

The beauty of riding with legends like these is that they are all consistent with one another on major aspects of riding. They do not contradict one another, not even across discipline lines. They focus on the basics. They keep it simple. They do not complicate anything. They do not take shortcuts.

They make it about horsemanship and put the horse first. They acknowledge that they never stop learning and continue to evolve. This is riding at the top levels. It is the longtime focus and dedication to those classic, timeless principles of horsemanship that makes people like that so successful.

It was the culmination of a summer of dream-chasing. I grew so much as a horseman and a rider that year, more than any other point in my life. Soon also came so far during this time. This little Thoroughbred, a lower-level claimer with 52 starts on the track, trained with true legends of the sport and earned the respect and praise of every single one of them. It was perfect , magical and beautiful, and was almost as if it was by design… as if Soon was helping me accomplish all this before he had to leave.

Soon and I. Photo by SSgt Chad Strohmeyer, 11th Wing Public Affairs

Life should scare you a little bit, from time to time. If you truly want to improve, you should be pushed outside your comfort zone. I have heard it said that if you are comfortable, then you are not growing. You are not being challenged. You are being safe.

When the opportunity presents itself, grab it, and let it take you somewhere. You will not always know the full extent of the investment or what the destination will be. You will not know what the world will look like on the other side. But I promise you that it will be worth it.

I know full well the value of taking things slow, that sometimes it is more important to just be around horses than it is to train and compete. But I also know that chances will present themselves, and you will have to decide whether to take that journey. You may feel you do not deserve it or that you are not worthy. “Why me?” you might ask. Do not think like this. Instead, ask yourself: “Why not?

It might just change your life, and you, too, might discover what it feels like to walk with giants.


Lindsey Colburn is an active duty Air Force officer and grew up riding in the hunter and equitation divisions in the Northeast during her junior years.  Following college, she rode and trained foxhunters professionally in Middleburg, Virginia, prior to joining the military.  Lindsey bought the Thoroughbred gelding Soon off the track in 2013, and she spent the last four years training him. The pair competed in the jumper ring while Lindsey balanced an active duty military career and obligations. Read all of Lindsey’s COTH blogs.

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