Amateurs Like Us: A Few Less Lattes + The Perfect Trot = Worth It

Feb 10, 2016 - 3:45 AM
Photo by Irina Kuzmina

“I have to get Flash a double stall too,” I told my dressage trainer Leslie Chapman. “It’s only $40 more and that’s what, five or six margaritas?”

“Are you counting your board in tequila?” Leslie asked.

“Well, sometimes I count it in lattes,” I told her.

While Cairo is the horse I ride and compete, I actually own two horses. I also own a sweet Oldenburg gelding named Flash. I often say I really shouldn’t own two horses. I don’t make enough money and I don’t have enough time, but Flash had some bad luck in life in some ways before I got him, and I promised him a forever home.

Flash is a lovely dressage horse but doesn’t jump in case it aggravates an old injury in his hoof from a nail. I don’t need a dressage horse—I spend plenty of time working on Cairo’s sand-dancing—but I worry if I sold him, and he went lame, he’d wind up in a bad spot, and I can’t do that.

So I try to lease him out to lovely young ladies to ride and sometimes I hop on him to reassure myself that I do actually know how to ride dressage, despite Cairo’s enthusiastic attempts to demonstrate otherwise.

Having a little fun with Flash.

Actually poor Flash is still a bit of a hard luck horse. He survived that nail that went all the way to his coffin bone. The vets thought it would kill him and at best he’d be a pasture ornament. He also has made it through Potomac horse fever, pigeon fever (or at least the world’s largest most disgusting abscess on his shoulder) and countless other disasters that I don’t want to remember.

Flash taught me to have a separate savings account for vet bills. Actually, it’s a combined vet bill/show fund, and as I sadly told Cairo last winter when she somehow got a deep puncture wound right over her jugular vein 15 minutes after the vet left the barn, resulting in an emergency trailer ride to the vet clinic: “Every time there’s another vet bill, a horse show dies.”

Flash enjoying life.

Not that long after explaining my drinks and coffee theory of equine accounting to Leslie, I was interviewing fellow amateur Valerie Wunder for the Chronicle’s “Amateurs like Us” series, and she brought up the question of how many of us eat ramen noodles so we can afford horse shows? And I went, “Yes! You are my people!”

It’s not that I don’t have money. I’m a journalist and I also teach writing to help pay for my bad horse habit. It’s that what money I have, I spend on my horses.

And for me, it’s not just enough to own them and ride them. I want to ride with good trainers and improve. I want to compete and show. Go on a tropical vacations? It’s not a vacation unless you put your horse in a trailer and haul her for a couple hundred miles!

My sister once suggested I add up how much I spend in a year on horses. (My sister does not ride horses.) I was horrified. I don’t want to know. Some people have children and spend thousands on childcare. I have dependents with four hooves and spend my money on learning to make those hooves head in the general direction of where I would like them to go.

This will sound familiar to a lot of you: I don’t buy new shoes more than once a year, but I will write large (and well deserved) checks like clockwork every six or seven weeks to my farrier for my horses’ shoes without blinking an eye.

I don’t question the price of my horses’ spendy supplements and low carb high-fat feed with coconut oil, but I buy cheap tortillas on sale so I can survive on quesadillas and hot sauce (hot sauce, like ketchup is a vegetable, right?).

 I’ll order Cairo an expensive bit from Europe—because her delicate mouth only likes the narrow, soft rubber ones—but I cringe at spending money on repairing the pipes in my trailer.

Oh, yes. Did I mention I live in a trailer?

It’s a cool trailer—I live in a 1975 Airstream Ambassador—but it’s a trailer nonetheless. One night when I was trying to figure out where to cut costs so I could afford to show my horse, I decided that cutting my board bill was not an option, but apartment rent was silly because I’m always at work or at the barn and only use my home to sleep in. So I found the Airstream on Craigslist, found a spot to park it and moved in.

I recently moved Cairo and Flash to a new barn and I’m super excited about how much bigger the arena is than where we were before—Cairo isn’t a big fan of company in the arena and less so when it’s a tight squeeze—but the new barn is a little more expensive, albeit worth it. Thus my creative board accounting.

We all know whose living conditions are more important. Photo by Irina Kuzmina

I pondered only getting one double stall—Cairo is younger and needs it more, I reasoned. But then I felt horribly guilty and decided Flash needed one too, and if I didn’t get him one, every time I spend money on something “unnecessary” like a margarita, I’d feel like a bad horse mom. $40 extra equals two bottles of cheap whiskey, or a couple margaritas, or a dinner out.

Yup, I can cut something like that out for Flash to stay in a double suite at the horsey Hilton. So 12 by 24 stalls for everyone!

I then realized not only do I spend three times as much on board as I do on rent, but the square footage of the space I live in my trailer is now less than that of each of my horses’ stalls.


I’m like the horse equivalent of a crazy cat lady.

But in the last couple weeks Cairo has reminded me of why I go to the barn every night and basically shovel dollar bills into my horses’ mouth so I can watch them poop green.

First, I hauled her over to Karianne Boyce-Lockhart’s Poseidon Stables for a lesson before Kari zoomed off to California to show at Thermal. Cairo can jump big and with enthusiasm, but she often uses a sort of rocket-launcher technique that puts her arc well past the fence. We’ve used ground poles, but Cairo sees them as challenge: Can I jump the fence AND the ground pole 9 or 10 feet away? Answer: Why yes, she can!

So in my last lesson, Kari had me channel the eq rider I used to be and ride Cairo on a circle over a small bounce into a short corner. I’m cross-country girl these days and short corners indoors induce terror in my heart, but we did it. As we worked Cairo into a balanced, soft but powerful canter on a bend, she finally decided to use her body rather than catapult it and I went “Oh, that’s how it feels!”

Can you see me grinning? Photo by Irina Kuzmina

Jumping Cairo is usually what results in my grinning like an idiot. It’s dressage that for us is often a full contact sport.

There was a break in the Oregon rain last week and Cairo and I ventured out into the outdoor sand arena for our dressage lesson. Cairo is no different to ride in new places than she is at places she knows. She’s not a spooky horse; she just has a lot of opinions.

Lately she’s been playing this game where she tries to drop behind my leg and if I put my leg on, she twerks—this sort of not-quite-a-buck booty shake to let me know I’m annoying. If I finally cave and really boot her, then she gleefully takes off into the canter. Or she throws a buck and then gleefully takes off into a canter.

I had her back checked out, since one big buck always miraculously resolves the twerking, and I thought maybe she was making her own spine feel better while rearranging mine. But no, basically, her end game is for me to indulge her need for speed and stop with the stupid trotting in circles. Riding her in the outdoor at the new barn has greatly reduced the twerking. She likes wide-open spaces and the feel of the wind in her mane.

After warming up, Leslie had us work trot-walk transitions, lots of them, while keeping Cairo’s jaw soft and trying to loosen the base of her neck. We threw in some halts in for good measure. When those got good, we moved to trot-canter transitions.

Fancy prancing. Photo by Irina Kuzmina

The halts were square and calm, she was using her back in the transitions and then this thing happened in the canter. Cairo was soft and giving, she was pushing from behind, lifting her front, using her hocks. Leslie had me move her into a medium canter and there it was, just this amazing big, bold, balanced canter that felt like a million dollars.

When we finished, Leslie asked me how it felt. It felt freaking amazing. We both admitted we were almost afraid to say anything while it happened, for fear of somehow messing it up, but we actually lengthened and came back several times and the canter just stayed amazing, and the trot after had moments of suspension. And Cairo was happy, without a tail swish or twerk to be seen.

Everything I want to compare it to sounds illicit like drug highs or orgasms. My new word is “dressage-gasm.” As in “after a million transitions today, my horse began to carry herself for the first time and I had a total dressage-gasm.”

You can also have jump-ecstasy, which is when you pull up after a flawless stadium round, or heck, one good fence, feeling like you own the world and your horse has just sprouted a unicorn horn and wings.

Then for us eventers, there’s the plain old cross-country high, a feeling so amazing that we often leap off our horses to celebrate, after galloping through the finish timers, without first unclipping our inflatable vests and so announce our joy with the sounds of exploding air canisters.

It’s those moments that are so amazing that all you can think about is getting back to the barn and trying to get that feeling again, even if it takes a zillion more 20 and 12 meter circles and braving hundreds more Trakehners and coffins.

Or sometimes, like in Flash’s case, we stumble out to the barn at night or at the crack of dawn so we can blow into their nostrils and feel their soft apple breaths wash over us, making the rest of the long day worthwhile. I’ll take that over a margarita. 

Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo…


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