We all have a story of how we got into horses. Whether it was having horsey parents, the first time we saw National Velvet, or sneaking out to the barn and trying to ride our aunt’s pony Freckles in his stall instead of enduring grown-up dinner party small talk for another minute (not denying, definitely confirming—me), there is always some impetus that kicks off this crazy lifelong obsession.
My parents knew they had an animal lover on their hands after my run-in with Freckles and from the delightfully untrue screaming of, “I’ll never ask for anything again,” when I got a puppy for Christmas. They made the mistake of taking me to “just a couple” riding lessons when I was 9, and wouldn’t you know it I asked for something again: more lessons, lots more lessons, please can you just drop me off at the barn every day, and also I know I said the dog was the last thing, but I’m definitely going to need Santa to come through with a pony as well.
My parents are wonderful and obliged my obsession, leasing a pony and eventually buying a horse that I still own, a lovely Thoroughbred hunter named Lucky. The barn at which they bought those financially ill-fated first lessons was a hunter/jumper barn—it was a beautiful facility, had wonderful instructors, and was right down the road from us, so they never thought of going anywhere else. When it came time to lease the pony and buy the horse, we got hunters, because that’s what everyone in the barn started in.
I loved jumping, so I wasn’t about to complain about what form it took, but I think it was pretty obvious early on that hunters were not my speed. My favorite game to play on my leased hunter pony was Pony Express, wherein I galloped a twig from one side of the arena to the other bareback. When I got my first horse, Lucky, a very cute children’s hunter, one of my favorite things to do while hacking was jumping off him while he was cantering, because he was so well behaved he would sit down and stop reining horse-style the moment he felt me go airborne.
Other things I enjoyed doing to entertain myself in boring inside-outside-inside hunterland included tramping through the uncleared forest behind the property pretending to be Lewis and Clark (and/or erroneously claiming I found the bridge to Terabithia), galloping through the turn-out pastures at odd hours when I thought no one was watching until the barn owner kicked me out, and riding bareback up and down the manicured grass verges along the barn’s driveway.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked the focus the hunters required. I liked the endless ways you could mess up the perfect round and how amazing it was when you kept it all together and pulled a good ribbon, but it just wasn’t really for me. I wanted more interesting courses. I wanted to go fast. I wanted a sport entertaining enough to keep my mind from wandering mid-course to, “Isn’t it weird that skin is the largest organ in the human body? And how birds have ears but you can’t see them? Man, I hope they have nachos at the concession stand.”
I figured I would just switch over into the jumpers—eventing never crossed my mind until I was introduced to it by a dear friend, Grace Busse, who lived just down the street, went to the same schools and rode the same bus I did. I distinctly remember thinking she was crazy as we sat on the bus flipping through a Dover catalog, and she told me she owned a Wintec (a synthetic saddle? So very gauche in hunterland). She told me about riding through water, about riding on GASP hills and MORE GASPS jumping solid obstacles. Her first exposure to riding was at an eventing farm, so while I was being told how to put ribbons in my braids for my short stirrup debut, she was picking out cross-country colors for her Arab.
The summer after I graduated from high school, my beloved hunter Lucky was leased out to a woman in Florida so I could focus on getting into the college groove that fall. That left me with a whole summer of horselessness, which was sounding torturous until Grace suggested I come out to the barn with her. She said there was always an extra horse to hack and plenty of trails to ride out on, so come on out it will be fun. I was skeptical but not about to pass up an opportunity to ride, so I went out with her to Kindred Spirits Farm in Central City, Iowa.
I will never forget that first ride we went on, because I was in a state of shock pretty much from the moment I got on.
After getting a chuckle and sigh for asking if I should longe my horse before getting on, I started walking toward the arena. Grace said they didn’t usually ride in the arena unless they were having a show jumping lesson or working on dressage, and that we would be riding out in the fields and on the hills.
We started up the first hill, a particularly steep one, and all I remember thinking is, “Should horses really be doing this?!” There was mud in some places, trees and brush in others, and not a flat manicured surface to be found. My hunter princess alarm bells were ringing—“He could step in that hole and trip! He could slip on this mud and fall! Even worse, HE COULD GET MUD ON HIMSELF!”
It was like my two selves were fighting—the trained hunter princess was covering her eyes, and the inner adrenaline junkie was screaming “FINALLY!”
I went out to Grace’s barn probably 10 or so times during that summer, and each time I was shocked and impressed by what they asked their horses to do, and how willingly the horses did it. Cross this creek with mud and rocks? No problem. Gallop up this hill then turn and fly over this table on the downhill? No question. I had seen pictures of eventing before, I’d watched some YouTube clips of Rolex, but for some reason seeing it in person even at a lower level was extraordinarily eye-opening.
These horses were bounding at solid wooden coops I would never have used for anything but a mounting block and just tackling them with so much more gumption then I had ever seen in the hunters. It just looked so damn fun!
I got to try a mini version of going cross-country myself for a blog series I wrote as a wee little Chronicle intern all those two years ago. I took a cross-country lesson from the fabulous Sharon White and had an absolute blast whilst embarrassing myself thoroughly.
Even after that experience though, I wasn’t ever thinking that I would event myself. Then I bought Moji, a now-4-year-old Friesian-Thoroughbred cross. Lucky is happily leased out to a wonderful lady who rides him in the hunters, and I figured Moji would become my jumper.
With Moji’s future jumper career in mind, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take him to a local hunter pace in Lexington and expose him to some different jumps and surroundings. Our hunter pace team ended up being Lucky and his leaser, a wonderful woman named Susan Abner who is also based in Lexington; me on my project OTTB, Tucson; and Susan’s daughter Elizabeth on Moji. Just like a single wealthy owner sometimes owns part of every horse on a U.S. high performance championship team, I owned or leased every puddle jumper on our hunter pace team. I don’t mean to brag, but I think I’m basically the owner of the U.S. Puddle Jump Performance team.
Turns out, Moji absolutely LOVES going cross-country. He hadn’t seen any of the fences before, Elizabeth had never ridden him before, and they cantered over the beginner novice fences like they’d been doing it their whole lives. He was so clearly having a blast, it reminded me of what those horses at Kindred Spirits looked like schooling cross-country.
As I sat on Tucson and watched Moji adorably pop over fence after fence with Elizabeth, I felt the hunter princess in me (we’ll call her something fitting, like Clarissa) turn and look at the adrenaline junkie in me (A.J.) as she was rubbing her hands together mischievously and cackling, go, “Ohhhhhhhh %$&. You’re going to event him, aren’t you?” *A.J. cackles louder*
And so A.J. and I sat Clarissa down with a cool glass of water and a fan, told her we were just going for a walk and to shine our spurs, and went online to buy a pinney holder, a medical armband, and registered with the U.S. Eventing Association. Moji’s registered name? Touchdown Monkey. My blood type? No idea, never had to write that on my arm to show in the hunters. Please don’t tell Clarissa we need that to go cross-country.
I found an event in Lexington at the end of May, Maydaze at the Kentucky Horse Park, that had a beginner novice division. Huzzah!
We entered. I was astounded and thrilled at how much cheaper it was than a horse show, and then the real work began: choosing my colors, practicing non-hunter braiding, clipping his tail with that delightfully sporty eventer bald patch, and, time permitting, practicing the dressage/jumping/cross-country stuff. Clarissa is really insistent if we’re going to do this dreadful eventing thing we better look tip-top; she’s not real into the details of how to actually event.
Luckily I have some wonderful eventing friends to politely steer me away from, “Should I get green or white piping on my bonnet” to “Let’s go over how this sport actually works.” My preparation phase will hence forth be titled “Ann Trying Very Hard To Get Eliminated,” subtitled “The Dumbest Questions You Can Ask Before Your First Event.” I thought I could show in my three-ring elevator bit in dressage—wrong. Eliminated. Wear ear plugs! Nope. Eliminated. Have someone coach me on cross-country and show jumping? Nope. Illegal. Eliminated.
I was also very disappointed to learn there would be no jog for my beginner novice division. I have been to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** twice for the Chronicle, and I had an outfit all picked out. I had already decided in pictures I would be one of the “smile magnanimously at your horse” people, not the “I’m so badass, do my sunglasses match my frown” people.
I was also told yes, it would be weird to wear your hunter shadbelly for your beginner novice dressage test, which is a real bummer because it’s actually a consignment dressage shadbelly I have been sneaking around the hunter ring all these years.
Whenever one of my event friends gets too bossy about me “learning my dressage test” or “it’s the A test, not the B test, yes there are two” or “Have you even ridden your dressage test once?” Clarissa and I like to remind them that we have attended Rolex twice as spectators as very, very competent viewers, and we’re pretty sure that means we know what we’re doing.
In the unlikely event that eventing is about more than picking colors and hailing a cab over our 2’7” fences ala that Bruce Davidson statue at Rolex, we will be in touch.
(On a more serious note, we’re actually really grateful for the help; please send more of it before we set out on course May 27-28.)
Ann Glavan is an editorial staffer for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. After two internships at the Chronicle, Ann joined the editorial staff in the fall of 2015. Read all of Ann’s blogs…
Last year, Ann purchased a 3-year-old Friesian-Thoroughbred cross to work with and eventually compete. Moji, now 4, has been under saddle for a little over a year, and he’s been to his very first local horse show and now clinic.