Long, long ago in a show circuit far, far away, I was the amateur rider that everyone dreaded. The one who had the horse that was always perfect—that never spooked, never refused, never interrupted his cadence, and paid the monsters in the corners no mind.
The one who laid down trip after trip of eight perfect distances with her slim, long-legged, equitation rider’s body. Oh, there are urban legends about seeing me “miss,” just like there are urban legends about seeing Bigfoot. But like a Bigfoot sighting, no verifiable video evidence exists.
My horse Murray (an OTTB) and I were together for 20 years, 14 of which were spent happily gallivanting through horse shows from the Midwest to West Coast. I rarely rode another horse during that time. As a result, I didn’t develop the breadth of experience that a multiplicity of mounts would have provided. What I had was a very particular set of skills. Skills I acquired over a very long career. Skills that made me a nightmare for ….OK, that’s from a Liam Neeson film. But it still applies.
The key word here is “particular.” I had an excellent, but narrow, set of skills. I was really, really accomplished at riding and competing in particular events on a particular horse.
I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until a few years ago, when I had no choice but to ride other horses.
I lost my equine soulmate in 2012, to a freak accident that remains unexplained. One evening we were jumping three-foot courses (at 25 he was still sound, happy and athletic), and by the next evening, he was gone. Just like that.
It was two full years before I felt ready to be around horses again. After that, I became what I call Amateur Slave Labor. I volunteered to hop on any horse(s) that needed exercising on any given day.
And that’s when I discovered that even years of experience could sometimes still add up to bupkis.
For example: Canter departure. Any summer camp kid on a fat pony can do one. It’s simple, right?
Simple, yes. Easy? Not necessarily.
You had better hold a meticulous inside bend with the right indirect rein on Denny, or you had no hope of picking up the correct lead to the right. Don’t get complacent, though, because going left was completely different. On Lordanos, you needed more inside leg than outside, or—surprise—you got the counter lead. And if you wanted him to hold the counter-canter to the left? It required complete focus and absolutely correct hand and leg. Every step. Slack off for even one stride, and—surprise—lead change.
Ask Tally, a dutiful gelding, for a canter departure, and the response was ‘Yes ma’am, right away.’ Ask the gray mare, Rhapsody, and she’d cock an ear back at you and opine ‘Canter? Me? What, you mean NOW? Didn’t we just canter yesterday? (Sigh. Eyeroll.) Um, what was the question again?’ But the black mare, Zin, could be super-sensitive. Ask too firmly and you’d find out what an ejection seat felt like.
It wasn’t just canter departure aids that varied from horse to horse. It was everything. They were all… well, completely different animals. It was like driving different cars with controls that felt different, responded differently, and might be located in unexpected places. If you’ve ever tried to turn the radio on, and instead got windshield wipers, then you know what I mean.
You could ride Maggie on a loose rein in a busy arena. But if you were on Confidence, and she saw a horse coming at her, she’d spin you off faster than a Tilt-A-Whirl.
When riding the stallion, you’d better have your wits about you. Otherwise he’d try to sidle up to every mare, puff himself up and do his best impersonation of Joey Tribiani (from Friends) and his infamous “How YOU doin’?”
Even the same horse could be a different animal from one ride to the next.
Some days, Zin would break from the canter to the trot if you even thought about relaxing your leg. Other days she was princess-and-pea sensitive. Though mostly levelheaded, she had a spook in her. Every once in a great while she would, without warning, bust a colossal move. Such move usually involved all four feet coming off the ground and everybody facing a different direction upon landing. She wasn’t much concerned with whether the two of you came down in the same place.
Denny, a beautiful bay Thoroughbred with a huge heart, had two sides. Some days you got Good Denny; the one you could ride and jump on the buckle. Other days you got his impish alter ego—Better-not-let-him-off-the-bit-for-even-a-second-Denny—the one with the hidden turbo-boost button. The location of this button was, apparently, classified. You learned where it was only upon accidentally setting if off. When you did, Denny would go from 0 to 60 faster than a Ferrari. He’d then spend the rest of the ride joyfully bouncing about, or as my trainer put it, “doing what Tiggers do best.”
Jumping him on his “Tigger” days was what I imagine it would be like to juggle chainsaws. Let your attention wander and somebody was going to get hit with flying body parts.
But the days you could ride him around a course on the buckle? It was the most fun you’d ever have.
I called Lordanos “my boyfriend.” I used to be assigned to ride him pretty much every Friday. I started referring to him as my “Friday night date” and that turned in to “my boyfriend.”
If he were human, he’d be the perfect man; attentive, polite, always supportive. He’d be the nice guy who always took you back after the hot dude with the sports car dumped you. You could always count on him. Unless the ground changed color or texture, then you were on your own. He would become a potted plant, rooted in place, and nothing you could do could move him until he was good and ready. Even then, the direction he moved might not be the one you expected. He might jump whatever he thought he saw on the ground, but he sure as Hades wasn’t going to step on it.
The only other problem with Lordanos was that my voice-texting app could never get his name right. “More Dominos” is the closest it ever got.
Princess was a revelation to me. I’d watched her owner ride her for years, and thought I had a pretty good idea what she was like. But she did not ride anything like I’d expected. Take your leg off of her for an instant and she deflated like a bay-colored balloon. If you weren’t braced for the resulting six-G’s of immediate deceleration, you’d be picking bits of her mane out of your teeth. But when her owner rode her, she looked forward and flowing. It really made me appreciate how in tune they were, and how much riding it sometimes takes to make it look like you’re not doing anything.
Fiona was like riding the funnest ride at the carnival (I know there’s no such word as “funnest,” but it’s the only word that applies). She was in between pony size and horse size, but nothing about her was small. She often felt pony-like, with a quicker trot cadence and a canter that felt like a dolphin hopping through waves. But she could jump and turn like nobody’s business. She always got the fastest time in the jump-off.
Plus, she was drop-dead gorgeous: Black with a big white blaze, white socks, and two crystal blue eyes. Her show name, Mesmerized, accurately summed up her personality and appearance. She was nothing short of a superhero in the ring.
But all superheroes have a weakness, and her Kryptonite was the automatic sprinklers. You better not be on her, and unprepared, when a sprinkler came on. To say she jumped out of her skin was literally accurate. She was beside herself to the point where you could actually see two of her, neither one of which was likely to be underneath you anymore.
The good news was, she never ran any farther than the nearest food.
Maggie was the 24 year-old matriarch of the barn. When you saw her plodding patiently around the ring helping a kid learn to post the trot, it was easy to forget how wise and educated she was. She was also the definition of “bombproof.”
Ask her owner, Sheila, about the day she was riding Maggie in the field and her dog chased a herd of deer AT them instead of away from them. Maggie just stood her ground until, one by one, the deer peeled off and went around her. Do not play “chicken” with Maggie. You will lose.
While I miss the sense of partnership that comes from riding the same horse day to day, I’ve learned more in the past few years than I ever thought possible. Not every tool is polished, but I have a lot more of them in my toolbox. I also have a deeper appreciation for professionals, who spend every day going from horse to horse and can ride them all so capably.
Mostly, I’ve learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that, even though I’ve been riding most of my life, I will still have days when I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. And that’s OK. Learning doesn’t begin until you step out of your comfort zone. The ride may not be as predictable, but it will be a heck of a lot more interesting.
After years of trying to fit in with corporate America, Jody Lynne Werner decided to pursue her true passion as a career rather than a hobby. So now, she’s an artist, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, web designer, writer and humorist. You can find her work on her Misfit Designs Cafepress site. Jody is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition. Her work also appears in print editions of The Chronicle of the Horse. Read all of Jody’s humor columns for www.coth.com here.