I have an old VHS video of one of my horse trials when I was 12. I was on my 12-year-old Arabian, who would let me jump him almost 5’ bareback at home but would never perform at a show.
On the video, I am making my third attempt at beginner novice. I set out with a fiery heart and dreams of wild success. On that course I had four stops and a fall, but as I cleared the last fence I dropped the reins, threw my arms around his neck, and screamed, “I love you SO MUCH! You are amazing!! WE DID IT!!”
For most people, collecting eight million points and a pair of wet breeches would be considered a failure, but for me it was the furthest I had ever gotten in an event. I went on to be eliminated the next day when he wouldn’t approach fence 2 in show jumping, but I went home proud my riding career was progressing. I dreamed that one day I would complete a whole event!
Sixteen years later I still define success a bit differently than most. I have ridden beautifully and come in last place, and I have ridden poorly and won. Everyone tends to nod in agreement when we talk of producing a confident and willing event horse, and no one argues over the point that the horses are athletes on their own journey. However, when it comes time to actually take a green horse to an event and deal with the process of producing an upper level partner, it is easy to get lost in emotions over your rankings on the final day.
I had a wonderful and long career with my last OTTB, Trance. We did our first novice together and capped off our relationship with a sixth place in the American Eventing Championships at intermediate and a clean run around the Bromont CCI**.
When I made the decision to move on to another young horse, I promised myself to never give up the quality of a partnership for competitive goals. Of course I like being competitive, but I really value my ability to put the horse first and enjoy every step of the long journey a horse’s career takes you on.
I have had so much fun producing my new 5-year-old OTTB Khaleesi (Lizzie) this year. She arrived last September having just been let down off the track, and did her first beginner novice in March. She has strengths: Her flatwork is a force to be reckoned with (thanks Kim Severson!), she is incredibly bold over fences on cross-country, and she has a strong desire to be careful in show jumping.
She also has her weaknesses: She is hyper-aware of footing changes (water, gravel, etc.), and she has the occasional day when she wakes up and leaves her balance behind in bed, resulting in a handful of rails.
But more than anything, Lizzie wants to be an event horse. She loves the hustle and bustle, she loves the training, she lights up in the ring, and she leaps on the trailer when I open the door. That is something you cannot buy in a horse, so when you find it, you embrace the rest and get to work. I think my main responsibility is to ride her in a way that she will never lose her enthusiasm.
Two weeks after I bought her, I wrote these priorities:
- She has to love her job. Be careful not to make her a draftee in this sport, and instead encourage her to be a volunteer.
- She needs to problem solve. Put her through enough experiences that she realizes A) I will never ask her to do anything that would harm her and B) water jumps are shallow, horizon jumps have ground, etc. Follow through on A every single day.
As long as our partnership improves, I could care less if we are in last place or first place at the end of the day. I have embraced the occasional 20 on cross-country when Lizzie panics over a footing shift. I happily stand there reassuring her, and she always takes a breath and proceeds.
After being in the top at her novices, Lizzie moved up to training in June. The questions came up faster, and the footing shifts were still a sticking point for her. At her first training she picked up a stop by staring at a ditch, and at the second it was dancing at the water. I was thrilled with her dressage and show jumping, and I just kept focusing on the trust she needed in me to allow her boldness to override her carefulness on course.
This past weekend Lizzie did the training at Middleburg (Va.), and all the pieces fell into place. She finished on her dressage score to take home second in a competitive division. While I was happy about that, I am MUCH more excited that she jumped over a log into the water on course without blinking a beautiful black eyelid. Is she now a perfect training horse? No way. She is a green baby, only a year off the track. But is she becoming a strong participant in our partnership? Absolutely!
I consider this year successful, and not because of her top placings. I consider it successful because after every cross-country run my horse finished more confident, and because I still have the little girl inside of me that throws my arms around my horses and tells them they have conquered the world.
When you see me at an event, whether I am in first or last place, I am always laughing. Eventing is about the partnership, and you can’t put a score on that. Sixteen years ago I dreamed of just completing a beginner novice. My goal for 16 years from now? I don’t know, but I do know that if I embrace the journey and love my horse, the road will take me places I can’t imagine.