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October 31, 2013

Learning Curve

With the help of Kim Sanford, Ryan Lefkowitz went from being taken advantage of by green horses to successfully competing them. Photo by Julianne Pangal.

“Now tell me the next step.”

I held in my sigh of frustration and instead patted the black-and-white neck of the draft mare I was riding. “I don’t know,” I bit out in what I’m sure was not an appropriate tone for a freshman to be taking with her IHSA coach. 

“Well if you can’t do it at the canter, and you can’t do it at the trot, we go back to the walk and do it there.”

This was not what I wanted to hear. I had joined the equestrian team as an open rider, as two previous years of showing in the 3'6'' had placed me in the highest level of IHSA competition. The idea of having to go down to a walk just to get a horse to circle was not easily palatable.

I bit down on my frustration and guided the horse back out to the rail.

“Now try to circle her!” No problem, I thought to myself. I shortened my inside rein. The mare didn’t turn. I pulled harder. She still didn’t turn. I put all my strength into desperately grabbing my inside rein, and she finally turned. My trainer sighed, loudly.

“That is not how you circle a horse. She only turned because she is more broke, a greener horse would have dropped their shoulder like she was doing to you at the trot and canter. You need both reins and inside leg to make her turn—you can’t grab your inside rein like a life raft and hope for the best.”

I am embarrassed to admit that this is exactly what I thought would work. After all, it had worked so well with my well-broke, schoolmaster jumper.

And so came the earth shattering revelation that I was not as capable as I had previously assumed. This piece of news was made evident to me by a succession of green horses owned by the SUNY Geneseo Equestrian Team coach, Kim Sanford. In one of our first team meetings she made it clear that she was not there to coddle us.

“You are not paying me to tell you how good you are. The school is paying me to win, and to do that I need to make you all into the best riders possible. That doesn’t happen if I tell you you’re doing a good job when you’re not.” Internally, I scoffed. I was sure I had deserved every praise from prior trainers.

It turns out I had not. I started to think my previous trainers must have been crazy. I couldn’t even get this horse to circle, simply because she knew I didn’t have the tools to make her do it.

“Riding is physics! You need to understand the physics to make the horse do what you want. A broke horse understands your intention; a green horse is only going where you can make them go. If they are too bent they cannot go forward. Leg and hand together coils the spring and gives you power and impulsion. If you are ever in trouble, you probably don’t have enough leg on! And you need both reins. Both reins, Ryan! Both reins!”

I have lost track of how many times Kim has told me that I need both my reins or to add more leg. Four years later and two summers where I stayed to ride with her, and I still slip up from time to time. But she has singlehandedly done in four years what no other trainer could do in the 12 years prior: She made me listen, she made me learn, and she made sure I understood why something worked or didn’t work. It wasn’t enough to have a student execute it correctly; they also had to understand why it was correct so they could replicate it in the future on their own. Kim taught me the physics of riding, and for that she is my hero.

The biggest compliment I ever got from her? “Good job! Good! That was exactly correct. Now why didn’t you ride like this four years ago?!”

Because I hadn’t had you as a trainer yet, Coach. 

Ryan Lefkowitz graduated in May from SUNY Geneseo as an English major. She grew up riding in Westchester County, N.Y., where she leased multiple mounts for the hunters and equitation before discovering her love of the jumper ring. She is currently blogging for the Chronicle of the Horse about her exploits in preparing horses for Intercollegiate competition. She hopes to continue blogging as she embarks on her short-term working student position in Virginia. Ryan is one of the winners of the Chronicle's first writing competition. 

 
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