There are a lot of ways to approach this sport, and for any general rule that you create there will be very successful exceptions. The battles wage online over every choice we make: turnout all day or stall part time, hacking on roads or staying on softer ground, competing only as needed to qualify or every three weeks, warming up for ten minutes or practically doing a lesson before you enter the ring.
Everyone has an opinion, and unfortunately everyone seems to think theirs is the only correct way.
This leads many people to have a tremendous amount of anxiety, because they desperately want to do right by their horse. I know minds that implode when trainer A says one thing and trainer B says the exact opposite.
It has left many riders “trainer hopping” in the search for the “right” way, and some people feeling alone in their quest to be part of a sport built on community.
For myself, I have always prioritized being in a good program. I consider a program to be a training system, led by an established professional, that guides me in my training, competition, and management choices. I expect a good program to teach me how to ride my horse and not look like an idiot, but more than that, to teach me horsemanship.
Patience And Good Guidance
This past year I have been plugging away in my program, Morningside Eventing led by Skyeler Icke Voss. When my upper level mount started to show signs that his age might be an issue, Skyeler really pushed me to get something else quickly.
With my very minimal budget, she helped me choose a 4-year-old OTTB mare from Hillside Haven Farm, which I bought sight unseen after a long-distance vetting and a video of her jumping a few cross rails in a field.
Khaleesi (Lizzie) was a real handful, and from her arrival in September to January we made little progress. She came south over the winter last year, and when it came time to retire my older horse from the upper levels, she had to step up to the plate.
Skyeler insisted that I enter her at Sporting Days in March of last year, and we successfully trotted the beginner novice (which really was an accomplishment!). I had myself an event horse!
Lizzie had weaknesses and strengths that were foreign to me. I spent all my time on my previous horse trying to get him out from under the base of a fence, and on Lizzie I was suddenly doing what we humorously called “black swan dives” over everything from too far away. My previous horse got a 35 on the flat on his best day, and Lizzie can get that on her worst. I had never had a mare, and the heat cycles were a form of initiation by fire.
While I had ridden at intermediate, I felt like a lost beginner on this new horse. However, a good program can help with a variety of horses, and while my pool of knowledge was small, Skyeler’s was very large. She had produced horses like Lizzie before, and with a smile and a laugh, she would guide me through how to approach her jump schools, improve her technique, and ride her like a somewhat competent individual.
The past year was full of trying times, like when we spent a few competitions racking up cross-country penalties by the millisecond as she danced around the water jumps, or when we would go bowling in show jumping and send countless Pony Club volunteers around the ring chasing rails.
I was always in good spirits in public, but in private I would panic. Is she the right horse? Does she have “what it takes”? Are we the right match?
As if she is more a psychic than a horse trainer, Skyeler would always text me after a rough show or a particularly embarrassing lesson. “Just trust me,” she would say, “She is where we want her to be…this is normal.”
And the tides would turn, as they are wont to do. We had our great times, like when I got my best dressage score ever, or when we finished in the top of a large field in her training three-day.
More Than Just Riding
Over the course of the year, Skyeler would tell me when to back off, and when to buckle down. She would help me decide if Lizzie needed an extra couple days off, or if it was time to up her conditioning schedule. She would look at my texted photo of my mare’s suddenly swollen hock at 4 a.m. the morning of a show and confirm that I should scratch and get the vet out ASAP.
She also yelled at me to keep my heels down, to wait with my upper body, and to please, for the love of all things holy, keep my reins short enough that I was not hitting myself in the crotch. She did all the things a trainer should do in lessons, but she did so much more.
Many pros will take your check and walk a course with you, discussing lines and options and offering advice. But for me being in a program meant that Skyeler would tell me the bigger, harder things, and that she knew me well enough to do so.
She would tell me if the course was inappropriate for me that day, or if she felt we were unprepared for a certain question. She would tell me if I needed to eat my entry fees and go home, because the footing isn’t right. She would also tell me if I needed to suck it up, that my fears were unfounded and I was, indeed, ready for this.
The best programs are not insular, but rather allow for independence. They are rocks you can trust to produce you and your horse safely, but also to make you a more independent and educated horseman. A trainer confident in their own program will encourage their students to branch out and attend clinics and work with other riders. I work with Kim Severson when possible, and Skyeler will come watch our lessons if she can, or call me after to get Kim’s input on which direction we should take.
While she is there for me when I need her, Skyeler also knows when to shove me out of the nest. I go to many events alone, and I normally only see Skyeler once a week for a lesson. But the overall encompassing nature of the program means that I have a team of people alongside me as we go through this insanity.
Going to the shows as a team means we get to split gas and hotel rooms, and know that someone will have whatever you forgot at home. But more than that, it means we keep perspective.
Inevitably, at a given show, one of us will have a terrible weekend and one of us will win. Being part of the team allows us to laugh it off, to support each other when we really mess up, and to cheer like uncivilized people when we achieve great things.
A year after Lizzie’s first beginner novice, I returned to Sporting Days a couple weeks ago for her first preliminary. My team had already returned north, but I worked with Kim Severson for the week before the event and at the show.
I had a great weekend, and Lizzie added just a rail and some cross-country time to her dressage score. It was one of the “ups” of the past year. On my way home to Virginia the next day I got texts and calls from the whole Morningside team, and I had to recount for Skyeler what went well and what needs to go better.
Entering the second year of competition with this horse, I am certain of two things. One, I will have awesome weekends. Two, I will have lousy weekends.
I don’t know that I could do this sport without the camaraderie that our program provides. I have had people tell me to keep my heels down, or ride a certain way, but there is so much to be said for a trainer that builds a real sense of community and support in her barn (and for those of us boarding outside of it).
Here’s to another year of the group of us winning sometimes, and the other times, well, to having the wine poured and waiting when we dismount.
One of the Chronicle's bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.