Way back in October, a call went out for riders for the USDF/FEI Trainers’ Conference, held in Florida in January, at the McPhails’ stunning farm right here in White Fences. I sent off videos and was told we’d all hear back in December.
In the meantime, I had to buy my plane tickets for my trips back to Virginia to teach. The only weekend in January that worked was the weekend right before the Monday-Tuesday of the Trainers’ Conference. Perfect, I thought to myself as I clicked “Finalize Purchase.” If I get picked, I’ll fly in Sunday night and be set to ride Monday-Tuesday.
Picked I was, one of 10 combinations picked out of nearly 60, which is pretty amazing. But then the bad news came – the 10 of us would need to face off on Sunday, the same day I was supposed to be finishing up teaching at home. I got this news on the night of Dec. 23rd. Cursing my luck, I called United on Christmas Day to see how much it would cost to move my flights around, and if I even could that late in the game.
The Christmas Spirit was upon the lady who answered the phone – she not only was able to move my flights all one day earlier, but she did it for free.
It was clearly an omen, because in the end, USDF kept all nine of us (one horse/rider pair dropped out), and Fender and I turned up Monday morning only to have Steffen Peters say, “Hey, can I ride your horse?”
This has happened to us before – Steffen also hopped on at the 2010 Young Dressage Horse Trainers’ Symposium, for which we were also a demo pair. (I’m starting to think Steffen has a little man-crush on Fender.) I recall feeling like it was as if Shakespeare had asked to work with me on an English literature assignment, like Stephen Hawking wanted to help me with my physics homework. With, of course, a splash of “Dear Lord, please do not let Fender do anything stupid, because I do not want to be the girl whose horse killed Steffen Peters.”
Fender did not, of course. He looked terrific. In “tryouts” on Sunday, I got immediately called out for riding Fender too forward and too into my hand, which was really interesting, since as a young man, Fender lived behind my leg and behind the hand. We had a lovely chat about it that day, and yesterday, too, it was the first thing Steffen mentioned in his talk to the crowd. He said that all of us horse-trainers, at one point or another, in the development of a horse from youngin’ to FEI, have to consciously stop riding the issues they experienced as baby horses. Even though I’ve conquered these issues with Fender, I’ve still been riding the 4-year-old version of himself every day.
So bad news: I’m a dork, but good news: I’m a dork who can now move forward. I fixed it! Hoorah!
The other thing Fender “struggles” with (and I put struggles in “quotes” because it’s not like it’s a disaster; it’s age-appropriate development stuff) is engagement, really lifting his back and stepping under behind and carrying. He, like his fellow Sandro-Hit grandsons and sons and probably many great-grandsons as well, has very fancy legs and not always the most elastic back on the planet. I’ve known this, and continue to develop it, and have made GREAT progress and will continue to do so, but Steffen (unhindered by the baggage of having chased a not-yet-4-year-old Fender around in two-point until he WENT TO THE BRIDLE!) showed me that I could raise my expectations of Fender, ask him to put a little quick-but-floaty into his trot without letting him really grab the bit. In my attempts to get him to my hand, I’d accidentally been letting him brace.
Truthfully, Steffen didn’t tell me or show me anything I didn’t know; I was just so caught up in “but he’s a baby!” Michael and I had this conversation not one week ago: He’s not a baby anymore. Time to raise the bar, and not by chasing him around, looking for big legs and fancy movements; that’s absolutely not what yesterday was about. It was about the connection and shape of a Grand Prix horse, even if he’s not always successful, even if he can’t do one thing from Grand Prix. The sooner (in an age-appropriate way, of course) they learn to work in that framework, the easier it all becomes to guide them to FEI.
The way my business is set up down here, I didn’t get to watch much of the day – had to scoot back around the corner for a lesson on Ella (who was fabulous), and then it was time for afternoon chores, and that was the day. I hope I have more time today – this opportunity has been fantastic.