I can't remember my first time on a horse. I would have been very, very young, and it was probably a pony ride at the park. I do have a vague recollection of riding ponies tied to a hotwalker-like contraption at the local rec center in the town I grew up in; I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. I remember liking it, a lot.
I can't remember my first ride on my first horse, Cheerio, either, but I can remember lots of great rides. He was a wonderful grade paint-y looking fellow of undetermined age (old) and undeniable sainthood. I remember deciding one day with some riding friends that I wanted to learn to vault, so they longed him for me while I climbed all over the poor creature. He never once took advantage of the oh-so-easy option of trampling my stupid preteen self to bits.
He wasn't the first horse I ever showed—that honor belonged to a school horse named Corian, a grey mare with horrendous stringhalt. I took her to the USDF Youth Team Championships—ordinarily a wonderful show, but this one was a bit of a trainwreck—and after jumping out of the ring in Intro A, I earned a 39 percent in Intro B. You too, kiddies, can come a long, long way.
I do remember my first ride on Beau, one of the world's most perfect Thoroughbreds. His real name was Stressful Prince (No Distress—Donut Princess/Donut King; it could have been worse). He was anything but stressful and a real prince. He had a neck like iron but a canter like butter, and while he absolutely did dump me in the dirt on several occasions, I learned a lot.
My first warmblood came after that, a horse I stole from my mother. Nicholas was a giant Trakehener. Nick embodied all the stereotypes about warmbloods—big, dumb and unhelpful. Nick never rose to the occasion. Nick made me earn every minute. But Nick never got me in trouble, and Nick brought me, however badly, to FEI. I don't remember my first FEI test, but I can tell you that it was fairly cataclysmic.
The horses since then I have very vivid memories of. Billy, of course. That magic man. Having given Nick back to my mom (that lucky girl), I went to college horseless, which was fun for about 10 minutes. We made a deal—keep good grades my first semester, and we'd make a Germany trip. We arrived in Frankfurt, drove to Warendorf and arrived around 3. It was bitterly cold, and my mom was exhausted, but our wonderful agent said I could go see a few horses that night if I was up for it. So off we went.
And the first horse was Billy.
He is so, SO beautiful, even today at 18. A supermodel among mere mortals. I couldn't sit to save my life, I didn't necessarily have control, and it wasn't pretty. But I loved him. LOVED him from the moment I met him. It wasn't always sunshine and butterflies through our time together, but he is responsible for nearly all of my good qualities as a rider. He is the horse against whom I judge all horses. (...and men. Perhaps why I've been single so long?)
Our first ride in competition was at the New Jersey state fairgrounds, and Lendon Gray had to lead us in-hand in front of the judge's box a few times, as the judge sat in a two-horse trailer. Billy will walk right onto a trailer, but can't stand to be near them. He's a little odd.
Struppie, my other Young Rider horse, I hated. In his defense, the poor guy had hooked his teeth around a stall guard and yanked a few out, so his jaw was wired together. It was on the second try that I GOT him, at least a little. I'm still not sure I ever really rode that horse to the best of his ability, but wow, the training on him. Unbelievable. He hated me, and he would show his displeasure by ducking and twisting out from underneath me. Big bully. I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude, mostly for making me a tremendously better rider, and partially for not killing me when he had the chance, which was often.
Our first ride in competition featured a Struppie favorite trick: When coming into the canter pirouette, he likes to prepare, prepare and stop. And stand there. While you squeeze. And kick. And KICK. And KICKICKICKICKICKICK. And, if you're in a CDI like I was, and are, therefore, whipless, you get to take your hand off the reins and nail him with your palm until he finally takes pity on you and goes. I saw him do it to his new owner a few years back, and it took all my willpower not to laugh. What a charmer!
Next came Ella, who is like Billy's story in reverse—she was the last of the horses I saw on that particular trip, but I knew at first ride she was the one, too. The Germans put on a wonderful show when they present sale horses—clipped, buffed, polished and braided. But Ella was long-haired and ordinary looking...until she moved. Green as grass, but she rode a treat, too. And the look in her eyes said, "I may not believe it yet myself, but if you have a little faith in me, I'll knock your freaking socks off." Today I look her in the eye and see more of Billy than that shy little 5-year-old. She's starting to believe.
That's a good thing, because I have her first ride in competition on tape. Training level, test 1—60 percent, barely, screaming her head off the entire time and trotting like a lame pony. We've come a long way, baby. It'll be fun to watch that tape after her first Grand Prix!
My first ride on Midgey was pretty funny. Midge is a vicious spooker, but his response is not to bolt. Instead, he comes to a dead halt, like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon—his hind legs end up around his shoulders, and his eyes grow to the size of mixing bowls. The first time I rode him, someone had to stand in the ring with a longe whip, in case he stopped. And stop he did, for most of that first month going under saddle. He'll still do it every now and then. Dork. Midge was a pro at his first show, totally unremarkable, so no fun tales there.
By the time I tried Cleo, I'd loved her for years. Her previous owner and rider, a wonderful trainer in Wisconsin named Deanna Landwehr, had been showing her through the years. My first ride on Cleo was unremarkable—ho hum, another stellar horse. Tough life! But I remember vividly the first time I met her. She was trying to tear the stall down at a show at Sorensen Park Equestrian Center. When Deanna rode her, I think she ran away at least twice in the warm-up, but they won everything together. That's my girl!
I don't think our first ride in competition was all that noteworthy, but I vividly recall her first Grand Prix-level test from last summer. I only showed up about halfway through, because I spent the first half going ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, we're doing this! Like, really doing this! And Cleo said hel-LO, right now I'M DOING THIS and SOLO! Can you come down here and help please?! (Still got a 65 percent. What a mare!)
And now Fender, whose first ride I have on film. I rode his hair off, raised questions I'm sure he'd never been asked before and generally terrorized him. He took it all in stride. Here's to hoping it's the first of many good rides!
This year I have a few students going to their first shows. There will be lots of nerves, and some freaking out and a lot of laughs. (There will CERTAINLY be a pitcher of mimosas at the first show to get us all through it.) For them, I hope it’s the start of something great. And I’m confident they can all do better than a 39 percent at Intro B!