If you have ever trained proper reinback as a tool to gain impulsion, you will understand when I say that setbacks in life can be a springboard for progress if you treat them right.
I don’t know how Hotmail found me.
This time last year I was taking down the Christmas tree and trying to keep all the ornaments out of harm’s way. I had a new corgi puppy, Foxy, who kept me entertained at every turn, and life should have been good.
But I was missing my horse, Cadillac, who had died in November  and trying like hell to keep my chin up and press on with Winyamaro toward international success. I was grieving for that incredible daily high of riding Cadillac and for the missed opportunities that are so hard to accept in an Olympic year.
I was also torn about the near future. Should I press on for World Cup qualification with Winyamaro or pursue a chance for the London Olympics? Down to one horse and strapped for cash, the choice seemed important on several levels and, uncharacteristically, I sat on the fence for several months. Finally, I decided to stay home from the rest of the World Cup qualifiers and save Winyamaro for a big springtime push toward Olympic qualification.
But honestly, Rita, my heart just wasn’t in it. I was so sad, the winter was so dark and cold , and I wasn’t hungry for competitive success. Playing with the new puppy brought me more joy than going to the stable every day. (Bless her little corgi soul.) So I kept breathing, and I kept chanting, and I kept going through the motions. I waited for that stirring in my belly that would signal commitment to another goal.
It never came. At least not last winter. I turned in an Olympic application on Feb. 26 and withdrew it on Feb. 28 when Winyamaro took a wrong step in the middle of a perfectly normal workout and sustained the injury that would keep him out of competition for the rest of the year.
I was relieved, Rita. Can you believe that??? I was relieved that I didn’t have to pick myself up and get motivated to compete again. And as shocking as that revelation was, in that moment, I knew I was in deep trouble. I had to find some inspiration and find it fast, or I was in real danger of being consumed by inertia.
So I went horse shopping. Actually, I had been shopping for horses for several months already, but with a heavy heart. I knew deep down in my soul that Cadillac was irreplaceable. I knew I had to stop comparing every horse I rode to him, although that logic did not prevail over the emotion of my loss. Moreover, I often returned home from a shopping trip in a state of shock at either the sticker price of horses that I did like, or at the sticker price of horses that were presented at three and four times that of their true value.
My usual sources were letting me down, so with renewed determination, I called a few new numbers and ended up booking yet another flight to Denmark (my favorite shopping ground) in March.
There I was, sitting near a heater in the winter cold, watching horses go and eating cookies all day long. Nothing looked interesting, but I knew that if I didn’t get on a horse soon and at least work up a sweat, my breeches wouldn’t fit in the morning. I needed to get some exercise or I would need another saddle size. So I asked to ride a cute little chestnut that looked fairly harmless.
I was told he was a Michellino, 10 years old, shown third level, trying to get to PSG and that he would make a nice horse for a client if I had someone looking. The flying changes were sticky, and he had no walk, but something about him caught my eye, and I thought I could at least burn off a few calories on him. I did not think I was looking at an international Grand Prix prospect.
And then I rode Hotmail for the first time. This was middle March, and it had not been very long since my last ride on Winyamaro, so I was still very tuned up in my timing and my feel for a Grand Prix horse. I got on and rode Hotmail like I rode my last ride a few weeks before on W.
Hotmail responded like a top competitor even though anyone watching us would have to have a big imagination to know that. I could hardly believe the feedback I was getting from this horse.
I couldn’t do a single flying change in each direction, so I tried them with sideways impulsion in a Grand Prix zigzag. (“He doesn’t know that movement,” said the agent. “He does now, “ I replied.) Hotmail’s talent for moving sideways helped him jump the changes when I asked. I still couldn’t do a single change on a straight line.
I couldn’t make a good walk-trot transition, so I tuned that up for a minute and then asked for piaffe with an intention to go to trot and a “whoops, I meant walk-no-trot” half halt in just the right moment. All Michellinos can piaffe, and Hotmail is no exception, although it would take another six months before he offered me the steps he teased me with on that day.
I tried walk and canter pirouettes that were stiff, out of balance and irregular in the steps. I reminded myself that he was green for the level despite his age, but I asked him to stay more in front of my leg and turn with more focus and precision anyway. He put his best effort forward.
I asked him to take longer steps in the walk and felt no capacity whatsoever to lengthen the stride. Hmmmm. I tucked that tidbit away in my head and pressed on.
I asked him to passage and asked him to push out of that into extended trot. He broke to canter even though I was sure I had a phenomenal transition prepared, but the mistake did not faze me. I knew if I could prepare one such transition during a catch ride, with good training and bit of time, the future would hold many better transitions.
Damn, Rita, I never had more fun the first time I sat on a horse!!! So I thought right then and there while I was still sitting on him, “This one is going home with me.” If nothing else, Hotmail would make a fun investment horse that I could turn over at some point as a good PSG/I1 horse.
I got off and checked his legs and his feet. I had a good look at his back and mouth and was delighted to discover four white half stockings under the bandages and boots. He is a chestnut. I love chestnuts. I looked at his shoeing and thought I might have some success in improving his walk if I could get him more comfortable and create more elasticity in his back.
Long story short, after an extensive pre-purchase exam, I bought him, and my people picked him up in the middle of April and brought him home to Vechta.
Now Rita, I always take my time with a new horse. I changed his shoeing, fiddled with his feed, and started basic training both on the ground and under saddle. Hotmail couldn’t wrap his brain around going on and off the horse truck, he was dramatic in the cross ties, we couldn’t tie him up, and he thought about shying a lot during our first workouts.
All that started to disappear with a bit of training, and we soon settled into a routine that focused a lot on tracking up in working walk and working trot, straightness, obedience and regularity for the flying changes (singles) and leg yield for improving elasticity. It took me a few months to get into him, but I woke up one morning in June and realized that I was looking forward to going to the stable again. Hotmail was the magnet drawing me to the stable.
About mid-summer, I started to get really interested in his progress. I could do some decent tempi changes, and I had started riding some sets of one-tempis—just two or three in sequence when the balance was right. He was listening, his body was becoming more elastic, the walk was developing an overstep, and most of all, Hotmail was eager to do the work. I hadn’t even touched piaffe and passage, but he did offer some interesting steps if I played around.
I showed him to a few buyers along the way who were never impressed enough by his gaits to take him home. And then the inevitable happened. I had a BREAKTHROUGH (unforced, it just showed up on the doorstep one day) which resulted in this horse offering a string of 10-12 one-tempis if I asked without thinking. On the same day, he added so much bounce to his step that I knew a Big Trot was not far away, and when I collected him on my seat, he offered some steps of pi and pa that just plain made me smile. Hotmail was On Board and Ready for Takeoff!
Within a week, I made the spontaneous decision to show him to a client as a developing Grand Prix horse with quite a nice price tag. Yeah, he was doing ones, twos, pirouettes, piaffe, passage, the zigzag and a damn peppy extended trot!
Now Rita, the absolute joy I get from showing off a successful training job has led me to some regretful decisions in my life. I should learn not to brag. Of course the buyer loved him, and suddenly I realized what I was about to lose. This horse—this normal, average amateur’s horse—had pulled me out of the darkness of losing Cadillac into the light of riding again. He still did not compare to the raw awesomeness of Cadillac, but dammit, Rita, this horse was offering me a peek at rideability and ambition that I had never seen before.
And, in contrast to W, Hotmail is a horse without ego. While W spends a lot time looking at himself in the mirror and garnering praise with pure cheeky showmanship (yes he is back in work, Rita—wait for it), Hotmail is spritely and serious about the sport and the dance. The mirror does not interest him. He does not care who is watching. Like Baryshnikov, his pure athleticism makes him capable of greatness just for the sake of doing it. Dressage feels good, and he loves it like a snowboarder loves the pipe.
So I waited on the decision of this potential buyer on pins and needles, knowing full well that the deal might or might not go through. One never knows in this business. I knew I would be crushed if he sold, but I kept telling myself to cry all the way to the bank and then get over it. And I kept training him at home while these people tried to reach a decision about purchasing him. They took their sweet time.
Hotmail improved so much in the ensuing weeks that I contacted a few friends and clients to literally BEG for a partner in the horse. I wanted to keep him. But I have never gone back on an agreement in business, and I had already agreed to sell him if I got my price. The only possible ethical excuse to back out of the deal would be to come up with a sponsor for the horse so that I could keep the ride for myself. No one in the business would hold that against me.
Ah Rita, in the end, a few weeks before I left Germany and moved to Florida, Hotmail’s suitor decided not to pursue his purchase. I took him off the market and put him on the plane. He would stay with me for the journey to America.
If you follow me on Facebook , Rita, you know how the story is progressing. Hotmail is advancing in his training like a whirlwind. Every day he gets stronger and gains in confidence. I competed at a small show in White Fences Equestrian Center, Loxahatchee, at Intermediaire II in mid-December. Even though we had some real bloopers, it was FANTASTIC to be back in the show ring on such a clever and peppy horse, and the judge matched my enthusiasm for the ride.
You can imagine my joy and relief to discover that the arenas at WFEC, located only ½ mile from my stable in Florida, have perfect footing and a lovely atmosphere. Yes, Rita, I did say PERFECT FOOTING. White Fences Equestrian Center matches the likes of the best international shows in Europe. I’ve come home. On a damn cool horse.
My goal with Hotmail is to start in the Grand Prix with him in 2013. But I also know that patience and steadiness are qualities I have to call up in myself right now. (Eight months, Rita, from third level to Intermediaire II and getting stronger and more expressive every day! Calm down, Girl. Steady as she goes.) I have to keep both feet on the ground and proceed with wisdom. I have to take a deep breath and let future progress come to us, not grasp after it like a thirsty man at the well.
I bow to this horse and his talent. I don’t know what the future will bring for us competitively, but Hotmail has already won a place in my heart. All horses are gifts, Rita. It pays to remember that.
Happy New Year to y’all!
I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m saying it like it is from Wellington, Fla.
Training Tip of the Day: Do you know how to create impulsion with reinback? Figure it out. Power and energy will be at your fingertips.