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August 21, 2013

Blinding Ambition

When Paige Cade finally realized Corey might like a job change, a big smile came over her face. Photo by Robert Cade.

Sometimes, when you want something badly, you go blind. I wanted my sweet, earnest horse to be the one that took me into the big leagues. Well, maybe not the big leagues, but at least a sincere step up from peewee baby jumper-land.

As usual, I had a very limited (practically non-existent) budget that didn’t allow for a tour of Europe or a horse with a passport. So about a year and half ago, Corey walked off the racetrack and into my life—tall, furry, a little skinny, greener than grass and with more scope than I’d ever ridden.

Despite my protests and vague attempts to distance myself from him, Corey undid me. He woke the kid in me who loved her pony so fiercely that the idea of selling, leasing, or otherwise no longer knowing said pony was inconceivable. His kind eyes, soft pink nose and the way his ears twitched forward in eager anticipation of a Rice Krispies treat pushed me over the edge. And I got swept up in the fairy tale that this beloved heart horse would conveniently be the one that I jumped real deal jumps on.

Scope is a funny thing. I wish that no one had told me how much jump he had. I wish people had said he was a crappy jumper, or told me that he’d never amount to anything. I wanted so badly to jump big sticks that I went blind. Not to say that I over-faced the horse, I didn’t, but I did put an incredible amount of pressure on our partnership. I felt that as a normal human with student debt and no trust fund, this horse was my only chance to ever step into the big leagues.

In doing so, I had complete tunnel vision. I only saw Corey as a show jumper. And yet, every day at Tebogo I would keep an open mind about the young horses. All the Tebogo prospects cross-country school, they go to combined tests (yes, even our show hunters), and we determine which vocation suits their abilities best. We want these horses to be successful in their new careers because, generally speaking, they’ve already failed as race horses. We don’t want them to fail again. In my selfish, blind desire to have an upper-level jumper, I had abandoned my protocol with a green horse. I hadn’t given Corey the normal low-pressure exposure to a variety of disciplines to see what HE wanted to do. I was blinded by what I wanted to do.

I jokingly call him the king of the meter. He’s regularly schooled much higher—we’ve jumped some serious jumps—but whenever the time comes to move up at the horse show the pressure is just too much. He’s never mean, which in some ways makes all of this so much harder. It would be easier if he were just one of those dirty rotten mean horses.

But he’s not. He’s delightful and kind. It was after an especially frustrating outing this spring where I had the best 1.0-meter trip of my life and the worst 1.10-meter trip on the same day, in the same ring, over the same jumps, that I decided it was time to stop trying to fit the circle into the square. I don’t ever want to feel like I have to light my horse’s tail on fire to get around at the horse show.

So I came home and opened my eyes. I realized how unfair I had been to him. How was he alone supposed to carry the burden of all my hopes and dreams? Innate talent in a horse doesn’t necessarily equate to performance under pressure. And just because a horse can do something doesn’t mean they should be doing it. I had never given him the chance to show me what he wanted to do. I went back to the basics and took him cross-country schooling, just like I do with all the babies a few weeks into their training. And for the first time in a long time my horse was jumping around and I was smiling. I had taken the pressure off completely and let him show me what he could do. Low and behold, my talented but tense horse had turned to butter and was easily hopping up and down banks, over ditches and through the water without hesitation.

I told my boss that I thought Corey might want to be an event horse. She laughed and said, “I know, he was born to do that job.” I had just never given him the chance. So I didn’t send entries in for the next jumper show on my schedule; instead we’ll be going beginner novice at the next event.  I’ve been fortunate enough at Tebogo to dabble in eventing with a few young horses, so thankfully, I grasp the general concept of a dressage test and a ride time. The funny little plastic arm bands and fluorescent coordinating equipment still baffle me, but I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. 

Hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.