Friday, Apr. 19, 2024

Coming Full Circle

I allowed horses back into my life in March of 1999. I use the word “allowed,” because I had successfully kept my heart shut to them since 1980, when I was 16 years old. At that time, my first horse died overnight in a freak accident. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe my condition, and only much later as an adult did I realize the depth of my depression at the time.
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I allowed horses back into my life in March of 1999. I use the word “allowed,” because I had successfully kept my heart shut to them since 1980, when I was 16 years old. At that time, my first horse died overnight in a freak accident. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe my condition, and only much later as an adult did I realize the depth of my depression at the time.

This loss is something only horse people have the capacity to understand. Overnight my world, the only world I truly cared for, was gone. With college plans looming, my family’s resources couldn’t provide me the opportunity to “get back on,” and I was unwilling to face the inevitable return of such intense grief. Instead, I went to college, started a marriage and established a career.

Life has an interesting way of making sure you learn your lessons. My road back to horses began as a result of an equally painful and uncontrollable situation—my infertility. More than a decade later, my husband and I spent six years and a ridiculous investment of resources attempting to have a biological child. It wasn’t meant to be, and after our last failed procedure, we agreed to let it go, giving ourselves permission and time to heal. That was in February of 1999.

It was a 10-year-old child, my dear friend’s daughter Colleen, who showed me the way back. The previous summer, Colleen had been in her first horse show at Paper Chase Farm (Va.), and I went to offer my support.

Nine months later, from a place of despair seeking relief for my soul, I picked up the phone and scheduled my first evaluation lesson at Paper Chase.  I would simply try it again, see what riding a schoolie would mean to me as an adult. I could leave anytime, no commitments, no best friends dying on me overnight.

The rapidity with which my full-fledged obsession returned was a surprise and not just to me. My husband and all of my post-childhood friends were immediately introduced to a new world and a new level of intensity within me. I relied upon my twice weekly riding lessons to keep my humor. However, I had myself convinced that I was keeping my emotional distance from the horses, remaining in “complete control” until one afternoon 17 months into my reintroduction.

I had been fortunate enough to be riding a very nice Oldenburg gelding who was at the farm to be sold. He was huge (17.1 hands with 10-inch bone and a size 5 shoe), bossy and sour, an upper-level dressage horse who I thought was magnificently handsome, quite difficult and very expensive, particularly for someone who had been absent from the horse world for 19 years! I didn’t know what an Oldenburg was (I had Thoroughbreds growing up), and I could not ride him well.

My 10 years of childhood experience was typical barnyard horsing around mixed in with local hunter showing and, at the end, schooling jumpers. His schooling had to be classical German dressage training given how he responded to the seat, of which I had none at the time. We were a mess together, but I did not care. I wanted to learn how to ride him and had been enjoying my time with him until he inevitably sold.

My husband, John, had only visited the barn to watch my lesson once before, yet he was with me the day one of the instructors mentioned, as we exited the ring, that the owner had dropped the price of this horse by a factor of seven due to his attitude and her strong desire to unload him quickly. John overheard, as I thought, “Well it won’t be long now before someone scoops him up.”

I dismounted and John said, “You need to buy this horse. He will make you so happy.”

Panic ensued within me. Buy a horse? Silly no-horse-experience man, what does he know? Open myself up to certain intense heartbreak? How does one make enough time for a husband, rescued dogs, a demanding full-time job and commuting to see one’s horse? There were plenty of reasons not to, and I argued my point. I tried to warn him how much time, money and emotional bandwidth horses consume. Fortunately, I have a husband who insisted that I live with my heart, not from my head, and stop allowing my fear to rule. To say that I love him is an understatement.

So on Aug. 11, 2000, I bought Winnetou (known as Chief around the barn), age 10. I couldn’t really ride him, as I did not ride dressage and he did not know how to jump more than one fence at a time (or safely for that matter). I had no aspirations to do anything other than love him and enjoy hacking out. My
veterinarian passed his pre-purchase exam under these expected use conditions (he is clinically sound but suffers from DJD in his hocks, a class 3 roar and an OCD in his left stifle among other more recently discovered physical challenges).

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I was the proud new owner of a big, bossy, soured dressage horse that I couldn’t really ride, who would not willingly walk down the driveway much less hack out. What was I thinking?

Off And Running
I’m one of those people who are either “head over heels” or “not in the building,” so after having flipped the switch back to horse “ownership,” my heart broke wide open and tripled in size—a lot like the Grinch at Christmas time.

My affection poured out to Chief in ways that he clearly had not previously experienced. He soaked it up, and our love for and trust in each other grew. Even still, it took more than two years before he trusted me enough to willingly hack without equine companionship.

It was during this time of slow progress, and I’m not sure exactly how it happened, that I decided it would be fun to try eventing. After all, I had a horse who could, theoretically, manage the entry level dressage (teaching me along the way), and it looked like so much fun. And so we began, in April 2002, working with our new trainer, Carolyn Daughters. We did our first event in October of 2003 at CDCTA (Va.). Chief looked at every jump judge and change in footing on cross-country (resulting in a technical stop at a small bank), but we finished safely, and we were hooked.

We had more than a few kinks to work out. At our next horse trial, I went off course in show jumping (the one test where I had previous experience!) and got us eliminated. Carolyn talked the TD into allowing us to run cross-country and then had to practically force me to go, as it was only our second event, and my confidence had severely waned. We ended up having the best cross-country school ever. Crossing that finish line after jumping clean was, I suspected, what it must feel like taking the gold at the Olympics.
For the longest time, it felt like we would take one step forward and three steps back in our training, yet perhaps as a result of my tenured departure from horses, I found it relatively easy to enjoy all of our struggles and accomplishments, no matter how significant or small.

I am consistently challenged by my relentless work ethic, to the point where I have had to train myself to allow things to happen rather than trying to make them happen. After all, I remind myself, I have learned better. No matter what the ego tells me, I am not in control of anything other than my own attitudes, behaviors and actions. Horses are exceptional teachers for reinforcing this.

When we get truly stuck, and Chief violently or persistently disagrees, Carolyn and I always give him the benefit of the doubt. This is where having a masterful veterinarian is mandatory. Dr. John Nolan’s exceptional eye and effective communication skills have given us the confidence to train and progress through our rough spots without grave concerns about Chief’s capabilities or well-being. I would not have had the conscience or courage to push Chief through, even for novice level requirements, if it weren’t for Dr. Nolan.

We spent the winter of 2003-04 working on our dressage and show jumping skills with hopes of becoming competitive the following spring. Our dressage progressed nicely (for novice level anyway) largely due to Carolyn’s training and Chief’s previous experience, while show jumping remained a significant challenge.

I endured more than one embarrassment at schooling shows. First of all, when you are riding a horse that is 17.1 hands, a lot of people comment that you should be jumping fences larger than 2’11”. If they watched any of our rounds they quickly realized it was not the size of the fence that was the problem.

On one occasion, Chief spooked at sunlight on the ground immediately upon landing over an oxer, simultaneously propping and bolting sidewise, sending me flying the opposite direction. Another memorable moment involved his unwillingness to move forward after planting himself three strides out from the first fence as he stared at something while the start clock ticked away toward elimination. I managed to smack him back to reality such that we got over that first fence, though 40 seconds is a long time to be grounded without equine cooperation. It was at times like this when I was truly grateful to be jumping 2’11”.

The spring 2004 season and our third horse trial arrived, and Chief now being a bossy know-it-all when jumping and a tourist to boot, ignored me to the point we crashed through a fence in show jumping, both falling.  I was shaken, as it was a bad fall, and we were both lucky not to have been seriously hurt. Maybe he would never jump safely. How would that translate to cross-country? Was this eventing thing really a good idea?

We stuck it out just long enough to get some positive reinforcement and keep us going. At our next horse trial two weeks later, we finished on our dressage score in third place.

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Worth The Work
What ultimately became evident was that my soured upper-level dressage horse was really a cross-country machine that lived for the start box. He tolerates dressage for me, and he’s still bossy and strong in show jumping, but on the cross-country course we are one—well, most of the time. He likes to spook and will evaluate, occasionally requiring a firm immobile position to do so, “funny looking” things while on course, but he has an open, willing mind after being allowed to “review” and a tremendous athletic jump that has saved me more than once.

It’s become somewhat of a game for Carolyn and me, when walking the course, to guess where he may focus and decide to assert his very strong will to assess. What I have discovered is that while acknowledging potential sticky situations allows me to craft “Plan B,” it is critical that I visualize what I want to happen and not what I am afraid I will get. I find that this holds true for everything I do with him. It is not an easy discipline to maintain, particularly when one’s horse has a tremendous and somewhat naughty sense of humor accompanied by impaired vision in the left eye.

Speaking of humor, Chief has consistently reinforced for me the value of the most important rule I have kept for myself since my return to riding. When I’m no longer making progress, enjoying myself, or worse, cannot keep a positive attitude, I stop or change what I am doing. Horses keep you honest here; they can’t and won’t be controlled. How liberating it is to feel free to make that choice in at least one area of my life!

What are you going to do but laugh when 1,500 pounds of horseflesh plays “statue” while the timer continues to run? My conversations with him during such episodes must have entertained plenty of jump judges within earshot.

With Carolyn’s exceptional training and coaching skills, Dr. Nolan’s incredible insight, care and guidance, and my love for and dedication to this horse, we have enjoyed more than I ever thought possible. We won four training level horse trials in a row the following spring, resulting in the 2005 U.S. Eventing Association Area II Training Level Adult Amateur Reserve Champion title, even though we had moved up to pre-liminary that fall.

In spring of 2006, we became more competitive at the preliminary level and were entered in the Morven Park CCI* (Va.) as well as planning a move up to intermediate. Regardless of any accomplishments, we were enjoying the journey together, immensely.

In September 2006 Chief fractured a coffin bone. It is amazing how fast and powerfully bad memories can surface.

The very reason I had kept my distance from these amazing creatures for more than 19 years was here—they will break your heart. The good news is that I am no longer 16 years old, and I have certainly learned that life cannot be controlled. My mantra is “Be Here Now,” and as a result, I have a plethora of excellent and vibrant memories to recall at will. Regardless, the waiting and not knowing remains the hardest to manage, no matter how much practice you have had.

Exactly 26 years after my first loss, the week before Christmas, I got good news instead of bad; Dr. Nolan told me Chief’s fracture had healed completely. We were cleared to begin walking under tack and start Chief back on a program toward regular turn out. I don’t know what’s going to happen, if we will be able to return to eventing or not, but I do know that I am as exuberant during our walks today as I have ever been when flying over a cross-country course with him.

I feel in many respects as though this experience has brought me full circle. Irrespective of what happens in the short term, and certainly far after I have to say my final goodbye to Chief, I enjoy peace knowing that I have fully loved and stayed present with him during our time together. The way forward will be revealed. In the meantime we walk together in the woods, and I know for certain that I will never again be without
horses in my life.

Editors Note: Sharon Odenkirk began eventing Winnetou again in April of 2007, at training level, and is planning to return to the preliminary level at her next event.

Sharon Odenkirk

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