COTH Horse Show Dad: Meet The Dark Lord Of Show Jumping

Oct 7, 2016 - 3:19 AM

People ask me if I ever get a little bit scared.

He’s an off-the-track Thoroughbred, foaled in Michigan in 2002, named Aerospeed, and raced seven times over the summer of 2005. He’s got more than a couple drops of Native Dancer’s blood, but neither the results nor the racing charts suggest that the racetrack was where he belonged.

He seems to miss it though. It was there, one imagines, that he learned what he takes to be one of life’s great lessons. That lesson is that there is a single solution to any problem the world might send your way. That solution is this: Go faster.

Audrey and the Dark Lord. Or, in his finer moments, Alex. Photo by Karis Munley / Swan Studios LLC

He got sold for $450 in the fall of 2005 and eventually made his way to Millcreek Farm. His name now is Legado, even though Aerospeed still seems to fit, and he’s known in the barn as Alex. I’m not sure where he got his pilot’s license.

Emma Alhalel, his prior owner, tells two stories. You need to know one small bit of background to appreciate the first, which is that the ring at Millcreek does not have a fence around it. Early on she was riding him in a lesson and, after jumping a round, asked him to halt at the end of the ring.  He finally came to a stop in the parking lot, a good 75 yards away. 

“That,” she says, “was one of the first times I remember riding him thinking ‘[some words we won’t include here].’ There were several more of those moments to follow.”

The second story is about the time when another rider from the barn showed him in a jumper class. He had two refusals “but they were flying so fast they ended with nothing even close to a time fault.” Somewhere along the line they started to call him The Dark Lord of Show Jumping.

Now let me tell you about Audrey. She was also born in 2002, and at 5 years old she followed her sister Ada into the horse world. Their first instructor, Bernadette Ruckdashel, forbids her students from saying “I can’t.” For Audrey it was just a reminder.

I often think of a moment from when she was very little. I was working on the computer and she was on the floor next to me, playing with some sort of bag or backpack. It had a strap that fastens with one of those plastic buckles that snaps together but requires pushing on both sides to take apart. She snapped it together and I took it apart. 

She snapped it together again and then started working on getting it apart herself. She’d get frustrated and start to hand it to me, then take it back before I could get it. She wanted to do it herself, and after not too long she figured it out. 

A few years later she used a similar method—try, fail, try again—to teach herself how to ride a bike. It wasn’t long before she was riding up and down our block singing about love at the top of her lungs.

Audrey is not the sort to back away from a challenge, especially where horses are involved. She’s ridden through run-outs and refusals, dramatic falls, and two different ponies bolting out of a ring with her in the saddle, in one case taking her on an impromptu tour of a show facility. We’ve spent a night together in the hospital after a fall. She has never hesitated to get back on.

Looking back, it’s no surprise she was drawn to Alex. What was it about him? “Speed,” she immediately says with a laugh and a sly smile, then pauses for a moment and adds, “That’s actually probably true. Speed, and he looked fun to ride.”

She rode him a few times in lessons. There are videos that I won’t share. 

They’d get a couple jumps into a course and he’d feel the need for speed. The only thing that kept them out of the parking lot was the fact that it was winter and they were riding indoors. That’s when the question started coming. Do you ever get a little bit scared?

Audrey and Alex in a lesson together.

Like most horse-crazy kids, Audrey wants to ride all the horses, and I’ll admit that I didn’t immediately pick up on her attraction to Alex. But then he went out on lease, and she posted a love letter of sorts to him beneath a picture of them on Instagram. “Riding him I felt like I could do anything. Words cannot say how much I love and miss this horse.”

From there it was all about lucky breaks. Whoever had leased him decided not to buy. He came back, and in November he became hers.

The time since has featured hard work, slow progress, and what seems to have been a thousand different bit and bridle combinations. I can barely walk down the hall without imagining that our trainer Serah Vogus is just out of the picture imploring me to keep my hands up and my heels down. 

Their first show, in February, was a struggle. There were a couple classes where Alex might have run past more jumps than he went over (or so it seemed). But still, there at the end of the day was Audrey on Instagram: “Today may have been a bit rough (to say the least) but we stuck with it and didn’t give up. … Tomorrow’s always another chance to improve!”

And improve they have. Week by week, lesson by lesson, and show by show. At an outing in late August, Audrey and Alex were reserve champion in the low children’s jumpers and made their debut in the high children’s jumpers with a pair of double-clear rounds. He was a perfect gentleman—though the sort with a definite spring in his step.

Compatibility’s a funny thing. We see it with people all the time. Opposites attract—but only sometimes. There are people with whom we share lots of interests that we just can’t quite ever connect with. There are those we’ve only just met who we can talk to like lifelong friends. Others make us uneasy from the moment we shake their hand. It’s a mystery, hard to predict and even harder to put into words.

So it seems to be with horses and riders. Several times in his autobiography George Morris talks about horses that would go well with one rider but not others of equal skill. Why? 

Who knows? I don’t have enough knowledge of riding to even begin to offer thoughts about why one rider’s talents might not mesh so well with a specific horse. But I suspect that any story that any of us could tell would be incomplete, and that the only way to know for sure is to try. Audrey tried, and it seems to be working.

So do I ever get a little bit scared?

The question always takes me a little bit by surprise. And makes me wonder whether I’m doing this parenting thing right. Because the answer is no. I don’t get scared.

Why? Partly because I grew up around large animals, and have spent more than a decade around jumping horses. The risks are familiar and so probably less fearsome seeming. 

Partly because I’ve never detected a hint of malice in Alex’s antics. He’s not out to lose his riders and is, as far as dark lords of anything go, about as benevolent and big-hearted as they come. Mostly because Audrey has never seemed to be having anything but fun. If she’s not scared, I’m not scared.

Magic can happen when a rider, a trainer, and a horse all believe in one another. I’ve seen it before, and I think I might be seeing it again. Stay tuned.

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s blogs for the Chronicle.


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