(*Before we begin, an author’s note: I came up with this blog’s clever title as a reference to the late 90s rom-com, but really, it should be called “How Lauren Got Her &#$! Together And Is, Slowly But Surely, Learning How To Ride Her Nice Horse.” But that has less of a ring to it. Carry on.)
Ella came home with me in January of 2006. She was 5. I was 21. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing.
I got incredible help from lots of people—Lendon Gray, with whom I trained while in college; Roz Kinstler, my wonderful friend who helped me my first winter in Florida when I was trying to figure out what the heck I was doing; Pam Goodrich, the first person to drive it home to me that riding horses and training horses are different skills; Scott Hassler, the first person to tell me Ella was really special.
But I didn’t know enough to know what I needed, which was, among other things, a consistent plan. I needed one training plan, and for me, that should have been with one trainer, not a collection of people, wonderful as all of those people were and are, because that’s how my brain works best. I also needed faith, because there’s a time in the life of everything that works where it doesn’t work; every time Ella would go through one of the inevitable plateaus or setbacks that all, and I repeat ALL, young and developing horses go through, I would panic and change my approach. And every time I did, I left a little hole in her training.
How she got to Grand Prix with me flailing about is a great testament to her tremendous character and innate talent, and I had some successes, but I found myself really struggling. I needed an intervention.
Ella went to Michael, who helped fill in those holes. She got stronger. She got confident.
I developed Midgey to Grand Prix, learning from my mistakes with Ella, staying the course even when things got tough, and developed both a framework for myself on how horses should go up the levels properly, as well as the confidence to know that I could do it. I developed Fender and Fiero to FEI, made big training developments on a few other horses both of my own and of clients. I got skills. Ella did too.
And when we got back together, she might as well have been a stranger to me.
It was a funny adjustment. I knew all these things about her, that she likes being bathed in almost-scalding-hot water even when it’s the middle of summer and it’s almost-scalding-hot outside, that she likes banana peels, that she prefers supplements in her nighttime grain instead of her morning grain, that she will almost run onto a trailer if you let her.
But in other ways, she was completely new: the approach to the piaffe and passage and transitions, the way I ride the trot half-pass, the feeling she gives me when she’s tired and how, even though that feeling isn’t very good, she’ll never ever quit and I should trust her.
I tell my clients all the time that it takes a year to really know a new horse. I don’t know if it’ll take me a year to learn Ella-the-new, but since I took over the ride in early March, she’s helped me go from hot mess to remarkably organized. Our first show, about a month ago, was a bit of a train wreck, with a piddly 65 percent in the Grand Prix (I hear you out there saying, “Jeez Louise, I would KILL to get 65 percent in the Grand Prix!” And I appreciate that, but for Ella, that’s really unimpressive—she is so much better than that!).
The next weekend we showed she was on almost 69 percent in the Grand Prix and almost 70 percent in the Grand Prix Special. My transitions are tighter, crisper. The base trot and canter are sharper. Her walk is more fluid. I have a better plan for how the test should flow.
In short: I’m getting my groove back.
It hasn’t simply been about time. In the beginning, I never EVER rode her unsupervised; I am so grateful for the month-ish I had with her at Michael’s in Florida, where Michael or Vera could watch me every day. I’ve also had lessons with Michael roughly every two weeks since, including a tune-up ride at his house about a month ago, which was CRUCIAL.
This nonsense of “Oh, the horse knows more than me, he’ll teach me!” is just that—nonsense. Humans are much better teachers of humans than horses.
And in the in-between periods, I had my staff video the heck out of me. The first month I had Ella home I had someone video me almost every day, and I would sit down and watch them. It was awful. My reins are so long! My leg is so unsteady! And my god, will you lay off the FOOD?!?!?!
But sure enough, things got better. My leg is better. My seat is better. My reins are… still too long, but they are better, and I’m on the warpath, complete with awesome baling-twine neck rope action (more on that next week!) until I can figure out how to get it together. (Still haven’t laid off the food, but I have discovered Better Living Through Spanx, so that’s as good as it’ll get for now.)
And there’s more lessons, more videos, more ups and, inevitably, a few more downs until I get it all right, if not all of the time, at least most of the time.
But I have a plan. I have a coach, I have a team, and I have a horse who, in spite of it all (and by “it all,” I obviously mean “me”), is continuing to give me the learning experience of a lifetime. Not only might we end up being quite good, but she’s making every horse who’s come after her, and every horse who will continue to come after her, possible. What a tremendous creature she is!