It was close to 20 years ago when I first rode in Jimmy Wofford’s famed (infamous) Hell Week. Back then, it sounded like a fun idea—six straight days of longe lessons during a week in January, where your horse had no reins and your saddle had no stirrups, and you partnered with a trusted rider on a trusted horse (meh, more or less). We met in Jimmy’s indoor at Fox Covert in Upperville, Virginia, after I had ridden upwards of 15 race horses in the morning, exercised staff horses for a local hunt, and schooled my own advanced horse. Ah, youth.
There is, sadly, no footage of that particular week. We didn’t have camera phones or spectators, just our own memories of laugh-tears, incredibly sore muscles, a few tumbles (mostly mine), and absolute relief when a snowstorm made roads impassible on the final day. So, in other words, mild PTSD.
And then, 20 years flew on by. During that brief span of time, I got to do some neat things with horses, I got married, we had kids, we raised them through a few years of significant illnesses and lengthy hospital stays, and for me, several years without riding. And now, it is 2021. (Poof! Am I right?)
After the year that was 2020, Hell Week 2021 seemed like a pretty good idea. What could go wrong?
We gathered two teams, and no one was allowed to be under 35 years old, just to keep it fair. We dubbed it “Old Person’s Hell Week,” and the lucky participants were Amanda Cousins of ACE Equestrian, Courtney Olmstead of LCO Eventing, and me and my husband, Tom, of Pacific Farms. I realize that none of us are technically old, and that age is just a number, and that that number shouldn’t stop us from anything, especially in horses.
But as the clock ticked along during our longe lesson week, and I thought back to the exercises from, ahem, my misspent youth, I think we all felt like Hell Week was for “those people”—people younger than us, better than us, certainly more agile than us. It was kind of like going to a club you frequented in college (or, *cough cough* working student days) and realizing you’re not 20 (oh, I mean 21) anymore.
That’s a funny moment, isn’t it? That moment when you realize that the ’90s were over 20 years ago, and not just a few. There’s a little internal war between how you feel and maybe what the world tells you. It’s not exclusive to mothers, but I would bet it’s exacerbated by motherhood.
Something we have done many times in our business is help a woman return to riding after setting it aside for years in order to raise her children, and we love to facilitate that. When our son was ill, my husband kept the business running, and I barely rode for about five years. When I was able to return to riding, it took some time to get my groove back, my confidence, my body awareness, my memory of what I was capable of. Those five years aren’t much compared to the 20, 30 or 40 years that some others have experienced, but when you’ve spent so many hours and so many years in the saddle, a sudden hiatus and relatively quick return can be jarring.
Before kids, the rider in me sat on anything under the sun, jumped ridiculously big jumps bareback (on a shark-finned horse, no less), loved breezing race horses, and never gave a second thought to heading out on a young horse by myself without a cell phone. That girl also rode with broken arms, collarbones, fingers, etc., so don’t give her too much credit.
The rider in me now is not first a rider. I am a wife, mother, business owner, farm owner, and the list goes on. It’s very easy to allow myself to fall into a trap of having timed out of certain things. Hell Week turned out to be a fun way to remind myself that I am more than capable, that I’m a better rider than I was in my teens (one would hope, but still), that Pilates is important, and that with age comes wisdom.
This does not mean that each day was full of rainbows and unicorns. On second thought, each day was full of unicorns. The chosen horses were spectacular and added multiple zeros to any potential price tag and a whole new marketing aspect for their talents. Rainbows? Only visible when the morning sun shone through the mist of our tears.
Amanda Cousins wrote a great piece for Jumper Nation on the details of the exercises we performed, from ankle rolls to arm windmills, body twisters, two-point, posting, imaginary reins, side saddle with legs to both directions, and canter sit-ups. Boy, that escalated quickly. My experience was perhaps a bit more emotional, maybe nostalgic, maybe embarrassingly so, in hindsight, and I believe many riders can identify in some way. It became empowering and humbling all at the same time.
I believe all riders should aspire to be the best athlete they can be, in the saddle and out. Many of our clients regularly tease me for my “mom voice” when I can’t help but find a teaching moment during a lazy Sunday hack. And I appreciate their patience and good humor with my inability to “let things go.”
But I do believe in education, and I don’t believe we should expect more of our horses than we do ourselves. I can’t expect a horse to be soft in the bridle if I’m not soft with my hands. I can’t expect them to move through their backs if I’m not mobile through my seat. I can’t expect them to move off my leg if I can’t control my legs apart from other parts of my body. I can’t expect them to know where I’d like them to go if I’m unable to look. And I can’t expect the horse to understand what I’m asking if I’m not speaking a language they understand, which is body language.
I can’t speak body language if I can’t control my body. This is a lifelong endeavor and one I enjoy. Hell Week helps us separate each of these elements, on the horse.
This is similar (though a step up or 12) to what we do with our “Position Matters” clinic series, where we work exercises on the ground using mats and balls, before moving to horses, to identify all the independent aids. I always say, during those clinics, that the old thinking is an “independent leg, seat and hands.” But what about the toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, right and left butt, belly button, chest, breath, wing bones (those are a thing), shoulders, neck, chin, jaw, tongue, eyes, upper arm, elbows, forearm, wrists, fingers? Oy vey. It could be daunting but take heart. This is all trainable, and the result is keeping us more functional throughout the inevitable aging process. It works not just our bodies, but our brains. Like a sudoku puzzle for the whole unit.
Now, while we may be comfortable tackling Jimmy Wofford’s Hell Week, please remember that we train with him year-round and trust him immensely. Not every rider needs to perform acrobatics (though some of the more mild versions can increase your trust in the horse and yourself).
But we should be challenged to maneuver our bodies with the horse, to become a centaur instead of perched atop and far away. Longe lessons at the halt and walk can be hugely beneficial to absolutely every single rider, no matter the experience. There are a few things to remember:
– The horse, as always, but even more so during a longe lesson, deserves the most praise, the most accolades, the most adoration of everyone around. Praise your horse. They are a gift. Also, pick the right one.
– There is nothing more stressful than holding a longe line attached to a cantering animal who is carrying your spouse or one of your best friends, whilst they cling precipitously to the side as Jimmy is yelling, “Swing your hips!” You think riding is hard; try being responsible.
– If you can’t control your own body, then it is foolish to believe we are controlling a horse. To positively affect the horse, we have to be able to intentionally affect the horse.
– Ego has no room in a longe lesson. Pride will eventually end up in the dirt, so you may as well leave it there to begin with.
– Full-seat breeches in any form are a bad idea during a longe lesson. They stick when you don’t want them to. Ask me how I know.
– No spurs.
– Solidarity is important. If one of you is going down, you may as well all go down together.
– Surround yourselves with a community who cheers you on, lends encouragement, texts you at night and tells you you did a great job, sends you arnica and maybe a bottle of wine.
– Have a coach who instills such confidence that you believe not only that you could perform such acts, but that you should. Also who makes you T-shirts.
Clare and Tom Mansmann operate Pacific Farms, Inc. in Hume, Virginia, where they ride and train a variety of horses but specialize in off-track Thoroughbreds.