Just Because You Can Dodge Bullets Doesn’t Mean You Can Jump A Straight Line

Jun 18, 2018 - 3:04 PM

When I was 27, I embedded with the Colombian military to infil­trate the jungle stronghold of a guerrilla rebel group.

At 28, I was caught in a midnight gun battle in Caracas between police and protestors when the Venezuelan government decided to shut down the nation’s last free broadcast news station.

At 29, I went along for a series of drug raids with the Federales in Mexico. I was five months pregnant.

But I can’t turn my horse left.

I cannot get around a course without going either too fast, causing rails, or too slow, incurring time faults.

And I certainly can’t get through a whole show without enduring an embarrassing buck-fest from my 6-year-old warmblood simply because I had the audacity to put my right leg on … appar­ently the wrong way.

“At 29, I went along for a series of drug raids with the Federales in Mexico. I was five months pregnant. But I can’t turn my horse left.” Photo by www.3rdshutter.com.

In my career as a broadcast journalist-turned-network-executive, I have been tasked with telling important stories, resulting in some extraordinary—and extraordinarily dangerous—experi­ences. And I’ve survived them. For better or worse, my many adventures have fostered in me a certain sense of invincibility.

So when I returned to riding 2 1/2 years ago after a 22-year hiatus, I thought that my strong work ethic and “take no prisoners” attitude would be a good match for the jumper ring. Never mind that my main reasons for heading back to the barn were simply to seek relaxation and start a family sport with my 9-year-old daughter. Going fast without knocking sticks down? I got this. Being followed by the Venezuelan secret service and dodging land mines in La Macarena National Forest SURELY made me a jumper candidate. Or, to quote a line from “Jerry Maguire”: “I did the 23-hour nose-route to the top of El Capitan in six hours and 18 minutes! I can make this work.”

I had success early on in the puddle-jumpers. I moved up quickly and enjoyed more success in the low adults. With my “I have a flak jacket that hangs next to a pencil skirt in my closet” atti­tude, I was thrilled when my trainer moved me up to the high adults.

How hard could it be?

Double Down And Fix It

If you’ve a) read this far, b) are an amateur like me, and c) have ever walked a course that had you threatening to hunt down the course designer to demand a re-measure because if those fences are 3’7″ well then damnit I’m an elf, then hopefully you are laughing at the folly of my audacity. I mean, for SURE it can’t be that hard to take a green 6-year-old who likes to buck 1.50 meters around a 1.10-meter course, right? Also, have I mentioned that I’m an amateur who, two years ago, literally didn’t remember the difference between the hunter, jumper and equita­tion rings? (My trainer had to give me a 20-minute sitdown refresher lesson.)

So off we went, my 17.1-hand 6-year-old and I, to our first show in the high adult division. It went well, and we came back with some lovely ribbons. It could only get better from here right?


We started struggling. I couldn’t jump straight. Right rollbacks would lead to getting in so crooked my horse had to leap to avoid careening into a standard. I was routinely getting jumped out of the saddle. I couldn’t get enough pace to get the right strides in a line but then got so much going into a combination that I’d take down a fence. Just rail after rail. My courses started looking like a painted pole graveyard when I was through with them. Those two little holes up the standard amplified all my mistakes and bad habits, habits that I’d gotten away with at lower heights but now were ruining almost every fence.

OK, I thought. Just tackle this the way you have solved other problems. Learn every­thing you can and then practice until you have gotten down to the bottom of the problem. Then FIX IT.

So as with everything my whole life, I dove in headfirst. I stayed up late reading books on the American verses European jumping systems. I changed bits, bridles, nosebands. I wore shoulders-back harnesses. I wore back braces. In an attempt to fix our crookedness, I added more chiropractor sessions for my horse and started physical therapy for myself. I used more draw reins; I used less draw reins. I wore spurs; I didn’t wear spurs. I rode without stirrups. I rode without a saddle. I did cavaletti obsessively. I started running to improve my cardio, then had to quit when my back gave out.

Dressage! Surely more dressage would fix this, I thought. I was already taking one lesson a week with a dres­sage trainer. Double down, I told myself.

A note about my dressage trainer: She is talented, driven and rarely edits anything she says. She has her students wear earpieces so that she can constantly correct every detail of their rides for an hour and 15 minutes. No hiding at the far side of the ring, pretending you didn’t hear her.

This is a sampling of what five minutes of a dressage lesson sounds like:

“Loosen yourself you’re holding your right knee loosen it sit back no don’t LEAN back SIT back, hold your chin well that’s TOO high OK now counter bend no not that much just til you see his eye good good check that right rein! Check it! He’s being rude drop your left hip more more you’re not going to fall off relax your hip good boy good boy shorten your reins straight line elbow to bit you’re holding your wrists too low now reverse don’t look so far ahead you’re not on a jumper course more outside rein outside rein! Turn with your outside aids no loosen your right knee you feel that? Feel that? Good boy nope you’re losing his right shoulder stop scrunching your hip your toes are too turned out but no you fixed the toes now your knee is clinging why are you hovering stop hovering sit back …. ”

That’s five minutes.

After one particularly hard week of loosening my hips and straightening my arms and relaxing my hips and checking my right rein, I had had it. I had done everything I was told to do for months, in below freezing weather, in snow, in the dark after work when I couldn’t get to the barn before 8 p.m. I had worked so hard to fix all the prob­lems to achieve my goals.

Relief And Freedom

And then a moment of clarity.

“Achieve my goals.” That was the problem. I was treating my riding—the sport I had rediscovered in order to relieve stress and spend more time with my daughter—like a rung to be climbed on the corporate ladder, an exam I had to ace, a battle that I had to win. I was applying the same intensity that I had used to stay alive in the Colombian jungle to some­thing that was supposed to be just for fun. And the worst part was I had a 6-year-old horse as a hostage.

“I was treating my riding—the sport I had rediscovered in order to relieve stress and spend more time with my daughter—like a rung to be climbed on the corporate ladder, an exam I had to ace, a battle that I had to win.”

You know that feeling when all of the sudden everything seems clear, and you know exactly what to do? It’s a feeling of relief and freedom. I wrote a note to my trainer and thanked her for her hard work but told her that I was taking myself down a level for a little while. I was going to stop plotting my next achievement and instead just do what I felt comfortable with.

I went to see my horse and found him lying down. We didn’t work that day. We took a nap in his stall. And then the next day we took a hack. We walked a long time, and for the first time in months, I just rode without a motive. It was wonderful.

So while some amateurs dream of winning the NAL championship, I dream of jumping in a straight line. While others fantasize about their first regional grand prix, I fantasize about doing a rollback in stride. I’ve spent my whole adult life planning and strategizing for the next story and the next career move. But today, I have a new plan: I’m choosing not to have one at all.

Meet the Chronicle’s newest blogger, Nora Zimmett. She’s a television executive who lives in Atlanta with her incred­ibly understanding husband and her pony-crazy daughter. Her goals include finding distances with some degree of accuracy, remembering her courses, and not being jumped out of the tack. She is currently outnumbered by her animals.

This article appeared in the June 18 & 25, 2018, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.

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