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November 29, 2011

No Matter The Horse Sport, We Share The Same Challenges And Rewards

A change of equestrian discipline just brings into focus the things that all horse people share. Photo by Lexey Hall.

Now that indoors are over, I’ve been enjoying some relatively quiet downtime at home and starting to regroup for the new show season. I've also been competing vicariously through a different discipline’s version of indoors—the NRHA Futurity in Oklahoma City.

I was always fascinated by reining and western horses in general, even before I actually gave it a try about 2½ years ago. It was total role reversal for me at first—I felt like a beginner rider who could mentally process what my trainer was telling me but couldn't seem to physically coordinate my aids and timing correctly.

I had never even sat in a western saddle before, and everything that was so second nature to me as an English rider was wrong. My legs were supposed to be loose, my seat was supposed to be deep and heavy, and my hip angle was supposed to be open. I was only supposed to ride with one hand and not keep any kind of consistent pressure on the horse. Not exactly the way I was used to riding my hunters and jumpers!

And yet I was hooked from Day 1. I was starting at the very beginning, but I was so eager to learn and get better as quickly as I could. There was just something about taking on a new challenge and a new type of horse. I felt like I was learning to ride all over again. It was a whole new world for me—from learning how to tack up my horse to actually doing the reining maneuvers to knowing the rules of the show pen. And the clothes... who would’ve ever thought that the girl who only showed in white and navy could embrace sparkles and fringe!

I progressed from a local lesson barn to a more competitive show stable. Even though I initially got into reining for fun and for the sake of learning something new with horses, I wanted to get a quality foundation and surround myself with good people. I even bought a horse that could help teach me the ropes and give me some show experience.

Horses are really such a binding force. It was a bit intimidating for me at the reining shows at first, not knowing many people or the ins and outs of the sport. However, I quickly realized that the big things were the same as at the horse shows I was accustomed to. Horses are horses, and so are the people who love them. Everyone was striving to care for and prepare their horses as best they could. There were good rounds to be happy with and mistakes to learn from. It took the same focus to run a pattern as it did to jump a course. It was fun to start to pick up on the nuances that make a certain reining horse special or a certain run earn a high score.

Sadly, I’ve recently had to scale back my time spent with the reining horses. I just don’t have the time to do everything right now, and the priorities, of course, are my customers and horses at Sleepy Hollow. My wonderful reining horse has gone on to teach another up-and-coming rider. I still ride whenever I can fit it in, though not nearly as much as I would like. I really hope to somehow get back to it one day and to compete on a high level.

I love watching the Futurity online, and not just because it’s exciting and inspiring to see so many top horses and riders. I got enough of a taste for the sport to have a huge appreciation for all that goes on behind the scenes.

Even though we are training our horses to do different things, we face many of the same obstacles. No matter what discipline you are competing in, it is hard to get to and stay at the top. It takes a lot of talent and hard work to get good results in the show ring, particularly in a situation like the Futurity, where there are such young horses involved. Some of them will step up to the plate and really shine, while others have all the right qualities but make green mistakes. Some of them will come home frazzled from the experience, while others will grow from it and go on to be amazing derby horses next year. With horses it is always about being present in the journey and responsibly guiding them as best you can.    

Jennifer Berol Bliss had a very successful junior career, which included achievements such as earning USEF Pony Finals championships, national championships in the pony and junior hunter divisions, and top 15 placings in all the major equitation finals. She ran her own business, Harris Hill Farm, from 2007 until 2011. In September 2011, she joined Sleepy Hollow Stables in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., as a rider and trainer. Jennifer is a USHJA Certified Trainer, as well as a member of the USHJA Young Professionals Committee.