Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Summer Storms And Cicada Songs

As I write this I’m sitting on a packed plane—middle seat, no less—flying back to Pennsylvania after a week of packing up our home and business in California. It’s been a whirlwind trip, and we’ve been trying to make every moment count, which includes taking this red eye in order to ensure that the horses do not miss a precious conditioning day. 

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As I write this I’m sitting on a packed plane—middle seat, no less—flying back to Pennsylvania after a week of packing up our home and business in California. It’s been a whirlwind trip, and we’ve been trying to make every moment count, which includes taking this red eye in order to ensure that the horses do not miss a precious conditioning day. 

If you read my last blog entry, then you know that we recently decided to pull up our West Coast roots and make a home on the other side of the country in an effort to fulfill my lifelong dream of representing the United States in team competition. It’s a huge leap, one that we thought would get easier once the agony of the decision-making process was done, but instead has seemingly gotten exponentially harder with each goodbye that we’ve waved, and each new reality that we’ve faced.

We’ve had to fly back and forth from Pennsylvania to California several times in the last month or so in order to wind down our California lives and prepare to build a life on the opposite coast. This was a leap we were not planning to take, and we are still coming to terms with how it feels to walk away from our friends, families, and everything we have built over the last 15 years for something that may indeed just be a dream. 

If you haven’t been to Northern California’s wine country before, I strongly suggest going sometime. Fog rolls in in the early mornings to keep the day cool, the smell of eucalyptus trees spices the air, and the golden hillsides draw you to the mossy coast. The drive amidst the cliffs and the Giant Redwoods on Highway 1 is one that everyone should be lucky enough to experience in their lives, and one I could take any time I wanted living only 20 minutes away my entire life up to this point.

Bittersweet is the only way that I can describe being back in our home, in our own bed and at our barn that we have poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into. 

Moving Forward
This trip has been an especially emotional one. We saw our clients for the first time in months, some that we’ve been teaching for 10 or more years, some who were so upset by our move that they wouldn’t even talk to us, while others were glad to see us, and gave us strength with their well-wishes and words of support. It was hard to let go as we sat watching the barn empty out and all of the horses load into their trailers to move to new barns with new trainers. Going through the barn and labeling which things need to be shipped east, which things go in the garbage pile, and which need to be sold made our heads spin—so much stuff.  The list felt endless and bigger than us: What to do with the tractor, Gator, drag, cross-country jumps? Ship them? Store them? Sell them? 

We had to force ourselves to quit each evening, as our social calendar was overflowing with frantic dates with friends and family before our return trip home. Getting used to the idea that “home” was now Pennsylvania, and California is the place we visit. It’s difficult to let go of all of this, as much as we feel confident that we have made the right decision for ourselves.

When we arrived weary from the road at 3 a.m. in Pennsylvania at the end of March we thought we knew what to expect. We thought in a few short months we would be donning our road warrior armor once again and commanding Siri to navigate us back to California. We had arranged for a place for the horses to stay for the short term, but had not found a place for ourselves yet. We weren’t thinking about the fact that it might be quite difficult to find a temporary place for two adults, one working student and two dogs, one of them being rather large and intimidating. 

With no viable options, we ended up at a hotel in Kennett Square (one that did not accept dogs and in a room not terribly close to the side exit for quick entrances and exits) for what we thought would only be for a couple of days and ended up being a month. Each night and each morning, after my wife, the lookout, would peek around the corner to make sure that the coast was clear, I would wrap our little dog up in a blanket and carry her with our 100-pound Ridgeback next to me on a tight leash while half walking, half running behind our working student carrying a blanket spread out behind her like she was Superman, all in an effort to try to block anyone who might step out of their room in front of us from seeing the dogs. 

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I’m positive that the people in the office knew exactly what was going on and were probably just watching us act like some bomb-sniffing superhero wannabe morons on a daily basis on some hidden camera in the hallway. This daily charade took its toll on us, and we made what could only be considered a lateral move in to a tiny trailer parked on a fairly extreme slant behind the barn that we’re renting. The quarters are just as close as the hotel, and technically the dogs are still not allowed, but we only have to hide them away every so often when the trailer guy comes out to repair the electrical conversion plugs, which we have become very adept at melting.

Finding Balance
Another unexpected part of this trip has been the steep learning curve I’ve found myself on as I navigate the team selection process. I thought I knew what I was getting myself in to, but have learned some hard and valuable lessons along the way. Our main goal in traveling east originally was to compete in the Jersey Fresh CCI*** in an effort to make a strong bid for the Pan Am team with three qualified horses.

When it comes to team selection I have found myself doing a lot of second-guessing and overthinking, wondering a lot about what the selectors will think about this or that. It is of course important for a rider to understand what the selectors are looking for and what the selection criteria is, but I’ve found that, ultimately for me, it can become very detrimental to my confidence to focus on it too much. After all, selection is totally out of my hands. I have tried to stay focused on what I can control, what my horses need and what I need in order to do our best. 


With BCF Belicoso at the Land Rover Great Meadow Invitational CIC***. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

The hard thing is that what my horses and I need may or may not be in line with what the selectors want. Finding the balance between doing what I need to do in order to make a team and doing what I need to do in order to keep my horses mentally and physically sound and confident, as well as what I need to do to keep me (and my wife) sane, is like performing a high wire act in bad weather. It feels like one misjudged step could easily spell the end. 

As I sat down to finish my thoughts for this blog, a few days after arriving back from California, the Pan Am Games were getting under way. Having been selected as an alternate I was lucky enough to be included at the training camp leading up to the departure for the Games. It was a great experience being at the camp with the team and training with them. I truly believe that we have some of the best riders in the world riding for the Stars and Stripes, and I am humbled and proud to have the opportunity to train with them.

The most difficult day at camp was the departure day when everyone was packed and shipping out to Canada. Their excitement was palpable. I tried to be as supportive as possible but it was honestly a rough day for me. The riders left on Sunday but the horses weren’t leaving until Monday so as an alternate I needed to stay at camp until the horses shipped out. 

That afternoon, after everyone had left for the airport, Cecily and I turned the horses out in a nice grassy field at the incredible High Acre and sat in the shade while they grazed around us. There was something about the summer storm that we could see brewing over the hills of Virginia, a foreign occurrence that we’ve come to accept as normal here on the east coast, or maybe it was the sound of the cicadas singing to each other in the trees, also a new experience for us, made me realize just how much has changed for us in the last six months.  We have gone from being comfortable in an area where we both grew up, having a successful business, and knowing where we stood in the world, to being in a very different world from California, with no business, and an unclear future in an attempt to reach for something that I can’t totally control. 

But I’ve also gone from being a guy who was completely under the radar in the comfort of my hometown, with one CCI*** under my belt, to training with and almost being a part of the United States Pan American team in the matter of a couple of short months, with three amazing upper level horses that I still can’t believe I get to ride every day.  And now I’ve gotten the news that I am the recipient of two grants to travel to my first overseas events at Blenheim Castle in England and Boekelo in the Netherlands, and I honestly just have to shake my head at the basic insanity of it all.   

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That’s Sensational!
On the last day of training camp, David said something to me that I have been thinking about a great deal since: “Don’t make being an alternate a habit.” (Part of me wanted to respond by saying “Well, then tell the selectors to pick me next time around!” But of course I would never say that. Instead I said “Aye, aye, captain!”)

That’s inspired me to think about what things are within my control. Sure, I can’t directly control if I get selected, but I can develop habits to help me perform my best, especially when it really matters.


BCF Belicoso at the Land Rover Great Meadow Invitational CIC***. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

I can control how I am developing my horses. I can control how much effort I put into working on myself, and my riding, every day. I can control my state of mind and how it affects my performance. There is a lot that is within my ability to control. I don’t know if focusing on those things will get me on a team in the future but I do know that if I’m focusing on those things that I will be able to be happy with my effort and feel like I am making progress towards performing at my best. How much more can one want? As long as I choose to focus on those things I hope it will be possible to feel positive about the process and to feel like I am making progress towards my goals.

Deep down I know what my horses are capable of and I know that we have not given our best performances yet. So there is a lot to look forward to. But at the same time it was hard to sit back and watch Team USA leave without us. 

Being here on the East Coast with so much up in the air has been the definition of being outside of our comfort zone. Our short trip home, and briefly enjoying all of the creature comforts that came with it, made me realize that I might need to have a little comfort again. I strongly believe that going outside of your comfort zone is the best way to make progress in a specific direction. But if you are only outside of your comfort zone you can become very drained and lose your focus, and even sometimes yourself, very easily.

And while we will be actively seeking out more space to spread out a little, as well as counting down the days before the arrival of our own comfy mattress, having the opportunity to go for this dream and actually see that it may be a possibility makes all of the discomfort worth it.

My karate teacher doesn’t like for us to use the words “pain” or “discomfort.” Instead he has us say “sensation.”  So, instead of saying, “That was really painful or uncomfortable,” you might say, “That was really sensational.” It’s amazing that sometimes simply changing how you say things is a good place to start to change your mindset. With that in mind, I can say with unwavering certainty that we have had one sensational summer so far.

Matt Brown began riding at the age of 6 with BHS instructor Andrea Pfeiffer. As a young rider he competed through the advanced level with his horse Maximum Speed, and together they represented Area VI in the North American Young Riders Championships at the two-star level in 1993. As he built his career, Matt continued to gain education and experience under the expert coaching of trainers and clinicians including Denny Emerson, Pierre Cousyn, Beth Ball, Steffen Peters, Christine Traurig, Beth Clarke, Axel Steiner and Sue Blinks.

It was also during this time that Matt was greatly influenced by the horsemanship of George Kharl. Matt spent time on George’s Montana Ranch learning a new approach to horses from George, in which observation, patience, and clear communication became the foundation of his training and relationships with his equine partners. Matt and his wife, Cecily, started East West Training Stablestogether in 2004. Matt has been achieving consistent results at the three-star level this spring, including placing fifth and 10th at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** with Happenstance and BCF Belicoso and winning the Fair Hill CIC*** with Super Socks BCF. He was named an alternate to the U.S. team for the 2015 Pan American Games eventing with BCF Belicoso.

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