Taming My Inner Gecko

Mar 31, 2014 - 4:26 PM
I'm going to have to figure out how to balance work with riding and showing Nikki. Photos by David Mullinix

Meet the Chronicle’s latest blogger, show jumper Emily Pope. She’s trying to balance riding her Thoroughbred mare with recovering from a back injury and a full-time job. 

The last time I struggled this much to post the trot for 15 minutes straight was when I first started riding, or about 18 years ago. 

I’ve always been a physically fit and strong person, but recovering from a back injury that knocked me out of commission essentially since August of last year is a different ballgame than I anticipated. My progress toward being somewhat competent in the saddle again is being speeded by the generosity of Elzabeth Lampert, who is allowing me to get back in the swing of things on my (equally out-of-shape) first pony, Duckie. 

I’m quite sure that Duckie doesn’t enjoy my riding her as much as I do, at least not if her groans of protest are any indication, but it’s good for both of us to get back to work.

Before I jump into talking about my pony squishing antics, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Emily Pope, although some of you probably know me as supershorty628 on the COTH discussion forums. I recently relocated from New York to Minnesota for work and, hopefully, for graduate school in a few years. I currently work in a cancer research lab and am a teaching assistant for a physiology course. 

My equine partner is Seize The Moment, affectionately known as Nikki, Wondermare, or The Princess (and yes, you have to capitalize it!), an 18-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred mare, my soulmate, and the one piloting us on an incredible journey from the junior hunters up through the 1.50-meter grand prix classes.

Feeling My Way

Wondermare is currently in New York with my mom; we figured I probably should get in shape before Nikki comes out to Minnesota, as right now, she’d probably jump me off over a crossrail. I’m trying to avoid any out-of-saddle experiences, so Nikki will join me out here toward the end of April or the beginning of May once I’m stronger.

In the meantime, I have to figure out how to balance my schedule with work and getting to the barn more often. The barn is about half an hour away from where I live, and getting out there every day is much more of a struggle now that I work than it was when I was an undergraduate student. I always thought that I’d be able to make it work every day, no matter what, and then I grew up and got a job and realized that balancing my professional life with my riding can be really difficult sometimes. 

When Nikki is out here, I’ll have to get this time management act together; in order for us to be competitive in the bigger classes, we both need to be in the best shape possible, so riding only a few days a week won’t cut it. I’m sure there are many working amateurs out there who have the same problem!

The psychological effects of being out of the game for so long are constantly surprising me. I can’t wait for Nikki to get to Minnesota, as I always feel the most confident with her since we’re always thinking on the same wavelength. Much to my surprise, a few times since I’ve gotten back in the saddle, little things that normally wouldn’t bother me (like a spook) have made me a bit nervous.

I jumped some small fences last week—no bigger than 2’3”—and while I was very excited to be jumping again, as I cantered down to the first fence on an extremely trustworthy pony, I found that there was a shadow of doubt in the back of my mind. I worried about the distance, about the jump itself, and about the landing, things I have never worried about before.

When I mulled it over after my lesson was done, it did make sense; the last time that I jumped anything, the experience was very painful. Usually, I’m not the type to get nervous, at least not when it’s time for me to perform, but prior to that lesson, the last time I jumped was in August when my back troubles began.

Painful Echoes

Nikki and I were up in Massachusetts to show at Fieldstone Farm and were preparing for our first class, the welcome stake. My back was bothering me quite a bit, but I was riding well in the schooling ring, so I assumed that I could push it to the back of my mind as horse people are wont to do, and went in for the class.

Lesson learned: if you’re experiencing pain severe enough that you have tears rolling down your cheeks while you’re schooling, going into the ring is probably not advisable, even if you’re finding every distance in the schooling ring.

We jumped two fences in the show ring. That was it. Two jumps and I couldn’t handle it anymore. We had a rail at the second fence because I couldn’t sit and support Nikki with my seat. I came out of the ring doubled over sobbing, and I am not one to cry.

All of this was in my mind as I turned the corner to the small vertical that I was to jump and for the first time in my life, I was afraid of the jump. I was caught in that paradox of wanting to jump it and not wanting to jump it because while I had many memories of jumping big fences with Nikki and having a great time doing so, the last time I jumped, it hurt.

It’s funny in a way because when people hear that I was nervous about a 2’3” fence, the automatic response is “that’s silly, you’ve shown at grand prix!” It’s true, and the rational part of my brain is well aware of the fact that Nikki and I have jumped fences that are substantially taller than I am (at a diminutive 5’1” or 1.55 meters). 

However, the ancient reptilian part of my brain just remembers that the last time I jumped, it was painful, and apparently my inner gecko isn’t one for adventure. Fortunately, years of training have taught me how to take nervous energy and channel it into productivity, and I did jump the fence several times without incident.

The road to full recovery and returning to normal is clearly going to be a bit bumpier and harder than I expected. I know that I can handle it and that I’ll be ready for Nikki when she gets here, and hopefully this summer will be a great adventure. 

This will be the first year that we’re not going to be with Kip Rosenthal at Benchmark Farm, where I’ve ridden since I was 10. I’ll miss Kip coaching me through staying out of Nikki’s way so she can do her job despite my often misguided efforts to “help,” but I know that Kip gave us the tools to be successful. I’m looking forward to showing with Elzabeth this summer and being able to call Kip with good news.

Welcome to our journey.

Emily Pope, 23, started her relationship with Seize The Moment, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and a chestnut mare, in 2006 and they began in the junior hunters. Emily quickly realized “Nikki’s” talents lay in the jumper ranks, and they worked their way from the junior jumpers to the grand prix. She rides with Kip Rosenthal and Elzabeth Lampert.

Emily graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science, spent a semester studying aboard in Madagascar, and now works in cancer research.


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