We Ride While They Try To Find Their Socks

Nov 26, 2006 - 10:00 PM

span style=”font-style: italic;”> This 57-year-old adult amateur temporarily leaves her responsibilities behind and finds she can fit in with a top trainer–on her own terms.

Can mature individuals of traditional build disport themselves without risk of embarrassment at clinics given by serious instructors? Absolutely! As a veteran of two Denny Emerson eventing clinics I can say that we older adult amateurs can positively shine.

We are not afraid to ask the questions that younger athletes keep to themselves, and we are not afraid to look foolish. We are willing to try nearly anything. On the other hand, we may spend more time attending to color coordination details than younger, slimmer students.

Having bankrolled countless clinics for my offspring, I decided it was my turn. As a preteen, I had taped pictures of Troy Donahue to my closet door. More recently I taped a picture of Denny exhibiting perfect form over a huge oxer. I hoped that my body would absorb his style subliminally. First, I would have had to have changed my shape and size.

I have competed for many years at the novice and training levels, depending on what outgrown horse of which child I am riding. When I first discovered eventing, after a hunter background, the play-pen was part of my eventing equipment and my “grooms” all came up to my knee. Finally, now after all the children are grown, with lives and horses of their own, I have purchased a horse just for me–a veteran campaigner with the heart of a lion and the patience of a saint. I would like to be worthy of him. Just once, on a course I have scoped out previously, I would like to feel qualified to attempt a preliminary level event on him.

When my daughter sent me to the Tamarack clinic website, I leaped at the opportunity to train with an eventing legend and sent my application and my nonrefundable check to Vermont before I had a chance to repent at leisure. Which I then did. I was unfit. My horse was insufficiently fancy, my equipment too old and mismatching. I couldn’t spare the time from the office (I am in my spare time a lawyer to support my children and my horse habit.) My family couldn’t spare me. But I had paid my money and cleared my calendar, so I went.

Making Up The Rules
Once I arrived and saw the trailers covered with competition stickers and the overflowing tack trunks, I feared that I was in over my head. I had attended small clinics with local instructors and familiar fellow students, but this would be very different, or so I feared.

What if everyone else was 25 and tuning up for the next intermediate event? What if I demonstrated abysmal holes in my basic education in the first lesson? What if I was asked to identify which lead I was on without looking, or had to recite the exact number of strides to every fence? What if everyone made fun of me, or worse, was kind to me?

I had fallen off in stadium at my last event–what if I repeated that disaster? (I did, in a disagreement with my horse over which way to go to escape a swarm of ground wasps, and it cost me a box of donuts but it wasn’t a traumatic experience.)

Not to worry. Others were working up their courage to go training level for the first time, were taking time off from stressful jobs that left little time for riding, were riding horses of unknown parentage, uncertain temperament and imperfect conformation. Saddles didn’t fit. Stud kits had been purchased for the clinic, but their owners didn’t know when or how to use them. There may have been some snickering in the ranks, but it was affectionate, and advice was generously provided and intended to be supportive.

As mature individuals, we drank wine at night and shopped mightily in the tack store during the infrequent breaks. We gave ourselves breaks. Very occasionally we opted not to do an exercise at the height or width that fellow students were tackling. We were not self-conscious about asking for a combination to be lowered.

On the other hand, we were also willing to stretch beyond our comfort level. Yes, I can bounce to a drop and recover in three strides for a chevron. Well, so long as my horse goes straight as an arrow.

My fellow students were a hoot–two ER doctors, a Wall Street hedge fund manager from Australia, teachers on gentle Morgan crosses, an artist, a biologist, and a couple of moms who had been sent by their husbands, probably following the purchase of large insurance policies. Some must have been hairdresser wannabes–I have never seen horses bathed so often or the victims of so much product.

We rode twice a day for two to three hours at a stretch. We rode in tiny groups, making it impossible to hide. We encouraged each other, cheered when a balky horse was finally convinced to jump a ditch. We advised and consoled each other. We critiqued and admired horses. Denny loaned his saddle to one rider, his bridle to another and even found a loaner horse to replace a gimping one. Most riders were gimping themselves by day No. 2, but they got no sympathy.

We did flatwork and practiced tests for upcoming events. We rode gymnastic exercises, beginning with getting the canter stride over poles on the ground, and we worked on courses.

We utilized the extensive cross-country course with its banks and ditches. Horses and riders were introduced to obstacles not usually found in nature. The cross-country lesson always ended with the water complex because, as Denny explained, that’s where people are most likely to fall off, and it’s really uncomfortable to ride the rest of the lesson with water sloshing in your boots.

No Guilt Involved
The high point of my experience was the gymnastic jumping lesson. Denny explained that with a gymnastic grid, you can set the horse up for perfect distances every time and that with perfect distances, the height is irrelevant. He demonstrated by raising the final oxer every time we turned the corner to come again until it reached a height of 4′. I know my grin stretched around the back of my head as I found myself still in the saddle when my horse returned to earth!

Because we adult amateurs have a lot of other stuff on our minds–cell phone access to home and the office, whether the truck will make the trip home, whether the children have remembered to feed the dog and mail their SAT applications–occasionally we don’t absorb everything the first time. We learned to chorus, “Because he is a retarded newt!” in answer to Denny’s frequently asked question of how a particular rider could have forgotten the designated course, a significant instruction or a piece of equipment.

This year Denny admitted to his 65th birthday and confided to me that while at his age he wouldn’t consider going advanced, with a good horse, he wouldn’t hesitate to do an intermediate event. I know he regularly wins at preliminary. All this encouraged me in my quest for that elusive preliminary event.

While there was no magic incantation taught by Denny, his insistence on the rider’s correct position (he hiked stirrups up unmercifully for jumping, and it worked!) individual focus on each fence and on having the horses up in front of the rider at every fence increased the confidence of horses and riders at the outset. It was fascinating to watch Denny himself get on a couple of horses who were tense and recalcitrant and ride them into soft relaxation with light contact and use of his body to slow the motion. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell us how we could replicate that technique other than by riding multiple horses every day for 50 years or so.

In our first after-dinner speech, Denny stressed that no student should do anything that overwhelmed him or her. As adult amateurs, it’s important for us to believe that. We have many others dependent on us. We can’t afford to languish in a hospital because we were too proud to say no.

No, I’m not always prepared to do what others are doing. No, the instructor doesn’t always gauge accurately my ability or that of my horse. I’m ultimately responsible for my own safety. Some of the appeal of the long format was that there was plenty of time to work on techniques and build on experiences. There was no reason to hurry.

It can be difficult for adult amateurs to take time for themselves. We feel guilty for spending the money, taking the time away from our families, our jobs, even our pets.

One woman called to cancel because her cat sitter abandoned her at the last minute. She was convinced to come anyway, bringing her cats. And a posse of students and a clinician helped her retrieve one of them from the tree where it sought refuge in a strange place. A group of us regularly drove up the mountain between lessons to find cell phone access to home and work.

We talked about what we had left behind. Non-horse spouses were gently derided for their inept attempts to groom at events, but affectionately praised for trying at all. Work was discussed. The ER docs astonished us with tales of recalcitrant patients and drive-by shooting victims, reminding us that we were a long way from Philadelphia for these few days.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that none of us is that important. Our spouses and children can find their socks without us. Our fellow workers can handle emergencies or even take messages to be dealt with upon our return. We deserve some time for ourselves to follow our passion, even if we aren’t ever going to ride at the Olympics.

Clarissa Edelston


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