Saturday, September 12, 2015

Why there are no "Bad" Days with Horses

(Photo Credit: Diana Rowland)

In keeping with my policy of sharing the ups and the downs, here’s the rundown from today’s less than stellar outing at Fair Hill.

Why there are no “Bad” days in horses.

It’s of course at moments when you’re faced with challenges, problems or let downs that we look inwardly and try to process and power through the disappointment. My day today was one such day. But before I go into the retelling I need to flash back to 1996 and a more ‘goal’ oriented younger version of myself.

Flashing back to an event in October of 1996 where I was taking my new horse to our first Intermediate. He’d done the level before, I’d done the level before. It was a course described as a “good move up” and so off we went to take on the move up. We’d done 4 prelims in our time together and were definitely gelling as a team. But we didn’t gel that day.

I look back on that day often. It was a bad xc round and it ended with me in the hospital with a broken collarbone and my horse laid up with a hurt knee. It was avoidable if I’d pulled up at fence 4 after the awful jump there, or maybe fence 7 when he nearly did a rotational fall there. But I kept powering on thinking that I HAD to finish. The trip had cost a lot, the event cost a lot, the horse had cost a ton and the pressure from my own mind pushed me to a track that led me away from some sound decisions.  Simply put I was really wrong.

I learned that day that completing a bad round is not the be all end all. Stopping and calling it a day is a far greater skill and one that isn’t as prevalent as it should be.  It really doesn’t matter what it cost, what it means to points, scores, ribbons, future glory or whatever.

The feeling of reflection when laid up for 10 weeks is:

 1) Depressing; because you start to see a lot of things that could have been different
 2) Humbling , there’s no greater moment to have to face your own bad choices
3) But most of all it’s just frustrating because there’s no immediate way to go back and rectify things. That alone drove me nuts.

So with this kind of reflection you have to look on the overall lessons and effects of a “bad” day.  
The challenges in life should come with a life or skill lesson learned and a positive change. Now that’d be the ideal but maybe not the actuality of the things.  Did you fall off and think to maybe not lean as far forward at the jump the next time? Or did you decide you’re the exception to such rules and start your promising career of being a professional lawn dart?

Also there’s the friend and now the social media effect. It used to be that you just dealt with your friends who knew of the ‘issue’ of the day and gave advice, opinions and thoughts to consider. Now with social media the judgement of the crowd can be much harsher and far less likely to leave a person to feel buoyed up by those close enough to the situation to understand all the details, and not just the surface view.  So currently it can be more challenging to feel like you’ll get somewhere positive after a low point but the truth is that you can get there if you analyze the situations correctly and factor in the advice and help of those who know you and know the situation. Leave the internet behind in these moments and dive into your friends and peers. They’ve been there for you before and will be there when the internet crumbles. (Probably from one too many friend requests)

Lastly, and I know that on 9/12 it’s a really easy day to recognize this point, the world is full of MUCH bigger issues than your problem with your horse. There’s countrywide poverty, terrorism, natural disasters, or whatever. The horse you fell off of today would feed a small village for a week in some places, and that’s how they would view it. It wouldn’t be swathed in a Rambo in cold weather and it surely wouldn’t have the life that we give it. The problems of our lives need perspective and the goals to fix them require planning and thoughtful execution.

So today Gin hit a pothole. Don’t get me wrong he had a much better dressage test, and I thought we’d really improved. All things being relative the dressage judge has a job for a reason. Her perspective showed me we weren’t all the way on track but this feedback combined with the video proves that we are heading the right way. So off we went to stadium and xc. There wasn’t rain in the forecast that would affect my times, as of last night. But today was a different story.

Around 10 o’clock the rain started spitting. I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal as we needed the rain and I thought the ground would just soak it up. But what actually happened was that ground didn’t soak up the rain and the grass on top got very slick. The warm up area then got a bit chewed up. I rode at this event last year and it was a deluge. Lunar thrived in it and as he was shod up front and not behind I rode carefully. We had no issues. I assumed (warning!) that Gin would be no different. Yea….no.

Gin was slipping badly in warm up. His first fence wasn’t great but he improved. But as we jumped more he was slipping…a lot. Warm up is on a slight incline and my eye was yielding some move up distances which I should have corrected, and did eventually, but not before , my scopey, reliable over jumper had taken down the oxer a few times. I worked to get him confident again but the slipping continued and though he jumped well, he was losing his confidence. Truth be told I was not loving the idea of trying xc if he was knocking down a simple oxer.

So we went to do our stadium and see how it would go. I was a bit worried as the oxers seemed to be where he was concerned and they started at fence #2 on our course. As predicted we circled and started on course. He jumped the first vertical well but added a stride and crawled/popped over the oxer at #2 taking the back rail with it. I regrouped, got the correct lead and kicked to #3. You can see on the video he flat slid into it and popped it to take the rail down and landed in a heap with me missing my stirrup. I pulled back and did a circle very aware that I was 1) NOT Mark Todd and 2) I was going to need the stirrup for fence #4 a bigger oxer with aqueduct fillers. I cantered positively towards the oxer and Gin, God love him, he tried to go for it but his hind legs did a fabulous reining stop as he planted to try to jump. As I am watching the video I think my biggest flaw was that I was trying for an open going distance in crappy footing. 

I really do think I should have balanced more and adjusted to be closer to the jump in a more round ‘bouncy’ stride. So Gin moved the aqueducts apart from his front end weight and took out a rail. They blew the whistle and rebuilt the fence. Upon blowing the whistle to go again I was filled with dread, I didn’t even really want to try it but I knew it would be good to see if we could get over it. I also knew if we didn’t clear it this time I was done, for the day. And so we tried it again and again he slid into the fence, taking it apart. I raised my hand as they blew the whistle signaling elimination. It was a rare moment of a retire/elimination combo. And the kicker was, I wasn’t upset about the decision.  It was the best decision ever and it allowed me to put my horse above all else, right where he belongs. Why this is a shock is beyond me but I walked back the trailer completely happy. I was sitting on a sound, but a little skeptical of mud, horse. I hadn’t had to hit the ground and shatter myself to make the right call. I didn’t even consider doing xc, it wasn’t an option. Gin said no, I listened, end of day.

Back at the trailer I washed him off and grazed him as I checked him over. No issues and a VERY healthy appetite. I talked to John and he of course had wonderful words of wisdom and gave me huge kudos for putting Gin’s interests first.  I chatted with some friends and congratulated them on their days and listened as they too agreed with much of my thoughts on the day and offered some other thoughts.

I took Gin home and watched as he galloped to his friends, my other 2 horses, and dove back into the lush grass of his field. He is my horse of a lifetime and so it’s good to know that I’m learning from the horses that preceded him.  He’s getting the benefits of my life lessons to this point, and so today wasn’t really a “Bad” day. It was just another step on the journey to making better decisions.


 Link to the video of the stadium round: https://youtu.be/beAh8ycwqqQ

~Emily

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ode to the Butterflies.. (With Video)

((Fair Warning: LONG post. Read with caution. ))

I have had this conversation before:

Inner Voice: “You can do this.”
Brain: “Are you sure?”
Inner Voice: “Wait….is there a problem? Because if there is I wanna know what it is and have more time to evaluate it and pick it apart and analyze all the relevant data for similar cases over the last 100 years…”
Brain: “Well geez I don’t know now.”

This is where I usually just shake my head and throw all the thoughts out the window and just canter to the first fence.

Horse showing is a great part of my life. Any discipline, any kind of competition is fun. Now admittedly there was a time that I was so overwrought with nerves that I didn’t enjoy it as it was happening. Many famous trainers have spun the line about it’s ok to have butterflies in your stomach, you just have to get them to fly in formation. Mine never did. Mine were the lost spirits of Kamikaze fighter pilots. They dove, spun, arched and crashed into my empty stomach filling me with nausea and nerves. Those were the old days.

Now things have progressed. We have a new team of butterflies and some are still acrobatic, but others are the rocking chair versions of their predecessors. They fly a little then they settle and watch. I enjoy shows so much more now because I get that none of it matters in the grand scheme of the world. It matters to me sure, and my goals and the goals I have for my horses matter, but life is about getting out there and doing your best. Sometimes that yields gorgeous lovely performances where friends Ooooo and Ahhhh at your glorious pictures and videos. And then there are days, like yesterday, where the biggest success was completing the course and knowing that while not ‘picture perfect’ there was a lot of positive and some room for improvement. This now leads us to the tale of the Radnor Jumper Show.

I have to back up a bit to recap the week so you know how we got to Saturday. First I want to say there is something funny about this particular show. 2 years ago I was aiming for it with both Lad and Petey. Lad sustained a muscle pull and missed out. Petey went and was great for his 2nd or 3rd show ever. Last year I again aimed for it and Lad pulled a shoe. So we missed out. 

This year on Monday night I rode a friend’s horse and got walloped in the face and sustained a pretty good case of whiplash and a possible very minor concussion, but I didn’t fall off. Just got hit in the helmet around my nose and face by the horse’s neck.  The doctors told me I could do as I wanted but it would be best to maybe sit out for a week. I loved the doctor I had, he knew and I knew I didn’t want to sit out a week. He at least gave me that if I just waited as close to a week and listened to my body that’d be ok. So I accepted it and planned to sit out a week. I got my dear friend Jane to take Petey to her barn the next day with the plan that she would show him for me at Radnor.

Ahhh the best laid plans. This humors me when you think you have all the answers and then you don’t. So yesterday I woke up feeling happy and normal and bright, like the last 4 days. And I got a text that Jane wasn’t feeling well. That was an understatement. Jane was really sick. So I did what anyone would do. “No problem, I can ride him if you can’t.” 5 days off versus 7 days off is a minimal difference. Dr. said I could. So off we went. Jane brought Petey to Radnor and I swapped him to my rig and sent her home to bed. God bless her for riding his butt all week and doing a great job. She’ll fill in for me one of these days yet!

So the day was running LOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNGGG. I decided to take Petey for a hack. I walked him around and down a road that runs alongside the property. As I walked down it I reminisced that 21 years and 5 months ago I was trotting down this same road as I set out on phase A of my first three day event. Half a lifetime ago geez. As I walked I remembered how the kamikaze pilots of old were flying at break neck speed as I thought about all the flags I had to remember, the steeplechase jumps, the minute markers and the imposing xc course that lay in wait for me then. I laughed. So much has changed in me. And yet so many of the good things have stayed.

We rested after the hack and I even took a nap. But then it was time to actually ride. I had the Gamblers Choice class first as I am trying to wean ourselves from needing a warm up class before we go into the “good” class. At Devon we don’t have this buffer. We have to improve our ability to get up and go. In hindsight I think I should have had a better course plan. I had a plan but then as I cantered to the first fence I realized I could jump a different fence first, so I shifted my plan. On approach. Yea that’s never a good idea! And true to form it didn’t work. Fence down. You’d think I’d learn. The round was bumpy at best and thankfully there were some positive moments before the 60 seconds ran out. When they asked if I was going to attempt the Joker fence I laughed. The fence in question was a lovely stone wall vertical with 4 rails set at 4’6”. That’s about 6” lower than Petey’s withers and 13” below the top of my head. Brave though we may be, that stuff is going to have to wait. Plus I didn’t think losing 200 points for knocking it down would be a good idea either. So Petey and I walked out of the ring by it and I petted him and said “Look, that jump is bigger than you!” The onlookers nearby heard me and giggled.

On we went to get ready for the Mini Prix. My first and his first. Up to 4’ high. I had already noticed that we were clearly not at a Thoroughbred Show anymore. I was surrounded by walking giants, covered in ear nets, 5 point breastplates, Fluffy boots and people who looked awfully comfortable with that Joker fence. Petey was literally dwarfed by the competition. But I knew we weren’t totally in over our heads. Or at least I didn’t think so.

I was going last so I watched a bit. The riders were graceful and their mounts fluid machines who made fences I think of as “large” seem like just a mere cavaletti in their spectre of scope. I would be lying if the thought didn’t cross my mind, “What the hell am I doing here?” I thought at this point that maybe the best plan was to hang with Petey and my friends and eat some food rather than watch the competition.

When I got on I had a better plan and a better plan for his warm up. You see there’s a bit of peer pressure that comes in the warm up ring. If your competitors are warming up their 3’6 horses over 4’6” and their Mini prix horses over 5’, you start to wonder if your plan, which in my case is VERY different, isn’t maybe a bit wrong. I didn’t like how I warmed up for the Gamblers so this time I stuck with my normal plan. I warm up over fences lower than the height of the class. Not by much, but a bit. I wanted him sharp but paying attention. So we did a 3’9” vertical and a 3’9” oxer, but we didn’t push him past where we have been. This time he warmed up well. This time I felt pretty good coming to the ring having no second thoughts and ignoring the magnificent 6 figure horses that ambled by me.

(Author’s note… It’s taking 3 pages to get to the class description. LOL. Sorry guys a lot on my mind from this outing. Kudos for your perseverance!)

I rode him into the ring and purposefully went down and circled the one fence that had been added for this class. Years ago I saw the newly added fence cause 5 horses to refuse. I wasn’t gonna let something silly like that happen to us. Petey didn’t care anyway. So we cantered off to the first.


These are my thoughts of how it felt riding:

The first fence was a little sticky. Not bad, but not striking off the ground and sailing as I would have hoped. That caused me to add a stride to the second and I found myself into my bad habit of in the back seat with too long of reins. Then the add came to number 3 and hello.. I am on his tail!!!!! Shape up Emily! I gathered my reins back up and found the pommel again as I swung wide to #4. Nicer jump there. 5 strides to #5 and a little wavering confidence to the oxer but he went with it. Ok wall fence on the short side by the people. Boy Petey’s big ears can really prick when his things something is interesting to look at. Close distance but not bad, clears it nicely. Get the change go to the In and out on the long side. 7AB was a good oxer to vertical one stride. I thought we cantered down well to it and we got to take off I slapped Petey on the shoulder with me whip. He sunk into the footing and took it almost from a stand still. I am not sure why, but we cleared it and the distance was nice enough that he fit in the one stride easily. Down the line we went to the Swedish, I am “Good Boying” down the line and yep… on his tail again. He jumps well over the Swedish. I think we can pull this together and then we chip in and pop the new fence. All I am hearing in my head is “RIDE EMILY RIDE>>>STOP BEING A LUMP!” So I kick and cluck a bit and we sail through the vertical to vertical in and out much nicer. Add the distance to the last oxer and I am laughing at myself as my heel is threatening to spur my own ass over it. Oh good lord thank God there are the finish flags.
I am not even sure if I hit anything. So I ask the folks in the little grand stand, “Did I knock anything down?” They all say no. Oh dear Lord I have to ride the jump off.

Here’s where I get in trouble. I am not gonna lie. I nearly forgot a fence. I thought the jump off was 1,2,5,7AB, 11. It was 1,2,5, 6, 7AB, 11.

You can see on the video, that I am not posting, that I try for a second to do this amazing turn from 5 to 7, realize my mistake and try to slice 6, but the line was impossible. So we stopped at 6, totally understandable. We circle back and jump it and then a strange thing happens, Petey didn’t get his change and we headed to the in and out and he decelerated. I pulled him up. I retired on course. It’s just a jump off and the bigger picture was that he told me he needed more. “More what?” is the next question but I was happy to save my lovely guy. I owe him the world and I am so glad he said something rather than try to scramble through again. So with that I was depressed. As riders do I blamed myself for not preparing him, riding him and training him so he was ready today. I praised him mightily though as he clearly gave his all. We went up the hill and I let him graze a bit. Amy took him back and I sat down and ate some more food, waiting to hear how the others and their giants had fared in the placings. 

I listened for the 7th and 8th place spots because I wondered if in a crowd of 12 or so entrants if I might have gotten lucky enough to grab a low spot. As the 8th – 6th spots were called and I wasn’t mentioned I shrugged and went back to eating. Oh well. A lot was learned today and there are signs that a lot of learning is yet to come. I sipped my drink and was ambling through my mental replay of the ride when I heard my number and I snapped back to reality. 4th???4th !!!! HOLY CRAPOLA! I jumped up and ran down to the ring, without Petey. Hopped the fence and darted in to grab my ribbon. I even posed for the photographer with it. And yes they were doing a victory gallop so we put Petey back together in record time and galloped with fervor amongst the giants!

Was it our best day? Oh hell no. Was it our worst day? No. There are many things to work on but the size of fence is not mattering as much. He has the scope and I am not riding nervous to the fences. Now we have 3+ weeks to fine tune the rest. Not sure I would expect to place at Devon, but beating out 8-9 REALLY nice horses and riders definitely made me step to attention and realize how wonderful of a horse Petey is. And at only 6….. well there’s a lot of future and I maintain I am gonna be crushed when he sells but hopefully he’ll go on to great things and enjoy it all.


So the bottom line of this RAMBLING post is that nerves are what you make of them. Enjoying the moment is as important as remembering your course. Laughing after mistakes is by far the best thing and self flagellation has no place in the goal of progressing on from little blips of imperfect riding. Petey went home and galloped across his field to rejoin Lad and Lunar. He whinnied with delight and the 3 strided out across the grass and I smiled as had just a moment before I took to the roads to try to watch the Derby. The first Saturday in May will always mean Derby to me, but this year one little loser from the track was a bigger winner on the day than California Chrome.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

WHY?

I am sitting on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Humby is asleep against me having “suffered” as I watched and cheered as one after another the top 26 or so riders at Rolex completed their stadium rounds. I whooped for some, growled and clucked at horses through my laptop and overall just basked in lovely riding. Thrown in there though were a couple moments where I smirked as I knew that the general public watched a rider from the all mighty 4 star level make a mistake. Now I know what it’s like to ride a stadium round at a 3 day on a horse that has covered a testing and long cross country course the day before. Admittedly mine were at the 1* level but I can say with all seriousness that you aren’t riding the horse you school at home every day. Tired can manifest itself in many different ways. As a result of this, you occasionally can see a Big Name Elite Rider jump up a horse’s neck and watch the rails go flying in the air.

So I watched as Bulletin Boards, FB and other social media sites had comments start about how amazing it was to see a professional “screw up.” Then my mind got to wondering, a vastly dangerous thing, WHY is it that we assign a level of perfection to those who ride, show, compete, train at a level above our own? Horses are unpredictable at every level. Grade one winning race horses have balked and refused to leave the gate. Dressage horses at the World Cup have missed 1 tempi changes and ad libbed their freestyles. Hunters have knocked a rail at Devon and Andrew Nicholson missed a spot at Rolex. This shouldn’t be a shock. In fact I would go so far as to say it’s a given. “S*&t happens” on a daily basis in the horse world.

I find it interesting when people who are coming into and up the beginner-intermediate levels of jumping balk at simple things like a neck strap or holding mane. But if an equine celebrity does it, oh well that’s a different story! So William Fox Pitt uses a neck strap always…. I wave pictures of this in front of the doubters and watch the confusion crease their brows. They thought that using a device to help them wasn’t what big names did so they didn’t because they want to ride, in little ways, like the big names of our sport. Idol worship is great for Hollywood but isn’t as useful in horses where humility can come quickly. People magazine thankfully doesn’t waste it’s time with OCET, Dutton or Martin Eventing or any of the big hotbeds of eventing. It’s true though that Jessica Springsteen, Georgina Bloomberg and Kaley Cuoco get a little bit of Paparazzi at the shows, but so far not many eventers here in the US.

 And here’s another funny thing…….Take Jessica Springsteen, Georgina, Hannah Selleck or others like them and the mistakes they make on a horse are assumed as deserved because they “bought” their way in. WHAT???  This disparity of thought is amazing to me. Nicholson jumps up a neck and pulls a bunch of rails and it’s as if a piece of Mount Olympus has fallen. But watch Georgina pull 1 rail and it becomes about her family’s wealth and the  ‘obvious’ lack of hard work and “you know she doesn’t ride that much during the week” type of garbage. Welcome to the insanity in the middle of the horse world.

I will fast track this post to my bottom line. EVERYONE on a horse works hard. EVERYONE on a horse will make mistakes. EVERY horse can make a mistake, even those who know their job perfectly.  The reality of life in the horse world is that acceptance of our flaws is the biggest key to greater success. And success is of course a sliding scale. Win at Rolex versus getting around a 2’ course of X’s. If you allow yourself to fail and move on from it, you will succeed more. Willam Fox-Pitt knows this, McClain Ward knows this, Charlotte Dujardin knows this and Jody Petty (Winning jockey of 2014 Maryland Hunt Cup) knows this. We cannot be perfect 100% of the time and should never expect that of ourselves or our horses. Doing so upends the balance of self- esteem and the appreciation of the talents of our mounts. When “Fluffy pony” makes a mistake and comes back better you say “It was all my fault. I am a terrible rider, I did this and that then I lost my balance and lost my eye on the next fence…..and so on.” But good riders say… “Oh well. Let’s try it again” and they pet the pony and move on.

The next time you all feel that sense of Idol worship and false expectations coming on; I beg you, hear the wonderful words of Idina Menzel and just “Let it Go.” Everyone you enjoy watching ride successfully has and will ride poorly. And so too will you. It’s all part of the horse life.



Sunday, April 20, 2014

It's all about Perspective

Perspective is an interesting thing as a horse person. We measure our days in success and failure sometimes those measurements are taken in millimeters sometimes in miles. Many times those measurements fall somewhere in the middle. We measure off of feel, emotions and variations of strength. But all the time we are measuring ourselves and our horses. To this end we try to aim for a goal that is the standard against we are comparing ourselves. Not all goals are the same for all riders. It could be as simple as, “Will today be they day I can walk the horse and not have it lose it’s mind when we pass the chickens?” or for many of my fellow Chester County-ians I see folks asking if they’re ready for the Rolex Kentucky event, the Maryland Hunt Cup, and many other upper echelon type things.

I am looking towards a goal that while a bit of a stretch is not out of the range of possibility. Was it a lifelong dream, no. Was it the craziest idea I have ever thought to try, not quite but it may be close.  I have a Thoroughbred that I purchased in January of 2012 straight off of Penn National race track after a dismal race career of 4 last place finishes out of 4 races. His breeders owned him for the first of these and sold him quickly thereafter. I saw a lot of promise in him that day, but I am realizing that he has brought about 2000% more to the table than I thought I saw in him. He’s a true talent and on some level I don’t feel like I deserve such a nice and compliant animal. (See again with the measuring)

As I have been his sole owner post track life, I have taught him all he knows about showing, jumping, paper chases, eventing, xc hacking, and so on. In return he’s taught me to be a better rider with many skills that had somewhat fallen by the wayside being polished up again. So this crazy goal has me aiming to do a course at a BIG show that can be up to 4’1” high. Not a big deal. In theory I have done it before, a million years ago. But time has passed since then. My fear of mortality is somewhat more present than it was when I was 20. My appreciation that a big fence is a BIG FENCE is solid. So I found myself having to realize that the horse’s capabilities and my own were truly fine. Some polish needed but we both are capable of jumping big fences.

The interesting part has been the “discussion” I have undertaken in convincing my brain that the above statement is true. See, years ago I qualified to ride in the “Local Jumpers” at the Washington International Horse Show. I had a week between qualifying and riding. I had to school in the ring at the arena at 3am because that’s when we were allowed to school. No jumping just flat work. So I went into this show off a streak of a bunch of successful outings. Hell the horse had earned back his entry fees at every show that fall. We were solid. And then when it came time to ride in the ring, in front of maybe 20 people as the LAST class of WIHS, I choked. Stopped at the first fence, 2 rails and time faults. There were only 8 people in the class. Don’t ask me where it went wrong, I have measured that day 10 years ago numerous times. Bottom line I let my head overrule the talents of my body and my horse. That is the beast I am trying to train now. Amazingly the rest of my peers must not have had a great day either as I still finished 3rd!

So this brings me up to yesterday. I took Petey to our first show of the season and with it, his first classes at the height we will see at our goal. 1.20 meters. 3’11”. Not a huge fence compared to a Puissance wall, but not a small fence compared to the tiny X Petey jumped his 3rd day off the track. A lot of time has passed since I had a horse that was doing a 4’ course. I was very grateful to be at a show that allowed me to kind of dictate how much of my course was full bore 1.20. As it’s April and our first show of the season we chose to have the course true for about 80% of it. The oxers were left a notch smaller and not hugely wide.

As I walked into the ring to jump this height for the first time I felt very calm. Petey felt very amenable to listening and away we went. It felt like it was over just as quickly as it began. All the fences were easy and the only reaction to jumping bigger fences on Petey’s part was a light rub here and there and him ‘looking’ for the next fence a bit further out. It was great. The mental demon seemed not to come out. But it was a small show. And there were no crowds. 4’ felt like 3’ felt like 2’ it was easy because I was asking the right horse to do the job. The day was a huge victory on the mental level and the measurements taken on the rest have pointed to areas needing work. I have to stop picking with my hands when I don’t see the distance 10 strides out. Logically I know I can’t find the spot that way, but old habits die hard.

So the journey continues and 3 rounds of experience later the somewhat crazy goal seems far more tenable and far less crazy. Time will tell if I am correct though.

~Emily

Link to Video of the 2, 1.20 meter rounds:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po9FmI9q0Js



  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Time and Patience


Hello again to all my blog followers! I know it’s been a while, nearly 2 years in fact, but life has been a little busy and full. But as I recently re-read all the entries I made in 2010, I realized that I still had more to say. And you know that’s life I think. Sometimes taking a break from one thing can propel you to return to it in better form, mentally and physically and dive back in with a renewed sense of purpose. So here I am and hopefully you’re still interested in reading what I am writing!

So over the past two years my life has changed. When last we spoke I had left my horse job and was looking for a new job. I was still feeling burned to a crisp from too much horse “work” and not nearly enough horse “enjoyment.” I can say that now things are very different. I work in an office job and I have been in this position since 6 weeks after the horse job ended. It’s a challenging position and I am grateful to have found a new way of life so quickly and in such a bad economy. The office kept me plenty busy for the first year and Lad was still off with friends on “loan.” 

But by mid-February of 2011 apparently Lad and I got our wave lengths matched up. I got a call from where he was saying they wanted to send him home, and right about then I had 1.) Stood on a scale and 2.) Realized I needed him back! So home he came. And what do you know; he was happy to see me. And I don’t mean like he was looking past me for the peppermints I had in my hand. No, he would come cantering to the gate when I called. I swear. My horse had turned into “Lassie” while he was away! I would end up wiping tears away as I led him to the barn to get tacked up for the first two weeks. 

But the best was yet to come. Our time apart had changed Lad and my relationship. I had learned during the barn job that I missed enjoying a ride for the simple fact I was on a horse doing what I loved. And so instead of grilling Lad with what he “HAD” to work on for this goal or that show or this skill set, I just rode him. Sure we still worked on consistency in the bridle, bending and using his hind end, but in between I would walk around give him mints (mid ride) and stare out over the farm enjoying the sights from the back of my best friend. And Lad had changed too. He didn’t resist work when I doled it out in the new smaller amounts with frequent breaks. And he seemed to like the new system so much I would feel him trying harder and being better. Huh imagine that… give the horse the time and space to “be” and he works harder for you. That was one of those moments when I went home and looked in the mirror and realized “Yep riding is definitely like golf. You will never learn everything before you die.” I laughed at myself for missing something so obvious in hindsight. 

So Lad and I got back in the swing of things, my fitness improved and eventually I felt like taking him somewhere to do something. Oddly Lad and I were able to do much more fluid courses with our new way of relating so going against the grain I chose to take him to a hunter show. And God knows I have never been competitive in hunters, but hey it’s easy, local and cheap. So off we went. And off we came back with a ribbon!!! In a class of 15… so not even a gimme! Huh new way of training works, next thought after that is a constant self-beating for not having tried to chill out YEARS ago, but oh well. So we rode our wave of success and a while later took him out to a couple paper chases. And again, brought home a ribbon! I watched in wonderment as Lad, MY Lad, started populating the ribbon wire in my home office. New ribbons went up nearly monthly to take their place alongside my favorite winning memories of my entire equine career. He won a Combined Test Derby in October and I was just beside myself. (True we were the only entry, but dad and John said it best, “You still could have lost!.” Very true guys. And in years past I have done just that.)

We were entered for an event at Plantation to round out the year of “rebirth” but sadly it snowed and they cancelled. So Lad went on a mini vaca and I sat back and rested a bit. But as happens sometimes in the quiet moments you start to concoct “brilliant” ideas. Ideas that the recesses of your mind make you believe will work out in ways and successes that you won’t have ever believed. And the dark lore of these new fledgling ideas calls to your mind as only you’ve ever heard in the Lord of the Rings. “My precious” idea was to try out this new “brilliant” training system on a new OTTB. And a young one I could train a bit and sell on for LOTS and LOTS of money. And so the search began and I could hear the future announcer’s voices in my heads announcing my winnings with the name of every available CANTER horse’s name in my head.  But finally one stood out. And we jumped in the truck and drove west.

January in Harrisburg, Pa. is not the warmest month. No, in fact on this day it was a whopping 16 degrees when John and I pulled into the backside of Penn National Racetrack. 16 degrees at the track isn’t fun, as my experiences with winters both at Belmont and Fair Hill will qualify. The horses are wild, the people are cold and the day cannot end quickly enough so we can retreat to any machine, device or person whose warmth will work to revive our frozen skin and souls. That morning we tread cautiously into the appointed barn. And I couldn’t help but feel sadness as I witnessed the disparity between the backsides of Belmont, Saratoga and Delaware compared to this barn here at Penn. I know the purses they run for are large here, but the backsides and how the horses and horsemen look where I stood well this wasn’t the “good” side of things.

 I shrugged off the sadness and breathed deep the fresh smell of straw and thoroughbreds in the morning. And about halfway down the shedrow there he was. “Petey.” All 15.2 hands and Zenyatta sized ears of him. For an instant I thought we’d wasted a trip as when one looked into the stall from the shedrow he appeared much smaller than 15.2. What played to all of our advantages was that we were already there and it wouldn’t hurt to look closer. So we went in the stall and I felt myself sink as I walked in. Some former tenant had gotten bored and decided to try to dig their way to comfort, freedom or maybe some other incentive for them was buried beneath the once level stall floor. But now it was a crater within that made a mini skate park for hooves. So once I was “lowered” to Petey’s level I could see he was indeed big enough.

We took his blanket off, all the while he nuzzled me and seemed kind and interested. We led him outside to the level ground and looked at him. He had all the right raw materials in a late bloomer of a body. So with some amount of trepidation we asked if they would jog him for us in the shedrow. Just a few steps if you don’t mind, we just need to see him move. So picture this, a 4 yr. old gelding, he hasn’t been trained at the track or taken out of his stall much in the last 14 days since they decided to quit on him and sell him, it’s 16 degrees and all around the stalls are horses sticking their heads out as he goes by. Yep…. This should light up the place like the fourth of July, but I didn’t care if he was wild, he had every right to be. 

But what we got was a calm horse who willing jogged in hand (Something not all track tb’s know how to do or are willing to do) and only 2 bucks. John and I looked at each other with huge grins, well I think we were grinning there was a lot of wool, polar fleece, scarves and hats involved. Petey came around the next lap and jogged again and we noticed the graceful almost purposeful way he placed his feet. He is not a huge floaty mover as Lad is, but rather a precise and graceful animal with a willingness to perform for strangers in the cold. I knew then we were taking him. And so I walked him around the shedrow myself for a few turns and explained that life was about to change and get a lot more fun. It’s a total guess but since he had finished last in all 4 of his starts, I think this news pleased him. 

The next night we showed up with the trailer, in the sleeting rain and 20 degrees. It was after dark and the wind was blowing. Petey had taken me at my word that I was going to make his life more fun. You ever notice how you just kind of don’t recognize some dominant parts of a beings character until you’re in a rare moment? I mean who didn’t see the determination in Michael Phelps’s features at the Beijing Olympics? You could nearly touch the gratitude and all-encompassing fear in the eyes of those who emerged from the World Trade Center towers alive. And I doubt any of you will forget a moment of personal achievement from your own youth that is so strong within your own mind that you are recalling it now. And on that dark cold night I watched relief and hope cross the eyes of a horse that never missed a beat as he walked willingly into a dark trailer and never once looked behind him as we closed all the doors and ramp. And so Petey joined our brood and headed home to meet his new brother Lad. 

There are more tales of Petey and Lad to come. There will be blogs about the dogs, my crazy life and family and all sorts of things. And this time I promise to deliver for a while. But I think it’s best for all of us to start back and catch up progressively. I would hate to burn out my readers as my job burned me out. All will be revealed in time. And it’s that sense of patience and metering out work in small doses that has literally changed my life and brought more successes than I ever dreamed to me. So here to I will dabble progressively and allow you all a moment between blogs to stop, catch your breath and enjoy the scenery. 

Thank you for reading and stay cool today!

~Emily

Pic1: Lad and me right after he returned

Pic 2: Meeting Petey in the cold. (Check out those Ears!)






Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The days have passed and the summer is warm. The splendor of the lightning bugs and swooping bats has risen to its peak and every night I stand in the moonlight I feel a sense of rebirth. Ahhh and so begins another annual event, the birthday celebrations. Years have come and gone and each summer my odometer clicks onto a new number forever eclipsing and leaving behind the predecessor. As a mantis sheds its exoskeleton so too do I attempt to shed the layers and traits of my life that have worn out their usefulness.


And as I sit on the perch of the looming “39” I am struck with a sense of wonder and delight as I gaze back to some of the past moments that inevitably make the yearly ‘highlight reel.’ For you tonight I include some of them here. They mean nothing individually, less even. But these are the threads that woven into the quilt of my existence to this point stand out and catch my eye every time I glance backwards long enough to trace the steps that led me to where I stand now. I hope you enjoy them as surely therein will lie something that may spur a memory in your own collections of yarns.



1.) The time when I was 4 or 5 and watched as horses and riders rode by me for the first time. I felt the ground shake a bit and I know that my world changed as those hooves passed before me. Cockeysville, MD

2.) Watching “Wild Bill Hickock” at an O’s game on my 12th bday, up close. Memorial Stadium, 1983

3.) The time when I was fishing off a dock and caught a 4’ long eel, when I was deathly afraid of snakes. Harwich Port, MA 1983

4.) Sitting in a plastic sled, in our backyard stream trying to canoe with a shovel from my beach pail. And dad telling me to never be afraid to keep trying, even if you fail. Cockeysville, MD 1976 (Side note, that sled was buried into the silt of the stream, I wasn’t going anywhere!)

5.) Cantering a horse for the first time and having the mare lose her footing and go down with me onto her side. And jumping back up, hoping on the horse and doing it right. Jacksonville, MD 1982

6.) Watching my grandfather swim off Cape Cod, every day, every summer.

7.) Getting the trademark Nana hug and hearing her make this sound that I have yet to hear any of us be able to mimic exactly since her passing.

8.) Playing miniature golf, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders and baseball with my family when we still were intact.

9.) Trying to return my sister to the house after she fell off her bike….with a wheelbarrow….when she had a spiral fracture of the femur. That didn’t work at all. Towson, 1986

10.) Standing in Grampa’s workshop looking at a block of wood, and then next to it a complete set of models of old ships, sailboats, river boats and the like and knowing that the vessels around me had only a destiny to be a piece of wood until he came along. West Boylston, Ma 1980’s

11.) Seeing and playing with Gramma’s worry bird necklace, nearly everytime I see her from childhood through the present day. That little gold bird and the scent of Channel no. 5 will always take me to Massachusetts.

12.) Worrying over and over for Dad as he flew flight after flight across this amazing world and then finally one day understanding that there’s no use worrying. He is living his passion with planes as I live mine with horses. We both understand the risks, but it’s not enough to deny our truest loves. And so he flies and I ride on.

13.) Watching as Mom shifted from “mom” to Sarah Daignault, the next coming of Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan. (Ie… You know that expression, “Lead, follow or get out of the way” ?? Well just step back, she’s coming through!)

14.) Watching and cheering as Cindy graduated from Friends and Stanford. Both times I was totally proud and amazed to watch the girl that was a little cherub thing I grew up with turn into this rather amazing creature who fears no challenge and always hits the ground running with a plan.

15.) Knowing that I was probably going to need to improve my riding when as I was wheeled into our ‘regular’ ER the head reception nurse looked up and said, “Which horse was it this time Emily?” Towson, 1992

16.) Watching the sun set over the Atlantic, Pacific, and an innumerable number of ponds and lakes and rivers and always pausing long enough to think, “Wow. How gorgeous is this? I wonder what tomorrow will bring.”



~Emily

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A good day in the cheap seats..

I just had to drop by and post about my first "horsey" day in a long while yesterday.


So I left the job at the farm March 31st and ever since I have done lots of fun and cool stuff but I haven’t sat on a horse since. And what’s more, I haven’t wanted to either! In its own way this is a very interesting moment to be standing around watching how I have interacted with horses and their people for the last two months and what I have felt. Now don’t get me wrong, I have been around horses still just not totally embroiled in them like a steamed lobster.


Here’s some of the things I have done in my time away from my horsey life:

1.) Went to the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct

2.) Went to the Kentucky Derby for the first time

3.) Made an entry for the Purina Blog O Spondent contest

4.) Shipped horses to and from a local farm to a horse show (3 x)

5.) Went to help set jumps at one of Jimmy’s clinics up here

6.) Saddled a horse for my old boss at Delaware park

7.) Went to watch a friend have a lesson with Laura Chapot

8.) Went to three Point to points and Steeplechases (actually tailgated)

9.) Went to Devon Grand Prix

10.) I volunteered a full Sunday at Fair Hill HT, timing stadium

So yesterday I got off my duff and gave a friend of mine her first lesson with me in an attempt to prepare her for a couple starter trials this summer. She hadn’t had lessons for a while and God only knows how long since I taught, though I do love it. So off we went and schooled and practiced and in the beginning I ended up hopping on for a second to show Steph that yes “Mikey” did in fact know what bending was. The first time I got on in over 2 months. It felt great, then I was a little ouchy. Made my point and got off. He’s a comfortable ride and over the next 45 mins he and Steph both learned a bunch of useful stuff that will improve their time together.

I ended up washing Mikey while Steph chilled and drank Gatorade and I remembered what loving horses is like for the simplicity of it. Funny I’m not sure I realized how far I’d left that part drift out to sea.

So I loaded Mikey and sent them on their way. Then I went off to the barn where Lad had lived and moved all my jump standards and rails to be close to the barn. I found a buyer for them and I am gladly shirking off one more possession I don’t need. As I ferried the jumps up the hill in my Subaru I couldn’t escape how in all the time I spent at the farm yesterday I didn’t miss Lad. Don’t get me wrong, I do miss Lad, for who he is. But I don’t miss the labor that my own riding had become around the BO there. (I do think it’s about the place and the aura there, and not about Lad and me)

But I looked at the course my jumps were set in, how a pony clubber had decorated them with flags and streamers and such and I know I used to do that too, but all I could think was about the curmudgeonly stuff about young folks not respecting property. And I realized that for each of my 4 min on Mikey, I still have a long way back to go to get to the fun part of riding full on again.

Once upon a time I was a girl who lived to ride. Now I have become a woman who lives a life of responsibilities and tasks and to do lists. There’s a chasm that’s grown between the two sides of my personality, a chasm that comes into many lives. All I have to do now is figure out how to rebuild the bridge that I used to cherish. I don’t know if, when or how it will come back. But the mere minutes I was on Mikey reminded me of so many moments that I cherish, how can it not return at some point.

Thanks for listening.

~Emily

Monday, May 3, 2010

The view from a Greyhound Bus

The old saying goes that you don’t know a persons life until you walk a mile in their shoes. Since walking isn’t all that popular a method to cover long distances nowadays, we have adapted and use more diverse methods of transport. Chief among them would be automobiles and other highway driving machines. Over the past few days I have traveled 1200 miles on Greyhound buses and in this time I realized a lot about my life and things I had never known nor seen before. I spent a fair bit of my time talking to my fellow passengers and America and its citizens took on new and more diverse meanings than I had ever yet realized. I truly didn’t know what type of people I was going to meet on a bus.


It seemed like an easy idea; take a bus to Kentucky for the Derby, save the car from another 1200+ miles of use and depreciation. I booked the trip online and voila, 14 hours to go down, 18 hours to come back. Ok so I’ll use it as preparation for my ultimate dream of visiting Australia, which is just as long on a plane. And off I went expecting the same kinds of camaraderie and company as I have always experienced on the planes. But once I started off on the first bus I started to realize that an entirely different subculture exists running across this great nation on buses everyday. It genuinely never occurred to me that a recently released prison inmate would be given a bus ticket to go back to their home city or destination of choice. I had failed to notice immediately the lack of metal detectors and hands-on security at the stations I passed through. And the unwritten rules of bus traveling were slow to be communicated because my fellow passengers simply thought that I knew that being in the back of the bus alone, was a very bad idea. You can go in pairs or more, but alone….no way and especially not for a single white woman.

That was another thing. PC didn’t exist on Greyhound during my trips. I was white and the folks I know as African American will correct you and tell you they’re black. I spoke for hours with people. We debated lively about our country, our towns, and our future. And we listened to each other’s opinions. Some may not have agreed with everything said, but none turned and changed seats. My first leg I was seated with a young Mexican man named “Minor” who had a twenty three hour trip to Joplin, MO. ahead of him. Thankfully my Spanish from the barns has emerged to be about the Mexican 2nd grade equivalent and when I struggled with words, he helped me out. He asked me questions he’d wondered about, like how did I pay for school? When did I first get married? How many babies did I have? Where was my husband? Where was my family living? Why did my parents and sibling live so far apart? And it’s odd that when faced with the scrutiny of another culture’s ideals it made me question the answers I had. He couldn’t comprehend a never married 38 year old woman without any children just taking off for five days to go watch some horses run in circles. And when I looked at it through his eyes, I couldn’t explain it very well.

Further down the road I spoke to a very intelligent woman from Detroit. Now I can read a newspaper and watch the news, I know that life up there right now isn’t great, far from it. But talking to Diane made the intellectual detachment of a 5 minute newscast story shrink its distance and the gravity of her life struggles were then in my lap. I couldn’t flip the remote, and I couldn’t just say “Oh, I’m sure you all up there will work it out.” And it didn’t even occur to me that anyone would have to surrender their children to social services and leave to try to make enough money to make a life work. Not just to work for her, but hopefully a successful enough life that she could come back for her kids. Maybe one day. I didn’t even have a Kleenex to offer her as she wept.

On and on the miles clicked away and the stories of the world as it is for riders of the Greyhound buses came to me. And though their lives don’t resemble mine and the privileges I have been afforded, most all of these folks seemed to have a firm grasp on hope. None of the people I spoke to across the four states seemed ready to give in to their fate. The 2 boys, ages 19 and 20, who had just been released from a 2 year stint at a prison in Florida were moving to Cincinnati and were nervous. In jail they had learned to communicate with sign language so that their conversations were just between them. And after two years together, the one Ohio native had convinced the Florida native to return with him to a new life in Cincinnati. I asked the Florida native what he was going do. “Get a job.” When pressed what he’d like to do, he kind of looked at me like I was a little slow. “Get a job. That’s all I want. I don’t care what, I need to do something with my life, put some money away and move forward.” All over the 1200 miles I saw the spirit of determination and a willingness to dream that tomorrow could be the start to a better day, to a better life. And I wondered if fate would be kind and let them win one here or there.

In between these two road trips I spent an amazing two and a half days surrounded by people that have quietly been surrounding me my whole life. A whole universe exists that I know so well where wealthy people enjoy levels of privilege far beyond those who ride the bus. I saw opulence in farms, horses, restaurants and clothing stores. Men walked by me literally carrying thousands of dollars in cash as their gambles on equines paid off in spades. I walked the hallways of Churchill Downs in my finest dress and the loveliest, large Derby hat. I crossed all through the track down to the lowest ticketed seats and back up to the hallowed ground of celebrities and famous folks. I made my little gambles and paid off with a winner ridden by a poor boy from Louisiana. A man who has trouble reading and who never finished his education beyond the 8th grade. A man that broke into the upper echelons of the world of racing aboard a horse named, “Street Sense.” Someone who’s carried his luck and skill forward while remaining true to his roots. He has believed in his dreams for a long time. And somewhere along the way I’m willing to bet that he’s ridden a bus or two.

~Emily

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tales of the Triple Crown



Many people have asked me over the years, how was it that I became so enthralled with horses? Was it family? No. Was it friends? Well, sort of. What really helped you to love horses? That answer is simple; it was ABC and Jim McKay.

I followed the Triple Crown of horse racing because year in and year out it was the only horse sport on television. And each year I would start trying to follow the televised races sooner. I would absolutely love to say that I remember Secretariat, but I don’t because I wasn’t even 2 yet! Now I do remember Affirmed winning the Triple Crown in 1978. And I recall the fervor that followed him as he progressed from Louisville to Baltimore to Belmont. I suppose it’s appropriate in a way that my memory starts with the last Triple Crown winner.

I can still recall some of the oddly captivating stories behind each Derby, Preakness and Belmont contender over the thirty two seasons of racing that has passed between. I remember the glory of the watching Genuine Risk defeat the boys and how happy my mother and her friends were. I still remember the newscast detailing Swale’s untimely death. I watched, as most did, at the amazing rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. And yet the glory of the connections as each gleaming coated winner swept under the wires has transfixed me for years. Every race, every blanket of flowers adorned, each moment of victory, and yes even some defeats felt like my own. I still can’t watch Real Quiet’s Belmont. I have the tape on VHS and every time I pick it up I want to cry.

Over the years my family usually watched the races in the TV room together. And so of course we’d root for our favorite horses. By the time the gates would pop my family would be rooting for every runner in the race. And more often than not we would have the winner and second place finisher backed by all of us at the end. (Jumping ships mid race was allowed by some in my household) My greatest coup was the 1990 Belmont stakes. A new entrant from Europe was coming in, “Go and Go” an Irish bred trained by Mr. Dermot Weld and ridden by Mick Kinane. Dad thought I was nuts to like him, I kept screaming “But dad he’s Irish, a mile and a half is nothing over there!” Dad didn’t buy it. He stuck with Unbridled, the Derby winner. As they came into the turn Unbridled made the beginning of a huge move up to Go and Go as they sat behind the two front runners. And then he stopped. Go and Go kept on and sailed down the lane to steal the show. Dad tore up the ticket I had made for him and looked at me as mom smiled, “You know she might just have been learning all these years.”

And so now we come to another exciting year and we’re in Derby week! Sadly Mr. McKay has long ago been replaced, and more and more people are covering the sport of kings, and more and more horses are being run for the roses. One of my dad’s favorite songs still is Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” and I can’t think of Louisville in May or the Derby without entwining the great melody and my constant handicapping nemesis from the TV room of old. But this year will be different. For the first time ever I get to go to Churchill Downs and stand where millions of horsemen, horse lovers, gamblers, and yes even politicians and royalty have stood. I feel a bit like the little girl version of “Virginia” being given a trip and a tour of the North Pole. (Though I doubt those elves there curse as much if Rudolph can’t beat Dasher in a 5 furlong sprint!)

If it’s not clear from my earlier writings, I believe in a lot of stuff. Hollywood has no trouble getting me misty eyed in almost any film. So already I am imagining the walk through Churchill, seeing the track before me for the first time and feeling a bit like Costner in Field of Dreams, Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, Tom Burlinson in Phar Lap, and so many other great people who conveyed with alacrity the awe that befalls people when you actually stand in a place or a moment you’ve only dreamed of.

Now to get to this, I have some buses to ride, some fancy clothes to throw on, and yes a grand hat to perch on my head. But to really glance back and see how I got here, well I see all the people I initially denied credit for this: My father, my mother, my sister and all my friends who have understood over the past 32 years that for three Saturdays my butt would be parked in front of a television, daring to dream that anyone can win.

I wish all the horsemen, horses and fans a lot of great luck and grand racing. Look for me in the big pink and green hat with the million dollar smile!


~Emily

Friday, April 16, 2010


I haven’t blogged in days and I am starting to get a taste of regret!! So I am back now to toss one onto the net before I head to Maryland for a weekend of drunken debauchery in the form of my high school reunion. I figured that it would be best to write before the weekend, since after the weekend my brain could quite possibly be a bit fuzzy.


The piece of life I am going to share today is about my last day of high school, because it was, in and of itself, a memorable day. Right now my family and classmates are snickering because they of course know what I am referring to. But before we get to the end, a little background would help you along the way.

I have attended many private schools while growing up in Baltimore, MD. I never seemed to fit right into any of the schools I attended. For one reason or another I kept being that lone student with something missing. I was always defined as “different.” During my stint at Garrison Forrest for 7th and 8th grade, my parents and I could see that GFS wasn’t a perfect fit. The academic program is exceptional and challenging. And the expectations put on the students are high. This is all well and good but I was coming to GFS straight out of 3 years spent at a school for dyslexic children as I learned how to learn with the various learning disabilities I had. So because of the challenging academia present at Garrison, I was again having a difficult time succeeding in my studies. Mom and Dad were patient but it was clear to most that a change would have to be made. The search began and I toured schools, sat in for classes and walked many miles of pristine campuses. And finally I found my home at Oldfields School.

Oldfields has a very good program for their students in their “two-track” system. There are classes offered at both the “A and B” track level. The classes were the same, but how the information was covered differed based on the success level of the student. The “B” track classes covered things a bit slower, while the “A” track was typical of most schools. By having this system, if a student started to fall behind in an “A” track course, the advisor would be consulted and the student could be shifted, permanently or temporarily to a “B” track class to catch back up. Or if a “B” track student could excel, they could be moved up to an “A” track class. It was brilliant and my parents and I agreed it was the place for me.

I attended as a boarding student, even though the campus was a mere fifteen minutes from home. But they had a barn, a variety of dorms and 24 hour candy machines!!! Why on Earth would I stay at home???!!! Over the course of my four years I went through all the normal highs and lows that every person experiences in high school. I had first loves from school mixers with boy’s boarding schools. I learned to use a calling card like a pro. (The boy’s schools were all out of state) I rode every semester of every year and only acquired 2 concussions, a broken wrist and a toe. Pretty good for any four year time frame in my life! I succeeded in classes, I struggled in classes and I acted in school plays and sang in the music groups. I experienced all the diversity you could ask for.

Oldfields is a school with many traditions to it, and chief among them has to be the graduation ceremony. The first difference from many high schools is that all of the enrolled students are a part of the graduation day ceremony. We all are to be dressed in ankle length white dresses and carry the appropriate bouquet of flowers; mixed flora for underclassmen, a dozen roses for seniors. Then once all are congregated we are lined up, shortest to tallest underclassmen in pairs, with our bouquets being carried to the outside, then all the seniors one by one, shortest to tallest. Ok great, so now the music from a live orchestral band begins. (5 members I think) We must begin the walk down graduation hill. Oh but did I mention that we’re all barefoot??!! This will play in later. This ceremony is so elaborate that the week prior to graduation we have anywhere from four to seven rehearsals. It seemed to depend on the enrollment’s retention levels as to how many times we needed to practice. The walk down the hill leads to the flat level of grass below where we will initially see the underclassmen make a “V” shape. Then the seniors will file in down the center and make an arch behind the underclassmen. Then the may court will come down and stand or sit on their platform. Then the underclassmen come up to the may court, one pair at a time, now going tallest to shortest, and lay their bouquets before the may court. This takes some time as the underclassmen are about 70 pairs strong. Once the last bouquet is laid, the big ‘shift’ occurs. The underclassmen walk behind as the may court comes off their perch and leads the seniors front and center into a large horseshoe shape. The underclassmen now are in 3 ‘eyebrow’ shaped lines behind the seniors. Oh and there are no chairs for this shindig, you’re on your feet all the time. Except if you’re May queen, and boy did we all envy Wanda!!!

Now comes the easy part, the handing out of the diplomas. Mr. Rogers, our headmaster, calls your name, you walk up, and the plan is “Shake, take, tuck, hug, give.” Shake his hand, take your diploma, tuck it under your arm and hug Mr. R, and then give him the class gift. Our year we did a puzzle of a class picture, and each girl gave the puzzle piece with her image. By now I think you understand why 180 girls had to practice this multiple times. It was easy, but the myriad of things to do required solid knowledge before the big day.

So on my graduation Saturday I had slept terribly, been through about 2 boxes of Kleenex and was less than thrilled to see that 2 of my classmates had bought the same dress as me. I guess it was to be expected, since Laura Ashley was a hugely popular store for my schoolmates, and they only make so many wedding gowns. Oh well. My friend Scott had showed up on business…as a gorilla delivering balloons. I didn’t recognize him and he has never let me live it down. The time to go approached and I sat on the porch in front of old house and waited. I am tall, so I was one of the last to walk down the hill. I negotiated the descent fine, though I wished I’d had sunglasses, it was bright that day. I made it through everything without a blip, until it was time to go get my diploma.

Surely by now, most of you reading this have realized that I am a little ‘different.’ Square peg round hole, and that sort of thing. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I had to do something comical and different. I walked up to Mr. Rogers asking aloud, “Is it signed?” He smiled and nodded. The crowd giggled. I did the whole “Shake, take, tuck, hug, give” and then started to head back to line. But I didn’t walk…I power walked, in a hoop skirt and wedding dress. Then I ran, then I hit the small patch of dew and bare dirt soaked with dew, then I wiped out! *Sigh*

Yep down went the girl dressed, as Andie MacDowell called it in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” like a ‘meringue.’ The crowd laughed, the next girl had to have her name called a few times and the laughter carried through as I hopped up and literally bounced as I stood in line. I did a hell of a “Tigger” impression, which is odd in that I always preferred Pooh bear.

There have been many parallels drawn how the fall was a foreboding of life to come. How we always must rise and face the crowd after a momentary stumble. How fitting it was for it to be me to fall, since I usually was coming off the backs of various equines over the years. (I actually was the president of the Dusty Bottoms club at Oldfields) And so on, and so forth. It was embarrassing, but never as bad as I thought it’d have been. It’s been brought up a lot in the 20 years since I left. I am still the only person to have fallen down on the flat. Others have bitten dust on the hill, but never on the flat. But then, I never was like everyone else.

And so today I get to go back once again, past the spot of my fame, and I’ll frolic with memories, friends, and a place that was the home that took me from being an outsider to being one of us. There’s a quote from the (second) version of the movie “Sabrina” that I couldn’t find on the internet, go figure. Sabrina talks about how Paris is more her home because she found herself there. I feel the same way about two places on this Earth, and Oldfields is one of them. So I’m off to go home.



~Emily