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


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.


Link to Video of the 2, 1.20 meter rounds: