George Bernard Shaw once said that “Those that can, do. Those who can’t teach.” I’m not sure that’s exactly true in the equestrian world, since those that can and do, are in demand as teachers and coaches. This phrase has rattled around in my head a lot in the last month or so, as I picked up my coaching hat and agreed to take on one student pro bono. If I want to keep amateur status at shows, I can’t accept payment for giving lessons and training horses. Keeping amateur status is important to me. While I’d like to think I can and have held my own against the professionals in the open or pro divisions, the truth is they are professionals because training and riding is their day job. Training/riding is a hobby my day job pays for, and when life gets in the way, training/riding is a secondary concern for me unlike most of the pros I would be competing against. Once upon a time in college, I did give some beginner lessons. My father likes to joke it was the only time anyone in our family ever made any money in the horse business, but alas I went out and got a day job.
The ship has sailed on me being a professional trainer/riding coach. I sacrificed way too much to get to where I am as fast as I did in my chosen career. I have too many financial responsibilities, and one more on the way, to start from scratch building a successful equine business. Also, the more time I spend around horse professionals, the more I realize making it my sole source of income could very well suck the joy I get out of equestrian activities. Nevertheless, I found myself in a situation of “can’t do.” I’m pregnant. Right around the time that my training needs to ramp up for the spring show season, I’ll be huge/awkward, none of my show clothes will fit, and then I’ll give birth. I haven’t asked my doctor when he’ll make me quit riding (and I’m not sure I would listen anyway), but I’m pretty sure around month eight its going to be uncomfortable to do anything exciting if my one previous experience is anything to go by.
So I’ve been playing around and spending more time on ponies than I have the past two years. If I can’t climb into the saddle, there was no excuse not to get at least one driving team started if not, two. That’s when a friend (we’ll call Lily Pad) that was previously a barrel racer, turned pleasure rider who had dabbled in endurance riding asked if I could show her the ropes in eventing. Like everyone that wants to event, she wanted to gallop with wild abandon across open cross country fields soaring over impossible obstacles. After her first couple lessons learning exactly what level of fitness is required to gallop correctly for just a few minutes without ever going over an obstacle, she scaled back those expectations. I don’t think she had even considered the dressage phase.
Lily Pad picked out a schooling show and asked if she could be ready in two months. We began by giving her and her 19 year old ex-barrel horse a crash course in dressage. Although her horse was in phenomenal condition for an animal nearing 20 years old, asking the animal to do much in the jumping and cross-country phases would be cruel. Since we were starting at the Green as Grass (GAG) level, the obstacles would only range 18-20in in height. A 15hh horse can easily step over that without even attempting to jump. Due to the horse’s age, I told Lily Pad not to jump more than once a week even at those low levels.
Surprisingly dressage quickly became Lily Pad’s favorite of the three phases. It wasn’t as physically demanding as galloping. With the majority of her riding education focused on barrels, learning the correct way to keep a horse from falling in on a circle, (I’ll give you a hint, its not the way most barrel racers are taught), was an epiphany. The changes in her horse’s topline in just a few weeks of correct riding were enough to seal the deal, and my wanna be cross country daredevil now prefers dressage over all of the other phases. So at least once a week, usually twice I coached the pair on dressage and jumping. The rest of the week they worked solo on what they learned during those sessions.
I was impressed with their progress. Its an unpopular opinion, you won’t hear a lot of professionals voice because its bad for business, but can bet many of them are thinking it… Adults that don’t have the muscle memory acquired in youth sometimes progress slowly if at all. Its not difficult to pick out the adults coming back to riding that were once decent riders as children, from the ones that didn’t start riding until their twenties or older. I’m not saying they can’t still become decent riders, but its a handicap that takes dedication to overcome. I was really worried that I would be fighting ingrained poor riding from barrel racing/pleasure riding that would slow progress to the point it was barely detectable.
Lily Pad was a diligent student. More importantly she was coachable. If I asked her to change something, she tried even if she didn’t get it the first or following five times. The point was she didn’t ignore the instruction and keep doing whatever she had before. Also, she practiced on her own when I wasn’t with her. I threw a lot of concepts at her every lesson, knowing that if she didn’t demonstrate it during the lesson, she would think about it and work at it on nights when no one was watching and making her nervous. I listed the most important items she needed to work on, and threw a few extras in for her to think about.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no dressage expert, and already have plans to ride with a few experts post-partum, but Intro tests are really just an execution of basic riding skills and concepts. I had an idea of what level rider would be schooling at GAG level, and what their handicaps would be. The last few sessions I drilled Lily Pad on geometry. Younger riders just aren’t any good at geometry, especially if they get nervous at a show. Inexperienced riders struggle to keep horses on a circle and not an oval or an egg. Inexperienced and young riders have a tendency to rush, and unless we had some pro on the greenest horse ever, there was no reason to expect anyone but inexperienced/young riders as her competition at this schooling show.
Dressage was the most important phase because GAG doesn’t count time faults in the jumping phases. So stadium and cross country would only matter if someone refused or knocked down a rail, and let’s face it most inexperienced/young riders were still going to be on experienced horses. 18-20in jumping obstacles aren’t going to be something an experienced horse knocks down or refuses no matter how bad the rider is. Lily Pad had a huge advantage over her competition in her horse. Lily, the lovely quarter horse, is quiet, calm, and consistent. She’s not fancy, but in the low levels, a calm consistent animal will beat out a flashier less consistent animal. All Lily Pad had to do was not screw up the pattern/geometry.
A little less than two months after we began training, Lily Pad, my two border collies, Rip and Newt, and I were on our way to the show. We had plenty of time to walk courses, get ready, and warm up. I scoped out the competition warming up, and once again reminded Lily Pad that she needed to nail her circles. From there, its all history. Lily Pad and Lily laid down a consistent respectable test for their first time ever. Her battle tested barrel racer/trail horse didn’t bat an eye at a single jump or question. I think it was a little bit of a let down how fast stadium and cross-country were over after the huge build-up to the dressage test.
The venue was great for a first timer, low stress, unpretentious and well organized. A little less than three hours after we arrived, Lily Pad was walking back to the trailer with 2nd place ribbon out of a field of 5 competitors and a respectable dressage score. That’s a solid showing for someone that barely knew what dressage was two months before, and had never jumped her horse. Lily Pad was excited for greater dressage glory, but throughout our training came to the conclusion, that if she really wants to make eventing her sport and advance up the levels, she needed a younger prospect without arthritis issues. It just so happens that another one of my friends has the most gorgeous 5 year old cremello mustang she needs to rehome. While I really would have loved him for myself, I’m at max capacity for full size horses, but Lily Pad will be the perfect home. The two of them will begin to get to know each other over the winter, and in the spring just as I’m returning to show focused training, she’ll be ready to really put in the work!