Horse I Have Loved: Lucky

I spent Saturday in Montreal trying horses at my former trainer’s barn (more on that soon) and stayed the night at my parents’, where I decided to do some decluttering of my old bedroom. I came across this:

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A plaque I won for at the 2010 award banquet for our regional show circuit, for being Adult Hunter Champion for the season with Lucky Penny, a horse I campaigned for his adult-beginner owner. Digging further into the box, I found my 3rd-place plaque for that year’s open working hunter division, as well as the prize for a Medal I had won that year, and my qualification certificate for the 2010 provincial finals and a 3rd-place ribbon from finals. On paper, Lucky definitely brought me my most successful show season ever – however, he also left me with some deep-seated fears and accompanying bad habits that remain with me to this day. Suffice it to say, it was a year of highs and lows.

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Lucky’s owner had bought him to be her 2’9 horse; he had been around the circuit for a while, both on the regionals and at the As. He was the kind of horse that broke your heart: equally capable of being the winner, or getting stopped out on the first jump. He cycled through a few different riders, and I suspect found himself in a some rough situations, as by the time he got to our barn he was deeply suspicious of people. He was quite simply too much horse for his current owner, who doted on him but needed a confidence-builder, which he emphatically was not.

One day she came to me and asked me to try him. When my trainer heard about this, she told me bluntly that he wasn’t my type of ride. I had had issues with a stopper the previous summer, and Lucky needed a very accurate but light touch. Determined to prove her wrong, I took a lesson on him, and to everyone’s surprise, he went quite well. His owner suggested I take him to a horse show so she could come watch him go.

Although my trainer tried to convince me to do Lucky in the Modified 2’9, my pride wouldn’t let me so I entered him in the Adults (ahh, the folly of youth.) He had schooled well the day before, but my trainer warned me that that was often the case; it didn’t mean he wouldn’t shut down the minute he entered the ring for his class. I stayed awake for hours the night before visualizing my courses, and trying to ingrain in my body the precise feel that Lucky needed in order to feel confident.

I still have a really vivid memory of cantering down to the first jump – him backing off – and then me having the exact right instinct at the right time, for once in my life, and finding that perfect combination of supporting leg into hand. He jumped the first fence beautifully, and the rest of my rounds passed in a wonderful blur. Suddenly I was jogging into the ring to be presented with the Champion ribbon.

All of Lucky’s connections and I were shocked but pleased – even more so when he repeated his good behaviour at the next show, and the next, and the next. Suddenly there was talk of qualifying for provincial finals (we needed to be top four in the final standings). Then, as weekend after weekend brought successive tricolours, his owner (who came to every horse show to spectate accompanied by her two Shelties, Gucci and Chanel) told me firmly she would pay for him to go to as many shows as it took to win the year-end gold medal for the division. Show after show, Lucky and I laid it down. We won every hack and even some adult equitation classes, including a Medal class I’d dreamt of winning for years.

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More importantly, Lucky’s and my personalities really clicked. He went from standoffish and skittish to trusting and hammy. He loved watermelon and chewing on plastic water bottles, and ate up the most difficult eq courses my trainer could think of, with the greatest of ease. I obsessed over keeping to a pre-show routine with military precision so as to keep him in good humour. And I gained the confidence that can only come with being a real contender: all of a sudden, we were the threat that other competitors hoped to best. All my previous horses had either been green or somehow problematic, so a good show day was one where we jumped every fence with minimal meltdowns. Now, I walked in the ring believing I could win, and I rode accordingly.

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Lucky and my mom kind of loved each other.

Alas, it was not to be forever. I left on a family vacation and a barnmate was enlisted to show Lucky in a few classes to keep racking up those points; he stopped a couple of times and they didn’t have the best day. I chalked it up to inexperience together. When I returned the next show for Lucky and me was the regional final, our penultimate show together, where my goal was to come top three in the finals of the 3′ medal. I had even bought a new show jacket and was eager to bust it out! (First mistake…) It all came to a literal screeching halt at the last line of the first course, however, when despite my perfect distance in, Lucky said an emphatic NO, dumped me directly in the jump, and wheeled away galloping. So much for the shiny new jacket. We entered me in every division possible, only to get stopped out round after round, culminating in my being excused for two refusals at the first jump of the Medal final. It was one of the worst days of my horsey life – it’s hard to remember another time I felt so inadequate.

Of course, the next show was provincial finals, the Quebec Equestrian Games, held at the beautiful Bromont Olympic site. Qualifying for the Games had been a dream of mine for years, and it really was a wonderful experience to represent our region with my teammates. Downside: over three rounds, Lucky consented to jump four jumps. Total. Yep. We were eliminated for refusals everywhere, despite him jumping the snot out of all the massive scary oxers we built him in the schooling ring, at which he didn’t bat an eye. He had well and truly decided to throw down his toys and go home, and there was nothing I could do about it. (We came third in the hack out of 30, though. Small mercies.)

It truly was a terrible ending to a wonderful season. I shake my head a bit today looking at all the prizes he won me, when we ended on such a sour note.  Lucky left me with some serious baggage related to riding stoppers that I have yet to shake. But he taught me how to win – and helped me a little further along the road towards the intersection of compassion and determination, where all good riders of difficult horses must reside.

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Horses I Have Loved: Rosie

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The first thing people ask me when I tell them I ride horses is, “Does your whole family ride?” Alas, I’m the only one of us to have been bitten by the horse bug. My mother is basically terrified of horses and thinks they are all identical, and while my dad likes them in theory and faithfully accompanied me to many years of childhood riding lessons, his liking for the sport waned in direct proportion with how much it began to cost as I began to take it more seriously. Thus, a horse of my own was never in the cards: the cost of upkeep simply boggled my parents’ minds.

Fast forward to 2007: my trainer and her family had purchased their own farm that spring; I had just come off a successful summer showing my dear Artus and was looking for something new. All my friends seemed to be buying horses all of a sudden, as our competitive goals began moving out of the school-horse zone. One day in September my trainer brought in three young horses from a breeder in Ontario for a friend of mine to try. One, a fancy grey, was nice but overpriced. The other two, a four-year-old bay gelding and five-year-old chestnut mare, both unraced Thoroughbreds out of the same dam, were cute but very green and raggedy: they could go, stop, steer, and pop over a crossrail, but their feet had clearly never seen the attention of a good farrier and they were each missing a good few pounds. My friend took a liking to the bay, Brownies, who would go on to make a lovely 2’9 hunter for her (showing under the name Skye Ransome – any Saddle Club fans in the house?) I was told to ride the mare, Rosie, for the week until the breeder came to pick up the remaining horses.

Riding green-as-grass babies is not that exciting, and Rosie wasn’t anything to look at and had no personality to speak of. However my coach saw something really special in her  – or more accurately, in us as a pair – and convinced me I needed to find a way to buy this horse.

Bear in mind it had never crossed my mind to purchase a horse at this point. I was 18 and had just moved two hours away to university, and I still didn’t have the money to pay board and expenses. My trainer, however, made me a deal we couldn’t refuse: my parents would put up the mid-four-figures purchase price; she’d board the horse free of charge; and we’d split any profits we eventually made on her sale. Sweet deal!

Except I didn’t really love the horse. This wasn’t how I imagined buying my first horse: there had been no careful shopping process, no trying cool exotic horses; just a few rides on a strung-out baby, followed by a vet check during which Rosie put on quite a display of babyish frustration and temper, rendering flexion tests nearly impossible. I remember my parents, driving home having just signed the sale agreement, thrilled to have been able to give me what I had always wanted; and me in the back seat, trying to feign more excitement than I really felt.

Yeesh. Not super pretty.

Sept 2007: Not looking like a world-beater.

Every Friday, I would get the train home from university and head straight to the barn (thanks for the endless rides to the barn, parents!). Rosie started getting fatter, fitter, and better-looking. We pulled her mane and shod her and taught her to lunge. By the time the approaching winter weather sent us into the indoor for the season, she was growing on me: at least she was demonstrating some interest in my presence rather than totally ignoring me. I began to feel a bit of excitement (though I must admit, the most exciting thing of all was choosing her show name, after YEARS of making lists of horse names for the day I finally, FINALLY got my own horse. I chose Bold As Love, though my dad would have preferred Daddy’s Dollars.)

Woohoo! Baby jumps!

Woohoo! Baby jumps! Apologies for the terrible photo quality.

However, green TB baby with a big stride + tiny indoor all winter = problems. Oh, did I mention she was a chestnut mare? Rosie’s Terrible Fives hit with a vengeance that winter. Cantering and jumping quickly became very hazardous undertakings. My little horse was turning into quite the athlete – but she had discovered she could use her powers for evil! Our lessons did not resemble jump schools so much as rodeos. Eventually it devolved into walking for fifteen minutes as her only warm-up before jumping, in the hopes of increasing my chances of surviving until the jumping portion of the lesson, because Rosie DID NOT LIKE cantering, and she let us know this frequently and with great emphasis. It turned out her previously sweet half brother had the same hidden temper, so his owner and I were relegated to the 9:00 am Saturday lesson, when there were fewer clients around to gasp at the antics. Somehow, I stayed on through a winter of bucking, twisting, porpoising and general degeneracy, but there were some terrifying close calls. Suffice it to say the approach of show season filled me with dread: if she was like this at home, how could I bring her to a horse show?!

In April, Rosie stepped one foot into the outdoor ring for our first ride outside, took a good look around as I braced myself for an explosion, heaved a big sigh, and cheerfully trotted off without a care in the world. It was like the switch had flipped in her brain: outside = good horse. She literally never misbehaved again in the time that I owned her.

After Evil Rosie had disappeared in favour of Good Rosie

After Evil Rosie had disappeared in favour of Good Rosie

In fact, Rosie just kept getting better. She went to her first horse show, and although we couldn’t really steer, and I was too nervous to do her any good up there, she clocked around like a champ. (We were still VERY green. I remember going back-to-back in the order with another [uber-fancy] horse whose trainer was instructing them to “think about the quality of your canter to create a rounder jump.” Meanwhile, I was going to be thinking about staying in one gait the whole time and attempting to jump eight jumps in a row, which I don’t think we’d ever done before.)

Rosie turned out to be exactly what you hope for when you buy a hunter prospect: a horse who loves going to horse shows. She had a beautiful careful jump , a naturally huge stride, and a perfect automatic lead change. She had a very classic hunter movement that many judges loved: we won a lot of hacks at our B-circuit shows. If anything, she became too quiet: our biggest problem was our penchant for the deep distance. She was the same horse every day, everywhere, from crowded warm-up rings to jumper derby fields.

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Though we still had our baby moments.

Though we still had our baby moments.

Honestly, Rosie’s biggest hindrance was me as a rider. I showed her in the 2’9 Baby Greens, a class that was 95% professionals riding horses for their junior clients. To gain experience (and as a point of pride), I wanted to do all Rosie’s riding and showing myself rather than having our pro take her around her first classes. I remember being so nervous before our first show that I distractedly polished the inside of my boots right before our first class, resulting in me basically slipping backwards off my saddle at every fence. Whoops. After my mid-season crash with my other horse, I clambered back on Rosie at the next weekend’s horse show, literally shaking in my boots; she couldn’t have cared less. She had become a true seasoned show horse, and a joy to ride at that. I shake my head now thinking about all the ways I could have done better by her as a rider; but honestly, it just didn’t seem to bother her.

Yep.

Yep.

By the end of the season, we had had some great results, and I had big (secret) plans to take her on the A-circuit the next year for our big 3′ debut. But all good things must come to an end. My trainer’s agent had seen her go at a horse show (at which we swept the division to come Champion) and told us he had a client in mind for her, if we were looking to sell. Bearing in mind the expense my trainer, her co-owner, had borne over the last year in boarding her at no cost to my family, we consented to putting her very casually on the market. We decided on a price we thought was outrageous, and told the agent that if the buyer accepted that price and not a dollar less, Rosie was hers; otherwise, we’d keep her for another year and do her in the Pre-Greens.

The buyer and agent came to try Rosie on a weekday while I was away at school. Our very good pro rider showed her for them…and ended up falling off my horse at the buyer’s feet when she went for a verrrry long distance and Rosie sensibly but awkwardly added another stride. Our pro was mortified when she called me to tell me the story – but I was overjoyed. Surely this was it! The buyer would walk away, and Rosie would be mine for another year!

Except the buyer called my trainer and said, “I loved the way that horse stopped and waited for your rider to get up off the ground and come get her, then came back around as if nothing had happened. I will take her at your asking price, no questions asked.”

So that was that. We shined Rosie up and waited for a fancy air-ride trailer to come take her six hours south and a few social classes up. I cried the day the left, twelve short months after grudgingly taking her on as my scrawny project.

A much prettier horse than a year ago, a much sadder owner.

Our last day together. She earned many nicknames in her year with me, chief among which was The Lemon, which was bestowed upon her during her winter of delinquency for reasons that should be obvious.

I snuck in one more ride on her in the indoor arena, though. Of course, she threw in a good buck as I cantered down the long side, for old times’ sake.

Our last jump school together!

Rosie went on to a successful career as a Children’s Hunter and 3’3 medal horse on the A-circuit in New England. She found her niche as a move-up horse for riders moving from ponies to the horse divisions. I caught up with her through some posters on the Chronicle of the Horse forums who assure me she’s in really excellent hands. She is 13 now and has the bulk and muscle of a mature show hunter, but I can’t help but notice that she never grew out of her scrawny little throatlatch!

A couple of years ago with her then-owner

A couple of years ago with her then-owner. Looking sharp!

In the end, Rosie was a real diamond in the rough. A few things really stay with me: her beautiful rhythmic canter, and how soft her face just below her forelock was. The first and only horse I’ve ever owned, she really was a girl’s best friend.

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Horses I Have Loved: Artus (2008-10)

Last time: Artus and I navigated the ins and outs of our first show season.

Artus (2008-10)

After a year in the 2’9 divisions, it was time to move on up. Artus and I were ready to enter the big ring. (We’re talking B-circuit here, people. The 3′ child/adult ring was where it was at.)

In the meantime, I had acquired a horse of my own: Rosie, a 5-year-old TB, who will be the subject of another post. (You will soon notice that I have a thing for chestnuts, especially of the Thoroughbred variety.)

2008 was, in hindsight, a year I started out feeling really brave. I had a green baby who I did all the major work with myself, and planned to show on my own, with no professional to show her the ropes first. My “big horse” was dear Artus, who I planned to do in the Children’s, equitation, medals, and jumper equitation: still spooky, still not 100% (let’s be real, still only about 50%) on the lead changes, who had more willingness than scope or carefulness. But it was my last junior year (even though I had only become a hardcore h/j rider in the previous couple of years, I realized the significance of this) and I felt like it was all in our wheelhouse.

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Artus and I didn’t set the world on fire, but we made up for each other’s weaknesses. He went bravely to any jump I pointed him at. He jumped from long and short (but mostly long, I have had a crazy eye.) He hacked and flatted with the best of them. He tried to do a lead change now and again, and always kept a smile on his face.

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Check out that jump filler!

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Pony mane!

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4′ – the highest we ever jumped.

Then we literally crashed and burned.

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I remember coming to in the hospital and feeling shame for having let down my partner so badly. I fought until my parents agreed to take me back to the horse show, so I could check on my big red Muffin, who was mercifully OK, save for some scrapes and a chipped tooth. Later that week, I got back on the horse, though I felt fear. But every time I put him into a canter, I took a deep breath, felt the familiar rhythm, and realized I still had some of that bravery in me, because I still had the gift of his trust.

We sat out the next horse show so I could focus on my green horse without the potential Artus-related nerves creeping in. Then, at the following show, we returned to the scene of the crime.

That weekend I came 1-1-1, Champion, in the Baby Greens on Rosie, and 1-1 in the equitation on Artus. It was as sweet a comeback as I could have asked for.

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Throughout the next three years, Artus was a constant in my life despite many other changes. We kept chipping away at it, as other horses came in and out of my life. He became more and more dependable, and started assuming the role of teacher, for younger riders to benefit from what we had learned together. Now, eight years on and 17 years old, he still belongs to my former trainer, and is an invaluable “packer”, though he now prefers the short distance to the long, and comes out of the stall a little stiffer. But his ring presence is still commanding, and his heart is still always in it. (Although he retains, to this day, the habit of craning his head all the way around from side to side while waiting his turn at the in-gate, as if to say, “Is there any way outta this?”)

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Though he now does them cleanly every time, I can’t say he ever really learned to like lead changes.

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2010, our last show together. He was Champion in the Adults with me as well as in the Children’s with his young rider.

Artus, my little Muffin, my horse of a lifetime.

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Horses I Have Loved: Artus

This weekend, I got sucked into the wormhole of looking at old horse pictures on my computer. In most many of them, I could find something to shake my head at: I’m crooked asking for the lead change. I’m staring at the ground. I’m jumping ahead. I’m jumping ahead again. I’m…still jumping ahead. Judging solely by these pictures, I definitely wasn’t the hotshot I may have thought I was at the time.

But as much as there is a lot to wince at in these photos, one thing set my mind at ease: invariably, my horses have happy looks on their faces. Their eyes are soft, their ears are pricked, and they seem to be up to the challenge, despite whatever the hell the jockey’s doing up there. It makes me think that we were doing something right, at least. We didn’t win all the time – but we also didn’t pound the horses into the ground chasing points, lunge them to death in search of the perfect hunter round, or bit up our 3′ jumpers to facilitate turning and burning. (Sadly, there were a lot of those things on display on our show circuit every summer.)

We did love the heck out of our horses, who in turn rose to the occasion time and again. For me, that all started with…

Artus

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When my trainer in Montreal bought her now-barn, back in January 2007, it was an eventing barn, complete with a cross-country course, and a fleet of cute eventer school horses that we inherited. For the upcoming show season, I had my eye on a young mare to do in the 2’9 classes. We worked our butts off all winter and spring, until one day, the ex-owner of the place showed up and decided to take her to his new barn. Suddenly horseless, I was left with Artus, who seemed like a good boy and all, but very spooky and without a clue of how to do a lead change. Nonetheless, it was Artus or bust, so we stuck him on the trailer that weekend for my second-ever  hunter/jumper show.

Artus and I were deer in headlights at that first show. I had no idea what anything meant (Open card? Schooling class? Ticketed warm-up? What do you mean I just jumped three rounds and none of them counted?) and was plain overwhelmed…a feeling he shared. Artus had been to some horse trials before, but I don’t think they had compared to the utter chaos of this horse show. Picture it: four rings, one big warmup next to a cornfield. Horses galloping willy-nilly, trying to catch the warm-up jumps. Everyone amped up and fresh, as it’s the first show. To make matters worse, Artus had fallen in love with his neighbour, La Senza, on the trailer ride over, and as soon as I got on to try to negotiate the chaotic warm-up, he began screaming for her…and didn’t stop for the next half hour, as they each circled the warm-up at opposite ends, craning their necks and rolling their eyes towards each other, convinced death was imminent and they would be better to face it together.

On our way to the warm up, Artus is saying,

On our way to the warm up, Artus is saying, “I think we should NOT GO THAT WAY. Where is La Senza?!”

We made it through the show alive, barely – we showed in the New Junior division, 2’9, for riders who had less then ten shows under their belts. I had been riding for years, had shown at lots of unrecognized shows, and counted myself pretty knowledgable. Of course, I got my ass soundly handed to me by ten year olds on saintly ponies, as my old-style, timber-racing-built TB and I careened around the course at Mach 3, no lead changes in sight, frantically whinnying every time we passed the ingate. So it goes.

Artus:

Artus: “This is terrifying!!”

As the season progressed, we started to get our shit together. We figured out how to warm up without melting down. We won a lot of hacks and flat classes, and when we landed our leads, got a piece of the over fences. We qualified for the finals of the Modified Medal (of course, the test was multiple lead changes. Damn it. We didn’t make the callback.)

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That black pony used to beat us all the time. Curse you, Blackberry!

That black pony used to beat us all the time. Curse you, Blackberry!

Most importantly, we learned that this horse showing business was kind of fun. I bonded with my barn mates and Artus remained obsessed with his own barn mate, La Senza. We mastered rollbacks, and sitting trot, and how to hurry up and wait, and the difference between an open card and a ticketed warm-up.  And I fell in love with my cresty-necked, fuzzy-maned, bulging-eyed chestnut muffin, Artus.

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Then we went home and worked on our lead changes.

Next installment: Artus and I move up to the big-kid classes.

Blog Hop: Everyday Fail

So I have discovered blog hops. Cool! I started reading Nicole’s excellently-titled blog, Zen and the Art of Baby Horse Management, and she’s called for the worst and most absurd riding pictures in all the land. This she will have!

In looking through the photos I have saved on my computer, my only regret is that I didn’t scan more of the many, many hideous pictures taken of me in my riding camp days. I mean, I’m sure I wasn’t riding terribly in all of them, but they were certainly a fail from a fashion standpoint. Observe:

Those chaps. That hair. That SADDLE PAD. Cute pony though!

Those chaps. That hair. That SADDLE PAD. Cute pony though! Also, this one is kind of a riding fail too.

A more recent goldmine were the pictures from the year I had my green TB mare, Rosie. In 2008, I showed Rosie in the 2’9 Baby Greens, a class that was 95% professionals, and it freaked me out. I mean, the look on my face in most of the pictures is one of total intimidation.

Am about to throw up off the side of this horse

Am about to throw up off the side of this horse

Accordingly, we barfed this distance!

Accordingly, we barfed this distance!

But my favourite picture of Rosie is this one. The file name is “Destroythis.jpg”. I’m glad I didn’t take my own advice. Nice release, self.

That leg though.

That leg though. Also, someone else is photographing this jump from the other angle. I must find that picture and destroy it.

But the best fail pictures come from the incident below, with Artus, my children’s hunter, in 2008. No worries, I escaped with mere facial lacerations and a concussion, and poor Artus chipped a front tooth but was otherwise OK.

THAT WAS NOT THE DISTANCE WE AGREED ON

THAT WAS NOT THE DISTANCE WE AGREED ON

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He sure is shiny.

Poor guy :-(

Poor guy 😦

Ouch.