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:
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.
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.
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.
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.