Rider Diaries: Practice, Decision-Making in the Moment, and Chopping Wood

In the few weeks since my last post, a lot of head-way has been made. No, I did not dye my hair, and I may have only made it to the gym like twice. But, there was one night I did fifty crunches before bed, and I realized that my vacuum wasn’t pulling all the Huckle fur up. Gross.

Aside from getting myself in front of the right people, I think one of the best medicines for some irritating moments is time. Let the dust settle, have a few jump schools, and continuing to bring along the horses is pretty helpful. I also had to pry myself away from the Thread on the Chronicle about the most recent death in our sport. Every day I was reading more and more posts. Some were very educational, but others filling me with doubt.

So, because of my work schedule and a miscalculation that my next event was next weekend not the weekend after, I packed up both ponies and dog to take a solo trip to Aiken, SC to get a good cross-country school in under some professional eyes. Throwing together a last minute trip, I texted my friend and Advanced-level rider, Jill Thomas who she would suggest I call. My previous employer/coach/mentor whose based in Aiken was on a ski vacation and my coach couldn’t come up to Aiken until the week. She sent me towards Lillian Heard, and I figured with a long shot I could dig up Boyd Martin’s number too. He’s probably capable of teaching a cross-country lesson, right? Within a few hours, both responded and I scheduled to show-jump with Lillian on Saturday, before a cross-country lesson with both of the horses Sunday morning.

Saturday morning, I pulled out of the farm in Newnan. We pulled into Stableview farm at about 2PM, and I took the Connemara Stallion out for a hack. The footing is exceptional, and we wound through some roads behind the farm before I realized I might be late for my jump lesson with Lillian. I’ve never spent more than a few days here, and usually just travelling to one location. I wasn’t prepared for the other farm to be 35-minutes away! How is Aiken so big!? As safely as possible, I assertively drove out to the farm at Holland Eventing/Holly Berry Farm. I’d actually schooled here before, so once I entered the drive found the jump ring.

Working with someone new is tough because they have to assess where you are/what you need and then help you based on a limited knowledge, all in a set time-frame before your horse gets tired. For me right now, jumping at the 1.1m height feels routine and mechanic for my horse and I, but at the 1.15/1.2m height, I don’t have as much experience and confidence. I think Lillian quickly picked up on this, after I cruised over some 3’6” oxers, and then locked my jaw and body before approaching the same fence just a few inches higher. I think she picked up on a lot of things and encouraged me to make some more decisions to get to these fences, whether right or wrong, act on it. (Can you be my life coach?) I think taking away that fear of making the wrong decision, and my horse feeling me assertively ask her to move forward or wait both gave us huge boost of confidence. We jumped through some bigger courses, and called it a day. I drove back to Stableview so proud of my horse and I. (And relieved that the lesson didn’t cost as much as I expected. Call her.)

Early the next morning, I got to the barn to pack up and drive my horses over to the cross-country field across the farm. Frye was up first. My goal was to confidently school some technical elements. That morning I was also kicking some of the reflections on the Thread in the Chronicle as well. But, thanks to Claire-Brain, I was much more fearful of Boyd than I was of falling off. It was exactly what I needed. I was really challenged, but my horses and I finished with confidence and another hour of experience. I appreciated Boyd’s comments and finding a teaching opportunity wherever possible. I feel like as the other two riders went and after each exercise, he offered some type of educational nugget. From how to ride my horse (the stuff I paid for) or just that you should always try to school a coffin, ditch to fence, before fence to ditch so the horse was aware of the ditch.

On cross-country, I have an amazing and athletic horse. She does exactly what I tell her. The issue that’s arising at this level, is I don’t always tell her what to do. Sometimes this arises in not presenting her in time to a fence or having the incorrect balance for the task, but mostly it’s not reacting at all! (Refer to show-jump lesson above.) So as we cruised around each exercise, sometimes Boyd had me repeat an exercise a second or third time. On a combination that needed a coffin-type canter, I may have held a bit too much, or maybe my eye was a half stride off. He’d give me the instruction, and I could come back around and do it again. As the lesson progressed, I definitely felt myself getting more confident with the technicality and my horse’s response. I also started breathing. (I’m curious if he realizes the effect he has.) At the end of the lesson, we chatted quickly and his notes were just to practice, again and again. My horse is capable, I’m semi-gritty and can do it, I just need to do the exercises and gain experience. So, good right?

It was good. Those were the two days that I needed so badly. But, I definitely felt a bit frustrated on the way home. (Three days later, not so frustrated, but then, tired and frustrated.) In my lesson were two other riders, one professional, based in Aiken all spring. They have multiple horses, can schedule their lessons on any day of the week, and it just looked a bit easier to them. I, on the other hand, just feel a little less-than. I’ve moved to an amazing program and have the best horse, but this ridiculous job inhibits me! I could obviously be way better if I could not go to the office every day and make all of the cross-country schooling days!

As I cried on the way home, after my horse had jumped all the things, Boyd said I was a good rider, and that my horse was a good jumper, I decided to download an audio book suggested by Jenny Caras on the Major League Eventing Podcast, called “Chop Wood, Carry Water, How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great.” It is really good. I think everyone should read it, but definitely any athlete. (I’ll do a complete book-review) It’s also a really easy read. Insert some long word-vom texts to my coach, crying to my mom, and some Chinese takeout, I finally crashed Sunday night.

Three days settled, over half-way done with my audio book, and settling on how grateful I am for the support-system around me, I think I can appreciate where I am. (A rider with a good horse who was jumping around the most technical fences in the field) I want to be very, very good. I don’t want to be a B- or a B+. I want to execute a solid A+ ride every single time I enter the ring. Does that always look like a win? Maybe not, but I feel like I should be giving the horse I’m on the very best ride. I don’t think it’s fair to my horse for me to compete at a level I’m less than prepared for. But, I’ve got to find someway to manage my reactions and apprehension to make a mistake. I think it’s going to be a combination of continuing to schedule as many lessons as I can afford and diving a bit into the sports psychology of enjoying my progress.

Dancer’s lesson with Boyd! So Connemara stallion, Dancer jumped around with Boyd too! I wish I could admit that my nerves reduced jumping smaller fences, but they didn’t…I still had Boyd watching me ride. Dancer is a 6yo Connemara, and right now he’s moved up to Training-level after a great year competing in 2019. Boyd gave us just the same encouragement and help as my upper-level horse, and even gave him a pat! Thanks Mate! Right now, we just want him to be as confidently as possible and worked on finding our distances out of stride. Dancer rocked around the course, and I’m grateful for a second opportunity to work on myself.

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