A little over a year ago, a friend “loaned” me her Grand Prix stallion for one show – so I could attempt to get a score at PSG for my Silver. The friend, Gigha Steinman, deemed it “PSG Bootcamp.” “He’ll have to stay here,” she added when she pitched the idea. “And, you’ll only be able to ride him a few times a week; I’ll have to keep riding him too.” I laughed and responded, “I’d never be able to handle the pressure of keeping him at my place, and you’d HAVE to keep riding him so I don’t screw him up too badly!” Even though riding her Friesian Sporthorse stallion Lexington was an amazing experience, it didn’t come without various pressures and expectations, even if they were self-imposed.
The biggest was the aforementioned not screwing Lex up, and the fact that no one other than Gigha had ridden him since he was a three-year-old at the breaker’s doing walk/trot only compounded it. She didn’t even allow instructor’s to ride him when she lessoned with them. This not only made me feel very privileged, but humbled and well, the pressure was on full force. The dynamics of my horse/rider relationship changed. I went from being trainer to trainee.
I remember the same thing happening as a little girl. I inherited my passion for horses from my dad and grew up riding behind my dad then listening to stories of the wild stunts he’d pull on his stallion: sliding down hills, chasing deer, crossing open railroad trusses and, “Oh, Cody can always find his way home!” The day came when I was finally old enough to take Cody out on my own. When I walked back into my dad’s garage, my face and arms covered in briar scratches, my dad laughed and asked, “What the hell happened?!” I said, “Yeah, your horse knows how to get home alright! It doesn’t matter what’s in his way, either!” I had gone exploring in the woods and entrusted the horse I grew up thinking might as well walk on water with getting us home. And he did, entitling himself to take the shortest, most direct (and briar-filled) route to get us there.
Luckily, no scratches were involved with Lex even if the “you know more than me” mentality resurfaced. The majority of horses I rode had never been ridden before (which is how I came to know Gigha, by putting the first rides on her babies) or had turned into problem horses who terrified their owners. Those horses I could ride, correct when necessary and make better. In my mind, who in the heck was I to make corrections on Lex? In an odd showing of respect, I wouldn’t even tack him up without Gigha making the final adjustments on exactly where the saddle should rest. I was just lucky to be able to sit on him!
Gigha remedied this by “micro-managing,” as she called it. “Half-halt! Collect more! Get him to give! More right rein! Give! More forward!” She thought for me as I circled and half-passed around her arena, confirming corrections I thought I should have made and making me ride better for pointing out ones I missed.
The other biggest pressure was not failing. In my mind, where snarky DQs talk about a no-name rider whose PSG outing was her fourth ever recognized show, I could hear them say, “Well that horse has competed through Grand Prix, anybody should be able to get at least a 60 at PSG.” Which, luckily, I did. Then I could hear them say, “She only got that score because she was on a made horse.” I only had 10 prep rides on Lex. I didn’t buy or lease a schoolmaster and have plenty time to harmonize with him, and he helped me get my 60.xx – but after PSG Bootcamp, I was ready to make my own horse top priority every day (You’ll always find time to ride the ones that pay.) and finish “making” my own.
So in the year that has followed, my horse has gone from being a horse that had schooled some upper level stuff to one that was competing 4th level and schooling the canter pirouette for PSG, along with moving up to Training level eventing, and all the pressures of making your own horse intertwine and come along with it.
Money is the biggest pressure. The majority of horses who come to me do so in 30 day increments. “Just get them started.” “They’re explosive and will try to kill you. Is one month enough? Oh, you’ll need at least two?” “I know I said I was going to leave her with you another month and you could take her to a schooling show, but that’s not going to work. Can you bring her home tomorrow?” My money doesn’t come in steadily or consistently and shows are expensive.
And necessary (yet another pressure): I grew up riding every horse I could (along with driving a mule), but I’m not one of those kids who grew up competing and learning the ins and outs of the competition world. Nor do I have a show record that would make clients want to send me their horses to train and compete. And I have a goal to finish my Silver then my Gold, and I can’t do that riding at home.
Then comes the maintenance of my gelding, EA Monte Carlo, a National Show Horse (Arabian/Saddlebred). While for the most part I’m sure what I spend on maintenance is less than most, Monte has taught me that regardless of how many hours I spend trying to fix his issues through correct training, sometimes the only solution is to drop a couple grand on ultrasounds and injections or a better made saddle, even though his old one was re-flocked and fitted regularly. It’s both enlightening and depressing. SI and a lower neck injection enabled him to lift his back and lower his neck, and a new used Hennig enabled him to sustain his extended trot without breaking to the canter.
I feel much more at ease, confident and actually like a trainer riding Monte (Not that we aren’t also learning together.) than I did with Lex: I know his quirks and he understands my exact aids because I’m the only one who rides him. But the pressure of failure is still ubiquitous. I love Monte because he has heart. He puts up with me deciding he should be able to work cows and event and ride bareback and bridleless and be a dressage horse, and it’s not his fault his Arabian/Saddlebred brain can’t help to not show tension effervescing through his body while he does some of these things, most apparent in dressage. Regardless of his good manners, tension doesn’t help earn a good dressage score.
Our first outing at 4th was disastrous (Mid-50s, which meant that except for gaining experience I basically threw money away.) Next time around, I decided to try something different than the normal day-before-show regimen for our next outing. Instead of riding at the showgrounds the day before, I took him to the woods instead. I put my jumping saddle on him, mounted up and headed out the back gate. As soon as we started out, he seemed happy. He picked up the trot on his own and I put a loop in the reins, grabbed mane and went up in two-point. Monte blew off steam as palmettos and pines whirred past us, now in a gallop. I let him choose the path and speed, and as we walked home both of us felt refreshed.
The next day as I warmed up at the show, I smiled when I felt how completely relaxed Monte felt, and our score reflected it with a 64.42! Sometimes, the pressure of not “making it” yet, or not having accomplished enough in my career disappear and I fully enjoy making progress and riding an awesome (even if only in my book) horse. Then he goes lame the next day from some of the pounding over roots on our trail ride because I let him choose our path.
We did finish out the year acquiring the 4th level scores we needed for our Silver medal, so I can start to put those DQ voices in my head to rest, and I’m looking forward to jumping and eventing a lot this winter with hopes of Prelim and PSG in the spring and summer. Sometimes, we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves, but it’s not always negative. Sometimes, the pressure helps us excel.