Blast from the Past- Then and Now: A perspective on our experiences

The idea for this latest blog came about unexpectedly… This past week I was out of town attending a non-horse related event, when as with most horse people, a group of us found ourselves standing around trying to remember the “good ol’ days” of our Three Day Eventing careers and/or experiences…  Out of the seven of us chatting I turned out to be the only one still involved with horses though of course my “world” today is as far removed from “that” world as could be; the other most recent rider sold her Advanced level horse three years ago and has tried to replace the emptiness with golf. 

I really didn’t say much at first, just listened.  What struck me as we started listing and trying to remember who had done what, when and where they were today, was to realize that during “our time” when all 25 to 30 of us “regulars” had been on the road traveling almost every weekend and competing, that somehow a good majority had “survived” (literally) and became a percentage of today’s top rated US competitors.  We reminisced about our regular “dinner out” during a competition.  Although of course we were competitive, it was an incredibly tight knit group of people.  The camaraderie and support for one another when we crashed and burned (literally) to truly being happy for when someone won an event or championship was amazing.  I really hadn’t ever thought about just how many of us had toughed it out and “learned the ropes” together. 

Then amidst memory lane and exchanging “remember when…” stories, trying to remember who rode what horse, what person ended up marrying what other equine enthusiast, etc. and what horse had “made it” to the top, a friend suddenly blurted out mid-sentence, “If I ever do ride again I want a really, really broke horse.  Something like, a quiet Quarter Horse.”  The gal standing next her chimed in, “Yeah something with NO bucking, rearing or other dramatic issues.  Something boring.” 

By then, a few of them turned to me and kinda gave me a look and said, “Something like what Sam probably has at her place.”  I had to laugh… The gal who had initiated this new comment had “learned the ropes” on literally “free” horses.  Now I know these days it has become common to find cheap or free horses, but back then to be handed a free horse meant it had a really, really, REALLY long list of “quirks” as we politely called it back then.  A few of the others in the group had experienced the “growing up with their horse,” which at the time with our trainers meant you had a 50/50 chance of either surviving the ride in one piece or not.  Most of us could remember the E.R. doctors about to cut off those custom made leather boots we had saved several years for and although in more pain then imaginable, us shrieking, “DON’T CUT THE BOOTS!” no matter how much pain would be involved in trying to pull a tall, leather field boot off of a quickly swelling broken ankle or foot. 

As much as we had wonderful memories and most of us wouldn’t have traded them for the world, they were bitter sweet.  Among seven of us we had at least four horses that prematurely went lame or had to be put down far earlier than they should have due to excessive wear and tear from all the competitions.  As much as we were proud of the  high levels we had competed at, it seemed that subconsciously we winced thinking back to ALL the blood, sweat and tears we shed to get there.  It was common at the time to have a love/hate relationship with your trainer and horse.  They could bring you to the highest highs, but also the lowest lows.  As much as we were proud of all the craziness we had survived, at the time buying into the concept that what didn’t kill you made you stronger, hindsight, being 20/20, has  allowed us some distance and perspective, then of course causing you to start questioning, “WHY did I think such and such was a normal situation???”

The conversation then took another turn and others started asking what exactly is it that I do.  It was funny because as I explained my training philosophy in working with the horse’s mental availability in order to get the desired physical results, I found myself staring at blank faces.  It was almost like I could explain to a non-horsey person more clearly than those that had been so ingrained into believing “this is the only way it’s done” sort of riding, training and routines. 

For those of you who have been involved with horses for less  than fifteen years you have to remember the whole “natural horsemanship” concept, clinicians, articles, TV shows and DVDs did not exist or was not easily accessible.  And back then you only rode “one discipline” and that was all that you did with your horse.  And if there was someone who didn’t do “stuff” the way the rest of us did it, they were considered a little “goofy” and more often than not their ideas were disregarded before they were ever really listened to or tried.

As I was comparing a “then and now” perspective, I almost felt guilty, because my current perspective has allowed me to take off the personal blinders created by my past “mainstream” ways of training and riding.  Today I think, question and try things outside the “conventional” box and have no qualms about whether I try something with a horse that works, or if it doesn’t, move on and try a different approach.  Whereas the people I was talking to from the past, had no idea that “my” present day world even existed.  As I was talking, a brief slide show of horse moments from roping cattle on the north rim of the Grand Canyon to this summer’s 6000’ mountain pack trip (think The Man from Snowy River snow/cliff scene) to jumping my horse over large fallen trees and splashing through creeks- everything we needed in our Three Day Event horses, that we trained and practiced and went round and round, with the inability to truly “do” in a comfortable, quiet way. 

Now I’d like to make a note here- I’m only talking about MY experiences and perspective and am in no way naysaying the sport.  For me, I went through these experiences and after enough years of out of control horses that I “survived” the ride on, I finally had to find a different way to do things.  Don’t get me wrong- I still get a thrill watch a few navigate world class courses such as Badminton or Rolex.

I always wonder if I had been able back then to have had an instructor who taught like I do now, what would have happened.  I never had anyone who mentioned my energy in the saddle.  Nor did a single person ever tell me to have my horse LOOK where he was going.  I know it sounds really obvious when you’re cantering at 20mph and aiming at a solid jump the size of a pickup truck!  I thought it was normal that my horse was resistant, heavy and on the forehand, because hey, he was a jumping horse or he was built “on the forehand.”  No one thought twice about how strong of a bit they had to use in order to resemble a level of control on cross country.  We all had those experiences of just being happy to have stayed within the Dressage arena’s borders during our test.

It didn’t have to be that way.  Today I taught a student who showed up in a jumping saddle and halter with clip-on western reins.  We rode in an open field that had cows mooing, goats scampering about and assorted fowl crying and squawking.  The grass was still damp from the flood irrigation and due to a leak there was a huge flooded section to splash through.  It was the first lesson after  light summer riding (they do after all experience a norm of 110+ degree temperatures) and we included things such as shoulder in, haunches in, spiral in and out, leg yielding across our “fake” diagonal, transitions and much more.  It was casual, calm and quiet.  We used “that red barrel lying down” as a marker instead of “E”, or that “railroad tie in line with that fence post” for our “centerline.”  Were we “doing” Dressage? No.  We were riding.  We were revisiting the basics and yes, it was fun.  No the horse was not swishing his tail, grinding his teeth, or showing other stressful or irritated behaviors.  And yet, it would have been “a lot” to have done all that in a lesson during the “old days.”

But in the end, the saying that goes, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ I guess held true.  Even for those who had been out of the sport for fifteen years, still had hands that looked like they hadn’t ever seen a manicure.  I would bet money that every one of us could have backed a trailer through an obstacle course without knocking a cone over.  I’m sure in their heyday they would have thought it was normal to walk three horses at the same time and have a pack of dogs ambling around their feet while “conducting business” with a client. 

Out of the group chatting at the event, one is a nationally respected vet that specializes in Ophthalmology and is a professor at the University of Illinois, another is ranked among American Airlines top 150 pilots, another leads guided bicycle and hiking tours thinking nothing of covering several hundred miles in a few days with up to 120 guests in the wilderness.  Another is a physical therapist who just happens to be a personal assistant to high profile business woman that allows her to travel the world coordinating and organizing. 

There’s just something in the mindset of these strong people that is so refreshing, even if they are no longer involved in the horse world.  As with most things, horse folk can be some of the best and some of the worst characters you meet.  With this particular group you could be comfortably frank, direct and honest with no one thinking it odd or that you were “too forward.”   

The conversation ended with everyone agreeing, that even though the timing wasn’t “right now”, someday, somewhere, somehow, yeah, they probably would get back in the saddle again.  Like I always say, if it’s in your blood, there’s nothing you can do about it, except enjoy it!  So here is to those who have endured, for better or worse, and still find at the end of the day, your current or past equine partner still brings a smile to your face and teaches you to be a better person.


1 comment:

  1. I came from a very traditional hunter/jumper background and had experiences much like yours - although not at such high levels. No one ever thought to ask about what the horse was thinking, or how the horse was feeling, you just got and made horses do things using whatever it took - whips, spurs, severe bits, side reins, etc.

    It was only when I came back to horses as an older adult, and decided I didn't want to be a part of "forcing" horses to do things that I looked for an alternative. I found it, although there's a lot of dreck out there even in the so-called natural horsemanship world - I don't like the term as I think it's a misnomer. I had to rebuild my horsemanship from the basement up, but have been very much the better for it - and so have my horses.


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