About Heather Richards

Just your average former-jumper-now-dressage-rider-with-a-family-and-a-full-time-job.

Knowing when…

Horses can’t talk.  This is probably one of the most obvious statements I’ve ever written, but it is true and presents me almost weekly with a deep psychological challenge and existential question.  If only my horses could talk, they could tell me if I am doing right by them. If I am being entirely fair. Or if they just can’t do that right half pass because their hocks hurt, or if they are having a hard time bending left because they hit their head on the stall wall while trying to jaw wrestle with their neighbor an hour before I came to ride.

I’m an amateur, and while I see my horses as partners in a sporting effort, they’re also still my pets, family members, and good friends.  I know how much it sucks to ride hard when my back hurts or I’m just stiff from sitting too long in the car, and I want the best for them. I try to be at least reasonably understanding when they have a hard time performing for some reason.   At the same time, the percentage of their lives that they have to spend actually working is pretty small – maybe 4 hours or 2% of their week – so I expect them to try, even if the going is a little tough.

Even more, dressage is hard.  It is hard for me, and it is hard for the horses.  We take an animal whose natural tendency is to carry 60% of their weight on their front legs, and through training, teach it to carry that 60% of its weight on its hind legs.  There will be aches and pains for horse and rider along the way to the FEI levels.  That is normal, and it is normal to expect the horse to keep trying through a little bit of discomfort.

That said, knowing when to push through the training trouble, give a horse a few days off or call the chiropractor or acupuncturist, or even the vet, is one of the most difficult decisions I think I make as a horse person.  These are the decisions that keep me up at night, and that I talk about incessantly – to myself, to Kevin, to my trainer, or to anyone who might be able to help.  I try to keep my level of crazy to a minimum so I don’t drive away my friends, but these thoughts keep me up at night.

I’ve had some horses who were relatively easy to figure out.  Ian, my grand old man of a Thoroughbred, was great at saying, “Hey mom!  Something’s wrong!” by going off his feed dramatically or being 5 out of 5 lame with an abscess.  Even when it was his time, at nearly 27 years old, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was ready to go.

Cardoon…not so much.  Admittedly, I have Cardoon at a different point in his development as a show horse, but he doesn’t have nearly the same reaction to difficulty as Ian did.  Cardoon internalizes, and then he shuts down, which makes finding a cause, and possible solution, rather hard.

After my show season was over last year, I gave Cardoon a few weeks of easy, fluffy work, but then started back in the more serious training in mid-November.  Unfortunately, he started throwing in periodic bouts of shutting down while I was riding him.  I was hurt, upset, perplexed and utterly obsessed with what was wrong and what to do.  I tried working him though it, and I tried taking him to the vet.  Both things made something of a difference, but he still, as of January was just quitting at the beginning of rides and telling me where I could take my “hard work” and shove it.

Knowing when to try different things is hard, and it can be demoralizing when something doesn’t work, especially when you’re spending hundreds of dollars to try something that might help.  Vet visits are expensive, and when there’s no obvious glaring problem, diagnostics can really run up a bill and even then not point to anything specific.  Seeing the saddle fitter, trying new tack, having the chiro come out to work on the horses – all of these things have a price tag and still may not produce results.

After four months of trying different things – training, testing, injections, treatment for ulcers – I had another talk with my vet and more talks with my trainer.  Despite our best efforts, we can’t come up with a pinpoint reason for his behavior, so I’m saying enough is enough…for now.

It is absolutely heartbreaking for me to just stop training at this point in in our journey together, but the right decision for everyone’s sanity (and my wallet) is to give us both a big, long break and see where we are come summer.  Maybe he’s just telling me that after almost 5 years of working hard for me and taking me places I never expected, he needs a sabbatical.  So, I’ll focus on Healey, maybe teach Cardoon a few tricks, and hope that Dr. Green can cure whatever is ailing him – whether that’s between his ears or somewhere in his body.

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Cardoon is going to get some time to hang out with the ladies next door.

 

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I trained it (and other challenges from 2016)

A few months ago, Natasha (one of Lauren’s wonderful assistant trainers, and a killer trainer of young horses) was kind enough to come to my farm to give me some lessons on Healey.  I haven’t invested a whole lot of time or money in trailering him to Lauren’s this year because, in general, I don’t need the same kind of regular eyes on the ground to put Training Level basics on a horse that I do to teach Cardoon the pirouettes, tempi changes, or perfect the half pass.

That said, a check-in is always helpful and this was the first time since I bought Healey back in February that I’d had a lesson on him.  When he came to me, he had good life basics.  He could stand to be tacked, and groomed and knew how to walk, trot and canter under saddle.  That was pretty much it.  He was good guy, but he had no muscle and anything he’d learned about going on the bit in some form of balance had been lost over the winter while he sat in the field, fat and happy, with his previous owner.  His reaction when you took some contact with the bit was to duck behind the bit and fling his head around in confusion.

So, at this lesson with Natasha, I was excited to show her that I’d managed to train Healey to take the bit like a champ, rather than just duck behind it.  Just the day before my lesson, he had trotted around in a solid contact, and even occasionally managed to hold himself up in some semblance of balance.  Sadly, as usually happens with horses, this success was just a harbinger of bad things to come, because when I got on him for Natasha, eager to show her our progress, it all went to hell.

My charming young warmblood who a day earlier had been steady, light and delightful in the bridle, was now careening wildly around the arena, trying to drag me out of the saddle.  So strong was he in the bridle, that my half halts were more like “three-quarter halts”, as I tried to slow him down and regain some balance.  Natasha just laughed, and said, “Heather, the good news is that you trained it!”  Yeah. We went from no contact to oh-my-god-my-bleeding-hands contact.

Natasha and I had a good laugh, and went back to half halts, transitions, and trying to get Healey to stand up on his own four legs, rather than sustain a controlled fall on a circle.

This is so typical of horse training – you try and try and try to teach them something, failing for what feels like forever, and then one day you get it.

And then you can’t stop it.

Teaching Cardoon flying changes was like this.  We learned changes and suddenly couldn’t stop doing them.  Everywhere.  All the time.  Sometimes he falls sideways, and I can’t stop it, despite the fact that sideways is not one of Cardoon’s talents.  Lauren’s response : “You trained it!”

The past year has had its ups and downs, but in general, I think we ended with more training successes than failures.  I managed to train Cardoon to Prix St. George (I trained it!), but he’s a little burnt out now (maybe I trained him too much?), and is enjoying a well deserved vacation for a few weeks.  I also managed to take Healey from a very green five year old, to a Training-level-green coming-six year old who at least sometimes understands the concept of a half halt.  Maybe that last one isn’t amazing, but it feels like it is sometimes.

I learned perseverance, practiced patience and became a stronger, more confident rider and trainer in 2016, all from working through the challenges of learning and training pirouettes, tempi changes, and teaching a five year old how to trot and canter on the bit.

I don’t know yet what challenges 2017 will hold, but it will start with helping Cardoon to find his joy and work ethic again, and continuing to solidify basics on Healey.  I hope to earn my Silver Medal (just one more PSG score to go!) and get Healey to some shows and see how he handles it.  Thinking on a grander scale, I’d love to ride a full pirouette and learn the two tempis this year, and it would be swell if Healey showed some capacity for collection.

More than anything, though, I just want my horses to continue to be happy and healthy and keep trying for me.  For both of them, even Cardoon who has an absolute tendency to shut down when he just doesn’t want to play anymore, they have shown a terrific propensity to try hard to understand what I want and make some effort to make that happen.  And you can’t train that.

Recipe for an Amateur Prix St. George

Well, the first PSG is in the bag and behind us.  I’m so relieved, but also pretty deliriously
happy.  My goals for that first FEI test were pretty small – don’t throw up on my gorgeous new shadbelly and do most of the things.  There was no vomit, and pretty much all of the things happened in some form or another.  For those who would like to cook up their own amateur PSG, I offer the following recipe:

1 cup of Vision – I’m pretty sure wcardoon-psg-debuthen I started this trip, this was a great deal more delusion and far less vision.  I remember watching the 2012 Olympic freestyles on television, and thinking to myself, “I have to get there, to the FEI levels.  I need to do what it takes, whatever that is.”  I told Kevin about my delusion, and he, like the good husband he is, didn’t flinch and told me he was on board.  Never mind that I didn’t have a horse at the time, he was all in.
Fortunately, the actual vision came over time.  That fall, Lauren found Cardoon for me, on Eventing Nation of all places, and after trying him out on a whim, called me and said she thought she’d found the one.  Whether either of us thought he’d make PSG at the time will remain a mystery, but he had a good character and a pretty freaky extended trot.

Over the past few years, I’ve had glimpses into what the future might hold for us and it was those flashes of vision that kept me going.  The trot extensions, the first huge flying changes, the instant where I could feel his shoulders lift in the canter – all of these kept me going during the tough times.  I could feel the PSG in there, if only for fleeting moments.

10 gallons Hard Work (and ibuprofen to taste) –  Seriously, this is the hardest physical riding I’ve ever done, and its not like I was a pleasure rider before.  I rode the Big Eq as a teenager, retrained green horses, and showed the 4′ jumpers, but the sheer physical strength needed for the upper levels of dressage is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  As we’ve ventured along this journey, I’ve had to up my game to strengthen my core, keep my bad back in shape (thanks to my excellent chiro!), stay flexible and limber (hello yoga), and keep up the cardiovascular fitness needed to get through five minutes of sustained tough riding.  All of this hard work has to continue, day in and day out, to keep both me and Cardoon in the physical shape to be able to just do the movements, much less take them to a show and compete.  Plenty of those days one or the other of us was tired, cranky, or plain didn’t want to show up to work, but we went out and did it anyway.  This was a big part of getting from First Level to PSG in four years, although not really the fun part!

2 teaspoons of Sacrifice – All the hard work leads to at least some sacrifice.  I missed plenty of after-work happy hours, gave up dinner at a reasonable hour, and often got up at completely unreasonable times to make sure we got our rides in.  Plus, when I think of what we could have done with just the money I’ve spent on training – both my trailer-in lessons with Lauren and the times where I left Cardoon at Sprieser Sporthorse for a few days or weeks – well, lets just say I don’t dwell on that.  Sure, we could have had several luxurious trips to Europe, but what’s that when compared to a
centerline salute wearing a tailcoat?

A dash of Bravery – One important lesson I learned in the year is that you need to be brave and take a chance, knowing that you might fail.  It means taking the chance that he’ll just quit halfway around the pirouette, but still sitting him down and trying anyway. Without taking those chances that you’ll fail, you never find out that you can push the limit, and then exceed it.

1 cup of Humility – Never, ever, think “I got this,” because the thing that happens immediately after that thought is that it will all go to hell.  This applies to learning new things, as much as riding your actual test.  Let me give you two examples.  Two weeks before the show, I had an epiphany about the tempi changes.  I finally learned how to really move my legs and make the change obvious to Cardoon.  I felt awesome.  I was so excited.  I HAD THIS!  Well, yeah…not so much.  A week later, we were lucky if we could string together three clean changes.

Then, at the show itself, I was all jitters for the first half of my test. During my first pirouette, I remember having this total moment of peaceful calm come over me, and then proceeded to blow both my counter canters – usually something we do quite well.

Remember – never let your guard down and don’t think you “have this” until you’re out of the damn ring!

1 Large Cheering Section – After my final salute, my cheering squad erupted in applause and cheers.  I mostly remember just being relieved that it was over, but after I thanked the judge, she remarked that I had “quite the cheering section”.  I replied, “Yes, yes I do!” No one ever gets to this point without a lot of help.  Every Olympian has a coach and people who care about them.  Last weekend, my cheering section was comprised of not just Kevin and Lauren (to whom I owe everything) but also Meg and Judy with whom I’ve been showing for years.  All of these people, as well as several other dear friends, have been with me through thick and thin, up and down during this journey, and it was so amazing to have them ringside with me.  It takes a village, both to train a horse, but also to make this whole endeavor truly fun.

Mix all of these ingredients together, and you too could make your very own first amateur PSG!  If you don’t succeed at first, try adding another gallon or two of Hard Work, and make sure you added enough Vision!

I Found a Unicorn

Dressage at Lexington has come and gone, and Cardoon and I are still plugging away at the last bits of the PSG. It might happen this year, or it might not, but at the very least, we’ve figured out just what a pirouette IS, even if we still can’t do it well enough or small enough to take it to a show.

Kevin and I took a long planned vacation (and I actually drafted this in a campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota) and Cardoon and Healey are both at Sprieser Sporthorse for a midsummer refresher and tune-up. No rest for the wicked…that’s my motto.

At any rate, I have been thinking about how rare it is to find a unicorn. And in this case, I’m not actually talking about Cardoon, although he is, in his own way, a rare and special unicorn. What I mean is the Perfect Horse Husband, aka a Unicorn.

If I had dollar for every time someone – at a show, at the barn, at the vet, at the tack shop – asked me where I found Kevin and whether he had a brother, I’d be able to take that extravagant shopping trip to Europe for my next Grand Prix partner. Of course with my best friends, I can roll my eyes and tell them that everything isn’t all sunshine and puppy dogs in our marriage all the time, but in reality, I know I have it pretty damn good.

When Kevin and I met, I wasn’t riding and had no horses in my life. I’ve done a little bit of a bait and switch in the past 19 years, but he’s come along for the ride not just willingly, but eagerly. In fact, it was Kevin who got me back into riding through a friend at work, Kevin who urged me to find a job at a barn so I could ride when I was in graduate school (when I really should have been working to help pay the bills), and Kevin who swore we’d find a way to make it work when I was just finishing grad school and was offered a “free” horse to take to Virginia with me. Even then, he knew there was no such thing as a free horse!

I read a blog recently on the Chronicle of the Horse about an amateur who had a somewhat similar story, but it focused (humorously) on the fact that her new husband never seemed to complain when she “needed” new breeches, a new saddle, etc., etc., etc. Kevin’s support goes deeper than that, although he’s always there to tell me to buy the saddle, get the injections or other supportive vet care, or go ahead and spend those 4 days in Wellington. He’s never once, in all our years together, complained openly (to me at least!) about the cost of the horses. All of this is wonderful, but it does not, in and of itself, convey true Unicorn status.

The real sign of the Unicorn is that they willingly play in the horsewoman’s native habitat – the barn, tack shop and horse show.

We were lucky enough to buy a small farm about six years ago and have the horses at home now. Kevin was a big part of the reason for this and it was his dream, even more than mine at the time, to wake up every morning to see the ponies in our front yard. Now that we have the responsibility of all these animals at home, Kevin of course is familiar with our daily routine and how to handle the horses. Since we have to deal with these animals on a more than daily basis, I’ve tried to be sure we don’t have any really hard to handle animals on the farm, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our share of challenges.

Horses on stall rest, for example, suck. Kevin has dealt with those stall-resters like a pro, and frankly, with fewer complaint than I’ve voiced. He learned about sedation, and can manage the stall resting, hand grazing horse like a pro.

Beyond that, he’s an avid learner about horse care, and actually likes being around when the vet comes so he can learn more about horse care, anatomy, and the cool vet technology. (OK, maybe he’s a little geeked out about the technology.) He’s also become pretty darn good at tending wounds, changing pressure bandages (thanks Healey!) and giving medications. Having a paramedic on the property is pretty handy when it comes to shots.

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You see that guy in the blue shirt?  That’s Kevin, diligently videotaping my ride, wearing a Team Sprieser t-shirt.

Where he really shines though is his dedication to coming with me to horse shows and being a critical emotional support as I navigate this new world of upper level dressage. This year is the first time in four years that he’s missed a Dressage at Lexington, and I know it actually made him sad. I’m really pretty certain that he wasn’t sitting at home thinking, “Woohoo! No spending 4 days with my wife and her 15 crazy horse lady friends!” Kevin gets into the spirit of showing with Team Sprieser Sporthorse and at the big shows, like DAL, even cooks dinner for the whole team on the nights we’re there. He knows how to get me ready like a pro groom, and always brings exactly the right equipment to the ring – towel, water, video camera, brush – and never lets me go down centerline without shiny boots and a polished bit.

More than anything though, he’s the most supportive husband a woman could ask for. At the end of the day, this is a crazy expensive sport that eats away at time you could be using to do other things – like vacations, house cleaning, cooking, even sleeping. “Whatever you need” is Kevin’s mantra when it comes to the horses, and that goes far deeper than just paying for it. When I told him four years ago that I wanted to someday make a real run at riding the FEI levels, he was all in with both feet, even before I was.

Its been a long, tough road since Kevin helped get me back into riding before we were married, and I do ponder at times if he’s ever wondered what he got himself into with the vet bills, the heartache, the seemingly constant need for emotional support, and the occasional vicious swearing that comes from my arena when the riding gets tough.

Then I remember – I found a Unicorn, and even if he shakes his head at the fact that me and all other horse people are crazy, he’ll still be there to support this wild sport of mine and he’ll love the horses, just like they’re our kids (because they are).

 

On Faith

Our Fourth Level debut is in the books.  I wish I could say that it was stellar, amazing and that I earned both my Fourth level Silver Medal scores, but I can’t.  Now I’m also not going to tell you that it was an unmitigated disaster, either.  Mostly, we had some rust from not showing since last October, and I forgot that as charming, delightful, and fun as Cardoon is at horse shows, he’s not exactly the same as he is at home, either.

In a nutshell, he’s itchy at shows.  Itchy to move off my leg (which is great!), but also itchy to move his hindquarters all around, and super itchy to do changes.  Dearest Cardoon, one-tempis are STILL not required at this level, although I know you’ve been throwing them into tests at First, Second, Third and now Fourth level.  Once I settle into show season a little more, I’ll be less likely to be held hostage by his itchiness and more able to push out the fancier gaits, while containing the exuberant changes.  Cardoon 4-1 VSD 2016

At the end of the day, we did get one of our Silver Medal scores, and there were a lot of high points about our rides.  On Saturday especially, our half passes were snappy, and at least two changes were really clean and straight.  Sadly, the third was a one-tempi, so that score was a little shot!  On Sunday, we lacked any sparkle, but I thought I rode better but we lost points with a few mistakes, netting a 59.33, just off the needed score of a 60%.

Despite the fact that my weekend was far from a disaster, and had more than a few high points, I came home on Sunday afternoon feeling deflated, defeated, and questioning whether Cardoon and I really can make it to the Prix St. Georges with any level of confidence.  At home, we’re so capable of doing so many of the movements.  The trot tour is solid – shoulder in, volte, half pass, medium and extended gaits, we got that!  But the canter tour falls apart, even at home.  We can pretty reliably execute our four tempis, but the threes are a little shaky, and the canter pirouettes have still been a struggle.  My trainer has told me that pirouettes might be his Waterloo.

I get it.  Cardoon is a tremendous horse who has given more than we ever expected.  His medium and extended trot are a highlight, and he’s a savant when it comes to the changes.  But bending and sitting aren’t his strong suit.  We get just enough bend in the half passes to be taken seriously, but the articulation of his hocks and stifles in sitting for pirouettes is just conformationally challenging for him.  I have for months despaired of ever getting even close to a pirouette that could earn me a 5 or 6 in the show ring, and this sense of hopelessness wasn’t helped by our performance over the weekend.

This got me thinking about the role that faith plays in training the dressage horse.  A few years ago, when I was struggling with walk-canter transitions, I would throw my upper body, hands and head at the transition, which created a pretty ugly picture and didn’t produce a solid transition.  Lauren’s advice was to sit up, put my leg on nicely, and have faith that the transition would be there.  Sure enough, believing made it happen.  I needed to take a deep breath, and really think about what I was asking for and how I was asking.  I needed to whisper and have faith that he would hear me.

Faith is also what makes me go out to the barn every day and try again.  When I plug away at movements day in, and day out for what seems like months on end, sometimes it feels futile.  We started working on pirouette canter late last year, and have been picking at it for months now.  Most days, I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress.  Maybe this will be our waterloo, and this is as far as we’ll make it.  The subversive negative thoughts eat at me, and were very present in my mind on Sunday night after the show.

But faith is a funny thing.  If you just believe, it keeps you coming back.

While I’ve never ridden a real pirouette on a trained horse before, I have some inkling of what I think it should feel like.  The rhythm of the canter slows, the horse rocks back on its hocks as the shoulders come up, and the front legs turn in that moment of uphill carriage, setting themselves down a foot or two to the side of where they’d been a moment before.  The funny thing is that for all his physical challenges, I believe that Cardoon can do it.  I’ve felt the small, nascent glimmer of hope in that moment where the shoulders come up and the possibility is there.  Its just been a spark for the past year, but its been enough to keep faith alive and keep me coming back.

This is why I got out there tonight, and went back to work.  Lo and behold, in that moment of possibility, Cardoon’s shoulders came up, he actually sat down, and we were able to turn two steps of pirouette.  Proof positive that faith has a role in training the dressage horse.

 

Movin’ on up…

I know its been a while since I posted.  That’s partly because I was just really busy with life (finding a new job is exhausting and soul-killing work), but also because there hasn’t really been a whole lot to say.  For one thing, I was overly busy tending to Healey, who decided to be a young horse and cut his leg in a dumb pasture accident.  In the end, it will be just fine, but he took some dedicated care and will take some more time to fully heal.  Let me just say that young horses have no sense of self-preservation, especially young warmbloods.

When I wasn’t caring for an angry, young, injured warmblood, I’ve been picking away at the pieces of the Prix St. Georges, and getting ready to show Fourth level this summer.  In practice, what this means, is that I’ve been doing an awful lot of transitions between medium canter, collected canter, and very collected canter.  Straight, round and adjustable have been the words of the day pretty much every day since I brought Cardoon home at the end of March.

It hasn’t been a straight line of progress, and Cardoon definitely had a week or so where he vehemently objected to the idea of moving forward in a very small canter.  And god forbid that we asked him to canter small AND turn…there was some spitting out of the bit and plenty of angry Cardoon faces.  For those who have met Cardoon in person, you can just imagine the groaning that went on.

Fortunately, he didn’t last long in that phase, and went back to being the practically perfect pony I’ve come to know and love.  He’s buckled down, and it occurred to me just a week or two ago that without hardly noticing it, we’ve made real progress.  It snuck up on us for sure, but suddenly I found that I could reliably ask for straightens, collection, and all the movements from Fourth level and know that they would happen.  We’ve also developed a nice half pass zig zag, which is pretty cool.

There are plenty of things we need to make better – half passes at both the trot and canter still need more bend, changes (especially the tempis) can be straighter, and our overall gaits can always be more uphill – but I now know when I get on that when I ask all of these movements, they will happen more or less  when and where I want them to.  Even the changes, which Cardoon has demonstrated his savant-like genius for, are no longer stolen from me every ride.  In short – he’s letting me in more and more and he’s trusting me to drive.

Our first show is next weekend, so I finally decided to start schShad and pointsooling the whole test (Fourth Level, Test 1) about a week ago.  Although I had been picking away
at bits and pieces of it, especially that medium-collected-medium trot on the diagonal, I hadn’t ridden all the way through it form start to finish yet.  Usually when I set out to try this, the first several attempts are unmitigated disasters so you can imagine my shock when we got all the way through the test, and it went well.  I even thought there were parts of it that were
pretty damn good!

My goals for this year’s show season are modest – to get my Silver medal scores at 4th level and make my first credible attempt at the PSG before the end of the year.  After all, I have to wear my amazing new shadbelly sometime this year!

 

Meet Austin Healey

“What on earth have I done?”

This is what I was thinking as I lay awake in the wee dark hours, about two weeks ago.  Just that evening, I’d taken delivery of my new Austin Healey.  No, not the little British car type of Austin Healey, but the coming five year old, Hanoverian variety of Austin Healey.

Yes, I’d taken the plunge and brought home a new young horse.

My trainer often says that having multiple horses is a good idea.  Chances are, with multiple horses, they won’t all be lame or naughty on the same day, and as someone who gets a little obsessive about each and every ride, I can attest that the mental health benefits of having two in the barn are real.  Until last fall, I had two riding horses at home.  Cardoon, obviously, was my priority, but I also had Bodie – a nice little Half Arabian who I’d put a bunch of dressage training on.  He turned 13 last year, and it was time for him to go to a new home where he’d have a meaningful job.  I was lucky to find a great Pony Club family, and by all accounts, they’re all quite happy together.

After Bodie left in October, I wasn’t in any hurry to jump back into another horse.  My job situation has been really up in the air for a while, and who wants to get a new horse in the winter when riding is a special form of torture?

However, as the winter wore on, I was spending an inordinate amount of time looking at sale ads for horses, and finally talked to Lauren about helping me find out if anyone we knew had something that might be good for me.  We agreed that I wanted something that was probably 6-9 years old, and either had a slow start in life, or needed polishing after a stint in another discipline.  Bodie had been 8 when I got him, and had mostly been a trail/all-around horse for his old owner.  I thought this sounded like a good plan – nothing too young, and something with a little life experience but not necessarily lots of training. I felt capable of putting more dressage basics on a new horse, but didn’t want to deal with lots of silliness, especially young silliness.  Lauren put out the word from where she was in Florida, and the hunt was on.

One of the first responses we had was from a family we both know, who had a young horse, just coming 5, who they’d started under saddle and were now looking to sell.  I was a little worried because I really wasn’t sure I wanted a really young horse, but I knew that these were good people who were good with the young horse stuff, and I called them to set up a time to try the horse, who they called Rabbit (and now called Healey!).  After a few aborted attempts to get together (largely due to 2+ feet of snow and trailers that were plowed in for the duration), Rachel was finally able to get Rabbit up to Lauren’s farm, where her assistant trainer, Natasha Sprengers-Levine, was willing to serve as my crash test dummy.  Her job was to try to provoke a response in this horse and see what he did.  Basically, could you put your leg on, take a hold of some contact, and still go or did he pitch  fit?

Rachel had warned me that Rabbit hadn’t been ridden in about a month, and hadn’t been off the farm for quite a while before that.  I was impressed that he marched off the trailer and into the huge indoor with multiple mirrors, and essentially shrugged his shoulders and then went to work.  Natasha got on him and while he didn’t know a whole lot about what she was asking, he was a good sport about all of it.  I imagine his internal thought process was something like, “You’re pulling on my face?  OK.  I’ll fling my nose around a bit and then put my head down.  Oh, is that your leg and a spur!?  I’d better go forward!”

My reaction to riding him was smiling, which is usually a good sign.  I don’t smile when I ride.  Like, ever.  I can probably count on two hands how many times I remember cracking a smile while actually on horseback.  I’m the “intense concentration” type.  But this guy made me giggle a little.  His reactions were so honestly trying, yet confused, that I couldn’t help it.

After thinking it over for a few days, I made an offer, set up a vetting (which went swimmingly as he submitted to poking, trotting, riding in a new setting, and all with great aplomb), and eventually got him in my barn…

…Exactly 15 minutes before a rare winter, apocalyptic thunderstorm arrived.  Here is a horse in a new setting, who’s always lived out 24/7 but is now in a stall, in a strange barn, and it sounds like a freight train because the metal roof is thundering from the heavy rain (and actual thunder).  Fortunately, none of this bothered him and he set about chowing down on his hay and we tucked him in for the night.

Healey first night

Healey wasn’t so interested in standing still, but he is very personable and will hopefully fit well into this little barn of mine.

Despite his good sense in settling in well, I laid awake that night wondering what I was thinking.  Was now really a good time to buy a new horse?  My job is STILL up in the air, and who knows how much time I’ll have once things are settled.  I’m also forty years old, and it hurts when I fall off now, so why did I get a green warmblood?  And then the really insidious doubts – What do I know about training horses?  Will I screw this up?  I don’t want to screw this up!

The next day, after about three hours of sleep, I got up and put Healey back on the trailer  to visit saddle fitter Colleen Meyer of Advanced Saddle Fit, a trip he took totally in stride. And he didn’t mind when Lindsay Williamson of Tribute Feeds came the day after that to give me some feeding advice, as I’m used to feeding the air ferns of the equine world, and not the slightly weedy and still growing warmbloods.

I finally got on Healey at home a few days later for our first day of real work, and I’ll admit I was nervous.  That little voice in my head is insidious.  “Don’t screw this up!” it says.  “You know you’re not good enough,” it says. “Be careful!” it says. Ignoring the voice as best I could, I climbed aboard, put my leg on, my chin up, stayed calm and rode forward.

I’m sure we’ll have our trials and tribulations, but I’m determined to prove to myself that I can do this, just like I started my last two young horses on my own, retrained Bodie into a solid little dressage horse, and am now bringing Cardoon to the FEI levels.  I haven’t done any of it alone – and I won’t do this alone either – but I know I can do this, and I intend to have a good bit of fun along the way.  Healey has a good sense of humor, a steady disposition, and he knows (at least for now) that leg on means GO FORWARD.  We’ll be OK.