She Wants to Touch All the Noses
This past weekend I was lucky to compete at the fall horse trials at Windridge Farm in Mooresboro, NC. A family run farm and event, it has welcoming, friendly staff, great facilities and a low key atmosphere and I highly recommend it.
Though I’ve been riding most of my life, I only started eventing four years ago and like any newcomer I’ve had my share of ups and downs. For my first two years of eventing I showed my fjord gelding Thor but after two years of struggles, I decided we weren't that compatible. His main goal, which he was very determined to achieve, was putting in the least effort required and returning to the barn and to his favorite field to graze and mine was learning this sport and having fun. I grew up riding hunters in the northeast and though I trained and rode my own OTTB, I was never the most brave rider and this hasn’t changed as I’ve aged. I realized Thor needed more confidence than I could give him. I was lucky to be able to buy another horse without selling Thor and even luckier when I found my little quarter horse gelding Gilligan. At 17, Gilly had enough age on him not to be silly but not too much that he couldn’t pass a PPE. When I bought Gilligan he had mostly fox hunted and shown jumpers. Dressage and cross country were new to him but he is very willing and has taken it all in stride. Not that we haven’t had our own challenges. Finding our connection in dressage took until this summer and is still very much a work in progress and at times on the cross country course Gilly can get overwhelmed by all there is to see. But with Gilly I’ve been able to expand my goals of not just finishing a horse trials but also placing well, picking up points towards the NCDCTA HOY awards and maybe moving up from starter to beginner novice.
Having goals is always good. It gives me something to focus on and to look forward to but the flip side of that is sometimes I can lose sight of what’s important and place too much pressure on myself. I start doubting my abilities and fear making mistakes and letting down both myself and my trainer. Don’t get me wrong my trainer is a very lovely, generous person who patiently trains me despite my over 50’s mental and emotional state (remembering courses is like a full time job and every day holds a new physical ailment and ache and pain.) She never puts too much pressure on me, and is able to walk the fine line of challenging me and also encouraging me, but she too has a family life outside of horses and I hate thinking I’ve wasted her time when I make stupid mistakes at a show and don’t ride up to my potential. Also somewhere along the line this year in an effort to achieve both my goals, I convinced myself that moving up to beginner novice meant I was a more accomplished and better rider, which is silly. If I can move up, great, but that doesn't diminish what I’ve achieved or can continue to achieve at the starter level. This sport needs all levels to flourish and grow. Sometimes I forget how far I’ve come and though points are fun to chase and moving up divisions can be rewarding, those are not the most important things or the reason I embarked on learning a new sport within my hobby of horses. Like so many other riders out there, I juggle raising a family along with this time consuming hobby. If I forget my reasons for doing it then it can become as hard and joyless as cleaning the house or doing laundry.
But I had two very fortunate occurrences happen to me at this event. On Saturday, the first day of competition I spoke with my neighbor who had just returned from her show jumping round. I asked her how it went. She smiled and said to me, ”It was good. We weren’t perfect but that's okay I just feel lucky to be here riding. I never thought I’d be able to compete with him again so I’m just glad to be here.” I thought about her words all afternoon and evening and how true they were because as horse people we all know that you never know when your horse might get hurt and when things might turn for the worse. The second occurrence was on Sunday. While letting Gilly graze and stretch his legs in the morning, a young girl and her brother approached me. She might have been 5 years old and her brother around 8. She asked me “Can I pet your horse?” I answered of course and with a little hand and very big sparkling eyes she reached out and stroked Gilly’s nose. Her brother sidled up next to me and reported “She just wants to pet every horses’ nose here.” I smiled back and replied “I remember the feeling.” Because watching her I did remember that feeling of wanting to pet every horse I saw, of convincing my parents to take me to the nearby horse farm so that I could reach through the slats of the fence and tentatively make contact with the animals that inhabited my dreams. I remember feeling in awe when I connected to them, when they sniffed my hand or I could look into their big brown trusting eyes. I remember the excitement bursting through me if and when I might be offered a quick leadline ride and how those moments would sustain my dreams of someday learning to ride.
The little girl and her brother stayed for a few minutes, her brother watching over her and she petting Gilly and it was just the thing I needed to get my head on straight. They reminded me why I do this sport. Yes I wanted to win, and no I didn’t want to make any mistakes or have a run out like we did a month earlier, but, ultimately at the end of the day this is the thing I do for fun. This is my hobby. This is my escape from the pressures of the rest of the world and I’m so very lucky to be able to do it at any level.
Sunday was one of those beautiful Carolina fall days, warm with a slight breeze and crystal clear blue skies. I owed it to myself and to Gilly to put aside the pressure and the goals and enjoy the day and all it had to offer. I’m not saying that reminding myself of this took away my nerves. For me there is always an underlying excitement and nerves that goes along with heading out onto a cross country course with a thousand pound animal that loves to run, but I was determined to make sure I enjoyed it as best as I could. Just as my stabling neighbor reminded me, you just never know what might happen, especially with horses. There is no guarantee that you will get another competition to go to, that this ride might wind up being your last for a week, or a month or even forever. Horses are prone to injury as I’m sure everyone reading this article knows firsthand and life has a way of turning on a dime when you least expect it. It’s not that I forgot my goals of HOY points or moving up, it's just that I needed to remind myself that those goals were not my sole reason for being there or the most important ones. My reason was to share this wonderful day and fantastic sport with the animal that I love and to have fun. Maybe I would be lucky enough to bring home the blue ribbon at the end of the day, but, that was just the icing not the main dessert. Likewise, the division title doesn’t determine what kind of rider I am. What makes me a good rider is whether I am a good horseman, that I put my horse's needs in front of my own, that I take care of him and that I put in my best effort and then let things fall where they may. I would like to say that this is a lesson well learned and one I won’t need to remind myself of again but I can’t guarantee that. I’m hoping that by writing it down this will at least give me something to refer back to when I start to lose my focus and berate myself for a silly decision on cross country, a rail in show jumping or a dressage score that’s not as high as I’d like it to be.
But what I can say for sure now is that Sunday afternoon, long after most of the other divisions had finished, the steward counted me down and we cantered out of that start box and over the first fence and down the rolling hills to the rest of the course, the green earth churning out beneath Gilly’s strong capable hooves, the wind brushing by my face, and that little girl inside me who wanted to touch all the horses' noses smiled her whole way around.