Beginning the Dance

When I was a toddler, I did gymnastics. When I got to elementary, I played soccer. In middle school, I performed in theatre and in high school, I did ballet.

When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I quickly learned that you couldn’t just “sign up” for sports. You actually had to be good. Your mom and dad weren’t writing a check for the parks and recreation department in your city so you could chase a ball around a few nights a week. This was the real deal. I never felt super-talented at anything, but still had to make a choice. I loved all of the things I had been involved in, but had always loved something else:

Horses.

I grew up in Troy, Michigan. No one around me rode but I talked about it all the time. I was known as the “crazy horse girl” at my school. I had horse binders and horse pencil cases. I carried a stuffed horse in my backpack from first until fifth grade and was teased relentlessly for it. Everyone assumed I rode, but I didn’t. It was a cruel joke. I begged my mom for lessons for eighteen years but the answer was always no.

When I was in high school, my grandmother was diagnosed with very advanced lymphoma and given a short time to live. She started chemotherapy; however, this made her start to lose not only hair, but also her mind. She reverted to a state where she thought all of us kids were years younger than we were and went on a relentless search to purchase a horse for me since that was all I talked about when I was little. She actually signed me up to take lessons a month before she died.

I still have the paper she signed, but I never got those lessons.

When I got to college, I saw a posting for the athletic requirements for the Albion College equestrian team. Athletic? Me?

But something made me go. It was at eight in the morning. I lackadisedly ran the mile and did everything required of me. Next, I went to the information meeting. I sat in the back. Girls said hello after a long summer. I heard snippets of their conversations.

“…I looked at that horse, but he was just too green…”

“…he was really loose but then I just had to work with him…”

“…I’m not sure which horse to bring to campus this year…”

I had no idea what they were saying. I felt sick to my stomach, as if I had switched bodies with someone and was taking their AP Calculus exam. The girls were decked out in riding gear and one thing was for sure – I didn’t belong. I shifted in my seat.

Get up, get up, get up, I urged myself. But I couldn’t. This was all I had ever wanted. I listened to the meeting. It was about an hour. They said a lot of things I didn’t understand and said I had to buy a lot of things that I didn’t know where to get or how much they cost.

I felt like crying.

After the meeting, I went to the front where the instructors were and cleared my throat: “Hi…I…uh…I’ve never ridden before and I…”

The women in front of me turned around. I thought they wouldn’t even notice me. I felt like I was showing up for the Olympic swim qualifier in a bathing suit with bright pink ruffles wearing an over-sized rubber duck floatie. According to one woman, however, it was “open season” on people like me.

The hardest spot for a team to fill? The beginner rider spot.

She begged me to show up to tryouts, even if I didn’t join. So I did. But that wasn’t easy, either. When I walked in, I stuck out like a PETA member at a bullfight. I could almost hear the record scratch. I was wearing the most equestrian outfit that I had: blue jeans and a pair of cowboy boots from Urban Outfitters. It looked like a last minute Halloween costume. But I was there!

It felt like everyone was looking at me, eleven of them decked out in these khaki stretchy pants and polos. (I owned a polo – I never thought to wear it!) Most sat in groups, but I didn’t know anyone. When it got to my turn, I didn’t even know how to get on the horse. I heaved myself over and sat there.

Now what?

“Walk on,” the instructor said.

You expect me to know how to make this big brute move?

Of course I didn’t. It wouldn’t budge. I’m sure it was a perfectly good horse, but I just sat there like an idiot. Other girls were walking around. One was doing a faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side in perfect rhythm.

“I don’t…I can’t…”

I wanted to jump off and run away. My helmet felt too tight and I feared I might collapse. A different instructor stood next to me and asked what I knew how to do.

Basically just this, I told her. I know how to sit while the horse is standing and not fall off. How cool is that?

She urged the horse forward. I was walking on a horse and everyone was watching. There were about twenty people in the gallery and it felt like they all had their noses to the glass watching me. They probably weren’t, but the heat of the moment always makes you think that.

The instructor told me to keep the walk “forward”…so faster…? I gave the horse a kick to the ribs. It was very forward. It was the faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side.

Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.

I did about five seconds of that and then gave up. The other girls had done the faster running thing that’s not quite a racehorse running but I didn’t think I was ready for that. I got off the horse, ready to be written off.

There’s been a mistake, I expected one of them to say. There was probably another Melanie – perfect hair, teeth, been riding since she was in the womb – that they had confused me with. There’s no way they would just let some random person off of the street onto their team! But to my surprise, I was picked.

Next came riding bootcamp. I discovered muscles in my body I didn’t know I had – and they all hurt. I was listening to the horse. Listening to the instructor. Learning, learning, learning. For ten years, I had been pointing my toes in dance. Now I wasn’t supposed to do that? You can’t just un-learn ten years of classical ballet!

My first year of showing was a total bust. I tend to put myself down a lot, but it’s not exaggerating to say I got last place at every show. A girl I befriended my first year showed at the highest level and won a blue ribbon every single time. I congratulated my team members when they did well and consoled them when they did poorly. My positive attitude paid off and I had fun. Being on the team was a blast – I loved the road trips, the late nights, the people.

Everyone is better than you, I thought to myself sometimes. What a motivator! There’s nowhere to go but up.

There were hundreds of people (mostly girls) competing at shows. And every single one of them knew how to ride better than me. As I got older, more people joined my team. All of the newcomers were more experienced than me – which, I will admit, made me feel bad. But it was short-lived, because when I told them I had never been on a horse until college, they commended my bravery.

I told them my tryout story. That took guts, they said. And I started to believe it.

I’m a senior now and consider myself to be an advanced beginner rider. I can walk the walk, trot the trot, canter the canter…and jump…little, miniscule little speed bumps. (I’m not so great at that yet.) But what a blessing riding has been!

In the past four years, I met incredible friends, gained great self-awareness, and had wonderful opportunities. I’m hooked on horses and they will always remain a part of my life. I’ll probably always feel a little behind, but then I wonder…how behind would I feel if I was in my senior year of college and hadn’t tried it at all? How much regret would I have?

When I was in grade school, I was teased for liking horses too much and now at college I’m sometimes made fun of for not knowing enough. (What does “above the bit” mean again?) I guess I just can’t win.

But for now, doing my best is enough. I am happy anytime during my pas de deux (dance for two – see? I know stuff!) and this dancer just got a new partner – a 1,500 pound hairy beast that has bad days, gets scared at practically nothing, and cannot speak my language.

Bring it on. Nothing scares me anymore.

Melanie Fodera is a senior at Albion College who will graduate in May with a degree in communications. She is also a valued member of the IHSA hunt seat team.

Victory Lap

“Life is a dreary continuum made bearable by those moments of excitement. It’s called feeling alive.”  Lee Monroe

The Morgan Grand National & World Championship Horse Show was an adventure this year, that’s for sure.  My flight was super early Saturday morning and we arrived in Oklahoma City by late morning and drove around a little bit before heading to the show grounds to watch the show get started.

My lap of honor with JDS Paladin Pazazz – so exciting!

Upon arriving, I worked as a groom for the entire week.  I took care of the horses and got them “beautified” for their classes.  The only times this became tricky was when I was showing (the other groom – also named Sarah – really helped out during this!) and when we had multiple horses in classes that were close together.  Mostly, it just kept us on our toes.  As the show continued, our classes spread out and the level of business slowed down.

When it comes to showing, I love being in the ring.  It always gives me an adrenaline rush going down the chute and I fill with happiness when I’m in there – especially when I’m having a good drive/ride.

My first class was driving Argento and overall it was a good drive.  We came fourth out of six.  After that, I had a “day off” and then I showed JDS Paladin Pazazz in the Youth Park Saddle class, which was an amazing experience.  Trainers on the sideline – even ones with other horses in the class – were telling my trainer we had the horse to beat.  Unfortunately, horse shows are always subjected to the opinion(s) of the judge(s), so I placed fifth in my class.  (Of course this is frustrating, but after so many years of showing, you tend to get used to it and just vent with your trainers and other barn members about it when it’s all over.)

The next class I had was another driving class with Argento, which was rough.  Due to this and a couple other factors, we opted not to show him in the saddle class.  Again, this sort of thing happens at shows and you take it for what it is.

My final class of the show was the Youth Park Harness class with JDS Paladin Pazazz.  We had a good warm up and my trainer informed me there were four World Champion horses in my class (one of which happened to be my horse) of five participants.  My trainer also enlightened me that my class is the hardest youth class he’s ever seen.  (Thanks.  Let’s just add to the nerves a little.)

Here we are celebrating! L-R: Me, JDS Paladin Pazazz, and Tina Lessnau (his owner).

Before I knew it, the announcer was calling for my class and it was time to go in.  Like every other class, I went down the chute, hit the show ring, and gave it my all – and I’m 99.5% sure my horse did the same.  At the end of the class, in the line-up, my trainer and I were both happy with the way things had gone, so all we could do was wait for the placings to be called. 

As I had assumed, Merriehill Home Stretch took Grand National Champion – he was the Open Park Harness horse last year, so it was no surprised he placed well.  Then, to my surprise, JDS Paladin Pazazz’s number and name was announced for the Reserve Grand National Champion placing.  I started bouncing in the cart and grinning from ear to ear.  This was definitely the highlight of the show!

The rest of the week was pretty good by comparison; our barn faced some tough competition and held our own as best we could.  Four Points Farm took seven horses down to Oklahoma, but my Youth Park Harness class was the highest placing for my barn all week.  Then, on the last day, we tore everything down and packed it all up to come back next year.  Now we spend the winter season working the horses and ourselves to prepare for next year.

As for other things in my life, I now have a bit more time to focus on school and work.  I do have quite a few things I’ve been catching up on since being back, so that’s where most of my focus lies.  All I have now is finishing up my senior year at Albion College.

Progress!

Project pony Nyk, the Arabian.

Where to start?  Hmmm…..

First off, my internship at Nottawa has been amazing!  I’ve been cleaning stalls, helping Denise with her bookkeeping, updating her filing system, doing lots of little odds and ends relating to the team, and training horses!  Even with eleven new riders on the team, things have been running very smoothly.  Everyone is doing great and Amanda (the other intern and our team co-captain) and I have made great progress with Nyk, Jessy, and Dazzle, the training horses.

Jessy, our youngest horse in training, is doing spectacular.  Almost anyone can ride him and, after only a few months, we’re already working on his headset.  Nyk and Dazzle are another story. They’ve come a long way, but Jessy is definitely our shining star.

Nyk has been my main project so far.  He is an 11 year old Arabian who is extremely green.  Denise had to start at square one with him over the summer and had just gotten him riding when the semester started.  Initially, he’d buck and twist and do everything except what you wanted, but now he’s cantering with just a little resistance and trail riding like a champ.  I’m not a huge fan of Arabs, but I’ll admit, he’s pretty cute.

High point team at the second half of our first show!

The western team had our first meet on the 6th, and we did extremely well!  We had a lot of firsts and even took high point team in the second meet.  Our new riders all had really great rides and we we’re extremely proud to see how far everyone had come!  Chelsea Utt, my best friend and roommate, even was reserved highpoint rider in the first show! 

I also had some great rides and was extremely happy with my draws, although I think I should have placed a little better in some of my classes.  My first open class, I drew Kenny, who actually is my trainer’s old horse.  I was very excited to ride him even though he had been a little naughty in previous classes and during our class he was very good.  However, the judge only placed us fourth.  Then, in reining, I rode Siego, who was a cute little palomino Arab.  We had a great pattern, and placed second!

Then for the second show, I drew Manny for reining and Kenny again for horsemanship!  Manny and I laid down a clean pattern and placed third and then it was my second chance at Kenny.  After another great ride, I placed first – finally!  It was a great end to the first show.

At home, Image and Tuffy are doing pretty well.  They’re both a little fat and enjoying this lovely fall weather.  I recently had my photo shoot that I won and I’m extremely happy with the pictures.  Both horses were hamming it up the whole time.  (Gotta love them.)

One of the shots from my photo shoot.  (Photo credit: Bliss Images.)

Next weekend is fall break, and then it’s our home show!  Image will be coming up and I also am borrowing a family friend’s horse, Lucy.  She such a cute little bay mare and I’m looking forward to having both girls up here at Albion for the weekend.

Lots to do before then, but first, fall break!

First Albion, then the Worlds

“A lovely horse is always an experience … It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” ~Beryl Markham.

My life never seems to slow down.  I’m a senior now at Albion and I keep trying to figure out where the time has gone.  Since my last blog (which seems as if it was forever ago), I had an internship with Ernst & Young and studied abroad in Sydney, Australia.

Oklahoma, here we come!

The internship was a wonderful experience. n I learned more about the accounting field and what I want to do in my future while I spent 10 weeks working for one of the Big Four Accounting Firms (E&Y) and had the opportunity to work alongside fulltime accountants.  I loved it!

After my internship, I spent about seven weeks helping around my barn and riding a lot of horses.  My riding ability increased tremendously and I felt on top of the world.  Then, in late May, I hopped on a plane and flew to Sydney, Australia, which was another wonderful experience.  I spent eight weeks studying there, which was composed of taking a single class and participating in an internship, which exposed me to a completely different work environment and allowed me to learn how much I love doing auditing work.  After the eight weeks of my program, I spent two weeks travelling around the country to visit family that lives there and even did a three day boat trip off the Great Barrier Reef.

In summary, the start of 2012, for me, was full of life changing experiences.  It has shown me that I’m ready for the future and can’t wait to graduatem – which happens to be this coming May!

As for the horse world, back in April I made the decision to lease a three-year old Morgan to show at the Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show (if I qualified).  Unfortunately, during my ten weeks in Australia, I didn’t ride at all, so when I came back I was quite rusty.  It took me a while to get back into the swing of things, but in late August I went to the Jubilee Regional Morgan Horse Show and successfully qualified myself and Argento for Worlds.

Since then, I’ve had only four weeks to prepare.  Along with showing Argento, I have also been given the amazing opportunity to show the stallion JDS Paladin Pazazz.  As such, every weekend, I’ve driven to and from school in order to keep on my a-game.  Now all the preparing is almost over – the horses leave today for Oklahoma and I join them on October 6.  Then the show begins!

Along with the craziness of Worlds, I’ve been managing five classes, the Senior Resident Assistant position in Wesley Hall, and being president of the equestrian club. As a senior, my schedule is very packed, but I’m enjoying being a very busy student. It keeps me on track and, for now, a majority of my focus is on the Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show (and school, of course).  Once the show is finished, I will be able to open up my schedule a little bit to other senior year activities.

It’s been a pretty good year thus far and I just keep my fingers crossed it will continue this way!

The Start of Senior Year

Howdy, readers!  I’m back at Albion for my senior year!  (How did that happen?  I swear I was just a freshman yesterday!)

Summer treated me fairly well.  I took a couple of classes at Washtenaw Community College for some extra credit hours, worked at the Portage Yacht Club, and – most importantly – I made it to a few horse shows.

Bridle-less western pleasure? No problem!

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a rough season for Image.  Between some pulled shoes, a farrier problem, a sore shoulder, a shoe boil, and dust allergies, there was barely any time to ride her (although I’m pretty sure she liked it better that way).  However, she performed extremely well at all of our shows and I was happy with almost every ride I got out of her – especially under the circumstances.

Since I wasn’t able to work her like usual, we spent a lot of time riding bareback and bridle-less and also working showmanship at home.  As a result, I got brave and started entering us into the LMHA jackpot classes.  They offer hands-free showmanship and bridle-less western pleasure – which played right into what Image and I were working on!  By our last show, we won hands-free showmanship and we even placed second over some really nice western horses in the bridle-less class.  (I think it’s safe to say that we had a great season and that we went out with a bang!)  It was great to be back on my little wonder mare!

And speaking of wonder mares named Image, I also entered her in a photo contest – and she promptly won us a free one-hour photo shoot.  Talk about a cool contest to win!  Our shoot is the end of September, so I’ll make sure to share a few of the best with you!

So, as I said, I’m back at Albion again.  Classes are going well and the western team just held their tryouts last night.  Our new crop of riders looks promising!

And now, for the best news ever – I officially start my internship at Nottawa Paint Horses tomorrow!  That’s right; I have an internship at the barn!  It’s in barn management and I am going to be learning all about the horse business and a little about horse training too.  This is the first time that Denise has done this, so it should be quite an adventure for both of us.

Now it’s back to studying.  I’ll update you more as the internship and the semester progresses.

Go Brits!

Back in the Swing of Things

It’s hard to believe another summer has already come and gone, but it sure was another great one!

I finished this particular summer off with a week of showing at Horse Shows by the Bay, where Jelli was wonderful.  There was a lot for her to take in, but I thought she handled it all quite well.  We walked away with fourth place in a hack, fifth place in equitation over fences, and a few other placings over fences.  All in all, I was very proud of Jelli and happy with our performance – even in adverse conditions.

This is Jelli and I after our muddy trips at Horse Shows by the Bay. All of our hard work to make us look “show ready” went to waste!

On Friday it rained all day and (of course!) Jelli and I showed in the heaviest of that rain.  By the next morning, there were two inches of standing water over the whole ring so that, when we entered, the sun was reflecting off the water.  The entire ring was just one big reflection and it was so shiny that I could hardly see the jumps!  During our trips, mud was flying everywhere and, by the end, Jelli and I were covered.  I even had mud on my eyelids and in my mouth!

Ironically, however, these muddy trips were the best of the week.  My horse is apparently a mudder!

On Sunday, there was a hunter classic and we entered that as well.  I thought my first round of the classic was decent and we earned a score of 78.  The classic didn’t finish its run until the end of the day so we waited around.  There were probably about 60-70 riders in it and they only called back the top 12.  I tacked up to head out for my second round because Jelli and I were still in contention and then the very last rider in the first round kicked my score out.  The cutoff was 78.5 and I had a 78!  I was still very happy to be thirteenth out of 60 in the end – and after such a long week, Jelli and I were ready for a break, but we sure had a lot of fun.

Just this weekend, I moved back to Albion and I am really excited for the year to come.  Fellow summer blogger Sarah and I are living in an apartment together – we even have air conditioning, a dishwasher, and a shower that you can turn around in, so we have really moved up in the world!

Classes started today – wish me luck!

The End of Summer

Wow – where did summer go?!

It was a tremendous stress-reliever to have leased Sara for the summer. (Photo credit: Jordan Tieche)

I haven’t blogged in a while because I have been insanely busy and, unfortunately, it hasn’t been with horses, but rather work.  I just finished the last day of my internship with Pfizer Animal Health last Friday and the last few weeks were hectic to say the least!  I was given the opportunity to give several large presentations on my summer’s worth of work and that was a great experience.  When George Jessel said, “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public,” he was definitely talking about me – but it was worth the nerves to present to some upper-management.   Overall, I really enjoyed my internship, not only the work but also the people!  I made some great connections and friends during my time there.

The main downside of spending so much time at work the last few weeks was that I couldn’t take days off to any horse shows with Sara.  Just having her around was a great escape for me though – even if I only had time to see her for half an hour on my lunch break.  It was great stress relief!  She settled in really nicely at Todds’s and has definitely come a long way just in these past few months.  It has been great to work with her and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to take her home for the summer.

As all good things have to come to an end, however, this summer does too.  I can’t believe that school is starting again in a few short days – I have so much left to do!  I’ll be moving into an apartment with my fellow blogger and hunt seat teammate Heather Waldron on Sunday and I haven’t even started packing, so I’m sure this weekend will be just as busy as the rest of the summer was!  I am ready to go back, though, to see all of my friends and all of the girls on the hunt seat team.

Let the apartment shopping and packing begin!