Learning to Fly – the Right Way!

“Every rider who truly rides will fall off.  A lot.  Repeatedly.  Eventually, when you get really, really sick of it, you’ll learn to hang on a little better.  Then you won’t fall.”

The wise words of Bill Hoos have, yet again, proven true.  Being the working student at Wil-lo Blue has earned me a variety of nicknames – all meant lovingly (of course).  The first half of this summer had me well on my way to being called “lawn-dart” and “groundhog” for spending an obnoxious amount of time being launched out of the tack.  (Marly discovered an amusing new career in being a catapult and was giving me flying lessons on at least a weekly basis.)

It took several weeks, some good ol’ face-to-face time with the ground, and a few pep talks…but I discovered the key to getting our issues sorted out.  All I had to do was get sick enough of checking out the turf from close-up.

Marly's short-lived career as an equine catapult has now ended.

In our relationship, my job is to spend my entire bank account and every hour of daylight making sure he is adequately fed, groomed, massaged, exercised, and otherwise spoiled.  His job is to jump what I point him at.  It’s that simple.  And he was not fulfilling his end of the bargain.  Not acceptable.

Luckily, I had several opportunities to fix this.  Last weekend, we took 21 horses to Atlanta, GA for a cross-country schooling weekend.  The first day, we schooled the course at Poplar Place Farm and the second, we finished up at Chattahoochee Hills (site of this year’s American Eventing Championships).  Day One included Marly making a solid attempt to dump me in a ditch and, for whatever reason, that was the moment that I got mad.

While yelling was likely not the best method – though it caused everyone watching to laugh hysterically, as hearing me cuss is both unusual and comical – it certainly had an effect.  Marly was as surprised as everyone else!  Suddenly his “No, I’d rather not” became “Um, yes ma’am!”

Marly and I in the group, on our way to school cross-country.

Day Two was ten thousand times improved.  Marly no longer questioned what I asked him to do and we were able to school the Prelim water, the big angled stone tables (read: the GIANT angled stone tables), and various other technical questions.  We were entered Training level at Hunter Oaks, which was this past weekend, and I was confident that I could get the job done.

Fast forward to this past weekend when we went up to Hunter Oaks Horse Trials in Bloomington, IL.  (I’ll start by saying we had never showed there before and it was a lovely event that was enjoyed by all.  Chances are we’ll be back next year.)  However, walking the cross-country course built anxiety.  I had bumped back to Training level to firm up the issues we’d had at Encore doing Prelim, so I was not expecting to find a corner for the fourth fence, or a coffin combination at 5AB.  The water involved a large bank out, then a bending three-stride to a narrow hanging log.

Grr! This is the stuff we were having issues with at Prelim!  Were we really going to make it around?  And if I didn’t, what on earth was I going to do then?

After a solid dressage test, though, while in the start box for cross-country, anxiety became determination.  Marly WAS going to jump around and he WAS going to make time (a difficult feat, the course was certainly going to test the horses’ fitness when it was 96 degrees).  I was NOT going to end up on the ground again.  That determination not only made for a clear round – which was actually FUN with my horse not questioning me! – but we had the fastest time by 17 seconds.  Marly came back the next day to put in a lovely stadium round, only just barely ticking off the top rail off the last fence (disappointing!).  At the end of the weekend, we very happily finished fourth.

Take that, cross-country obstacles! Marly and I are back in top form!

The best part of our Hunter Oaks experience was Monday, when we stayed to school the cross-country course to make sure we had truly put most of our problems behind us.  Overnight, I somehow managed to summon the gutsiest part of my personality and bring it onto the course with me in the morning.  We galloped the tables, both corners, even the Prelim/Intermediate water – duck, bending four, drop, narrow – with me grinning from ear to ear and daring Marly a little bit more with every jump.  Marly rose to the challenge and taught me another important lesson:  If I want him to jump and gallop like an upper-level horse, I better be actively inspiring confidence in him.  If I’m egging him on to jump bolder and run faster, he’ll take the reins from me and do the same.  This is what makes taking your life in your hands and jumping massive solid objects FUN.  It was an exhilarating ride and a great feeling to have my confident, bold, gusty horse back!

Next weekend we’re off to the River Glen horse trials near Knoxville, TN.  We’re entered Prelim and are fired up and ready to take another shot at it.  This time, we’ll get it right!

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