After my fall with Sam, I was pretty rattled. Actually, rattled would be a vast understatement. I was a basket case. I didn't even realize how bad it was at first: I soldiered forward and went to some preliminaries that fall with Dually, cruising around the cross country with about 35 times penalties a pop at each one and turning sea-green on each of my course walks at fences that a mere few months earlier I wouldn't have batted an eye at, but without other major incident beyond that.
(One of the jumps I had to convince myself wasn't 18' high... thanks for putting up with that, Dually!)
Then that winter, I started my time as a working student in South Carolina. For folks that followed this blog last January, you might have gathered that I am NOT a January person: I have clinical depression anyway, and then get seasonal depression piled on top in the early winter (those dreaded months when the solstice and christmas are passed and yet winter somehow remains as miserable as ever… blahhh). Now at least I know that about myself and so can kind of understand why I suddenly become a huge Negative Nancy for no particular reason whatsoever come the second week of January; in the winter of 2008 I was still blissfully unaware of this little trick my mind likes to play on me, and so wandered into an incredibly stressful and potentially frightening period of my life completely unprepared.
I went to work first for a guy who I'd heard good things about but had never met in person. Well. After two weeks of having Dually out in a shedless, grassless field (in Aiken, where lightning storms are a REAL threat and horses actually die every year) with no hay (because it was "too expensive") and no shelter to retreat to in case of bad weather because the farm had only three completed stalls (which had already proven to be death traps, as one horse had skinned his leg down to exposed tendons in one of the too-low windows overnight and almost had to be put down) and fifteen horses on property, I decided to get out.
(We certainly wouldn't have been presenting to any ground juries in the incredibly crappy conditions he was being kept in!)
I tried to quit three times in person, only to have my employer refuse to talk to me in private and purposefully stage the entire barn around me whenever I tried to talk to him, so that when he made me cry with the verbal abuse he handed down after my muttered attempts to extricate myself from this situation I could be humiliated in front of everyone. Finally, I just hitched up my trailer and left right as he was teaching a lesson, and sent him an email afterwards. I'm sorry; I will take a lot of abuse personally if I see the benefit to it, but I won't sit around for a moment when I don't think my horse is getting safe or adequate treatment. I still feel just as justified in doing that now as I did the morning I pulled out the driveway.
(The Dude came first, and I wouldn't have it any other way)
So, Dually and I headed back to my old trainer. Things were a million times better immediately in terms of horse care (because I'm not sure there's anyone out there who treats the horses better than Suzi), but on a personal level I realized I was still a mess. I could barely canter a cross rail without going to pieces, even on Dually. And try putting me on another horse? No. Way. I felt so worthless; I had come down to learn and ride as much as possible, and I literally couldn't start tacking up another horse to get on without having my knees turn to jello. I starting hating myself so much and overanalyzing and overthinking every little centimeter of my riding, which of course just made everything worse.
(Good thing the Dude never seemed to care much about what I was thinking unless it could help him! What a clever boy)
Finally I hit a breaking point. I got bucked off a sale horse, thrown into a fence, and broke my hand; the horse got loose and then I got screamed at for endangering the horse by "letting" it run around the property and was told not to go to the doctor even though my index finger was already the size of a small banana and could not be bent or moved. At that moment, I'm pretty sure I hated every single thing about riding and horse people. I just wanted to get out.
(Dude says, "booo drama!")
Of course, it was Dually that saved me. Every time I wanted to quit or thought that I couldn't get through another day of drama, I'd go and sit with him in his stall while he ate dinner, just listening to the sound of him eating hay, or I'd lay down in the grass beside him and take a little midday nap while he grazed (yes I know this was incredibly dangerous; at that point, getting trampled to death by my horse was low on my danger priority list). For over a month, we just cantered cross rails and the littlest wee verticals. Dually was a total saint and didn't mind a stitch that, for those first weeks, I probably made him canter at walking speed and then asked him to jump from that. With him, I slowly got it back. I slowly felt like I could do it again.
(The little moments are always the best)
Before I knew it, we were schooling bigger fences than I'd ever jumped before, and making it seem easy. I was so bonded with Dually at that point that I felt like I could point him at anything and I had the skills to get him there with the best chance of clearing it well. We went to a Training, a few Preliminaries, and then, in May, entered and completed my first Intermediate. I can still remember every jump of that Intermediate cross country course; it was one of our best rounds ever, and I remember just thanking him over every fence for being there and being as amazing as he was. Driving back, even my trainer commented on how incredible it was, knowing where I'd been in January. I just had to chock it up to Dually. I couldn't have done it without him.
(... he even managed to save my bacon when I got him into this dock jump completely wrong! Thank you, Dude!!!)
I finished up my time in South Carolina (and man, to this day I miss those days in early May, when the grass was greening, the flowers bursting, the strawberries coming out, and all the other horse people had left) and then had a pretty quiet horsey summer as I spent a month of it backpacking in Alaska (AWESOME, but not great for preparing for events!!). I spent the fall getting Dually back into shape and settling into school, got my first taste of West Coast Eventing, and then headed to Galway that fall for my first ever long format event.
(4'6" jump approached at 26 mph... no big thing for the Dude!!)
(Me, Pa, and D coming off steeplechase - probably one of my favorite pictures of all time)
I won't go into great detail here because I wrote about it on this blog (just go back to November 2008), but it was THE BEST EXPERIENCE EVER. Coming off steeplechase bang on the time was probably the biggest high I've ever had; I felt completely bulletproof. The cross country afterwards was one of our best rounds ever, too, because I think he'd already found his rhythm on the steeplechase and could just go. It was an awesome, awesome, feeling. After that, to show jump clean and win a national championship was just icing on the cake =)
(I finally didn't mess up long enough to get Dually the moment in the limelight he deserved =D)
(Man he looked good that weekend! Every picture I have of that weekend he's blindingly shiny and looking every inch a top horse, bless his heart)
After Galway, I knew that Dually had given me more than I ever could have possibly imagined, and then some. He owed me absolutely nothing, and I owed him everything. I had some plans for the next year, but decided at the outset to take them one event at a time and see how he was feeling; if it ever seemed like he wanted out, then we would work something out. We did a Preliminary to get going and then had a good outing at Intermediate at Galway again (winning prize money! Who'd have ever thought??), barring a very worrying stop at the triple in show jumping. Dually never, never ever stopped outright (sometimes he ran out when I couldn't steer him!). He still blasted around the cross country like a champ, but I was beginning to understand that the show jumping, which had always been his weakest phase, was going to be too hard for him.
(The dude does the Big Boy drop into water going OI at Galway)
I entered him at one more show just to make sure it hadn't been a fluke, and he stopped at the triple again. Dually could not tell me any more clearly, and we decided right there that his Intermediate days were over. It was bittersweet (especially since it occurred on my 20th birthday… not the best birthday present I've ever received!), but ultimately good because I knew I'd made the right choice and had done so with a horse who was still healthy, sound, and happy.
(We could jump single fences in the show jumping quite well at Intermediate, but those pesky combinations just required too much scope)
I entered Dually in one last event at Rebecca Farm, but it wasn't to be: he cut his leg through his galloping boots (note to self: woof boots are NOT adequate protection!!) on steeplechase and was a bit sore in the 10-minute box so I elected to withdraw him before cross country. And, just like that, my competitive career with Dually was at a close. Dually went on to be my father's horse, and I've gained an immeasurable amount of enjoyment from grooming for them and watching them grow as a partnership this past year.
(Thanking Dually for our last dressage test together at Rebecca Farm)
(Going into the steeplechase, the best half-terrified half-exhilerated feeling in the world!!)
I hope this story has in some way approximated the amount of love and gratitude I have for this horse, even if it can't actually come close to expressing how ardently I truly feel for him. He was the horse who opened doors for me, revealed possibilities to me, and most of all confirmed within me once and for all a love for the quiet, unbreakable bond between horse and rider that I know I will carry forward with me for as love as I live. I can never thank him enough.