Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Young Riders: A Reflection

This past weekend, I made my first visit back to the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships since my own ill-fated trip there as a competitor with Dually back in 2007. It was a strange experience for me to come back to this competition. Between my own failed experience in 2007 to the moment I aged out in 2010, I can safely say that Young Riders was in my mind every time I got on a horse, ever. I have not yet ever wanted anything more in my entire life, and the weeks where I realized that the dream was, at last, at an end, were unbelievably crushing. I had never staked so much and lost.

(Me and Dually at Young Riders in 2007)

Now, two years out, the amount of suffering that I put into going to Young Riders seems almost mystifying. I remember feeling like my entire worth as a human being was bundled up in standing on the podium, like I would somehow be a better person if I had one of those little US shields with the "YR" stitched in the middle on my jacket. That to fail meant to fail utterly, and to be denied a future in the sport I love so much.

That, of course, is ridiculous. I certainly did not stop improving after my last Young Riders came and went without me; in fact, I like to think I am a considerably better all around rider and horseman than I was when I was trying to qualify. I certainly didn't lose any of my love for horses, and indeed being able to ride without the constant pressure of making Young Riders was refreshing and wonderful, and made me appreciate my equine partners even more. And I certainly became no less of a person for failing to qualify (though admittedly I was probably pretty hard to be around for a while there right when I realized it wasn't going to happen... sorry about that, World).

(Yeah... pretty sure I can ride a little better than I did then)

Coming back to Young Riders as a spectator, I wish I could say that to every disappointed-looking kid I saw (and there were many). Life does not end with Young Riders, and though it is great to win, it is, at the the end of the day, just another horse show. There is a lifetime of victory gallops to aim for if that is what you want; there is also a lifetime of enjoying horses in a not as competitive setting as well.

(Big D... the love of my life)

Even for young riders for whom NAJYRC marks the end of parental financial support (which obviously puts an understandable pressure on getting to the big show), just remember: if you truly want to ride again, it can happen. It might take 10 or 15 years to get to a place in your life where horses are a possibility, but 10 or 15 years is longer than an eternity. That is what makes riding so special: it is a sport you can do, and enjoy, for an entire lifetime.

I deeply enjoyed my return to Young Riders, despite the bittersweet feelings it brought. It was legitimately exciting to see these teenagers and young adults achieve the dreams that, as I know from personal experience, they've treasured for a long, long time. I only wish there was more of a sense of balance: the celebration that these wins deserved, but also the acknowledgement that Young Riders, and even a medal at Young Riders, is but one tiny piece in the overall equestrian experience.

Maybe someday.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Farewell, Friend

The last few days have been tough ones. There have been several tragic events in the Chronicle family that, even though I am a very new member of the group, have hit me hard. It has been a sad reminder that life is fragile and things, unfortunately, sometimes happen over which we have very little control. Those events have certainly made my own problems and sadnesses seem pretty inconsequential in comparison.

Though it has not been the biggest tragedy in gross terms, the one that has hit the closest to home for me was the news that came yesterday that my most wonderful friend in the Stanford school horse program, Stanley, had passed away very suddenly due to colic.

As I've written about before, Stanley has always held a very special place in my heart. There has rarely been a horse that I've loved more, including all the horses I've been lucky enough to call my own over the years. There was just something unbelievably special about him. He also typified Stanford to me, and was probably the (non-human) thing that I loved about the school more than any other. To lose him is to lose a crucial part of what made my undergraduate years so special.

(Me and Stan this winter)

He was such a kind and gentle horse, and (though I am biased) I believe he had no faults. In all the years I rode him, I literally cannot think of a single time where he was deliberately naughty or misbehaved. He sometimes couldn't do the things I asked of him, but he never said 'I don't want to,' ever. He had a heart of pure gold.

In his time at Stanford, he came to us as an ex-Grand Prix show jumper and high power show horse, who transitioned first into an open-level mount for the team and then eventually became a walk-trot, PE, and dressage stalwart. He was unbelievably versatile and filled an incredible number of roles with his characteristic aplomb. He was patient, kind, and unbelievably generous. He was one of those rare horses that could give as much to more experienced riders like me as he did to riders like my friend, Clare, who were just starting out.

One of my favorite memories of Stanley was when my mom got a chance to ride him this spring. She had heard my many stories of admiration over the years and had met him and grown to love him herself. When she finally got to ride him, it was so wonderful: they were both so happy. Mom was thrilled to finally ride The Legend that was Stanley, and Stan in return was proud, as always, to please his rider.

(Mom and Stan - the image of happiness)

I'm planning on returning to Stanford this fall and seeing Stanley again was the top item on my list of to-dos. He was the last horse I said goodbye to and the only one I really wanted to ride one last time. I never got a final photo with him and had been hoping to get another this September. It's really, really hard to realize that that will never happen now.

(How could you not look forward to that face?)

I'm very sad about his passing, and more than a few tears have been shed in the past few days, but I'm comforted in knowing what a wonderful positive experience he had on my life, and on the lives of so many others. I'm so thankful to have gotten to know him, and have been touched by his wonderful presence.

From those of us who are left behind: you will be remembered, you were the one I needed, I loved you in my dreams.
-Bret Easton Ellis

Farewell, friend. I miss you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Brush With Greatness

On the same day that I had my awful but revelatory ride on Ringo, I also got to do one of the cooler "Middleburg" things I've yet experienced: namely, I got to ride out on one of the biggest, most beautiful, and historic properties in town. And that's saying something!

(Sunny Bank)

I went to high school with a wonderful girl who, I found out over the years, is part of one of the most famous and celebrated steeplechasing families in America. What I didn't realize until this summer when I saw her on the street is that her family's farm is located right in Middleburg! In fact, it's not more than two minutes away from my house, on the same road that Ringo lives on. Creepy small world!

I went over to her house for dinner the first week I was there, and was admittedly a little starstruck by how gorgeous and storied their farm was (it was even the birthplace of Traveller, Robert E Lee's horse, in addition to its 20th century sporting fame). So when they (unbelievably graciously) offered to let me come ride, I was pretty dumbfounded!

(One of the paddocks)

So Friday morning, I arrived at Sunny Bank bright and early and, paired up with a wonderful foxhunter named Jake, set off on a tour of the farm with my friend's godfather, an extremely successful retired steeplechase jockey.

For over an hour we meandered over hills and through forests, crossing streams populated with cool-seeking cows and cantered up the same hills that the family's famous racehorses breeze up. It was pretty unbelievable, and it was certainly one of the most gorgeous pieces of land I've ever seen in my entire life. Riding through rolling green fields in the fair, golden light of the early morning, on a dependable horse and in good company: it was heaven.

(So beautiful!!) 

I'm so thankful to have been given the opportunity to see it and ride on such a historic property. Hopefully I'll get to ride there again before the summer's out!

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Ok, deep breath time. To jump to the end of the story first, I had a ride on Ringo today that was so wonderful that it made me realize the extent to which things had been going off the tracks before that. It was a great ride, in other words, but also a revealing one.

In retrospect, I feel like this post has been a long time coming, and so it's a little embarrassing for me to admit how long it's taken me to put all the pieces together. In short, I've been having some nagging issues with Ringo on the flat all year. I know I got all riled up about how unfair the judging was at the show I took him to this spring (and it mostly was), but I was watching a tape of us going second level last September, and it was a sobering moment to realize that he looked in general better then than he does now. What had gone wrong?

For the past few months, I've been having the following concerns: Ringo had been feeling progressively behind my leg, somewhat sour, very stiff (especially to the left), and progressively more dead and difficult in the bridle. I originally linked all the last three symptoms to the first, thinking that the being behind the leg was causing everything else. This is why, after the Hossmoor disaster in May, I took a step back and hacked out, rode in jump tack, and rode in the hackamore for an entire month with the focus of thinking FORWARD and leaving the confines of the dressage arena. He went beautifully in the hackamore, which I felt confirmed my diagnosis, and so I avoided the double bridle because I was sure it would lead down the path of backwards sourness again.

At the end of the month, he felt better... a little. But not very. I admit this was a little disheartening. I was so busy with graduation at the same time that I didn't allow myself a lot of time to think about it, and used my spotty riding schedule as a convenient excuse for his continued lackluster performances (which certainly, the schedule wasn't helping!).

Finally when I got to Virginia, I decided to try the double out again just for funsies. Why not? I was getting a pretty disheartening vibe in the snaffle, and so maybe the double would be a good change of pace. And dangit, it WAS. Ringo was amazing when I rode him in the double: relaxed, confident into the bridle without being strong, supple, FORWARD, and even-sided. Excellent! We'd gotten our groove back!

(lookin studly in his double again)

At first, I assumed this change was because I had started riding with a focus again that I hadn't had since before IDA Nationals. This is certainly true, and definitely wasn't hurting, but as I was to discover on Friday, it was not the biggest piece of the puzzle. You see, on Friday, I decided to ride in the snaffle again for the first time in five or six days to give him a nice light and fluffy ride before he got Saturday off.

(I also wanted to ride him in the snaffle to give him a break from the hard work of the MEGAHEAT we've been dealing with for the past week - temps over a hundred every day and humidity like woah - Ringo and I have both been sweating up a storm)

And he. was. AWFUL. He was so stiff that I literally felt like I was fighting his head down every single step of the way, and he was so stiff to the left that I actually feared being able to turn readily enough to keep him in the arena. Every 20m circle to the left was an exercise in pure torture. In the fight to get him on the bit, I realized I was slowing him further and further down, forcing him behind my leg in my heavy-handed attempts to get him softer to the bridle. For the first time, I realized with a sudden and terrible clarity that the 'behind the leg' feeling I'd been worrying over for so long was 100% my own fault, created because I was bottling him up in an attempt to get him on the bit. NOT ACCEPTABLE THIRD LEVEL DRESSAGE HORSE/RIDER BEHAVIOR.

(On the upside, this is what it looked like during said horrid ride. Shabby, right? Oh Virginia, you so purdy)

About 20 minutes in, I wanted to scream in pure frustration. What the hell was going on???! Was I such a bad rider that I depended on the double to do the work for me? Could I really not ride my horse properly without it? But no, that really couldn't be true: when I ride in the double, I mainly ride 100% on the snaffle rein, with the curb rein literally held on the buckle in one hand just to keep it from flopping around--it is entirely inactive.

Suddenly, the lightbulb went off. The bit. The bridoon in my double is essentially a normal loose ring (there's nothing fancy about it, and the ring is very big for a bridoon). The bit on my snaffle bridle is a D ring. I chose the D ring a year ago, when I was having a really hard time getting him to go out into the contact at all. What if the stiffness in the bridle was the result of the D ring, and the behind the legness was the result of being stiff in the bridle? All the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and seemed very, very clear all of a sudden. I quit the ride as soon as I could reach a somewhat passible point, got off, and promptly searched the trailer for the first nice heavy loose ring snaffle I could find.

So this evening I returned, armed with Dually's old German-gold KK french link loose ring. And god lord, it was magical. Every single problem I've been struggling with for the past six months essentially vanished immediately, or was drastically, drastically reduced. He was forward, supple, and happily chewing the bit pretty much from start to finish. I was able to ride more flexibly in my elbows than I can remember doing in a long time, because I wasn't locked with worry of 'keeping him on the bit.'

I feel pretty stupid for having let this go on so long, but elated that a small tack change could yield such a massive result. I'm excited to see what the next week of work will bring!

Monday, July 2, 2012

To Sweat or Not to Sweat?

In the past weekend, I've finally gotten to experience the mid-atlantic heat and humidity that I'd been bracing myself for since arriving in Virginia. Holy crap, it can get really really hot and muggy here!! Fortunately my roommate and I were not among the 2.5 MILLION Virginians that lost power over the weekend due to the storm, and so we were able to spend a lot of time lying low in the cool of the A/C. As someone who has grown up my entire life without air conditioning this felt a little wrong, but in a deliciously comfortable way. On Sunday I did spend five and a half hours driving around the Virginia countryside without air conditioning (because I am the cheapest/poorest and didn't want to hurt my gas mileage... no shame) taking photographs, so I did get to remember what summers usually feel like for me: sweaty.

Going forward, the 9-5 nature of my job gives me two basic options for riding: at 7am in the relative cool, or at 5:30 in the most definitely NOT cool. At first glance it seems like the morning option is the obvious one, especially since I'm a pretty good morning person and certainly don't mind waking up early for the things I love.

There are, however, three massive downsides to that plan: first, from a straight up vanity perspective, I would have to switch my routine to morning showering and go into work regularly with wet hair, as I don't own a blow dryer; second, I tend to get verrrrrrry sleepy about an hour after I ride, and since I already tend to get verrrrrrry sleepy at some point during my day at work no matter what, the combined tiredness could be an unwitting source of torture; and third, if I rode in the morning, I'd have nothing to look forward to all day besides sitting on the couch, where in the past week riding has been the big thing that motivated me through some slower hours at work.

So, I've chosen to sweat. Fortunately Ringo is almost as good a sweater as I am (like all Ericksons, I can really, really turn it on), and we're not doing too hard of work at the moment, so I'm not worried about him overheating. Obviously I'll play it by ear and if it's too hot we can reassess, but I feel good about the decision at the moment. Bring on the heat!

(Cows on Hibbs Bridge Road trying to escape the heat in the creek)
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