One Stranger, One Coach, and One Rock Star

The Stranger

I don’t entirely remember how I met, or knew, this woman. She was a mom of two small children, had a great husband, whom I met a few times, and she definitely loved horses like I did. Her name was Karen. Picture a gorgeous, petite cheerleader with short blond hair and a big smile. She didn’t have any pompoms, but she had deep pockets instead. Her husband had just started a new fast-food franchise. It was one of the first to offer something other than a burger or fried chicken. At the time, I remember thinking, “I wonder how selling salads is going to fly?”

It did.

Like gangbusters.

I’m not sure why, but Karen was determined for me to have a lesson with our local Event trainer (one of two around “Houston”). At the time, she knew Gar, my little Arab, had not fared well at the Hunter-Jumper shows. I don’t remember Karen ever Eventing, but she did take lessons with this Event trainer on the flat. The one thing I do remember clearly is her horse—he was very tall, very black, lanky, and good moving. He was a Ferrari. Karen was so adamant on introducing me to Eventing, she picked me and Gar up, drove us to the farm, and she paid for my first lesson. This was no easy feat. She did not live close to me, and I did not live close to the farm with the Eventing coach.

The sheer generosity of a stranger.  

I don’t know if Karen kept riding or not. I have no other memories of her in the barn or even being around. I just have the one memory, of an incredibly generous stranger, in the right place at the right time, to change the trajectory of my life forever. Even more than the money she spent, it’s the amount of time and logistics she put into making it all happen that still blows me away.

One person’s act of kindness can be life-changing for another .

The Circle

To any of my former students who might be reading this…Enjoy.

My first Eventing lesson with my new coach, I spent the entire 45 minutes trotting a 20-meter circle, in one corner of the arena. Calling it a “20-meter” circle might be a little bit of a stretch. It was more like a “first date” with the circle: awkward and embarrassing; I really wanted to be there, but I really didn’t either; I wasn’t really sure what the point was, but I knew there must be a prize at the end. So yeah, it was like a date.

(It was those damn corners all over again, just like my first-ever riding lesson. Worse was I was stuck in only the one corner. At least Satan, my first lesson horse, was polite and stopped in all four corners of the arena. He was an equal-opportunity corner stopper. This ‘single-corner circle bullshit’ felt like three steps backwards).

I was attempting to do “Dressage” (whatever that was). The rule was you had to go through “Dressagetown” first, on your way to “Jumptown.” So I sucked it up and tried to understand how my outside rein, doing one thing, while my inside rein, doing something else, was supposed to result in my horse putting his head down.  (Notice I didn’t say “on the bit”). I can say with complete certainty, I got a little dizzy with this whole exercise at the breakneck speed of trot. I had to really concentrate on the non-moving parts: Gar’s neck, and the instructor standing in the middle of the circle, so I didn’t get vertigo and pass out. (That first date was no love affair. I couldn’t get out of “Dressagetown” fast enough. I would like to say it changed over the next twenty-seven years, but…).

(Postscript: The instructor let me canter a couple of twenty meter circles right before our lesson ended. I’m pretty sure she thought I wouldn’t come back if she didn’t. She would have been right. I had already visited “Jumptown” once and knew a shortcut there that didn’t go through “Dressagetown.” I am also equally confident she was more cross-eyed at the end of that lesson than I was. Gar, too!)

The Coach

My new instructor—the one who introduced me to Eventing, and shepherded me into the early days of the sport in the role of coach—was none other than Jennifer Bodtmann. These days, many people in the Event world outside of Texas know Jennifer. After her own career of riding at the upper levels and teaching generations of riders, Jennifer is still involved with the sport in many different ways—through the ICP and judging, among others. If you don’t know who she is, just look for her signature platinum-blonde hair at the events. She hasn’t changed one bit since I’ve known her and her hair is a dead giveaway. Together, she and her husband, John, ran Double J Stables. Johnny had his own construction and building business, while Jennifer ran her equestrian business at the farm. It didn’t mean anything to me back then, but Jennifer had trained extensively with Mike Plumb, Karen O’Connor, Jack LeGoff and Jim Graham. We were so lucky to have someone with such a polished résume, out there in the sticks, and I didn’t even know it.

What I do remember, besides the bugs in my teeth from all of the jumping we did (after those damn dressage lessons, naturally), was the level of care each horse received, and how the barn was spotless at all times. I give Jennifer a lot of credit for my barn management and teaching me the definition of “good horse care.” This was before the days of injecting joints, or Adequan, or the million other scientific technologies we have at our disposal to help our horses now. What we did have, and what I learned about, were the whirlpool ice boots Jennifer used on one of her injured horses. Her mare stood in them every single day like clockwork. I’m sure she probably did in the mornings, too, while I was at school, but I saw her standing in them every afternoon. Sometimes I was the one who watched over her during those times, but it wasn’t much of a job. “Anja” was a professional. She almost timed herself and she was also super patient with the removal process. (It wasn’t until much later in my career, I found out how quickly it could all go wrong—ice boots and ice water flying through the air in every direction).

Lunch

I always equate my “horse days” with being like a hound—nose on the ground, running my ass off to get where my nose was leading me. It doesn’t leave time for much else, and as a result, I lost touch with a lot of people who weren’t in my area and in the same business. When I switched careers out of the horses, I suddenly had more time for just about everything. Two years ago, Jennifer and I reconnected over lunch, along with Dawn, who back in the day was the resident “Rock Star” of the barn. The three of us just met for lunch when I was home to see my family.

We had a good laugh remembering the old days. Dawn was our only resident rider at the preliminary level. This, automatically, is what made her a rock star. She was easily visible at the events on her palomino knight, Sir Gallahad. Back then, Preliminary was the highest level offered in Area 5.

Therefore, I thought it was the highest level in the sport.  

Of course, later, a couple of events hosted the intermediate level—Tipasa Ranch in Oklahoma and Prarie Creek in Pittsburg(?), Texas—but they were anomalies that attracted two or three riders only. I thought ‘intermediate level’ was more of an experiment (in survival) than anything else. (Just goes to show how a teenager’s brain works).   

One thing we all agreed on at lunch the other day was the fact that ditches did not exist on any course, at any level, in Area 5. Coach Jennifer found out, at her first event outside of Area 5, Groton House, what a “real” ditch was, when she ended up in it. I, too, found out the hard way. I left Texas after high school to be a working student at Fare Well Farm in South Carolina (Area 3) for my gap-year before college. My first event, which happened to be at Fare Well, I ended up left hung-out to dry on the wall-part of the ditch and wall. My horse slammed on the brakes, right before he stepped down into the ditch-part, leaving me to sort it out on my own. This is not hyperbole. There used to be a photo of me hanging on the wall.

Yep, awesome times.

There’s a lot of water under that bridge now. Not only with the sport in Area 5, but also in our own lives. This is the first time I haven’t owned a horse in thirty years. For Jennifer, this is the first time in forty-five years she’s been horseless. Jennifer’s last horse was her horse of a lifetime. “Augie,” or “All Star II” was a very tall, bay Anglo-Arab Trakehner gelding that Jennifer bred herself, out of her very good mare, “Lucy.” I remember his older, homebred brother, Andy, because he was a two-year old when I was a student of Jennifer’s. He was by far the tallest horse in the barn, and stunning, even then. The two brothers were almost twins. I know losing Augie was brutal for Jennifer.

It always is.

Dawn still has “Bobby,” her last event horse who is now thirty-five years old. She keeps him and a young horse at home at her own farm now. The young horse is an OTTB that Dawn decided to pick-up on a whim to have a project, or maybe event a little in the future. He was three when she bought him. Dawn turned him out in the field for a year to let down. She played with him some at the same time—sort of a year-long meet and greet. This “gap year” can be a really great time to bond with a youngster, get to know them, and maybe instill some good habits in them at the same time.

When he turned four, Dawn decided it was time for school, so she tacked him up and took him out to her round pen to move him around a little before getting on. In Dawn’s words, “I let him loose and OH. MY. GOD.” Dawn’s chin fell on the ground, even now, recounting the memory.

“He took off bucking so hard, he was diving into the ground, ramming against the boards, all at the same time.

And he didn’t stop. This went on and on for a while.”

Dawn said she never had any inkling he would do this. He was very quiet on the ground and very quiet when she messed with him on the longe-line.

Dawn continued her story, “I said to myself, ‘I’m 62 years old. What am I doing??’”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Yep. He went off to school.”

This would have been the first time “The Rock Star” sent a horse off to school instead of teaching him herself. I was glad to hear this. Dawn has nothing left to prove in her horsemanship, or her riding.

I also learned a fun fact at lunch about my great coach. She asked about my surgery, and said she had the same, but she was on a beach in Cancun three weeks later. I’m still spending some time on the bathroom floor at week four, so I was impressed (and thinking I’m a wimp). She chalked it up to her being so much younger than me when she had her surgery.

Then Jennifer went on and talked about her shoulder surgery she had a couple years ago. She pulled her sleeve up to reveal a scar about six inches long. She said, “Yeah, I took pain meds for about six days, but then I stopped. I hate the way they make me feel.”

Anyone who has had shoulder surgery tells me it is the most painful surgery and experience they’ve ever been through and the recovery is torture.

Six days, huh?

Hmm…                                        

Jennifer continued, explaining how this could be. “Well, I’ve never been one for pain meds. When I go to the dentist, I don’t like needles in my mouth, so I don’t let them use any novocaine.”

So when they use a drill or anything, you don’t use any pain meds, nerve blocks, etc??

“Nope.”

Dawn and I sat there, quiet, mulling this over.

Jennifer said, “Well, I don’t really feel anything. It’s not that painful to me.”

As if this explains everything.

Does anyone else know someone who says this about the dentist??

Props to Jennifer. She is One. Bad. Ass.

(I’m also going to point out this must have come in mighty handily as an Event rider).

The three of us had a fun lunch reliving some great memories. It was a Golden Age at “Double J Ranch.” A barn full of eager kids, a few adults, one stranger, and one rock star. All led by our formidable coach, Jennifer Bodtmann. You can’t miss her. She’s the one with the platinum hair. Sort of like the Queen of Dragons.

**Next time: All roads lead to “Eventtown.” My first Horse Trials in Belleville, Texas and beyond…

 

 

 

 

 

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