**Unfortunately, this photo is proof of my first attempt at bodyclipping. I used the only clippers I had, which were small, and probably didn’t have sharp blades. It took so long that others took pity on me and we took shifts. Also, notice there is no baling twine release where he is tied to the post. How he never hung himself is beyond me.
Gar. Was. A. Saint.
All of those circles in “Dressagetown” paid off. Actually, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I think the fact we won the dressage at our first event had more to do with Gar, who had managed to interpret my poor sign language as “put your head down,” as he trotted his cute little trot God gave him around the dressage ring. At Beginner Novice, the standards were not high, nor the competition fierce, yet I took this as a beacon of my superior skill-set.
I was good. Really good.
My first event took place at Pine Hill in Belleville, Texas. It was a great event, beautifully run by the owner, Phil Sawin, and the great team he had amassed. This would have been around 1986. It was the era before safety vests were required (or invented for that matter), cross-country speed faults did not exist, and when the the United States Combined Training Association (USCTA) was home to the sport.
My butterflies and I (and Gar) set out on cross-country in hot pursuit of a win. The little Arab had game and was happy to canter across the countryside, jumping whatever came our way. However, when we cantered into the woods, we encountered the water jump.
(This was also the era before “penalty zones,” when penalty flags were set well-ahead of the obstacle and you could be penalized for anything (i.e., stopping or falling) that happened in that area. Our sport has seen a lot of changes, not just in the last ten years.).
Gar slammed on the brakes probably seven or eight strides out. I think it looked a little funky to him being in the woods, versus out in a field. I might not have understood anything about dressage, but kicking came pretty naturally to me. I booted the crap out of him. Relentlessly. Like a kid on a Thelwell pony. Gar grunted and danced around, but he was not convinced. Worried about the clock (this was the serious business of Beginner Novice, and winning, after all), I spun him around, still kicking, and we moonwalked all the way to the water and through the flags on the other side. I spun him around again, and off we went.
Yep, that’s how long ago it was….long enough for going backwards to be considered going forward.
Ahhh, those were the days….
But I won, and that’s all that mattered.
I was hooked.
When you’re learning to fly with your new wings as a kid (on the back of a horse, no less), it’s easy to fly too close to the sun, like Icarus. Especially when you’re practically a professional (since you won your first event).
While Jennifer Bodtmann was a great coach, I still kept Gar at the co-op stable. How that translated was I spent 90-percent of my time unsupervised. There’s a stage every rider goes through—it’s called “the little bit of knowledge”+ “unsupervised” = “unbridled confidence.” Usually this is reconciled at the emergency room, but not always. Sometimes, it takes a few trips to the land of the E.R.
One hot summer day, I went hacking with a couple of other boarders. They were adults and rode western. At the end of our hack, I decided I wanted to jump a couple jumps that we were passing on our way back into the barn’s courtyard. Back then, any jump set-up was an invitation to jump it. So off I went, while they waited for me. Gar and I jumped back and forth over the two jumps there before I got off to put the jumps up. Both had a single, hollow PVC pole. I put them up in the next set of cups and got back on.
On that hard, summer ground, Gar slipped on takeoff and skiddered across the top of the pole. Being that it weighed five ounces, it easily went with us, like a kite, and got tangled in Gar’s legs. He couldn’t quite stick the landing, and down he went, sliding on his head first, then on his side. It wasn’t a full rotational fall, but it was close. When my face hit the ground, it unsnapped my chin harness and my helmet came flying off. Luckily, my head survived that deal. The left side of my face, not so much. I was released from the E.R. with “burn cream” as I had removed all of the skin like a burn victim.
That was E.R. trip #1. Like I said, sometimes it takes more than one trip…
On another hack, this time with a kid my age, we decided “less is more” and forewent any tack. This was just a casual, short ride, so I was wearing sweatpants and sneakers, which most likely meant I was also not wearing a helmet. Everything was going fine until we came out of the woods and made the turn from home.
Gar, of his own accord, went from zero to sixty, which was easy to do wearing a halter. Despite being terrified, I do remember his ears being pricked and the little sparkle in his eye. He was quite pleased with himself. It wasn’t the pissing off that was so frightening, but the fact that we had to go through a small gateway, meant more for a person than a horse, in order to get into the courtyard, and we were headed straight for it. I had my doubts whether one or both of my kneecaps would survive. I knew if I hit either post with one of my knees, it would be very, very bad.
Somehow both of my knees survived the narrow gap, which Gar went barreling through. However, he made a hard left once in the courtyard (headed back to his stall, presumably) and I unceremoniously exited out the right door. I can tell you the little drawstring meant to hold your sweatpants up will cause a huge bruise, when it digs into your skin, as you’re sliding across the hard ground.
That “casual” hack resulted in Emergency Room Trip #2.
The last “incident” was not me being stupid, but me being a part of my friend being stupid. After riding together, I got off Gar to handwalk him back to the barn. As I was running up my stirrups, my friend Kasey parked her young horse (maybe the mare was five, if that) next to Gar, and decided it would be great fun to scramble from her horse, onto Gar, and dismount from Gar. I stood there and held both horses by their bridles. It all went fine until she stood up on her mare. Then it was game over. Kacey’s mare freaked, and started bucking like she had a bee under her saddle. As Kacey was standing up at the time, she flew like a rocket through the air. When she hit the ground, I let go of her mare, who was still bucking, as I thought the mare might land on her. Gar was upset, but he kept it together. Kacey was lying on the ground in a very unnatural position and I will never forget leaning over her and seeing her eyes rolling back in her head.
That was Emergency Room Trip #3, but not for me. Kasey was okay. She had a bad concussion. It was after that Gar moved to Double J Stables. Apparently the cost of boarding is the price of adult supervision. I’m going to guess my parents thought my luck was going to run out soon if someone didn’t rein me in.
The Next Chapter
So now I started spending a lot of time at Double J Stables. I loved it. I learned all kinds of things besides riding—like barn management, studs (that would have been useful before I jumped on the rock-hard ground and wrecked), ice boots, the importance of a good farrier. I also helped Rueben a lot. He was the full-time resident worker. I’d help him muck or sweep. He was a hard worker, had a lot to do, and he was always sweet with the horses. I really appreciated that about him. It’s easy to have a short temper when you feel overwhelmed, but Rueben never did.
Finally, looking for more to do at the barn, I asked Jennifer, “Is there anyone else I can ride, or groom, or mess with?”
Without hesitation, she pointed to a big chestnut, standing at the fence-line in the big field. It looked like the fence was holding him up. His neck hung over the top board, lower lip dangling, his eyes half closed. She said, “Well…you can ride Amos. But he’s really hot, just so you know.”
Ignorance is bliss and I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was I had another horse to ride. I went and fetched a halter and skipped out to the field to catch my new ride.
Little did I know, I had just met my heart horse.
**Next: Eventing with Famous Amos