Going It Alone

**Photo of “Wordsmith,” one of my favorite thoroughbreds, who spent some time in my program. 

Doing The Hustle

It goes without saying, when you start your own business, your number one asset is your reservoir of hustle. How much ya got?? As I was transitioning out of Wofford’s, I rode at five different barns every day. Simply put, I went wherever the horses were available to ride. It was all frenetic to say the least.

Finally, I had a twelve stall barn that filled very quickly, but I also trekked to a couple of other places twice a week. My pace was fueled by ambition, self-motivation, the love of the horses, and quite frankly, by anxiety. Everyone told me, “You can’t make it in horses.”

In the back of my mind I was always thinking, “What if I don’t?”

The high probability of that happening drove me relentlessly. When I rented the twelve-stall barn, I took care of the twelve and mucked all of the stalls every day, plus I had seven to ride. How this translated was I rarely cleaned tack and only knocked the dirt off of the horses before throwing the saddle on.

It was a far cry of how I did things at Jimmy’s.

Honestly, I look back now and wonder how I did what I did, for as long as I did, and at the speed I did. I certainly couldn’t do it today. I said “yes” to everyone and anything, knowing it could all dry up at any moment.

The Scallywag

Two of the seven I had to ride at my barn belonged to the owner. He had imported some horses from Ireland for the last couple of years to sell, but wasn’t interested in continuing with the business. There were two left that needed to be sold. One was a 17.2 hand fox hunter, and the other was barely 16 hands, a six year-old still learning the ropes. I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on them. They were hidden in the shed at the bottom of the paddock, so I called them from the gate at the top of the hill. Pretty soon the big, bay fox hunter popped out of the shed with his massive, floaty trot.

This horse could seriously move.

Instantly, I thought, “He should be an Eventer….”

I was already hatching a plan for him. The other one, a little dark grey pocket rocket bounded out of the shed, bucking and cow-kicking, all the way up the hill. Even worse, he rolled his head around a few times on his way. When he got to the top, he looked at me and rolled it around one more time for good measure, stomping the ground in defiance, to make sure I got the point.

I knew that look.

I narrowed my eyes and thought, “Alrighty then. Game on, you little fucker.”

My first impressions were not wrong. The big hunter was the epitome of a good Irish horse. He had it all. He could move, he could jump, he was brave as a lion, tractable, sound, and he was kind to boot.

The other one, not so much.

I had been warned they had tried to hunt the little one, but they couldn’t hunt him from the farm because he spent the entire time trying to go back to the barn. Then they tried shipping him to the hunts instead, but likewise, he just went back to the trailers.

If you’ve ever dealt with a spoiled, crafty little S.O.B., you know they are assessing you and taking inventory about you from the first second they come into contact with you. Doesn’t matter whether you’re feeding them, grooming them, leading them, or riding them, they are playing a game of Chess, regardless of whether you are participating or not.

(Hint hint: With horses, you are participating by default. Knowing this is crucial to your well-being when dealing with a real scallywag.) 

His first day of school, I hand-walked him to the ring. We kept an eye on each other the whole time, both of us attempting to act casual and in control, not unlike an awkward first date. I decided I was going to longe him first, with the longe-line hooked to the outside ring of the bit and run across his poll.

He moved out onto the circle and trotted a couple turns. I could see his eyes rolling around…accessing. The bugger then whirled his head around in a big loop…and took off. I skied on the end of the rope for as long as I could, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He headed straight for the corner, jumping over the chain drag and the three board fence, right out of the ring. He ran around in the field, the saddle flapping at his sides, rolling that head of his around like he had just won the war.

I’m sorry to say, in that moment, he earned the barn name of “Shithead.”

I finally caught him up and threw him out in the paddock hot and with no dinner. I figured if he wanted to act like garbage, I was going to treat him like garbage. There would be no special privileges.

(He knew exactly what I was doing…and he didn’t care one bit. He gave me a look like “I could do this all day, Lady.” But little did he know, I was just as stubborn as he was.)

Throughout, I tried to set him up for success. I went hacking with other horses (so not alone), but sure enough, he still tried to take me back to the barn. One time we were hacking on an embankment above the gravel road. I was chitchatting with my companion when out of nowhere, Shithead wheeled left and down an eight foot embankment in one fell swoop.

Sometimes reacting and not thinking pays off.

Instantly pissed, I wheeled him back around, growling and kicking, flapping the reins at him, clapping his neck. (There was no putting the reins in one hand to crack him, either).

Whatever he could go down, he could go up. It was really steep, but like the common goat he was, he scrambled and dug his way back up the embankment, as surprised at my wrath as I was.

We were still at a draw when I started taking him off of the property. We went over to Wofford’s for a jump school, and after a few warm-up exercises, we went back and forth over a very well-known exercise of Jimmy’s: a small rail three strides to an oxer and another three strides to a small rail.

The oxer was probably three feet when we started and Shithead could barely muster any enthusiasm for the drill. I could almost hear him yawning in his head at the pedantic pageantry of it all. However, as the oxer got a little bigger, he started to engage a little more. When the oxer went up to 4’3”, Shithead tripped badly over the rail in, staring at the oxer.

Again, I didn’t think, I just reacted. I kicked and flapped like an irate chicken. Shithead took three strides and absolutely smoked the huge oxer like a professional show jumper. Jimmy doubled-over laughing on the side of the ring at the “typical Irish horse” who tripped over a cavalletti, but made quick work of the massive oxer. However, in that moment, a lightbulb went off in my head.

This was a tricky horse, but this was a good horse.

I started taking him to events. Getting him to the start box, away from the trailers, was a win in itself. Sometimes he went out of the box like International Velvet and slammed on the brakes ten strides later. The first event we went to, he spent a lot of time hopping around in the middle of the field before the first fence. I kept imploring, pleading, coaxing, berating him to get on with it. As soon as he could see the first fence out of the corner of his eye, his obstinance started to wane.

As soon as he was within spitting distance of the jump, despite his best efforts to be obstinate, he just couldn’t help himself. He was drawn to it.  Off we went until the next shenanigan in the middle of the next field. But you know what? He started to get it.

He started to understand the game.

Instead of trying to beat me at his game of Chess, he decided my game of Eventing was i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g. One day, he came out of the box with his ears pricked, going a little too fast, pulling me along. I tried to rate him, but in typical goat fashion, he resisted. Then I thought to myself, “What are you thinking?? For the first time ever, he wants to go and is taking you. Get on board and let him!”

So I did.

Turning that horse around was one of my greatest achievements. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to the other side, but we did it.

There is no better feeling than knowing you’ve set a horse up for success in life. 

The fact of the matter is, good horses have good lives and bad ones don’t. It’s just the reality. If you can show the tough ones, the “bad” ones the way, then the odds of them having a great life increases exponentially.

As riders, it’s our number one job. 

Snoopy
The little scallywag could jump! Photo credit: Anne Gittens (2001)

Hobbit

Around this time, a local steeplechase trainer contacted me to see if I’d be interested in teaching one of their youngsters a little dressage.

A racehorse in “dressage” training?

It wasn’t as if he was transitioning to a new career. He was four, but he hadn’t even really started his racing career because he wouldn’t stop growing.

Of course I said I was interested. 

When they brought him over, I was handed a very tall, very gangly, supposed to be black, gelding with a slight Roman nose. He was so narrow his knees almost knocked together. His coat was a little burnt on the ends making him appear mousy.

A looker he was not. 

I suddenly understood the trainer’s thinking. This horse needed all kinds of help figuring out where his body parts went. We got to work. Hobbit, as they affectionately called him, took to our routine like a duck to water. Doing all of the hacking and flat work paid off and our ugly duckling started to show signs of being a swan.

We began jumping him. 

Hobbit
Hobbit at the start of his eventing career. He was all heart and with a great brain–the epitome of a good thoroughbred. (No photo credit available)

We quickly found out Hobbit was a good jumper, plenty brave, and his heart and brain were as big as he was. He was so easy and straightforward as a four-year old that I let my working student compete him. She was a good jockey anyway, but I was confident she would showcase the horse beautifully for the owner and she did. In short order, Hobbit amassed some good ribbons and a great record. Still only four, we moved him up to training level in early summer. It was all so easy for him. He didn’t blink an eye at anything and always had it sussed out like a veteran campaigner.

Quite frankly, we ran out of things to do with him.

He had checked all of the boxes that a four-year old can. The owner decided, because the horse was so happy and successful eventing, to sell him as an event horse instead of trying to fit his square-peg self into the round hole of racing. We sold the horse to a nice young rider who had a great career with Hobbit.

Even better, the owner sent me other horses down the road. His sole goal was to breed a Maryland Hunt Cup winner, so he bred good thoroughbreds for distance. When they didn’t look like they were going to make it, he’d send them to me.

Two of the horses he sent me were unbelievable athletes. Truly some of the best thoroughbreds I have ever ridden. I bought one of them and later sold him reluctantly. I could only afford to keep one of two, and the other one was JB. Even though “Sam” was doing more and clearly showing his talent, and JB was only getting started and a complete unknown, my gut told me to keep JB.

The other really good one was called Frodo. He was also very tall like Hobbit. Frodo was a six-year old chestnut gelding when he showed up. Frodo, to this day, is one of the most talented horses I have ever been blessed to sit on.

Unbelievable scope.

With the exception of trotting, everything was easy for him.

He was the kind of horse that gives you goosebumps. 

I had a young rider looking for her next horse and she bought him. He hadn’t been in the barn very long before he got snapped up. Maybe three or four weeks. Long enough to assess him and know him, and that’s about it.

But this is the hard part of horses. About six weeks later, the horse started to be off. He went from off to dead lame pretty quickly.

The diagnosis??

Navicular. 

He had good x-rays when they vetted him and he had good x-rays when he was lame. The irony is sometimes the diagnosis doesn’t match the diagnostics.

This is the hearbreak of horses.

He was retired and living in a field at the age of six.

3PO

One day I was attending the Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park with friends. We caught a few horses out of the corner of our eyes, but honestly, our main goal was to eat and drink and shoot the shit.

We didn’t actually watch a lot of the racing. 

However, there was a delay, and the stop in action caught our attention. They were trying to line up the horses, for the only flat race of the day, at the starting line. Some were being difficult, or impatient, and it was taking a while.

I looked up at the top of the hill at the swirl of horses. One stood out.

He was stunning. 

He was a lovely stamp of a horse and, wow, he could trot! I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. When I saw him canter, I might have started drooling. Frantically, I grabbed my program to find the horse’s name and his trainer’s name.

Lo and behold, a good friend of mine trained him. 

With a drink in one hand and my cell phone in the other, I immediately called her, even though I knew she was busy racing. I left her a message. I said, “Oh. My. God. That horse of yours! I. Love. Him. If he ever decides he doesn’t want to be a racehorse…Let. Me. Know!”

She called me Monday morning.

In her brusk, no-nonsense voice, without saying hello, she said, “Hey! If you want him, you can have him!

“Really??”

She said, “Yup…but I need to talk to you about him first. He’s a good, good horse, but he’s a little tricky.

I thought to myself, “Of course he is.

She gave me the scoop on Three Point Landing. As a two-year old, he had won on the line at the Upperville Horse Show. (When I say he was stunning, I am not joking). He then went on to race on the flat, but the track life undid him. He became irascible. Over time, he lost his gate card at several tracks for bad behavior (flipping over). Then they banned him from the tracks completely.

This is why he was racing on the turf at the Steeplechase races.

He also went through a well-known cowboy’s program for naughty horses. I used to say this guy was the last stop before the knackers. The trainer said all of this really quickly, before I could protest and back out. She wrapped the conversation up by saying 3PO was really a good horse, just a little misunderstood, and by the way, she would bring him over and ride him, and give me his manual for operation.

How could I say no to that?

I was a little concerned about his sanity, and my safety, but I loved the horse enough and trusted my friend who trained him. I wanted to give it a shot.

She showed up with one of her jockeys a couple of days later. They unloaded him and threw a racing saddle on him. He was pretty jacked up, but she threw her jockey on, and the horse galloped off before he had almost landed in the tack. The Irish jockey, turning his head back, was trying to talk to me about him through it all.

We ran after the red horse, that was galloping away from my barn, trying to keep up.

Shouting at us on the run, he said, “You just have to let him do that, ya know? He doesn’t want to stand and you just need to let him keep moving!”

Now we were running even faster to keep up, struggling to hear him over own gasping.

The horse casually galloped all the way to the ring. The jockey made a couple loops in the ring. After about ten or fifteen minutes since first getting on the horse, he finally asked him to trot.

And there it was, that beautiful trot.

The jockey was flying around the ring in this big medium trot, trying to stay within earshot, talking more about the horse.

He said, “The thing is, you can’t really put your leg on him when you start, and he doesn’t like for you to touch his mouth. Really ever.”

Oh boy, great. Sounds easy. 

Then the jockey said, “But he’ll jump anything. He’s brave as a lion.” Before I could respond, the jockey had pointed him at an oxer–backwards. Sure enough, the horse jumped around, backward oxers and all.

I decided to give him a go.

3PO was a little defensive in his stall, and not very trusting of anyone. Some horses thrive at the track, and others just don’t. His experiences had left him like a cracked egg. He was mentally very fragile.

The jockey was right about all of him. For the two years I had him, getting on him without galloping away for the first two miles before settling down, was the exception to the rule. I had to make sure I was always in a place to do that, even at the events. Obviously I could never mount him at the trailers. I would hand walk him over to the part of dressage warm-up with the least amount of traffic and hop on him from the ground as he galloped off. I would put my knuckles down into his neck and try to stay completely still in my half seat until he took a breath, which was usually at the two-mile mark. Once he did that, I’d get closer to the saddle and he’d break to the trot.

He was the horse that taught me you could use a circle to control speed instead of the bit, because the circle was all I had. 3PO was incredibly sensitive in the mouth. I’m sure it was both mental and physical.

My dressage tests were always a little hinkey, but there were no major blow-ups, and he never left the ring. My voice was actually one of my most effective aids with 3PO, so I would say “woah” under my breath. I didn’t care it wasn’t allowed in the ring, it worked, and it soothed him.

Jumping 3PO was all icing and cake. His canter was beautiful so it was easy for him to meet the jumps well and he was just about the bravest horse I’ve ever ridden. He required very little input from me for any of it. I just had to sit chilly and keep him from boiling over. That’s it. Every round, stadium and cross-country, felt like a stroll in the park.

It was all so easy for him.

He even started to relax in his stall and be friendly.

I loved riding this horse so much. 

As I was blissing out in the tack riding him on a daily basis, I would often think, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

3PO was my priceless treasure. 

But not every story has a happy ending. 3PO developed an abcess that lingered for too long. The vet dug it out and it went all the way into the navicular bursa. The vet thought this otherwise everyday occurrence for most horses was now terminal for 3PO. He recommended humane euthanasia. It broke my heart to lose 3PO, but I had a little bit of solace knowing his last couple of years were his best.

How can they not be when someone loves you with their whole heart?

3PO
My beloved 3PO. Photo credit: ExPress Photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Going It Alone

  1. What an enjoyable Sunday read. Thank you for writing about your special horses, it really was a written expression of what is so hard to describe to a non-horse person about the individuality of relationship we have with our horse family 💕

    Like

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