trip around the pre-novice cross-country course was
going flawlessly. As he approached the water, everyone
gathered along the fence line overlooking the field
below, straining their necks to get a glimpse of the
a seasoned eventer who just a few years
back was in Michael’s position, fidgeted nervously.
"I hope Sly goes in. God I hope he goes in . .
I smiled. Ashley had come a long way.
When originally asked to coach Michael, she laughed.
"Me?" she said. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,
I wouldn’t know what to tell him."
"Funny," I said. "That’s the same thing
I said to Julie when I told her about your wanting
lessons from me!"
Throughout the course of the event, every time I saw
Ashley, Michael was stuck by her side like a little
brother hanging onto a big sister. Watching attentively
as Michael went through his warm-up for dressage, she
provided encouraging insights and tips. Walking the
cross-country course, she recounted her own, often
humorous experiences, and in doing so, helped lighten
the mood, creating an environment where the normally
stoic Michael felt confidant enough to open up and
confess fears about certain fences.
Unfortunately, in spite of Ashley’s best effort, Sly
balked at the water jump, which consisted of a simple
un-judged entrance into the water followed by a judged
step out. Following her pre-event advice, Michael
straightened Sly out, and gently tapped in a rhythmic,
encouraging manner on his flank with the crop. With each
gentle tap, Ashley grew visibly more and more nervous;
soon she was moving her own hands as if she was sitting
on Sly. Under Michael’s steady and confidant
encouragement, Sly finally did go into the water. As he
did, Ashley let out an encouraging whoop and beamed with
the pride of any proud parent.
That evening, as Ashley recounted the day’s more nerve
racking moments to my wife, I couldn’t help but remind
her that, like Michael, watching her first few events
had given me more then a few gray hairs. Much as I, as
my wife remainded both of us, had given my coach, Julie
The phrase ‘Amateur coach teaching amateur riders’
seems like a sure bet for qualifying for entry in the
Guinness book of oxy-morons. Had anyone three years back
told me I would helping other riders, let alone, helping
some helping someone, I would have had them committed,
but that’s exactly the position I found myself in this
take regular lessons with Julie Gomena,
an exceptional rider and coach. While the cost of the
actual lessons are relatively cheap, the overall cost
per lesson escalates quickly when one adds in the cost
of gas for 150 miles round trip with a truck and
trailer, not to mention the extensive time commitment
one must dedicate.
I count myself fortunate in that I can afford the outlay
of time and money, but not everyone can, especially in
my neck of backwoods Maryland. There are a lot of kids
who, if held hostage to having to pay for every lesson
with cash, would never get out of the unrecognized
starter ranks. Recognizing that I benefit from the
beneficence of others, I was hard pressed to not say
yes, last fall when Cassie
Frederick, a local Pony Club eventer
hoping to try her hand at preliminary, asked if I would
help her in exchange for helping around the barn.
I no sooner said yes, then another local eventer, Bethany,
who was dreaming of preliminary, but was struggling at
novice, ask to help also in exchange for lessons.
Quickly on their heels, came Jen, who had been written
off forever to the ranks of starter events. With three
students to care for and my own two horses to ride, I
soon found myself with more on my hands then I had ever
Suddenly schedules were the order of the day, schedules
for the barn chores, schedules for lessons, schedules
for events. It was a rude awaking for someone like me
who lives his life in a laissez-faire manner. Having to
work only four hours for a lesson, the girls became very
adept at finding things to do around the barn and before
I knew it, each was earning hours for three, if not four
lessons a week. This suited my wife fine, as the barn,
which was always well kept, now reached new levels of
As a result, instead of working my own horses at my own
leisure, I had to focus and get my rides done before the
regular evening lessons. While the lessons did take me
away from other farm chores, they were nevertheless a
never-ending source of opportunities to learn, for
myself as well as the kids, not to mention the fact,
great material for future humor articles for the US
Having ridden under coaches who encouraged a questioning
attitude, I carried on the tradition with my students,
much to my later chagrin. Being a military type, ‘because
I said so . . .’ was always considered a legitimate
reason to do something - but not to these kids.
"Why" was their favorite word, the answers to
which usually involved a quick call to Julie.
By the end of the spring year, my long distance
telephone bill had nearly tripled but so had my
understanding of what Julie had been trying to drill
into me all these years. On days when I had my own
lesson with Julie, my students would show up for their
lessons with extra enthusiasm, eager to tap into what I
had learned while it was still fresh in my mind.
The real fun of having students has to be their company
at events. Eager to do well, they hang on every word of
advice I give them. Eager to see them do well, I rack my
brain for every detail I can provide. While they were
competing at their initial levels, everything went
smoothly, but as each got ready to move up and try their
hand at the next level, I found it hard not to show my
nervousness - especially when Cassie made her debut at
preliminary and Jen at recognized novice.
As for Bethany . . . well she was a coach's dream
come true. Having successfully moved up to the
training level the fall before, she spent the year
solidifying her position in that ranks, and finished the
season with a solid 4th place finish at the the training
Cassie had come a long way from when I first met her by
the time she entered the dressage ring to begin her
first preliminary competition. ‘Irish’, who was once
so scattered brain that she would joke ‘he had a foot
in every county’, was walking away with first and
second place ribbons at training. In stadium, he was a
machine, never touching a rail. But on cross-country,
while he was bold, he still nevertheless could be a tad
Realizing that the preliminary event she would be
participating in would have a large ditch and wall, I
opted to have her school mine one day after a jumping
lesson. Irish stopped deader then an ax in a piece of
wood. It was a good wake-up call. For the next few
weeks, we schooled the ditch and wall until it seemed
Irish had it down pat. But my new found confidence was
short-lived when on the day of the actual event, I
discovered that the long approach, on which I had
counted to help get enough momentum to get Irish over
the fence, had been removed, replaced by a short,
downward, bending turn.
Visions of Irish losing momentum in the turn and then
stalling as he saw the big fence flashed through my
mind. "Wow, that’s an awfully big fence with a
nasty approach to it, are you sure they can make
it?" Cassie’s mother nervously asked.
"Oh sure, no problem" I said, as I made a
mental note to ask the organizer to call the medi-vac
before Cassie set out on course.
Cassie meanwhile, high on finally going preliminary, was
oblivious to my concerns, and I saw no reason to ruin
her day. As we walked the course, I made suggestions on
how to jump each fence, all designed to ready her and
Irish for the ‘Ditch and Wall’.
As Cassie began her ride, I positioned myself with
Cassie’s mother next to the ditch and wall and
nervously awaited their arrival. By the time they
appeared out of the wood, Irish was visibly tired. Not
out of gas, but tired nevertheless. It was obvious they
were learning it was one thing to run around a training
course, it was another thing to jump around a
I held my breath and a thousand thoughts flew through my
mind. Did Cassie feel what I saw? Did she remember the
plan we had painstakingly worked out? Did she know she
needed to add ‘firing Irish’s afterburners’ to the
plan? More importantly, did she know how to fire his
afterburners this late in a run? I held my breath as
they nearly belly-flopped over the half-coffin, the
fence before the ditch and wall. I was almost ready to
turn away lest I watch them wreck, when she executed the
plan. She half-halted halfway into the turn to the fence
and lifted her hands, Irish immediately came off his
forehand. Once off his forehand, Cassie let out a loud
‘Go on!’ and putting her spurs to him, powered him
In spite of all the work we had done at home over the
ditch and wall, Irish nevertheless considered stopping
but Cassie had created so much momentum that he was
unable to stop and, for lack of any better term, was ‘forced’
to jump the ditch and wall. It wasn’t pretty, but it
was successful. Relief was written on both Cassie’s
Mom’s and my face, and we quickly headed off to finish
the gin and tonics we had left at the trailer. Needless
to say, Cassie was in seventh heaven, at long last she
could call herself a ‘preliminary rider’.
With Cassie’s ‘move up’ now out of the way, my
attention turned to Jen and to helping her establish her
position as a solid novice level rider. Her first two
trips around novice courses had gone ok, not great, but
ok. At her third event she successfully overcame the ‘two
stops at a single fence - what do I do differently on
the third attempt scenario’, and missed an exceptional
opportunity to become a ‘baptized’ eventer by
falling just in front of the water, versus in it. But
like a true trooper, she was thrilled just to finish.
In spite of Jen’s smiles, I found myself uneasy as the
next weekend approached and with it, Jen’s last event
of the season. Having planned out her fall schedule
under the assumption all would go well, the last event
was to be the hardest, a novice move up to training
level course. As it turned out, it was all of that and
much, much more. Not only were the fences big, but the
course overall required a technically challenging and
I knew I was in trouble when I met Jen at the start box
for our cross-county walk. Having just walked the course
herself, her eyes were popping out of their sockets. For
much of our walk, she was speechless. Instead, she
listened attentively, nodded a lot, and when she thought
I wasn’t looking, wiped the sweat off her brow.
I did my best to prop up her confidence, telling her
over and over again that ‘ . . . this fence is a piece
of cake for Charlie . . .’ . But when I came to her
table fence, which looked only a few inches smaller then
its huge preliminary neighbor, the quiet was deafening.
It didn’t help much that Jen had no sooner begun to
warm-up then the event was put on hold while a fellow
novice level rider was transported to the hospital after
a fall. In spite of a superb warm-up, Jen’s face still
went white when she was called to the start box. The
2-minute countdown had no sooner begun, that Jen
wondered out loud if she had time to use the facilities.
I said "No". To which she smiling replied
"But what if they have to medi-vac me out? I don’t
want to pee my pants while on the way to the
Fortunately the 10-second count down had begun and any
reply I might have thought of was now overcome by
events. Moving quickly to an advantage point that would
allow me to see the most fences, Debby, Jen’s mother,
and I crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Jen bounded from the start box, as if an innocent soul
escaping from hell. Having understood that how she rode
the first fence would set the tone for the rest of the
course, she never let up, riding forward all the way to
its base, and Charlie, true to his good nature, rewarded
her with a picture perfect jump up and over it, as he
did the next three fences.
Before we knew it Jen was heading towards the fifth
fence, a wide grass topped wall with a sizeable drop on
the far side, a fence similar to one the week before
where he had stopped twice. This one however, was much
larger, wider, and with a more significant drop on the
far side. I held my breath as they approached it, and
could not hide my smile as I heard Jen yell ‘Go
Charlie’ and she sat back and kicked him forward. As
expected, Charlie thought about taking a look, then
opted not to and bounded over it. Jen’s shout of glee
was heard throughout the course.
Her confidence now apparent to all, especially Charlie,
they powered forward to the table and were up and over
it in a flash of an eye, leaving a clear impression to
all that the fence was nothing more than what they would
come across during a regular Sunday stroll in the park.
As Jen disappeared over the hill and headed for the
backside of the course, for the first time since she
left the start box, Debbie and I breathed. Two minutes
later, a visibly elated Jen appeared out of the woods,
bounded over the second to last fence and, following my
directions to the letter, collected Charlie for the last
fence, a fence that throughout the event, lay claim to a
majority of eliminations. Fired with confidence, she
coiled Charlie like a spring and held him to the base.
Her efforts were rewarded with a powerful, picture
Jen had no sooner crossed the finish flags then she
burst into tears. Much like Cassie two weeks earlier,
Jen finally felt confident enough to call herself a
novice rider and could now dream away the winter with
thoughts of solidifying that position and moving up to
training next fall.
I had no sooner toasted the end of the season with a gin
and tonic, and an oath that in my next life, I was going
to pick a less strenuous sport, then Debby reminded me
that I still had one more chore to do: Michael.
But you already know how Michael’s story ends. Fitting
isn’t it, how this story has come full circle,
beginning and ending with Michael. For me, coaching also
comes full circle, for not far down the road, Cassie,
Jen, Bethany, and Michael, each in their time, will pass
into the able hands of Julie and complete the circle.
While I enjoy teaching each of them, I look forward to
one day seeing them ride under Julie and to being able
to watch her look on nervously, much like she did
for me many years earlier, as her new charges make their
way around the course.
As for me, I’ll be enjoying their stories of ‘their’
students, ready to remind them what it was like to teach
them . . .