published on US
I first began to write this piece, I found myself
wanting to subtitle it: "Bridging the generation
gap: how I survived Ashley Wivell’s attempts to make
me feel old." For in many ways, learning to
communicate complex ideas with someone one-third my age
was more difficult than learning to run a nuclear
reactor. The effort was made even harder when the
analogies I utilized drew blank responses, or worse,
sneers of "I wasn’t born yet…."
Unbeknownst to me, for several years
Ashley had strained to catch glimpses of me working my
horses. From the school bus she watched my morning
dressage work. In the afternoon, on her way to help at
her grandfather’s dairy farm, she’d have her mother
pause if I were jumping. Like a lot of little girls, she
had made her decision to want to ride…obviously she
had missed all my falls, or the rides that were
immediately followed by triple gin and tonics….
One day, three years ago, as I was
fine-tuning my horse’s movements, I looked up and
noticed a little blond hair girl sitting in a western
saddle on a pony, watching me. As I rode by her she
blurted out: "Will you teach me how to ride?"
I stopped dead in my tracks.
While I was flattered by the request,
I nevertheless couldn’t get by the Western tack,
pint-sized pony, and her age. Don’t get me wrong, kids
are great . . . we get to write them off on our taxes,
they are good at painting fences, and up to a certain
age, they will pretty much do what they are told. But
teaching them to ride--well, that’s another story. As
she sat there looking at me with her pretty blue eyes, I
knew I had to think fast or I was going to be in big
"Um . . . I don’t teach
Western. There’s a Western instructor over the hill;
why don’t you try her?"
Ashley looked perplexed. This was
probably the first time she was ever told that there
were different styles of riding. As determined to get me
to teach her as I was not to teach, Ashley wracked her
brain for a winning comeback. "Well . . . I don’t
want to ride Western. I want to ride like you. No one
else rides like you around here, so there’s no one
else to go to. So will you teach me, please?"
"Wow, this kid is good," I
thought. Now I was in for it. I tried to explain to
Ashley as nicely as I could that I didn’t teach, and
even if I did, I wasn’t good enough to teach her. I
could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t
Religiously, for the next three
weeks, Ashley would ride down on her pony and stand
outside the fence and watch me ride. Her silent vigils
soon began to take their toll on my resolve. Finally,
one rainy day, as I turned out of the driveway headed
for a lesson, I spied Ashley standing near the fence,
soaking wet, holding a candle. She won.
Fortunately for me, Audrey and I had
befriended a Mount Saint Mary's student named Kate Au,
who happened to be a "B" Pony Clubber. (The
pony club is a British-based organization that teaches
proper English horsemanship. The more you learn, the
higher you grade. By the time you get to "A,"
you are Olympic-level quality.) I told Kate about Ashley
and asked if she would help. Kate jumped at the
opportunity to teach. And teach she could. Over the
following year, under Kate’s tutelage, Ashley
established a firm classical foundation.
Unhappy with the fact that I was
often alone at competition, Audrey hit upon the idea of
sending Ashley with me. "She can’t drive the
truck home if you kill yourself on cross-country, but at
least she can bring the horse back to the trailer and
take care of him.... " And so it began. The
following week Ashley accompanied me to a competition in
Virginia, where she got her first real taste of
eventing. She was forever hooked.
The eventing bug within Ashley grew
exponentially with every event she groomed. Returning
home, she would quickly mount her pony and practice what
she had seen that day. Unfortunately, "Ben,"
Ashley’s fourteen-hand pony, soon hit his limits. In
his many lives, Ben has answered many callings, most
recently as a Western barrel racer. While he was willing
to do most anything, a right lead canter was not in his
repertoire. Reluctantly, both Kate and I agreed that Ben
had to go. Ashley was heartbroken, but she wanted to
event and by now knew what it was going to take. So she
bit her lower lip and said nothing. Only the red
surrounding her normally bright blue eyes gave away her
The search for a new horse had just
begun when an old friend in Vermont contacted us about
an old school horse in need of a home. Negotiations went
quickly. A video was sent, and Ashley fell in love with
what she saw. Two days later, in the middle of the
night, in the midst of the first ice storm of the
winter, Ashley got to say hello to "Kettle"
for the very first time.
Ashley’s trip on cloud nine was cut
short when a nasty gash in a hind leg took Kettle out of
action for almost two months, and with it, the remainder
of her spring season. By the fall, Ashley’s much-hyped
first year was beginning to look like the maiden voyage
of the Titanic. Ashley had only managed to make
it to one event and one horse show. I began to cringe
every time Ashley’s parents stopped in for more
medical supplies or to recount the latest injury; and I
swore I would never recommend a horse to anyone ever
again. In spite of it all, Ashley kept a stiff upper lip
and her hopes high. Unable to ride herself, she
nevertheless busied herself with learning from my wife
how to groom, practicing what she had learned at all my
Unfortunately, Kate graduated at the
end of the fall season, and I was once again faced with
finding Ashley an instructor. A few weeks after Kate
left, I asked a noticeably dejected Ashley if she would
like to join me in a lesson with my coach, down in
Middleburg. The sparkle in Ashley’s eyes gave me all
the answer I needed.
Having been warned that taking a
lesson with Julie was to be considered an honor, bright
and early the following morning, Ashley brought Kettle
to our barn for a "proper bath." Four hours of
tack-cleaning later, Ashley and Kettle were ready for
their big adventure.
Julie was wonderful with Ashley, and
Ashley bubbled with enthusiasm. Later, while discussing
the lack-of-a-coach predicament, Julie inquired why I
was unwilling to teach. She wholeheartedly agreed that I
knew nothing, but pointed out that this also applied to
my professional career, and that it hadn’t stopped me
there. After a little more prodding I finally agreed to
help Ashley, but only under the condition that Julie
agree to teach Ashley at least once a month, and that
she provide me direction. Ashley, not to mention her
parents, was quite happy with the arrangement, and
things quickly got down to business.
In spite of my initial reservations
about teaching Ashley, as the time drew near for our
first "real" lesson, I found myself actually
preparing for it. My first step was to encourage Ashley
to ride when I rode, thus giving me an opportunity to
observe her and her horse over an extended length of
time. Following our rides, I would jot down some notes,
list some possible corrective actions, and then call
Julie for her approval.
"Yeah . . . that sounds right,
Mike, but you’ve got to remember, I explain things to
you using quantum mechanic terms because you’re a
nuclear engineer, and too stupid, er, I mean bright, to
understand plain English. If you explain it to Ashley
like you just did to me, she’s going to be totally
lost. Instead, why don’t you simply tell her to
squeeze harder with her legs?"
Realizing that Julie was probably
right, I laid aside the 42 pages of detailed technical
notes and computer-generated diagrams, and decided to
"So, Ashley, how are you?"
Ok, I thought, we’re off to a good
start . . . I wracked my brain on what to say next?
"So how is school?"
Hmm, that didn’t work. "How’s
I suddenly appreciated what it’s
like for a comic to be dying on stage. So I decided the
direct approach. "Ashley, do you always answer
questions with one word?"
I quickly retrieved my 42 pages of
notes and began the lesson. While conversations with
Ashley were decidedly one way, it was quickly evident
that she did more than her part in listening. When it
was suggested that she ride without stirrups, she rode
without stirrups. When directed to do X minutes of
jumping position, she did X minutes plus some. As it
became apparent that Ashley was going to follow
directions, a schedule was pulled together that laid out
what she was to do each day. She followed it, rain or
With the warning not to be too
technical still ringing in my ears, I carefully plotted
each ride, each lesson. Believing it important that
Ashley understand that every action she took while
around a horse must have a purpose, she was constantly
quizzed on what she was doing. If she was uncertain as
to the reason why, a long dry diatribe would follow.
Surprisingly, it worked. To avoid my monotonous
lectures, Ashley began to anticipate what needed to be
done and to understand why. It was apparent to all that
Ashley was no longer a passenger. She was becoming a
With the fall season coming upon us,
memories of the missed events that had resulted from
boarding her horse on a dairy farm filled our minds.
Ashley was invited to become our "working
student," though with conditions. In exchange for
her board, she was expected to help out around the barn
a set number of hours each month. She also had to keep a
B+ average in school, obey her parents, but worst of
all, speak proper English around the barn. Joe and Cindy
were thrilled. Ashley tried to negotiate her way out of
Like many kids, Ashley’s language
was steeped in slang. Yeah, okay, and like
constituted a majority of her conversation. At first,
Ashley thought we were picking on her every time we
corrected even the slightest flaw in her English. Slowly
but surely, however, we got across the message that how
you present yourself to people is as important as how
you present your horse. We knew we had won the battle
when she one day waltzed into the barn and informed all
that she had corrected her English teacher. When she
started to correct her father, and then dared to correct
me, we began to wonder if we had created a monster.
The generation gap between Ashley and
I was never more apparent than when we were forced
together for the hour and a half ride to Julie’s.
During our brief interaction in the barn, or during a
lesson, we usually found something to talk about, but
three hours in a truck . . . that was asking too much.
My "So what do you want to talk
about?" would almost always be followed by an
"I don’t know." I quickly learned to resort
to the radio.
"Have you ever heard that group
"You’ve never heard of the
"How about the Rolling
"Yeah. Didn’t he do a song
called ‘I Got You, Babe'?"
"I mean, Yes!, didn’t he do a
song called ‘I Got You, Babe'?"
"No, but you’re close."
Now trying to get advice on how to
get Ashley to be more talkative proved to be more
embarrassing than it was worth.
"Julie, she doesn’t even know
who Crosby, Stills, and Nash are!"
"Of course she doesn’t; they
only play them on the real oldies station. Ask her what
she thinks of the Screaming Dead, or Korn, or The Blood
Thirsty Ticks." My "Who?" was met with an
unbelieving stare, as if I had just confessed to
believing the world was flat. Fortunately on the rides
home, I have the news with which to torture Ashley.
Following each story, I turn off the radio and quiz
Ashley on what had just been said.
"So do you know where Bosnia
"Um, South America?"
"Close, it is on land, but not
in the Southern Hemisphere"
"The Southern Hemisphere?"
"In the Southern
Just then I spotted an ice cream
shop. "Do you want to stop for ice cream?"
Once back at the barn, Ashley became
the responsibility of my wife. As a veterinary nurse and
former groom for the Olympic team, Audrey took it upon
herself to instruct Ashley in every aspect of grooming
and stable management. When not riding, Ashley was
instructed in how to pull tails and manes, how to
prepare for events, and most importantly of all, how to
handle just about every conceivable emergency situation.
Ashley was expected to stand with her horse while he was
being shod, question our vet while he was on the
premises, and accompany us on trips to Leesburg.
In the off-season, Audrey keeps
Ashley focused with specific projects, such as learning
all the bones, muscles, and organs of the horse. For
Audrey, it was not sufficient for Ashley to know the
common names of horse anatomy, she also had to know the
Latin names. When it came to Ashley’s barn work,
Audrey didn’t cut her much slack. Getting "almost
all" the dirty straw out or "almost
squaring" the muck pile, was not good enough . . .
The response "But that’s how Mike does it"
was always answered by : "Yes, I know; don’t
Under Audrey’s tenure, Kettle
quickly put on weight, his coat began to shine, and his
eyes brightened. Being low man on a four-horse totem
pole didn’t seem to bother him much. The grass was
green, feeding time was regular, and the water buckets
were always clean. As Kettle settled into his new
environment, he began to relax for the first time since
his arrival from Vermont a year earlier. The more Kettle
relaxed, the better Ashley’s and his performances
were. First and second place ribbons were soon the order
of the day.
With novice no longer a challenge, it
was apparent to all that the time had come for the two
to move up to training. The decision was not easy, for
Ashley was moving quickly up the Novice Rider Ranking,
and the move to training would end that advance. Ashley
opted to move to training: "It’s not about
ribbons, it's about learning." Julie’s influence
was beginning to show.
While Ashley was at first
apprehensive about the size of training-level jumps, she
nevertheless listened attentively on the course walks,
asked intelligent, well-thought-out questions, and then,
most important of all, followed her plan. Most of the
time it worked; some times it didn’t. Thankfully the
latter are remembered for the humor that resulted….
While getting ready for one event,
Ashley joined me in a cross-country schooling lesson on
an unusually cold fall day. Having had difficulty in the
past with water jumps, we selected a facility with an
inviting water complex. Having had a good ride up to
that point, Julie motioned to Ashley to jog down and
"pop" into the water. As we watched Ashley
approached the fence, Julie and I turned to each other
and started laughing .
"I hope she didn’t take me
"She’s going to fall, you know
"Yep, and that water's cold. Do
you know if she brought any extra clothes?"
"No, she didn’t."
"Well its going to be a long,
cold ride home."
"Yep, you're right."
Sure enough, Kettle’s leap into the
water launched Ashley into space. Julie and I held up
cards with a "10" on them, for her
near-perfect swan dive.
"Well, that looked pretty
"Yep. Even I could see it coming
a mile away. Do you think we should have told her to sit
"Nah. We’ll tell her now. Bet
you she’ll never make that mistake again . . . ."
Lest we sound too evil as far as
Ashley was concerned, the fall was a rite of passage.
Having finally fallen in the water, she felt justified
in calling herself an eventer.
Which brings us to Ashley’s last
event of last season. Kettle put in a flawless dressage
test, a picture-perfect stadium, and when they entered
the start box the next day, they were within fractions
of a point off first place. Ashley was confident of her
abilities to navigate all but one fence, a nasty-looking
narrow fence at the top of a long steep hill. Instead of
jumping it straight on, Ashley opted to jump a smaller,
easier section of the fence farther away, which would
cost her time penalties, and possibly her first-place
chances. I told Ashley it was her call, but reminded her
of the time I had seen Julie try a hard option at a
fence that had an easy option. Later, when I asked Julie
why she had made the choice, she replied
matter-of-factly, "You have to try the hard ones at
least once, or you’ll never know if you can do
Having walked the course with Ashley
the day before, I opted not to rejoin her the following
day for her cross-country run. Audrey and I waited with
bated breath for her return, expecting to celebrate her
first training blue ribbon. When they pulled into the
barn, it was obvious that something had gone wrong.
"We had a run out at the narrow
vertical on the hill."
"I thought you were going to
jump the option."
Ashley’s eyes began to fill with
tears. "Well, I was, but Kettle was jumping so well
that I wanted to try it. I wanted to see if I
"Ashley, that was a very, very
professional choice you made. You have nothing to be
ashamed about." Ashley’s eyes brightened, and a
smile returned to her face. I realized then just how far
Ashley had come from the little girl sitting bareback on
Nicely done, Ashley Wivell. Nicely done.
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman