Return to:
Windy Meadow Farm
    Horses and Riding
  Farm Life
List of other articles on by:


Bringing Up Ashley
(originally published on US Event Horse)

Michael Hillman

When 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 trouble.

"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 buying it.

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 feelings.

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 events.

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 wing it.

"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 your horse?"


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 shine.

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 rider.

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 the latter.

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 before?"


"You’ve never heard of the Moody Blues?"


"How about the Rolling Stones?"


"The Beatles?"


"Roman Polanski?"

"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 is?"

"Um, South America?"

"Close, it is on land, but not in the Southern Hemisphere"

"Where’s that?"

"Where’s what?"

"The Southern Hemisphere?"

"In the Southern Hemisphere!"


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 remind me."

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 literally."

"She’s going to fall, you know that."

"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 painless."

"Yep. Even I could see it coming a mile away. Do you think we should have told her to sit back?"

"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 it."

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.

"What happened?"

"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 could."

"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 a pony…

Nicely done, Ashley Wivell. Nicely done.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman