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 Here comes Bethany!

Michael Hillman

"Bethany followed me into the house tonight," piped my wife Audrey. "I thought she was going to get some iced tea, but when I turned around, she turned and followed me."

Positioned just behind my wife in our living room stood Bethany. Wringing her hands, she began to apologize for being nervous about competing a strange horse at an upcoming event. When she was done apologizing, my wife hugged her and said, ‘‘Bethany, we wouldn't suggest you compete the horse if we didn't think you were up to it."

Bethany’s smile had just begun to return to her face when I turned around and said, 'Yes we would." Bethany was so flustered she didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Bethany's story with us began this spring at the Waredaca Horse Trials. Katie Carr introduced me to her groom, a shy, wonderfully pretty, and exceptionally bright fourteen-year-old named Bethany. Less then two months later, Katie was transferred to North Carolina. As one of her last acts before departing, she called to ask if I would take Bethany on as a working student. Given that neither my wife nor I were interested in cleaning stalls, having a slave, err, working student, around the barn appealed to both of us. After interviewing Bethany and watching her ride, we agreed to take Bethany on, provided of course she promised not to laugh at us when we sang along to songs on our oldies station. Bethany agreed, but as she left, we heard her ask her mother, "Who are the Beatles?"

Bethany's spring season had gone OK. Not great, but OK. Lady, Bethany’s six-year-old ex-race horse mare, jumped well. Their dressage, however, was another story entirely. Bethany, who had suffered through one too many events hoping to break the 40 barrier in dressage, offered no resistance to the suggestion that we concentrate our summer efforts on improving her flat work. 

The first thing that we resolved was Lady's habit of sticking her tongue out. My immediate instinct was to tighten the flash noseband, which was so loose one could put a hand through it. When asked why it was on so loose, Bethany informed me that she had read in a dressage Internet site that tight nosebands were harmful. I looked at Bethany, scratched my balding head, and cinched the noseband like I was cinching a girth. The tongue immediately ceased to be an issue, as did Bethany’s use of the Internet as a training aid. Tasting success, Bethany soon upped the frequency of lessons to daily. Given that I was repaid in fence painting, the more I taught, the better my fence looked.

To say Bethany was a serious student would be an understatement. To lighten things up, I began to sing songs from such classical groups as the Monkeys and Herman’s Hermits during our lessons. While my singing got lots of smiles from her, I could never get her to join in, even under the threat of making her post until she sang. In the end, my voice always gave out before her tolerance for pain did.

One of the most determined young riders I've come across, Bethany’s seat and leg were soon sufficiently developed that more advanced tools like half-halts and counter canters became part of her lesson repertoire. Now working at home is one thing, performing at an event is another. Unfortunately for Bethany, I mistakenly entered her in the Novice Horse division instead of the Novice Rider division at an upcoming event. When we got to the event, instead of competing against her peers, she was in a division with Advanced and Intermediate riders. Much to her credit, while nervous, she was delighted at the thought of having Julie Gomena, who only the day before had helped me fine-tune her performance, follow her into the ring.

With Julie riding around her on one side and me on the other, Bethany quickly put Lady through her well practiced warm-up exercises. While the sloping grass dressage arenas did many riders in, after months of working on steep hills, they were down right flat to Bethany, and she turned in a stellar performance. The expression on Bethany's face was priceless when she saw a 31.5 placed next to her name on the scoreboard, sandwiching her squarely in second place between two advanced riders. For the first time in her eventing career, instead of hoping the leaders would make a mistake, Bethany felt the pressure of being at the front of the pack.

I reminded Bethany throughout the day that the whole purpose of the event was to identify the weak points in her riding. She went on to have a clean go on cross- country, but dropped a costly rail in stadium. The rail was hard for her to brush off and arrangements were quickly made for her to accompany me to Julie Gomena’s for a jumping lesson. Filled with tales of terror about Julie's standard of excellence, she polished her tack into the wee hours of the morning and rose early to give her horse two, yes two, baths.

Julie instantly liked Bethany and Lady, and the jumping lesson went off without a hitch. On the ride home I asked Bethany what she thought of the lesson.

"Did you understand why she asked you to do what she did?"


"Why didn't you ask?"

"Well ... um ... err ..."

"Bethany, Julie doesn't bite. If you don't tell her what you don't understand, she can't help you. The more you talk to her, the more you'll get out of the lessons. Its OK not to understand, that's why we take lessons from her."

Bethany's eyes brightened and figuring I got my message across, I changed the subject to one of my favorites: analyzing the success of the Monkey's in the 1970’’s rock scene. Bethany rolled her eyes and tried to fake sleep.

A few days later I received a call from the organizers of the Menfelt Horse Trial. They had a starter event scheduled Saturday and after unsuccessfully scraping the bottom of the barrel for dressage judges, had broken down and called me. I accepted and volunteered Bethany as my scribe, figuring that watching others would help her own performance. As in everything she does, Bethany quickly got down to business. Every word and every comment was captured in perfect penmanship. I found myself embarrassed to write my own comments, instead, I dictated them to her, only taking the pen to sign my name. By the seventh rider, I finally felt comfortable in my scores and turned my attention to educating Bethany on my scoring logic.

"Now I would give him a seven for the canter. The departure wasn't great, but it was forward and the horse wasn't too above the bit. What do you think?"

"I'd give him a four."

"What? Why?" I asked.

"Well to begin with, she's cross-cantering, she failed to go deep into her corner, she looks like she has more weight on her inside rein, and thus the horse looks like he's popping his outside shoulder . . ."

I was dumbfounded. I quickly reached for my glasses. She was right. The rider was a she, not a he. I suddenly felt very much the fool. "Yep, you’re right, give her a four."

Wary that Bethany was being more critical them I was, I tightened up my standards a little. On the next ride, I again asked her for her opinion, saying, "I'd give the trot transition a five. What would you give it?"

"I'd give her an eight. While the horse did come above the bit for a stride, the rider did a nice half-halt to set the horse up, and the transition was more forward than those that you've been giving sevens to until now. Do you want me to go back and modify all the previous scores?"

"No," I said, and made a mental note to have my eyeglass prescription changed.

As the morning progressed, I became more awed and impressed with Bethany's power of observation. "God - I hope I never have her for a judge," I thought to myself. There would be no getting away with faking it with her. Bethany had a good eye, and there was no question about it. As I was leaving, the organizers asked if I would consider judging again.

"No," I said. 'If you really want a good, unbiased judge, you should ask Bethany."

Bethany turned a bright shade of red.

That evening, I found myself frustrated by my inability to replicate my horse's performance from a lesson the day before. I was just about to throw in the towel when I spied Bethany. It occurred to me that having accompanied me to the lesson, and given the awesome demonstration of her powers of observation in the morning, I had nothing to lose but some ego.

"Bethany, do you remember how Riker was going in yesterday's lesson?"


"How does it differ from how's he's going right now?"

Bethany was dumbstruck. Since the beginning of her riding career she had been in the receiving mode - now she was asked to provide her opinion. Worse, she was asked to provide her opinion to her coach!

"Huh? Me?" Bethany could only manage a nervous smile and stared at her feet.

I stopped my horse.

"Bethany! You have an impressive power of observation. You've earned my trust. Remember what I said to you when you first came here? 'Never think you know it all, and everyone has something to offer.' I don't know it all, and you have your power of observation to offer. So trust yourself. I need a ground person. Please help me."

Less then five minutes later, Riker was going as well as he had under Julie's eye the day before and my relationship with Bethany had changed dramatically.

To close this first chapter in Bethany's story, that same evening our vet noted a swelling on Lady's right rear leg. While it turned out only to be a splint, it did put Lady out of action for two weeks. Realizing how serious Bethany takes her riding, Julie, Audrey, and I quickly put our heads together. Worf, my old preliminary event horse, was pulled out of mothballs, much to his displeasure, and put back to work as a dressage schoolmaster. Julie provided a mount for jumping. 

Returning home from a lesson a few days later, I asked Bethany, given that Lady would not be ready for Waredaca, if she would like to event Julie's school horse. Bethany said yes in a quivering voice that screamed no. When I pressed for her concerns, she explained that she didn't feel she rode the horse well enough to do it justice and was afraid she would embarrass Julie if she didn't do well. Needless to say, Bethany's response resulted in a long talk from both Audrey and me on Bethany's need to start believing in herself, the benefit of riding other horses, and the need to remember that eventing is first and foremost supposed to be fun.

That evening, as Audrey and I laughed about Bethany's response to Audrey's hug, we both noted, with a certain degree of awe, how much we have both come to like and care for Bethany. If it was Bethany's intention to get us to want to help her, she can rest assured, she was successful.

So watch out world, here comes Bethany!

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman