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US Event Horse


 Learning to ride the dead green horse

 Michael Hillman

With my first horse, I hadn't a clue. It showed, but I had a lot of fun. With my second horse, I thought I knew it all. It showed, and fun became a distant memory. With my third horse, Lt. Worf, I realized I knew nothing and surrendered myself to the oversight of a good coach. I have a wall of ribbons to testify to our hard work, and winning became both my driver and my beacon. Then along came Kathmandu.

Somewhere between my fourth and fifth season at preliminary, my coach recommended that Worf was "pretty well 'made'" and should be saved for competitions. While the news was pleasing and reflected the results of years of hard work, it presented me with a predicament. I was far from well made and needed to continue to ride if I was to get better. My coach's solution was simple, "Just get another horse. Riding two horses will strengthen your legs and improve your eye."

Through the ups and downs of my riding hobby, I've always envied friends that had two horses. But work commitments and financial constraints made even contemplating owning a second horse unrealistic. As time went on, I was able to convince myself that I could and would make the time for a second horse. With Julie's recommendation, all common sense was thrown to the wind and the search was begun. As for money, I could get by on one meal a day and turn the heat off in the winter.

After seven months of fruitless searching, I had just about regained my wits and decided that concentrating on Worf was really the best path when, out of the blue, a friend called. She had found "the perfect event horse. You've got to see him." I shrugged because I knew that this lead, like all the past leads, would not pan out. Nevertheless, I agreed to look at him. A few weeks later, I found myself, with coach in hand, standing in a field looking at the so-called perfect event horse. Fifteen point three hands, and with a butt as wide as a mile, he was gangly and awkward -- the farthest thing from what I wanted. My coach thought he was a good prospect.

For the next week, I racked my brains trying to figure out what my coach had seen in the horse. I even toyed with the idea of calling and asking her if she was overdue for an eye checkup. I eventually (and correctly) decided that questioning her opinion was unnecessary, especially since I was sure my wife, who was next on the approval chain, would turn him down. Over the preceding months, my wife had made it quite clear to me that my inability to complete projects around the farm had placed serious doubts in her mind about my ability to ride another horse. So, I was quite sure she would easily correct my coach's error. Boy was I wrong.

"He's really cute. I can see why Julie likes him. You should make arrangements to get him down to Julie's for a trial." Before I could regain control of my mouth, I had agreed that my coach should take him on trial for me. That evening, I slept easily. In spite of Julie's initial opinion, I felt sure that he would never pass her rigorous screening. Arrangements were soon made, and as I headed off for a business trip, Julie put the horse through her screening tests. Sure of the only possible outcome, I called Julie the following week to make arrangements to ship him back to his owners. Instead, I was greeted with, "Well, he did everything I asked of him. I recommend that you buy him."
An hour and a bottle of smelling salts later I sat at my kitchen table plotting my next move. "Maybe I can bribe the vet..."

A few days later, with fingers crossed, I watched as my vet put the horse through his paces. Then came the words I did not want to hear: "No doubt about it, he's 100% sound. I recommend that you buy him." As a last recourse, I called in my blacksmith, who has something bad to say about just about every horse he's ever seen. Like the others, he was no help. "Best feet I've ever seen on a horse. I recommend that you buy him." Realizing that there was no way I could back out, I reluctantly called his owners and told them a check was in the mail. So ended October.

Following my last competition with Worf for the year, I turned my attention to my "baby," whom we named Kathmandu, in recognition of his father, Nepal. I had been warned by his previous owners that Nepal babies mature late and don't take well to being bullied.

"If he doesn't do what you want, it's probably because he doesn't understand what you're asking. Give him time. He'll want to please you. You'll see."
I mentally rolled my eyes. This theory was quickly put to the test on a hack home one day. He refused to pass by some cows in a field. I refused to let him stop. Needless to say, this slowly escalated into a full-fledged tantrum for both of us. He may have lost, but I certainly did not win.

That evening, as I was reflecting on what had occurred, I realized that I had never really given him a shot at liking me. And I definitely hadn't really tried to like him. That night, I made up my mind that fun, not work, was going to be our focus. The next morning I had a thoroughly superb ride on him. Instead of badgering him for not standing still to be tacked-up, I let him wiggle and look around. Instead of working in an arena, I took him for a trail ride. Instead of getting mad when he shied, I petted him as he looked and snorted at scary birds and flowers.

Over the following week, he did everything I asked. Being one that sometimes even learns from experience, I did not include going by cows in my requests. Our rides became times of exuberance, peace, and pure fun. I started to grow fond of this spirited baby, and thoughts of selling him banished. Before I knew it, however, winter was over, and I once again turned my attention to Worf.
Over the following months, I rode Kat whenever I could find the time. This seemed to suit him just fine, but as his first horse trial grew closer, I found myself getting worried over my inability to make time for him. Although I liked him, there were many times I questioned my ability to keep him. Determined to find a way to make it work, I set my alarm for an hour before sunrise. Even though the next morning, I promptly turned it off and went back to sleep, the die was cast. Soon, every morning Kat and I were greeting the sun.

After riding back-to-back preliminary events, I was looking forward to Kat's first starter horse trial. No braiding, no polishing tack, no worries about collection or extensions. All he had to do to make me happy was not jump out of the dressage arena and make an honest effort at the jumps. Things got off pretty much as I figured they would. I got there late, which cut my dressage warm-up from my planned hour to a miniscule fifteen minutes. Kat was so busy looking at all the horses that he walked right into the truck, and tacking him up would have tested the patience of a saint.

We quickly entered the dressage warm-up area, and I set about putting him through an abbreviated warm-up. I kept looking at his elevated head and wondering what percentage of giraffe he had in him. Before I knew it, my number was called, and I headed for the dressage arena, surprised at my nervousness and fluttery stomach. Since Kathmandu had never even seen a dressage arena, let alone entered one, what was about to happen was anyone's guess.

Much to my relief, Kat made only a passing glance at the white chain and dressage letters, and much to my surprise, he trotted by the judge's trailer without a glance. Things were looking pretty good as he lowered his head moments before we smartly trotted into the arena and I took my first breath in twenty minutes after a flawless halt at X. My salute to the judge was returned with a warm smile and a "There's no stop at X, but nicely done anyway." Oh well, so much for a perfect score.

As we resumed and headed for our first turn, I braced myself for the possibility that Kat would think the chain was a jump. I wondered what I would say to the judge if my horse jumped into her trailer. Well, as luck would have it, Kat turned effortlessly and went around the ring as if he had done it a thousand times before. At the change of diagonal on a free walk, I relaxed my hands and his head went to the ground. I guess he figured that he was done and it was time to eat. He just sauntered along with his nose in the grass, looking for that perfect blade of grass and when I asked him to pick his head up, he obliged willingly. Over all, I thought the test was okay. It was far from perfect, but a thousand percent better then I had feared.

After leaving the dressage arena, I handed Kat to the little girl who was grooming for me and instructed her to lead him around the grounds and let him gawk as much as he liked. Meanwhile I went out to walk the cross-country. Over the years, I've heard my coach say, "The size of a jump depends on the ears you re looking through." In this case, the single row of flat hay bales that made up our first jump looked pretty imposing. Especially since he had never jumped any type of cross-country obstacle.

Consisting of nine fences and with no time limit, the cross-country course set out by the organizers was, for a horse, an excellent introduction to the world of eventing.

As I headed back to the trailer, Julie spied me. "Hey, nice stop at X." God, I thought, everyone wants to be a comedian. After a slightly calmer tacking up, we headed for the cross-country warm-up. As we entered the warm-up area, Kat's giraffe genes once again took over. I struggled to tactfully keep him under control and had just about succeeded when a troop of little girls on their ponies whizzed by. All semblance of control was immediately lost.

After a few warm-up fences, which he cleared by several yards, I headed off to the start box and our date with destiny. In the start box, the timer smiled at me and said "Watch out for the first fence. Everyone is stopping at it."
"Oh great!" I thought. Here I was, out supposed to be having fun, and now this guy is putting me under pressure to perform. Kathmandu left the start box without a clue of what was before him. I took a breath and felt as if this was my first time, too.

As we trotted up to the first fence, I felt him eye the hay bales. His shift to the left was quickly stopped by my leg, as was the almost immediate resulting shift to the right. Without an avenue of escape, he took a couple canter strides and made a leap so big that I almost fell off. Regaining control I headed for the second fence, a twelve-inch log, which he jumped smartly, if one can use that word at this level.

Feeling a little more confident, I allowed him to keep the canter he had picked up and headed toward the third fence. The folly of that decision became apparent as soon as he caught sight of the third fence - a large log at the top of a hill and the first "real" fence on the course. As we came upon the fence, Kat began to swing his rear to the left, and before I could react, we were parallel to the fence. Realizing that the leftward swing of his rear had not stopped, nor had our speed towards the fence decreased, I began to wonder if there was a rule governing the legality of jumping a fence on a horse going backwards. As the TD was nowhere within shouting range for a ruling, I decided precaution was the better part of valor. With a few quick pokes in the side, I managed to bring Kat perpendicular to the fence seconds before we arrived at it, at which time he again made a Herculean leap.

Two small logs, one on top of the other, made up the fourth fence. Like the first two fences, we trotted up to it. Kat's takeoff was fairly straight, but a discolored piece of grass on the landing side startled him, and he somehow managed to change his trajectory in mid-air, landing four feet to the right of where he had taken off and in the process, just about dumping me. While I was busy recovering my own position, Kat eyed the hay bales of fence five and gleefully bounced over them. The sixth fence, more logs, were quickly upon us, and as we approached, Kat perked up and bounded straight toward and over it. It was about then that I realized our first cross-country run would be a clean one.

The walk into water, the second to last fence was no effort for Kat. Over the proceeding months, I had made it a point to cross every stream surrounding my farm, and as a result, he trotted across without notice. The last fence was an inviting X, which he cantered over with joy. Julie greeted me soon afterwards, and we howled in laughter at my round. Kat, meanwhile, wore a big smile. The pats he got from Julie and me told him he had done well.

Curious as to where we stood, I headed by the score sheet on the way to walk the stadium course. All I could manage to do was laugh when I realized that we had the second best test in dressage and the leader had been eliminated on cross-country. Then reality hit, and the pressure was on! Winning his first event, even if it was only a first-time starter event, would make a great story to tell around the barn when he was old and gray, so I steadied myself for the last and historically my worst test: stadium.

My determination turned to panic as I entered the indoor arena for the course walk and came face to face with fence one. Though only 18 inches high, it was surrounded with flowers of every shape, color, and size. Thoughts of victory were quickly replaced with vivid images of rearing, run-outs, and little girls laughing as I dusted dirt off my breeches. Every jump looked like it was sponsored by a local florist. After frantically casting my eyes about to find someone to complain to, I resigned myself to the inevitable and remounted him for our final warm-up.

Unlike the cross-country warm-up, Kat was downright docile this time around. And as he jumped flawlessly over the warm-up jump for the fourth time, my confidence began to return; however, as I watched the first three riders get eliminated, my anxiety returned. I held my breath as we entered the arena, and much to my relief, Kat never so much as looked at the flowers as we trotted by them. "What a waste of good quality worrying," I thought. At least he could have shied once or twice just so I knew he had seen them.

To put a short end to a long story, Kat jumped the course like an experienced hunter. He never balked, never shied, and never wavered. He took every fence straight on and was always looking to the next upon landing. As we left the arena, I praised him warmly. Some people may not believe me, but I'll swear to it, on the way back to the trailer, he held his head high as to show off his first place ribbon. All I could do was try to keep my grin under a thousand watts as people congratulated us. I realized that this was the first time that I was referring to him as my new event horse. Kat and I had crossed that ravine from horse and owner to team.

On the drive home, I reminisced about the day's events and how much fun I had that day. For the first time in a very long time, I remembered why I had started eventing. That evening, as I watched Kat gallop out to meet his friends and tell tall tales of the day's events, I smiled as I remembered how close I had come to rejecting the very horse that reawakened me to the fun side of eventing.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman