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Ride the horse your on
(not the horse you want to be on)

Michael Hillman

The best way to describe this year is the year that should've been, could've been, but wasn't. Lt. Worf, my sturdy Klingon war mount, was injured in an engagement with the Borg at his first show and spent the remainder of the year at star base 21727, serving as a very expensive, though very happy, lawn ornament. With Worf out of action, my hopes were pinned on Katmandu, or, as he seems to prefer, Kat-man-wont-do.

Now Kat is a strikingly handsome horse, with talent and potential pouring out his ears, but sometimes he acts like he was born without the brains God gives the average potato. His one synaptic nerve doesn't always fire, and when it does, it often misses its mark. As if that wasn't bad enough, this spring Kat's allergies brought about a nasty case of head tossing, which just about made him un-rideable. Fortunately, as I recounted in an earlier addition of US Event Horse, the issue was finally resolved with the aid of pantyhose, but not before most of the season had become a bad memory.

An incurable optimist, my hopes for a good fall season were raised following Kat's strong second place finish at DVCTA at the end of the spring season. The hard ground and splint problems, however, kept me off Kat's back all summer. In spite of my absence from his back, or maybe because of it, Kat's go at Waredaca was nearly flawless. The die was cast for our big move up to training.

Over the years, I've picked up many sayings related to riding, one of which has stuck with me: The size of a fence is dependent upon the ears you are looking through. For the past four years I've been competing at Preliminary, and as such, novice and training fences look small, almost a joke. However, after only a season of novice with Kat, the training fences looked down right Intermediate in size.

Historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the South's high watermark -- for a time, it appeared that getting off the trailer at Blue Ridge was going to be Kat's and my high watermark. Dressage was nothing to write home about, but the coupe-de-grace was a stop on cross-country where I found myself somersaulting over Kat's head. Looking at my feet silhouetted against the bright blue sky, all I had time to think about was, "Boy, this is going to hurt."

A sickening thud announced my contact with the ground ... directly under the nose of my wide-eyed, pea-brained horse. "Alpo" I believe were the first words that passed my lips when I regained my breath. The jump judge was quickly by my side.

"Are you OK? It sounded like you broke a bone."

"No, I creak all the time, I'm O.K." The fall and all the penalty points it represented placed me squarely in the "might as well consider it a school" frame of mind. I slowly remounted, using the time to strategize on the best way to approach the fence the second time. The third proved to be the charm.

Now a confirmed pessimist, I hacked back to the trailers thoroughly dejected. I headed down the rows of trailers trying to sell Kat for a bucket of spit, but my dirty britches seemed to scare all potential bidders away. As if to add insult to injury, Ashley, my student, got a second that day, in her and her horse's first Training event. It was a long ride home, and we didn't stop for ice cream.

Things went even further down hill. Before the week was out, Kat was stopping at X's and dropping weight like a B-17 over Berlin. With the fall season now clearly in jeopardy, I packed Kat into the trailer and headed to my last hope, a lesson with my trainer, Julie Gomena. She listened patiently as I explained what was happening, though she had already heard from her spies about the Blue Ridge Fiasco.

"Huh," was all she said. Opening her sack of tools, accumulated from years of riding countless horses, it wasn't long before she got done to the root cause. Me.

"You've scared Kat. You're riding him like Worf. God bless Worf, no matter what you did, no matter how bad a spot you got, he took care of you. Kat's different. You can't place him at a fence. You can't push him. Kat wants to find his own spot, if you try to place him, he gets scared and shuts down. You're going to have to learn how to sit still and do nothing."

"Do nothing!" The two most feared words of every person whose mother wished Ritalin had been around in the 50's. To enforce her dictates, she wired electrodes to my fingers, and sent a jolt of electricity any time she thought I even considered taking a hold before a fence. True to expectations, the medicine began to show results. Within a week, Kat was once again happily jumping everything put in front of him. The real test, however, was how we would perform at a competition. Three weeks after the debacle at Blue Ridge, with my 2nd degree electrical burns still smarting and warnings to go slow and treat it like a school, I pulled into Waredaca.

Things got off to an almost too-good-to-be-true start when Kat put in a nearly flawless dressage test. I had to struggle to keep a schooling frame of mind. Over and over I repeated to myself, "You're not here for a ribbon, you're here for the fun and the Gin and Tonics afterwards." The Gin and Tonics were the trick.

When I entered the start box for cross-country, I had only one thought on my mind (well, maybe two, if you count living): let Kat pick his own pace and his own spots. Things however got off to bad start when Kat ran out on the first fence. Now normally I would have reminded him with my stick, but with clear instructions to do nothing, including "reminding" him, I leisurely loped around the fence and represented it to him. If he could talk, I'm sure he would have said, "Oh, you want me to jump it?" On the second approach, Kat jumped effortlessly and hunted down to and over the next fence. As we progressed around the course, I could feel Kat's confidence grow as I let him pick his own spots. And with each good jump, he slowly, but steadily, began to jump more boldly.

As we jumped, I found myself fighting the urge to do something. Like a smoker who wants just one more cigarette before quitting, Waredaca drove home to me that the cure prescribed was right, but the recovery period was going to take a lot longer than I had planned. In fact, I tried to practice "doing nothing" in all aspects of my life, just to perfect it, much to the consternation of my wife, whose "Honey Do" list was now measured in pounds of paper, not length.

With several more lessons under our belt, I approached our last show of the season with the forlorn hope that we could pull a good ending to the season, much like we had done in the spring. My hopes, however, were quickly dashed when Kat, high on the grain my wife had been stuffing down his throat six times a day, decided that dressage would be a great time to practice his caprioles and levades, which, although impressive, were not part of his novice test.

Kat's cross-country, however, more then made up for dressage. A novice, move up to training level course, Kat bounded down to and over the first fence, a less than inviting bench that had put my worry engines in overdrive. Once over the first fence, I found myself relaxing, and for the first time that year, sitting back and enjoying the ride. The more I relaxed, the better Kat jumped, and the better he jumped, the more I relaxed. Talk about positive feedback!

Though we didn't finish the day in the ribbons, it was a good end to a season of learning. In nine short weeks, I had gone from hope, to despair, to confidence. And with it, I now have a new horse saying that I'll keep in the forefront of my mind every time I ride.

"Ride the horse you're on, not the horse you want to be on."

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman