It wasn’t a total disaster, as in no medics were involved. But short of an ambulance ride to the emergency room, my two weeks at the Lexington Spring Premiere and Spring Encore AA shows couldn’t have ended much worse.
Setbacks. We’ve all had them in riding, and in life. The question is: What do we do about them? I’ve had some time now to lick my wounds and cogitate both about setbacks in general and the specific incident that set me back. It got me thinking about how we navigate minor adversity (and let’s be honest, a bad horse show can only be categorized as minor adversity); how we turn mistakes and bad luck into learning moments; and, if we’re really astute, how we broaden that knowledge to help us when the adversities are major.
If this had happened to either of my sons, I’d do the Mother thing first, there-thereing them through the hurt of the situation. Then, when the emotion had dissipated, I’d ask them to dissect the event step by step and examine what went wrong, what they might have done differently, what could be learned, and how that information might help in the future, both for that specific situation and their everyday lives. Then I would tell them to get back on the figurative horse—since, thank goodness, neither of my children ride—and we would start to rebuild.
Years ago, a wise therapist told me to mother myself the way I wanted my children to be mothered. So here goes.
I’ll skip the there-thereing part because as you will see at the end of this story, my husband, aka The Saint, has that covered.
Evaluate The Preparation
Any proper dissection starts with the preparation. Remembering back to high school biology, I first examined my tools. Were they sharp enough? Clean? Did the frog have both its legs?
Our preparation was good, nothing I would have changed. My trainer, Gordon Reistrup, and I carefully planned my horse, Katie’s, route to these shows, which involved several weeks of boot camp at his farm with him riding her daily. Katie is an assertive alpha mare and I am one as well, 99 percent of the time. The remaining 1 percent is when we jump. So Gordon has to periodically reinstall the gear that makes her go forward over the jump regardless of what I’m telling her with my body. Preparing the horse, as I’ve heard it called in the hunter world. By the time we pulled into the Virginia Horse Center, my exceedingly well-prepared horse would have jumped through a ring of fire with a monkey on her back.
We spent the next two weeks on and off at the Horse Center, competing, grooming, hand grazing and waiting and waiting and waiting. Herein lies the first mistake. I’d never shown back to back, and two weeks of showing is more than I ever want to do again. It was taxing on every level—physically, emotionally and financially. I know many people my age show almost every weekend (the over-50 adult amateurs are routinely the biggest classes at the biggest shows). No thanks. To me, that’s like eating Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge ice cream for every meal.
So first lesson learned: Space out the horse shows. And on a grander scale, apply more critical thought to planning upcoming events, which might be like asking the peepers to be quiet in the spring. Still, had I thought it through more carefully, I probably would have begrudgingly realized two weeks of showing would be too much.
What Went Wrong?
Now to the actual incident. It was the last division of the show, the special adults. Gordon hates that name because he says it’s too easy to make the obvious joke. Special adults, special education. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why people choose to ride in this weenie 2'6" division. Maybe their horses are spooky, or they’re feeling too old to jump bigger, or they’re regaining confidence after an injury, or in my case, all three. It is a division inherent with issues. We are not Jane Gaston or Kelley Farmer.
So why schedule it at the end of the show, in a ring that abuts the staging area for all the jumps? The crew was clearly anxious to get everything packed away now that all the other rings, except mine, had completed. In all fairness to show management; they apologized afterwards, said they’d asked the crew to stop, and refunded my division fees.
Just as I walked into the ring for the hack, the crew started hurling brush onto a flatbed. That unnerved my horse, but since it was just a flat class, I could be brave enough for both of us. The jumping classes were another story. During the first class, she bolted at the end of the ring where the crew was loading jumps into a tractor-trailer. I completed that course, but it wasn’t pretty, and we were both rattled.
Mistake No. 2: I went into the next class without a back-up plan. Gordon had asked the crew members to stop loading. I think we both assumed they would. Well you know what they say about assume. And it did in fact make an ass out of me.
The first three jumps were OK-ish. We were both tense from the previous trip, and since I supposedly have more brain power than my horse, I should’ve taken a deep breath and concentrated on softening my hands and giving her more support with my legs, exactly as I’d done in the flat class. I had the tools and the knowledge, just not the plan or the composure to execute it. Extrapolating that to life is a no-brainer and perhaps the most important learning moment of this whole thing. Stop, take a deep breath, concentrate on the task at hand, and dig deep into the toolbox.
Instead, I got tenser as we approached the five-stride line heading straight toward the crew loading the jumps behind a row of tall cedars. Just as we jumped the first jump in the line, one of the crew members popped out from behind one of the cedars to watch.
It felt like my horse grew to the size of a mammoth. I should have brought her down to a trot, trotted the second fence of the line, then trotted around the scary corner and reassessed. Woulda, shoulda, coulda. My brain apparently stopped working, and I did something I’ve never done in 40 years of showing. I pulled her out of the line and left the ring mid-course.
While quitting runs as counter to my nature as voting Republican, I didn’t see a better or safer end. My horse felt bug-eyed and spooked, and I was hunched down and clamped, making her even more bug-eyed and spooked. And we were heading directly toward her (or more accurately, my) boogeyman.
Face Your Boogeyman
Final lesson. Heading toward your boogeymen, both at horse shows and life. Many years ago, I used to have nightmares where I was being chased by a grotesque man who wanted to kill me. I’d wake in a panic. Then I read the best way to slay your nightmare demons is stop running, turn, face them head on, and tell them to get the hell out of your dream. I did it and never had that nightmare again.
I’m sure I don’t have to belabor the point of what I should have done instead of what Gordon calls, “going fetal” (balling up on top of my horse), pulling out of the line and leaving.
“Your default position should never be to lean forward and go fetal,” he said. “It’s not an effective place to be. It’s very easy for your horse to roll you off. If you’re having a problem, sit up taller and get your heels down. That’s your security. Then re-establish focus to inside the ring.”
Meaning, do exactly what I’d done in the flat class and my dream.
“Otherwise,” Gordon said, “those demons will get the better of you.”
The picture at the top of the column is what I came home to that night. The Saint had taken all the ribbons Katie had won at the show and strung them up. He put his arm around me and said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Am I lucky or what?
Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.