Not everything can be practiced extensively, but fortunately not everything needs to be practiced.... If practice makes mental processes automatic, we can then ask, which processes need to become automatic?
Retrieving number facts from memory is a good candidate, while a science teacher may decide that his students need to have at their fingertips basic facts about elements. In general, the processes that need to become automatic are probably the building blocks of skills that will provide the most benefit if they are automatized. Building blocks are the things that one does again and again in a subject area, and they are the prerequisites for more advanced work.
So before I write to you about my thoughts on this subject, can I ask you: which processes need to become automatic in our work with horses?
(Except for the parts which are, but I’m not telling which ones have actually happened to me. [Except for when I provide photographic or video evidence.])
I held my hand against my forehead, elbow on the table, trying to breathe through my anxiety. What had originally been planned to be a nice weekend of coaching was rapidly devolving into a nightmare. It had all started when Alex announced that he wanted me to take Tango on his first prelim. “Alright,” I’d agreed, and after all, it sounded like it might be a nice thing to do, as proof after all these years that Tango really had been something special.
And then Finn’s owner announced that he’d been entered in the Novice division, even though we’d taken him cross-country exactly once, and I was supposed to be his jockey. “Alright,” I haltingly agreed, as Finn was such a sweet fellow and surely I could just withdraw if we all felt really over-faced.
Finn is a real horse who is new to the barn and none of the following story actually resemble this horse, he just was the first one I thought of for this tale
I leaned back from the picnic table and glanced across the farm to Kat, who stood in her stall weaving merrily away, and considered withdrawing her as she really had just come back from an injury and maybe I was pushing things, but you read all those stories about Buck Davidson crashing and breaking a bunch of ribs and STILL riding 9 or so horses cross country, so I could probably pull three off, even though it’s a new level for all three of the horses. And if that were all facing me this weekend, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye.
But there was Moxie, too, the horse I’d taken a lease on while Kat recovered in the pasture, but I didn’t have to worry one iota about her as she was the most reliable of the bunch.
Moxie is also a real horse. This is not a photo of her. I am actually taking the lease on her. She knows more dressage than me and needs miles showing, so we'll help each other out.
Four horses, three new to the level, I’d be fine. I was coaching two riders, and riding four. Other trainers do it all the time, and once I’d taken enough deep breaths, I knew this would be one hell of a weekend to tell stories about.
“Alright!” I said aloud, to no one in particular, “let’s just make it through this weekend alive.”
Little did I know just what shape this story would take.
Friday morning: 4 am and with yesterday’s unfinished coffee clutched in my hand, bleary eyes taking in the sight of my mounts, I began braiding. Part of the way through braiding the third horse I began to wonder whose fucking brilliant idea it was to not braid the horses last night, and when I get to Moxie, I eyeball her mane, consider cutting it off, and decide it doesn’t need to be braided. They all go for a hand walk, and Kat decided to show me just HOW good she feels by levitating numerous times and dragging me a good distance each time. I wondered who I could call to bring me a stud chain.
Prelim ran first for me, and Tango gleamed from head to tail. With strong muscles and a kind eye, we shared a few moments in the warm up where I reveled in just how nice it was to be able to stroll along on a loose rein, watching the other riders and feeling his back underneath me. We trotted into the ring, where I promptly forgot my whole test.
Tango, of course, did his level best for me, and I left the ring disappointed in the ride. My circles had been uneasy because I was halfheartedly waiting to get rung out for going off course, and I hadn’t ever pushed Tango to give me his all. “Oh well,” I told Alex as we walked back to the barn, “at least it wasn’t terrible.”
Training ran next, and Moxie went up first. She warmed up beautifully, supple and generous in the bridle, and we turned down the centerline oozing confidence. Leaving the arena, I knew we’d laid down one of the best tests of my life, and I spent a bit too long congratulating myself and the horse with lots of scratches and chatting with the clients who had come to watch.
It wasn’t until Sophie came running up to me and dragged me off Moxie that I realized I’d frittered away most of my warm-up time for Kat. She was due in the dressage court in twenty-two minutes. Not nearly enough....
My tension rolled over Kat and she pranced in hand as I led her to the warm up arena. I begged a leg-up and the moment my butt touched the saddle I knew I was sitting on a powder keg.
We picked up a trot on a circle and tried to dodge the other riders while still giving Kat the best and most consistent ride I could come up with. Some kid on a wicked agile pony dodged into and back out of my circle before I even noticed, but Kat took great offense to the pony and kicked at it, even though it was 50 some feet away. I bumped her with my legs and growled, “No,” at her, at which point she reared.
While holding onto her neck, I noticed how everyone was clearing themselves away from me. “Great,” I told Sophie as we whizzed past her, “now I’m riding THAT horse.”
I did not turn down centerline with as much confidence as I’d felt on Moxie. We wobbled our way through the test and I realized, moments before cueing for the first canter, that we literally had NOT cantered in our warm up. I took a deep breath, sat a few beats of the trot, and aided for the canter.
I did not precisely get the canter. Instead, I got a spectacularly leaping, kicking, porpoising mare. The photos, I learned later, looked a bit like a capriole from the Spanish Riding School, if you tilted your head sideways and squinted a bit.
But we pressed on, as one does when one events, and we finished the test with fewer acrobatic moments.
The last to go was darling sweet Finn, and my legs were a little shaky and my nerves were shot. I didn’t ride him all that well, and completely forgot the free-walk portion of the test, but he did quite well, all things considered.
I walked the herd later, before picking up my scores, and Kat seemed to have finally settled down so I began to feel more confident for the next two days.
I was so excited when I got to the office and saw that Moxie and I were first in our division after dressage! We’d scored an unbelievable 19, with some of the best numbers I’d even seen, including an 8 on what used to be our weakest point! (The halt. Ugh. Her haunches were always swinging sideways in the halt but that’s probably my fault because my other horses do that too.) The judge commented that we looked like a “nice pair”, and the score definitely showed it!
Kat had not scored so well, but even though the judge commented, “tense,” she also told me it was “tactfully ridden,” so I sort of figure I’ll take what I can get.
Tango scored the most consistent test I’ve ever seen. The comment, “you call those circles?” stung, but he had straight sixes all the way down. I wondered if the scribe was tired of writing different numbers, but we weren’t at the bottom of the pack.
Finn’s test was predictable, with comments such as, “needs more bend,” and “free walk not shown.” Oops.
This event was organized in the strangest way, with novice running cross country on Saturday, but Training and Prelim running stadium on Saturday.
Saturday dawned, and it took me a solid fifteen minutes to get out of bed. I stared at the ceiling praying to keep Kat well-behaved and Finn brave.
Tango was my first ride of the day and for the first time in years, when I swung my leg over him I was afraid of him. A hump stayed present just under the saddle the whole time we warmed up. After our first jump he took off like something had stung him, and I would have been able to ride it out if it hadn’t been for the corkscrew buck he threw, and I hit the ground hard. I took my helmet off and shook the dirt out of my hair, tried to brush off as much as I could, and looked over at a Tango who looked as if he were laughing. I grabbed his reins, mounted from the ground, and took another jump before I could let my nerves get the better of me, then immediately had to dismount for the EMT to sign off on my health. I was scolded thoroughly, but Tango’s bucks were out of his system, and he was perfectly reasonable for the rest of the warm up.
As we cantered a circle in the ring, I could hear a commotion outside the arena. “Stay focused,” I sternly warned myself, and we went through the timers.
“LOOSE HORSE!” I could hear someone bellowing, and I couldn’t help myself: I looked to see what was loose.
It was Kat.
Mane whipping behind her, tail floating, her spectacular and ground covering gallop eating up the ground, she tore through the warm up arena, scattering horses around her and playing chicken with anyone who would dare to stop her.
Tango began to circle as I stared at my mare, and before I knew it we were crossing the starting timer line again. I looked around but no one seemed to have noticed, so I piloted Tango to the first jump, waiting to hear a buzzer calling me out, but it never happened. With a mental shrug we kept on, and he jumped everything hard and fast, in his favorite style. We had two jumps to go when I heard an awful metal clang. I looked everywhere but couldn’t see what caused the sound, as we hadn’t pulled anything down. We soared over the last two jumps, my buoyant heart full of joy. It wasn’t until later, in his stall, that I realized he must have somehow pulled a shoe off and chucked it into the standard. “It’s a weird wardrobe malfunction,” I laughed when I called my farrier.
Moxie and Kat were both pretty straightforward in stadium. I think that Kat’s little walkabout took the edge off, but she still cleared the first fence so hard I lost BOTH my stirrups and jumped the next two fences without them before finally getting them back, and Moxie jumped her first warm up fence so hard I am CONVINCED we cleared the standards, but overall the pretty much behaved as if they were trained to do the job I was asking of them.
Finn warmed up in a very gentlemanly way, but when we trotted into the start box, my stomach dropped. I’d forgotten my whip and my spurs. They certainly weren’t needed for my mares, but this fellow needed them. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, have a nice ride!” And we casually trotted out of the start box, despite my pony club efforts.
We picked up a canter and rolled along for a few fences, but right about the fourth jump, he realized that this was hard work, and we were only going to keep doing it. Luckily the next fence on course was the smallest log you’ve ever seen, and the fact that it was flagged for novice was comical. Finn pinned his ears at me and my leg and floated to a halt. “Come onnnn,” I groaned at him as I circled him around and clamped my legs around him like he was a tube of toothpaste and I was getting the LAST pea-sized toothbrushing out of the bugger.
As I approached the next fence at what might be described as little more than a western pleasure jog, the jump judge flagged me down and pulled me off the track. “There’s a hold,” she told me, “we have to let the rider behind you pass.” I pursed my lips and watched as the thoroughbred behind us cantered over the jump and on through the water.
Somehow we crawled through the rest of the course, but I am confident that there’s never been a slower cross country run at novice ever. It felt like we were out there forever. They even delayed rider’s start times because we were so slow. I called my mom after dinner and told her about the fall, the mishap with the loose horse, getting passed on cross country, everything, and finished by saying, “we literally picked up so many penalties. Somehow we weren’t eliminated, but I honestly don’t know how.”
I slept like the dead. My alarm went off Sunday morning before I wanted it to, and I felt creaky and horrible as I rolled out of bed. And then I remembered that I was getting to take Tango prelim, something I’d imagined watching him do for years. I perked up, drank my coffee, took some ibuprofen, and by the time I was tacking Tango up I was bouncing with excitement.
Fear flooded my veins as I trotted around the start box, as it always does, but when I let Tango out and he leaped into a ground covering gallop, I remembered how much I loved this. Over tables and logs, down the drop into the water, a glance at my watch and we were actually cruising a bit too fast. “Circling!” I called, as we added some time by circling before the corner combination. Racing through the finish flags, I burst into tears, wrapped my arms around Tango’s slimy neck, and kissed him before jumping off. “What a good boy,” I crooned through my choked up voice as he power-walked up the hill and back to the barn.
I had a similar experience with Moxie, the adrenaline converging with my delight to create a near-spiritual moment, until the mare decided to drop to a trot right before the biggest, most maxed out table on course. She jumped it from a trot, and I kicked her on, determined not to repeat that frightening experience. She took offense to the kick and powered over the next jump from at least two strides out. The rest of the course was uneventful, but it did give me a lot to think about how I could better have ridden her.
Kat was suspiciously quiet in the warm up. She was, dare I even suggest it, ‘workmanlike.’ She walked into the start box. She cantered out quietly. She didn’t over-jump the first fence, nor did she drag me to the second one. I relaxed and began to thrill in taking my wonderful mare out to do her job as I’d always imagined her capable of doing.
That was, until she spooked at a jump judge after a fence, bolted down a hill, over the next one, powered over a table, supermanned off a bank, all while I muttered and yelled and called “WOAH DAMMIT” and fruitlessly pulled on the reins. I had no breaks. I passed the horse ahead of me, pulled off to the side on a hold to allow my crazy creature full rein.
We came down through the water and she finally slowed, maybe she was tired, but maybe she knew what she was about to do. She slowed down until she nearly cantered in place, opened her stride for a moment, then chipped hard to the rolltop. I didn’t stand a chance. I ate it. She didn’t go far, and from my vantage point on the ground, I could see we’d lost a boot somewhere along the mad gallop.
An EMT came over to check me out, and Kat treated him as if he were a tornado rising up from the ground. She dragged me sideways, and I refused to let go, even as she dragged me through the water complex. I finally tripped over myself and dropped her, landing soggily in the center of the water. “I hadn’t planned on going swimming,” I told the aghast EMT, even as I heard the announcer mention ‘that paint horse is loose again’.
At this point, I was tired, embarrassed, and ready to load my terrible animals up and go the heck home. But I still had to pilot Finn around stadium. It won’t be too bad, I assured myself as I girthed him up and checked his breast collar, he’s a good boy.
We went through the start timers and cantered merrily up to the first jump. I have reason to believe he didn’t even see the jump because he took that thing down. He didn’t even TRY to pick his feet up. Surprised, I tapped him with my stick and legged him on, trying to conjure an energetic horse. He pulled a rail on the next oxer, but it felt like a cheap rail because we barely touched it.
And then, for the second time in this terrible weekend, I forgot where I was going. We circled so I could try to piece it together, knowing I would get penalty points for it. The unthinkable happened part way through the circle, and Finn realized that this was an event to get excited about. He took a deep breath, grew about six inches, and proceeded to buck my tired butt off. We were excused.
I collected a ribbon for my first place finish with Moxie, but it felt hollow. I’d had so much hope for this weekend, and I’d let my client down by falling off Finn in the stadium.
But as I finished my woeful tale, Megan started laughing at me. “None of this can possibly be true, Kate,” she said, and the bloggers around her laughed too.
“Bingo!” I shouted, and we finished our dinner with no more crazy made up stories about nightmare events.