Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Did You Learn Something? Part Two

Good Tuesday morning, folks!  I think this one will surprise you.  I bet you don't see me in this way.  But, it's true.

When we bought the farm a little over five years ago, I never intended to be the chief instructor.  I intended to be the owner and do the "big picture" stuff.  I hired a long time friend, Annie, who had worked for RW, to be the barn manager and chief instructor.  There would be Candy, the previous owner's barn manager that I kept on, who could also instruct.  Guys, don't hire friends and don't keep on former employees with suspect loyalty.

Candy was eight months pregnant when we bought the farm.  I felt sorry for her.  Her husband was not the money-making, support your pregnant wife type.  She really needed the job.  Unfortunately, she didn't know how to stop spreading rumors and making trouble.  So, her tenure with me ended fairly quickly, pregnant or not.

Annie had never been away from her mountain hometown for more than a few days.  Trying to move here was simply too much for her.  She took off for the mountains with no notice a month later.  She left me in a bind at the farm.  Again, don't hire friends.  It caused me a lot of inconvenience professionally, and it ended our friendship.  Little did I know, she was doing me a huge favor.

At that time, I had no intention or even confidence that I could teach riding lessons.  I knew I could ride.  I knew, I knew something about horses.  I did not know I could teach anyone else to ride.  I did not know I could teach anyone else about horses.  I certainly did not know I could produce some real winners.

Less than a year into teaching, Cowgirl Mo--the barn baby before Cowgirl Slim--went to a hunter-jumper summer camp.  I'd been teaching Mo general horsemanship, safety, equitation (rider skill), and western riding.  She was always interested in both english and western.  At the end of her camp, the participants were taken to a local town to participate in a junior show.

This particular local town is a horse town.  High end race horses winter there.  It is a big time place.  Even their junior shows are no joke.  This was Cowgirl Mo's first show ever.  I knew nothing about it until afterward.

The day after Mo got home from camp, I picked her up at home to come to the farm.  That was our morning routine.  It was before I lived at the farm.  I still lived at my house full time and her house was on the way to the farm. It was summer and she came to the farm every day.  She, like Cowgirl Slim, was a joy to have around.

Mo jumped in the car and started telling me about camp.  Then, she told me about the show.  She won her first ribbon.  It was a blue ribbon in equitation.

Equitation is defined as the act or art of riding horseback.  Just because you can hold on to a horse doesn't mean you've got equitation skill. Equitation is where riding meets art.  It's the beauty that emerges between a good horse and a good rider.

If you're going to win a ribbon, equitation is a damn fine place to win it.  I don't care if you win, place, or show in any other class.  If you win an equitation ribbon, you've got my attention.  It means you have a pretty good idea of how to ride properly.

When Mo came to me, she had some riding experience.  When I saw her horse experience, she had been woefully under taught.  I looked at her parents and said, "You mean they took your money?"  Mo couldn't even pick a horse's feet.  What had these people been teaching her?

So, I started from nearly the beginning with Mo.  And, her first place ribbon in equitation may have excited me more than it did her.  It showed me I knew what I was doing.  If she could compete against the junior talent in that town, I knew how to teach and Mo knew how to ride.

Eventually, Mo left my barn to go full time to that big time little horse town.  She got a show horse. She got into fox hunting and hunter-jumper showing.  I don't hear from her much now, but I am still very proud of her.

It's ok, these things happen.  Teenagers' interests change.  I am not interested in showing.  Mo moved on.  It doesn't change my pride in her.

A few years later came another little girl named Abby.  She was considerably younger than Mo.  Abby was eight when she started with me, I think.  Abby learned quickly and rode well, especially for her age.

On the weekends, Abby was riding some Puerto Rican Paso Finos for one of the very reputable breeders around here.  Her parents assured me they wouldn't leave my barn. He was a friend through church.  Ok, I still knew what was coming.

Eventually, Abby was asked to show one of this man's horses in a junior division.  The show was out-of-town on a Saturday.  I had lessons to teach.  I didn't get to go.

When Abby returned, she had many ribbons, the overall trophy for her age group, and a blue ribbon in equitation.  Abby had no prior experience with horses before coming to me.  Wow!  Holy cow! What a good job.  Now, this show circuit is not nearly as impressive as the one where Mo made her debut, but still, all of those ribbons were nothing to sneeze at for a then nine year old.

Abby continued on with me for a few more months.  But, a Paso Fino show trainer had approached them at that show.  She wanted to start training Abby.  The same thing had happened with Mo.  I don't have a lot of respect for trainers who steal star riders, but I accept that's the way it goes.

I understand kids' and parents' infatuations with trophy's and blue ribbons.  I understand a trainer wants someone who is already broken of all of the bad habits.  I don't understand the ethics of stealing.

It's one of the many reasons I don't have any interest in that area of the horse world.  Many of those folks, though not all, lack ethics.  It is a massive ego trip for them.  It has very little to do with learning or the horse.

Before I go farther, remember the blog entry on my competitive nature?  It's titled "Competition."  I am a fierce competitor.  I am not my best self at those times.  I know I could compete against other riders in the show ring. I am partnered with my horses.  I am a horse person in my heart.  I am also a ruthless competitor in my heart. That is a big reason I do not show.  I don't want to be that person.  Ok, back to the story at hand.

So, Abby left me about six months after her big win.  She went on to the Paso Fino trainer.  She loved the thrill of the show.  I was still pounding equitation lessons into her.  She was bored.  This happens with nine year olds.

They nor their parents have the patience to hang in there and learn the hard stuff.  It's that hard equitation work that makes you a winner.  It's the dull, repetition until it's perfect that makes you stand out...and get stolen by a show trainer.

I cannot teach someone all they need to know about equitation in a year and a half or two years.  You may stand out in a junior show with what I've taught you in that amount of time. But, you won't be remarkable on the adult circuit.

The winners on the adult and professional circuits are dedicated.  They still take lessons.  They work on it all the time.  Sure, there are people who just play around, but they aren't the winners.

But, as much as I miss teaching those girls, I did learn something from these stories.  I learned I can teach, obviously. I also learned I can produce winners when I'm working with good material.  So, if I know this about myself, why don't I become a show trainer?  Why don't I go get some ribbons of my own?  It'll be good publicity for the farm.

First, I don't have time for all of that.  Showing is expensive.  It takes time.  Who your trainer is, who made your saddle, who bred your horse have a huge impact on your success, especially in adult and professional circuits.  I don't give a rip about all of that.

Plus, of course, I have a business to run.  Showing occurs on weekends.  The bulk of my business is on weekends.  No, show prize money doesn't begin to make-up for that unless you're at the Olympic level.  Show prize money doesn't even cover the average show rider's cost.  And, the business takes up so much of my time, I'd never have time to train adequately--or at least what I consider adequate.

I don't like the mental intimidation that exists behind the scenes of the show world.  I don't like the trading up of horses that have served you well.  Trading just because you think you can make it at the next level and your horse can't.

Guess what? He's probably more qualified for the next level than you are.  I don't like that good horses are basically dismissed like used cars by many show riders.  Not all, but many.  Ok, I'll give you that.

Let me make a quick aside here.  When you get into high level competition with Olympic level riders, you are into a whole other ballgame.  Yes, there are still jerks among them. But in the interviews I've seen, those people appreciate their horses more than the average show rider.  Not all, but most.

Listen to the competitors in the World Equestrian Games.  They talk about their successes as partners with their horses.  You'll hear interviews where a world-class rider has to withdraw from an event because of a budding injury in his horse.  You hear him talk about the well-being of his horse, not his own disappointment.

That's a very different attitude than you're going to find among amateur show riders.  Why? Because those folks who don't have this attitude of partnership and the horse's well-being, aren't horse people.  They don't get it. They think ribbons and trophies are the goal.  No, the kind of partnership with your horse that enables you to produce ribbons and trophies is the goal.  See the difference?

That's how you get more true horse people at the highest levels of competitive riding.  It's the beauty of that kind of partnership that produces the most ribbons.  It's that level of horse-human understanding that gets those riders there.  That's what separates the milk from the cream.

And, let me assure you, those riders don't get bored with equitation lessons. They don't quit to chase more ribbons.  Because, friends, that becomes a very short chase when you don't continue to work on your equitation skills.  Without equitation, without understanding your horse, what else is there?  What's the point?

If I want to be judged on my skill with horses, all I have to do is watch how my horses respond to me.  If I want some human advice or validation, all I have to do is ask RW or Mack.  Those two things will give me a more accurate reflection than any blue ribbon ever can.  That's another lesson I've learned.

So, now you've learned even more about me.  You've learned I doubted myself in the beginning.  And, by watching my students and my horses, I've learned that I didn't give myself enough credit back then.

Do I think I'm the best?  No.  That will get you hurt, remember?  I still have much to learn.  I hope RW, my horses, and life never stop teaching me.

Thanks for reading folks.  Have a great day!

P.S. Here's another little surprise.  RW was quite the show rider in his day.  He won many blue ribbons.  He showed on the American Quarter Horse Association National Show Circuit. That's also a "no joke" show circuit. He showed from coast to coast.  And, he won.  He won many shows on Big Mac.  But, he eventually stopped showing.  Like me, he had to make a living, I imagine.  I've never asked him, though. See, some show riders really are horse people after all.

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