The Zebra and The Duck

 

Sometimes I think I attract difficult horses. Standing out in my pasture right now I have not one, not two, but three really tough mounts. Although, when it comes down to it, I realize I’ve chosen this life for myself. I’ve had lots of easy horses, horses that I could have taken through the levels and raked in the ribbons with, horses that could have had me in a totally different place by now. But, I moved them on, I let others take over and enjoy their wonderful brains and their solid foundations. The ones I decided to hold on to are the tough ones, the ones who enjoy testing me with riddles that seem impossible to solve.

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I’ve chosen this path because I truly enjoy the puzzle. For me, the reward lies in the process of figuring out what pieces fit where and seeing the bigger picture when everything finally comes together.

It sounds romanticized as a write this, like I’m seeing the world through the rose-colored glasses of my computer screen. In all reality, those difficult horses frustrate me on a daily basis and make me question everything I think I know about training. They make me think outside the box to try to solve the problems they throw at me day and in day out.

However, I’m never alone in trying to put together the puzzle. Along with amazing trainers, good friends and as much training knowledge as I can possibly Google, I am fortunate enough to have a well-respected Equine Veterinarian and Surgeon as a barn owner. I pick his brain about the issues I’m facing with my horses and every once in a while, between the conversations about work, clients and how damn cold it is outside, he teaches me a thing or two.

One day, as I complained about particularly frustrating horse, the issues I thought he had and the numerous different solutions I had come up with, he turned to me and said, “Lindsay, let me tell you something… Everyone wants to think they’re dealing with a Zebra when, in fact, all you really have is a Duck.”

I hung my head sheepishly because I knew he was reprimanding me in his own way for my crazy notions and fairy tale ideas.

He went on to explain that Zebras are interesting and exciting, but they’re rare. Ducks, on the other hand, are boring and easy to overlook, but they’re common. He said that as a veterinarian for nearly 30 years, most of the issues horses have are Ducks, and very few are ever actually Zebras. That is to say, you should attempt to solve your problems using the most common solution before jumping to conclusions about a rare condition or treatment.

For example, when your horse is tossing his head under saddle, the Duck tells you to check his teeth and possibly the fit of his tack. The Zebra has you convinced that his TMJ is bothering him, he’s out in his poll and has kissing spine.

Once you’ve ruled out all the Ducks, only then should you begin to think that maybe, just maybe, you have a Zebra.

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Quack.

 

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Managing Expectations

On a muggy Sunday morning, I nodded my head when the ring steward asked if I was ready to go, and I walked Rebel down to the dressage arena. A strange sand pit with a very low white fence merely suggesting we keep our test inside of it. A scary wooden box with something inside sat at the end of the arena, trying to convince Rebel it was a horse-eating monster.

We walked half way around, tried not to spook at the letters, exchanged a quick word with the judge so Rebel knew there were people in there, and then nudged on into a trot. The relaxed, listening, and perfect little horse I was riding merely 15 minutes before turned into a bundle of nerves. Where was the forward trot, relaxed back, thinking mind, and eager show pony from the warm-up? How would we ever finish the test? Would my final halt, salute be met with laughter from the judges stand and comments on my test like “go back to the racetrack”? My mind raced as we entered at A, wondering what the next 2 minutes of my life would hold.

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Our beautiful warm-up, just minutes before an awful, awful test.

With each movement, I silently pleaded with Rebel to give me the suppleness we just had. I stayed as soft as I could and encouraged her to do the same. But, it was to no avail. There was stiffness, bending to the outside, throwing her haunches in, and even screaming at the other horses. As we worked our way through the tense-est ride I’ve ever had on Rebel, I reminded myself that the only thing I came here to do was finish the show. No ribbon, score or pretty picture for my wall mattered as long as we stayed in the ring in dressage and didn’t stop more than 3 times over fences. Those were my priorities. And even though the spoiled brat inside me wanted to throw a fit because “My horse was perfect, like 10 minutes ago!”, I didn’t. For my baby horse’s sake I couldn’t and I wouldn’t.

And, after our last halt, salute, even though it was no where near pretty, I patted my little girl and told her good job as we walked out of the arena. I said both to myself and out loud for everyone to laugh at: “well, we trotted where we needed to trot, walked where we needed to walk, and managed both of our halts. Plus we stayed in the arena!”.

We ended up jumping everything without rails, dirty stops or bruised ego’s. In a competitive division with some really great teams, we went home with nothing less than a dressage test filled with things to work on. But that’s okay.

At the end of a disappointing day, I reminded myself of the expectations I had set weeks before when I filled out the entry form. Getting greedy has no place in bringing up babies and, even though I was disappointed in our performance, I put on a happy face for my girl and told her how much fun showing was. And I knew it was true. A $3 ribbon means way less to me than the experiences I have with Rebel that will help her grow and develop into the amazing horse I know she is. And one day, when she does bring home a fancy blue ribbon, she will have made some lucky young girl the happiest she’s ever been.

So, for now, I’ll remind myself of what realistic expectations for my green beans actually are. Whether that’s finishing a combined test, figuring out where to put your feet during a leg yield, or finally nailing that canter transition. Whatever it is.. there’s one thing it will never be, and that’s the color of a ribbon.

Plus, the show photographer managed to get one picture where she doesn’t look like she’s about to jump out of her skin!

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Show Time

We are officially 1 week away from our first attempt at a “show”. Dipping our toes into the murky water of showing, crossing our fingers and hoping the commotion and excitement will sit well with Rebel, who has only ever known the commotion of a racetrack.

I found the most laid-back venue I could- a simple combined test at a horse park right down the road. No ribbons, no competition, just a hope for completion. We will ride a walk/trot dressage test and jump a small course of 2′-2’3″ fences. And if we come home in one piece, it will have been a successful day!

Rebel and I have been taking things slow, hacking around the property, working on staying soft and consistent in our walk, trot and canter. When I point her at a fence, which has only happened a handful of times now, all I expect her to do is make it calmly to the other side. So, this more structured environment will be a totally different experience for miss Rebel.

However, in just a few short months, Rebel will be faced with a structured environment on a much larger scale. The world-renowned Kentucky Horse Park, hundreds of other horses, possibly thousands of spectators, all anxiously awaiting to watch her strut her stuff. So, this baby step is just an inch, a crawl, a meander in the right direction. Rebel will tell me how she feels about a show environment, she will tell me what we need to work on and the next steps we need to take in our training.

This not-even-a-real-show show is not for the ribbons, it’s not for the bragging rights, it’s for the relationship. It’s for communication and understanding. It may be for holding on tight and hoping the judge has a sense of humor. And at the end of the day, it will be for pats and cookies and coo’s of “good girl” as we take steps forward together, learning and figuring each other out, no matter the outcome.

Lou-iversary!

A year ago I brought home a gangly Thoroughbred who hadn’t really been touched since his last race nearly 6 months earlier. I saw him and immediately fell in love. Despite his scruffy appearance, despite his attempts to take off, rear and buck while I test rode him, and despite his unimpressive race career. Something about him made me very excited. A week later, he came home and a crazy journey began.

The last year has been full of ups and downs with Lou, as he tested me as a person, as a trainer, as an owner, as a friend. Lou took well to life off the track. He picked up weight nicely, built muscle and my dressage trainer had actually approved of him after our first lesson! She knew, just like I did, that he had what it would take to move up the levels. One look at his build, a couple minutes of watching him trot around the ring and my dressage queen trainer, with an incredible collection of warmbloods, picked her jaw up off the ground and told me that my cheap OTTB could easily make it to 4th level some day.

But, little did I realize at that point, Lou had other ideas. After a couple small dressage shows and some great progress just mere months off the track, I packed up my three horses, two dogs and loving fiance to make a life in the horse capital of the world. I knew that it would take a lot to make a dent in the eventing scene in Lexington, but that Lou had everything necessary to make that happen. I had the utmost faith in him and our journey. As he stepped off the trailer and into the lush bluegrass, Lou decided it just wasn’t for him.

Every step of the last 8 months here in Lexington, Lou protested. He was healthy, he was gaining weight, he had everything a horse could ever want. But he wasn’t happy. My once understanding and agreeable boy that tried hard even when he didn’t understand, turned into a ball of nerves that was convinced not a soul was worth trusting. And my heart that was once full of hope and excitement for this new adventure broke into a million pieces.

In picking up the pieces and moving forward, I changed as a rider and as a trainer. I had to put my hopes and dreams aside to listen to what my guy was saying. This new place was scary and life was hard. So, he got the winter off. He moved to a pasture with his best pony friend and was just a horse for months. I attempted to bond with the horse that once trusted me over daily feedings and attempts to groom and blanket him. Most of the time, he objected.

Come spring, I picked myself up, dusted off my ego which had been repeatedly stomped on since I unloaded Lou off the trailer in Kentucky. We changed barns- again. We spent hours together trying to understand what in the world had happened. We reset and recharged. We attacked the problem head on. Establishing a routine, becoming friends and learning to trust each other again. Arguing about why standing in cross-ties really matters and how it’s way more fun to canter than it is to walk. Lou has made me see things in a totally different light. Even though he has the makings of an upper-level horse, all of our battles are being fought on the ground. Because of Lou, I’ve been more of a trail rider than anywhere near competitive. I’ve been learning ground work methods, researching everything I can to gain his respect, keep him comfortable and engaged. I’ve been learning how to peel back the layers one by one.

We are still nowhere close to where I’d hoped a year ago when I brought Lou home. We took a million steps back and are just now starting to crawl forward. But I’ve learned. I’ve listened, tried to understand. I’ve become a problem solver and an advocate for my horse instead of for my dreams. I may be patting my horse at the end of a ride when he’s actually walked instead of jigged the majority of the time I’m on his back, instead of patting him as we walk off the training level XC course. But I’ve learned that’s okay. My goals have shifted and so have my training methods. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

So, happy anniversary, Lou. You keep me on my toes, you make me think, you’ve taught me more than I could possibly imagine. I can’t thank you enough.

Who’s Training Who?

This weekend I introduced my non-horsey family to the three tail-swishing, carrot-crazy, slobbering and nickering four-legged beings that consume my life. I went about my daily routine of bringing in, feeding, grooming, turning out and all the other fun stuff that comes with horse ownership, my very novice entourage in tow.

There were many treats fed with hands flat out, thumbs tucked to the side, there were scratches and pats from extended arms too nervous to take a step closer, there was careful leading and slow grooming as each visitor figured out their way around the thousands of pounds of horse that I think nothing of handling each day. Rebel entertained the crowd with her kisses on cue. Jinx stretched his neck as far as he could, trying to reach an apple without taking a step towards the strangers he wanted nothing to do with. And Lou, the horse who lives in his own little world and hasn’t figured out why people bother to exist, surprised me the most as he not only tolerated being loved on, but seemed to enjoy the attention.

And as the days wound down, my family stared at their dirty hands wondering why I choose to do this every single day and I was filled with a sense of gratitude for them as they listened and learned and eagerly tried to understand my lifestyle. And then came a seemingly harmless question, that slid in sneakily between the normal queries of “Why is she doing that?” and “How can he see through the mask on his face?”. This particular question stopped me dead in my tracks- Which horse is your favorite? 

My brother meant nothing by the question, just wondering out loud if there was a horse I was drawn to more than another, if there was a red-headed step child in my group that I really didn’t care for but kept around anyway. I answered like any good mother would: “I love them all for different reasons”. It seems cliche, but there is so much truth behind that answer and anyone who has owned, ridden or even just been around multiple horses can understand what a loaded question that can be.

I love them all for different reasons. The words that came out of my mouth, but which didn’t even seem to cover the thoughts and emotions running through my brain. Each of the three horses I currently own has taught me so much in their own way and has brought about something in me that no other horse has or will.

Jinx, the first horse I ever owned and my most difficult project to date. The once-abused mutt pony has overcome so many trust issues and has tried so hard for me in everything my younger self aspired to try. From being competitive in eventing and dressage, to riding around bareback in the pasture, to jumping my first 4′ fence late at night with my best friend putting the fence higher and higher. He’s been my constant and the one horse that can always bring me back down when my ego is running high with a little buck and spin, knocking me on my butt every time.

Lou, the mega-talented but hard-to-figure out gigantic OTTB. The horse that has shown me just how much I’m capable of. My true upper-level prospect who floats around the dressage ring and eats up a course of fences like it’s nothing. The same horse who forces me to ride him every step, who won’t settle for less than the best I can offer and who has taught me to put my horse’s needs first every single day. He’s shown me that he has all the ability in the world but that uncovering that ability is up to me and only me and that getting selfish has absolutely no place in training horses.

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In-depth conversations with Lou 🙂

Rebel, the horse I purchased sight unseen only because I needed a horse for the makeover. I went into our relationship knowing that she would be trained and showed and then moved on to a long-term home that could enjoy her while I focused on my other projects. Rebel came into my life as a horse that I didn’t expect to bond with, but who turned my world upside down and showed me more love and affection than any horse ever has. At a time when I’ve been surrounded by tough horses and stressful situations, Rebel has taught me that there’s always time for cuddling. She brightens my day and proves that, even though she came straight off the track less than a month ago- possibly the most stressful situation for a young horse to be in- it hasn’t made her sour and she’s still capable of seeing everything in the best light possible. She makes me want to see the world the way she does.

And of course, I held those feelings back and answered the question as normally as I could. I didn’t let them see just how much these horses affect me and how each and every one has come into my life for a reason- teaching me something, showing me something, evoking different emotions, and leaving me a different person than I was before- a better person than I was before.

To the naked eye it may seem like I’m the trainer in this relationship and that the things I do day in and day out evoke change in these animals. But, in reality, I’m the one changing and they’re the ones training me.

 

A Family Affair

Almost 7 months ago today, I sat in the driver’s seat of my Jeep, the back seat and trunk filled to the brim with my belongings and my trusty (if not car sick) pup in the passenger seat soaking in the sun and reveling in the glory that is Dramamine. I followed closely behind my wonderful fiance, trailer and pony in tow, as we made the 3 hour trip south to Lexington.

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The cutest Pitbull there ever was!

Later that afternoon, Matt stayed with me as we unpacked and settled into our new home. But then, he was gone. Heading back home to Indiana to finish out his last 2 weeks at his job and I was alone. In this new house, half-furnished, with my loyal dog asleep in bed and my horses settling in to their new boarding barn half an hour away. I knew no one and nothing of the city. All I knew is I dreamed of the day when I’d live here since the first time my friend took me to Rolex, nearly a decade ago. But now that I was here, I cried. It didn’t matter that I was taking the largest step I’d ever taken toward realizing my dream of riding competitively and pursuing my training business full-time, because at this moment, I was scared out of my mind.

Fast forward to today and I’m now enjoying all that is Lexington. My every waking moment consists of horse-related activities, from my work at Equibase, to my training business and taking care of my 3 spoiled horses. As a little girl, this is all I ever wanted. Because, unlike a lot of riders I hear and read about, I was not born on the back of a horse. My family didn’t really understand why I wanted to go to the barn so often and couldn’t relate to my incessant need to get up early on the weekends and stay out late after school only to come home exhausted and smelling like horse.

Don’t get me wrong, my family has always been, and continues to be, extremely

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Attempting to work in exchange for lessons.

supportive. But they usually support from afar, letting me do my thing and not putting themselves in a position where they could get stepped on or kicked. As a kid, they dropped me off at my lessons and made trips to shows; as a teenager, they didn’t question why I was spending all of my money on grain and tack, or why I traded in my Volvo convertible for a truck (okay, maybe they questioned that one a little bit). They supported my decisions, helped pay for my obsession, but never really got it- offering the murmur of “That’s nice, honey” when I’d go on and on about what they didn’t understand.

Next week, that’s all about to change. I have, somehow, convinced them all to come visit and experience Rolex! I am anxiously awaiting my chance to cram as much equine excitement into their lives as I can in 48 hours. I expect my mom to cringe as the horses go barreling down the cross country course, my dad’s eyes to widen when he sees the price tag on the brand new County saddle I’ve been eyeing, and my brother to ask “Why aren’t you doing that?” as he watches the riders enter the start box Saturday afternoon. Matt will nod and take it all in as I chat with him about which horses are which and look to me for approval when he asks if the horse in the Demo ring just picked up the wrong lead.

And while I don’t think my mom will miraculously stop thinking all horses are out to kill her, and my brother will pick up riding again all because of one event, it’s nice to have everyone together in an attempt to share, or just sort of understand, my passion. Because, at the end of the day, making these scary decisions and chasing this dream in life is only as great as the people I get to share it with.

Time, Miles and Forgiving Hands

Yesterday, I went to the barn after work and tacked up Rebel for her third ride off the track.  Given how much she loves work and attention, as well we her always-thinking and aim-to-please attitude, I decided to ride her outside for the first time.

With two other horses cantering around and a dog weaving in and out of the riding space at seemingly mach-10, it’s needless to say that Rebel was a bit overwhelmed. So we walked, and watched, and walked, and breathed, and when she needed to move forward, we trotted, then stopped, and walked and breathed. And when she finally took a big, deep breath and dropped her head to the ground, releasing the tension built up in her body, we were done for the day.

I’ve been so impressed with how understanding Rebel is and what a wonderful attitude she brings to the table every single day. I try to set goals that are realistic for a not-even-4-year-old that’s been off the track for very little time. But with a horse that’s so easy to work with, it’s hard not to anticipate how wonderful tomorrow’s training session will be or in which way Rebel will blow my mind next.

Yesterday’s ride was a wake-up call. A reminder to myself and my ego that this pretty little mare is still very much a baby. She tested everything from my balance to my patience as we walked and tried to remember how to breathe for the entire ride. It was by far the worst training session yet and made me feel like we took 10 steps backwards. But, in turning lemons into lemonade, I tried to make it a learning experience, not only for Rebel but for myself.

And so, I went home and I read as much as I could. I googled and researched everything I could think of to try to learn from my experiences. I’ve ridden for years and trained numerous horses, but it’s moments like these that I realize how much I don’t know and that others can teach me. I try to absorb information from other riders and trainers, to learn from their mistakes and to understand their concepts and ideas. As I was reading about dressage training for OTTBs, I came across what I have dubbed as my new mantra: Time, Miles and Forgiving Hands.

It seems like the most basic of ideas, but that phrase grounded me. It doesn’t matter what I accomplish or don’t accomplish, what fights my  horses and I have and what victories we celebrate if I haven’t given them time, miles and forgiving hands. Time to comprehend my training, miles to put those principals into effect and forgiving hands to be the most patient, understanding and able partner that I can be every single time I saddle up.

The Battle

Yesterday, I pulled up to the barn and waited for my student like usual. I expected to see her walk in the from the field excited for her first lesson back and ready to jump. Instead, I saw a hanging head, tears in her eyes, her mud-covered horse dragging along at the end of the lead rope and I heard the words that have crossed every rider’s minds a dozen times…

“I’m done. I don’t want to ride. I don’t want a horse anymore.”

My heart sank for her as she fought through tears and tried to explain that horses are a lot of work and it just wasn’t fun anymore. And I knew exactly where she was coming from. How many times have I battled between my passion and the work that has to be put in to pursue that passion?

A lot. The answer is a lot. No one tells you as a little girl how many sleepless nights you’ll have wondering when an abscess will drain, how many tears you’ll cry when your horse doesn’t feel like being caught, and how many times your heart will break when you felt like you gave it your all and it still wasn’t good enough. Or maybe they did tell me, I just wasn’t listening… In any case, it’s scary, it’s hard and it doesn’t get any easier.

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Run! She’ll never catch us!

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What are you doing on the ground?

 

I felt that same feeling when I opened my e-mail and saw the subject line that read: Your Thoroughbred Makeover Application Has Been Accepted. I was ecstatic, elated, excited (and I’m sure a bunch of other e-words I can’t think of right now) but at the same time, my heart sank. I knew this journey would not be an easy one. It would mean more late nights, tears and anxiety wondering if my training methods would hold up against the time crunch, wondering if I had chosen the right horse, wondering if I would make a fool out of myself when it came to packing up and heading to the Kentucky Horse Park.

But, just like my student promised to give it her best shot and leave the negative thoughts on the ground, I, too, will do the same. And the feeling she felt after nailing her 3-stride line on a horse that had just weeks before left her with stitches in her lip, the same feeling I had when she dismounted, hugged her horse and thanked me for the best lesson, that’s the feeling that keeps us all going, that promises things will get better (but only after they get worse) and that convinces us to pursue a crazy dream that we never know if we can accomplish until we get there.