The thing about goals in the horse world…

“A goal is an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envisions, plans and commits to achieve. People endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines”. -Wikipedia

The equestrian version of a goal: an idea of the future or desired result that a person envisions and commits to achieve in which said person’s horse plots to challenge.  Equestrians endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines their horse stretches to the absolute limits.

When I first realized my goal of Prix St. George with my homebred mare, Petite Belle, it was fall of 2016.  My goal was to ride our first FEI test by the end of winter that season.  I overshot my landing by almost a year.  Aside from being stuck in 4th level purgatory for almost a year, being patient this time wasn’t that hard.  I was excited to wear my tails for the first time on a horse that I brought up myself from the day she was born, but I was willing to be as patient as possible, because it was worth it, and I wanted to do it right.

I could not have asked for a better first try.  Our test was harmonious and respectable, but it lacked the pizzazz and correctness to compete with the big dogs in my class.  I was fine with that.  Room for improvement.

So I continued to enter more shows, expecting to improve upon each previous test, with my eyes already set upon Intermediare 1.  But no matter how hard I worked, I was stuck.  Instead of improving upon my scores, they actually lowered.  And I became frustrated with myself and frustrated with my horse – as perfect as she is.

The problem was lack of patience.  While I know better than anyone that slow and steady wins the race, I was determined to prove myself amongst the sharks in the sea called Wellington, Florida.  The pressure to prove my skills not only to my peers, but to myself was causing me to place unreachable expectations on both myself and my horse.

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave when we are waiting.” -Joyce Meyer

I could sense that my 11 year partnership with my sweet mare was being compromised.  My horse who once placed 100% trust in me no matter what, was suddenly nervous and questioning my guidance.

After our last show, frustrated with my performance, I remembered something my trainer, Susan Jaccoma always says: “You aren’t going to the olympics tomorrow.”  (Relax, she’s not implying that I can’t go to the olympics, just that there is no reason to place so much pressure)  So I had to swallow my pride and take a few steps back.  I had to access where the root of my problems were and work from there.

I don’t know how long it will take before I get back in the ring with Belle, but I am in no rush.  Where I am right now, I am learning so much more than I have going down centerline.  I am making an FEI horse, and that is no easy task (as I repeat this in my head over and over).

That’s the thing about goals in the horse world:  You have to be able to dial them down when they aren’t in line with your partner.  The relationship is like a marriage.  You can’t decide to move to China when your partner is happy in Minnesota.

Our Journey to Prix St. George

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 27, 2007 would mark one of the most important days of my life.  It was the day that one of the greatest horses I have and will ever know was born.  Meet Petite Belle!

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Petite Belle and her beautiful mother, Farer Belle Nurse, an ex racehorse.

My first time down centerline was in 2007, the year Belle was born. Our first time down centerline together was in 2010, Dressage at Waterloo. We competed in Intro A and received a 62%. That year, I struggled to get above a 65% at training level with belle, even though i was winning all her classes on her 2 half sisters, but I knew she was special. She was athletic with a heart of gold to match.

The following year, I decided to go for the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships. I’m sure the experienced people around me thought I was nuts and some couldn’t wait to watch me fall flat on my face, but we qualified to compete at Lamplight Equestrian Center against the top 15 four year olds in the nation. I was stoked to qualify, and even more excited when I placed 4th in the warm up against some of the countries top riders.

In the championship class, I was told by the judges that I had not properly developed my horse. If I’m being honest, I flew by the seat of my pants, on Belle’s coattail to get there. I REALLY didn’t know what I was doing. These classes are meant for horses with FEI potential.  I had never ridden above third level, and I didn’t have even 2 year’s worth experience showing dressage, but I was still crushed. While I should have been thankful for the opportunity, I was embarrassed to have tried.  (Imagine that… embarrassed for trying.)

Still, I was determined to learn.  We spent the following winter in Wellington, Florida competing at first level with scores ranging from 68-70%.  However, my dreams were crushed once again.  This time, by a vet, who told me she had changes in one of her hocks that were probably too severe for her to continue.

“You can try resting her for a year, but I’ve worked on some of the top horses in her sport, and she’s just not strong enough.”  He told me.

Something told me he was off his rocker, but we gave her a year off anyway.  That fall, I moved to Florida while she stayed in Michigan and I prayed for a recovery.  When the year was over, I sent a different vet to diagnose her.  By this time, we had met many experienced Dressage trainers during various clinics and such, and every one of them absolutely loved her.  I wasn’t giving up because some vet decided it would be a waste of time and money to recover her.  My new vet gave her a clean diagnoses and told my mother we could send her to Florida!

That night she colicked and was sent to Michigan State for surgery.

Her recovery was full of ups and downs and we were not sure she would make it.  For SEVEN MONTHS we struggled to keep hope.  She finally bounced back and I personally drove up to Michigan to bring her down to Florida in October of 2013.  We decided that the changes in temperature and rich grass in Michigan was too much for her to handle and she would be easier to maintain in Florida.

We returned to the show ring that winter for one show at First Level before I was shot down again.  This time, a torn collateral ligament in the hock.  She spent the winter resting, and rehabbing with injections and shock therapy and by spring made another full recovery.

With the help of Sue Jaccoma’s lovely riding and out of the box thinking, we strengthened her hind end and Sue taught her her changes and filled in the cracks of my inexperience.  She taught me how to REALLY engage her hind end, how to properly ride the half pass and most importantly, how to ride my sensitive horse with harmony.  Season of 2015 was upon us and we were ready for Third Level.

Just as season was about to start, I received a call from Kim Jackson, the owner of May Faire Oaks, where Belle lives that she had been pawing in her stall and was very uncomfortable.    I rushed to the farm, but by the time I arrived, she didn’t even want to stand.  I didn’t want to waste time waiting for a vet, so we loaded her in Kim’s trailer and rushed her to Palm Beach Equine.

She practically took the trailer down on the 25 minute drive there where they had a stall already set up for her.  All I could do was hope that we wouldn’t be faced with the decision of surgery or worse.

My mother and I had talked about if this had happened again and after such a difficult recovery the first time around, we didn’t want to put her through that again.

But it was clear when she immediately laid down in the stall with her head pressed against the wall, too weak to move into a more comfortable position, groaning with every breath that we had to decide if we were going to say goodbye, or take a risk and spend thousands of dollars to save our sweet beauty.

If you’ve ever met Belle, you can understand why goodbye was not an option.  She is playful in the field, yet serious and focused under saddle.  I have never sat on a horse that will do nothing but try, no matter what the situation, the way she does.  Snuggles are her favorite thing.  I could put a baby on her and she would make sure it’s safe and then take her galloping full force around the loop of White Fences.  She is athletic and talented and if you touch her, you fall in love.  We have all been blessed to have a little bit of ‘Miss Priss’ in our lives.

That night, I waited for the surgeon to arrive.  I waited while they prepared her table.  I watched as they lifted her, belly up and sliced open the already drawn line on her belly from her first surgery.  I watched them remove all her intestines, purple from lack of oxygen and untwisted her colon.  I stayed while they carefully pieced her together and placed her in the padded recovery room to wake up.  I waited until she woke and helped them take her to her stall.  At 3:30am, I kissed her nose and said “See you in the morning.”

I came everyday, 4 times a day to check on her.  When I snuggled her, she rested her head in my chest and took deep breaths, just as she always had.  We walked and she grazed and sometimes, she got a little bit of carrot, because, well, those are her favorite.

Her recovery was smooth and the only worry she gave us was the hernia that developed on her belly from the incision.  Two years later, she still has that hernia.  It’s our everyday reminder of what we’ve been through, and what we’ve overcome.  I’ve grown to like it.

Last year we started competition at Third Level and quickly moved to Fourth where we torchered each other at 5 shows.  (If you’ve competed fourth level, you know what I’m talking about.)  Every ride, I walked out of the show ring, unsure if I would receive a score above 60%, and sometimes I did not.  But I learned a lot.  Mostly, how to let go, both in the saddle And in my mind.  This was the struggle I had to face in order to ride an FEI test.  I can’t say I ever mastered a Fourth Level test, but my riding improved exponentially.

Finally, during a lesson last month, Sue says to me, “I’m almost tempted to say enter Prix St. George at Adam’s! (White Fences Equestrian Center)”

WHERE DO I SIGN UP????!!!!!

So this weekend, I did it.  I rode down centerline and completed my first FEI test.  Not on Belle’s coattails, but in someone else’s because the coat I ordered wouldn’t be finished before the show.  But that’s ok, because I earned those tails!

My class was filled with 18 of the top riders in Wellington, including Lars Peterson and Jaun Matute.  I received a 64.7% placing me 14th.  Years ago, I would not have been satisfied with this score, or this placing and there is no way I would share the video for fear of being judge by some armchair equestrians.  Through my struggle, I am no longer entitled to great scores and top placings.  I’m working my way through the seaweed like Nemo looking for Dora in a sea full of sharks.  I am grateful for the chance to have this experience and I appreciate my failures.

Needless to say, Belle gets the VIP treatment these days.  From special diets, to acupuncture, magnetic blankets and every Back On Track product made.  She will be with us for the rest of her life.

I’m almost afraid to publish this, so I’ll just knock on wood real loud before I hit the big blue button, and if you’re still reading this, maybe you should knock on wood too.

I almost choked on my own pride watching this video, so, without further ado….

ENJOY!

#mayfaireoakslife

We all know how difficult it is to find a place for our equine friends to call home. It has to be the kind of place where both you and your horses can feel at ease. It’s so difficult that many of us give up and build our own happy place where our horses get exactly the care they need. Hey, if you want something done right….

I got lucky when I came down to Florida. Before I made the move I flew down for a week in August to check out homes and farms. I wanted a place that was reasonably priced, well maintained, clean and offered dry stalls. I wasn’t ready to hand the reins over to someone to care for my horses and I rather enjoy handling the care myself.  A farm within hacking distance of the WEF showgrounds was a plus.

I used a number of different sights to find a facility. I had numerous correspondence with potential farms. Many of them were quite beautiful and fit most of my needs. I had almost settled on one in Palm Beach Point. It was within my budget, well maintained AND hacking distance to the showgrounds. However, there was no one occupying the farm in the summer and I was coming down with 2 three year olds and a stallion. All of which were very well mannered, but still, not the best idea to be riding alone.  So I decided to take a drive around one morning and see if I couldn’t find a barn that appeared to have some activity.  If you are at all familiar with the Wellington\Loxahatchee region I feel this is really the best way to find your dream barn since we have 5 acre farm next to 5 acre farm everywhere you go. The summer months are quite dead, however, so although I passed dozens of stables, I only found one where I caught a single horse being exercised.

I immediately pulled over and googled the address to find it was named May Faire Oaks. I clicked on the link for the website and called the contact. I asked if they offered annual dry stalls, she said yes, and I scheduled an appointment to check it out.

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Upon arriving at the farm the next day, I was greeted by a number of boarders, including a few I had met the year before as a seasonal boarder at another facility.  People I had also shown with in Michigan during the summers.  I felt like this barn had been tucked away just waiting for me to find it.

When I met Kim Jackson, I felt at ease. We shared many of the same ideas and I could tell she was also a snob about horse care. A compliment in my book. She had a great deal of knowledge about horse breeding and caring for young horses as they mature.  I felt like I could sleep sound at night knowing my fur babies would be tucked in tight at night check – and I was right.  Kim’s attention to detail has never slipped in the last 5 years and it’s rare that I notice even the slightest scratch before her or one of her grooms.  The care is so good, in fact, that my horses are now on full care with Kim’s grooms handling everything from feeding to tacking up.  All I have to do is show up and ride.  While I miss some of the work, I ride 5-8 horses a day at various barns and time is limited.  It’s a blessing that I have found someone I trust with my best horses to ease my workload.

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Aside from the attention to detail, the impeccable maintenance, and the brand new covered arena put in last summer, the camaraderie at May Faire Oaks is what I can never replace.  I might be able to find another barn with great care, but I will never find another farm with the May Faire Oaks Team.  We’ve been working together for years.  We understand each other.  We help each other.  We compliment each other.  It’s rare to witness a group of professional equestrians working under the same roof without ripping each others eyes out to earn a buck, let alone working together to cultivate each others development.  We genuinely enjoy watching each other flourish.  Don’t get me wrong, we are all women, so we have our ups and downs, but at the end of the day we want nothing more that to see each other succeed.

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I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to Kim Jackson for providing such a wonderful home for our beloved animals and for somehow managing to pick the cream of the crop in South Florida that is the May Faire Oaks Team.  But most importantly, I can’t finish this without recognizing all the hard work you put into making sure our horses are happy and healthy.  You have gone ABOVE and BEYOND to care for my horses in sickness and in health.  From trailering my horse to the vet in the middle of the night, to attending vet calls when I can’t be there, to putting up with my slightly possessed chestnut mare attacking ghosts in the middle of the night.  I’ve watched you go out of your way providing care to boarders horses whenever they need special attention or medication.  Not many farms come with a vet tech on call.

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Kim Jackson, YOU ARE APPRECIATED.

 

A big thanks again to Carmen Franco for the wonderful photos.  You have made my blogs 100% more interesting.  You too are appreciated!

Does the Perfect Trainer Exist?

I think it’s safe to say that I feel we have a serious issue revolving around trainers in our sport if you read ‘Raising the Client-Trainer Standard‘ where I discussed the expectations each side should hold each other to, or A Letter to my Former Trainer about my experience being let down.  Which raises the question: Does the ‘perfect trainer’ exist?

Well, none of us are perfect, but I believe I have found the perfect trainer for me.

So what is it about her that makes her just the right fit?

First of all, she gets me. I understand that I can be difficult. While I am very eager to learn and willing to put in the work, I also have to challenge everything I don’t understand. This is not because I don’t trust her – in fact, I think she’s quite a genius and her techniques have never failed me. But I’m a Mare, and I want everything to be my idea. So when I huff and puff because I’m frustrated and can’t make sense of something, she doesn’t take it personally.  She either finds a way to work me through it, or she finds another way to show me.

She’s way too laid back to let this get the best of her and even when dealing with the horses, if her training is challenged, she stays calm and collected, but persists. If she still isn’t getting through, she will find another solution, and always with a giggle and a smile.

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She has a way of projecting her joy of training onto horses and students alike.

Which brings me to my second point: my horses LOVE her. Because she is so tactful and patient, my horses trust her and enjoy working for her. They even enjoy my lessons with her.  I have lessoned on horses she has never ridden, but they just seem to know I am going to ride better that day.  Her voice alone has the ability to relax them if they are tense at a show, and during our lessons at home, I can sense them looking for her approval as we trot past the gazebo where she sits.

Third: her tool chest of techniques and exercises is never-ending.  There are days where I am trying to overcome a problem that I feel is monumental and will take months to fix.  Sue comes along, tells me to put their haunches here, or their shoulder there, turn here, or move my leg there and POOF!  Problem solved!

Which is why number four is no surprise:  She can turn a 4 into an 8.  I have seen her get on a horse and make it unrecognizable (literally, I have to ask who the horse is, only to find out it is a horse that I have known for years) because she brings out the best in every horse and every rider she trains.  Sure, we’ve all seen auction riders get on a horse and spin it around in a forced frame and push the biggest possible movement the horse can give for a 30 minute ride, but she takes her time.  She puts in the work and makes the results last with patient and methodical training.

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Coaching Carmen Franco at Global Dressage

Number five is most important and almost makes reasons 1-4 irrelevant:  She believes in me.

When I met Sue Jaccoma, I had decided I was the baby whisperer.  That is the niche that I had found worked for me, and I settled myself there.  I love starting babies and I’m good at it, so I had given up my big dreams of FEI and Grand Prix and Sue brought me back to my place where nothing is impossible.  A place I had allowed neigh-sayers to push me out of and a place that brings me to life.  I’m not sure she even realized it, and she may be kicking herself in the *$$ for waking the lion, but I feel like Jasmine on a flying carpet and Susan is singing “I can show you the world!”

O.K, it’s not really that romantic, but Sue has been an inspiration, mentor and friend.  When I get down on myself and I think I’m no good, in her motherly way, she will kick me in the rear for being ungrateful and remind me of how far I’ve come, the achievements I’ve made, and that following my dreams is no easy task.

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Trying to be like Sue

She has never put herself on a pedestal and tried to pretend she is perfect.  She knows who she is and is incapable of being anything but genuine and always candid about her aptitudes as well as her insecurities.  Her attitude about the trials and tribulations and the highs and lows that come with being an equestrian is always positive and forward thinking.  Tomorrow is a new day.  She’s not in this sport for anything but the love of the animal.

So, thank you, Sue Jaccoma, for being the perfect trainer for me.  Thank you for all the time and effort you have put in to molding me into the rider I am today.  Thank you for supporting me and for all the opportunities you have provided me, from showing one of your young horses, to allowing me to learn on your own prized possessions.  While you are only there for me in the Dressage Ring, you have made me an overall better horseman and rider and even my jumpers thank you!  I look forward to many years and ribbons ahead!

I’d like to give special thanks to Queca Franco for capturing all these moments that so perfectly represent Sue’s carefree personality.  The time that you have committed to the May Faire Oaks Team, capturing our highlights – and some of the lows – and tending to us at the ring when you aren’t showing and could be at home, resting, has not gone unrecognized.  We couldn’t do it without you

A Letter to my Former Trainer

I want to start by thanking you for everything you taught me.  With you, I learned more than just how to ride.  I learned horsemanship.  I learned networking.  I learned business skills from within the equestrian world.  I watched you, a successful equestrian entrepreneur, juggle clients, horses and grooms.  Your farm was a well oiled machine that spit dollars and ribbons.  I was in awe.

When I first started riding with you I felt like I had hit the jackpot.  I felt like I had an encyclopedia of equi-knowledge right at my fingertips.  I had someone in my corner with the ability to give me everything I needed to build my career.  My dream was to have a successful sales barn and you could sell ice to an eskimo.

What I didn’t realize was that you had the ability to bring me down.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to blame you for this.  I honestly think that the negativity that spews from your mouth comes from a good place.  You are instinctually a teacher and a leader.  People are drawn to you and they naturally look up to you, as I did, so it’s understandable that I believed you when you told me that neither I, or my horses, were good enough to make it in this business.

I didn’t start riding as a child, like many other professionals out there.  I started when I was 18 and right before I turned 21 I quit for 5 years.  I don’t have the mileage under my belt that most riders have, so it’s understandable that my green mistakes would put you off.

While you were focused on everything I was doing wrong, you failed to acknowledge the bigger picture.  You live in a world of polished professionals and finished horses, so I get why you would overlook the diamond in the rough.  Why waste your time and tarnish your golden reputation on such shitty horses and an inexperienced professional.  I imagine you worked long and hard to get to a place where you no longer have to invest so much in such a high risk stock.

I guess this is why you and I didn’t work out in the end.  I love the underdog.  I love the Secretariats and the Sea Biscuits.  Nobody is ever going to make a movie about the horse that was bought for half a million and won the Hunter Derby.  We see it everyday.  With every horse there are ups and downs, but that horse doesn’t have the whole world watching, waiting for it to fail.  And when it succeeds, no one really cares.

But this isn’t just about validation for me.  This is about inspiring others.  All the riders who have the drive, and the willingness to work their asses off to get the chance to swim with the sharks.  The riders who are willing to put in the time on the horse they bought for $1000 so they can steal the blue ribbon from the 6 figure horse.  The ones who groom all day long so they can come home with an hour of daylight to ride their horse after 4 hours of sleep so they can wake up again at 5am.  The ones you said weren’t good enough because they don’t know what it’s like to sit on the horse that has already won 5 championships because the only horse they have ever sat on were the ones they bought at an auction.

So, regarding your advice to give up training and work at a desk-  Thanks, but no thanks, because I don’t belong behind a desk, I belong in the saddle.  In the next few years, you may see me in the ring and I’ll make a mistake and you’ll laugh at how I should have listened when you told me to hang up my boots.  I can see you telling others how you gave me such good advice, but I didn’t listen.  That’s fine.  Keep watching.  There is going to come a day when you have to do a double take because you don’t recognize me.  You will think it’s a fluke, because we all have really good days.  But it will happen again…. and again….. and again.  Till one day, you realize, you got it wrong.  Because I will stick my neck out there for you and everyone else to slice.  I’ll jump and fall flat on my face (maybe even literally), because I realize now that every cut and every bruise, every failure and embarrassment was placed there, not for me to run from, but as a building block to my dreams.

I didn’t name my business ‘Starbound’ for nothing.

Sincerely,

The Dark Horse

Going Solo: My Gamble in the Jumper Ring

I’ve been riding as a professional for a while now, but it isn’t typical that you will find me at a horse show without a trainer  This weekend, I decided to step outside of my usual box and brave the WEF Summer series sans trainer.  This isn’t because I’ve reached a place where I feel like I no longer need help – I don’t believe that day should ever come – but because sometimes I just need to do it by myself.  Because I’m tired of paying someone to tell me to stop making the mistakes I already know I’m making.

I’ve always been the type of person who HAS to make my own mistakes in order to learn.  If someone tells me not to do something, I have to do it anyway, just to see.  This isn’t always a conscious thought.  When my father told me not to max out my credit cards, I didn’t think “I want to find out what will happen if I exceed my limit.”  It just happened.  And at 23 years of age, I had to deal with the consequences.

When a trainer tells me not to override, it’s not that I enjoy overworking and getting minimal results, but somewhere along the line, it became my instinct and it takes a lot of concentration to catch myself AND reverse habits.  A level of concentration that is hard to keep with a 3′ jump coming with no distance in sight, a voice yelling in the background “Give! Give!”, and the voices in my head telling me I’m about to F*** up royally, accompanied by visions of poles flying everywhere as I crash my horse into the jump.

Besides, there is a certain feeling that you get when you make a mistake and you dust yourself off, try it again, and succeed.  It’s called confidence.  And confidence is one of the major building blocks to becoming better at anything.  If you have confidence, it’s easier to get up after a fall.  You forgive yourself for your mistakes and you try again because you KNOW you can do better, and you won’t give up until you reach your potential.

I’ve struggled with confidence in the jumper ring.  I make mistakes that I KNOW I shouldn’t be making and I kick myself for doing so.  The fact that making those mistakes had become a subconscious ritual for me, was making me a bad rider.  I expected to fail, and hoped I would succeed.  When a jump is coming at you in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, you can’t just hold on and hope that it works out.  You have to know that you have a the correct stride and impulsion and time to make a proper correction without overdoing it.

How many of us can agree that 90% of the mistakes we make over fences come from an “Oh Shit!” state of mind?  Either you didn’t act at all because you were too afraid, or you put your hand in a hat and pulled out a solution and threw it at your horse as quick as you could without contemplating the circumstances.  Panic makes you kick and pull, confidence gives you the ability to stay steady and know that you have time to contemplate the right choice AND trust your horse to react.

So this weekend I decided to have a leap of faith.  Faith that I would ride with focus, certainty and patience.  Faith that I would not judge myself or be distracted by the judgments I presume everyone is making of me.  Most importantly, faith that I would accept the outcome and learn from my disappointments and become better as a result.

So here’s what happened:

First of all, I did not ride any worse, or any better than I would having a trainer present, but I saved about $255 (assuming a rate of $85/day, which is the average of trainers I would work with in my area).  Since I trailered in, my show fees were only $193, so I cut my expense by over half, but that’s not the important part.  That is just the icing on the cake.  The important part is that I was not thrilled with my ride on Friday, but I took all my pros and cons and used them to improve on Saturday.  I went into Saturday’s ride with more confidence than I had on Friday because I didn’t hold Friday’s ride against myself.  I knew where I needed to improve and that I was capable of improvement.

Insecurity was definitely riding on my shoulder both days.  More so on Friday, but even Saturday she put up a hard fight for the reins.  She is a beast that I have vowed to mute, but the only way I can win is to get in the ring and fight.

So the point of this blog isn’t to tell you to fire your trainer.  It’s to encourage you to bet on yourself.  What have you been dreaming about, but have been afraid to do?  What have you told yourself you can’t do?  If it’s something big, why can’t you take the steps to get there?  What’s holding you back?  Tell me why you can’t, and I’ll tell you why you can!  I dare you!

 

When It’s Time to Move On

I fell in love with Pulsar the day I met him, which happens to be the day he was born.  He was large and gangly and quite skeptical which is ironic since he turned out to be one of the boldest and bravest horses I’ve ever known.  But as a baby, he would hide behind his mother and hardly let me near him.  I loved antagonizing him to play with me which his mother didn’t appreciate much.  I knew this because I came close enough to her mouth to count her teeth a few times when I wasn’t paying attention.  He was curious, but he was a mama’s boy, so he took advantage of her protection.

I wasn’t worried.  I knew he would come around.  And he did.  When he got weaned and he no longer had a mommy, someone had to fill her shoes.

Pulsar was one of the first horses I started, so I didn’t know a lot about bringing up babies and what to look for in a prospect.  I just knew I was going to make him mine.  He was going to be my jumper and we were going to Grand Prix.

He grew very fast but his hind end and his front end had different timelines, so when he was a yearling, he looked like an oversized donkey.  He was probably 16.1, YUGE head, large, floppy ears; his hind end was probably an entire hand taller than his wither and NO neck.  At this time, I wasn’t telling anyone my big plans for my superstar, because honestly, I didn’t know anything about competing a donkey.

By the time he was two, he had grown to 17.2 hands and his body was starting to catch up with itself so I no longer felt the need to inquire if Select Breeders had been carrying any donkey sperm that may have been mixed with my stallions semen.

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Pulsar – 2 years

The funny thing about Pulsar was that other horses HATED him.  When he was young and he went out with a herd, he would stay on the other side of the paddock and if he attempted to come near them – which he always persisted – at least one of the herd would launch and bite at him.  Although he would be covered in bite and kick marks, he never gave up.  Maybe, on some subconscious level, this is why we bonded.   We were both ugly ducklings who never seemed to understand or care why the rest of the world couldn’t see how cool we were.

Maybe they were just intimidated because they knew he would grow into a cover model.

 

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Pulsar on the cover of Il Mio Cavallo. Photo by Bob Langrish

It didn’t matter that he didn’t get along with the other horses because people loved him and he loved those silly little two legged things that always came around and fed him and told him how great he was.  We were gods gift to him and I’m certain that the relationship that I developed with him during his early years is the reason he turned out to be such an amazing partner under saddle.  Most of the scores I received on him at Training Level – my first year showing dressage – were in the 70s.  Pulsar was consistent in the bridle, his 20 meter circles must have had an imaginary line for him to follow, his transitions were always balanced and on the aids and to top it off his oversized ears would just flop around throughout the ENTIRE test. But he was not a dressage horse.  He was too heavy and too slow and he liked it that way.pulsarhead

Besides, his passion was jumping anyway.  

Although I already had my professional status and rode about 6 other horses a day, I always treated Pulsar like my amateur horse.  I treated him like a pet and I did everything with him.  I never confined him to the arena to do the same thing everyday.  It drove my trainer at the time nuts because I would take him for hard gallops and let him run as fast as he wanted.  She was sure I would break him but I never wanted him to become sour.  We spent a lot of the time in the summer in the field or on trail.  If I wasn’t jumping, I didn’t want to be in the arena, unless it was winter and I had no other choice.  (I’m allergic to snow.)  I always wanted to go hunting with him, but never took the chance.  He would have loved it!

As pulsar began to mature and became slower and heavier, I started to come to terms with what everyone had suggested of him since I started him.  Pulsar was a hunter.  I rode him in the jumpers anyway and it was good for me because we never had a rushed round that just seemed hectic and unorganized and he took care of me no matter what. 

I had people mention the idea of selling Pulsar many times to which my response was always “Never! Not even for a million dollars.”  He was my best friend and there is no money that could buy that.  I loved the idea of keeping him forever and him being one of the few show horses in the world who never gets sold.  He would never lose his person.

Unfortunately, I was never the one footing the bill on this horse.  My father was.  Along with 23 other show horses, broodmares and babies.  He was trying to support my dream, but I could see that it was weighing on our relationship.  But I had bigger dreams.  I kept wanting to do more and more and he wanted to pay for less and less.  After Pulsar and I spent a winter in Wellington, Fl, along with my mothers horse Belle and our stallion Patrick it was clear to me I had hit the bottom of the barrel.  It was too much and for a business man, it was not yielding enough return.  I was just starting to salivate on the idea of winters in Florida and the lengths it could take me, and my father was lowering my credit line.

I understood that I couldn’t continue to juice my own father for everything he was worth, but I wasn’t willing to give up on my dreams.  I knew that he would continue to cut off funds and it was time to take matters into my own hands.  It was time to be realistic and understand that my best friend and I had different plans for the future.  No, Pulsar wasn’t making big plans, but he knew who he was.  He was a hunter.  For the past year, I had been trying to make him quicker and lighter to no gain.  As an amateur hunter, he was gold.  It didn’t matter what you did on top of him, he would keep a slow steady pace with every stride.  I knew he was worth a lot.  Enough to support me for plenty of time to plant my own roots and start my own business.  In Florida.

So I sold my best friend.  Wow.  What a terrible sentence.  Some may think “How could you make such a selfish choice?”  I know that my friend wants me to be happy, just like I want the same for him.  I sold him to one of my trainer’s clients because I knew that she recognized what an amazing horse he is and the life he deserves to have.  He’s even continued his modeling career and progressed into television!  http://www.fox2detroit.com/good-day/259460389-story

I think about Pulsar all the time and I check in on him regularly (thank you Facebook!)  just to make sure someone is still loving him as much as I did.  Mostly I think about how grateful I am for the gifts he gave me, especially the opportunity to live in Wellington, Fl and be surrounded by the top riders and trainers in the world.

He was only 7 when I sold him, but we had developed such a tight bond in those 7 years.  The most important thing that he taught me, was how the relationship you have with your horse can drastically improve the results you achieve under saddle.  Almost every horses I work with is a sales horse, or a young horse that I will start and eventually pass on to it’s owner to continue it’s training.  Almost every single one will slip through my hands in the blink of an eye but I still focus my biggest priority on the relationship I have with that horse over any sort of training.  I fall in love with every horse I work with, and I make sure they fall for me.

I made this video for him after I sold him and I still cry the second I hit play.  

 Have you ever had to let a horse you loved dearly go?

 

Raising the Client-Trainer Standard

I have often said that choosing and keeping the right trainer is like dating.  When you first start riding, you probably pick the first one you find, not knowing what to look for.  As you start to learn a little more about the sport, you begin to broaden your horizons.  It may be that your first trainer is limited as to what he or she can offer you – Maybe their own knowledge is limited, or they aren’t going to the shows you’ve discovered you would like to attend.  It is also possible that you no longer agree with their training methods.  Maybe they are too harsh, or they have one method for every horse and every rider.

So you search for someone new.  Someone who better fits your current needs.  When you find them, it’s like the honeymoon period.  They are the best!  You’ve learned so many new techniques, your confidence is up, your horse is going better.  They may even help you find a more suitable horse with whom you move up a level or even two and win even more ribbons.  Everything is fabulous.  Until it isn’t again.  Maybe you plateau, maybe they don’t show up to school you at the show because they’re too busy with ‘more important clients’, or maybe you find out they have been ripping you off.  We all know the plethora of reasons for trainer-client break-ups.  At this point, you either decide to look for a new trainer, or a new trainer finds you.

Some repeat this process multiple times over and earn the label ‘Trainer Hopper,’ a stigma that most riders want to avoid.  However, I have to ask, why should you be frowned upon for having high expectations for yourself and for your trainer?  Why shouldn’t you desire the best match?  Your trainers job is to teach you to be a better rider.  If you don’t feel you are getting that result, then you need to change something.  Otherwise, what are you paying for?

I hear trainers getting frustrated with their riders because they tell them the same thing over and over again and the client doesn’t change.  Is that how you train a horse too?  Do you dismiss everyone that doesn’t respond to your methods of communication, or is it only the ones who are paying your bills?

As a trainer, if you are exhausting every option and not getting anywhere, maybe you need to explore the idea that it might be that you aren’t a great fit for your client.  And that’s ok, not everyone is compatible forever.  Or, maybe you are just stumped on one particular problem and you need another set of eyes, with a different form of communication to come in and say pretty much what you’ve been trying to convey all along – just different – to get you over the hump.  Maybe you just need to do a little research to find an exercise to give the rider a better feel.  But don’t blame your 3 foot amateur who spends $4000 a month just to have fun for being incompetent.  Embrace the challenge and find a better solution.

I’m not saying trainers should pamper their clients and make everything sunshine and rainbows.  That irritates me just as much.  They longe the horse before the client arrives, have it groomed and ready for the rider to just insert their foot in the stirrup and have a perfect lesson where they hardly break a sweat.  If the horse puts a foot out of place, take the rider off, put the horse back on the longe, or give it a school, place rider back in saddle.  When the horse finally refuses to work for the amateur after being yanked and poked and constantly asked impossible questions, he gets sold and a fresh ride takes his place.  The cycle continues and the only thing that changes is the horse and the number in the trainers bank account after all the commissions.  How about you teach the rider how to ride?  If they want to just sit there, give them directions to the local fair and have them ride the merry-go-round.  An equestrian who doesn’t want to learn their craft is the equivalent to a boxer who is afraid to get punched.  This is a sport – “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment (Oxford Dictionary)”

I always tell my friends when they are dating: “Your low expectations are setting the standard for everyone in the world.”  The same goes for riding:  It is just as much the clients responsibility to raise their expectations as it is the trainers responsibility to meet them.  It works both ways;  you shouldn’t want to work for someone who isn’t working for you.  And the more clients settle for less, the less trainers will give.  The more trainers expect less of their clients, the less clients will feel they have to give.  But hey, everyones making money off it, so what’s the big deal?

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Disclaimer: I understand that there are older amateurs out there who we want to keep safe.  The joy of our sport is that it is the only olympic sport with riders competing over 50.  I know a man who rode into his 90’s and still jumped 3 foot.  He looked like a sack of potatoes riding a 17 hand warmblood, but he was good!  This is an exception.  This man could have run over a small child with his Cadillac and not even know it, but he could probably beat me in any hunter class.  However, I still would have like to seen him wrapped in bubble wrap when he was mounted.

 

The Faith to Win

I know many amateurs who get anxiety just thinking about filling out an entry form.  They don’t sleep the night before a show.  They can’t eat the entire day before they show and the only thing crossing their minds before they go into the ring is how badly they are about to embarrass themselves.  They focus on all the things that can and will go wrong.

I know this feeling.  I’ve gotten myself so worked up before a class that I almost puked.  I blame my anxiety for my drop from 4th in the warm up(right in front of George Williams and horizon: My claim to fame.) – down to 14th (last) in the 2011 USEF Markel 4 year old championships.  (Yes, I have to write out the entire class name.  You know.  Pride.)  I couldn’t get my head on straight that day.  All I could think about was how I didn’t deserve to be there with all of those huge names on beautiful imported warmbloods whose papers alone cost more than my car.  I knew it was going to affect me because I have never gone into the ring with that attitude and not been chewed up and spit out at least 5 times before leaving the ring.  Add to that, the fact that my horse is half thoroughbred and can read my mind and you get my most embarrassing moment to date.  For those of you who don’t know, these young horse classes are scored by 3 judges who announce their opinion of you over a microphone for everyone to hear.  People were there from all over the nation to compete and to watch the future of dressage.  I wanted to crawl in a hole and die.

I could have decided that I suck.  I should quit being a professional.  That I don’t have what it takes.  And I did for a moment, but that’s not how I work.  When I get knocked down, all I can think about is how I can redeem myself.  I focus on how my next move is going to make people forget about my failure.  The reality of that is that it is hard.  People tend to focus on the negative, so I most likely will need 5 positive events to cover that one negative ride.  It puts a lot of pressure on every ride, but I have faith.  Faith that I can do better.  Faith that I am better.  Faith that even if I fall, I can still rise another day.  Before I go into the ring, I try to focus my anxiety into excitement.  I’m so excited for my chance to win.  To show everyone my talent.  I’m excited to improve upon my last ride.  That doesn’t mean it always turns out as good as I hoped, but I’m not ready to puke before I go into the ring.

I think many people believe that if they don’t hype themselves up that they won’t have to deal with the disappointment of failure.  When have you ever come out of the ring after a bad ride and thought, “well, that’s cool, I knew I was going to suck.”  You’re still disappointed.  You’re still embarrassed.  The reality is that you set yourself up for failure.  You’ve stamped into your head that you aren’t capable – and so you aren’t.

People often despise cocky people like Donald Trump – “It’s going to be great!  It’s going to be Huge!” Or Rhonda Rousey whom they were so excited to see finally knocked out by Holly Holmes because she was an expert shit talker.  What they don’t realize is that they are announcing their affirmations out loud, to the world.  That’s brave!  If you’re over 30 you probably remember Stuart Smiley from Saturday Night Live:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it!  People like me!”  Yea, we laughed because it sounds ridiculous, but it works!  Ask any successful person.  Their affirmations may be subconscious, but they definitely never tell themselves they can’t.

Believing in yourself is not some special talent that only certain people were given.  It’s a learned habit.  Some people have learned to question their talent.  It’s understandable.  When you first started riding, maybe you thought you were good.  Until something happened that convinced you otherwise.  Maybe in your younger years you could compete and win, but now you just aren’t as good.  At some point, you told yourself that you could do it and you failed.  You lied, right?  And maybe you still thought you were ok, but then you failed again.  Lied again.  If a person lies to you more than once, you probably question everything they say from that point on.  Eventually, you will think everything they say is false.  Additionally, what happens if you are always around someone who tells you you aren’t good enough?  Someone who ridicules every single mistake you make over and over?  It would be hard not to believe.

What if you changed your perception?  What if you forgave your mistakes?  What if, instead of looking at your mistakes as a failure, you see them as a gift?  What?  That’s like wrapping up dog poop in a pretty box and calling it a gift!  Well, if you turned it into fertilizer, it could be!  The fact of the matter is, no successful person got where they are WITHOUT making mistakes.  What made them successful is what they did with those mistakes.  Those who choose to beat themselves up don’t grow, in fact, they shrink.  Those who choose to use those mistakes and build another step on the ladder grow more with every oops!

My mistake during the 2011 USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships (yes, every time) was doubting myself and trying to change my ride as a result.  I didn’t get there by mistake.  It’s good to improve a little with every ride, but what was I thinking trying to look like Edward Gal and Totalis overnight when I got there looking like Melissa Wanstreet and Petite Belle?  I had many trainers who hated my attitude.  My first dressage show, I wanted 70’s which I was told was impossible.  My dreams were always too big and needed to be dumbed down.  The one time I decided to see myself the way they saw me, I became just that.  Incapable.

So here’s my call to action: What if you told yourself how great you are?  What if, before you entered the ring, you visualized your excellent ride, over and over?  When you are learning your course in the jumpers, imagine your approach to each jump.  Imagine your horse moving forward and straight, you finding the perfect distance, waiting, jumping with balance and precision as you plan your next jump.  When you are reviewing your dressage test, imagine your prep before each movement, imagine executing each movement precisely.   Imagine a balanced and steady ride all the way through.  Imagine it 10 times over before you go into the ring.

If you’ve gotten this far and you think this is all a bunch of cheese, good for you, go back to hating yourself.  I was just trying to help.  But if you think there is even a 1% chance that this could help you, what do you have to lose?  What could you possibly lose by complimenting yourself?  What could you possibly lose by envisioning yourself winning?  Try it, and if it turns out to be the worst experience you’ve ever had, you can come back here and comment about what a idiot I am.

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Ignore the Neigh-sayers

Anyone who has ever played a sport knows how difficult competition is.  You put yourself on a stage for all of your peers to watch as you either fail or succeed.  I’ve played many sports; Tennis, Soccer, I was on the swim team, I ran track, and I danced.  I also pursued acting for a while (I know it’s not a sport, but you get the point – I hope).  But I have never absolutely LOVED something that humbled me as much as Riding Horses.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be around horses and I wanted to ride, but I never really got the chance to REALLY ride until I was 18.  I remember my first lesson.  It was terrible.  Being the entitled little girl that I was, I couldn’t stop swearing and getting irritated because I couldn’t figure out how to post while steering and losing my stirrups.  And, of course, the horse has a mind of it’s own and knew I didn’t have a clue, and made sure to take as much advantage of that fact as possible – as many school horses do.  I’m pretty sure my trainer thought she would never see me again.  Actually, she probably prayed to God she wouldn’t.  Little did she know, she would pick out my first horse, I would attend my first show with her, get my first blue ribbon with her at the in-gate, and she had the pleasure of informing me about my first Reserve Championship at a show – as well as for the year.  This all happened in the span about 13 months.

I was hooked.  That same summer, we attended the Motor City Horse Show at BOH to watch the Grand Prix and I saw Margie Goldstein Engle compete with 6 horses.  I watched in awe as this tiny rider rode these massive, beautiful animals with exceptional ease.  I had never seen horses like this.  I had never seen jumps like that.  Of the 6 horses, 4 made it to the jump off and I believe she placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th. (I could be completely off on my numbers, but this is how I remembered it, and the impression she left.)  I was inspired, to say the least.  That is when I decided I was going to the olympics.  In four years.

Stop laughing.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, or you wouldn’t be asking “Who the hell is Melissa Wanstreet?”

Right now, I am a young horse trainer. I’m a tiny little fish in a sea of great white sharks. I have no problem bragging about my ability to start brave, willing and happy horses.  I have a talent that is undeniable. Unfortunately, in this industry, people tend to focus where you lack, instead of where you flourish. We live in a world where others are constantly trying to knock down the ‘competition’ instead of bring each other up for the betterment of the sport.  On top of that, we are surrounded by the most wealthy people in the world with the means to buy nothing but the best horses. Some of which, let’s admit, could be ridden blindfolded. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to discredit that group, but I too don’t wish to be discredited because I have to teach my horse while my riding skills mature. During this process, mistakes will be made. BIG mistakes.  But if I’m smart, I will learn priceless lessons from those mistakes.

For a long time, I didn’t know that mistakes and failures were a part of the process. I didn’t know how to appreciate them and use them as tools.  When mistakes were made in public, I couldn’t get past my mortification and focus simply on what I would do different next time. My failures were only a source of embarrassment and justification for those wanted me to believe I was not good enough.  I allowed other people’s idea of me become who I was. I convinced myself to lower my expectations of who I could be. I even quit twice. But it always draws me back in. I don’t want anything else like I want success in this sport. I know that now, even though I convinced myself that I hated it.

Looking back, I realize how I only delayed my own progress by listening to the voices in my head that told me “I can’t.” Now I know better than to allow my mistakes to define me. I know better than to put others on a pedestal who would rather knock me down. I feel sorry for anyone who thinks a rider ‘can’t’ get better because it’s obvious that something in their own life has jaded them into believing someone else can’t improve. I see trainers who view their own clients as nothing better than they were yesterday.  I see other professionals and amateurs who have overcome their own obstacles judging others who are where they used to be. To those individuals I ask “What are you so afraid of?” Are you afraid your client won’t need you anymore? Are you afraid your peers will beat you? Because maybe it isn’t that you believe they can’t get better. Maybe the problem is that you think YOU can’t get better.

So, for those of you who are reading this who are struggling to reach your dreams, to those who have given up, to those who have settled for less because you have been told you can’t reach that far; YOU CAN. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be easy.  And it takes time.  Be patient.  Don’t think that just because you have been  a doing this for 5 years that “I must be successful now!”  Enjoy the journey and enjoy the falls – literally and figuratively.  This is a sport where we get knocked down and we get back on the horse. Those mistakes are your gifts and they DO NOT DEFINE YOU UNLESS YOU LET THEM.  Live Your Dream.

The Chinese bamboo tree doesn’t break through the ground for 5 years after it has been planted. But once it breaks through the ground, it will grow 90 feet in 5 weeks. So does it take 5 weeks or 5 years and 5 weeks to grow 90 feet?