Here’s a story to make you wonder “What’s my excuse?”, and inspire you to go ride the horse you have. A reminder of the simple things that are so important, and encouragement to keep trying through the challenges. It is a bumpy road and there will be set backs, but above all else, enjoy each moment and don’t let anyone tell you that you or your horse aren’t good enough for dressage. Make it a New Year’s Resolution, or better yet, start today, but know deep down that every horse has hidden potential waiting to be discovered, and gifts to offer the open-minded rider.
by Elizabeth O’Connor
It’s all about the journey. Every dressage rider that has been in this sport for a hot minute has heard this phrase at least once or twice so far. Dressage riders are by default goal oriented riders. Perfectionists. Many would associate themselves with the “Type A” personality. With this comes a flaw. Sometimes we forget about the journey altogether.
My “journey” started in 2000 when I found an ad online for a horse that had the bloodlines I was searching for: Nearco. This two year old was fitting the bill- I was looking for a horse that could have the potential for jumpers but could also do eventing or dressage. His grandsire was Secretariat, his mother was an open jumper. The catch? He was born with only one eye.
I went to look at him in a snow-covered field, a gangly, underweight, rump high, furry, fuzzy gelding. He was naughty and reared up when we were bringing him in. He pawed in the crossties. I thanked her for her time and made the 3.5 hour drive home. I sent her an email thanking her but advising her $1,500.00 was just too much to pay for a one-eyed, unbroken two year old. She came back and offered him for $500.00 and would take him back at any time.
With a borrowed horse trailer, my dad and I drove 3.5 hours up the PA turnpike to pick up Bugsy. It took six months to get an appropriate amount of weight on him. He did some light under saddle work and then had the rest of the fall, winter and part of the spring off. Light work was the name of the game in the summer of his three-year-old year. We began our show career at age four. He was still growing and still butt high. He had the heart of the Thoroughbred and tried most days. He was not (and is still not) an easy ride. His tally on broken bridles is currently at 5 snaffles and 2 doubles. But our journey was well on its way. I had set the career goal of earning our USDF Bronze medal. I took a lesson with an FEI trainer who doubted Bugsy would ever make it to First Level… needless to say I only took the one lesson with her.
As with any story, there are the all too familiar setbacks. Injuries (all from being naughty in turnout), divorce (huge financial setback forcing me to sell my up and coming Friesian Morgan gelding I had purchased as a weanling), and more injuries. At one point he became cast in his stall and punctured a knee (requiring a soft cast and stall rest for a month). Then came all the turnout-induced injuries (despite these injuries I strongly believe in turnout and he continues to get 12 plus hours each day). Slight strain in a tendon, tore both check ligaments, bruised shoulder (don’t ask me how he did that….), minor ulcers (his friend moved), numerous kicks and scrapes, some mild colic, stitches, abscesses from hell, whacked his leg when he first got shoes and his leg blew up and was lame, bruised heels (fixed with rim pads), I’m sure I’m forgetting something in there somewhere…
Many hours of cold hosing, soaking, heating pads, wound cleansing, hoof packing and walking under saddle. This is a part of the journey that is oftentimes overlooked. Hours spent building a relationship. Not glorious, not accomplishing “goals”. But what was accomplished was a bond, a stronger relationship. When I get to the barn, Bugsy knows my truck, the sound of my voice. If he is in the barn as I walked in, I hear a soft nicker and if I don’t come in soon enough, he voices his displeasure with a whinny. If he is in the field, he comes to the fence line nickering, whinnying. I whistle and he comes running to me. He is my friend.
As a police officer, I had to pick shows that were on my weekends off and those within driving distance (saving money on hotels and stabling and meals). Judge shopping wasn’t a luxury. I used schooling shows to prep for recognized shows. On average we did less than five recognized shows a year.
Finally we earned our Bronze medal! I cried. I couldn’t afford to go to the USDF Convention, which, needless to say, was disappointing. So the question was now what?? Bugsy was only 13, far too young to retire. I decided to go for my Silver Medal.
I was so proud the day I rode down centerline wearing my first shadbelly. Three years later and an increase in recognized shows per year and we earned our Silver medal! I cried. Along the way we qualified for the BLM Championships at 3rd Level, 4th level and Prix St. George. (We actually placed 8th in the 4th Level BLM Championships- the only non-warmblood in the class!!) My wonderful husband took me to Boston to have my Silver medal awarded at the 2014 USDF Convention.
Now what? Bugsy was only 16! Bugsy didn’t owe me anything. I mean not a thing. A $500.00 one-eyed Thoroughbred who had not only helped me earn my USDF Bronze medal, but also my Silver medal! But here’s where I went astray. I decided to go for my Gold Medal. In the blink of an eye I earned half of my scores toward my Gold Medal. But then came, gulp, Grand Prix. Let me tell you, there is a HUGE leap between Intermediate and Grand Prix.
The first time we went down the centerline at Grand Prix I was so scared I was going to forget the test. The entire time I was riding the test I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath- hard movement followed by hard movement followed by hard movement. The score was beyond embarrassing. But I had to remind myself, I was an Adult Amateur who trained her one eyed Thoroughbred through the levels herself through I-1!
Then my beloved Lacey-dog at age six was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and my world came to a screeching halt. We did everything we could to save her but still lost her in 3.5 months. Thankfully, my trainer, Marija Trieschman, and her working student, Ashley Knapp, (who did her first flying change on Bugsy) kept Bugsy in work for me while I took care of and eventually lost Lacey.
Bugsy has had five other people ride him besides me. One was the trainer who did his first 30 days under saddle, as I was entering the police academy and couldn’t risk getting hurt. One was my friend who rode him twice. Another was a friend who rode him maybe a half a dozen times. Marija was the only trainer who offered to ride him. She has helped me bridge the gap to Grand Prix. Before her I hadn’t had anyone else who I rode under ride him. It gave me great pride when she told me one day that I had done a good job training him. She helped on days that I just couldn’t make it up to ride because of my schedule.
I regrouped the next year and gave Grand Prix another go. They don’t give you ANYTHING at Grand Prix. I plugged on and steadily our scores went up (we really had no where to go but up). We even received 7’s and even some 7.5’s! However our piaffe and passage scores were inconsistent, and then there’s the whole 2% off the total score when you forget the test. It was frustrating to see your horse try his heart out and because of the fact that he doesn’t have 10 gaits, you have to fight tooth and nail for every score.
We continued to grow as a Grand Prix team- learning how to turn down the volume now that he was more confirmed in the movements, learning how to ride the dreaded canter zig-zag half pass. We even began receiving consistent 6, 6.5 and even 7’s in the piaffe passage tours. We received our first over 60% score at Grand Prix and I cried on his neck. It was a 61.6%!
We ended our second show season at Grand Prix (really our first full year at Grand Prix) this year with him throwing a tantrum in the test. It was one of our lowest scores this year. I think someone told him I was considering retiring him. I guess he wanted to let me know at 18 he isn’t ready to retire. I was disappointed to say the least. It would have been a fairy tale ending to earn our final score at the final show of the show season. Then I told myself that it was a first world problem to have and I really shouldn’t be so upset. Most importantly I realized something. That I was chasing that final Grand Prix score… and forgetting about what was important. The relationship. The journey. Forgetting the fact we have accomplished more than most Adult Amateurs even come close to.
Putting so much pressure on a score, Bugsy was feeling the pressure I was putting on myself. Showing wasn’t fun anymore. I felt pressured to ride, and with my 12 hour patrol schedule it can make riding difficult. All I could see was the final 60 plus. All I wanted was to get the final score so we could stop trying so hard. I forgot what it is all about. I forgot that we have done more, more than anyone ever thought we would. He doesn’t owe me anything. I am honored to have the honor of his friendship and partnership. Two days after our last show, I had to have knee surgery and now as I write this story, I sit envisioning what the next year may bring. This winter I have a new set of goals: remember to enjoy our friendship, partnership and the ride. As for next show season? If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t? It has been one hell of a journey!