Eventing? Not even something I had ever thought of in my years of going around and around in the hunter ring. Why would I want to do something so crazy?
I really didn't know anything about it except that when a horse "lost his mind" at one of the many barns I boarded over the years, they sent him to an event rider. I thought I was happy in my hunter world, though I didn't really know any other option as I lived in the Atlanta suburbs. My big adventure outside the ring was going on a trail ride or walking around the neighborhood cooling my horse down after a lesson. My hunter trainer reminded me of this the other day when I called to tell her that I was nervous about my second upcoming horse trials. She started laughing and pointed out that I had to be ponied the first time we left the property.
Just as we were doing really well in my "come-back-post-baby" riding career, my horse sustained a horrific injury and though he recovered and remains sound, his riding days were over at the ripe age of seven. Meanwhile, I bought another horse to ride while he recovered, knowing that he wasn't the horse, but he was cute and fun, even though he had crooked legs and couldn't swap his leads (which he eventually learned with great objection). We trained him to be a hunter anyway.
One day we had a horse come to our barn from the University of Georgia to rehab from colic surgery. His owner, Lela Wulf, was an eventer. I couldn't believe I was finally going to meet one of these riders with magical powers who could ride the crazies! She would come and hang out at the barn and one day she asked me if I'd like to go ride with her and some friends at a wonderful place called Pine Top. I jumped on the invitation and my little hunter and I met her there.
We arrived, got tacked up (I now know why the girls called my hunter saddle a banana peel), and we were off! Lela yelled, "Just trot up and down the hill and pick up your canter when you're ready." I thought I was going to have a panic attack. Didn't she know that I only go round and round on perfect footing, safely enclosed in a fenced ring? Trot down a hill? My horse won't fall over, will he? I did what she said and pretty soon we got the hang of it. We probably didn't look all that great, but I stayed on.
I was avoiding all eye contact and hoping that we were done when I heard Lela say, "Go jump that little log on the hill." Log on the hill? Where are the jump standards? Is there a ground pole? Are you kidding? These were some of the thoughts swirling around in my head. My little horse that had never before refused a jump read my mind perfectly—I did not want to do that log—and ran out. Once I figured out that he could actually walk over it, our day got better and better. For the first time since I was eight, I galloped (technically cantered, but I felt like we were flying) across a field and I was hooked.
We came back to the barn and I met Glenn Wilson, who owns Pine Top Farm and organizes the events held there. He was so happy to meet a hunter with such a big grin on her face! That was the clincher. I was going to be an eventer!
Now what? I thought about my adventure the whole drive home and tried to figure out a way to compete in the sport without having to ride a "crazy." I emailed Glenn when I got back and asked for a recommendation for a trainer. He gave me Mary Bess Horton's information and I contacted her right away. If I was going to do this, I was going in full throttle! I signed up for a lesson and hauled Jackson Brown, my spunky little horse, an hour and a half away for a lesson. The lesson went beautifully and she was happy with the way I rode and I officially became her student.
A clinic was next on the agenda for us. I was forwarded an email that Lellie Ward was having a clinic in Aiken, South Carolina, and though I had no idea what I was doing, I was going to participate. I loaded up Jackson Brown and we were on our way again. I got to Aiken and found Paradise Farm, but discovered there was no one around to greet me and take my things. What had I gotten myself into? I took a deep breath and found his stall. Being the needy hunter rider that I was, I wanted to find Lellie and talk about the clinic. Of course she was busy getting things ready and told me my ride times and said she would see me the following day.
I was the first one at the farm the next morning, feeding my own horse (unheard of for me!) and making sure he got some turnout. People started hauling in and tacking up and I pretended that I knew what I was doing (now I know how much I stood out in my Tailored Sportsman breeches) and met everyone out in the field where Lellie was teaching. I was completely honest with her about my lack of experience and she was very kind to me. Once we got the "downhill" question out of the way (remember, I don't go downhill – just round and round in perfect footing) and trotting over skinny poles on top of what looked like milk jugs, the next big obstacle was the water jump. Thankfully my horse had no issues and cheerfully trotted through it, happy to be in a field and out of the ring. The video of me doing my course is hilarious—I was smiling so big, I'm surprised there weren't bugs in my teeth! Everyone was so supportive and they actually cheered me on. I went to sleep that night a very, very happy woman, although the thought finally occurred to me that I was choosing the year I was turning 40 to jump things that don't fall down.
After the clinic I got onto a full-time training schedule with Mary Bess. I sent my horse to her and started the spending spree of tack, helmets, coats, and of course the new saddle, which I've dubbed "The Magic Saddle." I was surprised to hear eventers making fun of how much hunter riders spend! We sent Jackson Brown to two competitions with Mary Bess before I even schooled again, and then we signed him up for Poplar Place Horse Trials in January, which would be my first event (not "horse show" but "event"—a whole new language!). I had joined the USEA but I refused to put my sticker on my truck until I had actually ridden a whole cross-country course. I felt like I would be a fake if I did.
I had all of my gear and was prepared for the big day. It was time to get ready on the morning of dressage, but Mary Bess was schooling another student and was unable to help. I had the perfect "hunter hair" under my dressage helmet and my lipstick was flawless, but wait—who'd be tacking up my horse? Why wasn't he already braided? What's going on here? I couldn't find Mary Bess, so I asked her working student, who said she'd braid my patient horse if I paid her, so of course I was offering up the big bucks at this point. I went to get my saddle and finish getting ready, and I came back to find my horse was beautifully braided… in what was that? White bands?! I felt sick to my stomach! I couldn't go out there in white bands! Who are these people? My neighbor, Jessica Hampf, who I'd just met at the event, had been babysitting me so far and since she'd competed in the hunters too, she seemed to be the only one who understood my panic.
Once I calmed down and she reassured me that it was acceptable to have white bands, I started breathing normally again. I still didn't know how to tie this "stock tie" around my neck and my ride time was quickly approaching, so like a pit crew at a NASCAR race, all these people I had just met swarmed around me and had me ready in 30 seconds. I suddenly realized the difference between hunter riders and eventers. Eventers were friendly and helpful!
I got on my horse with a chorus of "good luck" and "you're going to be great," and we were off to our first dressage test. The hunter rider in me took over and I calmly rode my test, which we sailed through with a score of 38, putting us in fifth place out of 16 riders. I was so happy that I didn't have to wait an hour at warm-up to ride. They actually had set ride times.
The next day was cross-country and I left the barn without my pinny, my number, and my medical arm band, and I couldn't believe it, but people I didn't even know went back to the barn to get my stuff for me. Before I knew it we were in the start box and the countdown began. I can't describe the pure terror that I felt in my heart knowing that I'd be out there… alone. Luckily my sweet horse was a saint and I finally started having fun after the fourth fence and felt that special partnership that I kept hearing about from eventers. Let me tell you, we were flying! I was worried we were going to have time penalties and wondered if this must be what it's like to ride a race horse. We jumped the final jump and I heard the crowd cheering. Could it be for me? I raised my hand in victory. We'd done it! We were superstars and now I could call myself an eventer!
I was concerned that we'd gone too fast and incurred time penalties, but my trainer met me at the barn and assured me that I was fine and we'd actually gone a little slow. Slow? Oh my gosh, I thought we were galloping at a breakneck speed! I was so proud of my game little horse and so happy for myself. I was never, ever going back to the hunter ring. I'm not sure what other people felt like the first time that they went cross-country, but I will always remember and appreciate that feeling, even at beginner novice!
Of course the next day was show jumping, which was a piece of cake for me and Jax with our hunter background. I was excited to finally know what I was doing, except that I got lost on course and had to turn a 90-degree angle to jump a fence that I was about to miss. Jackson Brown was so happy that he could add a stride and jump crooked, that he jumped it perfectly. We ended up in second place for the weekend and I couldn't be happier. My little horse that the hunters looked down on was a star in the beginner novice eventing world, and I was so proud of both of us.
I am continually amazed at the kindness and generosity of the people my horse and I meet in eventing, although I still get teased for paying someone to braid my horse, wearing my Tailored Sportsmans in show jumping, and worrying more about how my horse and I look than how difficult the cross-country course will be. I look back and realize how far I've come in just six months and how much support the other riders and my wonderful trainer have given me. People are genuinely welcoming and helpful when they find out how new I am to the sport. While the gossip is just as rampant as the hunter world, it's harmless and fun. I still defend the hunters when I hear them being bashed—it's an excellent way to train and has refined me as a rider.
The eventers are a special group of people. I've never worked harder, done as much by myself (many hunter riders don't haul to shows, groom or tack up their own horses, or strip stalls, et cetera), or been prouder of my accomplishments and the success of my friends. I feel like I belong to a secret club and am sorry for people who will never experience the thrill of galloping across a field and locking in on a jump (yes, we do lock in on a beginner novice 2'9" log!). Thank you for your open arms. I'm looking forward to even more fun as I continue with my newfound eventing career.