When recounting my latest trip to Memphis in May, Jenna made an unexpected request: “Are you going to blog about it? At this point, it’s tradition.” Which is true. Historically, I’ve chronicled my forays into the “A” circuit, sharing my experiences and lessons learned in the hopes that my candidness might resonate with others. Because we all go through the same trials, either at home or away, no matter where we are in our riding skills.
Her comment made me pause. Because I really hadn’t planned to. That era felt over. Especially considering that I was starting over from scratch. But the more I thought about it… the more I didn’t want this tradition to fade. I was ready to share what I learned. And, more to the point, How I Felt. The ever-present gamut of emotions.
That being said, for the past week or so, I’ve struggled with what to write in this space. What story did I want to tell? What message did I want impart? Where to start?
Looking at the posts from the last year, I realized I never wrote about my last Memphis in May experience. So let’s rewind to a year ago.
This time last year, I was swallowing the bitter results of my first-ever derby. Since watching Shanna ride Chip in it the year before, I couldn’t wait to do it myself. Chip’s SI injections had made him a different horse–more powerful over fences, more willing to open his stride. I got a new saddle that helped put me in a better position. And we practiced, practiced, practiced. We got comfortable jumping 2’9”, so I could take those high options and get those extra points.
I also hit the gym a lot in preparation, doing cardio HIIT and weight training, trying to improve my fitness so I wouldn’t tire out mid-course.
That Sunday aside, it was an amazing weekend. We schooled great, though I still struggled to get him to get the step down the lines there were moments of brilliance. Friday the wind was atrocious, the tent next to the North ring fwap-fwap-fwapping constantly. Chip wanted to jump out of skin. I could feel it when we were on course. His attention drifted from me. He wanted to explode. I remember talking to him, telling him to focus, that he could buck later, when we left the ring. That he was okay. I sacrificed getting the step I wanted in order to help balance him through the lines. And when we left the ring, after three clear rounds (and no flipping of back feet!), I was beyond proud of him. And myself, too. I rode him, not how I wanted to, but how he needed me to. It was such a victory, finally understanding him well enough to respond to him, that I didn’t care that our Reserve Champion ribbon was technically last place.
That Saturday, for the first time ever, we managed to open his stride and get the step down the lines. I don’t even remember what ribbon we got. All that mattered was, we were finally getting it. All that hard work had paid off, the endless hours of drilling and frustration. We were syncing in a way we never had before.
I’d like to say our glorious weekend continued in the same vein. But it came to a screeching halt on fence five that Sunday. I was so preoccupied with getting that step, on being light with my seat, on taking the inside turns and all the high options, that I accidentally pointed him to the wrong jump. We sailed over it. And promptly got excused from the ring for going off course.
When I took him back to the stall, so perfectly coiffed in his hunter braids, I wrapped my arms around his neck, breathed him in, and I cried. All that hard work. All that excitement. Burned and bubbled into a poignant sense of disappointment. I was so upset because I felt like I had robbed him. Not myself. But Chip. I’d robbed him of his one moment to shine, for everyone to see the brilliance in him that I did.
He let me lean into him and as I stroked his neck it dawned on me: He didn’t care. He didn’t care about the ribbons or the classes. It didn’t matter that we didn’t finish our course. That we didn’t get to do a victory lap. He just enjoyed being there. Doing something different. With me. Jumping, grooming, grazing. It didn’t matter to him. He was pampered and spoiled, and oh-so-loved, and everything else… the ugly emotions associated with showing, those were my hang ups and not his.
Even still, I vowed that next time, we would be better. We would conquer our next Derby together.
Maybe we would have. I’ll never know.
Because one hot evening in August, I had to unexpectedly say goodbye to my friend. It was the worst right decision I’ve ever had to make. I wasn’t ready to let him go to greener pastures. I wasn’t ready to stop learning with and from him. He was the pea to my pod. The embodiment of all the good things I liked about myself: sweet and loving, with a good sense of humor, and enough sass to keep you on your toes. We were supposed to have plenty of years left together.
His departure left a hole in my soul. And I knew: He could never be replaced. And I didn’t want to. He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse.
If it wasn’t for Micah and the wonderful support of my barn family, who rallied around me, I might never have set foot in the barn again.
But I did. The first few trips were the hardest. I’d like to say that it got easier over time, and maybe it did, but it wasn’t easy so much as it slowly became familiar to see Micah in Chip’s stall instead of Chip.
Fast forward a few months.
My decision to buy something so soon after giving Chip his final kiss might have seemed strange to some, but Micah was already on borrowed time, and I needed someone to give me a sense of purpose again. My heart didn’t want another bay, but my head was open to all options. Enter Ava.
I was drawn to Ava the moment sat on her. And even more so when we trotted and cantered. A four-year-old chestnut mare. Lord help me. Funny enough, I see glimpses of Chip in Ava. She’s generous and forgiving. And she has just enough attitude to let me know exactly what she thinks of things.
The adjustment hasn’t always been an easy one. After five years of riding one way, I’m having to re-learn how to ride in different way, use different parts of my body in a way I haven’t previously. I’m also still learning who Ava is. In fact, I think Ava is still learning who Ava is. It’s an adjustment, going from a fourteen-year-old horse who knows his job extremely well to a now five-year-old who still doesn’t know where her feet are.
When I first purchased Ava, I never would have imagined six months later we would be going to our first show. Or that I would be throwing her into a whole division. Granted, they were just opportunity classes and not Pre-Adult-land, but still. It’s nerve-wracking, taking a large baby somewhere new and seeing how she’ll react and where our skills are, despite how new our relationship still is.
My only goal was to have a fun, positive experience with her. And to keep an enduring sense of humor, no matter what happened. Because she is still a baby. And you know what? Mission accomplished.
Do I wish our rounds had been clear? Of course I do. But the run-outs were my fault and she told everyone very clearly that I did not have my leg on. Do I wish I could have been less-in-my-head and able to feel that fact that I was on the wrong diagonal in my under saddle class? One can only tell oneself to rise and fall with the shoulder on the wall so many times. But those mistakes go away only with time and experience. And, unfortunately, experience comes from going and doing and experiencing.
It will take time for me to know her in and out, like I did Chip. And I still struggle with trusting her. But step by baby step, we will get there.
Until then, I will laugh at my stressed-induced wrong diagonals and over-fences-jello-legs. And when the show is over, we’ll take our mistakes home and go back to work, in a cycle to continuously improve and learn.
Imagine the future roads we’ll tackle together.