The expression on April's face was priceless - a mixture of awe, surprise, and happiness. Having spent years in diligent pursuit of knowledge, up until that moment she had nothing to show for it. Now she had her first blue ribbon and I couldn't have been happier for her, or prouder.
It had been less then four months since April had called me out of the blue, and almost 10 years to the day when I first saw Jamie, who set the standard against which all students have since been measured - Jamie, who claims the title of 'Bestest.'
Like most of the kids I've taught, April came to me out of the blue. Having been without a coach for several years, her riding had deteriorated to the point that her once confident horse, Tango, who at one time had confidently jumped four foot fences, was now stopping at simple X's. Communication
between the pair was so bad that their rides looked more like a battle than the happy relationship one would expect between a 16-year-old girl and her pony. It was obvious as I watched them during their first lesson that neither was having any fun.
To say April sat a horse beautifully would be the understatement of the century. My first reaction upon seeing her on Tango, her pretty (and as I would soon learn) very talented chestnut mare was, "Wow! Now this kid is going to be fun to teach!"
The quintessential natural rider, April had no fear of horses, a heart of gold, a great sense of balance and rhythm, a love of jumping, and an unquenchable thirst for speed. All that prevented her from become an exceptional event rider was the knowledge to pull it all together and a reason to smile.
She would soon have both.
While April makes a good attempt at being outgoing, she is really shy. Her strong desire to excel is backed by a work ethic a 17-century puritan would have been proud of. Tango was a perfect match for April's drive and determination. Like April, Tango's talent was only exceeded by her desire to
please, and like April, all Tango needed was a steady and consistent direction.
Like most riders who go without a coach for a long time, April had picked up some rather bad habits. Tango was April's first horse, and over the years they had developed a means of communicating with each other that was unique to them.
The gulf between April's way of communicating with a horse and classical communications became evident when I placed April on one of my schoolmasters. Try as she might, April was unable to perform even basic flatwork. While I was able to get Tango to perform for me, it would cost me two tubes of
Bengay before my legs once again felt like they were part of my body!
It had been more than three years since I had last really taught. I was enjoying spending the time working on myself and my own horses and was loath to return to teaching. But something told me this pair was going to be worth the effort. So, in spite of the knowledge of the hill that they had to
climb, or maybe because of that knowledge, I agreed to take them on.
In agreeing to teach April, I had set several ground rules. No drugs, no drinking, maintain a B+ average in school, dress properly around the barn, and above all else, if she was going to ride English, she had better learn how to speak it! The first four proved easy for April to meet. The latter has
proven to be problematic for a vernacularly challenged April.
Getting back to Basics
"What do you call these?" I asked a bewildered April, holding her leg in my hand as she sat atop Tango.
"Umm . . . Legs?" she replied in that now all too familiar tone of uncertainty, innocence, and incongruence.
"Good answer," I replied, "and as of now, every question I ask of you, you will have only one answer and that will be...?"
April stared at me like a deer in a headlight, having not a clue in the world to the point I was about to make.
"Leg! From here on, every question I will ask of you will involve what you are doing with your legs, and invariably your answers to those questions will be to use more leg. Understand?"
"Ya" She said.
"I mean YES!"
"Your legs are you principle means of communication with horses. Your legs tell them not only to go forward, but how fast to go forward. Your legs tell them not which way to bend, but how much to bend. When galloping, it's your legs that support you. When jumping, its your legs that control their
momentum as they approach the fence. It's your legs that keep you in the saddle over fences. Without effective legs you are nothing but a passenger. To become a rider, you need to develop and educate your legs. Understand?"
'Yes!" April eagerly responded.
April was like a sponge, soaking up every tip and insight I offered, always eager to understand the rational behind the words. Egoless, she allowed me to take her back to the basics. Even the most minute item, such as getting on a horse, was open for correction.
"April, what message is your horse sending you when she walks away from you while mounting her?" I asked, as Tango lurched forward with April still half on.
"Um . . . that she's not listening to me?" April replied ashamedly.
"Good, and if Tango is not listening to you when you get on, why would you expect her to listen to you at the walk, trot, or canter? You need to tell Tango from the start who's the boss . . . believe me, being clear on who's boss will come in handy when you get married. Now get off her and get on
It took a couple of tries, but eventually Tango got the message, and stood obediently as April mounted, and in doing so, sent me a very clear message that the weak link in the team was not Tango, but April. Overcoming this first challenge brought a smile to April's face. It would have taken a classic
painter to capture the beauty I beheld. April, for whatever reason, didn't smile much, but when she did, she had a smile that could melt the heart of the most hardened dressage judge. Then and there, I made it my mission to give her as many opportunities to smile as I could.
Over the next few weeks I worked on getting Tango to relax and seek the bit, and for April, to ride with her legs versus her hands. The plan looked good on paper; in execution it was a tad bit more difficult.
In spite of her outwardly proper appearance on Tango's back, I soon discovered that April was as rigid a rider as I had come across. To escape April's unforgiving hands, Tango spent most of the time running around with her head in the air. April responded by keeping her legs as far from Tango's side
and dropping all contact with Tango's mouth. It was obvious Tango had April's number.
"I know you came here in hopes of fixing your jumping," I told April, "but you can't fix your jumping until we fix your flatwork. OK?"
April nodded in agreement.
Lessons without stirrups were followed by lessons in jumping position. Until she mastered both, sitting would be a distant memory for April. Always wanting to ensure I wasn't overtaxing them, I constantly would ask April how her legs felt.
"Fine," was always her answer, never quite figuring that had she said "they hurt" I would have given her a break. But if April wanted to ride around in a jumping position without stirrups for half an hour, who was I to question her!
As expected, the stronger April's legs became, the less she relied upon her hands to control Tango; and the less she relied upon her hands, the better she used them; and the better she used them, the more responsive Tango was. Soon, like her rider, Tango was jaw-droppingly elegant.
With Tango now moving nicely forward into April's closed hand, it was time to resume jumping. With years of bad jumping between the two, I knew this was going to be the real test. Stadium had been the bane of April's eventing career, and the cause of elimination after elimination.
Just as we had gone back to basics in dressage, we went back to basics in jumping. Once April mastered a simple "x" at the trot, we moved onto an ever expanding jumping grid. With each jump, the pair's confidence in each other increased, and Tango's form once again returned to the Tango of old. But
while Tango was forgetting April's past errors, April was not. When finally asked to canter a fence, April panicked, sat back, grabbed Tango's mouth, and braced for a stop … and Tango willingly obliged.
Once again, I reached back to tricks used successfully by Julie (my instructor) on me. Knowing that Tango and April jumped well in a grid, I placed a simple ground rail half a stride in front of each fence, to mimic the first fence of a grid. It worked like a charm. The ground rail helped Tango find
her spot while giving April something else to focus on besides the fence. With each good jump, the pair grew more confident. As the weeks wore on and the fences got higher, I slowly removed the ground rails until April and Tango were putting in rounds that would have turned a hunt seat rider green with envy.
With April swearing that cross county was never an issue, it was finally time to put the two to the test, and for that I was going to need a little seasoned help. I turned to Becca.
Becca had successfully navigated all the issues April was facing. Fully expecting April to fall apart at the show, as Becca used to, I hoped Becca could provide insights to April. Or that's the story I told April. The truth was Becca was one of my two bestest students and I missed her. I wanted the
two to meet, and for April to hear from Becca, just as Becca had heard from Jamie, that yes indeed, there was a method to my madness.
Madness like spending an evening learning how to salute properly.
When I first asked April to show me her salute, she looked at me like any 16-year old would like at their father. "Why?" she asked.
"Because I want to see it that's why! Now show me your salute!" If April was going to treat me like a drafty father, well by God I was going to act like one!
As expected, April hurried through her salute. I sighed.
"What?" exclaimed an obviously perplexed April.
"Your salute is as critical an element in your test as any other movement. It's your opportunity to tell the judge how you felt about you test. If you hurry through your salute, what do you think that tells the judge about you?"
"That I didn't do a good job?" April hesitantly answered.
"Correct! On the other hand, if you had a really good test, a good salute is like icing on the cake! Few really know how to salute today, so if you do it right, the judge will take notice, and given you've already been scored on all the movement, the salute could influence their opinion of you when
they score your collective remarks. So even if you have a bad test, still take the time to do a good salute. You spend a lot of time getting Tango braided for dressage, and you make a beautiful pair. So give the judge an opportunity to appreciate you. And for God's sake, smile! OK?"
"Yes!" smiled April
"OK then. Show me your salute again…."
The Trail Run
After exchanging hugs, Becca and I immediately turned our attention to April and Tango. I had invited Becca on purpose. While April had been exposed to the expectations I placed on the conduct of my horses, she had yet to be exposed to someone else with those same expectations. Becca fit the bill to a
tee. April watched with horror as Becca shanked Tango when she tried to walk away while being tacked up. April started to say something, but then thought better of it. It was the first true sign that April was beginning to trust me. It was like a parent handing the keys of a car over to a new driver. It was hard, but she did
it. Now we could get down to work.
As we headed toward the dressage ring, it was apparent April's nerves were kicking in. "Those are some big jumps, are you sure you're ready?" April quipped as she looked toward stadium.
"YES!" I replied with the upmost in confidence and with a twinge of disdain in my voice. Knowing only too well that fear can feed on itself, I wanted to quash any doubt she had in her mind. "Forget stadium, focus on dressage."
Knowing April and Tango had failed miserably in dressage over the years, I was keen on setting the tone of the event by having them put in a winning test. As expected, Tango and April immediately reverted to their old ways. Things were going exactly as planned and my hopes for the day improved.
Never having a coach help her at a show, April wasn't prepared for what happened next. She got a lesson! April was soon oblivious to the other riders in warm up, and with a renewed sense of confidence, she put Tango through her warm up routine. Tango, recognizing the routine, immediately settled, and
like her rider, soon became oblivious to everyone and focused on April's commands.
"Remember to smile and give the judge a good long salute." I said as she headed for the arena.
'Yes, I will," replied April. Her eyes met mine. "Thank you." She said as a smile quickly grew on her face.
"My pleasure, now go show off Tango to that judge!"
I stood nervously as I watched April and Tango perform their test.
"Mike, breathe!" Becca said as she poked me with a big grin on her face. "April looks great. She looks great!" And she did.
While I couldn't see if she smiled, her salute passed my muster. Becca and I clapped as the pair left the ring. The look on April's face told Becca and me that April had never been clapped at, so we clapped even harder.
Back at the trailer, April once again surrendered Tango to Becca, and once again had to fight letting go. "I'll take care of Tango, you get ready to walk cross county," directed Becca with an air of authority that comes from years of being both rider and groom.
April meekly acquiesced.
With April expressing confidence in her ability to jump cross country, I turned my attention to stadium. Having been eliminated in all but one event in stadium, if April was going to melt down anywhere, it was here. So, just as I had done in dressage warm-up, I quickly put April through her normal
stadium warm-up. All was going well until I asked them to jump the oxer. Unsure Tango would really jump it, April choked. Sensing that she was about to get caught in the mouth, Tango stopped dead in front of the fence. April was devastated.
"Don't worry," I said matter of factly, "get back into your jumping position and jump the vertical, and then come to the oxer again, but this time stay in your jumping position."
April did exactly as told and both fences were jumped without a hitch, as was the rest of the warm-up.
As April got ready to enter stadium, I gave her one last piece of advice. "Go fast. When you get in trouble you take your leg off and Tango slows down, which makes it harder for her to jump. So even if you think you're going fast, go faster."
As I soon discovered, April's definition of fast and mine were taken out of a different dictionary, but she got around and that's all the mattered to me. With a clean cross country run under her belt, April found herself staring at the score board and seeing her name next to a ribbon. I saw her name
on the score board of a recognized event.
"April, I know the goal was to get you through this event, but are you up for doing your first recognized event?"
The very thought of winning a ribbon, let alone walking away from her first event with plans to move up a level left April speechless. "Ya, I mean, yes! Do you really think we can do it?" responded a smiling April.
"Yes. Rubicon is still open and we've got three weeks to get ready. But until then, go home and brag about your ribbon!"
I'm not sure if I was more thrilled for April or relieved for myself. I had so wanted her to do well and was concerned that had she not, all the confidence she had built in herself and her horse would have gone to the wind. At least when I ride I feel in control; as a coach I feel helpless.
As Becca had reminded me while we watched April crawl around stadium, "It's more nerve-racking to watch than it is to do."
A lot was riding on a good performance that day, and in spite of her worst fears, April rose to the challenge. While April's third of six placement was their best to date, I didn't think it accurately reflected what I had seen and was eager to put to the test again the last four months of work. Now
the question was, would April be able to overcome her butterflies where it really mattered: at a recognized event and in front of real riders. The pressure was on.
Over the next three weeks April was a regular fixture around the barn. As she arrived for her first lesson after the show, she was greeted by my wife with a hug. "Well done last week. Did you put your ribbon on Tango's stall for everyone to see?"
"No," April meekly replied.
"Why not?" I asked.
"No one at the barn would care," April responded as she cast her eyes to the ground in embarrassment.
"Well, we care," my wife replied. "Very well done. I understand you're going to do Rubicon. That's a big step up. Are you ready?"
"I don't know," April replied, drawing out her answer as if to emphasize her uncertainty.
"Well, if Michael thinks you are, then you are. Don't let your nerves get the better of you. Focus on what you need to do and you'll do well."
"OK," April replied, again drawing out her answer as if to emphasize her uncertainty.
As the days counted down toward Rubicon, April and Tango fine tuned every aspect of their performance. Their dressage test was now executed flawlessly, in stadium they increasingly looked like a hunter seat equitation pair, and April was finally figuring out how to keep her butt out of the saddle
Having ridden at Rubicon many times, I knew first hand the questions April and Tango would be asked on cross country, starting with a white colored tent. To get the pair ready I brought out a sheet and placed it folded up, no wider then a rail, at the base of the coop.
"You can open it up all the way, Tango will jump it," a confident April remarked.
"Are you sure?" I replied.
"Ya." Replied April.
I scowled at her, which immediately brought a response, "I mean YES."
"OK, have it your way." Knowing full well what was going to happen.
I unfolded the sheet and spread it over the coop and stood back as April confidently cantered Tango toward it. But while April was willing and ready, Tango had no intention on coming anywhere close to the ghost that had appeared on the coop. April was stunned, unsure how to proceed.
"How about we try it my way?"
"I don't understand why she won't go over it, we jump white coops in the hunt field," offered April.
"In the hunt field she has other horses to encourage her; here she doesn't. It's a lot harder for a horse to jump by itself, which is why it's important to introduce new questions slowly till they develop the confidence they need to jump anything new." I replied as I rolled the sheet back up and
placed it once again at the base of the coop. "OK, try it again."
Tango jumped with ease, and with each jump, the amount of the sheet exposed increased till it once again covered the full coop. The ghost that had haunted Tango just minutes ago was now nothing more than an opportunity for her to show off her jumping prowess. "OK, does she have any other jumping
peccadilloes you want to share with me?" I asked, smiling at the pair.
"No, I don't think so," April hesitantly replied.
"You don't think so?" I replied, trying to mask my awe at April's apparent lack of knowledge about Tango's phobias.
"Well, I'm not sure, we always get eliminated in stadium so I haven't done that many cross country courses. But she has jumped well the couple times we have done it."
Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but at least it gave me something to go on.
Getting the Witch over the Ditch!
The next night, the night before the big event, I put the pair through their final tests. All looked well. And as the sun was beginning to set, I decided to have April jump a novice ditch in the middle of the field. Having repeatedly jumped a ditch in the fence line over the past two months without so
much as a blink on the part of either, it was a no-nevermind question for April and me. But once again, Tango begged to question our sanity.
Four strides away from the ditch, Tango slammed on her brakes, and with them splayed as far apart as she could make them, refused to budge. I groaned as I rubbed my face with my hands. Eventually, April was able to coax Tango within 10 feet of the ditch, but that was it. Tango's bulging eyes told me
she had no intention of coming closer, and April's lack of knowledge on how to properly "persuade" a horse left me with little room to maneuver.
"April, now would be a good time to tell me if Tango has a problem with ditches," I asked, with a hint of frustration in my voce.
"Not really," she innocently replied.
"Could you please define what you mean by 'not really'? Has she stopped before?" I asked.
"Yes. When I was riding with my old coach she stopped at a ditch, but we finally got her over it," April again innocently replied.
"And may I ask how many times did it take to get her over it?"
"A couple ... maybe four or five attempts," April sheepishly replied.
"OK," I replied, as I continued to rub my face into my hands, "Remind me when tomorrow is over to talk to you about telling about all the other jumps Tango has stopped at."
Tango's reluctance to jump a ditch was not a new question for me, and I knew given time, I would safely have the pair jumping the ditch. But with the sun now set and twilight quickly advancing, time was against me. I quickly dragged rails from stadium and covered the ditch. Once covered, I had April
again approach the ditch. Tango was not going to be fooled. With the clock ticking down, my verbal "encouragement" directed at April to get after Tango grew with a crescendo. Finally, when I was about to give up and get on Tango myself, April succeeded. While it wasn't pretty, it was what Tango needed to begin to drop her
resistance. After three more jumps, I began to remove the rails, one at a time. When Tango refused, I would quickly replace a few rails to rebuild her confidence and then start to remove them again.
Eventually, April had Tango jumping back and forth across the ditch, but the events had clearly shaken April's confidence. By the time we got to the barn, she was no longer trying to hide her tears. Having been in that situation as a rider myself, it was the worst thing that could have happened and I
knew that if the next day was going to be saved, I was going to have shake April out of the depression and doubt that was rapidly taking hold of her. Unfortunately, it became apparent that logical discussion was having no effect, despite my pointing out that the ditch she would have to jump the next day would be smaller, and
thus easier, for Tango to jump. So, I grabbed April and took her into the house and showed a picture of me jumping a larger fence into the water at a three-day.
"April, when I saw this fence I immediately convinced myself I couldn't jump it. I lay in bed that night, wide awake, fully convinced I was going to die over that fence. I was a nervous wreck the next day. Julie, my coach, took me aside and gave me the best advice I ever got. 'Mike, when you enter the
start box, Worf ceases to be your friend. He's got one job and only one job to do ... jump every fence in front of him. Ride every fence like he's refused it twice already. When you finish the course, then you can be nice to him, but until that time, don't be nice to him! Demand him to jump!"
"I did as Julie directed, and when I approached the fence that had kept me awake the night before, I had only thought on my mind: 'jump it or die.' I know that sounds cruel, but it forced me to keep my legs on Worf as we came to the fence. And not sensing any hesitation in me, he jumped it without a
care in the world, and the smile on my face in the photo says it al."
April stared at the photo, not saying a word.
"April, when you enter the start box tomorrow, you can't have any doubt in your mind about your ability to jump the fences on the course. And when you get to the ditch, I want you to scream: Jump the ditch, you witch! OK?"
"Yes," April replied meekly.
The tone of her voce told me April wasn't convinced. A little more persuasion was needed.
"Ok, let me hear you say it," I directed.
The words, "Jump the ditch, you witch," were barely audible from April.
"Louder." I said.
"Jump the ditch, you witch," she responded, with hint of more enthusiasm.
"Louder." I said.
"Jump the ditch, you witch!!" she responded.
"Louder!" I said.
"JUMP THE DITCH, YOU WITCH!!!" shouted April, as a hint of a smile returned to her face.
"Louder!" I said.
"JUMP THE DITCH, YOU WITCH!!!" screamed April, as the smile broadened.
"Again!" I demanded.
"JUMP THE DITCH, YOU WITCH!!!" A now broadly-smiling April bellowed for all those outside to hear.
"OK ... even though I'm going to be half a mile away when you come to the ditch tomorrow, I better be able to head you screaming. Understand?"
"Yes," replied a now restored April, "I will."
As I watched her pull away, my thoughts focused on pouring myself a double gin and tonic. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.
I'm not sure if it escaped April, but the fact her first event would be called Rubicon was quite apropos, for if she was successful at this event, she would have finally crossed into the recognized ranks of eventing, and would never turn back. I knew she was ready, the only question that remained was:
Did April know she was ready?
Jamie arrived early at the barn the next morning and helped get Wesley ready for his big debut at Novice. With all my attention focused on April for the past three weeks, Wesley, my new wet-behind-the-ear four-year old, had not been subject to the normal amount of pre-event drilling, and like me, was
"What's up?" asked Jamie, noting I seemed distracted.
I recounted the events of the evening before in all their gory detail and my concern over the day's schedule. "April's dressage is at eight, and mine is at nine, but given she's supposed to do stadium at 9:30 and then go directly to cross-country, I'm not going to have time to walk her around the
course. So you're going to have to do it."
While I would have preferred to walk April, Jamie was the next best thing and we both knew it. Jamie had come a long way since I first saw her, and as we drove to the event, I couldn't help but muse that years from now it would be April being given the assignment to help the next of the 'bestest.'
April greeted me with eyes that looked ready to pop out. "Have you seen the size of the stadium course?????" She blurted breathlessly. "It's pretty big! And the ditch is really big!!!!"
I ignored her. "April, focus on the task at hand. One thing at a time. Dressage first."
As in their first event before, April and Tango initially froze up as they entered the Dressage warm up, but April quickly recovered her composure and began to put Tango through her now all too familiar warm-up routine. Tango responded brilliantly and soon the pair was turning heads. It was obvious,
April and Tango were the pair to beat.
With a reminder to smile, April entered the arena and I held my breath. With April's mother by her side, I scored the test. "Good bend, steady in her head, nice and forward. Seven." Seven after seven after seven came out of my mouth. April was putting in a brilliant test and whether she knew it or not
I couldn't tell, but her halt and salute was like an exclamation point to the statement: "There I did it!" And she had.
You could see April's smile as she headed out of the arena. Having been in last place one too many times, she knew she had done well. The hard work was beginning to pay off.
"That looked great. If that's not the winning test, I don't know what will win." I told her as she dismounted. April's grin widened. "Come on, let's go walk stadium."
April was right, the stadium course was imposing, but I had faith in Tango and knew that all I needed to do was keep April together for two minutes. "You'll be fine if you do what?" I asked April.
"Keep my legs on?" she replied with a slight hesitation added. And after a few moments she cued me into what was one her mind, "But what if she stops ..."
"She won't. Trust me." And with that, I sent April off to walk cross-country with Jamie.
Wesley warmed up brilliantly. As I entered the arena I cast my eyes about for Jamie, having forgotten that I had sent her off with April. Over the years Jamie and I had developed a ritual where the last words out of her mouth were "turn right" or "turn left." "Oh well," I thought, and looking down at
Wesley's head I saw his number on the right side. "Turn right" flashed through my mind. So I did, and immediately the judge blew her whistle.
My words to April less than an hour ago echoed in my head: "The number goes on the side that turns toward the judge." "Number on right-hand side means turn left!" "Oh well," I thought, "better it happen to me than April."
Jamie laughed when I recounted the tale. "So how big is the ditch, really?" I asked Jamie.
"It's nothing. Barely half the size of the ditch at home," responded Jamie. All the while, April shook her head in violent disagreement. I laughed. The old saying "the size of a jump is proportional to what you have been jumping" was never more true. Jamie was undoubtedly right, but in April's mind,
so was she.
"Go tack Tango up, it's time to do stadium."
Jamie and I laughed at April's nervousness as we returned to the trailer. "So, how do think she'll do?" I asked Jamie.
"She'll be fine," replied Jamie. "I remember doing this the first time and thinking it looks big. But the course flows pretty nice and from what I've seen, Tango is a pretty game jumper. It all depends on April not letting the ditch get to her."
April stopped outside of stadium warm-up and sized up the area. It was a battle zone, rails were flying and horses were stopping. Not exactly the confident environment one would want for a rider having trouble with this phase.
"Don't look," I said as a rider fell off in front of the vertical. "Get Tango's attention by putting her through your stadium warm-up and keep focused on me." April nodded her head, but her anxiety was clearly showing.
"Come on, move on!" I shouted as I watched them listlessly canter along. When I thought them ready, I pointed toward the "x." "Keep your leg on and move forward to it."
With the "x" under their belt, I motioned toward the now open vehicle, the source of the downfall of the prior rider.
I watched in awe as a switch went off in April's head that sent her back to her primeval ridding style. Instead of the hunter-seat equitation rider I had seen for the past three weeks, she looked like a rank amateur, and Tango responded in kind by turning her head into the air and bolting. The second
time around, she refused. Time to take a deep breath I thought.
I pulled a now very concerned April aside and patted her leg. She looked relieved to have someone there to tell her what to do. She hung on to every word I said.
"Take a deep breath and we'll start it all over. Remember how you finally got Tango to jump the ditch last night?" I asked. April nodded yes. "Do the same thing here. Get her going forward, keep your leg on, stay in a jumping position, and grab mane. She knows what her job is, so let her do it. Don't
"Ya" she said. I was going to correct her English, but opted not to. One thing at a time I thought.
April reset her seat and gathered the reigns up, and with a full head of steam, pointed Tango at the vehicle again. With a renewed confidence of the rider on her back, Tango sailed over it without blinking an eye. The oxer was jumped without a hitch and April's number was called.
"Is she ready?" The in-gate steward asked.
"Ready as she's going to be," I replied, and turning toward April I made her look straight at me. "Remember, go forward. If you stall over a fence, what do you do?" I asked
"Put my leg on!" She eagerly shot back.
With a "You go girl!" I sent her into the arena.
The first two jumps were over before I knew it, and as April tuned toward the third, a maximum height oxer with brightly colored wooded blocks in front of it, I saw Tango lock in on it and begin to back off. I held my breath. But April didn't bite. Keeping her cool, she stayed in her jumping position
and encouraged Tango to move forward. A stride before the fence she sat lightly and clucked. Tango hesitated and then made a mighty leap and cleared the fence with plenty of room to spare, drawing "oh's" from the ringside crowd.
The round wasn't the prettiest she had done, but she did jump clean, and that was better than she had done at any event prior. April was visibly relieved, but dejected over the round. "That felt awful." She said.
"It wasn't the prettiest round, but you don't get scored for points for being pretty, you get scored for not knocking down a rail, and you didn't, so it was good enough for me. Good job!" April smiled broadly.
With April on Tango's back, Jamie and I quickly readied the pair for cross county. When all was ready I sent Jamie out to the ditch to get a first-hand account. It had taken April a long time, but she had finally accepted surrendering Tango and herself to someone else care at an event. I
don't think she realized she was doing it, but Jamie and I did, and we smiled knowingly at each other. it was a big step for April, and one that we both knew would pay off handsomely in the long run.
As April and Tango had just jumped stadium, the normal warm-up was spent in correcting the errors I had seen in stadium.
"April, you got into trouble in stadium because you lost momentum. You don't have the luxury of losing it on cross-country." Pointing her to a run-in shed at the edge of the cross-country warm-up area, I told her to go into it and pretend it was the start box and prove to me she could accelerate Tango
up and over the warm-up oxer.
April nodded and cantered away. In the shed I counted down from ten and April steeled herself. At the "go" she bolted out of the shed, and like a pro, accelerated up to and over the fence, leaving no doubt she was ready to go.
As I stood with her next to the start box, I reminded her of the advice Julie had given me years ago, about putting all your feelings for your horse aside and demanding 100% from them. April nodded, and it was clear to me she was focusing in and was it time for me to let her go. With a, "Kick on!" I
walked toward the first fence. I felt like I was at mission control and had just turned the rocket over to the astronauts. I crossed my fingers.
Tango bolted out of the start box like she was on fire. Their acceleration toward the first fence was smooth, almost imperceptible, but sufficient enough that when Tango did chip in, as expected, her momentum carried her over. Had you not been looking for the chip, you would never have seen any change
of speed over the fence.
With the first fence out of the way, April raced toward the second. Tango now fully confident in her rider, took it in stride and the pair disappeared into the woods.
I turned to April's mother who had been by my side most of the morning, and breathed a sigh of relief. "That was a very good start. If she rides like that the rest of the course she'll go clean."
"I hope so. She's been at this so long, I'd like to see her finally get around." Her mother said.
"She'll get around, I have no doubt about it." I replied as we headed toward the main field so we could watch the end of the course.
We listened as the announcer counted off her fences. "April and Tango are clear over fence four." "...fence five and six" "...fence seven." Fence nine, the ditch, was coming up fast. Then silence. It seemed to drag on forever. "This is not a good sign," I thought. "She should have jumped the ditch by
now. What going on?"
Just as we cleared the opening to the main field, the announcer answered my question: "April and Tango are clear over fences nine, ten and eleven." He had no sooner finished those words than April appeared out of the backfield in full gallop toward the water. "Oh my God," I thought. "She looked like
The team bounded through the water and was up and over the out fence in a flash and turned toward home. We could see April's smile 300 yards away.
Across the finish line she dismounted as I had taught her. Her horse having done well, she heaped praise on her without reservation.
As far as I was concerned, Wesley could dump me in my stadium and I wouldn't care. Seeing April cross the finish line was all I wanted that day. Anything else was simply icing on the cake.
"So how did the ditch jump?" I asked an elated April.
"She thought about stopping, but I had her going so forward she didn't have time to do anything more then think about it," a smiling April replied.
I gave her a hug and sent her on her way as I went over to check her scores.
I grinned broadly as I saw a two next to her name for placing after dressage. Knowing she had gone clean in stadium and cross country, I knew she would go home with a red ribbon. Little did I know that the first place rider had had a refusal on cross county and that the blue ribbon was already
I wasn't around when the final scores were posted, so I missed seeing April's face. I can only imagine April finally allowing herself to smile, but hoping no one would see it. But she didn't hide her smile as she walked toward me with the ribbon in her hand. It was a smile worth seeing.
This time, when I hugged her, she hugged me back.
"Thank you for all your help. I couldn't have done it without you," she said, grinning from ear to ear.
'You're welcome. Now go give your horse a hug!"
As Jamie and I headed home, I recounted the story of Julie, who refused to tell me about her win at Rolex until I told her about my first win at training.
"I never did understand why Julie did that until today," I told Jamie.
"You'll always be my bestest student, and Becca my second, now I've got another bestest - April. When I'm old and gray, it's going to be memories of teaching you guys that I'll remember most fondly. I can only hope that someday, you all will have your own bestest."
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman