the Novice Level Rider
once more, why you love eventing!)
I have the heavy responsibility of getting two students
ready for their first run at Preliminary. Doing such, it's
easy to become too focused on drilling them in what they
need in order to compete successfully at this level; and,
in doing so, almost forget that first and foremost eventing is supposed to be about having fun. I'm
reminded of this by the happy reaction of the lower
level students when they accomplish even the most
simplistic movement or jump a simple 'x' for the first
One of the
best parts about getting a new student is that new students
are fertile ground for countless stories; and Jen Goldup, of Littlestown, Pa. is no exception. I first met
Jen when she accompanied one of her friends to my farm
for a lesson. She was struggling with riding
self-confidence, having just failed her D-2 rating in
spite of the fact that she had just spent a year as a
groom/student at a dressage barn.
Preoccupied with other issues at the time, I didn't
interact much with her that day, outside of the usual
civil pleasantries. Even her volunteering to clean some
tack failed to raise my interest . . . that is, until I
used it the next day.
The bridle had been cleaned to within an inch of its
life, oiled, and then hand rubbed to a finish that only
my wife, an ex-Olympic team groom, had ever been able to
accomplish. I felt guilty about my indifference to her
and, when she called later that night, sheepishly
inquiring about the potential of a lesson, I jumped at
the chance to return the favor.
lesson was, well, less then remarkable. Upon the
recommendation of a friend, she rode a young mare, a
very young mare. After the trying lesson where I spent
more time focusing on the horse than on Jen, I
enlightened her and her mother on the old wisdom that
new riders should always be paired with seasoned horses.
The next lesson she brought a twenty-one-year-old
dressage schoolmaster. While this was clearly a step in
the right direction, its inability to even step over a
cross rail didn't do much for her eventing career. Then
she brought Charlie Brown.
myself learned to ride on a horse called Charlie Brown,
I immediately fell in love with him. A 16-year-old
ex-racer, ex-jumper, ex-whatever, he was well built and
seasoned beyond belief. His eyes just sparkled knowledge
and kindness. When I inquired why she hadn't brought him
the first time, she informed me that her last instructor
had said he would never amount to anything and so she
planned to sell him for what amounted to 'chump change'.
dressage wasn't anything to write home about but his
jumping caught my attention. I set up an in-and-out and
quickly became occupied with seeing how high he could
jump over the out oxer. So preoccupied in fact, that I
forgot his rider was a beginner. I was so deep in
thought after watching him bound awesomely over the
fence that I failed to notice Jen had parted company
with him two strides after it.
until Jen's mother tapped my arm to inform me, that I
became aware Charlie was standing next to me, sizing up
the fence he had just jumped. By the time we got to Jen,
the shock of her fall had turned into joy. She had
jumped a fence bigger than she had ever imagined and
survived her first fall, all in one lesson. She was
ready to event!
had never competed in even a starter event, I suddenly
found myself back with her in the unrecognized circuit
and; with the opening of the unrecognized season just
around the corner, I found myself making some decisions
that at first seemed out of step with my past practices
yet somehow, they seemed right.
background in dressage was ok, not firm, but she
understood the basics. At the ripe age of 16, Charlie
Brown was a little bit stiff. Where with other students
I would do five dressage lessons for every one jumping
for Charlie and Jen, it was jump, jump, jump. The more
Charlie jumped, the freer he moved. The more Jen jumped,
the more self-confident she became in how she rode
Charlie. By the end of the first month, Jen was
performing perfect 20-meter canter circles over a series
of X's, whereas the month before she couldn't manage
even a 40-meter circle in an open field.
first attempt at a ditch was a disaster, as was the
second, the third, and the 22nd, but the 23rd was a
charm. The next day, Charlie jumped it on the second
try; but when presented at a new ditch, he once again
refused -- teaching Jen quickly the important lesson all
successful eventers know only too well: "The fence
you'll have the stop at is the one you're most sure
Recognizing that experience is often the best
instructor, I was eager to get Jen into an event. With a
wide range of starter events to choose from, I simply
chose the next on the books, which, as fortune would
have it, was an easy starter novice event.
On the day
of the event, in spite of her best efforts to hide it,
Jen was a bundle of nerves. Having stood on the
sidelines and watched more then her fair share of
dressage rides over the past few years, she was finally
going to get her chance to shine. Charlie, for whom
dressage was his number one nemesis, found the going in
the sand arena much to his liking; and much to
everyone's surprise, especially Jen's, put in a
As it was
a starter event, the stadium was designed for beginners.
Much to the enjoyment of the crowd, Jen followed my
instructions to count her strides out loud in front of
every fence. Her "5, 4, 3, Go," or "5, 2, Go" brought
smiles to the cheering crowd and the few coaches
present, but it helped her jump clean. While she had two
refusals cross-country, she nevertheless came back
grinning from ear-to-ear.
confidence improving with every ride, I opted to forgo
any more starter events and let her try her hand at a
recognized event. Jen was more than game. Realizing the event I had chosen for her debut world would be a true novice level course with a
few move-up fences on it, I wanted her to go into it
with as much confidence in her jumping as I could
muster. As such, for the next few lessons, I avoided the
dressage ring like it had the plague and focused on
unsure about Jen, had begun to break into a trot just
before a fence. To address the issues, I drilled them
back and forth across a small oxer until Jen got
comfortable with it. Once Jen started to ride down and
over the fence, Charlie abandoned his trot steps and
once again began to jump in stride.
The evening before the event, I found myself having
second thoughts about sending them off to a recognized
event. I had all the confidence in the world in
Charlie's ability to jump whatever would be presented,
yet I was not sure Jen was equally ready. Up until now,
Jen had jumped just about all the fences in my field
singly, with the exception of a training size oxer, but
never in sequence. It was obvious to me what we had to
completing a short, very successful stadium school, I
pointed Jen in the direction of the cross-country and
directed her to jump it in sequence. Having jumped
everything exceptionally well, as they flew by me on the
way to their last fence, I called out to her to jump the oxer. Jen never missed a beat. Half-halting like a pro,
she set Charlie back on his haunches and drove him
forward to the oxer. Charlie basculed over it like an
Advanced horse. They were now ready for their debut. I
was ready for a gin and tonic.
jumping had done wonders for Charlie's attitude and
agility and no place was it more obvious than in his
dressage test. Where three weeks before a canter depart
preceded by fourteen trot steps was considered a gift,
now his upward transitions were light and fluid, his
downward canter transitions, were, er, not so good; but
Jen rode them tactfully and accepted what she got. That
was good enough for me.
spacing between each fence, the stadium course was
perfect for first-timers like Jen. Once again counting
her strides out loud, she clocked around the course. I
found myself holding my breath like a worried parent as
she approached each fence, only daring to breathe once
she was safely over it. But it wasn't until I walked
the cross-country that the responsibility I had taken on by
teaching Jen really struck home.
of all I thought I had done to get them ready, I found
myself fretting over some of the 'move-up to training'
sized fences on the course. Jen, still elated with the
oxer she had jumped the day before, was unfazed. I was a
nervous wreck. In spite of her confidence, I still had
visions of Charlie, just weeks before, stopping at
fences he had never seen before. So, as we walked the
course, I focused on teaching her how to give Charlie
the best approach to each fence, so that he would have
time to see it, size it up, and figure out how to jump
them safely over it.
walking the course a third time to solidify what I had
told her, she warmed-up like a pro and promptly went out
and did as she was told; and because of this, Charlie
was able to do his job and do it in style.
ear-to-ear grin as she handed her pinney in, brought
back memories of incidents at the beginning of my
eventing career. I was a working student at the time for
Bruce Davidson and had just jumped a huge fence. I was
so thrilled; I let out a 'Ya' and began to laugh. Bruce
smiled, and turning to the other students simply said,
"Remember, this is what it all about, having fun.
Never forget that. Never."
smile reminded me of Bruce's words, and my smile soon
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman