Here comes Bethany!
followed me into the house tonight," piped my wife
Audrey. "I thought she was going to get some iced
tea, but when I turned around, she turned and followed
Positioned just behind my wife in our
living room stood Bethany. Wringing her hands, she began
to apologize for being nervous about competing a strange
horse at an upcoming event. When she was done
apologizing, my wife hugged her and said, ‘‘Bethany,
we wouldn't suggest you compete the horse if we didn't
think you were up to it."
Bethany’s smile had just begun to
return to her face when I turned around and said, 'Yes
we would." Bethany was so flustered she didn't know
whether to laugh or cry.
Bethany's story with us began this
spring at the Waredaca Horse Trials. Katie Carr
introduced me to her groom, a shy, wonderfully pretty,
and exceptionally bright fourteen-year-old named
Bethany. Less then two months later, Katie was
transferred to North Carolina. As one of her last acts
before departing, she called to ask if I would take
Bethany on as a working student. Given that neither my
wife nor I were interested in cleaning stalls, having a
slave, err, working student, around the barn appealed to
both of us. After interviewing Bethany and watching her
ride, we agreed to take Bethany on, provided of course
she promised not to laugh at us when we sang along to
songs on our oldies station. Bethany agreed, but as she
left, we heard her ask her mother, "Who are the
Bethany's spring season had gone OK.
Not great, but OK. Lady, Bethany’s six-year-old
ex-race horse mare, jumped well. Their dressage,
however, was another story entirely. Bethany, who had
suffered through one too many events hoping to break the
40 barrier in dressage, offered no resistance to the
suggestion that we concentrate our summer efforts on
improving her flat work.
The first thing that we resolved was
Lady's habit of sticking her tongue out. My immediate
instinct was to tighten the flash noseband, which was so
loose one could put a hand through it. When asked why it
was on so loose, Bethany informed me that she had read
in a dressage Internet site that tight nosebands were
harmful. I looked at Bethany, scratched my balding head,
and cinched the noseband like I was cinching a girth.
The tongue immediately ceased to be an issue, as did
Bethany’s use of the Internet as a training aid.
Tasting success, Bethany soon upped the frequency of
lessons to daily. Given that I was repaid in fence
painting, the more I taught, the better my fence looked.
To say Bethany was a serious student
would be an understatement. To lighten things up, I
began to sing songs from such classical groups as the
Monkeys and Herman’s Hermits during our lessons. While
my singing got lots of smiles from her, I could never
get her to join in, even under the threat of making her
post until she sang. In the end, my voice always gave
out before her tolerance for pain did.
One of the most determined young
riders I've come across, Bethany’s seat and leg were
soon sufficiently developed that more advanced tools
like half-halts and counter canters became part of her
lesson repertoire. Now working at home is one thing,
performing at an event is another. Unfortunately for
Bethany, I mistakenly entered her in the Novice Horse
division instead of the Novice Rider division at an
upcoming event. When we got to the event, instead of
competing against her peers, she was in a division with
Advanced and Intermediate riders. Much to her credit,
while nervous, she was delighted at the thought of
having Julie Gomena, who only the day before had helped
me fine-tune her performance, follow her into the ring.
With Julie riding around her on one
side and me on the other, Bethany quickly put Lady
through her well practiced warm-up exercises. While the
sloping grass dressage arenas did many riders in, after
months of working on steep hills, they were down right
flat to Bethany, and she turned in a stellar
performance. The expression on Bethany's face was
priceless when she saw a 31.5 placed next to her name on
the scoreboard, sandwiching her squarely in second place
between two advanced riders. For the first time in her
eventing career, instead of hoping the leaders would
make a mistake, Bethany felt the pressure of being at
the front of the pack.
I reminded Bethany throughout the day
that the whole purpose of the event was to identify the
weak points in her riding. She went on to have a clean
go on cross- country, but dropped a costly rail in
stadium. The rail was hard for her to brush off and
arrangements were quickly made for her to accompany me
to Julie Gomena’s for a jumping lesson. Filled with
tales of terror about Julie's standard of excellence,
she polished her tack into the wee hours of the morning
and rose early to give her horse two, yes two, baths.
Julie instantly liked Bethany and
Lady, and the jumping lesson went off without a hitch.
On the ride home I asked Bethany what she thought of the
"Did you understand why she
asked you to do what she did?"
"Why didn't you ask?"
"Well ... um ... err ..."
"Bethany, Julie doesn't bite. If
you don't tell her what you don't understand, she can't
help you. The more you talk to her, the more you'll get
out of the lessons. Its OK not to understand, that's why
we take lessons from her."
Bethany's eyes brightened and
figuring I got my message across, I changed the subject
to one of my favorites: analyzing the success of the
Monkey's in the 1970’’s rock scene. Bethany rolled
her eyes and tried to fake sleep.
A few days later I received a call
from the organizers of the Menfelt Horse Trial. They had
a starter event scheduled Saturday and after
unsuccessfully scraping the bottom of the barrel for
dressage judges, had broken down and called me. I
accepted and volunteered Bethany as my scribe, figuring
that watching others would help her own performance. As
in everything she does, Bethany quickly got down to
business. Every word and every comment was captured in
perfect penmanship. I found myself embarrassed to write
my own comments, instead, I dictated them to her, only
taking the pen to sign my name. By the seventh rider, I
finally felt comfortable in my scores and turned my
attention to educating Bethany on my scoring logic.
"Now I would give him a seven
for the canter. The departure wasn't great, but it was
forward and the horse wasn't too above the bit. What do
"I'd give him a four."
"What? Why?" I asked.
"Well to begin with, she's
cross-cantering, she failed to go deep into her corner,
she looks like she has more weight on her inside rein,
and thus the horse looks like he's popping his outside
shoulder . . ."
I was dumbfounded. I quickly reached
for my glasses. She was right. The rider was a she, not
a he. I suddenly felt very much the fool. "Yep, you’re
right, give her a four."
Wary that Bethany was being more
critical them I was, I tightened up my standards a
little. On the next ride, I again asked her for her
opinion, saying, "I'd give the trot transition a
five. What would you give it?"
"I'd give her an eight. While
the horse did come above the bit for a stride, the rider
did a nice half-halt to set the horse up, and the
transition was more forward than those that you've been
giving sevens to until now. Do you want me to go back
and modify all the previous scores?"
"No," I said, and made a
mental note to have my eyeglass prescription changed.
As the morning progressed, I became
more awed and impressed with Bethany's power of
observation. "God - I hope I never have her for a
judge," I thought to myself. There would be no
getting away with faking it with her. Bethany had a good
eye, and there was no question about it. As I was
leaving, the organizers asked if I would consider
"No," I said. 'If you
really want a good, unbiased judge, you should ask
Bethany turned a bright shade of red.
That evening, I found myself
frustrated by my inability to replicate my horse's
performance from a lesson the day before. I was just
about to throw in the towel when I spied Bethany. It
occurred to me that having accompanied me to the lesson,
and given the awesome demonstration of her powers of
observation in the morning, I had nothing to lose but
"Bethany, do you remember how
Riker was going in yesterday's lesson?"
"How does it differ from how's
he's going right now?"
Bethany was dumbstruck. Since the
beginning of her riding career she had been in the
receiving mode - now she was asked to provide her
opinion. Worse, she was asked to provide her opinion to
"Huh? Me?" Bethany could
only manage a nervous smile and stared at her feet.
I stopped my horse.
"Bethany! You have an impressive
power of observation. You've earned my trust. Remember
what I said to you when you first came here? 'Never
think you know it all, and everyone has something to
offer.' I don't know it all, and you have your power of
observation to offer. So trust yourself. I need a ground
person. Please help me."
Less then five minutes later, Riker
was going as well as he had under Julie's eye the day
before and my relationship with Bethany had changed
To close this first chapter in
Bethany's story, that same evening our vet noted a
swelling on Lady's right rear leg. While it turned out
only to be a splint, it did put Lady out of action for
two weeks. Realizing how serious Bethany takes her
riding, Julie, Audrey, and I quickly put our heads
together. Worf, my old preliminary event horse, was
pulled out of mothballs, much to his displeasure, and
put back to work as a dressage schoolmaster. Julie
provided a mount for jumping.
Returning home from a lesson a few
days later, I asked Bethany, given that Lady would not
be ready for Waredaca, if she would like to event
Julie's school horse. Bethany said yes in a quivering
voice that screamed no. When I pressed for her concerns,
she explained that she didn't feel she rode the horse
well enough to do it justice and was afraid she would
embarrass Julie if she didn't do well. Needless to say,
Bethany's response resulted in a long talk from both
Audrey and me on Bethany's need to start believing in
herself, the benefit of riding other horses, and the
need to remember that eventing is first and foremost
supposed to be fun.
That evening, as Audrey and I laughed
about Bethany's response to Audrey's hug, we both noted,
with a certain degree of awe, how much we have both come
to like and care for Bethany. If it was Bethany's
intention to get us to want to help her, she can rest
assured, she was successful.
So watch out world, here comes
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman