Novice Beginner Rider
All our eventing
careers started somewhere. Unfortunately for Jordan, a
shy delightful 12-year-old with a smile as wide as the
Grand Canyon, hers started with me. I first took notice
of Jordan during one of her sister Bethany's riding
lessons. Bethany was running late, and Jordan, desperate
to help her sister get ready for a lesson, was timidly
trying to put the bridle on Bethany's horse. Bethany's
horse, however, had other ideas.
you ever put a bridle on before?" I asked.
cast her eyes to the ground, "Yes, but Bethany
usually helps me."
watch me do it, then I'll take it off, and you do it.
next five minutes I watched as Jordan valiantly tried to
replicate how I fastened the bridle. "I guess I'm
not that good," she finally said dejectedly, once
again casting her eyes to the ground.
don't say that, Jordan. This is hard, keep trying,
you'll get it. After all, Bethany's the one in trouble
for being late, not you!"
smile returned to her face -- sibling rivalry? -- and on
the next try, she managed to get the bridle over the
ears and properly fastened. Bethany, returning from the
barn, retrieved her horse and after a quick inspection
turned and thanked me for putting the tack on.
thank me. Thank your sister."
Bethany turned to Jordan and thanked her. Jordan beamed.
most riders, Jordan was introduced to horses at the
local neighborhood stable, which in this case was the
North Fork School of Equitation in Jefferson, Maryland.
Under the watchful eyes of Karen Fenwick, Jordan was
drilled in the basics: How to get on and off, how to
post, how to canter, she even got a taste of a little
jumping. But a few too many early falls and a broken
collar bone had left Jordan's confidence shaken.
the summer, Jordan accompanied Bethany to her lessons.
Relegated to watching Barley, their Labrador puppy,
Jordan was always out of sight. Every once in a while,
however, I would spy her peaking around a corner,
straining to hear what I was telling Bethany. After the
lesson, Jordan would stand off a short distance and
listen while I ran through a critique of the lesson for
her father or mother.
summer slowly turned to fall, I found myself
increasingly drawn to Jordan. When I could remember, I
would ask her to do things around the barn. Be it sweep,
throw down hay, or retrieve a horse, she always jumped
at the chance to help. Finally one day I asked what she
had been afraid to ask.
Do you want a riding lesson?"
next time your sister comes for a lesson, bring your
next week, Jordan fretted in anticipation of having
everything perfect for the lesson. Having listened to my
advice to her sister about how to show respect to a
coach by turning one and one's horse out as if they were
going to an event, (in this case, Bethany's first lesson
with my coach, Julie Gomena), Jordan did likewise for
me. She bathed Cassie, her gray Arab mare, before the
lesson, and twice on the day of her first lesson. Her
tack was cleaned within an inch of its life and the
polish on her paddock boots would have made a West Point
dispensing with Bethany’s lesson, I turned my
attention to Jordan. "OK Jordan, give me a 20-meter
circle at the walk."
stared blankly at me. "I don't know what 20 meters
is," she said shyly.
sorry Jordan, 10 meters is about the distance from me to
you right now, so keep this distance between us as you
circle and you'll be doing a twenty-meter circle.
nodded her head and proceeded to ride a rather narrow
ellipse. "Jordan! Jordan! Try to keep the same
distance away from me all the time. Try to keep your
eyes on me. If you feel like you’re coming towards me,
put your inside leg on. If you feel like you’re going
away, put your outside leg on. OK?"
she nodded her head, and in spite of some of the
greatest facial contortions ever seen, she retraced her
isn't working." I thought to myself. Taking her
horse by the reins, I walked her around in the circle,
all the while explaining how to use her legs to control
the shape and size of the circle. "OK, are you
ready to try it again?" She nodded yes. While the
pattern did resemble a circle, it was becoming obvious
that I was going to have to become inventive.
until this time, I counted myself lucky. Ashley,
Bethany, and Cassie (the ABC’s) were fairly
accomplished riders when I began working with them, and
someday they will be again. But Jordan was a true
beginner. Having seen 25 years and countless gin and
tonics pass since I was a beginner, I turned to the
ABC's for advice.
you were at Jordan's stage just a few years ago, how did
you work your way through it?" I asked.
don't know, Kate just seemed to know what to say and
when to say it."
can you remember what she said?"
no, I was just a kid then, I don't remember."
that's a lot of help. Bethany . . . I know, I know,
Katie taught you everything you know. Now impress me and
tell me what she said?"
I can't remember other then I had to use my legs."
where making a lot of progress here. Cassie, any
if you had been a pony clubber you would know that
chapter 4, section 12, part 2.a of the Pony Club manual
calls for the teacher . . ."
OK Let’s try this everyone. Lets form a square."
Once in position, I made Jordan walk toward each of us.
At first I allowed her to cut the corners, but as time
progressed, I required her to ride into the corners,
thereby forcing her to use her legs in coordination with
her hands. This exercise was repeated over and over
again, usually with unwitting volunteers who had stopped
by to sample the latest beer Jordan's father had
brought. Much to the relief of her beer strapped Dad,
Jordan soon got the hang of this leg-hand coordination
thing and quickly began to make progress. Soon she was
trotting around in fairly recognizable circle-like
patterns, accepting my dare to canter, and even jumping
a few cross-rails.
with the fall season building to a climax and with
daylight becoming a scarce commodity, I had to turn my
attention away from Jordan for a while. I did so with a
promise that after everyone else was done competing for
the year, I would help get her ready for her first
event. Fortunately, her mother, Dolly, had paid close
attention during the lessons and as time would soon
tell, would prove to be more than a worthy substitute.
recognized eventing season was over before anyone knew
it, and with it, all eyes turned toward getting Jordan
ready for her first event. Having spent weeks memorizing
her walk-trot test, she confidently entered the dressage
arena at home to practice. From there it was
all-downhill. Zigging and zagging down the centerline,
she missed C by 10 feet, turned right and promptly went
forgot my test……" she said shyly.
worry. Everyone does."
insure she was at ease, Ashley threw in a, "Mike
tell her about the time you forgot your test three
times." Needless to say, Jordan's smile quickly
returned to her face. After walking through her test
several times, we tried it again, with significantly
better results. Once Jordan had the basic test pattern,
it was time to fine-tune it.
you're going to be judged on how round your circles are,
how straight your lines are, and how deep into your
corners you go. Understand?" She nodded her head.
"OK then, this time I want you to work on your
accuracy." She nodded her head again and proceeded
to run through her test.
spite of her best efforts, Jordan's circles still looked
like ellipses, and the "going deep into corners’’
thing was not clicking. After four fruitless attempts, I
retrieved a bag of lime from the barn and proceeded to
trace out her test in the dressage ring with it. It
worked. Following the pattern, Jordan's circles quickly
became rounder, her corners were deeper, and her lines
were almost straight. During a short breather, I again
ran through the basic rules of riding a dressage test,
with specific emphasis on what to do if she made an
error and the judge blew her whistle.
felt confident she had the pattern down, we moved to the
jumping arena. Entered in the ‘‘Eeny Weeny Beanie’’
division of a starter horse trial, all Jordan had to do
was jump a course of simple X’s. Cassie, Jordan's
pony, was more than ready for the task at hand, but
Jordan had difficulty hiding her fear.
don't worry, it's OK to be scared. In fact it's good. It
means you'll never do anything stupid and will always be
safe." Once again, her smile returned. "This
is what I want you to do. After each fence, sit up, say
‘whoa,’ and walk. OK?" She nodded yes.
"Good, now walk toward the black and white X, turn
right and jump the yellow X."
first X was picture perfect, but instead of turning
right, she turned left toward a small oxer. "NO!
NO! Turn Left, Left! No, your other left!!!!." It
was too late. Cassie’’s ears locked onto the fence
and before Jordan could do anything, she bounded over
it. Jordan parted company with her in midair.
the corner of my eye, I could see Jordan’s parents
rushing to her side. I quickly turned and held up the
palm of my hand to signal them to stay. I wasn't sure
what I was going to say to Jordan, but I knew
instinctively that given her past experiences, I had to
quickly get her back on the horse. By the time I got to
Jordan she was up and it was obvious she was ready to
good fall! I couldn’t have done better myself! I got
to tell you though, if you’re going to jump a fence
this big you need to be in the jumping position you and
your Mom have been working on, OK?" Before she even
knew what had happened, Jordan was back in the saddle
and headed toward the fence again, this time however, in
a jumping position. This time she was able to follow
Cassie’s motion over the fence, and with her grin
restored, all thought of tears evaporated forever.
the lesson, Jordan became the property of my wife,
Audrey, a former Olympic team groom. Under Audrey's
tutelage, Jordan learned how to braid, bang tails, and
all the other fine points of turning out a properly
groomed horse. The day's events, absent the fall of
course, were repeated three times that week, and by
Saturday, Jordan was ready for her first event.
for Jordan, I had been asked to officiate at the event,
which meant there was no chance I would get her
eliminated like I did Ashley at her first event.
Unfortunately, this meant the coaching duties fell to
her sister Bethany, forcing the two to call an interim
cease-fire to their long running sibling rivalry. Both
girls rose early Sunday morning, and with Bethany
nodding approvingly, and occasionally offering bits of
advice, Jordan nimbly worked her fingers down Cassie's
mane. Once done, the two took out brushes and groomed
Cassie as if she was going to a three-day. The hour-long
trip to the event, usually dedicated to short naps, was
instead spent reciting her dressage test and being
drilled in key eventing rules. Once on the event
grounds, everything kicked into high gear, albeit this
time, Jordan was the center of attention and Bethany was
caught sight of Jordan as she was walking back from the
secretary's stand with her competitor's package. She was
wearing a smile as wide as any face could hold, just a
millimeter wider than that worn by her proud sister.
Under Bethany's watchful eye, Jordan put Cassie through
the dressage warm-up exercises she had practiced all
week. Jordan's cheering crew gathered at the entrance to
the dressage ring, and with some last words of advice
from her sister, Jordan entered the ring. Everyone was
biting their fingernails. We were fretting over
everything. Would she forget her test? Would she make an
error? How was she going to do her circles without the
lime markers? Would she remember to go deep into her
that everyone but Bethany was about to suffer a nervous
breakdown, Jordan meanwhile just trotted on in with a
smile on her face as if she hadn't a care in the world.
Based upon her near-perfect test, that just may have
been the case. As she left the arena, we all exhaled and
broke out into a loud cheer. Jordan’s grin, which I
didn’t think could get bigger, did just that.
tack change and it was down to the stadium. Once again
Bethany put Jordan and Cassie through their exercises,
and once again, everyone sat chewing their nails and
worrying over what could be. The stadium for the ‘‘Enny
Weeny Beanies’’ was six X’s, which measured no
more then nine inches high. As Jordan approached the
first fence at a slow trot, we all drew in our breath.
Cassie slowed to a walk, dropped her head to look at the
rail and quietly stepped over it. Completely unfazed,
Jordan kicked Cassie back into a trot and pointed her
towards the next fence. She hunted over it like an old
time pro. Bethany beamed as Jordan left the arena adding
nothing to her first place dressage score.
Jordan entered the start box for cross-country, we all
held our breath. She trotted confidently out of the box
and up to the first fence. Once again, Cassie dropped
into a walk and looked at the fence. But this time, she
stopped. I kicked myself. Throughout my riding career, I
had been told over and over again to always ride the
first fence like I had already stopped, but I had failed
to impart those words of wisdom to Jordan. I felt like I
had let her down.
was busy kicking myself, Jordan was busy circling for
another approach. Much to my amazement, she circled like
a pro. Unfazed by the stop, she clucked to Cassie all
the way down to the fence. Her encouragement worked.
Once over the fence, Jordan confidently returned to her
jumping position, and reaching up with her right hand,
stroked Cassie’s neck. From across the field, I heard
her say, "Good girl."
awestruck. Jordan rarely talked, let alone while riding.
Yet here she was, talking her horse around the course.
The more she praised Cassie, the better the pair jumped.
As I watched her congratulate Cassie over each fence, it
occurred to me that I could learn a lot from Jordan, for
I rarely thank my horse for doing a good job. I made a
mental note that next time I go into the start box, I
wanted Jordan there to remind me to do just that.
crossed the finish line in the jumping position her
mother had drilled her in, stroking Cassie’s neck all
the way. Her efforts were rewarded with a sixth place
ribbon, and while she was proud of that ribbon, she was
more proud of her award for having the best turned out
horse for the day. By the time I made it up to the
trailer to congratulate her, Bethany had proudly placed
her sister’s ribbon in the spot where she normally
hangs hers, and placed the best-groomed horse award
where all could see.
Jordan, you did it. Now you can call yourself an
eventer. Next year, Kentucky, right?!" Jordan
smiled and nodded her head. Bethany grinned, Dolly
laughed, John opened his wallet, grimaced, and reached
for a bottle of beer.
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other stories by Michael Hillman