Bless The Lesson Horse

Dust billowed behind as we made it down the country road, the Jeep Cherokee jarring me and my mother in reaction to every bump and dip in the road, matching the excited butterflies in my stomach. We were on our way to my weekly Monday night riding lesson. We drove up the drive to the tiny barn, and as I got out of the car the humid atmosphere and loud hissing of cicadas welcomed us to a typical summer evening in north Florida. I dropped my helmet off in the tack room and grabbed the tan halter that belonged to my favorite horse, Rocky. Walking quickly, I ventured into the pasture to collect him for our lesson. His bright eyes watched me as I outstretched my hand in greeting, and felt an acceptant blast of warm air from his nostrils. I was home.

I am a first-generation horsewoman, and the only person in my family who actively rides. My grandma always told me that some of my ancestors in New England were horse thieves, which makes me think that it got passed down but just skipped a few generations. Ever since I laid eyes on a horse I was obsessed. I played “save the foal” with my mom, an elaborate game where bad cowboys would steal a baby mustang from the herd and trap it, and the goal was to get past the waterfall, through the mountains, and ultimately make a daring rescue. I used every one of my toy horses in a mock western landscape with cardboard boxes. I always hated Barbies and baby dolls, everything had to be horses. For Halloween one year, Mom made me a cardboard cut-out of a flying unicorn and I went as She-Ra. Mom got very good at painting horses for me.

When my parents realized that the equestrian bug was not just a phase, they started looking into ways for me to get riding experience. At 8 years old, I got my first riding lesson. My parents could only afford a 30 minute lesson once a month, but I was walking on sunshine. It was at a barn called White Star Farms in the Redlands, Florida just outside of South Miami. I was instantly smitten by their Paso Fino horses with their luxurious manes and tails, Spanish flare, and unique way of moving. And to be honest, I didn’t care what kind of horse they were, I was just happy to be around horses! I first learned how to ride on a bay gelding named Tommy. I learned how to keep my heels down, how to paso corto, and how to groom and tack up a horse. My very first fall was a very comical experience: I was walking Tommy around after our riding lesson, and he put his head down to eat under a small tree, and kept right on walking under the tree! I grabbed the branch in front of me and slide out of the saddle while Tommy just couldn’t be bothered! 

In about a year after I started taking lessons, my family moved up to Tallahassee due to new opportunities for my dad’s work. I excitedly stared out the window of the car as we pasted farm after farm of horse land. My mom had a college friend who had some horses in her backyard and I started riding horses with her. I transitioned into a western saddle on a bay Mustang mare named Missy. Looking back on it now, it certainly wasn’t the safest learning environment. I remember I fell off at the canter into a picnic table that was in the arena and had bruises for months. I remember going to a show and the lady throwing me up on her four year old colt for a pole event, and I was not ready for that at 10 years old. It was shortly after that bad experience that we looked for a better, safer place for me to ride.

In middle school we settled on a small place that taught English and the emphasis was on the care of the horses. They had a variety of breeds: Quarter horses, Morgans, and a Saddlebred.  I was placed into a Monday night group lesson and in the summers they held a week-long sleepover camp at their house. I adored waking up and feeding the horses, learning more about proper care and grooming, the importance of warming up and cooling down. I was taught never to brush a tail but to pick it out carefully, one strand at a time, to avoid breaking the hairs. I learned how to sit a buck and how to ask for a “big trot”, all the while in the flattest saddles you could possibly imagine. My first horsey love was at this barn, a dark bay Morgan named Rocky who had a small white star, a snip, and a double whorl, on above another, on his forehead. Thinking back on it now, I think my love of horses with double whorls started then and somehow followed me. I often wonder where he ended up, and like to think he lived out his days fat and happy in a big pasture.

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One of the best things about living in Tallahassee and having a love of horses is being close to one of North America’s best three-day event, the Red Hills Horse Trials.  I went almost every year and was absolutely in love. I started searching for a barn where I could learn how to jump and ride dressage. I found a barn, and I overlapped my training for a brief time at both, but ultimately said “thank you” to the flat saddles and “hello” to knee rolls. I was 16 and worked off some of the lesson costs by doing barn work. One of my most laughable memories was when I accidentally turned out a pony in her normal field - but they had rotated the herds and forgot to tell me! The pastures were so big and the horses were the same colors and numbers as her pasture mates; it was an easy mistake. I had to rush out and gather her back up before any very exciting greetings happened. Life at a barn is never dull.

I feel like the time spent between high school and college was all a blur between the academics I was pursuing and the amount of activities with which I was involved. Theatre has always been a huge part of me and I was engulfed in it, especially during college. I rode less, a lot less. My trainer from high school had to sell her farm and gave up giving lessons. In my final year at FSU, I started taking lessons with Marsha Hartford-Sapp. I was really able to learn more in the short time there than I had before. I rode schoolmasters of calibers I had never touched before, and learned something brand new every ride. My favorite ride was an old chestnut Hanoverian mare who made you WORK for it, and when you got it right, the feeling of true engagement and suspension was absolute bliss.

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After college, I moved to Vero Beach and started working for lessons at an eventing barn called High Hopes Eventing Farm. It was small which meant that I learned a lot hands-on. The trainer adopted some young horses which I got to work with and exercise. At one point in time she had five chestnut Thoroughbred mares, all the kindest souls. I learned to jump courses, and had a blast running through water cross-country schooling. I fell in love with a horse named Daisy, a huge 17.1 chestnut off the track Thoroughbred. She was big boned with a delicately dished face, a unique star, and a double whorl between the eyes. She was incredibly kind and sensitive, and the largest-moving horse I have ever ridden. Her walk was marching- she was going somewhere with purpose! Her trot ate up the ground and just floated. I remember one ride I took her out bareback, and her canter was so soft yet powerful and she offered lead changes as smoothly as if she was in the FEI sandbox. It’s one of my most treasured memories. The four years I spent at High Hopes I learned so much, and look back fondly on.

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In 2015, my husband and I moved across the country to Denver, Colorado to start a new life in a place all on our own. Between 2015 and midway through 2017, I was only able to take a handful of lessons. My confidence for jumping was shaken after I fell flat on my back after a simple crossrail back in Vero Beach (why is it always the simple stuff?) and I decided I was going to focus on dressage. I started taking lessons with a dressage trainer, and the opportunity to partial lease came along. I had never had a better first ride on a horse. Fortune is a beautiful bay Thoroughbred gelding with a unique star, two whorls right in the middle, and a kind and curious personality. I started partial leasing him December 2017 until May 2018. He taught me a lot about the importance of relaxation and listening. Half the time I would go out and play with him freely, letting him loose in the arena after everyone else had gone home and just spend time with him being a horse. He was a puppy dog on the ground and thrived off of the attention. Under saddle, he was tense and nervous and you could tell he was trying so hard to please. I fell into bad habits, seeing spooky items at every corner and the little things created a mental block for me. I ended our lease due to financial reasons, in the hopes of saving the lease payment towards a horse of my own.

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Since May of 2018, I have been transitioning back into a forward seat but with a classical approach. I have been thriving off of learning more about the biomechanics of my body in the saddle; why the body needs to do what it needs to do. I believe that hopping around from discipline to discipline and riding multiple horses can be beneficial, but I have picked up some bad habits along the way. I’m too rigid. My hips are stiff. My hands need to stay closed, my leg under me, and my leg on. My mind is finally learning to stop thinking ‘what if’ and just ride.

Recently, riding a chestnut Appendix paint named Hank has boosted my confidence. He’s the perfect horse for right now because he is steady enough and knows his job, but doesn’t just give it to you (I’m looking at you, outside leg!). I was ridiculously happy with myself when I sat an excited buck when cantering out in the field. I was over the moon this week as I make my baby debut back into jumping. I am finally feeling like it was the right thing to strip everything down to the baby basics and re-learn how to ride. And for now, the goal of riding more correctly is more than enough to worry about. 

I have been a lesson kid for the entirety of my equestrian journey, and I am so thankful for the trainers who continue to maintain lesson programs for kids who don’t need to own their own horse to get the opportunity to ride. In the future, I hope to be able to have a horse to call my own. I believe that when I do, I will happily let my trainer give lessons on my horse to pay it forward. I’m so incredibly thankful for the opportunities I have had in the saddle, and may the universe bless the lesson horses who taught me and who continue to teach student after student. May your pastures always be green, your students always be kind, and your freedom of expression never be dimmed.

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