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Reflections of an Amateur Coach

Michael Hillman

Michael’s trip around the pre-novice cross-country course was going flawlessly. As he approached the water, everyone gathered along the fence line overlooking the field below, straining their necks to get a glimpse of the fence. Ashley, a seasoned eventer who just a few years back was in Michael’s position, fidgeted nervously.

"I hope Sly goes in. God I hope he goes in . . ."

I smiled. Ashley had come a long way.

When originally asked to coach Michael, she laughed. "Me?" she said. ‘You’ve got to be kidding, I wouldn’t know what to tell him."

"Funny," I said. "That’s the same thing I said to Julie when I told her about your wanting lessons from me!"

Throughout the course of the event, every time I saw Ashley, Michael was stuck by her side like a little brother hanging onto a big sister. Watching attentively as Michael went through his warm-up for dressage, she provided encouraging insights and tips. Walking the cross-country course, she recounted her own, often humorous experiences, and in doing so, helped lighten the mood, creating an environment where the normally stoic Michael felt confidant enough to open up and confess fears about certain fences.

Unfortunately, in spite of Ashley’s best effort, Sly balked at the water jump, which consisted of a simple un-judged entrance into the water followed by a judged step out. Following her pre-event advice, Michael straightened Sly out, and gently tapped in a rhythmic, encouraging manner on his flank with the crop. With each gentle tap, Ashley grew visibly more and more nervous; soon she was moving her own hands as if she was sitting on Sly. Under Michael’s steady and confidant encouragement, Sly finally did go into the water. As he did, Ashley let out an encouraging whoop and beamed with the pride of any proud parent.

That evening, as Ashley recounted the day’s more nerve racking moments to my wife, I couldn’t help but remind her that, like Michael, watching her first few events had given me more then a few gray hairs. Much as I, as my wife remainded both of us, had given my coach, Julie Gomena.

The phrase ‘Amateur coach teaching amateur riders’ seems like a sure bet for qualifying for entry in the Guinness book of oxy-morons. Had anyone three years back told me I would helping other riders, let alone, helping some helping someone, I would have had them committed, but that’s exactly the position I found myself in this year.

I take regular lessons with Julie Gomena, an exceptional rider and coach. While the cost of the actual lessons are relatively cheap, the overall cost per lesson escalates quickly when one adds in the cost of gas for 150 miles round trip with a truck and trailer, not to mention the extensive time commitment one must dedicate.

I count myself fortunate in that I can afford the outlay of time and money, but not everyone can, especially in my neck of backwoods Maryland. There are a lot of kids who, if held hostage to having to pay for every lesson with cash, would never get out of the unrecognized starter ranks. Recognizing that I benefit from the beneficence of others, I was hard pressed to not say yes, last fall when Cassie Frederick, a local Pony Club eventer hoping to try her hand at preliminary, asked if I would help her in exchange for helping around the barn.

I no sooner said yes, then another local eventer, Bethany, who was dreaming of preliminary, but was struggling at novice, ask to help also in exchange for lessons. Quickly on their heels, came Jen, who had been written off forever to the ranks of starter events. With three students to care for and my own two horses to ride, I soon found myself with more on my hands then I had ever counted on.

Suddenly schedules were the order of the day, schedules for the barn chores, schedules for lessons, schedules for events. It was a rude awaking for someone like me who lives his life in a laissez-faire manner. Having to work only four hours for a lesson, the girls became very adept at finding things to do around the barn and before I knew it, each was earning hours for three, if not four lessons a week. This suited my wife fine, as the barn, which was always well kept, now reached new levels of cleanliness.

As a result, instead of working my own horses at my own leisure, I had to focus and get my rides done before the regular evening lessons. While the lessons did take me away from other farm chores, they were nevertheless a never-ending source of opportunities to learn, for myself as well as the kids, not to mention the fact, great material for future humor articles for the US Event Horse!

Having ridden under coaches who encouraged a questioning attitude, I carried on the tradition with my students, much to my later chagrin. Being a military type, ‘because I said so . . .’ was always considered a legitimate reason to do something - but not to these kids. "Why" was their favorite word, the answers to which usually involved a quick call to Julie.

By the end of the spring year, my long distance telephone bill had nearly tripled but so had my understanding of what Julie had been trying to drill into me all these years. On days when I had my own lesson with Julie, my students would show up for their lessons with extra enthusiasm, eager to tap into what I had learned while it was still fresh in my mind.

The real fun of having students has to be their company at events. Eager to do well, they hang on every word of advice I give them. Eager to see them do well, I rack my brain for every detail I can provide. While they were competing at their initial levels, everything went smoothly, but as each got ready to move up and try their hand at the next level, I found it hard not to show my nervousness - especially when Cassie made her debut at preliminary and Jen at recognized novice.

As for Bethany . . . well she was a coach's dream come true.  Having successfully moved up to the training level the fall before, she spent the year solidifying her position in that ranks, and finished the season with a solid 4th place finish at the the training championships.

Cassie had come a long way from when I first met her by the time she entered the dressage ring to begin her first preliminary competition. ‘Irish’, who was once so scattered brain that she would joke ‘he had a foot in every county’, was walking away with first and second place ribbons at training. In stadium, he was a machine, never touching a rail. But on cross-country, while he was bold, he still nevertheless could be a tad bit stupid.

Realizing that the preliminary event she would be participating in would have a large ditch and wall, I opted to have her school mine one day after a jumping lesson. Irish stopped deader then an ax in a piece of wood. It was a good wake-up call. For the next few weeks, we schooled the ditch and wall until it seemed Irish had it down pat. But my new found confidence was short-lived when on the day of the actual event, I discovered that the long approach, on which I had counted to help get enough momentum to get Irish over the fence, had been removed, replaced by a short, downward, bending turn.

Visions of Irish losing momentum in the turn and then stalling as he saw the big fence flashed through my mind. "Wow, that’s an awfully big fence with a nasty approach to it, are you sure they can make it?" Cassie’s mother nervously asked.

"Oh sure, no problem" I said, as I made a mental note to ask the organizer to call the medi-vac before Cassie set out on course.

Cassie meanwhile, high on finally going preliminary, was oblivious to my concerns, and I saw no reason to ruin her day. As we walked the course, I made suggestions on how to jump each fence, all designed to ready her and Irish for the ‘Ditch and Wall’.

As Cassie began her ride, I positioned myself with Cassie’s mother next to the ditch and wall and nervously awaited their arrival. By the time they appeared out of the wood, Irish was visibly tired. Not out of gas, but tired nevertheless. It was obvious they were learning it was one thing to run around a training course, it was another thing to jump around a preliminary course.

I held my breath and a thousand thoughts flew through my mind. Did Cassie feel what I saw? Did she remember the plan we had painstakingly worked out? Did she know she needed to add ‘firing Irish’s afterburners’ to the plan? More importantly, did she know how to fire his afterburners this late in a run? I held my breath as they nearly belly-flopped over the half-coffin, the fence before the ditch and wall. I was almost ready to turn away lest I watch them wreck, when she executed the plan. She half-halted halfway into the turn to the fence and lifted her hands, Irish immediately came off his forehand. Once off his forehand, Cassie let out a loud ‘Go on!’ and putting her spurs to him, powered him forward.

In spite of all the work we had done at home over the ditch and wall, Irish nevertheless considered stopping but Cassie had created so much momentum that he was unable to stop and, for lack of any better term, was ‘forced’ to jump the ditch and wall. It wasn’t pretty, but it was successful. Relief was written on both Cassie’s Mom’s and my face, and we quickly headed off to finish the gin and tonics we had left at the trailer. Needless to say, Cassie was in seventh heaven, at long last she could call herself a ‘preliminary rider’.

With Cassie’s ‘move up’ now out of the way, my attention turned to Jen and to helping her establish her position as a solid novice level rider. Her first two trips around novice courses had gone ok, not great, but ok. At her third event she successfully overcame the ‘two stops at a single fence - what do I do differently on the third attempt scenario’, and missed an exceptional opportunity to become a ‘baptized’ eventer by falling just in front of the water, versus in it. But like a true trooper, she was thrilled just to finish.

In spite of Jen’s smiles, I found myself uneasy as the next weekend approached and with it, Jen’s last event of the season. Having planned out her fall schedule under the assumption all would go well, the last event was to be the hardest, a novice move up to training level course. As it turned out, it was all of that and much, much more. Not only were the fences big, but the course overall required a technically challenging and correct ride.

I knew I was in trouble when I met Jen at the start box for our cross-county walk. Having just walked the course herself, her eyes were popping out of their sockets. For much of our walk, she was speechless. Instead, she listened attentively, nodded a lot, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, wiped the sweat off her brow.

I did my best to prop up her confidence, telling her over and over again that ‘ . . . this fence is a piece of cake for Charlie . . .’ . But when I came to her table fence, which looked only a few inches smaller then its huge preliminary neighbor, the quiet was deafening.

It didn’t help much that Jen had no sooner begun to warm-up then the event was put on hold while a fellow novice level rider was transported to the hospital after a fall. In spite of a superb warm-up, Jen’s face still went white when she was called to the start box. The 2-minute countdown had no sooner begun, that Jen wondered out loud if she had time to use the facilities. I said "No". To which she smiling replied "But what if they have to medi-vac me out? I don’t want to pee my pants while on the way to the hospital!"

Fortunately the 10-second count down had begun and any reply I might have thought of was now overcome by events. Moving quickly to an advantage point that would allow me to see the most fences, Debby, Jen’s mother, and I crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Jen bounded from the start box, as if an innocent soul escaping from hell. Having understood that how she rode the first fence would set the tone for the rest of the course, she never let up, riding forward all the way to its base, and Charlie, true to his good nature, rewarded her with a picture perfect jump up and over it, as he did the next three fences.

Before we knew it Jen was heading towards the fifth fence, a wide grass topped wall with a sizeable drop on the far side, a fence similar to one the week before where he had stopped twice. This one however, was much larger, wider, and with a more significant drop on the far side. I held my breath as they approached it, and could not hide my smile as I heard Jen yell ‘Go Charlie’ and she sat back and kicked him forward. As expected, Charlie thought about taking a look, then opted not to and bounded over it. Jen’s shout of glee was heard throughout the course.

Her confidence now apparent to all, especially Charlie, they powered forward to the table and were up and over it in a flash of an eye, leaving a clear impression to all that the fence was nothing more than what they would come across during a regular Sunday stroll in the park.

As Jen disappeared over the hill and headed for the backside of the course, for the first time since she left the start box, Debbie and I breathed. Two minutes later, a visibly elated Jen appeared out of the woods, bounded over the second to last fence and, following my directions to the letter, collected Charlie for the last fence, a fence that throughout the event, lay claim to a majority of eliminations. Fired with confidence, she coiled Charlie like a spring and held him to the base. Her efforts were rewarded with a powerful, picture perfect bascule.

Jen had no sooner crossed the finish flags then she burst into tears. Much like Cassie two weeks earlier, Jen finally felt confident enough to call herself a novice rider and could now dream away the winter with thoughts of solidifying that position and moving up to training next fall.

I had no sooner toasted the end of the season with a gin and tonic, and an oath that in my next life, I was going to pick a less strenuous sport, then Debby reminded me that I still had one more chore to do: Michael.

But you already know how Michael’s story ends. Fitting isn’t it, how this story has come full circle, beginning and ending with Michael. For me, coaching also comes full circle, for not far down the road, Cassie, Jen, Bethany, and Michael, each in their time, will pass into the able hands of Julie and complete the circle. While I enjoy teaching each of them, I look forward to one day seeing them ride under Julie and to being able to watch her look on nervously, much like she did for me many years earlier, as her new charges make their way around the course.

As for me, I’ll be enjoying their stories of ‘their’ students, ready to remind them what it was like to teach them . . .

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman