Return to
Windy Meadow Farm
    Horses and Riding
  Farm Life
Horse Jokes
List of other articles on by:


Third Times a Charm

Michael Hillman

Every rider experiences it: a season from hell. This year, it’ s in full swing for me. The only bright spot in it is Becca ...

I first saw Becca ride last fall at a starter horse trial. Her horse, a flashy dark bay, caught my eye as the pair headed out of the start box. Much to my surprise, the pair barely managed to jump the first and came to a screeching halt and eventual elimination at the second, a simple 2'3" log. In tears, Becca began to walk her horse off the course.

As I was TD, Becca’s mother sought me out and inquired as to whether eliminated riders were being allowed to jump stadium. As it was, the organizers were allowing it, provided that I felt them safe to do so. Needless to say, Becca’s first two fences didn’t leave me all that inspired to given them the go ahead. So I asked her to jump a few warm up fences for me. Miles, her 16-year-old ex-everything school master jumped the X hesitantly, and would have nothing to do with the vertical. Becca was devastated and sat slumped in the saddle.

One of the nice things about this particular starter event is the organizers are really big into making sure everyone has fun and learns. And while at a recognized event a TD would never offer advice, here, it was ok. It was obvious to me Miles was expecting to get caught in the mouth by unforgiving hands, so I suggested to Becca that she should get into a jumping position, grab some mane, and trust her horse. Miles nodded in agreement and proceeded to jump as he knew he should.

Later that afternoon, Molly, Becca’s mother, came up to thank me, and told me about Becca and Miles’ s history together. Suffice to say, Miles, an ex-racer turned fox hunter, turned eventer, and Becca, a determined 8th grade C-2 pony clubber, were having major communications problem. So much so, that events were no longer fun, but painful experiences. While her parents hadn’t gotten to the point of drawing straws to see who would take her to events, for Becca, the dream of ever competing at a recognized event had become a personal nightmare.

Desperate to turn things around, Molly asked if I would be willing to help the pair. One of the nice things about not making a living as a coach, is I can pick and chose those I do want to help, and spend as much time helping them as they need without worrying about the next lesson. In doing so, I've been blessed with Students like Ashley, Cassie, Jordan, and Bethany, and managed to avoid 'students from hell.'

Something in both Becca’s and Miles’ eyes told me the pair had potential, not to mention desire to do well, so I agreed.

The first lesson was a get the 'lay of the land’ type lesson. When I inquired as to why Miles was being ridden in a twisted snaffle, Becca told me it was because Miles ran away with her. When asked to canter around the field so I could see for myself, the two barely crawled. It was obvious Becca’s idea of being run away with and mine, were two totally different things.

Not quite sure what was going on, I got on Miles and asked for a canter, only to be surprised that instead of trying to run away, he seemed unable to go forward, as if stuck in second gear. Throwing away the reins, I encouraged him to go forward. At first, Miles wasn’t sure what to do, but slowly and surely he picked up speed. By the third time around the field, he was moving forward of his own accord.

Obviously too much time was being devoted to work in a small arena, and not enough to hacks and just having fun. As a result Miles’ had become ring sour - the solution to which was simple - hack, hack, and hack some more! After explaining the importance of hacking and having fun to Becca for both her and her horse’ s mental well being, I turned my attention to jumping.

Having had more stops then successful jumps, Becca had developed a noticeably defensive position. Her fear of being run away had led her to ride with a death grip on Miles' mouth, one she was unable to release, even over fences. As for her legs ... well lets just say putting her legs on Miles’ was the furthest thing from her mind. Without a supporting leg, and fearful of being caught in the mouth, Miles also became defensive and refused to jump.

Over the next two lessons, I methodically worked the pair over stadium fences, with Becca holding onto Miles’ mane to steady her jumping position. As expected, the more Becca left Miles alone, the better he jumped. With each jump, I could see the confidence being built between the two. Sure that I was on the right track, I decided to end the third lesson by having the pair jump a small coop. The approach looked good, but at the last minute, Becca yanked on the reins and jumped up Miles’ neck. Miles, sensing the old Becca had returned, shutdown.

I stood dumfounded. Fixing the issues between the two was going to take a lot longer than I planned. Like bickering couples, the two needed a separation. Both were in desperate need of a confidence boost, and both needed to relearn how to have fun.

My solution to Becca’s confidence issues was easy. For the next two months she rode my old Preliminary horse Worf. Now retired and way to plump. I had planned to put him back into work in hopes of losing some of his tonnage anyway. This was too good an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

While Becca sweated in the late fall heat, I stood around and drank Gin and Tonics and occasionally spouted well-thought out witticisms such as "Go on! Go forward! Leave him alone! Feel the Force! And of course the occasional ... Get back on, your arm doesn’t look that badly broken ..."

In spite of the fact he had been out of work for three years, Worf jumped flawlessly for Becca. In doing so, he helped her begin to learn what a good jump was supposed to feel like. Realizing that the size of a fence might be an issue with Becca, once confident in her position, I focused on jumping bigger and bigger fences. With each successful jump, Becca blossomed. Coffins, banks and ditch, and walls were soon the order of the day.

Miles meanwhile, enjoyed 'happy go lucky jaunts' in the country. Every opportunity I got, I hopped on his back and jumped him, rewarding him mightily for every jump well done. When winter finally did settle in, both Becca and Miles were ready to enjoy a long break filled with hopes that this spring they would finally get to do a recognized event.

As hoped, they came out this spring a changed pair. Every time I turned around, Becca was calling to arrange a lesson. Working diligently on what she had learned, yet she remembering to set aside time for playing with Miles.  The team’ s progress was visibly noticeable to all.

Fully aware that while the pair’s confidence was high, one false step could undo all their hard work. So I selected for their first event an easy starter horse trail. Becca’ s mother, a curable optimist, prepared for the worst. I prepared several bottles of Gin and Tonic, and Becca, full of youthful hope, prepared too ignore us both!

Becca’s hard work on learning to allow her horse to go forward paid off with a flawless cross-county ride. Only a less then adequately ridden dressage test marred the otherwise perfect day. So for the next few lessons, I drilled her on how to ride a dressage test, using lime to trace out the test movements in my grass arena.

Whenever Becca was unsure of how to accomplish a given movement, I would place her on Worf, who’s Dressage, while impeccable, was only so, if, as she quickly learned, the right buttons were pushed, meaning 'leg, leg, and more leg!'  

An athletic kid, Becca nevertheless was always fatigued at the end of every lesson, though she would never dare admit it.

Because of my own eventing schedule, I sadly missed Becca’s long awaited debut into the recognized ranks. But following my own advice on the advantages of rent-a-coaches, I set her up under the watchful eye of another eventer, who coached her to her first green ribbon.

In her second event, a petty technical issue knocked her out of the ribbons, and while everyone was disappointed, her performance began to lay to rest once and for all, the nightmares of the seasons before. Unhappy with the pair’s performance in stadium, I focused the next two weeks lessons heavily on jumping gymnastics.

Before we knew it, her third event, and hardest to date, was upon us. We worked on every detail in the days leading up to the event, I drilled Becca on how to warm up for dressage on what I knew would be uneven terrain to how to vary her pace cross country to account for the uneven open spaces between fences.

I pulled out all the stops and threw everything I knew at her, hoping that even if she only remembered a fraction, it might give her the edge she needed to make the old saying ‘Third Times a Charm’ come true for her.

Becca listened attentively, up until I began to recount the number of different ways I managed to eliminate myself, at which time she excused herself, giving the lame excuse that she did have plans for the next two days ...

Sure enough the warm up area was uneven, and Becca rode her warm-up routine as we had planned, which led to a nearly flawlessly test. Nearly flawless because it was going so good, she felt like repeating some of it ...

Even with the error, Becca found herself sitting in fourth place. For the first time in her ridding career, Becca’s pretty face bore a smile as she studied the standings on the tally sheet.

Our lessons over grids paid off handsomely in the stadium. While rails were flying for others, Becca piloted Miles to one of the few double clear rounds in her division. Jumping every fence out of stride, the pair turned the hunter riders in the crowd green with envy. The pressure was now on.

Even with two clean cross country rides under her belt, it was obvious that the size and complexity of the cross country course had Becca on edge. Twice we walked the course, stopping at every fence to discuss how to approach it, how it should be jumped, and what to do if something went wrong. Running against the clock for the first time, we talked about the importance of making up time between fences and where on the course it could be done best.

Leaving nothing to chance, just before she entered the start box, I once again quizzed her times and how to read her watch. She passed with flying colors.

I’m not sure who was more nervous by the time she finally entered the start box, Becca’s parents or me. As for Becca, she was ready to rock and roll.

Bolting out of the box and bounding over the first fence, it was hard to believe that this was the same pair I had too eliminate less then five months earlier.

Riding with an air of confidence one would expect of an upper level rider, she rode him confidently toward every fence, allowing Miles to pick his own spots. She bounded through a sunken rode combination, which had been the principle focus of her worries, without losing a beat. The ditch, their former nemesis, was cleared without hesitation. Every fence she jumped was better then the one before it. I could see her beaming smile half the course away.

At the halfway point, she looked at her watch and realizing that they where ahead of time, slowed her pace. The pair crossed the finish flags without faults and with 15 seconds to spare, earning them their very first blue ribbon.

For some, the third time really is a charm, and for Becca at least, dreams really do come true. Along the way, she hopefully learned some valuable lessons, like hard work does pay off; its OK to admit what you don’t know; that its not how well, or how poorly you did yesterday that maters, but how well you do today that counts, and most importantly, that beneficence received from others should be remembered and one day returned to another.

I hope she learned that no one wins without the help of a good team behind them, and above all else, to value and treasure your time with your horse and parents, for they will both be gone in a blink of an eye, then it’ll be too late to show them how much they mean to you.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman