The Long Game
By: Jessie Koerner
I refused to walk the course before my class because I didn’t want to see how big the jumps were. They look worlds different from the ground opposed to when you’re sitting on a 17.1 hh giant who you know looks at them like speed bumps instead of substantial piles of lumber.
I’d been doing the level 5/6 low AOs all year down in South Carolina while I was at school with a trainer whose only advice was to walk in and kick. There’s always something different though, when you come home to your own community, people you’ve known for a decade, at a show series you’ve long counted as your favorite. So walking into that ring up at Estes Park to do the mini prix was terrifying. It also didn’t help that I’d been in the clinic a few days before with a wicked bout of food poisoning, marking the last time I’ve ever eaten at a Ted Turner’s. Still, Finale, my golden hearted mare, jumped me around quick and clear. We lost by half a second. That was over a decade ago.
This weekend, four horses, twelve years, countless horse shows, and a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears later, I still couldn’t walk the course the first day of Stock Show. I walked it with the 1.10m jumpers because I am a chicken amateur. It’s still true: those fences look a hell of a lot smaller when sitting on a giant horse who thinks they’re speed bumps.
Once again, my horse took care of me. It wasn’t my first AO course, though it was my first at Stock Show in that difficult ring, and with fences set solidly at 1.30 meters. But for the first time, I walked into the arena not only feeling prepared myself, but that my horse was prepared and ready; like I belonged back in this division, and not just trying to push my horse and myself because of my goals. We had a couple rails, and one fence where my proclivity for the long spot did me and Fitz no favors, but it was a the most fun I’ve ever had. I got to have fun because I knew walking into that ring that not only could my horse mentally do it, but finally I could too.
I’ve wanted to do the big jumps as soon as I started riding my first jumper, a horse named CJ that I leased from a friend. I wanted to get there ASAP, too. Unfortunately, between equine injuries, my own anxiety and neuroses, and the anxiety and neuroses of some of my mounts, it’s taken until now to get there comfortably, where everyone involved is prepared (including my trainer, who I think has watched through fingers like a bad horror movie where someone may get killed or it might just be ominous music up to now). One of my friends stopped me this weekend, asked what I was showing in, and when I answered the AO jumpers, she told me, “Welcome back to where you belong.”
That’s the hardest thing and the best thing about this sport: It may take us forrrrevvvverrrrr to get to where we want to be, but unlike so many other sports, we have that time.
We don’t shrivel up and recede to the background when we turn 20 or 30 or even 50. I feel like we get to participate in a sport that follows the arc of life: some people may be able to ride in the Grand Prixs when they’re 18, and for others it takes until they’re 40. Our USET at Rio this year spanned from Lucy Davis (24) to Kent Farrington (36), McLain Ward (41), Laura Kraut (51), and – the ultimate – Beezie Madden (53). Even George Morris still rides better than most of us at 78.
Hiroshi Hoketsu had to pull out of Rio 2016 due to an injury with his horse. He would have been the oldest Olympian at 75.
Those of us who take that extra time don’t get consigned to rec leagues or weekend intramurals either: we get to compete at the same competitions as, and sometimes against, our more prominent peers. We can also see them make some of the same mistakes we make ourselves, which isn’t schadenfreude, it’s reassuring that even the best professionals mess up too – remember, we sometimes have to compete against them and it’s nice to know they’re not infallible
Commit to the Next County Over distance like Beezie. Or not. Don’t do this.
I’m finally at that place in my riding career where launching poor Fitz at a hard-to-see fence and crashing him through it doesn’t send me into a tail spin of oh-my-god-I-shouldn’t-have-done-that-I-don’t-belong-here-what-am-I-even-doing-I-don’t-remember-anything-past-this-because-I-blacked-out-in-fear. I’m finally at the place where another Horse Park trainer can tell me that mistakes are a gift because they’re the only things that allow us to get better, and I can internalize that in a positive way. It’s taken a long time to get here. Some of that is me relinquishing my perfectionism, or trying to, but a lot of this is Fitz. All of my horses have made me a better rider, and I love them all and their individual quirks and physical needs and fears (indeed, Parker does spook at his own shadow…), but Fitz is finally my partner, on my level, ready to go for it with me.
I first sat on CJ when I was 14, setting my sights on fences that were bigger than I was at the time. I walked into that mini prix on Finale 5 years later. Parker and I overcame a lot to get back into the AO ring 6 years after that. Now, 17 years after setting that goal – not merely of doing the AO jumpers and surviving, but able to jump around and settle in – I’m there.
So if you’re walking away from Stock Show, or a schooling show, or any other show feeling frustrated or discouraged or not where you want to be, remember that while it feels so immediate in the moment, there’s time. This is a sport for life, and if you miss one goal – Young Riders, a college team, moving up a division at the next show – there’s always the next one. When you get there, in earnest, with your teammate on the same page? Let’s just say you still can’t knock the smile off my face.