Monday, April 26, 2010

Back in the GAME!

It takes a lot of time, preparation, training, blood, sweat, tears, casts, and focus to make it to the four star level. Top that with the tedious search to find that perfect four star mount, well, it seems next to impossible to make it to the level without unlimited funds and excess time. I have been fortunate enough to have had four 4* mounts at the age of twenty six, which although in most sports would be considered an age to retire, is a pretty ripe number in equestrian years. Aside from Mazetto who had already competed through the four star level before I took over the reins, Jamie, Frodo, and now Alex have been projects, horses that were overlooked on the racetrack and passed around in an endless abyss of suitable jobs. As many of the top riders know, a horse can have the talent, movement, temperament, and scope to be a four star horse but what sets him apart from the herd is indeed, his heart. Where Jamie lacked in his movement he made up for in his yearning to succeed and to compete. Where Frodo lacked in his scope he made up for in his obedience to please his rider. Where Alex lacks in his temperament, he makes up for in his bountiful and abundant talent. The point that I am trying to make here, is that the recipe for a four star horse doesn't have to exist in his bloodlines, rather, it the relationship and trust that he has with his rider, and above all, his heart.
To clarify some rumors, let me digress in retelling the story of how Alex came into our barn. In 2004, Beth Mueller, who had briefly leased my first preliminary horse, had given me a call telling me she had recently acquired a horse off the track that although he was beautiful in appearance, he was equally as difficult to ride. Because of his inconsistent temperament and his inability to finish in the top placings at the Charlestown race track, she offered the owner $500 to rescue the tiny little Thoroughbred from existing in a dog food canister. When he became too difficult to ride, she sent him to Paul and Lauren Tjaden, who at the time were in the business of re-selling horses for the sport of eventing. Coincidentally, soon after Beth told me about her new horse off the track, Paul called me up asking if I would be interested in a talented little horse, but warned me of his spooky nature and insisted that I give him a try, since he had been taking up room at their farm for over six months with no interested buyers. That week, I came to look at Alex with my mom, and as soon as Lauren lunged him, despite freaking out and throwing a shoe, mom and I looked at eachother thinking, wow, this is the real deal! He was such a beautiful mover with natural suspension and thrusted forward with ease from his hind end. His self-carriage was equally as amazing as he zoomed around the now ten meter circle swapping leads every other stride. So, I asked myself, ok so what, he’s a little hot under the collar....what’s the catch here? After taking us nearly an hour loading him into the trailer, in which he flipped over backwards during one of his frantic episodes, we finally were hauling out of the driveway. Although it was a hot and sticky summer day, all of the doors and windows on the trailer were shut to be sure Al would not kick, chew, paw, or throw himself out of the trailer. We had signed an agreement with the Tjadens that we would need a fifteen day trial with the horse before handing them a check, which although wasn’t enough to afford a used saddle, we certainly did not want to have a liability on our farm. However, as soon as we unloaded the now sweaty and tucked-up sixteen hand bay onto Crow’s Ear Farm, his whole attitude had changed. It was as if he had a revelation in the three and a half hour haul home and decided that he had better straighten up or else he would meet his demise in the dog food can once again!
If only it were that easy....after the summer was over I loaded my three horses up, Jamie, Frodo, and now Alex, and headed to UVa where I boarded with Marcia Carabell at Belle Brae Farm. After about a week of settling into his new temporary home, I soon discovered why Alex was such a “freak” at the Tjadens and possibly on the race track. Because Marcia’s farm was surrounded by cattle, Al was constantly throwing himself on the ground in the stall, running around in the pasture, and would take out anyone or anything that was in his path to rid himself of the monsters that surrounded him, including me. After moving stalls, closing doors, and switching pastures, we were able to calm him down and create another plan of attack on how to go about this newfound fear of was really quite simple you see, and still remains to this day: Don’t let a cow within a ten mile radius of Alex.
Coming back to Rolex after what had occurred only two years prior was beyond demoralizing. As I grazed Alex around the steeplechase field, I calmly gazed out at the exact spot that completely ripped my life apart in the spring of 2008. I wondered if I had made the right decision in coming back to this venue, to this city, well, even to this sport. I felt as if the whole horse world had turned its back against me and even wished for my failure. As I stared into that open cross country field, my faith in myself, in my horse, and my decision to compete here, had slowly melted down to the raw emotion of fear...the fear of failure. No sooner than I could pack up and head back east to Virginia, was I met with smiles and cheers from my family, my friends, my support. I soon realized that if everyone else can believe in Alex and I, well, why can’t I do the same? Was there something they knew that I didn't? Apparently so.
The week of Rolex passed by in a whirlwind. Everything that I had hoped and dreamed for had come to fruition. Ok, so Al was a little naughty in the dressage ring which gave him an uncharacteristic mark in the high fifties that certainly left me disappointed but hey, this is a four star, there was plenty more to worry about rather than a few spooks across the center line and a couple of late flying changes. As I set out on the cross country course, my main focus was to have a clear and sound mind. I kept replaying certain special quotes from Mind Gym in my head, the most prominent being, “You have to be present to win.” I wanted to ride every fence on it’s own and give Alex the most confidence building rides as I could possibly muster. About eight fences in and three minute markers down, I knew I was sitting on a four star mount. Al saw his lines as soon as I did, lengthened his stride as soon as I asked, and shortened his body as soon as I sat up. As we cantered through the finish line, all of my fear, my anticipation, my anxiety, my nerves, and my pride came bursting out in forms of tears and laughter! I couldn't believe what I had just overcome, and the insurmountable demons that I had finally beat down! Not only did my horse grow up, I became a different rider and person in the span of eleven minutes and thirty seconds. That newfound maturity was only doubled as Alex and I finished Rolex with a double clear show jumping round to finish in fourteenth place overall, and eighth place nationally. Knowing all of the hard work both mom and I had put in, all of the disappointment, hospital visits, vet bills, lessons with Kim and Buck, literally everything that led up to this moment in the past two years, I must tell you, it has certainly been nothing short of surreal.
Now, for the most important part of my blog: the “Thank-You”s. Above everything, I have to thank my mother...for her support and actual belief in my riding has allowed me to press on when I had nothing else left. It is from her eye, her care, her love, and her knowledge that my horses and I have become what we are today. There is no one or nothing that matters more to me than my mother, for she is the only person who truly knows and feels how great this victory to overcome really encompasses. Second, I would like to thank Alex. Alex and I share a similar story in that we both gave each other second chances. Al was given a second chance at life when he was rescued from slaughter; and in turn, he gave me a second chance to ride at the top level once again, and most importantly, to SUCCEED. In short, we both gave one another a second chance at life itself...pretty profound statement I know, but it measures up on so many different levels. Third, I want to thank my groom and best friend, Bronywn Watts. Aside from my mother, B knows the struggle and the courage it took not only to battle my own demons within, but to bring Al up to finally become a four star horse...she has loyally remained by my side, and I plan to do the same for her in the many years to come. I want to thank my family, for at times they had to relive their nightmare in order for me to pursue my dream. I want to thank my students, Sam, Geri, Bethany, Celia and “Kabby” for being there to witness one of the most important days so far in my career. Furthermore, I want to thank my sponsors who have kept my horses and myself looking pristine and professional and have remained apart of Team Crow’s Ear through any disparity and controversy that my past experiences had sometimes encouraged. FITS, County Saddles, Heritage Gloves, Thinline saddle pads, Flairstrips, Triple Crown horse feed, and Southern States: your support and products have equally contributed to this successful result at Rolex. I also want to thank VV Skivvies for their new sponsorship with Team Crow’s Ear. Lastly but certainly not least, I want to thank all my supporters and fans who have continued to send encouraging words of support for Al and myself and have in turn, provided me with inspiration to keep doing what I love the most. Keep your letters coming!!! Until next time, shoulders back, chin up, and keep kickin on home! Be in touch soon!