It’s a bright October day and Dr. Wendy Krebs is doubled-over Skipper’s hoof, doing the flexion test countdown. Her assistant, Anne, is at Skipper’s head and I’m at the tail end, whip in hand.
Anne gives the five-second warning and Dr. Krebs lowers Skipper’s foot to the ground.
Three, two, one, and we’re off at the trot, watching Skipper’s reaction. Without meaning to, I hold my breath through each flexion and am gasping for air as I trot alongside Skipper, motivating him.
My friends have reminded me, with varying degrees of smirking, that I’d been adamant that I’d never buy another horse.
How did I get here?
I went from liking Skipper to loving him back in August, when he was superstar at dressage camp — our first off the property adventure together. He handled the new setting and the two-lessons-a-day schedule graciously. When I turned him out in the round pen to romp, he followed me like a puppy.
When I returned from camp, singing his praises to his owner, she said, “You should buy him.”
Yikes. Suzanne has four horses, was preparing for a knee replacement, and was ready to downsize.
“I’d love to, but I can’t afford it,” I said.
My retirement plans didn’t include boarding a horse — I’d done some downsizing of my own.
I told myself not to panic, that it could easily take six months for Skipper to sell and that if I was really lucky, someone would keep him at our barn, letting me lease him.
This strategy worked until his ad came out on dreamhorse.com and someone made an appointment to ride My Horse. My anxiety and imagination kicked into full gear. Picture this: me standing in the barn’s driveway as Skipper is hauled off in a trailer, kicking up a small cloud of dust as he exits my life forever. Ow.
“I only have so many years left of riding,” I told my husband, Al. “I don’t want to waste them.”
Trying to explain the horse/human connection to an engineer is next to impossible, but I tried. Ever practical, Al suggested I contact our financial planner. I’m pretty sure Al was hoping Ken would deliver a death blow to my dream, so he didn’t have to.
I delayed a few days, afraid to make the call. Finally, I worked up the numbers: Skipper’s monthly costs, including board, medical, lessons, etc. and sent Ken an email. An hour later, he replied, “Let’s talk.”
We set up a three-way call, with Al, Ken, and I —and I braced for the worst. But here’s what happened.
“That’s what money is for,” Ken said.
Tears started rolling down my cheeks.
Sure, I can’t take lavish vacations or live more than 30 years without downsizing further (trailer park, here I come), but that’s ok. Skipper passed his pre-purchase with high marks and I’m telling everyone I meet, “I bought a horse!”
I’m not sure if I own him or he owns me.
Thank you to Mari Valceschini of Alliance Equestrian for facilitating my co-lease of Skipper, back in June, when I was between horses — and for facilitating the sale. Mari put the training on Skipper, transforming him from trail horse to dressage star. She saw the potential for a match long before I did.
In a sport that is considered to be an individual effort, a pas de deux is a clearly collaborative achievement that brings its own rewards.
Here’s how I went from clueless to competing in just over a month.
“You two should do a pas de deux,” Natalie said. “Your horses would look great together.”
Mary and I had just returned from Adult Rider Dressage Camp with Dooley and Skipper and we were flush with excitement. The horses had exceeded our expectations, meeting new challenges while handling the stress of working away from home. It was a bonding experience for all of us — but until Natalie mentioned it, I’d never really noticed how similar our horses looked: two smaller chestnut geldings with a bit of chrome.
Mary had ridden quadrille and competed in an upper level freestyle with her horse, Dante, so she had experience. Plus she’s fun and easy to get along with. To learn from Mary was a chance I’d be foolish to walk away from.
So I said, “Sure!”, without knowing exactly what I was getting into.
We set up a training session, to give it a whirl. We started with the basics: having our horses walk and trot within a few feet of each other, trying to match their tempo on straight lines, in circles, and across the diagonal. It wasn’t easy but we had a lot of fun.
Before we go further, I need to mention that Dooley is a rescue horse who’s come a long way in a short time under Mary’s kind hand. Dooley had done well at Intro Level at local shows and was schooling Training/First Level. He’s been under saddle less than a year.
Skipper’s had the benefit of more training, competing at Third Level with professional Mari Valceschini — but he’s still relatively new to me, so I planned to take him out at First Level in an upcoming League Show.
The bottom line? Dooley was the less-experienced horse but he had the benefit of Mary’s extra experience. It had the more seasoned horse but have less experience/skill as a rider. It made for a wacky kind of balance.
At first, the horses seemed a little confused by riding side-by-side, but they quickly caught on. In fact, when we went down center line together and parted ways at ‘C’, me going right, Mary going left, Dooley looked back at Skipper as if asking, “Where’d he go?”
At the walk and trot, Skipper’s faster pace meant Mary had to push Dooley on while I worked to collect Skipper back. At the canter, which we practiced in circles at opposite ends of the arena for safety’s sake, it was my turn to push Skipper forward. We laughed a lot as we made mistakes and learned from them.
“They look adorable together,” Claudia said, as she watched us.
“You guys should do a pas de deux at the show!” Laura said. The secretary for our upcoming League Show, she was serious.
I laughed, nervously. The show was only about three weeks out and I like to over-prepare. I’d never dreamed of competing in a pas de deux on such short notice.
Mary had a gleam in her eye, though, and I sensed there was no turning back.
That week, Mary took the music from her upper-level freestyle and modified the choreography to Training Level. She came back to me saying, “Want to give it a try?”
Of course, I did! In our next session, we worked on choreography. We needed to decide what level we’d be riding so we could incorporate the required movements. First Level would definitely be flashier but it’d be a step up for Dooley. It was time to get Natalie, our trainer, involved.
In a series of semi-private lessons, we decided to develop a First Level routine and fine-tuned the choreography, accordingly. During practice sessions, Mary and I gradually brought the horses closer together at the walk and trot, until we had moments where we were so close, our stirrups clanked together. That’s exciting!
We tried to coordinate our posting at the rising trot when riding side by side — it looks great —but is a lot harder to do than you’d think. It was a challenge to keep one eye on Mary and Dooley to keep pace, while remembering to ride my own horse — but in the moments when the horses were synchronized, my heart sang. I swear the horses enjoyed it, too.
The music Mary had chosen as perfect: light, joyful songs that were a pleasure to ride to. People say that dressage is dancing with horses … and when you add music, it really feels that way.
Leading up to the show, I had a lot of insecurities — I went over the choreography in my head in the quiet hours of morning and as I fell asleep each night, fearing I’d forget our routine. I worried about forgetting my saddle pad. Lots of little concerns that reflected how important it was to me to pull my weight as a part of our team.
Mary and I did our homework, found matching saddle pads for our horses, and Mary loaned me some show attire to match hers. On the morning of the show, we braided the boys’ manes. We warmed up together in the indoor arena, and then it was Show Time.
“How did it go?” you ask.
Fantastic. Beyond expectations. During the ride, I let go of everything else and embraced the sense of performance that a pas de deux can bring. It was time to show off to the best of our abilities. I took heart, knowing our boys would look great together — and they did, dancing their way down center line. We had moments of beauty, with our horses graciously doing everything we asked. It was truly a team effort of horses and humans. The sense of accomplishment was more than twice as big as any of my individual efforts.
The judge was kind in her comments and her scores, giving us a total of 73 percent …far better than we expected …and truly a highlight in my riding ‘career’.
Perhaps best of all, our ride retained a sense of play, even in competition. So many people commented, “That looked like fun.” It was.
While developing a pas de deux takes time, work, and the flexibility to coordinate with another rider, I highly recommend it. It takes the work beyond the self. What a joy to see our horses trusting us in this quirky activity … for humoring us in this crazy sport we call dressage. They truly were team players.
Credit goes to Mary Cuevas for pulling our pas de deux together, taking the lead in the choreography and stepping me through the process. We are both grateful to Natalie Perry for starting us on our way — and for her help in tailoring the routine to maximize the strengths of our horses. We’ll be working together through the winter to do even better next year.
When I started leasing Skipper on June 1st, I had a goal: to take him to Adult Amateur Camp. Our region puts on a great Camp, which I’ve attended the past several years with Micah. Since Micah retired, Skipper would be a whole new experience.
My first concern was getting Skipper fit enough to work for four days in a row, with a total of six lessons. Skipper arrived at our barn he was unfit and pudgy, after having had several months off. Fortunately, I co-lease Skipper with my friend, Mary, and we worked together to increase Skipper’s workload at a reasonable pace. As we did so, Taryn Yates DVM kept Skipper feeling good with regular chiropractic work. Skipper progressed well but I wasn’t sure how he’d handle the stress of a new facility and the challenge of back-to-back lessons. He’d been to shows with trainer Mari Valceschini and done well but a) she’s a professional and b) Skipper can get a little hot if he feels insecure or gets frustrated. With this in mind, I decided Camp was the perfect place to test out an essential oil, specifically Show Thyme Calming Oil by Equi-Spa. I’d never used essential oils before but research has shown that there are calming benefits from lavender and other oils, so why not? This one contains a blend of Lavender, Geranium, Clary Sage, Patchouli and Ylang ylang . I’d also read that the essential oils can calm the handler, as well as the horse, and that’s a good thing. I had butterflies in my stomach as we packed up for camp, not knowing what to expect. Before loading Skipper in the trailer, I added a few drops of essential oil to Equi-Spa’s Fairy Tails lotion (a mane/tail conditioner) and rubbed it into his forelock, temple, and muzzle. He didn’t mind and he smelled yummy. When we arrived at Camp, Skipper came out of the trailer calm yet curious. What is this place? My plan was to lunge him before our afternoon lesson if he needed it — and with Skipper, it’s easy to tell if he’s got nervous energy. As I debated, lunge? or not? I let Skipper hang out in a stall while I unpacked, then hand-walked him around the facility. Skipper was calm and curious — no anxiety. We walked around the indoor arena where we’d be taking our lesson and I let Skip look at the mirrors on the wall, the chairs for spectators, neat stack of jump poles, and out the open doors into the world beyond. We walked in, out, and around a few times and I decided against lunging. While I knew lunging would be the safest route, I decided to trust my gut and my horse. When the time came, I tacked up, led Skipper to the arena, and got on. All was well, Skipper was relaxed, confident, and focused on his work. We had a super lesson and trainer Morgan Barrows was pleased with how agreeable Skipper was. On day two, Skipper seemed a little amped. He wasn’t used to being in a stall 24/7 and missed his pasture time. I put on the essential oil and we did a hand walk to let him stretch and look around. Again I debated, should I lunge him? Skipper was a little high-headed when I walked him around but, when I turned him loose in the round pen, he followed me like a puppy — no running or bucking. I decided not to lunge and we had a great lesson in the outdoor arena. He jumped out of the dressage arena once but that was my fault and it was a real crowd pleaser! He found the canter shallow loop frustrating and threw in flying changes, but kept his cool.
One day three, Skipper seemed really settled but now my concern was that, despite his mighty little engine, he’d be getting tired. By now using the oil was a ritual I found comforting.
Susan, one of my camp-mates confessed that she always uses an essential oil for clinics and shows. “The one time I didn’t,” she said, “my horse started up with a rolling buck. He never does that.”
Skipper was a champ through the entire Camp experience. I’ll never know to what extent the oils affected his behavior, but they certainly didn’t hurt. And he smelled so good, trainer Stephen Birchall said, “Wow! It smells like a cologne I’d be happy to wear.” I was so happy with how Skipper handled new surroundings and situations, I’ll keep using the oils for adventures that might be stressful to either us. Smelling good was an added bonus!
I am home from Adult Amateur Riding camp and have finally caught up on sleep and laundry! This was my third year of attending camp and the event is a highlight for me — a chance to hang out with good friends and my horse for four uninterrupted days. The instruction was superb , with lessons from trainers Heather Oleson and Stephen Birchall.
The format is intense. I normally ride three days a week, so jumping into six lessons in four days was a push for me, physically and mentally. The heat was also a factor, when temps hovered in the upper 80’s – testing the limits of my declining heat tolerance. I guzzled water and told myself I was in an endurance event, pacing myself between rides and even getting in a quick afternoon nap.
My first three lessons were with Stephen, who has a very positive and encouraging teaching style. He helped me with my leg position, using a lot of two-point, and it was exciting to make progress with what’s been a long-standing issue for me. Stephen gave Micah and I some great exercises to do at home and the results have been terrific. I’d train again with him any day. Stephen was so good, I really didn’t want to train with Heather. I’d heard that Heather was making students work really hard and I got a bit intimidated.
Fortunately, I was able to spend time with Heather at dinner (she and I being the two ravenous people who filled their plates first) and during the course of the evening I got a feel for her dry sense of humor. She’s very funny in her own way.
In our first lesson together, Heather immediately pointed out a habit I didn’t know I had. When she asked me to push my horse’s haunches out, I automatically looked back at them. “Don’t do that!” she yelled … again and again and again.
It soon became a running joke and I simply had to sass back. I’d jump at the chance to train me again, if she’d let me.
Since we’re a bit isolated here in Central Oregon (being separated from the Willamette Valley by the Cascade Range), Adult Amateur Camp is a terrific opportunity for us to train with high-caliber instructors and experience their insights.
This year especially, I came away feeling I had learned a lot and had some new tools for dealing with old issues. And, I dare not look at my horse’s haunches.
A special thank you to everyone from Central Oregon Chapter who helped to organize this event, in particular Lisa Koch. Thanks, also, to Shevlin Stables for hosting the event at their beautiful facility.
My new riding checklist goes like this: heels down, legs back, sit on back pockets, use core, shoulders forward (since I tend to lean back), hands together, chin up.
Micah & I relax before our first ride of the morning
Yes, I focused on POSITION at last week’s Adult Amateur Dressage Camp, held in Tumalo, OR and hosted by Central Oregon Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society.
Twelve intrepid riders attended, many of them choosing to camp onsite. Camping was the only way to go, as that’s where we really got to know one another, over morning cups of coffee and evening cocktails.
Solbritt & her eye-catching youngster, Pandora
The gals from Grants Pass/Klamath Falls showed us how it was done with first-rate beverages, appetizers, amazing homemade mini-quiches, naturopathic remedies for our aches and pains, plus Olympic-level hospitality.
Jill & her handsome ‘boys’
My campmate, Lisa B. and I learned several valuable camping lessons along the way: don’t camp near the horses being one of the most important. While they looked adorable snuggled in their paddocks, Friday night’s squealing mare party made sleep a matter of wishful thinking. On Saturday, we slept with deep satisfaction, thanks to the fact that the horses were too tired to karaoke.
Lisa and I also learned the importance of location when camping. By late afternoon our cute little campsite simmered in the summer sun. Fortunately, the Grants Pss contingent offered to share their shade with us. Next year we’ll pay more attention when setting up camp.
Lisa & her young horse, Apollo, made big strides in his training
As for riding, clinicians Ernst Hermann and Nicki Grandia offered their expertise. The two had very different approaches to teaching but, for me, this worked well. I started off with Ernie and his very technical approach to position and ended camp with Nicki, who allowed me to pursue the same issues at a more self-guided pace. Here’s hoping muscle memory kicks in and I can make these lessons last long term.
In four days we had six lessons each, something of a total immersion course and — thanks to the heat— a bit of an endurance test. As we and our horses grew more weary each day, our warmup times shortened from generous to hasty.
On Sunday afternoon I was sad to see camp clearing out, trailers pulling away and riders saying their goodbyes. This was the best vacation I’ve had in years. I loved sharing a strong cup of morning coffee as the sun warmed the air, listening to the horses enjoy their hay. Since Micah lives in a boarding stable, hearing his whinney as I brought him each meal was music to my ears — and what a trooper he was through the whole adventure. I was very proud of him.
A big thanks goes to organizer Lisa Koch, who helped make the magic happen … bringing together riders from throughout the region for a truly memorable experience. We bonded.
Will I go back next year? It’s at the top of my list for much more than just the riding. If you have the chance to attend a riding camp giddyup and go!
When some womens’ spouses leave town they really live it up.
As for me, I had a glass of wine and cleaned tack. On the kitchen counter. Granite is ‘impervious’ (or so they say) and the evidence will be gone by the time Al gets back tomorrow night.
Just so you know, I’m cleaning tack for this weekend’s Adult Rider Dressage Camp. This is a huge deal. Four days of fun with women obsessed with dressage. (Men are welcome but none signed up.)
Imagine this: horses, terrific instruction, camaraderie, camping, food, wine — and no other distractions! Our instructors will the fabulous Ernst Hermann and Nicki Grandia.
I had a major vacation scheduled for April of this year but my husband’s unintentional achilles tendon rupture put an end to that. So, if you think my tack cleaning on the counter (which he wouldn’t be happy about) is over the top … think again.
Check back in for my reports from camp! I’m so happy that Micah is recovered enough from his April injury to be able to go. I’m also thrilled to get to spend time with other dressage fans in an informal, non-competitive setting.
I say this knowing that most of the instruction will be a critique of my position. Which (just sayin’) sucks.