Soft-spoken and small in size, Mary Cuevas is one of those riders you might overlook as you stride through the barn, busy with the demands of your own life. Mary quietly goes about the business of setting goals and working to achieve them without calling attention to herself. Should you compliment her on a show score or well-executed movement, she’ll break into a smile and most likely credit her horse and trainer with each success.
Mary & Dante’s 16-year partnership ended far too soon
I was aware that Mary was working her way up the levels with her horse, Dante, but like most people, I only knew parts of the story. I learned a bit more when we attended Adult Rider Camp together. But what solidified our relationship was when we began working together on a Pas De Deux. Our hours in the saddle turned into a true friendship.
And so, I was honored when Mary confided that she’d finally written up the story of her journey with her beloved Dante. Dante’s loss had been so painful, it had taken Mary a year to put pen to paper. What resulted was a six-page, account that Mary handwrote in a single sitting.
“Would you consider publishing it in your blog?” Mary asked. “If it’s good enough?”
“Of course, I would,” I said. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into … but had a sense that it would be worthwhile.
I took Mary’s story home, read, it, and found myself in tears. Mary’s love for her horse came through loud and clear and her dedication to her goals was impressive.
“This is definitely worth publishing,” I told Mary. “But I want it to reach a larger audience than my blog. I’m going to see if Flying Changes magazine will publish it.”
“Really?” Mary said. She was thrilled.
I emailed Kim Curzi, the magazine’s owner, and gave her a brief synopsis of the story. I felt sure the story, with its Northwest focus, would be a good fit.
“I’d be happy to look at it,” Kim said.
Now came the hard part: I was tasked with editing Mary’s 2,600 words down to something closer to 1,200 words — a standard length for most magazines. I had to shorten the story while preserving Mary’s tone and intention — not an easy task. With each edit, I’d find myself in tears over Mary’s loss — which, while draining, told me that the story had what it took to touch hearts.
To round out the story, I asked Mary’s trainer, Natalie Perry of Alliance Equestrian Center and clinician Tina Steward DVM to sum up their impressions of Mary and Dante. Their words were perfect. And, although the story exceeded or goal of 1,200 words, Kim included the quotes in their entirety. She also used my favorite suggestion for a title, “In it for the Long Haul,” which came to me at the last minute and really summed up Mary’s commitment.
Mary has inspired me to raise my expectations of what I can do with my riding. For a bit of quiet inspiration, please read Mary and Dante’s story in the April issue of Flying Changes magazine. I think you’ll appreciate the journey.
That these are Wild Times is an understatement. Like 9/11, most of us will remember this as a turning point in history.
On March 11, 2020 Covid-19 had just been declared a pandemic. The first case had been reported locally, here in Deschutes County, Oregon. As the seriousness of the situation became all too clear, my husband and I decided to invite my mother to move from her independent living facility and into our home. We felt she’d be less isolated during a quarantine and more likely to remain healthy.
While mom’s out of the country right now — and the need to move her things isn’t immediate, I feel a sense of urgency, as the rules about entering her facility become more stringent.
As I’m heading out the door, my head spinning with stories of cancellations and closures, my phone lights up: Natalie Perry. (That’s my trainer.)
Natalie texts. A call means trouble.
“Skipper is colicking,” she says. Her voice is calm. That’s one of her superpowers. Colic can range from mild to life-threatening, it’s not a thing to take lightly.
“On my way,” I say.
I make a 10-minute stop at mom’s, pack some clothes and a few essentials, then head to the barn, trying not to freak out.
Natalie’s given Skipper a double dose of Banamine and it should be kicking in by the time I get to the barn. En route, I text Claudia, because she’s the kind of friend you want in an emergency.
When I arrive, Natalie’s walking Skipper and he looks like crap. He’d gotten all sweaty and is now shivering despite two layers of blankets. Is it pain? Cold? Anxiety? Whatever it is, I don’t like it.
As the Banamine kicks in, Skipper looks brighter and the shivering lessens but it’s still not good. He licks at a bucket of water (flavored with Equine Senior) but isn’t really interested. When Skipper misses a meal, it’s an apocalypse.
We can keep walking and hope Skipper improves (and poops) but I can’t stand the not knowing. I also don’t want to wait until midnight to call the vet. It’s just after 5 p.m., of course, so I’ll be paying an emergency fee, regardless.
Dr. Briggs of Bend Equine answers and says she’ll be to the barn within half an hour. Help is on the way!
Claudia arrives and, as always, is the voice of calm and reason.
Soon after, Dr. Briggs pulls up, looking dazed.
“The president just announced that all travel from Europe is banned,” she says. “Flights are canceled.”
Both my mom and Natalie’s mom are out of the country. We stare, wide-eyed and horrified. Natalie starts trying to get details.
Dr. Briggs gets down to business, assessing Skipper’s condition. She’s methodical, thorough, and it seems like an eternity before she gives us a diagnosis, much of which is lost on me because my mind is reeling, wondering if my mother is going to make it home. Fortunately, it looks like a moderate case of gassy inflammation and surgery isn’t required. She gives Skipper fluids, an electrolyte, muscle relaxant, and advises me to lunge him (mobility/motility) and check him every two hours.
I set aside thoughts of my mother, knowing she’s in good hands, traveling with my brother and sister-in-law. They’ll figure it out. Plus, it’s about 3 a.m. in Nairobi, and there’s no need to wake them with the news.
Claudia immediately offers to let me stay at her place, which is close to the barn. (I live 30 minutes away.) My husband, Al, brings me extra clothes, love, and assurance that he’ll keep the dog from destroying the house while I’m gone. Their care and concern wrap me in a protective bubble.
Not only does Claudia lend me her cozy guest room, she comes with me in the oh-so-cold and dark hours of the night to take Skipper’s vitals and check his progress. He looks alert but still doesn’t poop.
The next morning Claudia makes me coffee and we return to the barn, deliriously tired but delighted when Skipper poops in his stall. Since then, his progress is slow but steady. I learn that, like my husband, Skipper is cranky when hungry.
The whole episode is stressful and exhausting but the bottom line is that Skipper’s on the mend and I have been supported by some truly wonderful people. While the world swirls with anxiety, my barn family has been truly kind.
In this time of chaos, every ounce of kindness counts. Virtual hugs to each and every one of you. Keep your loved ones safe and close.
p.s. Mom has a new flight back, bypassing Europe, and we look forward to welcoming her home.
A good halt looks deceptively easy — emphasis on deceptive.
In fact, an excellent halt takes focus, coordination, and preparation. That’s why, when I achieved a prompt and balanced halt in last week’s riding lesson, I shouted, “Wow! That was the best halt of my life!”
Heading down centerline for a halt
Natalie and Mari were in the arena with me at the time. They laughed at my exuberence but understood exactly why I caused a commotion. An excellent halt is an achievement.
I had worked hard for that halt and was especially pleased. So I couldn’t stop myself when, that evening, I tried to explain the beauty of the halt to some non-horse friends. It went like this.
Confused looks and polite nodding, followed by: “What’s so hard about stopping?”
Fueled by a glass of wine, I ventured into territory I should have circumvented.
“Imagine this,” I said. “You’re driving your car and, when the light turns red, you slam on the brakes. You weren’t paying attention and were caught off guard. Your passengers’ heads snap forward and the dog falls off the back seat onto the floor. That’s an ugly halt.”
“You can do a similar thing to your horse if you don’t prepare him. Instead of using your legs, core, and then hands to let him know a halt is coming, you simply haul back on the reins — which is equivalent to stomping on the brake. You throw your horse off balance, he tosses his head in the air trying to compensate, and –instead of being able to tuck his four legs neatly under him — he scatters his feet and gives you a dirty look. In competition, a judge would make comments like ‘abrupt,’ ‘unbalanced’, and ‘needs more preparation.’ You’ll get a crappy score.”
My dinner companions shifted in their seats, understanding the analogy but questioning where I was going with it. Deb stole a few french fries off my plate.
“At the other end of the spectrum is the overly cautious driver,” I explained. “Imagine you’re driving home a friend who’s just had back surgery. Not wanting to jolt your passenger, you creep to a stop five feet before the intersection, then inch up to the pedestrian crosswalk. This is a smoother stop but the drivers behind you wonder what you’ve been smoking.”
“When you’re riding, meandering into the halt is as much an error as is slamming into the halt. The judge wants to see the rider maintaining the gait, riding smoothly forward into a prompt, balanced halt at a very specific location. In short,” I said, “you’ll get dinged if you’re early, late, too abrupt, or too lackadaisical. Precision is important.”
My friend, Liz was regretting her decision to practice Dry January, because I wasn’t quite done. “The halt is so important in dressage that in competition, every test begins and ends with a halt. How you execute it speaks volumes about how well you and your horse are communicating.”
While I was having a grand time, I’m pretty sure the Dormouse fell asleep in his tea at that moment. And, because I love my non-horse friends, I changed the subject to skiing and suggested Deb eat the rest of my fries.
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.
Skipper taught me a valuable lesson this week, with Natalie’s help.
We’ve been working on a pas de deux with my friend Mary and her horse, Dooley. Part of the choreography includes cantering down the long side on the right lead, making a turn to the right onto the center line, then at the far end of the arena making a trot transition and a turn to the left.
As we approached the turn, Skipper threw in a lead change. We tried again, he did it again.
“Why’s he doing that?” I asked Natalie.
It seemed like an odd thing for him to do.
“You’re anticipating the turn,” she said. “He thinks you want a lead change.”
I wasn’t intentionally asking for a lead change but I rode the movement again — this time paying attention to all the little signals I was giving Skipper. I noticed that I turned my head to the left, anticipating the turn. And, much as I was trying to keep the bend of a right lead canter, with my outside leg back, I was shifting in the saddle in anticipation.
Which is why Skipper threw in another change of lead.
I stopped at the wall and laughed out loud, giving Skipper a pat.
“He was doing exactly what I was telling him,” I said.
Natalie laughed as well. What was a revelation for me had been obvious to her.
With my new knowledge, I rode down center line as if I was going to make a turn to the right. Within a stride or two of reaching the wall, I asked Skipper for a trot and we made the left turn. Success. I had made what I wanted clear to my horse.
It was another brilliant example of how horses listen to us — and the best ones try, even we’re less than perfect.
I’m so grateful to my trainer for remaining patient when I’m sometimes so unaware of what my body is doing. Instead of chastising me, Natalie gave me the time to feel what I was doing (aka: learn from my mistake).
This lesson reminded me that we’re always communicating with our horses and if they don’t respond the way we anticipate, we need to look again at what we’re telling them. Sometimes they’re doing the “wrong” thing because that’s exactly what we asked them to do!
For some time now, Natalie’s been telling me to bring my shoulder blades back and together. I understand what she’s saying and I try. It works temporarily, and then I forget. It feels forced and I tense up. It hasn’t stuck.
This week, Natalie tried a different approach.
“Open your chest,” she said. And what a difference it made.
Opening the chest achieves a similar result to “bring your shoulder blades back” but, for whatever reason, the image works better for me.
While it takes effort for me to open my chest, it doesn’t feel forced. I can feel my shoulders going back, my elbows sitting more naturally at my sides, and my pelvis opening up. I can breathe more deeply.
“Open up” makes me realize how much I tend to curl up, when I’m trying hard, which is most of the time.
A large part of riding Skipper, my* new horse, is that I need to ride with more relaxation. When I relax, he relaxes. When I tense up, he assumes I’m going to ask something from him. He’s an excellent communicator.
‘Open the chest’ is a subtle thing but the results are noticeable. My position is better and Skipper relaxes in response, moving his back and hips more freely. He’s more comfortable to ride and that creates a positive biofeedback loop — he’s relaxed, I relax, and so on. It’s pretty wonderful.
What amazes me is how important subtle changes can be. And, how the words we use can shape the images that influence us. Lots of lessons learned today.
Skipper is new to me and I really want to be a positive influence in his life. If I want him to be relaxed and responsive to me, I have to open up to him. Breathe deep and show him everything is ok. If I curl up my body in a defensive posture, how can I possibly convince Skipper to relax and trust me?
When I turned Skipper out to pasture today, he stopped to hang out with me. I scratched his neck, he sniffed my hair. He was in no hurry to run off with his friends. These are the moments I cherish. You can’t force a horse to like you. When you open yourself up to them — and you’re lucky — they open themselves up to you in response.
*I am co-leasing Skipper. I don’t own him but he is in my care … which makes him ‘mine’ figuratively. In short, I care for him as if I own him.