BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I used to be kind of tough.
Not “Hold my phone, I’m going to go jump the round bale tough,” but tough enough. In my early twenties, I signed up to ride any horse I could. It didn’t matter if they were green broke or if I came off three times in an hour.
The hunter/jumper world was super new to me. And I wanted it. I wanted it badly.
Sometime in the past ten years, that eager kid who wouldn’t turn down a ride started to become afraid. There were multiple factors. A bad fall of a new horse shaked my confidence. Soon after that, I took a year off of riding entirely. When I got finally did start again, the saddle didn’t seem as safe as it used to be.
I still wanted it, but self-doubt crawled through every crevice in my brain. I was heavier, weaker than my days of riding green horses. Certainly the ground was harder than it used to be. Slowly I crawled through lessons getting more confident on the flat, learning to jump again. Finding muscle memory. When things went peachy, I felt good in the saddle.
But when they didn’t, I fell apart. A stop, a tiny buck or spook, and I melted into a puddle. Gone were the days of climbing back on after a fall like nothing had ever happened. I rarely came off, but the threat of it was enough to send me back ten steps mentally.
That lasted years. My trainers patiently held my hand, and didn’t get upset with me when I asked to start with X-rails or wanted to show 2’ far longer than I should have. But really, the best thing for my confidence was a horse named Simon.
I got him as a six-year-old questionably sound, unraced OTTB. Of course at the time, I had convinced myself that I didn’t want a Thoroughbred. Anything but a Thoroughbred. They were too hot, too unpredictable—but Simon was a treasure.
That horse constantly took care of me, even when he didn’t know how. In our first few years of jumping, I inadvertently trained my 16.2hh horse to keep a stride tiny enough for the double add simply because I was afraid of going too fast on course and didn’t feel confident leaving from any kind of long spot. Was teaching him to chip the right choice for the hunter ring? Of course not. It was hard to correct once I got more confident, but for years he toodled me around dinky little 2’ hunter courses as proud as if he were taking Beezie to the Olympics.
He never bucked. Rarely spooked. When he was feeling “wild,” he would shake his head down while cantering away after a particularly impressive effort (probably actually jumping from a real 12’ stride over a jump that wasn’t a 2’ vertical). It was like he had to let me know he was feeling fancy and fresh, but didn’t dare do anything to disseat mom.
And yes, in our almost seven years together I did fall off. Sometimes I laughed and got right back on, like when he turned me off in the jumper ring (twice… but I asked to go left, and boy did that horse turn left!). Sometimes I sat on the ground for a minute, and had to muster the mental strength to try again. But I always got back on, and Simon was always careful to keep me safe.
After countless shows together, I felt confident doing anything on that horse. If I had my leg on and hands up, he’d jump it all for me. With him, I learned that showing can be a joy instead of a fear.
When I lost Simon to colic, I didn’t know how I would continue. But I still wanted it, still had this horse show dream. So I did the only thing a poor working amateur can do in that situation—bought the nicest young horse I could afford.
Simon taught me to love Thoroughbreds, so I sought out another. When I saw Poet, a four-year-old unraced OTTB, I was smitten. He has a natural way of going for the hunters, an amazing canter, and to boot is a steel, just-starting-to-dapple gray. Even though my heart still hurt from losing the best horse I’d ever known, I felt like the universe had handed me something special.
When you’ve had a workmanlike saint of a horse for so long, matching with a new partner can be a bit bumpy. If that partner is a four-year-old toddler—even bumpier. Though Poet dazzled in movement and promise, he also threw in some unexpected baby antics. Standing on the ground at the end of a lead, I saw that horse’s belly more times than I’d like to admit in my first few months of owning him. With every new task, he challenged me. Why do I have to do this? Are you going to make me, or what?
My first reaction was self-doubt. Was I going to be able to make him behave? What the heck was me, a self-confessed weenie adult amateur, doing with a four year old? I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. I feared I made the wrong choice.
One day at the barn Poet acted like a raging lunatic on the ground. All the bad baby racehorse habits you can imagine. And instead of crumbling (or crying) or doubting myself, I backed his little dappled butt halfway across the property. I realized that no matter how many training rides I got, eventually I was going to have to be brave myself. When he tested me, I backed up him again. I calmly, but assertively, told him I was the boss and I was his owner and why yes I am going to make him behave thank you very much.
And you know what? He listened.
Things started getting better then. When I got in the saddle for my lessons with the baby horse overlord, aka my trainer, I didn’t think about all the ways I could fall off this new, unsteady partner. Instead, I thought about all the things I needed to do to ride him properly. Though we were only trotting circles around the ring, I remembered everything I accomplished with Simon. I knew that, one day, I’d do those things again.
A few weeks ago, Poet spooked at a horse-eating cone, and I fell off. He didn’t do anything naughty, and I didn’t get hurt. Standing a few feet away as I got up, he looked at me terrified. I pet him on the neck, told him it was okay, and we walked together to go stare down the evil cone until he was comfortable chewing it instead of spooking at it. Then I got back on, sticked to the saddle better the next time he spooked at something, and finished my lesson.
That was not an act of bravery, or any great accomplishment to brag about, but I was proud. I didn’t crumble—I rode. I was, in my own way, tough.
Simon helped me when my confidence as at its worst. He showed me how to believe in myself, and us as a team. Without him, I wouldn’t be the rider, or person, I am today.
And Poet? Well it’s early, but Poet keeps me on my toes. He reminds me I have grit. That I’m still the eager kid who fell off all the time, but always got back on.
I’m going to fall again. He’ll do some baby horse antics, or I’ll make a mistake, or both. I’m also going to ask my trainer to set teeny tiny crossrails when we start jumping, and I’ll probably want to do as many 2’ classes as possible.
But none of those things mean I’m not tough. They don’t cancel out the perseverance it’s taken to get here. Both the saintly and the silly baby OTTBs have developed my confidence. Building accomplishments, whether it’s a hunter derby or cantering the baby for the first time, have finally given me back my grit.