Hoof Prints of Life

By Jenny Hoffmann, PhD

I walked back to his stall after trying him and looked into his eyes. He had light brown eyes, not the more common darker color. I looked into his eyes and knew there was a kindness and a willingness. After nine months of trying horses, I had found my heart horse. He gave me the immediate confidence to jump around a course and want to return to goal from over twenty years ago to be competitive over 3 feet. After having two children, he taught me not only to be strong and confident again but also he taught me about life.

Seven life lessons from Calypso

1. Calypso taught me resiliency and how to use riding as a playground for life. I learned to let go of a mistake so that an error over one jump didn’t become a mistake over two. I learned to take failure as an opportunity to clearly identify what to work on for next time. I could go home and practice what was hard and see how it paid off next time. For example, I did a flat class where I had to move down from a canter to a sitting trot right in front of the judge. Calypso wanted to walk so it wasn’t the smoothest downward transition. I worked so hard that the next time, I was ready.

2. Calypso taught me how to lead. I remember when I was working on how assertive to be as a leader at work, so I experimented with how much direction to give Calypso. He spooked sideways at seemingly nothing to tell me when I provided too little direction and balked at going forward when I gave too much direction. As a female leader in a highly technical field, the lesson of making space when it feels like there is none was highly applicable. We learned this by perfecting roll back turns. I would be looking at the second jump and turn rather than making space in the turn and moving up towards the jump. When I learned how to make space and move up, I could land a roll back in any high pressure course.

3. Calypso taught me how to stay calm under pressure. For example, I really like making a plan when walking the course but also learned when to ride in the moment and forgo the plan. Safety is the top priority as a mom, so I can adjust for safety purposes. But I learned to trust myself to know when to leave a stride out or take the inside turn. I had learned a saying a long time ago that was “when in doubt, leave it out.” This approach worked wonders for me as I learned to ride, so I had to learn when not to listen as I continued to pull anytime I was nervous. Or as an amateur, I would be inevitably be running late to a lesson and try to get ready in 8 minutes. But since I knew I only had 8 minutes, I would rush, my hands would shake and I would have to rewrap the polo or struggle with the keepers on the bridle. I learned to not rush and take a breath so that I utilized my 8 minutes effectively.

4. Calypso taught me about responsiveness. Responsiveness starts with listening. If I could look for patterns, I can follow the energy and notice change. If I could be less rigid in my approach, I could have a partner to support me and help me. I could ask him for help and work through challenges together. He also taught me when it is time to rest and have a trail day or bareback day to remember the joy in horses and in life.  

5. Calypso taught me to define success as effort, such as trying my best, learning and finding the fun. I learned to not give up, even when things get hard. Winning the class wasn’t actually success (but certainly can be fun). I remember when we competed in a medal finals that had three parts. The finals were under the lights at night and sometimes Calypso didn’t like the shadows. He was particularly challenging so we scored low during our first round. I really wanted to give up and go home then. It felt like there was no way I could come back. The second round was a gymnastics round, which I did especially well at. The third and final round was a flat phase, which was difficult because Calypso is very lazy. By that point, I was tired and it was hard to keep him going while looking good. I remember coming around the turn and looking at my trainer who said stay strong for just one more lap. We knew it would be more than one lap but that kept me going. He taught me that I was stronger than I knew. 

6. Calypso taught me to create connection to enable yourself to feel supported. In our society, I often feel alone and that I have to figure out how to navigate being a women in business and a female engineer. He taught me to never drop him and let go- we are a team together. I learned to support him over a jump, especially when it was deep. So when life is deep, I learned to reach out to others rather than only going in towards myself. 

7. Calypso taught me to look at where I am going. I have this bad habit of staring down the jump. Then if the jump is good, I smile and celebrate rather than thinking about the next jump. Calypso taught me to trust that I know where I am and can look up and ahead to where I am going. If I forgot and stared at the jump, he landed in a heap and would lose forward movement (did I mention he was lazy?). As I was learning to look ahead, I sometimes looked too far ahead and then would lose his shoulders in the turn. He taught me to look ahead, not too far ahead, but just ahead enough to where I am going. 

I often feel guilty about loving a sport that costs so much and takes so much time. On the other hand, I am so lucky to have a way to escape the worries of the world and unlock creativity.  We focus so much on our physical fitness but I learned to work on mental fitness equally. I learned to define a mantra (Calypso makes me smile and I want to share that smile) and to calm my mind by focusing on three tasks at a time (pace, path and outside leg). I learned to ask why I had a particular goal I was attached to such as why do I want to compete over 3’? I also learned far more than I expected about life even though I had grown up riding almost my entire life. 

For anyone who has had a heart horse, the one who you truly love, moving on to the next stage of life is hard at any time. Calypso gave me a boldness that carried through how I showed up in all aspects of my life. I felt sad and scared to go on without him. He definitely had a purpose in my life.

If I use an analogy of looking back at the footprints in the sand of life, I would see four hoof prints for the last four years.  Calypso carried me through life when I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough on my own. Then the time came when there were only two human footprints in the sand. For the next stage, I go on my own. Bravely continuing until I find my next set of hoof prints that will serve a new purpose in my life.