Kate Samuels reflects on the horse that took her from Training to Advanced-level eventing, and the lessons that he taught her along the way.
My horse has always been something of a child prodigy. I bought him as a coming four year old, and I never knew what I had. A month before his 6th birthday, he successfully bounced around his (and my) first CCI*, and pulled off the win, much to my surprise. I had never competed at Preliminary before him, and he was a gangly five year old with little to no workable steering and a penchant for overjumping to the effect of popping me out of the tack on a semi-regular basis. It was too easy for him.
The next year, before turning seven, we moved up to Intermediate and popped around those like no big deal. I didn’t even know enough to understand how silly it was for two inexperienced children such as ourselves to be gaily galloping around Intermediate like it was Novice level. After two seasons of Intermediate, we did a CCI** at Jersey, and were one of only two pairs to complete with no jumping penalties, which vaulted us up to 2nd place, .5 points behind my coach at the time. I went, high on this success, to my first NAJYRC at the Kentucky Horse Park, my first visit to the hallowed grounds of Rolex. Once again, I felt like it almost wasn’t enough of a challenge for him, and we finished on our dressage score to end in 3rd place individually and won the team silver medal. I thought, what can’t this horse achieve? I still didn’t realize what a gift it was to have a horse who thought Intermediate was walk in the park.
The following year, we moved up to Advanced, and he took it like a champ. He ate up the bigger jumps and didn’t bat an eye. We finished with three clean Advanced runs under our belt and went home for a long winter break. One day while hacking out in the fields, I decided to jump a 3’6 coop instead of doing the gate. At the precise moment when his legs should have been leaving the ground, his front legs went out from under him. I don’t know if he stumbled or slipped, but he managed to noodle-legs his way out of flipping, and saved me in the process. I was pitched headlong into a tree, and he trampled me a bit in an effort to stand up, and then took off down the path. I slowly got to my feet and went in search of my horse. I found him a little ways down the path, and he turned to look at me with shame and knowing pain. His right front knee was torn open completely, and a flap of skin about as big as my head was dangling downwards, spurting blood. I was miles from home, with no phone. I could only think of saving my wonderful partner and getting back to the barn. I went to the nearby river and washed out his wound as best I could. I took off my shirt and tied the flap of skin back onto his leg, and secured it. Together, we trudged the five miles home over two mountains and through two rivers.
My wonderful man did the most amazing thing and healed in record time. He was back in full work after three months of rest and rehabilitation. The vets were amazed at how he managed to not damage any important structures or blood vessels in the process of de-gloving his knee. He showed no tendencies to favor that knee in terms of flexibility or soundness. I was thrilled to have my horse back, and although we had just finished a season of Advanced and quit the year on an incredible high, I felt that I wanted him to have extra time to heal from this trauma, and I took my first step back. I figured, I would rather be patient now, than regret this later. We did three Intermediate events that year, but I mostly worked on gaps in our education at home.
This spring, we moved back up to Advanced with great success. We conquered the great Advanced cross country at The Fork, and even made it home inside the time! I was again riding the high of having an unbelievable athlete under my saddle. I had to re-qualify for a fall CCI*** with a CCI** in the spring, so I visited Jersey once again. He turned up a bit funny two days before we left, and I had the vet x-ray and ultrasound his leg. We determined that it was a stone bruise, and we could confidently proceed. He was 5th after dressage, and positively flew around the cross country. The next day, he was funny, but we thought it was only the stone bruise. We didn’t make it through the last jogs, and I was crushed. Not only because I got SO close to finishing the competition, but because for the first time, my horse wasn’t feeling tops after cross country.
After four sets of x-rays and ultrasounds, we determined that he had a minor strain to a check ligament. He was confined to 6 weeks of stall rest, and I was confined to spending my nights watching movies and reading books to him so that my CCI** fit horse didn’t go insane. My patience was tested. He is a nightmare to keep in the stall, and I had to be on full time nursing duty because nobody else could handle him without being immediately trampled. After that, he progressed to limited hour-a-day turnout. This was almost worse, because once he got a taste for the outdoors, he wanted more! After six weeks of that, he was permitted to 6 hour turnout and we began the riding regimen. First week: 5 minutes walking. Second week: 10 minutes walking. At 20 minutes walking, we started with 5 minutes trotting for a week. And so it went, all through three months of rehab, until we reached 20 minutes walking, 20 minutes trotting, and about 16 minutes cantering.
We got the go-ahead to begin jumping and regular work at the beginning of this month. I’ve learned patience, and I’m erring on the side of caution with him now. All I want is for my wonderful Advanced horse to feel his best, and cruise around those big jumps like it’s play again. So, if it takes him a little while to get back there, so be it. He owes me nothing. He took me from a kid going Training level to an upper level Advanced rider without even blinking or acting like it was difficult.
So as I sit here and reminisce about my career with this amazing horse, I have to be thankful for everything he’s done. Even though he’s a general pain in the butt to deal with on a daily basis, and has so many quirks that there should be a small novel on his habits, I can only be grateful for all that he’s given me in terms of competitive miles and skills as a rider. He has taught me to gallop with ease over monster tables and through complicated combinations, how to skillfully maneuver difficult flying changes, and how to smile when they are truly FLYING changes. But most often, every day he reminds me to take a moment and laugh, and have patience while he runs around the field with the pure joy of movement. What more could I possibly ask for this holiday season?
This is Nyls’ favorite game:
….which quickly turns into this….