Lessons Learned: From Observer to Eventer in 5 Short Months… at Age 47
Susan Shu guest-authors this week’s Lessons Learned blog, normally by Ainsley Jacobs: Susan decided that age 47 was a good time to ride for the first time… and enter her first competition!
Written by Susan Shu, observer-turned-eventer.
After years of driving my daughter (the talented and lovely Catherine Shu) to the barn, shows, clinics, camps, AND learning how to handle horses, that dressage is very difficult and not just riding in circles, how to pick hooves, stand for the farrier and vet, give meds, drive a trailer, etc, I have decided I’d give this riding thing a shot.
How hard can it be, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Last February, Poplar Place Farm held their first Seasoned and Sexy Amoeba Challenge for new riders/competitors over 40. I saw the ads and thought, “I love this idea! What fun!” I meant for other people; it honestly never occurred to me to actually do this.
We happened to be attending the schooling show hosting this challenge, so I was able to see just how much fun these competitors were having. So many had stories like mine — our child picked up the horse bug, and we supported it but didn’t ride ourselves. At this show, Catherine decided this was something I absolutely needed to do, and has since thrown it out there and suggested different horses that I could potentially ride (AKA “hold on to and they won’t kill me”).
The jury is still out on whether her encouragement was out of love and support, or if she happened to glance at my life insurance policy and realized she could get herself a little farm if Mom would just kick the bucket. I’ll tell myself it’s the former.
This idea knocked around in my head for eight months, but I did absolutely nothing to pursue it. Then I mentioned it to my friend and fellow Beaumont Farm boarder, Ainsley Jacobs, owner of JJ Spot (from here on out referred to as “Saint JJ”). Her eyes lit up. She got a huge smile on her face. She said, “Please please please let me teach you! JJ will take great care of you. If he doesn’t kill you.”
So, despite my unprepared state of wardrobe and lack of wine in my bloodstream, she all but tossed my @$$ onto her awesome horse. Bareback. In a halter. She did lead me, similar to a three-year-old pony ride. Except the three-year-olds would want to go faster. Then, Ainsley’s enthusiasm not waning, she texted me later that evening to set up a lesson schedule.
After one too many glasses of wine, I was in. I went to Dover for the basics: boots, helmet, and breeches. Now I’m committed, right? I felt like I did when I signed up for my first marathon – I’ve paid, I’ve uttered this idea to other people, so I guess I’m doing it???
On October 26, 2018, at age 47 years and two weeks, I took my first riding lesson. Ainsley quickly realized that a seasoned horse mom is NOT a seasoned rider. She patiently showed me how to get on (yep), positioned my shiny new boots in the stirrups, positioned my legs very unnaturally, smacked my butt in place, forced my shoulders back and declared me ready to ride.
Then, she hooked up the lunge line and off we went. Walking in circles. Not going to lie, I was WAY out of my comfort zone. I thought we’d do this for a few minutes, and then call it a day. Oh, no. Not with Coach Ainsley calling the shots.
She had me post. She had me stand straight “Titanic” style with my arms outstretched. She went through drills that I clearly remember Catherine making look SO easy. Hell no. It hurt. Then she actually thought I’d progressed enough to TROT. No joke — really? Trot? I resembled Raggedy Ann. I specifically requested no video footage, but trust me it was UGLY!
Later that evening, bottle of Aleve at my side, I was feeling muscles I didn’t know I had. They were not happy with me for waking them from their 47-year slumber. But I LOVED it!
Ainsley did not give up on me after the first lunge line lesson. She kept at it, so I figured I might as well too, right? We committed to a weekly lesson on Friday mornings. Then the Atlanta rain started, stopping in mid-March. Fortunately, the beautiful Beaumont Farm has an indoor that is great for flat work, so I couldn’t use weather as an excuse. We shot for weekly lessons, but the busy schedule of real life didn’t always allow that.
After a few lessons, I was hooked. I learned to post, two point, stop, and all the other vital aids to control a horse going .0002 MPH. Saint JJ was starting to get used to me and, forgiving horse that he is, was actually trying to figure out what I was trying to ask of him.
This continued through the winter; I did not think there was any way I’d be ready for a three-phase in early April. Ainsley and I decided it would be a good idea to enlist the help of a pro, so I took a few lessons from Ainsley’s awesome trainer, Lauren Turner of River Burch Farm.
By March, I had jumped several courses, many of which have video footage. I would proudly brag to my husband and daughter in the evenings about my accomplishments. We watch the video together, and I was able to prepare dinner, throw in a few loads of laundry, and empty the dishwasher, etc. ALL BETWEEN JUMPS! See, there are advantages to riding SO slow: you can get a lot accomplished while watching the video later.
I was beginning to feel confident that I could actually do this thing. Dressage was coming along (as in I was remembering the nine steps to the test). Stadium was proving to not be life-threatening. However, I was very nervous about XC.
I asked Lauren if I could tag along with a group of students she was taking XC schooling at Ashland Farm, really hoping I would not be a burden to her lessons. She immediately agreed that it was a great idea, so off we went. I was incredibly nervous initially, as I’ve seen Saint JJ run XC with Ainsley, and know how much he loves it and how fast he likes to go out there. But alas, we survived; I learned a ton and had the confidence that I could handle the April show.
So what did I do for the final prep? Went on vacation. Sat in a pool chair and had a nice young man bring me slushy drinks, went to the spa, ate delicious meals, drank plenty of wine, and had a nice get away with my hubby. I called it my taper phase, going back to my marathon running days when you did a mere four-to-six mile run a few times the week of race day. I hoped the strategy would work. (I did hit the hotel gym in the mornings; I wasn’t a complete sloth.)
FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2019: SHOW WEEKEND!!
I made it! Ainsley and I brought Saint JJ to Poplar Place Farm on Friday morning so I’d have plenty of time to XC and SJ school. I felt confident and excited. We settled in, and I hopped on for a nice, relaxing XC school. Well, that isn’t exactly what happened…
Saint JJ saw XC, felt the show environment, and was ready to GO! I, however, was ready to TROT. I was suddenly overcome with nerves. Ainsley reminded me to maintain my position, and that Saint JJ would respond to a correct seat and the verbal command of a relaxed, quiet, “Aaannnddd whoaaaa.”
He cantered around jumps. I panicked; lost control, leaned forward with my legs back, and anyone who rides can tell you how this ends… JJ (I’m temporarily dropping “Saint”, although I take full ownership of my situation) thought “Wow — she’s ready to go!” So he went.
I was offering him NO direction at this point, so he starting veering toward a HUGE coop with a YELLOW FLAG — it looked like something straight off the LRK3DE XC course (okay, it was Beginner Novice). The panic grew. I knew I was not ready to jump a massive question like that. And JJ does NOT know the voice command of a panicked “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! S*%! Stop! OMG! I’m going DOWN!”
So, I had my first ever FALL. It was bound to happen. JJ took off for a fun tour of the rest of the XC course, and eventually made his way back to the barn where my sweet teammate caught him.
I, however, needed a minute. Falling HURTS, y’all. My right shoulder and arm took the brunt of the fall. After a few minutes, the feeling in my hand returned, I had about 30% of the normal shoulder range of motion, and I’d caught my breath. So Ainsley says “alright, get back on.” I knew she was right but I must admit, I was not a happy camper. [Ainsley’s note: I absolutely hated having to make you do that, Susan! I’m so sorry!]
My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding. I had to be reminded to breathe at regular intervals. But I got back on. Went over one XC question, then headed to the comfortable, fenced in, stadium jumping arena. Saint JJ was back, and I did a quick jump school with no issue and pleaded with Ainsley to let me be done. I needed wine, STAT. And Aleve.
Saturday morning came, and I was excited but much more nervous than I’d anticipated. My shoulder still hurt, by the way. But I knew if I backed out of any of this, I’d regret it.
Ainsley and I had decided a few weeks prior that as awesome a coach as she’s been, it would probably be a good idea for me to have a pro trainer by my side for show day. Lauren was gone for the weekend, so I asked Doreen Durr of Free Form Farm if she would be interested, as I knew she was planning to attend with several of her students. She enthusiastically agreed and was a huge help to me.
Doreen recognized my nerves and reminded me that it was just Saint JJ and I out there; don’t worry about time or anything else. Oh, and breathe. (She seemed to say that a lot, so I’m guessing it was pretty obvious that I was forgetting.)
We got through dressage; it went well (I remembered my test!). Stadium was a blast, albeit a slow one now that I look back at video. On to XC. Not going to lie. I was not looking forward to this phase. Doreen did her best to relax me in warm-up. She reminded me that Saint JJ could step over any question out there. She suggested that if I was nervous at some point on the course to just walk. I’m not sure if she meant the whole course, but it sounded like a great plan to me so I went with it.
We circled the start box. I heard the ten-second announcement. I heard “have a great ride,” and off we went. Walking up the hill to question one. A few steps out, I picked up a trot and he popped right over it, cantering out. I calmly slowed him back to a walk and headed to number two.
You are probably reading this thinking “well, surely she didn’t do this for the whole course.” Nope. I absolutely walked Saint JJ and myself over the whole damn thing, picking up the trot a few steps out each time. I was laughing at myself half way through, but my throbbing shoulder reminded me that I really didn’t need to fall again today…
So, much to the embarrassment of my speed-loving husband and equestrian daughter, I enjoyed a nice trail ride with some obstacles to jump. I crossed the last jump, saw those finish flags ahead, and excitedly walked right through them.
It was not the XC ride I had hoped for, but I stayed on course, finished while it was still daylight, and had no run outs (or walk outs, I guess you could say).
I finished. I AM an eventer.
I honestly had no idea just how much fun I would end up having! I enjoyed every bit of it (except the fall), and am looking forward to continuing lessons. Who would have thought??? I’m not done yet. Bring on Tadpole.
And learning to canter, on purpose.
It is never too late to try something new, fear can be overcome, and AINSLEY JACOBS ROCKS!!! (But this part we already knew.)
Ainsley Jacobs is an adult amateur based out of Atlanta, Georgia. She started riding huntseat equitation when she was eight, and has tried practically every discipline since then. In 2014, Ainsley discovered eventing and it changed her life! She purchased her first horse, JJ Spot, in February 2016 and chronicles their successes (and struggles) of learning to overcome literal and figurative obstacles in her blog at www.RideHeelsDown.com.
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