Sit up, Dammit (Also, Happy Thanksgiving): Aubrey & Boomer

“We’re encouraged to ‘lean in’ to the things we care about, the things we fear. But dammit, do not lean into cross country obstacles… Maintain the balance, maintain the distance, and for the love of all things wonderful, sit up and eyes up, keep leg on and wait.”

Following the announcement that the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, will be postponed to 2021, competitors have been working to decide what comes next for them and their mounts. Today, blogger Aubrey Graham talks about the importance of sitting back, being patient and, of course, giving thanks. 

As it turns out, I can be a bit of a broken record. I recently cobbled together a video summary of my cross country clinic at Ashland Farms, and I cannot tell you how many times I told riders that their fences were “EXCELLENT!” or yelled “nice ride!” as they cantered at the following obstacle. But one thing I kept saying (usually a few strides before the edited clips) that bears repeating was, “sit up!”

Here’s the video where you get to hear just how repetitive I am. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

We’re encouraged to “lean in” to the things we care about, the things we fear. But dammit, do not lean into cross country obstacles. As the horse’s head comes up, you really are not advised to close the distance between their ears and your chest by leaning forward. Maintain the balance, maintain the distance, and for the love of all things wonderful, sit up and eyes up, keep leg on and wait.

This concept also applies when chasing geese out of the XC water. Awesome horse credit (Spoon, JC James Brown). Photo by Amanda Tozzi.

Life, love, horses, it’s all like that. It’s all about balance and patience while keeping your proverbial leg on. (As an aside, I love how much this concept makes sense to horse people and is baffling for the non-equine-inclined). I am a big fan of charging at the things that rattle me, taking them on, and expediting their timeline. But I’m also having to learn how to do better with balance, better with sitting back.

Since this summer, I have been regularly lessoning with Werner Geven at Poplar Place. Getting back into regular instruction has been revolutionary… and humbling. It’s ever-more-so when your coach is yelling for you to do the same thing you tell your students. Oops. Sit up and wait, dammit. This fall has reminded me that I need to maintain better balance and give the four-legged (and ok ok, also the two-legged) creatures I love the time to find their way through — to figure out their own footing to the fence.

Forrest’s (JC Don’t Noc It) thoughts on me getting ahead of him to oh so many fences over the past couple years. Photo by Amanda Tozzi.

Werner likes to remind me that it’s totally OK if Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It) makes a mistake at the jump – then he will learn. Horses shouldn’t rely on the rider for every step. While Forrest is still an enormous twit and one hell of an opinionated freight train, getting me out of his way has made us a better jumping pair. If I sit back, his front legs come up and he actually, sometimes, has good knees. He’ll never be a careful horse, but he’s jumping better than ever, and I’m doing what I can to stay out of his way.

Forrest runs Novice at Poplar. Yep, you guessed it, I got ahead of him for the second fence and we pulled a rail. Second rail? Just a hind end error. That said, still a very ridable round for this equine freight train. Video by Erica Brown.

At home with Boomer (JC Vanderboom Ridge), I’m managing a different type of ‘not getting ahead of the horse.’ This, as far as I’m concerned, is the worst kind – the long-run patience kind. Patience… patience… I &%$@ing hate having to be patient. Pretty sure you all have read that here a few times. At least I’m consistent?

Boomer is back to trotting! Photo by Amanda Tozzi.

Right now, Boomer is finally trotting under saddle. Five minutes of trot and 30 minutes of walk. He’s surprisingly still fit after so many months in the stall, nonetheless, it will still take a while to rebuild his strength and further heal his suspensory. There’s requisite balance in patient reconditioning, in not over doing it. And there’s balance in knowing which days to ride, and which days this sound-minded horse is going to be an explosively powered kite. To that point, I have had to give up on riding on the farm road – Boomer’s taste of tack walking freedom has come with an increase in energy and some extraordinary shows of athleticism.

Boomer hacks up the Kivu farm road at sunset… this, due to his aerial antics, turned out to be one of his last road rides until he can have turnout. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

The good part — this horse is sound, albeit weak. The bad part – he, like Juice a few months ago, is ready to be done with his stall, whether I think that’s the case or not. And so, I keep trying to balance out my impatience with the necessary exercise and reconditioning.

In the new year, Boomer should be back to full work. He and I should also be back to gearing up for the 2021 RRP Mega Makeover and conditioning for re-entering (and later, moving up) the levels. At that point, I’m sure I’ll still be yelling “sit up” to nearly all my students. But, hopefully by then, the only sit up and wait that I will have to do will be at the base of the fences.

. . .

It is Thanksgiving. So, permit me a sentimental sidebar from my usual blog post…

Around this time two years ago, I was still teaching at Emory. I loved my students, loved my mentors and fellow faculty, and I loved my job. That said, I didn’t see myself in the career path that lay before me. Many long discussions with my then boyfriend later, I mustered the courage to set forth on my own in the horse training world (this had long been my second job anyway).

Here’s my post-doc faculty photo for the Institute for the Liberal Arts – a heck of a cool place, if I do say so myself. Photo by Dr. Mark Risjord.

Fast forward six months, that relationship ended, and I set off into this new adventure acutely aware of not having a close-by safety net. Apparently, the universe thought I did something right because literally the following week, I was offered the ability to redesign and rent the stunning farm from which I now train.

Part of the OTTB gelding herd on the hill at Kivu Sporthorses and Training (home of APGraham Eventing) in McDonough, GA. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

From there it has been (and continues to be) a challenging (but only sometimes unpleasant) road… (cue the flies or my broken truck engine…). I’m thankful for all that I have learned, and for the enormous happiness I have found. But more than that, I’m extraordinarily grateful for everyone involved, because as it turns out, I’m far from alone in this venture.

Here’s an abridged “I’m so ridiculously grateful for” list:

  • All of the amazing animals I have the privilege to work with, the students and clients who trust me with their instruction and their horses, for the riders who attend my clinics, and for the fellow trainers who offer their advice and support.
  • The friends and students who bring both laughter and meaningful chats, and also to those who show up with baked goods or leftovers when they worry that my heart needs to be fed or my breeches get a little too loose. For those who insist on calling and texting, even if they know I’m terrible at picking up the phone… #becausehorses and #becauseIneedtwohandsdammit.
  • My parents who might shake their heads at my back-burnering a perfectly good PhD, but who also support this venture with everything they can. It’s too bad that they can’t make it down here for Thanksgiving… #stupidcovid
  • I’m grateful for those who let me drive over for wine, or to hop on a favorite horse when they know I probably really need a shoulder; I’m grateful for a partner who despite the ups and downs, supports this ridiculous life path and loves me for the same reasons that make me capable of forging my way forward.
  • And I’m grateful for my personal four-legged accomplices who keep life here comically sane… in particular: Walker, Forrest, Juice, Boomer, Pig, Seamus and Zoey.

Pig and Walker. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

Overall, I’m grateful for everyone who has chosen to meet this venture with kindness and a force-of-nature form of friendship and support that insists that this barn has a chance to thrive.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks — you all rock.

Aubrey Graham is an Anthropologist and eventing/hunter-jumper trainer located just south of Atlanta, in McDonough, Georgia. Based out of a farm built for the 1996 Olympics, she runs APGraham Eventing and Kivu Sporthorses & Training. She parlays her 30+ years of riding experience into training students and working with young, green, and challenging rides, but her passion lies in the retraining of the off track thoroughbred (OTTB). Aubrey has competed through preliminary level eventing and keeps her eyes on the upper levels while enjoying the small successes that come from getting the green horses ready for lower-level competition. In 2018 and 2019 she competed in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover with both personal and client horses; this year for the 2020 Makeover, she plans to enter two OTTBs.