Thank you to Road to the Horse for the invitation. Thank you to everyone else that is supporting this in some way.
The number one question I’ve been asked in the past couple weeks is: “What’s your plan?”
My plan is to talk to people, to learn from past participants, judges, and spectators.
My plan is to watch, or re-watch, the previous years. Some of these videos are easy to find on Vimeo or Pluto. Other years are harder to find and involve searching eBay and Facebook Marketplace for old DVDs.
My plan is to assemble a team that will help and support me.
On the team the Pen Wrangler is the first position that should be filled. The Pen Wrangler is the caddy, the groom, the editor, the first mate. If I’m to be the shoe, the Pen Wrangler is the laces.
Nick, a quiet Wisconsinite with a Big Sky beard, will be my laces.
A few years ago, when our new house was left not-quite-finished, Nick flew down to help. He looked around, shook his head a few times and sagely announced “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We ended up tearing up the flooring, then putting it back down, in parallel rows; we took the doors off their hinges and re-hung them, level; we (he) redid most of the electrical in the house, as well as much of the plumbing; we textured sprayed and painted over what had just recently been done; and we (he) added in some beautiful finishing touches like sliding barn doors to my office, and a single accent wall that he painted an aqua-blue that reminds me of where the sky meets the ocean.
That is to say Nick is humble and kind, a jack of all trades, and a virtuoso of most. I’ll be relying on Nick to learn the rules and the score cards better than me, to know the layout of the arena, and how long the mandatory rest breaks are. He will help me make a list of what obstacles to bring, and he will pass the obstacles into me on the day. Lastly, I’ll be looking for him to find that delicate balance between being supportive and honest if I ever get scared, sidetracked, or cocky.
Sinead, my wife, will be there. I can’t begin to describe in this post what she brings to the table. Juliette, a former working student, a dressage rider, a horse behaviorist, will round out the team. Juliette is thoughtful and organized, and I’m sure you will hear more about her.
Then there are a few people that have some special skills that I want to learn. For that I’ll be looking to Jake Biernbaum, my neighbor in Citra, Fl., Australian Dan James, Kathy Baar, of Kentucky, and a few others.
(I just took my first roping lesson from Jake last week. It went about as well as one might expect. But there are few horsemen as skilled and confident as Jake and I’ll be in good hands.)
From everybody I’ve already spoken with so far, the best way I can sum up their advice so far is this:
Don’t go to win. Win that horse’s confidence. Don’t be in a hurry.
As far as not going to win, that’s a tricky one. The trick, as in a lot of horse training and sports, is to look to win in the planning stages, but not in the execution. To never let your horse feel that expectation, to them you are completely in the moment, not thinking ahead, not going faster than they are ready for.
One past competitor told me, and I’m paraphrasing: “I didn’t learn the rules or change any of what I do. I just went in and did my thing.” Geez, I said in my head, you’re insane.
I want to know the rules. I want to know them inside and out. I want to know what the arena is going to feel like, how much time I have, how it will feel, how many judges there are going to be, how they are going to score, what the obstacles are going to be, what the mandatory work will be. I want to know as much as possible. And instead of being constricted by that I feel like it will give me the freedom to not worry about it. The better I know it the less I will have to think about it, and I can just do my thing.
If I sign up for this, I am accepting their parameters. So, I might as well know ‘em.
Like any horse class, just because we accept the rules, doesn’t mean we have to push the horse to win. In any Young Horse class, in any discipline, we can choose to back off to protect the horse’s well-being.
J.R. Robles in particular, one competitor from last year that won our hearts, should be an inspiration to every competitor. He was in first place going into the final day. His horse started to show he was at his limit, and J.R. stopped.
J.R. looked up.
“You know what?” He told the crowd, halfway through the final obstacle course. “I’m probably going to do something that has never been done in the history of this. But this horse, mentally he can’t take it anymore. And I’m not going to push him through the rest of the obstacles.”
J.R. looked down at his horse. “I’m sorry,” he said. But the horse sure didn’t need an apology. Neither did the crowd. They were on their feet. They were clapping. I was there! I was clapping! We were honoring a decision that took courage and humility.
Then J.R. lowered his head, he brought his hand to cover his face, and he started to cry.
The crowd was still on its feet. I was too of course. My Dad was next to me, he was wiping his eyes. I just kept clapping.
The judges each came up to J.R. and stood in line to shake his hand.
As for Mike? The winner in 2023. I think it is best to describe Mike with a knowing gleam in the eye and awed understatement: “That man can ride.”
Am I trying to be J.R.? Am I trying to be Mike?
No. I’m going to be prepared. To be myself. To be present. I’m going to share with you how it goes. As for the horse, I love what Dr. Janet Jones said to my wife the other day on the Podcast, In Stride, and I’m here paraphrasing again: “We are there to be the guides, the mentors, the leaders, for these horses as they walk in a new land.”
If I didn’t speak the language, had no understanding of the culture, was lost, what kind of guide would I want?
Our team is as excited about the preparation for this as much as for the competition itself. We are an inexperienced team in some ways. But we are not the underdogs. What we lack in the experience of having started hundreds or thousands of quarter horses, we make up for in other ways. (Is it possible that some cowboys have started tens of thousands?)
There is one skill set in particular that I think has stood out in every winner.
It is the trait that good horsemen and horsewomen have in any equestrian discipline. It is the ability to read a horse as smoothly and with as much interest as I read Warwick Schiller’s new book last month. (Great book, put it on your list!) Reading a horse tells us a lot. For example, it tells us when they are curious and when they are confident, when they are scared or anxious, and in terms of a competition like this, it tells us one major thing: When we can push, and when we need to back off.
Here’s to learning when to push and when to back off.
See you in March at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Road to the Horse 2024 Championship Competitor
Photo Credit: Lisa Madren