The summer of my final junior year before I went away for college, I was a working student for a trainer who I had only met a handful of times. The barn was much larger and fancier than the ones I had grown up riding at, and I just knew this was the herd that I wanted to be part of. I was thrilled about the opportunity to improve my riding so drastically and spend so much uninterrupted time with my junior hunter/ Big Eq horse, AC. The trainer was known to be harsh about weight and I was slightly heavier than what I would have preferred. However, my horse and I were completely in sync and a great team, so I left without hesitation to live and ride with complete strangers hundreds of miles from my home.
When I left, I saw myself as a very strong adult—I had turned 18 in March so I could vote and smoke if I wanted to (but I wasn’t actually interested in either). Looking back, I was just a kid and wasn’t equipped to handle the unending criticism about my riding, the constant tracking and commenting on my food and weight, and the hourly reminders to do extra exercise. In addition to the physical exhaustion from working so hard, I was emotionally exhausted and completed worn thin. I left that farm feeling worried that horses weren’t for me, since I couldn’t even handle what I was sure was a normal amount of criticism. If my confidence had been a cup, there would have been about one drop of water left in it (or Diet Coke, because I drank a lot of Diet Coke back then…).
For the next four years, riding did not hold the same joy for me that it had. Even when I was elected captain of the Vassar College equestrian team, I felt unworthy to ride and self-conscious about my riding abilities. When I graduated from college, I again moved hundreds of miles from anyone I knew. I found a barn through my friend and showed up with my fairly untrained jumper, Bucky, to ride with my new trainer, Laura.
In my first lesson, Laura set up a line of poles on the ground and had me canter through them doing the strides, then adding, and then leaving a stride out. Aside from giving directions, the first thing she ever said to me was, “Ok, so you can ride.” It was the first drop of water in my cup in almost four years.
I rode with Laura for about five years and no matter what I did, she always had a kind word or a joke. Even when I was riding horribly and she needed to give me a lot of constructive criticism (I remember a lesson where she said “sit down” to me every single stride of every course), she always found something positive to say (“You never sat down, but I liked how you never fell off either.”). Probably my all-time favorite memory of Laura was my first show with a new horse I was leasing. I was so nervous walking into the ring that I didn’t notice the rain had caused a small ditch to form. The horse jumped sideways to avoid it, and I almost fell off. Instead of yelling at me for not paying attention or berating me for being a passenger and not a rider, Laura began to laugh and said, “The buzzer hasn’t gone off, so if you fall off we can throw you back on.”
Little by little, Laura refilled my cup. I had confidence again, my riding improved tremendously, and, most importantly, I recaptured my love of riding. I am forever grateful that Laura was part of my herd and taught me about the type of person I should have been running with all along.
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