Horse and Rider Soaring (Together)

I WOULD have thought it was a great day for a horse show. Banners fluttered and buckles gleamed as competitors and spectators milled around the arena. Jake and I entered the ring, and the world grew still around me. We cantered smoothly through the jump course until we turned to the blue-and-white striped fence: an oxer, high and wide. I saw immediately that Jake would hit it wrong - he wasn't going to have enough room at the takeoff. I tried to compensate, but Jake's confidence suddenly deteriorated. He stopped dead in front of the jump, sending me flying. I landed on the other side, where we both should have been.

I groaned for my wounded pride as I lay on the ground, waiting for the show officials to look me over before I got up to brush off the dirt. I went over to my horse and wondered if he and I could forgive each other for these increasingly common foul-ups. I wasn't sure. This competition had done nothing for our relationship.

We didn't start out as a great match anyway. When I met Jake, he needed a firm and experienced rider, and I wanted a steady mount. Each of us soon realized there was little guidance to be found in the other; after a few weeks, Jake began to test my strength. I think he just wanted to know where I stood. Fair enough.

OUR mismatch grew dangerous, though, when Jake began to refuse at fences. As this pattern continued, his hesitation at high or unusual jumps filled me with anxiety.

The communication between horse and rider can be continuous and powerful - not quite telepathic, rather some curious mixture between instinct and sheer mental anticipation. Crude physical commands belie the complexities of mood and confidence that accompanies them. Sitting on a horse, a rider not only feels what the horse is doing but how the horse is feeling - whether the day is tiresome or a pleasure, and whether the task at hand is begrudged or welcomed. This communication was evident to me on good days, when Jake would bombard me with a rakish good will, and I him with affirmation of our spirited adventure. Yet when our confidence started to falter, we were unable to reassure each other. Strange jumps were met with a stop or a dangerous lunge. Trust was scarce.

I was tempted to blame Jake. Many horses had no trouble clearing challenging fences in competition. Even my trainer agreed that Jake took advantage of me, and that I should show him who was in control. I began to grit my teeth before fences in order to throw over Jake mentally. Although this tactic sometimes worked, I felt bitter for it, as though I were contributing all the effort. Fortunately, it only took one lesson to turn me from blaming my horse.

One weekend, Jake and I traveled out to an important show. In the stabling area after the competition, I encountered a volatile dark bay who earlier had been disqualified from a speed jumping competition because of three refusals. From Jake's stall, I nervously watched as the rider approached and beat his tethered horse. The rider abused him verbally, too. If the horse didn't understand the words, he got the message: This person is in control. Although the bay stood at 17 hands and could have broken his ties, he flinched and skittered until the rider was finished.

I knew that whatever pipeline of communication had existed between the two beforehand was welded shut then. While I never had hit Jake like that, my blame was festering. And though Jake forgave readily, he would remember an angry rider.

It took months for us to learn how to work together. It was only because I accepted that Jake was trying that I could try harder. Sometimes he did not do as I asked because the birds distracted him or the wind was tickling his nose; or, just as likely, I hadn't asked him correctly. So we would go at it again. We walked and trotted in circles and serpentine loops, and we sidestepped on diagonal lines. We cantered tightly and then stretched out. It would have been tedious if it hadn't been so difficult.

ILEARNED not to look at the ground so I wouldn't end up there, and to look past the fence in front of us to plan for the one beyond. I tried to make my whole self, not just my hands and feet, direct Jake. A slight tilt meant a left turn, and my sitting quietly back meant that we should slow down. Jake began to use less drama and more thought to get things done. Communication lines were freeing up.

Outside the ring, the hours I spent caring for Jake smoothed over old memories better than riding itself could. No relationship prospers without humble effort, and I got to know Jake better by doing, day after day, the simple, necessary tasks. I brushed him, fed him; cleaned his stall of manure, his tack of grime, his hoofs of dirt and stones. I gave him baths on hot days, and in the morning frost I made sure to breathe on his ice-cold metal bit before putting it in his mouth.

In turn, what did I get? I think Jake gave me more than I gave him. At a time when I was surrounded by ruthless classmates and overprotective parents, Jake only judged me by my effort. The barn became one place where I could learn and work and think and play. With my friend.

The next year we arrived at that same show, only to face failure before starting. Jake and I were scheduled to jump first, and the pressure of having to ride without observing a previous competitor got the best of us. We crashed into a fence during warm-up. I found myself on the ground but was relieved to see Jake trotting soundly toward me. I made myself concentrate hard on the task at hand.

It almost worked. A brick wall midway through the course proved too distressing for both of us. Jake stopped cold once again, and I reacted with a habitual quick slap. Immediately then I felt shame, for he had done his best. Thankfully I told him we could try again, and we finished the route.

Not too many weeks after that came our biggest competition of the year, one attended by horses and riders from around the country. The outstanding competitors were matched by challenging courses and elaborate high fences. It was with dismay that I heard my trainer suggest that a more experienced rider should enter Jake in the most difficult class.

At first I agreed. It made sense not to court disaster in front of such a crowd. But the whole year flooded into my thoughts - not just the time spent riding, but the endless hours taking care of Jake in the barn. What about the days and nights of laughter and care and earnest labor? Competition was worthwhile only insofar as it paid tribute to our whole long effort. Jake and I had to be together in that class. Resolved, I made my way over to my trainer.

Already in the warm-up arena, I knew that Jake and I would soar through the course. No matter that the jumps were bigger and curves tighter than usual. We were a team, and I knew this because he told me so. My directions became superfluous as he anticipated my thoughts, almost as if he had memorized the course with me. The jumps were, in fact, even bigger up close, but I had lost my fear. Listening to Jake was more important than fear.

We didn't win the class, or even make the top 10. But who cared? Jake had won my trust, and I had won his. It was worth more than anything I'd ever achieved because I had never worked so hard for something so difficult. We had used no shortcuts because none existed; they never do for partners and teammates. Sincerity was the only thing that worked.

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