It happens to everyone at one point or another. It may be a life-changing event like an accident or childbirth, or it may be as simple as the effect of age on your body. However it happens, you get to a point and realize you aren’t able to do the same things, in the exact same way, that you have managed to do thus far. It’s a hard pill for anyone to swallow, but especially difficult in the A-type personalities that typically end up as English riders.
One of the most daunting things about starting back up riding, for me, was learning that the 20+ years of training I’d had before didn’t exactly translate to my new body. My weight aside, I had more tissue in my hips and chest, two very important areas of balance for a female rider. The first time I asked my body to go into a two-point post-child, I nearly fell on the poor horse’s crest and my ankles rolled over out of alignment. It was not pretty. Worse, it was not what my muscle memory had stored away.
I felt a serious shock when I realized I was going to have to learn how to two-point again, from the beginning. And that was just the start of what I had to relearn.
I wasn’t as quick, or as balanced. It was harder to do a nice turn while keeping a good pace. I started overthinking everything. Looking back, I’m so lucky I stumbled on B as a coach. Not only did she ask me what I knew and help me remember how to do it, she took the time to ask me where I wanted to go. Despite her encouragement on my goal of showing as a jumper, we still predominately worked on the flat. To a rider used to spending half a lesson doing courses, it felt like failure.
So many times I went home feeling discouraged. Doubting if this was really what I wanted. I wondered if I’d ever be a “good” rider again. I’d intentionally picked out a barn where my skill level could grow and not one where I’d be a top student. Still, it never occurred to me that I might be one of the beginners again.
I’d forgotten that riding requires skills and muscles that don’t have any exact cross-over. It didn’t matter that I’d been working out hard, doing weights, cardio, yoga, and pilates to hone myself into a fitter person. I’m not going to say it didn’t help anything. Obviously improving my overall fitness did great things for my body. But none of my exercises helped me remember how to sit quiet and balanced while convincing a ton of horseflesh to do as I asked.
The part I also forgot was that repetition (and a solid coach/instructor) allows those skills and muscles to grow. I forgot that hours of nothing but groundwork helps you get through a course like nothing else can. It may feel like weeks of no accomplishments, but then suddenly it all comes together and you get that sparkling moment of greatness.
Star and I have gone through quite a few ups and downs in our short time together. After a bad abscess blow-out I waited weeks for it to get checked over by a farrier (thank you Pan Am Games for holding mine hostage). Star was sore and unbalanced, and I was back out of shape. We came into work so slowly, I started to again feel those doubts. Had I jumped too quickly into horse ownership? Was it even going to be possible for us to show in jumpers next year?
And then, all of a sudden in the space of one lesson, I had not a single doubt left.
On Thursday night, my bouncy little rocket ship allowed herself to be held to pace both before and after the jump. We were straight and I used my body and legs more than my hands. My coach reminded me that a jumper sits back the way a hunter rides forward. She put into my mind the idea of getting my hips back and out of the way rather than up and over the saddle.
It went well enough that I decided to enter us into a clinic taught by Danny Foster. Foster, to any who don’t know, was part of the Silver medal Canadian Show Jumping Team in the 1991 Pan Am games. He took home individual Gold. He’s an active coach and Grand Prix course designer. He’s also just a really nice man.
The clinic with Mr. Foster was not at all what I expected. It started with a fall (Now my signature move in stressful situations, apparently). Honestly, though, that fall was the best possible start to the clinic for me. The most embarrassing thing that could happen had already happened, so now I could get down to work.
And work we did.
Lots of tight circles on the buckle. Thinking about being straight, rather than flexing. Danny complimented my leg. Better yet, he talked about liking Star as the “more stiff and straight jumper type.” He said again and again that straightness on takeoff and between jumps made everything work, and straightness could be found by holding your hands on either side of the neck and using your legs to keep your horse between them.
He put up a simple line of two jumps. At first both were cross rails, but then he rose the second up to a small oxer. I had a small moment of doubt again. Would Star take a look at a jump she hadn’t tried in over four months? Would she again revert back to bunny hopping to the base of the fence rather than coming to it with a consistent pace? Nope. She jumped the line like she’d been doing them daily. Mr. Foster was surprised when I told him she’d never shown, and done very little jumping at all.
Star doesn’t jump like any other horse I’ve ridden. I don’t get that rock and soar feeling the way I expect. I get a launch up from her heartgirth, and we skim the fence more like an airs above ground move. She literally jumps from her heart, which is kind of perfect for us both if you think about it.
Considering at this point I’ve had four lessons jumping Star, you’d assume I’d be less confident. But I’m more confident about Team Sharpe/Star then I’ve ever been. We’re four months in. We’re getting it together and growing in our fitness at the same time. We’re feeling out the best ways to achieve our goals working with one another. This isn’t some schoolie that I can hop on and go well through the motions. Star is a ball of fire that will help me ride from good to great, if I only allow us the time to learn the way.
Relearning the ropes has never felt better.
Christine Sharpe is a Canadian who grew up riding Hunter/Jumper in the Southern USA. Now living in Toronto, she is a thirty-something who is recently back to riding after four years off and having her first child. Christine is aiming her new Thoroughbred mare, Star, toward the Trillium Jumper Circuit in 2016. She struggles daily to juggle family, work, and her equine lifestyle, with occasional success.