I found 1999 tucked in the bottom of my tack trunk today. I dug out 2000 – 2005 too, the older jackets dusty and slightly mildewed, the newer ones exposed to fly spray or some other substance that leaked and made them sticky. Today is January 1, 2007, so I took 2006 off its hanger on Tempo’s stall door and replaced it with a shiny new model and spent a moment recording the events of the day as I have done for the past seven years.
There is history before 1999. Tempo (Tee to her friends) was foaled in 1996 when I decided to raise a horse, regardless of the fact that I had little direct riding skill and only a budding interest in dressage. Fortunately I have very skilled friends, and crossed one friend’s lovely Percheron mare with a Thoroughbred, landing a very gangly baby with personality to spare. Dina and David helped me raise her until just before her third birthday. We led, clipped, bathed, trailered, taught to lunge and generally instilled manners (mostly). We traveled to local state fairs and earned crazy shaped ribbons in halter classes. We taught her to tolerate tack, and backed her with very little fuss one quiet spring day. In general she grew up, and I started my surgical residency. In 1999 we moved to a friend’s barn closer to the trainer I chose, and our calendar days began.
I had a purpose pulling the calendars out of the trunk. I meant to critically analyze each week and each month for amount of time, signs of progress, etc. as we get ready to take our career up another notch. Instead I got a flood of memories, and actually they were not as much about specifics as about the feeling I got from looking at the pages. The calendars themselves are revealing – starting with a small model with one month on a page (really small boxes to write in!) and getting bigger and bigger each year. Early entries just identify the rider and the project – “Elise lunged today.” “Lesson at 7:30.” These tell the story – struggling to find time to get to the barn, late night hauls with my ever-patient friend CeCe to ride at a time that worked around my schedule, freezing whiskers and steamy horses off-loading trailers in the dark of winter. Little to no work in between lessons – too scared to do something wrong! Little to no content description – I think I was just struggling to understand everything that Mike told me in each 30 minute lunge session, learning about stride and gaits and footfalls. Very slow progression to long-lining, learning first with a patient schoolmaster at the farm. Even the riding sessions are simply marked “Rode today” and the one major mishap (1999) just says “Hospital”. Taciturn entries compared to the combination of struggle and thrill.
There are some signs of early progress and increasing knowledge. Our first saddle fitting appears in early 2000 with a new dressage saddle on the way (it took until 2001 to pay for that). We moved to Mike’s farm full-time in early 2000 as well, and then the entries start to pick up in frequency as we moved into more consistent work. New names start to appear – I was a surgical chief resident, and struggling to find another rider to help as well as to take over during a year away in fellowship. There are a lot of them, looking back – I remember the worry associated with knowing Tee needed consistent work but trying to find someone with a similar skill level and a vested interest in her well-being. Linda, Carole, and Carolyn all came and went as the calendar ticked closer and closer to my year away. Friends Kristi and Tina filled the gaps when my schedule was crazy. Finally, the first entry in Brenda’s neat handwriting. This began a collaboration that is still in full swing today and highlights the great friendships that Tee has brought me in our years together.
Brenda’s appearance also reflects a change in the calendar’s purpose. The short, concise entries became a communication between us about the events of each day. The language changed, too – starting as points to ponder from each lesson (“shift weight to inside”, “elbows back”, “ignore head shaking for now”) and becoming more and more sophisticated as our knowledge grew. Entries in 2006 now look more like “still can’t quite keep her round and on the bit in shoulder-in left”. The calendars reflect concerns about equipment, changes in care, treatment of small injuries. A little hock swelling appears in 2002 after starting canter transitions. The head shaking disappears after a belated saddle re-fitting. Personality traits that we now take for granted get dissected – “she was cuddly today” is almost always followed two days later by “unbelievably resistant and crabby”, which we now recognize as her heat cycle. In 2003 it took us about three times recording the same pattern to look back and make the connection.
2002 was the year that I was away. Brenda’s short entries in the calendar reflected much longer emails that simultaneously made me happy for her progress and sad that I was not participating. The calendar has very few entries from me, although when they are there they always comment on the changes in her and I remember how remarkable it was on the rare occasions I got on and felt like I had a new horse underneath me. Brenda, however, was not as fortunate and got to ride through all the difficulties – there are entries about not getting on without Mike on the ground as Tee would go through a resistant stage, particularly developing canter. “Arena-clearing session today” is a fairly frequent entry; “Decided to be an idiot about the wild turkeys in the field” appears. “Back to the lunge line!!!” Looking back now I know how lucky I was to have found someone to take all that with skill, good humor, and patience – both rider and trainer. It was probably the single most vulnerable stage of her training.
As I returned and the training really picked up the calendars reflect the personalities of Brenda and I as much as the horse. We are both driven but realistic, perfectionists but kind. Smiley faces start to appear, great lessons are marked with “Awesome today”, not so great lessons are “Resistant to start, but good by the end”. The training scale terms start to appear with regularity – “Better straightness”, “Best thing about this horse is her rhythm.” I know Mike as an incredibly fair and patient instructor, but you’d think that he is a strict taskmaster based on how excited the handwriting is when “Mike said we had half-decent shoulder-ins today!” in 2004, or “Mike said ‘good transition’ several times today” appear in the pages of 2003. (There is one entry where he actually called her a pig, losing his usual unflappable restraint.) Interestingly, visiting clinicians are still noted as “Clinic” and shows are the same – no details – sending us back to the slightly overwhelmed character of the early days. The other telling area of the calendar is a very long absence of my name after a minor tumble in 2000 that broke a collarbone – it took me almost three months to get back into the saddle, and marks my first brush with fear related to horses. There are many patient sessions after that injury with Mike and a lunge line; the calendars remind me that sometimes you have to put yourself in skilled hands and surrender your ego if you want to move forward in riding.
The calendars also report that moving forward has been incredibly slow. Tee is 11 this year, I’ve been in practice for five years, Brenda has been with us for more than six. Mike has spent a zillion hours working with the three of us, plus or minus. Most of our progress has come between 2004 and 2006. It underscores the fact that an inexperienced rider and an untrained horse is not a wise or ideal combination. I look at some of the recurring themes – like the imbalance at canter – and have to face the fact that much of that is a consequence of trial and error. I look at a video from 2000 and 2006 and there is little similarity other than my favorite ratty helmet cover and the fact that I still can’t develop consistent contact with my right hand – an important problem. The daily entries on the calendars also reflect the same old problems with the occasional break-through – and thankfully, a record of the exercises that brought it. There are other ways to see the progress: we have rows of schooling ribbons in chronological order that transition to reds and blues as each test gets better and better, and then go back to whites and yellows starting the next test. We have chronological video capturing memorable moments like my non-horsey husband saying “He just said First Level, now I won’t be able to live with her….” during a visiting clinic. The calendars, though, are the most telling tool of all because they reflect every day, every week, every month that passes.
I’ve been thinking about how I’d like Tee’s 2007 calendar to look at the end of the year. We’ll still be thrilled enough with “good shoulder-ins today” to record those moments, and maybe they will be more frequent. Maybe there will be a few good steps of half-pass – that will certainly earn a smiley face! I hope our first big recognized shows pass without much comment other than tips from rider to rider in terms of dealing with the warm-up ring, or jitters on the centerline. I hope there are no signs of arthritis, no bouts of prolonged crabby behavior, no long stretches without riding. I hope that our friends and mentors are still appearing in the pages regularly, and her goofy personality continues to shine through because she’s happy in her work. Basically, I hope that another five or six calendars migrate to the bottom of the trunk as time goes by, and we keep learning together. We may not have been an ideal combination, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the ride.