Regular readers of the comments on my blog probably feel like they know the woman who goes by the name “Elaine” the way they know their other barn friends. They’re also familiar with her current horse Dini, whom she often mentions, and who you can see below. (If you’ve been missing Elaine’s comments, you should check them out, since she’s shared some great stories here on the blog.)
Elaine is a friend and a student, and Dini is a horse I had in training before I broke my back. Dini’s had the winter off, and Elaine has big plans for him this spring. We just talked about bringing him back into shape again with March-ing! and long-lining. Bravo to Elaine, she’s going to be doing the work herself. I’m there to support her.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the latest copy of Dressage Today, and read a letter from Elaine about her and her beloved Dini. She hadn’t told me she’d written it, but she knew I’d see the letter if it went to press. That’s Elaine. She’s forthright and speaks her mind (as I do) but she’s a strategist. She’s had to be, with her current horse, whose thrown her a series of curve balls that would make most horsewomen retire their boots.
Not Elaine. She’s a tough horsewoman — experienced, brave and smart. She’s as honest as a champion children’s hunter. And like the needlepoint pillow in the Park Avenue apartment, she doesn’t explain and she doesn’t complain.
She’s had reason to complain, for sure. If you read her letter in DT, you’ll see some of the reasons why. The editors titled her letter “Persevering Through Adversity to Reach Goals.” Every horseman has had to do to that, but there’s perseverance and then there’s Perseverance…there’s adversity and then there’s Adversity. Few of us “keep calm and carry on” the way Elaine can and has.
I know her horse, and I know why she’s not giving up. He’s beautiful and talented and genuinely sweet. She’s had him since he was two and he’s her dream horse. He’s been through trauma more than once, none of it Elaine’s fault. From the stories Elaine told me, he was sensitive and challenging as a two year old but his experience has made him more so. Sensitive and challenging is a combination of traits I know well and like, because horses who are sensitive and challenging are the most rewarding to train — and often the most gifted partners under saddle.
Dini is gifted. I remember when I first saw him, appearing much bigger than the 16.1h measured by the stick. He had presence. His stunning gaits matched his stunning markings. They had precision, regularity and expression. He had a soft eye but an attitude that told you that if you wanted his trust, you were going to have to earn it. And he was happy to set up the tests you had to pass to do so.
It took a while before he met me half way, but I was fair and consistent and rewarded him often, didn’t back down from a challenge, and let it go once it was over. In a short time, the horse who had once stood on the lunge line refusing to move forward (from voice or body language or whip) started to come into the center of the lunging circle to ask me for a kiss before changing direction. He started to stretch over his topline towards the bit and his transitions became crisp. He gave up his fear of the corner with the evergreens and the kennel behind it, he learned how to half-halt from the seat, he learned to be responsive to the leg and to lengthen, and he was learning how to collect. Importantly, he learned that challenges under saddle would be answered just as challenges from the ground were.
I’d started my work with Dini with one simple request. That he walk with integrity and use himself. I wouldn’t accept a pretend walk from him, a sham. If I was going to show up and give him my best, he had to do the same. That was the deal. “March-ing!” I’d say and Dini learned to comply and took pleasure in his performance. Elaine took up the call and took him March-ing!, first on flat ground, later on hills on the days I didn’t work with him, and sometimes in the mornings when I did.
All through the summer and fall, we worked together in Elaine’s huge grass field. Dini had lost confidence somewhere along the way (that happens to athletes who have physical setbacks) but he was gaining it back. Elaine, Dini and I were a team of three and it worked the way it should when owner/rider and trainer are on the same page.
When Elaine rode Dini, he was the happiest, I think. She put him in training with me for the winter and we were looking forward to show season. And then something stalled. Suddenly, the horse we knew wasn’t there. But Elaine got to the bottom of it, and he was back on track. That didn’t stop Elaine. Nothing stops Elaine. Because she has faith. Faith in God and faith in her horse and even when she may doubt it, faith in herself.
Sometimes we don’t know why a horse enters our life, or why it’s so hard, or what the lesson might be, especially when the going gets tough and it’s disappointment after disappointment. But it’s the true horseman that discovers the answer, as Elaine no doubt will, one day. When one door closes, Elaine finds another door and opens it, and I know she will “find peace with her horse,” as she seeks. The path to peace is far from easy when your horse is sensitive and challenging and the setbacks are many but she’ll get there. I have faith in that.
If you can, pick up a copy of Dressage Today (the April issue with Jan Ebeling on the cover) and read Elaine’s heartfelt letter. For anyone who’s ever had big dreams that involve a horse, and big disappointments, it’s inspirational.