Dear Steve: A Letter to My Banana-Loving Partner

Dear Steve;

I barely know how to start this letter, in part because I fully understand that if I was to read it to you, I would get an annoyed look and some fairly intense side eye until I brought you alfalfa to munch on while I blabbed at you. Okay, you aren’t really a people horse, and you’d rather eat than hang out. So what? You are my partner, and I feel incredibly lucky every day that I have you. Settle in, grab a mouthful of alfalfa, and let me tell you how much you mean to me.

Prepare your box of alfalfa and tissues, Steve! This letter is just for you! Photo by Morgan Connelly.

During the two years before you came into my life, I lost two horses suddenly and tragically.  My search for you was in part a search for a new partner with whom my bruised heart could find comfort. I was grieving and in shock from the loss of my beloved young horse Warren to colic. I did not know what I would find as my trainer Packy McGaughan and I scoured our contacts and the internet for my next horse. I never could have guessed just how much I would come to value you, but from the very first time I got in the saddle, you made me feel like I could do anything. Jump anything. Fly!

When we met in-person down in Argentina, I have to admit that I was a tiny bit disappointed. I’d seen pictures and videos, but…well, I’m sorry, but I thought you were going to be taller. The horse I’d just lost was an over-sized baby-saurus at 17.2hh. The thing is that I don’t NEED a large horse (I’m pretty short myself), but I had the imprint of Warren in my head, and that imprint was large. Instead of that, however, here was this chunky little blood bay with lots of chrome and a slightly crabby look on his face. You were only four and hadn’t yet grown much withers; you were still a colt, though, so you had a giant neck and an aura of cocky self-confidence. Basically, you looked like a tube with an attitude, just over 16hh. I nearly chose your taller, more elegant barn mate, who looked eerily like my baby horse, but the fun I had jumping you during those few days pushed me to choose you, instead. What a choice! Never, ever have I regretted it.

I would never regret this face!  Photo by Susan Glover.

It’s a little hard to describe you to people who don’t know you, outside of the fact that you are a very cute tube, but one of your nicknames is Simply Steven. You like things to be clearly laid out, and you don’t enjoy being asked to do the thinking in our relationship. You have made me into a better rider purely because you expect me to be one. The payoff I get from you is incalculable; when I ride well, you will jump anything, ANYTHING I point you at, and maybe throw in a fist pump of a buck on the backside. 

During our first competition year together, we moved from the Low AA Jumpers to the High AA Jumpers very quickly – maybe too quickly! You were my first “real” jumper; as a kid I’d ridden in the hunters. And even when I returned to riding as an adult, it took me a while to find my way over to the jumper side of things, and even longer before I found you. I had never jumped above 1.0m in the jumper ring until you came along, and I still tended to take long, slow, loopy tracks while everyone watching me silently (or not so silently) shouted “GOOOOO!”

Our third show in the High AA division was Upperville, one of the biggest competitions on the east coast. I had not been to a show of that size since I was a teenager. What was I doing there? Who did I think I was? Why couldn’t I settle down so I stopped making you, my poor Stevie, so nervous? Why did we keep nearly running into the same (increasingly) angry French man in the warm up ring Long story short: I freaked out, somehow got a ribbon on the first day even though I low key blacked out in the middle of the course, and then things went downhill from there. On day two, I ridiculously lost my stirrups two jumps in and didn’t get them back until fence five, a huge triple bar liverpool nightmare. By day three, you’d had enough of me throwing the decisions in your unwilling lap while I sat there like a petrified lump. You finally chucked me into an oxer in front of all of the nice people who had come to watch the hunter derby later that afternoon. No one there could blame you! 

The only surprising thing about that third day is that it took you until then to get fed up with me. You aren’t a saint, but you are a very, very good egg and up to that point you had never refused a jump. The first lesson I had after that disastrous show was horrible.  It was what I needed, but it was the pits. I got my hat handed to me by my trainer and, much, much worse, I felt the lack of trust you had in me. I spent a lot of time, usually at two in the morning, thinking about how I should sell you before I ruined you, how I wasn’t fit to ride a plastic bouncy horse, how I’d lost my feel. We got through that lesson, and the next one, and the next, and slowly I rebuilt what I’d thought was gone. Last year, we finally moved up to the Low AO Jumpers, and while the COVID-19 break (and a bone bruise over the winter), has left us a bit rusty, we are flying again together.

Me jumping with Steve. Photo by Rachel Videla.

For more than six years, through the usual ups and downs, through barn moves, through injury (me, you, me, you, me again), through irritating little things like needing to focus on my career, you have been there for me. I am a lucky person, on the whole, with a job I love, a wonderful, supportive husband and family, and very good friends. Life is not always easy even for the luckiest of us, though, and knowing I have your big nose waiting for me at the barn has kept me going through some dark periods. You don’t LOVE being fussed over, but you put up with it, and I have often found great comfort in hugging your giant neck. 

Can you be a lazy cow? Absolutely! Can you sometimes greet me with your patented, demanding “Treat. NOW” look, only to pin your ears when you see my empty hands? All the time! But: there is never a day when I show up to work that you say “No.” I ask for more from you, and if I do it correctly (and with enough leg), I suddenly have Valegro, Sapphire, and Confu under me. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but your athleticism and talent, even after six years, continue to surprise and delight me. I’ve owned and ridden some very nice horses in my long riding life, and I still feel like I won the lottery every time I’m in your saddle. 

You aren’t the easiest horse, physically, for me to ride; I’m sort of little and you, despite being short, are built like a semi. Sometimes I feel like a peanut on a bull, but you are never mean, or dirty, and you always step up. Over the years you have gone from a fairly mellow youngster into an extremely mellow horse in his prime. How many jumpers will nonchalantly walk around under trees while their crazy rider reaches up and breaks off long hanging branches and then drags them along the ground? How many big competition horses can you put anyone on, from little kids to timid beginner adults, and know they will be safe and have the time of their lives, to boot? When I got you, you were a city boy and hated and feared going on hacks. Six years with eventers making us do insane eventer things, and you now hack out like an old cow pony.

Steve (looking so handsome!) and me. Photo by Morgan Connelly.

2020 has upended things for us, as it has for everyone, but I am still able to plan and dream for what is ahead. My goals now are working back up to jumping 1.20-1.25m confidently, so that the fences don’t look OMG OMG OMG when we get into the show ring. There are a few shows in my region that I am planning to attend in the next few weeks. Longer term, I’d love to travel down to Tryon for a week this fall and compete in the Low AO Jumpers, or perhaps go to Ohio this winter for part of the WEC circuit there. All of this depends, of course, on what our society is able to do about handling COVID-19 better, so that we can all be showing safely. In the meantime, we will keep working on ourselves with an eye to the future.

A nose boop for Steve! Photo by Morgan Connelly.

I can’t promise you, as we get back into showing after a long break, that, at least sometimes, I won’t ride like an ammy. I AM an ammy, and we often ride dumb. I can promise you, however, that I will try even harder to be the rider you deserve, to match your talent with my own, and to always make sure I have an extra banana (or two) for you at the end of the day. 

I love and appreciate you, my Steven, and I can’t wait to see where our journey takes us next.