How a Hunter Princess Learned to Love the Jumpers

Riding has never been easy for me. I’m too flabby, too much of a chicken. I’ve never been able to break the habit of melting into a fetal position when things start going south. My over twenty year journey with horses has been a lifetime of trainers reminding me to just sit up already, while slowly learning to trust the horses I’ve been fortunate enough to ride.

When I close my eyes and picture the perfect future culmination of all this hard work, it’s always been in one place — the hunter ring. Flying over a high option in a derby on a chromey braided bay is #lifegoals for me, and that dream has stayed consistent across state lines and through multiple trainers and horses.

#goalz. Winter Equestrian Festival, photo by Lauren Mauldin

But the thing about life goals is that they’re not meant to be easy. When you’re a working amateur trying to horse show on a yearly budget that’s less than what some of your competitors’ saddles cost, that chromey Warmblood dream horse might look a lot more like a free off the track Thoroughbred with questionable lead changes and a subtle flair for drama.

Are we huntering yet? CTHJA 2014, Photo courtesy of Ally Bradley

Of course that plain, freebie Thoroughbred turned out to be my heart horse, and after a few years of working to reach our personal best in the hunter ring my trainer and I decided my horse, Simon, was best served as a jumper. That was great news for Simon who took to his new career instantly, but I was a bit slower to come around. Moving to the jumper ring was not an easy transition for me.

Since we mostly show local, I had a super supportive environment to get my “jumper on” if you will. Which is good, because I accrued 14 time penalties in my first class since I didn’t know exactly what the buzzers meant and was casually trail riding around the far end of the ring well after my time started.

First time in the jumpers. SA Charity Show 2014. Photo courtesy of Heather French

For the first season, there were a lot of tribulations. I missed my simple outside/inside/outside/inside hunter courses, and didn’t make it through a single horse show without adding a courtesy circle in the middle of my course while I yelled, “Help!” to friends in the stands to tell me which jump was next. Simon is one of those catty Thoroughbreds that can turn on a dime, which sounds great until I tell you that he turned so fast I flew off to the other side… twice. And of course there was my fear that I was always going “too fast,” only to watch the video later and see us putting down a round that made the crossrail beginner courses look speedy.

Want to know the fastest way to ruin your horse show? Tell yourself, “I’ll just be slow and careful… like Beezie,” right before the timers go off. Because when you’re in the super high stakes of the 2’9″ schooling jumper ring, it’s totally on Beezie’s level. The horse show gods struck me down for that thought, because two jumps after I repeated it to myself I crashed my poor horse through an oxer. The jump after that, I crawled and leaned too far forward — by too far forward I mean completely off Simon and into the coop in front of us.

Poles. Poles everywhere. CTHJA 2014, photo courtesy of Heather French

But in-between all those bad moments in the ring with my saintly horse, magical things started to happen. I began to feel how much better everything went when I kept my body up and leg on. Long spots became a viable option versus a hail mary. I stopped repeating courses back to my trainer with phrases like, “Next is a rollback to the cowboy after the blue line,” and instead began to repeat jump numbers and strides. I got fitter. Told my horse that he could trust me, and knew I could trust him.

Most importantly, I stepped into the show ring for the first time in my entire riding career and rode for forwardness and accuracy, instead of clinging on and hoping I survived without embarrassing myself too badly.

CTHJA 2015. Photo by Heather French

Today I still have my hunter dreams. I’d be lying if I said some part of me doesn’t still want that chunky warmblood, and I dream of flatting a big, sweepy mover like some kids dream about jumping 3’6″ for the first time. But for now, I’m grateful for what the jumpers has taught me.

SA Charity 2017. Photo by Heather French

My riding is better from the more challenging courses, my horse is happier doing a job he excels at and I’ve learned to never, ever compare myself to Beezie Madden.