This week I got to ride a horse like I’ve never ridden before. I’ve ridden hundreds of horses: mostly the wide gamut of schoolies, some sale horses, some former racehorses and former polo ponies, even one or two really nice horses owned by friends. But I’d never before gotten to ride a real serious show horse. The one I rode this week, Sjapoo (pronounced like “Chapeau”; it’s the Belgian spelling) was pretty amazing.
When I first got on he seemed very excitable, with his ears perked up and head raised high despite wearing a running martingale. His gait was prancey and the movement vertical, and I thought to myself, “Oh great, another choppy Thoroughbred that’s going to make me feel like a total mess. Can I even handle this?” He wasn’t extremely big or strong–probably around 15.3 hands and athletic but not bulky (built like a soccer player rather than a football player). But he was clearly spirited in a way I’ve not often experienced. It was kind of like this: when I was younger, I had a Saturn. It was a good car, reliable, got me where I needed to go with its four-cylinder engine. It was a like a school horse. The road my family lived off had one lane going in each direction and a speed limit of 50 mph. There was one section that had a short passing lane right near my barn and, being 19 years old, I pretty much always felt I had to pass whomever was in front of me when I drove there. In my Saturn, this was a bit of an effort. I had to give it a good push on the gas pedal to get up that hill and around another car. But one day I borrowed my dad’s Infiniti. When I got to that stretch of the road, I barely had to breathe on that gas pedal to put the other cars in my dust. I realized very quickly that I had a lot of power underneath me and that it was important to be aware of that and be in control. That’s what riding this horse was like. He was like the luxury car of horses: very beautiful, but also very finely-tuned and powerful.
Luckily, being a professional show jumper also meant that he was incredibly well-trained. After my initial apprehension, I just got to work doing what I needed to do as a rider to settle my mount and I found that he adjusted almost immediately. I took a little bit of soft contact on his mouth, I sat deeper and posted slower and as soon as he warmed up, he transitioned very nicely from that more strung out trot to a collected and comfortable working trot. The same was true at the canter. I took him around the ring a couple of times to get warmed up and we did a few circles; he gave me a perfect bend at just the slightest suggestion from my inner leg.
Since the main trainer was back, after we warmed up on our own we went right into jumping. We started with a line of low verticals at the canter. She wanted us to get four strides in between the jumps, but Sjapoo and I came in right off the bat with three. Right before the first jump, I gave him a lot of leg like I would normally do to encourage the horse forward to his first jump of the day. But he didn’t need that much, only a light touch on the accelerator. “He’s not a school horse,” the trainer reminded me.
The next time through, he came to the jump expecting it and I didn’t collect early enough. We got the four strides but it was uneven; the first jump was a little big so the first three strides were more forward and the fourth was jammed in there at the last second. The next time around, I was more prepared. From the get-go, I did everything in a more understated manner, even asking for the canter. It really took nothing more than shifting my weight and bending him slightly to set him up and then the barest whisper of my leg on his side to get him going, and in approaching it this way the transition was much nicer. Before he had kind of leaped into the canter, like a horse out of the starting gate, and then I’d have to calm and collect him quickly before we got to the jump. This time the transition was far more organized and gentle, which changed our whole approach. We went into the first jump with a perfect distance and the four strides flowed easily and naturally from that; it only took a little bit of sitting up and woahing in between to get the perfect fit.
The trainer added a couple of other low jumps to make it a small course, but for me, the line remained the main event. After a few times through, she raised the jumps in the line. I took a look at the second one and told her, “That’s probably the highest I’ve ever jumped.” It was a vertical of about 2’9″, not very high in comparison to those 5’9″ jumps I watched people take in the show last week. I may have done 3′ once back in the day, but I’ve never had much opportunity to do anything with much height, partly due to space constrictions and largely due to horse limitations. She said not to worry about it and told me to take the line in a forward three this time around.
As we approached the jump, I could feel Sjappo’s excitement match my own. Horses that love to jump really perk up once things get going. I spurred him on with a little leg on the approach to the first jump, keeping light contact on his mouth. We cleared the first one and had three long, smooth strides to the second and when he took off, it was beautiful. We soared. I could feel myself break into a huge grin in the air, quite literally just elated. Often when training and working on a course, each jump is like a piece in a puzzle, a thing to be solved. That’s fascinating and I love that kind of work. But riding such a knowledgeable and responsive and athletic horse took the experience to another level. It reminded me of the beauty and grace and the pure fun of jumping. It made me want to do it again and again. More, and higher.