In riding, as in life, we require confidence in order to succeed. Most of us have encountered those horses that have helped us in that journey. Perhaps it was the horse who knew his job so well that you could leave him to it while you sorted out the mechanics of what you were doing. For me, that horse was Wicki. Or, perhaps it was the first training project, who survived all of your mistakes, and still somehow came out okay on the other side. For me, that was Ben. I have encountered many horses, in my journey, who have added to my confidence as a rider and trainer. But, sometimes confidence wanes or is lost, and we need that horse who has the ability to help us find it again. For my mother and me, Coffee has been that special horse.
From the beginning, Coffee was a big gamble. My mother had just come out of a wreck off of Java that had earned her a night in intensive care. She was determined to keep riding, but our sole remaining riding horse was Nash, who was far from an easy ride. He had gaits that felt like an old farm truck on a rutted road, unless you had him fully engaged – and a rough early life had left him with an attitude that forced you to work for every ‘win’. Definitely not the horse anyone is likely to regain confidence on.
I spent some months looking for the right type of horse, and was finding it a difficult challenge. Then I saw Coffee’s face in an online ad and something intrigued me, however unlikely he might have been as a prospect. He was trained for Western Pleasure, his owner was skeptical about him going to an English riding home … and he was a nine hour drive away! But, all obstacles were overcome, and I brought him safely to his new home.
The journey since then has been a bumpy one. He required far more retraining than I’d imagined, to get him to move naturally forward, and to carry himself naturally rather than curled up, as he’d been trained. We’ve both had our share of injuries along the way, as well, making it far from a straight road. But through it all there was one constant – Coffee’s fantastic character.
The main purpose for his presence was to help my mother regain her confidence, and enjoy having a fun horse of her own. He has served that purpose beyond all expectations. Along the way, she has taken the step of deciding to ride when she was home alone – something that has since become her regular habit (now with texts before and after, so I’ll know if something is wrong). She’s tried things alone that were previously a stretch, even with my support. Then came the day she told me she’d taken her life in her hands – she’d opened the arena gate and taken a stroll around our back acre. This is a woman who has generally needed a push to try anything new on any horse, other than Ben (and even sometimes then). But she was taking her Coffee strolling out where the foxes and pheasant were known to jump out of the bushes!
I could have found her a better trained horse (though generally for prices beyond our means), but I would have been hard pressed to find a better fit. She has said that Coffee is the horse she always dreamed of in her youth – it doesn’t get better than that! Even after the day that he spooked and dropped me in the sand, she had no hesitation to resume her regular riding while I was at work. She has regained her own confidence, as well as tremendous trust in her spotted buddy.
Along the way, Coffee has also helped me with my confidence. Not long after Coffee came, Nash’s health began to decline in ways that necessitated his retirement. That left Coffee as our only riding horse. Nash had been the last horse I’d trained to any level of completeness – but that had been more than a decade ago. Coffee was a challenging retraining project to take on, and I questioned my approach many times along the way. But progress happened, in fits and starts, between injuries and lack of time.
My mother likes to remind me that I’m the one who trained Coffee, and created what I’m now reaping. But not all horses would have the generosity to continue to make progress in fits and starts, as Coffee has. And not all horses would so willingly try new things, even if the aids required were well learned. Coffee has been offering me moments where he seems to say, “See, I get what you’re asking!” First ask for travers, “Sure, is this the angle that you want?” First try at walk pirouette, “Yeah, I can do that!” His trot is getting lighter and loftier – a true joy to ride!
I am so grateful for what Coffee has done for my mother, and for me. Without him, I have no doubt that neither of us would be riding by now. Instead, the three of us are enjoying ourselves – and this weekend Coffee gave me perhaps the greatest gift thus far.
It was a generally lovely ride, and I was just about to finish when I decided to try one more thing. So, I asked for Travers (haunches-in) in walk, then transitioned to shoulder-in. It felt so lovely that I wanted to see what trot it would yield – to which Coffee said, “How?!” Forward is still not his go-to response, and he was a bit more collected than usual. So, I went through the sequence again, and this time … I got the most amazing feeling canter! I don’t know why canter rather than trot, but I suspect it was easier for him to organize in that balance – but it was lovely, easy, soft, and very uphill. It felt as though canter pirouette would have been easily achieved – instead I asked for trot before he could falter, and got the most collected and lofty feeling trot he has ever offered!
My mother was agog at how lovely her horse looked! I was astounded at how soft and lovely it all felt! After half a circle with no faltering, I stopped and gave him a big hug. The magic, for me, is always in those moments when a horse willingly offers more than was asked for. It is many years since I have felt that amazing lightness offered so willingly – and even more years since I’ve done the training to reach such a moment. I had not lost my theoretical knowledge, over the years – nor my eye for what is correct. But now, with confidence, I can say that I have not lost my skill or feel.
I feel blessed to have such a confidence builder in my herd. Whether it’s the old lesson horse who carefully balances the little girl on his back, or the campaigner who takes his rider around her first jumping course, or the schoolmaster who helps his rider experience their first high school movement – we all need those confidence builders in our riding journey. If you have a confidence builder in your life, be sure to give them a carrot for me … and for Coffee!
Be good to your horses!