Thursday, November 10, 2011

Trading Places

Trading Places 
Cover Story in Horse Directory,  July 2011                                                                                                                                
By Tom Gumbrecht                                                                                                                         

Have you ever had a good friend who you got along well with, but who was enough of a goofball that you never felt fully comfortable subjecting your family or your other friends to his antics? I have a horse like that. His name is DannyBoy.  He’s a really handsome guy, and he looks good in the paddock. He will show you a sincere interest if you approach the fence. Then he will show a sincere interest in your clothing, your extremities, your hair, your phone. He’s like a little boy starved for attention and he will do anything to get it, and to keep it.  This is the DannyBoy that Samantha knows, because she takes care of his stall and paddock as part of her barn chores. If I hear a scream from the barn area, I can pretty much rest assured that Danny is up to something and Sam is not amused by it.

But there is another side to DannyBoy. When you put the tack on him he immediately becomes a mission oriented machine, and he’s all business.  He can be a bit opinionated, and at 1250 lbs., he can afford to be. He really just wants a general idea of what you want him to do, and he thinks that the execution of it is all up to him. He can be challenging, but not dangerously so. The trick is getting him to do things the way you want them done, while letting him think it was his idea all along!

Danny has been primarily a one-rider horse, and that rider has been me.  He was four years old when I got him, and it was me in the saddle when he went for his first trail ride, got over his first jump, went to his first horse show, and his first horse trial.  It was me who placed his first ribbon on his stall door, which he promptly ate! We were teammates, and I loved being his teammate. I loved the proud way he pranced around his paddock in front of the other horses when we came home from a show. We worked well together.

When we were just beginning to find our niche in the jumpers, DannyBoy got injured. It was eighteen months of, at various points in time, stall rest, therapy, surgery, recovery, hand walking, tackwalking, and finally hours of walking on trail. He showed improvement, had a setback, and we started the process again. Eventually he did get better. By that time, though, I had begun training my young OTTB mare, Lola, now at a critical point in her training and taking up all of my riding time. Being no youngster myself, and having a business as well as a home and a barn, I physically and logistically can’t have more than one horse in training at one time.  Samantha has her own mare, Bella, who she’s in training with also. And she’s a full time student with a busy life. Danny became relegated to a weekend trail horse position while the two mares were our training projects. Then fate intervened, as it frequently does:  Bella developed some lameness issues which required considerable time off.

It was with some trepidation that I mentioned to our trainer, Laura Ruben, my idea of possibly putting DannyBoy back in training, with Samantha this time. The trepidation had nothing to do with my questioning Sam’s abilities as a rider. She’s young and athletic and has a great deal of experience on difficult horses. She has a keen eye, a good seat, quiet hands, iron legs and a calming effect on horses. She’s just the kind of rider that you want on your horse. I knew she could handle DannyBoy. My question was more one of personalities. He can be a bully, and Sam doesn’t like bullies. Can they get along? If they can’t, can I handle it? Will I be impatient? If they CAN, can I handle it? Will I be jealous? I never realized how emotional a decision like this could be. It made me realize how much I love that big goon, and how attached I’ve become to him.  It turned out that trainer Laura had been thinking along the same lines. Though young in years, Laura possesses the wisdom of an old soul. She told me exactly how to handle the situation, which was, simply put, to keep my mouth shut. She didn’t use those words, and she was very polite and quite eloquent in the words that she did select. But her meaning was clear: Don’t allow my own projected insecurities to define someone else’s experience. Just let it happen.

At their first training session, it became obvious that my concerns were groundless. Under Laura’s tutelage, Samantha put DannyBoy through his paces like a pro. But that was never really in question. More important to me was that it had become obvious that she cared about him. She had been able to look through his clownish exterior and see the horse that I see: Skilled, honest, willing, confident and bold in his maneuvers, but yet with a huge need to feel valued and appreciated. It made me feel good to see her confidently guide him over the fences, but it made me feel even better to see her stop in the paddock and pat his neck or brush his forelock out of his eyes.

In our history together, through the years of learning each others’ idiosyncrasies, I had developed the mindset that I was irreplaceable as his rider. Whenever my thinking gets to that point, I have to stop, smile, and remember a time when I would rant to an old neighbor about how some experience of the day proved that no one could be trusted to do a job but me. He would listen thoughtfully over the fence, and then say, “You know, when JFK died, they had him replaced in an hour. And he was the president”! I try and keep that in mind when I get to feeling too self-important.

For better or worse, I have a mind that tends to look for potential complications. In my profession that’s basically what I do, and it’s actually a helpful quality.  But with a horse, sometimes all that’s needed is one part knowledge, one part ability, and two parts of caring. Luckily for him, DannyBoy has a new rider who has all the parts needed. And things aren’t so complicated, after all. After witnessing Sam’s performance with DannyBoy this weekend, I’m beginning to anticipate filling out entry forms again for the first time in a few seasons. This time, when I hear the announcer, it will be, “Thomas Gumbrecht, Owner. Samantha Mullen, Rider”.  And I can’t wait!

Samantha with her mare, Bella, in a quiet moment.

DannyBoy, with whom Samantha and I "Traded Places".

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