Watching Beezie breeze Breitling LS to the 2018 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals Championship in Paris last week reminds us how focused we must be inside that silent cosmos we call ‘the arena.’ Once we move into ‘the hole,’ we have entered the ‘zone.’ Then the gate closes behind us. Inside the arena, it’s as if we are protected in a transparent and semi-impervious bubble, a cabin of our choosing, flight ready and good to go.
Outside our bubble, we leave our coaches and families behind. What we take inside the arena is knowing our horse, all the coaching knowledge from every coach we ever had and every horse we’ve ever ridden. Deep within our muscle memory, grey matter and sineu, each perfectly tuned fibre of that knowledge, coupled with our pilot’s intuition and split second timing creates a partner-ship like no other.
Beezie’s oh so focused flight of perfection reminded me of a little brown haired girl and her little brown pony I had the pleasure of coaching in the early 2000’s. Of a time when a little brown haired girl on a very nice little brown pony learned, when she was in the arena, all that mattered was her horse/human partnership.
It’s Not About Me…
I was invited to fill in as team coach for the Stadium phase of a Pony Club Regional Rally out west. The team’s jumping coach broke her leg walking cross country and they needed a quick fill in for the next day’s stadium phase. My day was open. I lived 30 minutes away and was eager to help.
We all wish for blue skies at outdoor events, 70 degree weather and perfect footing. Unless it’s Wellington or Ocala, not often are we promised it. That Saturday in Colorado was no different. Overcast and oppressive, skies were anything but blue. Head-strong wind gusts burst out of nowhere and a slimy sandy mess of footing meant I chose to wear my coaching- for- safe- rounds hat when it came to teaching kids I’d never met on horses I’d never worked with.
We had two hours on the clock before the announcer called the first rider into ‘the hole.’ The team’s DC filled me in with a two-sentence prep on the variety and skills of kids and horses I’d be coaching. ‘From 8-16, nice little brown pony with a little girl brown hair good rider doesn’t say much, a handful of fair mannered pairs, and one over mounted teen on a head-strong runaway. You know, the usual.’
‘Got it.’ Quick study before a 15 minute coaching session with each Pony Clubber.
Trust level between kids and coaches is important. I was being sprung on them so their guards would be up. As a coach I couldn’t expect them to make major adjustments, or little ones, if any, in our short time together. ‘Know thy pony/horse’ was my going to be my mantra.
Making quick assessments of each rider first, generally, I focused on safety, steady pace, approaches, making sure they understood how to make adjustments in mud and wind, make sure they knew the course, answered questions, wished them luck and hoped they enjoyed their rides. This wasn’t the time to make drastic changes.
Basically it went like this…In 15 minutes of warm up, show me what you’ve got in the first five, next 5 talk about the course, the slimy footing, maybe one or two minor adjustments like stirrup or rein lengths, five more minutes to practice, answer any questions and watch a few goes before their rounds if that helped them. Some riders don’t like to watch other rides before theirs, so it was their choice. Shortening reins seemed like a monumental change to some, to others, shortening stirrups felt like a blessing and a miracle. Ah… those little adjustments.
It all seemed to go fairly smoothly…
Except for the over mounted teenager on the run-away horse… a tornado-sized burst of wind spooked her and her horse straight back to the barn like a real funnel was chasing them. Later, the DC confirmed…’don’t worry, happens all the time…horse hates wind.’
And the fact it was getting colder and the wind was picking up at a steady rate. In between coaching riders, we had to take cover from a few cloudbursts. Giant puddles were everywhere now and the stadium course footing was taking its toll. The straw bale jump in the middle began shedding its golden locks, turning the once muddy approach into a smelly yellow slip-n-slide. A few riders lost their seats and did a Thelwell, yet, they were all determined to do their best.
Turning my attention to the little girl with the soft brown hair tidily tucked underneath her helmet, sitting perfectly on her very nice and tidy little brown pony patiently waiting her turn, well, you get the picture. The DC’s heads-up on her was ‘Very quiet, parents expect a lot.’
I had a clue she might be a bit nervous. However, not to the depth she readily and eventually revealed. Smiling, I walked over and stood beside her.
‘Are you the lady that’s supposed to help me?’
‘Yes, I am.’
The little girl with the soft brown hair neatly curled under her hat was quite well spoken and an advanced rider for an 8-year-old. Great position, smooth transitions. Yet the look on her face and the death grip she had on her well behaved pony’s mouth told me her good riding skills weren’t going to get her around the course today. After we warmed her pony up, she asked me to stand with her and watch a few rounds. I decided to break the icy death grip she also had on the silence around us.
‘So, what’s bothering you?’
A waterfall of fear gushed out of the little girl.
‘What if I forget the course?!! What if I don’t do well?!! What if my mom gets mad at me?!! What if… what if…I disappoint you?’
Wow…a lot of pressure for such a young little girl. I thought for a moment, put my hand on her pony’s withers and looked into her big soft brown eyes.
‘It’s not about me, sweet girl. Your ride isn’t about disappointing me or your mom getting mad. The only thing that matters in that arena is you and your pony and being safe and enjoying your ride.’
A few little tears fell softly down the little girls cheek.
‘What if I forget my course?’ Head hung low, this was a pressing question for her.
We’ve all gone off course. Even as an adult, I’d gone off course before…I knew what it felt like.
‘How many jumps are there?’
“How many fences can you jump at once?’
‘You can count to ten, right?’
A ‘well duh, I’m eight!’ was her answer.
‘And you know which jump is the first one and which one is the last one? So, keep a steady rhythm, pretend the jumps are dots. Connect two dots then the next two dots…and in ten dots, your done!’
The little girl dropped her head, smiled, thought for a moment…looked up at the course, and purposefully began counting by twos, pointing at each jump, then let out a deep sigh of relief.
‘I’ve got it!’
‘Let me ask you a question…Is your mom going to be in the arena, riding your pony with you on the course?’
‘Noo!’ she grinned.
‘Am I going to ride your pony on the course with you?’
She laughed at that one.
‘So who’s out there on that course?’
‘Just me…and my pony!’ The light bulb exploded…
‘That’s right. You and your pony are partners…a team. Just you and your pony. Not your mom…not me…you and your pony. Got it! Keep your rhythm, jump one fence at a time, connect all the dots and Go get’em tiger!’
The little girl with the soft brown hair neatly tucked up under her helmet on her very nice little brown pony entered the arena. With a huge grin of determination on her face, jump after jump, she connected each dot and had a safe, clean round.
When the pair was out of the arena, the little girl jumped off her little brown pony, gave me a hug, and a huge THANK YOU! ‘We did it!’
‘Yes YOU did!’
‘You and your pony did it! Remember on every course, it’s not about your mom or me. It’s about taking the lessons you learn from a coach with you and your pony in that arena.’
And The Good News Is
The little girl on the little brown pony was the last to go of her teams. After I thanked the DC and the parents who helped me round up the kids, it was time to head back to the barns for final inspection. As I was making my way back, a very tidy, slim lady with porcelain skin, in a very proper and tidy raincoat was heading toward me. As we were about to meet for the first time, the lady held her delicate hand out to shake mine and introduced herself.
‘I’m the little girl on the little brown pony’s mother.’
Emphasizing the word ‘mother’ as she did..OH Oh..I thought. Here it comes.
‘I don’t know what you said to my daughter…’
‘But whatever you said to her, it changed her life. And mine too. Thank you.’
Not expecting that at all pretty much changed my life right on the spot. I was taken aback and truly humbled by her statement. I thanked her and said how much I appreciated the opportunity to coach her daughter on such short notice. I really didn’t think I said anything life changing. I guess we never know. Now I was holding back tears.
‘Thank you, again.’ The little girl’s mother shook my hand for the second time, turned and walked away. The little girls mother never told me her name. Asking me what I said to her daughter didn’t seem to matter to her either.
I was just glad the little girl with the soft brown hair tucked neatly up under her helmet enjoyed her ride and made it safely around the course on her very nice little brown pony.
After all, it wasn’t about me.
S.Johnson Copyright © April 2018 © And The Good News Is…It’s Not About Me All Rights Reserved