Horses Keep You Humble: An Adult Amateur’s Return to Show Jumping

“I must be crazy.”

For six years, I’ve dreamed of this moment and now I am beginning to question whether or not I overestimated myself.

In an attempt to memorize my course, I start coaching myself in my head, “OK – start with an oxer going home, rollback left to. . .is that a bending or a broken line? Who knows. Now another bending line, rollback left to an oxer, leg out of the turn, bending to a combination, rollback left on the end-jump, broken line to a one-stride, bending to jump ten. Jump ten!?! Oh great, now I have to remember the jump off.”

I decide to watch the final riders in the preceding class as they navigate the course of fences, and I begin to see how the lines ride. Although I gain a better sense of the course and the questions it will ask of me and my horse, I have yet to feel even a marginal increase in confidence.

My trainer, Johanna, soon joins me at the ring for the course walk and I’m sure she can tell that I’m nervous.


New Girl Initiation Night, 2006

Johanna and I met when I was around 14 and she was maybe 16, and we were both “new girls” at our high school. It was a school with a well-known equestrian program and both of us were there to progress our riding. I remember being in awe of her and her horse, Metro – she made every course seem almost like a waltz; each jump was smoothly taken out-of-stride and every turn was fluid and well balanced. Our trainers encouraged everyone to watch the lessons of more advanced riders, so I would set myself up with my homework at a table in the arena viewing gallery every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon to soak it all in.


While most every trainer gets to know their riders, just as teachers get to know their students, there’s a different dynamic when you are 29-years-old and your trainer has known you since you were barely a teenager.

Before commencing the course walk, Johanna turned to me, and in a kind but frank tone said, “Betta, how many courses did we have to memorize as Juniors when we were riding together? I promise, you won’t get lost.”

This honest reality check set the tone for my entire first show back after nearly a decade out of the show ring.

Low Adult Jumpers, Vermont Summer Festival, 2021

True to her word, I did not get lost on course and we made it around three of the four times we entered the ring. My first two days of showing at the Vermont Sumer Festival gave me some great insights into my strengths and weaknesses as a rider, as well as Cassandra’s preferences and abilities as a jumper. Having purchased Cassandra only two months prior, we knew there would be a lot to learn, but she certainly exceeded all expectations we had for the young seven-year-old at her first overnight show.

While certain things, like remembering my course, came back easily, other things, like managing my nerves in the show ring, were a little more elusive. To help, we decided to show on Saturday instead of giving Cassandra the day off as planned. The younger riders were excited to finally be able to watch Cassandra show, and I was looking forward to putting all the pieces together from our previous rides on Thursday and Friday. As we started to warm up, I noticed she was lazier than usual, but it was to be expected so I didn’t think it was indicative of anything more. Our first few fences in the schooling area were also slow, and at this point ‘yellow flags’ began raising in my mind, but again, I shrugged them off and kept going with a touch more leg.

Then it happened.

We made the roll back turn off the rail to the uneven oxer and simply didn’t have enough gas in the tank. Instead of stopping outright, Cassandra attempted to clear it and instead went straight through it, propelling my body forward, creating a sweaty slip-and-slide down her neck, which led to my once-in-a-lifetime, gymnastics quality dismount.

Horse Show Mom of the Year

I’m still not sure what shocked me more:

  • That I had fallen off for the first time in ten years
  • That I had actually landed on my feet, unscathed
  • Or, that my Jewish mother who always worried was casually standing on the sidelines with her yorkshire terrier, unperturbed by the whole incident, telling a horrified looking woman next to her not to worry and that I was [likely] fine.

Looking back, we should have scratched the class and called it a day after we successfully schooled over a few more jumps, but that’s the thing about hindsight. Instead, Johanna and I decided that we should still give it a go in the show ring. I trotted in with all the confidence I could muster and swiftly learned my next big lesson – Cassandra needs a day off. She politely but firmly refused the first jump twice, resulting in our immediate elimination and the end of our show day.

As a teenager, this incident may have resulted in tears or embarrassment, but as an adult I’ve learned two very important lessons:

  1. Fail fast so you can learn from it and move forward.
  2. If you never fail then you’re not taking big enough risks.

Our elimination perfectly covered both of these life lessons in one, not-so-graceful Saturday. As I rode out of the show ring, I smiled – “I guess we should have given her the day off”, I said to Johanna. “Yup, now we know”. “Should we jump a few more just so she doesn’t end the day on a refusal?”, I ask. “Mhm, let’s go”, Johanna replies.

Low Adult Jumpers, Vermont Summer Festival 2021

Was I bummed about the day? Absolutely. But am I glad we learned that lesson at our very first show? One hundred percent.

After our shaky Saturday finish, we decided against getting jumper braids for the low adult jumper classic on Sunday. We will save those for the day when we can walk in the ring as a true team, ready to win. For the 2021 Vermont Summer Festival, our Sunday goal was to once again get around the course and continue to learn more so we can keep progressing together.

I can happily say that we achieved our goal and there were no hard feelings held by humans or horses. I was elated when we made it around Sunday’s classic course and can’t wait to do it again.

As another high school friend (and trainer) put it, “Horses keep you humble”, and I couldn’t agree more.

Low Adult Jumpers, Vermont Summer Festival, 2021

Cassandra and I are now looking towards our second show together this weekend in Fairfield, Connecticut. I am now equipped with the knowledge that managing my mind will be just as important as riding the course, and I’m thankful to have a trainer that will remind me of that whenever I begin to psyche myself out.

Stay tuned for videos from The Vermont Summer Festival and follow @bettabeyou on Instagram for updates on Fairfield this weekend!

Teaching a horse to jump: From cross-rails to stone walls & more

ottb-banner

One of my students recently decided that it was time for her to invest in a horse of her own. She did her research and brought home a twelve-year-old OTTB that she hoped could be a pleasure horse for herself, and an equitation horse for her daughter. Standing between 16’2 and 17 hands, Baker is a handsome boy with the potential to become exactly what they’re looking for. Continue reading “Teaching a horse to jump: From cross-rails to stone walls & more”

Flatwork Matters [Even When You Jump]

Every time I tell people I’m a jumper, especially when I talk to people who mainly focus on the dressage, I can see their expression change to a smirk & it’s almost as if they’re thinking, “yeah she can jump but she probably let her flat work go in order to get there”.

Unfortunately, at one point in time that assumption would have been correct. It took my years to realize just how important your flatwork can be when you’re jumping. If I could sit with you and watch all the grand prix riders go through their courses I would love it! Since I can’t, let’s imagine for a moment that we’re at WEF in Wellington, FL & we’re watching all the top show jumpers from around the world.

Watch their approach to the fences; their positions; their seat & their aids.

It’s even better during the jump-off rounds. You can see the adjustments more clearly since they’re trying to both go clear and jump the fastest time.

Your flat work matters because your flatwork could be the reason you knock the rail, your horse stops, you get a bad distance, or you miss the jump completely. You and your horse are a team when you ride, whether you’re jumping or flatting your horse should be listening to your aids and you should be listening to your horse. If you do your flatwork properly, then you’ll be able to respond to any changes that may occur in your course.

I remember I was riding a 5-year old on his first trip down to Palm Beach, FL for WEF & he spooked at everything! It made it that much more important that I used my seat & did my flat work in the corners not only to set him up for the next fence but to also bring his attention back to me so that he was listening to me and not the spectators, announcers, food stand owners, or other exhibitors.

The horse I have now requires flat work in order to bring her back after every fence. She’s a hot horse & a jumper meaning I don’t have the luxury of wide turns to re-group and focus on flat work so I have to be direct & clear with her in a short period of time without becoming too reliant on one aid or another. Here’s where “flatwork” as a whole comes in. I can’t just pull a horse’s teeth out or spur her to make her listen to me…I have to work with her, as a teammate, and communicate using all my aids. With proper flatwork training at home, it’s a lot easier for me to make corrections quickly AND properly in order to ensure a clean and quick show jumping round.

Need some flatwork exercises?

  1. True-bend & Counter-bend: try changing the bend every 8-10 trot steps and make sure that you’re not only changing the bend of their neck but rather you’re changing their entire bend using all your aids (leg, seat, & then hands last).
  2. Transitions: I know it may sound simple but the more transitions you do, the better. Not only will it build muscle for your horse but it will also improve responsiveness between horse and rider. Try doing transitions between gaits as well as transitions within gaits. To really challenge yourself, you can set two ground-poles 7 (this number is up to you) canter strides apart. Go through the poles in 7 strides, then lengthen the stride the next time through to get 6 strides, then lengthen more to get 5 strides, then go back to 7 strides, then shorten the next time through the poles to get 8 strides, then shorten even more the next time to try and get 9 strides. Remember, the key here is not to ride like a bat out of hell for fewer strides or ride like you’re going to pull your horse’s teeth out to fit the additional strides, rather ride from your seat and leg for both with your hands as an additional aid. Your body can do wonders in terms of communicating with your horse so try and open that line of communication.
  3. Spiral Circles: You can do these at the walk, trot, and canter if you want depending on your level of experience. Start on a 20-meter circle and as you keep going around the circle you continue to make it incrementally smaller. Make sure the inward movement is coming from your leg asking your horse to move its whole body in, like you would if you were asking for a leg-yield. You’ll feel what movement is right for your horse. As the circle becomes smaller and smaller it will be harder and harder for your horse to continue the forward movement and will require immense support from your seat and leg as well as immense work from your horse’s hind end (you’re essentially asking for haunches-in). When you’re ready, use your inside aids to push your horse outwards to incrementally widen the circle (now essentially asking for haunches-out). Then switch directions and do it again after giving your horse the chance to trot on a loose rein and stretch their neck and back out.
  4. Counter Canter: This won’t be easy for many horses but it’s an excellent exercise for both horse and rider. Start with trying to counter-canter (hold the canter intentionally on the wrong lead) all the way around the ring. If you’re already there, here’s an exercise that will be helpful if you’re showing in upper-level equitation or if you’re just looking for a challenge. Pick up your counter-canter up the long-side of the arena. Hold it around the short end through both the corners. Continue you’re counter-counter half-way down the opposite long-side then push your horse onto the quarter-line before turning them in towards the rail to change direction (while holding the same lead) to end up on the proper lead & halt in the corner.

There’s A Monster Under That Jump!

We’ve all been here, right?

Abbi versus Tarp
Abbi VS. Tarp

If you notice where the top rail is as opposed to where her knees are, you’ll understand a common equine fear of: The Monster Hiding Beneath the Jump.

This horse is older but has only been jumping for about 4 months so it’s nothing out of the ordinary but so many times I’ve notices that people mark these horses as “naughty” or “dirty stoppers” without ever even giving them a fighting chance. Sure, Abbi and I don’t always see eye to eye and she does run out and stop at fences but not because she’s a bad horse. . .it’s because she doesn’t have the confidence in herself and she needs to gain that confidence from me.

So naturally you’d think. . .strong rider will fix the problem. Wrong. This horse needs a strong and confident rider when jumping but she also needs to trust her rider and that trust is earned.

Since we didn’t die our first jump over the horrible awful tarp…we began to build trust & with a strong, direct ride to the tarp jump again, we painted a prettier picture:

Abbi VS Tarp: Round 2
Abbi VS Tarp: Round 2

Now, we are still afraid of the tarp. . .but she’s also listening to me more and jumping across as well as up & over the fence.

Unfortunately, our camera-woman only took these two photos but as Abbi continued to jump, her trust in me grew and with my confidence in our abilities as a team, we were able to create some really lovely fences.

Abbi Jump

So keep in mind it’s both confidence and trust on both the rider and the horse’s part in order to make a winning team. Especially for young horses or older horses learning new tricks. . .consistency in this is key. She is jumping bravely and beautifully here but if her rider (me or someone else) were to misguide her, lose our confidence, lose our commitment to the jump, and/or work as separate parts instead of a team then Abbi’s trust will be lost and we will have to start at the beginning again.

Riding a new or young horse is like a new relationship. If you’re young then it’s building trust and learning how to work as a team. If you’re re-training a horse who’s been through it already then you not only have to build trust but you have to convince that horse to trust you even after they’ve been let down by someone else.

So the key takeaways for working with horses like Abbi:

  1. Confidence & Commitment
  2. Trust (it goes both ways)
  3. Consistency

Hope this is useful for you! If you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask!