Wednesday, June 25, 2014

O'Connor Event Camp: Everyone Riding on the Same Big Hill

A few minutes ago, here on the 3rd day of O'Connor Event Camp, I walked into the barn with my hair shaken out of its ponytail. "Did you just wash you hair in a bucket?" one of my fellow campers asked.

"No," I said.

The next camper I met grinned at me. "Did you go swimming again?" she asked.

"No," I said.

It. Is. Just. Sweat.

Lots of sweat.

We did The Man From Snowy River today, which means we learned how to properly gallop downhill like mad fiends. It's about balance and guts and learning how to stay in control by not being wholly in control. It's also the point in the camp week where campers start laughing from glee.

We cheer for each other now. We love watching D. get brave and M. drop her hands and K. hail a cab. 

Over and over, in the past several years, I've heard people say that they can't come to this camp yet because they don't have the right horse, or their horse doesn't know enough yet, or they don't know enough yet, and I always try to explain how wrong they are. This is a place for everyone to learn. Most of us don't have our stuff together, but what we want is to learn to be safe, confident, happy eventers, working in partnership with our horses. 

Once, when I was first married, I took a lesson at a barn near my work. Midway through the instructor said, "Really, I can't help you unless you buy a horse of you own." That was awesome. If I could have afforded a horse of my own, I wouldn't have tried a lesson at his crummy barn.

Here, no one tells you your horse is unsuitable. They teach you how to make your horse better. They teach you a way of communicating with your horse, so that you and your horse can work together (with you in charge).

Sarah loves camp. I knew she would. She loved our bending-line show jumping exercise this morning, and she loved the Man From Snowy River. I did too.

Except, of course, for the sweat.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

O'Connor Event Camp Day 2: Flowers, a cake, and a hat

Today is my 47th birthday.

I have never been shy about my age. I've never wanted to look younger than I am, or pretended to be an age other than I was; I love my birthday. I don't expect trumpet processionals or lavish gifts, but I really do like a small fuss being made. One of my favorite things about Facebook is that it tells all my Friends that today's my birthday, so I get well-wishes from people I haven't seen for 20 years. This makes me happy.

When I was a kid I always felt a little sorry that I had a summertime birthday. Other kids envied the fact that I didn't have to go to school on my birthday, but I wanted to be able to pass out a special treat to everyone. I wanted to wear the special birthday hat. In the summer, that doesn't happen.

Unless you happen to have your birthday during O'Connor Event Camp. What a day! First of all, if you gave me the choice of anything at all to do on my birthday, having a morning flat lesson with Karen O'Connor and an afternoon jump lesson with David O'Connor would probably be pretty high on that list. Second, I got to spend the whole day with my gorgeous daughter and our two lovely horses. I keep hoping some other mother/daughter combos are going to come to camp. It's so much fun to do this together. Last, and absolutely not least, at lunch they surprised me with a big birthday cake. I got to blow out all the candles--they were trick candles, so I blew them out several times--and then I got to share my birthday treat with all my fellow campers. And they gave me a special birthday hat. I got to wear it all day, except when I was riding. It was awesomesauce.

Oh, and camp was luscious too. I only got yelled at once, by David, when we were all doing an exercise together. He had said quite plainly that we were all to stay on one circle, but when the horse in front of me slowed down I bowed out on the circle instead of slowing down. In the list of rider responsibilities, direction is number 1, and speed is number 2, which means I should have broken to the trot rather than deviate from the line. I do know this. Mostly. But the grey mare did her best today, and so did I, and I can feel our progress. If there's anything better than making progress doing something you love, I don't know what it is. It's a marvelous feeling to have on your birthday.

P.S. when I got back to my tatty hotel room, I found a beautiful flower bouquet, sent by my beautiful husband, who, as usual when Katie and I go off on an equine adventure, has gone on a golf trip with our son.

Monday, June 23, 2014

O'Connor Event Camp Day 1: David Rules

I love watching David O'Connor work a horse online.

By "online" I don't mean on the internet. I mean on an actual line, a long heavy rope attached to the horse's head via a rope halter. Controlling the horse's movements on the ground both establishes the human as the herd leader (vital, unless you'd rather a 1000-pound animal with a brain the size of a walnut be the boss of you) and gives said human some really useful tools to calm the horse when it's stressed, lead the horse into places it would rather not go (wash stall, trailer, etc.), and introduce it to all sorts of jumps, including ditches, water, and banks, without the added stress of a rider.

The first morning of O'Connor camp is always devoted to this very specific type of groundwork. David lectures, and then he demonstrates, and then he and the other instructors (in this case Karen O'Connor and Cathy Wieschhoff) help the campers try it with their own horses.

The principles of groundwork are not difficult to learn, but so much of their success depends on timing: on exactly when to put pressure on a horse, and when to release it. You can't learn the timing aspect overnight--every horse, in every situation, is different, so it takes practice. Turns out David is a holy master of timing.

I knew this already. I've been to camp before. But as I watched him working with a 4-yo OTTB mare for the very first time while at the same time lecturing to an arena full of campers, I felt a very deep satisfaction. It is so fabulous to watch a person earn a animal's trust and respect so deeply, so quickly. It gives you a sense of possibility. It give me a feeling of joy.

Sarah is an old hand at rope work. When I worked her in the ring along with my fellow campers, the instructors barely paused to speak to me. Midway through the lesson I realized that while I've been to camp many times, Sarah never has been. But she fully understands this sort of communication, because I find it useful, and I taught her. That gave me a nice sense of satisfaction, too.

Later in the afternoon, while former international groom Sam Burton  Hanley lecture the camp about bandaging and leg care, David came into the barn. He added some of his own thoughts on bandaging, then quickly put a polo wrap on the demonstration horse. Now, I know that probably all major international-level riders are good at polo wrapping their horse. I'm sure that part is quite normal. But I do wonder how many international-level riders so clearly enjoy teaching polo wraps to a bunch of teenagers and adult amateurs. The odds that any of us at O'Connor Camp end up on one of the High Performance lists, to earn teaching by U.S. Team Coach O'Connor, are mighty close to zero. Yet David enjoys teaching us. He cares whether or not we learn. This is pretty cool. I try to find a parallel in other sports--Tiger Woods? Rafael Nadal? I don't know those men, but something tells me it wouldn't be likely.

So that's the story from the first day of O'Connor Camp. David O'Connor rules.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Horse I'll Ride In On

Okay, guys, sorry. I know there are real-life issues right now. I'm still upset about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, I'm annoyed with the IRS (multiple reasons), and several bloggers I know are on an anti-sec-trafficking trip to Southeast Asia, which I'm pretty sure I could not endure but commend them for. (You can read about that at RageAgainstTheMinivan and JamieTheVeryWorstMissionary, among others, and if you'd like to fight sex trafficking the group The Exodus Road is doing real-time on-the-streets rescue and prosecution, and your dollars will help them.) Yesterday I went to the library and took out 8 books about Afghanistan, because I read A Thousand Splendid Suns (it was splendid) and still don't understand Afghanistan, except for the obvious, what a mess. Also the food pantry at Faith In Action is really low again.

All that's to say that I haven't suddenly become oblivious. But I can't help blogging a ton about horses this week: I am going back to camp. 

I love camp. I loved camp when I was 7 years old and camp was a week in buggy woods in tents with "greenies." (That's the Girl Scout word for pit-hole outhouse.) I loved camp when it meant washing my hair in a lake when I was 10, and I really loved camp when I was 13 and went to a place where we rode insane wholly unsuitable and dangerous horses, without helmets or instruction, in tennis shoes, a couple times a week. That was awesome. But then, back in 2006 (!!) I went to the O'Connor Event Camp, and it was even better--awesome squared. I got to take my horse, and I was old enough to drink wine, and my hotel room had a shower, flush toilet, and air conditioning. There weren't even that many bugs! Plus I learned to control my horse cross country, which ensured my survival to this present day.

(When I think back to that camp, the memory that first springs to mind is Karen O'Connor bellowing, "Kim! When I tell you to slow down I at least wanna see your SHOULDERS MOVE!" And me laughing. And then slowing down, because that's not an instructor you want to piss off.)

Anyway, I didn't go to camp in 2007, because I went to my brother's wedding instead. Then I went in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011--see a pattern here? And then in 2012 there was no camp. There was the Olympics instead, in late July, and Karen and David had to go to England in early June. In 2013, still no camp. So today, knowing that I'm going to camp tomorrow, my spirits are pretty damn high.

At all previous camps, I had my first event horse, my ever-beloved Gully, who always did his best for me. In 2012 I had to retire him. That summer, just after the Olympics, I bought Sarah, my grey mare. She's a handful and a hoot and I love her; she hunts first field, goes cross-country boldly, and stands with her forehead just barely brushing my chest, so I can bury my face in her forelock and rub her ears and kiss her. We're disgusting. So, until very recently, was our dressage.

At first it was simply green-bean lack of steering and balance. You'll have that in a very large 5-year-old. But last fall, when it should have been getting better, it got worse. She cross-cantered and swapped out of her right lead, and overall was surly about the whole thing. It took awhile, because she never limped, to realize she'd strained a ligament in the back of her right hind ankle.

Luckily we could treat it, and I spent the spring very carefully resting and rehabilitating her. Then I carefully worked toward getting her fit again. And then we started back with the dressage.

It's like a miracle. Gully never in his life felt this good. I had a dressage lesson with Cathy Wieschhoff during our pony club camp, because if you think I'm missing an opportunity to ride with Cathy you're wrong, and I didn't want to stop because it felt so fabulous. Cathy said, "Ask for the canter, by raising your inside rib cage," and I did, and Sarah did, just lifted into the canter beneath me, on her right lead, natch, and then Cathy told me to do the same thing to ask for the downward, and I did, and it was amazing. The trot floated; the canter rocked. I've been practicing transitions all week just for the utter joy of them. It's like a whole new party trick.

So this is the horse I'm taking to camp: sound, sassy, on the bit, and ready to jump the moon. I could not be happier.

(Except of course for the tiny part of me that longs for Gully, that always will. But I can't help that.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

O'Connor Camp: Eight Years Ago, and Now

This afternoon I've been waiting for the announcement of the 2014 World Equestrian Games team. I'm eager to know if my girl Lauren Kieffer makes the team; I'm also just interested in general. I sat on the couch with my iPad, and logged on every few minutes while watching World Cup soccer with my children. A flood of memories came back to me.

Eight years ago I wasn't nearly as concerned with the WEG team. Eight years ago I was at my very first O'Connor Event Camp. I had so much to learn, and from the very start felt like I was learning as hard and fast as I could, and I was surrounded by eventers (many of whom I consider friends to this day) and it was wonderful, and then, at noon on the second day, my horse almost died.

We had finished the lessons and gathered in one large happy group outside the Virginia Horse Center's covered arena. I sat my good horse Gully on a loose rein, listening to David O'Connor recap the lesson, when suddenly Gully swayed, then staggered sideways. He felt like he was struggling not to collapse. "Gully?" I said, my voice high and frightened. "Gully?"

"Hop down." Karen O'Connor had appeared at my knee. While I flung myself off she cleared a space around us. Cathy Wieschhoff rushed forward and took off Gully's saddle. He continued to stagger, muscles trembling, eyes glassy. I fought panic. "Gully!"

Different instructors moved the other campers away, called the vet, called the human EMTs on the ground. Gully staggered and gasped, then stood with his head hanging. None of us had seen anything like it. After several minutes, Cathy and I cautiously led him into the barn. An EMT showed up, and Karen insisted they listen to Gully's heart--she thought he'd had a heart attack. But his heartbeat sounded normal, and his pulse was only slightly elevated.

And then he seemed fine. The rest of the campers went to lunch while I sat outside Gully's stall, waiting for the vet. We'd taken his food away but he began to sniff around for hay; he peed, and it looked completely normal and light in color, which seemed to rule out tying up. The campers returned, tacked up, and headed out for their afternoon lesson, and I was still waiting.

I don't wait well. Eventually I stalked up to the only other person in the barn, Karen's groom Max Cochoran, and growled, "Isn't there anywhere I can get a Diet Coke around here?" All the vending machines sold Diet Pepsi.

Max said, "Cooler in the back of David's truck."

I went to the truck. The back had two coolers, one of Diet Coke, one of beer. I took a Diet Coke, popped it open, and drank a big swig. When I returned to the barn Karen had come back. She gave my soda a side eye. I said, "If I have to wait much longer I'm going to steal one of your beers."

She nodded. We sat down on three chairs close together. I was still new enough that part of my brain was saying, "OMG! It's Karen O'Connor! KAREN O'CONNOR is sitting right next to you!" (The other part was consumed with worry about my horse.) Karen, meanwhile, was staring at her cell phone as though she could make it ring by mental telepathy. This was still before texting was possible. I stared at her staring at her phone, and realized she was waiting to see if she'd been named to the 2006 WEG team. Well, I thought, my life cannot possibly get anymore surreal than this. (I was wrong.) Eventually Karen sighed, snapped the phone back into her pocket, and went off to teach.

The vet came. We went over every aspect of my horse and could not find a single thing wrong. I know that doesn't sound like a horse that nearly died--but I also knew he nearly had. Eventually his blood work came back with elevated liver enzymes, which suggested that when I'd hand-grazed him that morning he'd gotten a mouthful of some type of poisonous plant, but we never really knew for sure. He never showed the same symptoms again.

When the afternoon lesson was finished, Karen was the first person back to the barn. She came straight to Gully's stall. "How is he?" she asked. "What did the vet say?" She listened while I told her everything we'd done and learned. "Let me know if he does anything else funny," she said, before walking down to her own horses at the end of the barn.

Then Max came in. "Hey, Kim," she whispered, "She got the call a few minutes ago. She made it."

I looked down the long barn. Karen was standing outside Woody's stall, stroking his nose, and talking to him.

I've never forgotten that she asked about Gully first.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Yet Another Day In the Trenches

Last night, while I was cooking dinner, my 19-year-old son sat on the kitchen countertop and talked to me. He's done this for years, and I treasure it all the more now that he's mostly away at college.

This morning my 16-year-old daughter and I rode early, before I went to Faith in Action, because it's going to be so stinking hot later today. We walked up the big hill to make our horses' butts stronger, then did flatwork in the field. It was a gorgeous start to the day.

Later I was at FIA, entering the clients who'd been interviewed that morning into our database. We keep lots of data. Previous client, not been here in awhile. Married, two children, employed at the same low-pay job. Same address, phone number as before.

Turn the page. Low but steady income. Food stamps. No other federal assistance. Expenses are rent, electric, moderate sum for cable/Internet excused by the presence of teenagers in the home who mostly need the Internet for schoolwork nowadays. Moderate sums for all expenses, no payday or title loans, nothing out of whack except $200 a month for tobacco.

I sigh. It slightly burns my butt when people spend more for tobacco than the amount due on the electric bill they're asking for help with. I know Jesus prefers the nonjudgmental version of me but sometimes my judginess feels really really justified.

Turn the page. What is the crisis bringing this client in for help?

Sixteen-year-old son has Stage 4 brain cancer. Treatment, transportation to treatment, and time the parents are taking off work to take him to his treatment are costing more than they can afford.

Some days, all you can do is pray for mercy. For the clients, too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Best Pony Clubbers In The Whole Wide World

If you were at the United States Eventing Association's annual meeting last December, and you attended the "town hall" meeting on the Future of Eventing, which, admittedly, most of you neither were nor did, you've heard me brag about my pony clubbers before.

That's because 1) somehow the town hall meeting, which began with the question "how to we attract more people to the fabulous sport of eventing?" quickly devolved into a rant about "kids these days," specifically singling out pony clubbers as entitled brats on super-expensive horses with declining horsemanships skills, a rant which continued for so long that it began to annoy me until I produced a small rant of my own, and 2) my kids are the bomb.

Pony club, for you non-horsepeople, is like 4-H, only just about riding. It's international, and despite the name welcomes horses as well as ponies. It's a lovely organization that makes a team sport out of an individual one; it requires children to take care of their mounts as well as ride them, and it physically bans parents from the barn.

I've never been a pony clubber--I started riding too late--but I became a fan way back, when I was covering hunter/jumper shows for equine magazines and saw an 8-year-old hop off one of her many show ponies just outside the ring, hand the reins to a Mexican groom, and tell me blithely that she'd never been to school because they just went to horse shows year around, and also she didn't bother with the equitation classes because she didn't know her diagonals. She was a nice kid; it wasn't her fault. But I was at the time pregnant with my first child, and I thought, my kid will never, ever, think riding is like this.

Anyway--as usual, I digress--out here in east Tennessee we mostly don't ride expensive horses. We mostly don't have high-level instructors or lots of people vying for spots on Young Rider teams and we sure as heck don't have Mexican grooms. What we have--oh, thank God for this--is each other. That's what I said at the USEA convention, sort of. I said that my kids were fabulous and that kids like them were the future of eventing, and as a result my kids got to go work Rolex dressage, which they did in droves, with enthusiasm. It was the first time most of them had been to Rolex, the first time they'd seen all that horses could be.

Which brings me to our beloved pony club camp.

Not very many years ago, we almost lost our club over a fight between grownups who should have known better. I was thankfully away when it happened, and trust me, I never asked, but when the dust cleared we had six members, none rated higher than D3. They didn't always get along.

I wasn't DC then, but I took over our summer camp, moved it to my barn, and made it free to members and not open to anyone else. By the end of three days the members were a club again, and from that point it's been gravy.

We have 17 members now, ranging from our 3 newly-minted D2s to 4 C2s (two of which are taking their HB in August) and 2 HBs (one of which is taking her HA next week). Fourteen of them came to camp last week; thirteen slept in my basement. I keep waiting for this camp thing to backfire. I keep thinking that at some point the combination of teenage girls and no sleep is going to manifest itself in the biggest eruption of drama ever, but it simply doesn't happen. I've quit allocating an hour for morning chores, because these kids get themselves up early, get themselves to the barn, and get everything done. In half an hour the ponies are fed, watered, and groomed, the stalls are clean and the aisles swept, and all I've done is put the milk back into the fridge, braid the littlest one's hair, and drunk coffee.

This year, because our members are advancing so well, we hired a fancy instructor for the first time: the indomitable Cathy Wieschhoff. If you want intelligent teaching, compassion, and ass-kickin' where ass-kickin' is required, Cathy's your woman. I loved her to pieces before camp. Now my whole club loves her to pieces too. Cathy was awesome, but she wasn't the point.

This camp makes us. It's come to define us. It gives us our sense of being a club. By the end of the first day, the new members are grabbing the brooms to sweep the aisle, reminding each other to keep stall doors closed, holding horses for one another, because that's what you do. They're tucking in their polo shirts and wearing belts with their britches, and tying their hair out of the way, because that's what you do. Not once in four years have I had to scold a member for not trying or not helping or not taking care of her pony. Not once have I had to raise my voice in any way.

The best part is Tuesday night. Wednesday we hold ratings examinations, and ,while they are individual tests, the honor of the club comes into play. Not everyone rates, but everyone prepares. A C2 takes the three D2 candidates aside and carefully goes over the horse management they need to know. Two older girls slip back to the barn, "to do nights, and show Sydnie the pony club way of putting on a blanket." When the small girls go to bed--sent there forcibly by the older ones--the older ones look over their tack. One of the littles has forgotten to clean her boots. When she wakes up, she'll find them cleaned and polished to a beautiful shine.

We're sending four kids to Nationals this July. We'll be out in force at our eventing rally in the fall. We'll work Rolex again next year. These children are the future of our sport--them, and children like them, all over the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Dear Blog Readers, if any of you are left after my long absence from this page,

Sorry. It's been wild. Since I last posted, I've flown back from Vancouver, which wasn't so difficult, got up for a meeting early the next morning, which was, and then proceeded to have a helluva week. In the beginning were the Holston Pony Club camp work days, in which the members of our little pony club turned out in force to fix up the fields and camp barn on my farm.

It was awesome to see teenage girls careening around the fields in my dually, armed with paint brushes and power tools. It is awesome to watch a determined 8-year-old dig the dirt out of holes for a jump, and then a few days later jump it on her pony, who, she explained, was named Rocky, "but I call him Rock Star."

It was also hot, gritty, and exhausting.

Then my daughter and I spent a day cleaning our tack and ponies and buying groceries and cooking lasagna and egg casseroles, and then the kids showed up.

I will write about camp later. It deserves its own post. But it was lovely, absolutely lovely, and also hot, gritty, and three times as exhausting as the prep for it had been.

That was finished yesterday.

In the midst of all of that, literally right in the midst, as I was standing in the jump field field wiping the sweat off my face, I got the coolest writing news I've ever had.  Then, ten minutes later, I got the coolest writing news I ever had. I mean it, it went like that. Beep--amazing! Beep--even more amazing!

The horrid thing is that I can't tell you about either one of those, yet.

Today I had a massage. Then I wrote. And now I'm going to the barn--to get hot, gritty, exhausted, and happy.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

On A Boat

I'm on a boat.
A British Columbia Ferry, to be precise. It's rather nice. I had serious trepidations regarding this boat, as I've been known to get seasick on the most tranquil of ocean waters, and I had a plan that I'd just sleep the ferry ride right through, in the car. I was successfully asleep when we pulled in. Then, however, my husband insisted I wake up and get out of the car.
"Don't you want to look around?" He asked. "Look at the scenery?"
I did not. Because the scenery would be moving, and something in my brain takes offense at that. But, grumbling, I got out of the car. I took a few steps onto the outside deck, ascertained that we were indeed surrounded by water, and retreated to a lounge which features flickering wifi, a flickering television, and several dozen people speaking different languages.
After a bit my husband suggested we go get some coffee. This was a ruse to get me moving, and I knew It. He doesn't drink coffee. But the coffee at our hotel this morning had been so spectacularly awful that I walked along the hallway with him, only to notice that we were moving, and that, so far, I hadn't puked at all.
My husband told me that I wasn't going to get sick on a ferry, but I remember him saying that before we went whale watching, too.
Anyway they appear to have quite good food on this boat, which makes me rather regret the hotel breakfast, which barely qualified as food. Our Seattle hotel had been a well-situated little boutique hotel with astonishingly good service. Our Vancouver hotel is inexpensive. A really good deal, and clean, but the television and Internet only work sporadically and we're afraid the electricity will go out next. We're sharing the place with a couple bus loads of elderlyAustralians, who this morning were tucking into the horrible breakfast with vigor. I was just glad we were inCanada, so they couldn't claim it was American food.
We are passing quite close to a rugged pine-covered and beautiful island. The rest of my family is out on deck taking photographs. I'm inside. Not puking. Yet.