Most of All the Horses: Summer Camp in Vermont by Judith Amateau
I admit. I’m pretty enamored of my guest blogger today. She’s sweet and funny and sooooo devoted to horses. Thanks to her, I learned to ride about thirteen years ago. She was five; I was thirty-three. I had been on a horse only few times in my life, but watching my little girl in her lessons just looked so much fun! So, I started riding with her; it’s an activity we’ve shared now for most of her life. These days, I mostly ride around in circles or just sit on Albert and walk wherever he wants to go. But Judith has grown into quite a horsewoman. In this post she reminisces about summer riding camp in Vermont.
As our car, packed full of bags and boots and helmets and towels, began its winding ascent into the mountains that engulf Vershire, Vermont (population 730), I watched the car’s thermometer closely 70…63…57…54. As the numbers shot down, so did my confidence in my Virginia wardrobe consisting primarily of tank tops, shorts, lightweight breeches, and a poncho. I gulped as I thought back to my one thin blanket that I would soon shiver under, along with all my towels and clothes.
When Caroline and I arrived at Vershire Riding School, we were greeted by a friendly woman commenting on the pleasantly warm weather. This, however, was not the first difference we had found in Vermont. Nor was the one, lone cell phone tower disguised as a tree, nor were the rapidly increasing signs warning of wandering moose.
It was the tea. Or lack thereof.
Somewhere in the middle of Connecticut, or possibly Massachusetts, our deliciously comforting sweet tea disappeared. Soon we deduced that Arnold Palmers are a phenomenon not yet fully embraced by our Northern neighbors. Caroline and I later set out to change this with a box of powdered instant sweet tea and MinuteMaid pink lemonade out of a juice box. However, I digress.
The first day there we were in the saddle.
At VRS, they bring out two, sometimes three horses, and match them up to each individual. Based on the multi-page forms and evaluations filled out by each camper about their riding experiences, the head instructor, Judy, carefully matches horse and rider that will best teach and support each other for the seven days of intensive riding. Some of the more advanced riders, which included Caroline and me, would be assigned two horses for the week; one to ride in lessons, and one to ride in late-night schooling sessions. For my main horse, I was assigned to Magic.
Magic is petite and fine-boned, energetic and alert, sensitive and a little moody. We are very similar, and he was a challenge.
As we motorcycled around turns (that’s what we call it when you have only speed and strength, no real control and impulsion), he was on his forehand, occasionally snatching the bit, and I was tipped forward, not considering or using nearly all my aids as a rider.
As weird as it may sound, I was ecstatic. At the moment we splashed up mud in our oblong, uneven twenty meter circle, I realized the possibilities my horse offered for learning technique in dressage and for enlightenment in my approach to riding.
Each day at Vershire, we rode six hours a day. By the second two-hour ride on my second day, Magic and I were gracefully maneuvering a Training level test. It was by no means perfect, nor without vast room for improvement, but I had begun to utilize my legs, seat, hands, balance, and voice aids and our dressage had transformed from a jerky, stop-and-go pattern into a fluid, giving dance.
That ride changed my life; it reminded me why I rode and proved to me, during a precarious place in my life, that with resolve and open ears, any renovation was possible.
My second night at VRS, I was assigned Seneca. He is grey, almost 18 hh, and gorgeous. An ex-Grand Prix jumper just recovered from a hoof injury, Seneca has a nasty habit of exploding into rodeo-worthy bucks, rendering most riders horseless soon after mounting. Or so, I heard.
Great, I thought.
However, as I tacked up, the animal I had been warned about through the campers’ whispering rumors batted his gentle brown eyes and sighed a big horsey sigh right across my face.
I was in love.
His sensitive skin had breakouts from flies and gnats and horseflies, as happens to many hot-blooded breeds. Taking ten minutes longer than my peers to get ready, I broke out the Swat and the fly spray and the triple antibiotic ointment. As we finally walked out to the ring, ready to mount, my helmet tightly double checked, Seneca’s huge stride seemed a little stiff but calm. Two instructors held him when I mounted, then sent me off to the rail with warnings to keep my guard up, easier said than done when I already fancied myself aboard a colossal puppy.
Then it was time to trot. I gently squeezed my legs around his barrel (hardly reaching over halfway down), and clucked. With all the grace of a blue heron taking off from a quiet riverbank, Seneca was trotting; huge strides carried us past our fellow pairs, but we were far from out of control. His head reached and stretched for the bit and my legs encouraged his already astounding impulsion. I finally understood what my friend and once riding instructor Paul had meant by “Impulsion! Not speed.”
Due to his long recovery period from the hoof injury, our clear lacking point was bending, something we dutifully practiced until by the week’s end we could jump a serpentine of jumps in horizontal line, standard to standard. During the seven or eight times I rode Seneca that week, I never experienced his rumored rodeo sprees. The closest we came was a well foretold buck as we practiced flying changes the first time we cantered. Unlike the alleged random fits of bucks and rears, Seneca, several strides before, began shaking his head and wiggling. He popped up in the air once, caught the right lead, and we continued on our way.
(For the record, I will confess had he not warned me of this buck, I may very well have come unseated.)
When my mom picked me up from Vershire, I eagerly introduced her to both horses, and she dutifully met them and reassured me of their beauty and intelligence. After saying goodbye to my camp friends, I went into Seneca’s stall and did the same. And that sweet horse licked my hand, rumpled my already dirty polo with his massive nose, and leaned into me. My week at VRS – the people, the instruction, the mountains, and most of all the horses – changed me.
And leaving, I cried all the way down the mountain.