Riding Lessons: Lessons On Life

[The second part of a special series, “Making of A Champion.” This post is by my daughter, Tara.]

I love horses. I love to ride horses. I live to ride horses.

I rode my first Grand Prix event when I was 15. On the road, for the first time, in California. With mom by my side, I was so nervous. Would I remember what to do? “There is so much more to riding than anyone can imagine” was the thought swirling in my head. And, riding a horse I had only met the day before added to the nerves. My coaches, Mark and Trish, thought I was ready. I was one of their fast risers in the junior ranks, along with my best friends and teammates, Deborah and Elizabeth. Mark and Trish always said, “Just have fun, take in the moment. Make it no different from a practice session.” The time came to warm-up Winter. I hugged mom tightly. She reminded me to breathe rhythmically. Mom’s calming presence was ever so reassuring.

With the better, experienced riders still to come, Winter and I led at the halfway point in the draw. In the end, we finished a solid fifth place. One of the better, experienced riders said for me to keep up with the good work. He said I had enormous potential to be a very dominant rider. “You had me, and some of the others, ready to toss in the towel. A two-second, zero-fault lead over the field is like two hours.” Though I didn’t think the better riders would drop out of the event, it was a high compliment, nonetheless, about the work I had done to reach that point.

I thought my wish to ride a horse, any horse, would fall to the wayside. Mom was very busy at work, her time a precious commodity. Much to my surprise, we drove out to the “country” on my seventh birthday. It wasn’t a fancy place. The Rustler Riding Club consisted of a couple of horse barns, a few outbuildings, and a home under construction. The learn-to-ride programs were their mainstay, along with a little sports (mostly barrel racing) and lots of riding. Even mom signed up for a learn-to-ride lesson with some of the other parents. I was a bit scared, for a few minutes, but there were two giggly girls in my class. I discovered later those giggly girls were Deborah and Elizabeth. They made the six, learn-to-ride lessons a lot of fun. When we finished the course, each of us received a certificate along with a blue ribbon. It meant we learned the “basics of the basics”.

Very happy with my certificate, mom asked what I would think if I wanted to take more riding lessons. My smile was a dead giveaway. I was very excited. “Super, super excited,” as I would have said then. The next set of classes was more riding with some basic fundamentals of horsemanship mixed in. Though I hoped to see the giggly girls again, I didn’t see them. That was okay. It meant I had more horses to choose from for the lessons. About halfway through this second course, Mark and Trish talked with mom. While it seemed serious at first, there was plenty of smiling by the end. They said I had a natural affinity, a natural ability, with horses, and that I would benefit in being in a new class they were putting together. The new class would be a tailored riding program taking advantage of our individual skills, with Trish working with each of us separately.

It was in the tailored program where I really learned how to ride. It was strong in horsemanship fundamentals, learning to be a disciplined rider, and understanding the horse part of the riding equation. Developing competitive riders, whether it be a barrel racer or a hunter/jumper, was not the aim of the tailored program. On the contrary, Mark and Trish were very selective in who they coached in barrel racing or hunter/jumper. They referred many to other coaches and riding schools. Those they did instruct and coach had to be coachable. Trish, a decorated hunter/jumper from North Carolina, had seen too many riders become frustrated during their course of instruction and abandon their horses for whatever reason. Both believe not every rider, not every horse, is suited for equine sports regardless how much coaching and training, including from the best, is given.

When I finished the tailored program, Mark and Trish had a long conversation with mom about where I wanted to be in terms of horse riding. If it was to be a casual or a trail rider, I was already there. If I’d wanted to be in equine sports, such as barrel racing or hunter/jumper, there was a way to go in learning. Pursuing the sports path, however, would have to be my decision. After a couple of weeks of “I don’t know”, I decided to give barrel racing a try. Mom asked Mark and Trish if I could stay with them. “We’d love to have her” was their answer.

Over the next three years, it was learning much of what I thought I learned in the tailored program. It was all about having strong fundamentals, understanding the nature of horses, and how to forge strong bonds with horses. I was learning what Mark and Trish knew instinctively about horses. It was learning the very essence of horses. I spent as much time, if not more, off saddle as on saddle. If I was not competitive enough over the long-term, at least I would be a decent horsewoman.

Jasper, May 2004

At long last, the day when I would make my barrel racing debut arrived, Saturday, June 12, 2004. I was excited and nervous. I had been riding a beautiful paint named Jasper since the start of the year. Mark had bought him at an auction with the intent of making him an instructional horse. Jasper and I had clicked the day we met. We rode fast, we rode easy. “Keep him easy,” was Mark’s instruction. There was no need to ride fast. The ride seemed effortless, it was liked gliding. In sync as we were, Jasper began to labor. I dialed back his speed. The final turn and the ride for home was coming none too soon.

Halfway through the final turn, the unimaginable happened. Jasper slipped, and we were crashing to the ground. The milliseconds of the fall seemed to last forever. As we landed, my left leg was under Jasper. He struggled mightily to get back onto his feet, but to no avail. Each movement he made, more intense pain coursed through my leg. Though it seemed forever, mom, Mark and Trish appeared in a flash. Mark got Jasper back on his feet and away. Wanting to see how Jasper was, mom made me stay on ground. She instructed the EMTs to immobilize my leg and place me on a backboard. During the ambulance ride to University Hospital, I kept asking about Jasper. Mom said Mark was caring for him, and would do his best.

Luckily, I only had a broken leg and a lot of bruising. I stayed in the hospital for three days, mostly for observation and tests. Mark and Trish visited everyday while I was there, and I asked how Jasper was doing. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” mom began, “we had to put him down.” Mark added, “His left front leg was badly damaged, the injury very bad.” Crying hard, I said something about not wanting to see Mark and Trish ever again. I knew mom apologized to them in the hallway. They understood it wasn’t the easiest news to hear. All I understood was how unfair life could be.

The cast came off after six weeks. A few weeks of physical therapy. School started again. My grades slipped, a lot. I didn’t allow myself to think about horses. After the parent-teacher meeting that fall, mom had enough. Talk about tough love, she was giving it. “It’s time you quit your wallowing,” she said. Mom packed up all of my riding gear, boots and spurs included. The riding certificates and photos, off the wall. “You are not to think of horses, or any kind of fun. I want to see your nose, your focus, in your school work, Missy. I want to see improvement fast. If life was fair and easy, we wouldn’t be able to see and appreciate the gems of life.”

By the end of the second quarter, in mid-January 2005, my grades had returned to where they should have been. The talk about getting back on the horse was just that – talk. Plainly, my confidence with horses was gone. My riding skill couldn’t be trusted. The hole in my heart was wide and deep. Then, there were those awful, awful words, “I don’t want to see you ever again.” Even if I apologized, I knew Mark and Trish wouldn’t take me back. Grandma said I needed to make things right. “You’d be surprised how forgiving people are,” she said. “They’ll take you back, I’m sure.” They were the same words mom had been telling me for weeks.

Summer had arrived again. On the first weekend, much to my surprise, we drove out to the “country”. RRC had grown. Four horse barns now. The few outbuildings were still there. Mark and Trish’s home, along with a double-wide serving as their office space. “Tara, you are here to take care of some business,” mom said. We walked into the office and asked the volunteer receptionist if we could see Mark or Trish. After a few minutes, we were shown into Mark’s office. Trish was there too. Leaving his office were two young riders; the girls smiled politely as they walked past. After some prompting from mom, I offered my apology, saying I said some awful things. Trish asked if I wanted to ride again. Though my instinct was to say yes, I said I wasn’t ready. “When you’re ready, we’d be glad to have you back again,” Trish said. Mark, he was more difficult to read. “I didn’t convince him,” I said to myself.

During that summer, we went back to RRC three or four more times. Instead of watching the barrel racers practice, I watched the hunter/jumpers. They were so elegant in jumping their horses. I became enamored with them. It was like poetry in motion. On the last visit, Megan came over to talk with mom and me. She had noticed us watching each time. Megan introduced herself, asking if I was a rider. I said not so much anymore. Though she wanted to ask why, Megan left it alone. She pointed in the direction of two girls with Trish. “See, Deborah and Elizabeth, over there, they are loaded with talent. They ride like seasoned juniors. Lots of blue and red ribbons between the two of them.” Megan then pointed at the far end of the practice ring. “That’s Sarah. A very polished rider, the closest we have to a professional equestrian.” I asked Megan about herself. “I’m an okay rider. Occasionally, I’ll win here, win there,” was her reply. She left out the part of the many ribbons she had won, and an unexpected win at a grand prix event two weeks earlier. “Gotta get back to practice. I hope you get back to riding,” Megan said before she rode off to rejoin the others.

We walked back to the car. Instead of taking the direct path to the parking lot, we took the path towards the horse barns. It was the long way to the parking lot and I could pretty much guess why we came this way. Mom knew I had a total loss of confidence when it came to riding and horses. She hoped our walk through the barns would create a spark. In one barn, we came across a young gray poking its head out from a stall. She was a 16-month old yearling. Mom stopped to stroke her neck while I scratched her under the chin. “It says she’s for sale,” mom said. “Hope she finds a good home.” When we got home, I asked if the gray would indeed find a good home. I would hope so was her reply. It would be horrible if she didn’t. Besides, she had a most beautiful name. Brie.

The next weekend, we were back at the RRC. “It’s time you start riding again,” mom told me. “I saw the gleam in your eye, Tara.” Though I was ready to protest, saying I wasn’t ready, mom said again I was ready to ride. “It’s in your eyes, and they don’t lie.” We walked into the office, with mom saying we were here to see Mark or Trish. Megan was there also, waiting for her practice schedule. “Nice to see you again. It must mean you’re ready to ride again. Cool.” I sort of gave mom a look. Megan covered her mouth, like as if she let out a big secret. With schedule in hand, she quickly left the office as we headed into Trish’s office. “Your mom is right. You have the gleam in your eye back.” Trish proceeded to go through the outline of my practice schedule.

It was good to be back in the saddle again. I gave myself permission to be a rider again.

Tara and Cameron after taking the lead on the 1.35M course in Iowa (Aug 2014)

About the author

Tara Scott Westin is a junior attending the University of Colorado. Her degree studies is concentrated in the field of biology, specifically microbiology. She graduated with honors from St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Colorado Springs in 2012.

A highly-regarded rider, she has won multiple blue ribbons and other placement ribbons as a member of the Rustler Riding Club with her horses, Brie, Cameron and Candace (Happy Girl). In 2006, she was named Comeback Rider of the Year – the only non-competitive rider in Rustler Riding Club history to win this award.

5 thoughts on “Riding Lessons: Lessons On Life

    • Thank you for your kind words, and for reading. It was a rough time trying to recover from the fall, especially the mental aspect. With the help of my mom, I managed to make it through.

  1. A Really well written and touching story. It is so sad that you lost the horse, but fortunately you only broke your leg. But the emotional pain must have been like pure hell. I can understand the loss of confidence, but you got it back and people are forgiving, so everything turned out right. To borrow the succinct phrase from the bikers that’s close to your opening line: “Live to ride! Ride to Live!” You certainly do.

    • To be 10-11 years old at the time, it had to be incredibly devastating to be in that kind of situation. Tara’s ability to come back, I give full credit to her mom, Laurie. She did a tremendous job in helping Tara to find her way back.

    • Getting through it was very rough. Like what dad, David, said, it’s not easy to be 10-11 years old and be expected to handle the adversity. Mom got me through the roughest parts, and there were many of them.

      Thank you for reading, and your kind words.

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