Riding: In The Southland

It was a short turnaround. Four days to be precise. Time enough for laundry. To prepare for a new set of shows. Knowing and choosing which horses will compete the best.

dressage moves: Elizabeth and Secret Agent Man warming up (North Ranch, Mar 2018)

“It is keeping yourself and your horses in a daily routine,” is how my daughters describe the four weeks away from home. Their June calendar, at first glance, appears busy. Practice, events and times marked for every day of the four show weeks, and in between. Their notebooks are filled with notes and observations on every hoof beat taken in practice, and in the show ring, this season. And, making sure they and their horses are ready for travel. “Preparation and organization are key, attention to detail required. But, you need to be practical and resourceful.”

warm-up: Elizabeth and Brie before the $15,000 Grand Prix qualifier (San Juan Capistrano, April 2018)

The four show weeks in San Juan Capistrano are well attended with riders from every skill level. Around 350-400 riders and nearly 850-900 horses compete every week, with a few calling it home for the month. “Each day is taken as they come. keeping it simple and relaxed makes for a better experience.” The four weeks may seem long. Large shows, though, have a way of making the days pass rather quickly.

While the first show week ended Sunday afternoon (Jun 10) with the last rider finishing the final event, my daughters had a short workout with their horses in one of the practice rings. It is not too early to look ahead to the next show week, which begins on Wednesday (Jun 13).

It is the equestrian way of life.

Deborah and Comet: the late afternoon workout (San Juan Capistrano, June 2018)



Riding: The Turnaround

This is when the riding schedule begins in earnest. A few days at home to recoup and prepare for four weeks away in SoCal. While it is demanding, the girls relish the challenge and the attention to detail.

For their light workout, Trish came down on Thursday to watch the girls from the sidelines. Though they rode very well in the first two shows of the season, they said it seemed like they were out-of-sync. The three said the flow could have been more smoother, a little more crisp.

their turn: Tara and Brie start a half-speed circle exercise with Deborah and Elizabeth waiting their turn
(JN Ranch, Jun 01 2017)

With Trish watching, the light workout session became more of a lesson. A half-speed exercise session in the morning. In the afternoon, an off-saddle classroom session. She determined the girls were riding more tightly than usual. The remedy – trust yourself, trust your horse.

While the girls were in class, the horses napped the warm afternoon away. A nice spray down followed when class let out.

the afternoon cool down: Tara spraying down Cameron (JN Ranch, Jun 01 2017)

“Ride now, ride forever”

Riding Inside The Margins

Written by Deborah Anne Ramos

The heat and humidity had made for a stifling day. Other than a light morning workout, we had the day off from competing. We watched a few junior hunters ride their classes, but our main desire was staying cool and staying in the shade. The plan was to spray off the horses in the late afternoon then have a nice dinner in Des Moines later that evening.

In a semi-shady spot, we settled back to do some people and horse watching. We knew it would be a slow, lazy afternoon. While chatting about nothing in particular for an hour, the PA system came to life asking for the presence of the EMTs and the vet in the main hunter ring. Though it was a short walk from where we were sitting, we stayed put. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t good.

And, it wasn’t. A horse and rider down.

    *     *     *     *

Though it was hoped all would be well in a few minutes, every sense was saying it was a devastating moment. A moment that does not happen too often. We could see the main hunter ring was being cleared, and the audience moved away to another section of the horse park.  Tara understood it all too well.

Jasper: not far from Tara’s thoughts everyday (RRC, May 2004)

The rider, a newly-minted junior from Minnesota, walked past with tears streaming down her face along with her trainer and parents. Most ironic was that we had met and talked with the young rider the day before. She was so excited being at her first AA show, eagerly hoping to do well. Any 14 year old rider would be.

Within a half-hour, we flinched when we heard that sound. Dad didn’t flinch. The horse’s injury had to be most grievous.

  *     *     *     *

The accident had put a damper on the remainder of the day. Everything had an anti-climatic feel.

An early arrival at the horse barn the next morning, we had seen the junior and her parents already packing her gear to head home. They were also getting her other horse ready for travel. Tara walked over and chatted with them for almost 15 minutes. She encouraged the young rider to take her time in returning to the saddle. The saying of “quickly climbing back on the saddle” is easier said than done. And, probably longer to get back into the proper frame of mind to compete again.

They were appreciative of Tara coming over and talking with them. No other riders, except for us, had taken the time to see how they were doing. We wished them well, and hoped to see them once again under better circumstances.

  *     *     *     *

Though riders are noted for their mental and physical toughness, this type of accident is much different. How does one come back from this kind of experience? Not easily. Tara had her own experience, but says she is still very much a work in progress.

Mark told Tara, when she returned to riding, it was okay to be unsure. It will take time to rebuild the confidence – more riding would lead to more confidence. Of course, the most difficult part of her return was the mental part. Most unavoidable was the second guessing. Tara had to learn how to trust herself and to trust her skills again. The hardest part – Tara giving herself permission to be a rider again.

Tara & Cameron: GP Qualifier – 1.35 M (Texas, May 2014)

In the nearly thirteen years since her accident, the memories remain fresh in the back of her mind. If you watch Tara ride, now, you wouldn’t think she had an accident. Tara doesn’t hold back one bit. She rides fast and crisp, and can ride aggressive lines with ease. And, she is a very disciplined rider. Tara calls it “riding inside the margins”.

With those still lingering memories, Tara says it has made her into a better rider everyday – better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.

Brie: the one who brought Tara back (RRC, Oct 2014)



We’ve chatted with the young rider from Minnesota, three times, since that day. She has resumed riding, the slow and easy kind, but is very uncertain about riding in competition again. She added, “I would not compete ever again. It’s an easy decision in that regard.”


About the author

Deborah Anne Ramos is a fifth-year senior attending the University of Colorado. She will be graduating this coming May with a BS in Biology (Animal Science). She graduated with highest honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2012.

A highly decorated equestrian with the Rustler Riding Club, Deborah has earned Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year awards with the club. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Comet, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman, and SAM: Secret Agent Man.

“Ride now, ride forever”

Riding The Southland

A short turnaround, it was a few days at home to recoup and prepare for the next segment of the riding schedule.

Deborah and Comet working a practice course with
Elizabeth and Mr. Ed waiting their turn in the background (RRC, Jun 01 2016)

Deborah and Comet finishing a leisurely trail ride at the end of a long practice day (JN Ranch, Jun 02 2016)

And, so, the riding season begins in earnest.

Tara and Brie surveying the 1.40M practice course (JN Ranch, Jun 03 2016)

Four shows, four weeks in the Southland.

Inside The Arena

The next rider and horse are introduced. There are a few cheers and shouts, some polite applause. The butterflies experienced while waiting are gone. The moment, the atmosphere, is quite electric. Both rider and horse are focused. A few seconds later, they start the course. The aim is a clean ride, no rails down, with the best time.

Before the ride is the more interesting part. Each rider has their routine. Some will go through visualization exercises, others will watch everything around them. A few will seem to be unaffected. The horses, they seem to be unfazed by it all.

NWSS 2016 – Secret Agent Man (left) and Comet (right) meet one another as Elizabeth and Deborah ride them to the warm-up area

NWSS 2016 – Deborah studies her crib sheet on the course layout

NWSS 2016 – Tara and Brie await their turn near the start area

While much of the riding season is done outdoors, riding an indoor venue has certain challenges. Many indoor venues have seating that brings their audience close to the action. It can cause sensory issues for horses. It is part visual and part auditory. Since horses do not see stereoscopically, their depth of field view is shallow when both eyes are focused in the same direction. They may perceive the audience as being closer than they actually are. The auditory aspect is that sound does not disperse quickly indoors, and most indoor venues are quite live.

With horses and riders having limited indoor experience, the challenges can quickly become issues. Horses that are normally calm in outdoor venues can become more skittish indoors, poorly processing the flood of sensory input. Riders, including experienced ones, can misinterpret the skittishness displayed by their mounts as pent-up energy. This is where a rider needs to thoroughly understand and be knowledgeable of their horse. If not, there is a good chance their competition ride will be ragged at best. Lilith is the one who becomes difficult in an indoor arena. Elizabeth can usually calm her with some gentle strokes on her neck. If Lilith doesn’t settle, Elizabeth gives her more rein to lessen Lilith’s anxiety. In the end, it is all about trust between horse and rider. It has to be unbreakable.

Las Vegas National GP 2015 – trusting Secret Agent Man completely, Elizabeth gives him more rein

Indoors or outdoors, winning ribbons, a top five finish, an oversized cardboard check are nice to have. However, nothing is better than a smiling rider and a smiling horse.

after the blue ribbon: Elizabeth and Lilith (San Juan Capistrano, Jun 2014)

The Test Event

Before the riding season begins in full swing, the RRC brings their riders together. Known as the “test event”, it is part individualized training, part mentoring session, and part recruiting effort for the more promising learn-to-ride students to continue with riding. In other years, the test event is used as an open tryout for seasoned equestrians to be sponsored by RRC. The test event is seen as a fun activity where everybody talks horses.

RRC Test Event 2013 – Megan riding Viceroy in an open tryout, coming back from an 18-month injury layoff

While the springtime weather can be rather unpredictable here, this club activity is usually held in late May or early June. For the 6-8 more seasoned riders, like my daughters, they have missed the opportunity to participate since they’ve already started their individual riding seasons. With the March and April weather being very mild over the past few years, Mark and Trish decided to schedule this year’s test event for this past weekend. What could go wrong?

Last Friday, another winter storm arrived. While Mark and Trish mulled postponing the event, they decided to move ahead. In the end, it worked out well.

*     *     *     *

Day One: Mentoring & Recruiting –

Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara looked forward to the first day, especially leading the mentoring session. The first half of the session, done off saddle, was to reinforce of having fun and keeping it fun while gaining the experience. Second point, allow a horse to be a horse. Taking a day off, a week off, from practicing and competition will do wonders for both horse and rider. When it is time to go back to the routine, both will be fresher for having the time away. Third point, be practical with the goals. Riding in “B” and “C” rated shows provides the experience. In “A” and “AA” rated shows, the competition is keener. Keep the goals manageable. Fourth point, no excuse making. Rather than making an excuse on why this and that can’t be done, be patient, take it apart and figure out why.

RRC Test Event 2016 – Candace (Happy Girl) having fun in the covered arena

While it was not groundbreaking advice, it is the type that needs to be practiced – even for polished riders like my daughters. It is about dedication and drive as much as it is about having fun.

The second half of the mentoring session was my daughters working one-on-one with three riders new to the hunter/jumper sport. They mostly worked on getting into good practice routines. A lot of new hunters make the mistake of not wanting to do exercises, such as grids or circles, and working on their equitation skills. When a rider does neither, especially in their development, they often become frustrated with their lack of progress.

RRC Test Event 2016 – new hunter, Jessica, riding her first circle exercise under Deborah’s careful watch

*     *     *     *

Day Two – Individualized Training

Snow was falling at a rather heavy rate on Sunday morning, more heavily when we arrived at RRC. The girls checked on their horses, which spent the night in the main horse barn. Though it was 6:00 am, they expected more activity. Trish came in shortly later, surprised to see we were on time. She advised Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara that they may have the entire morning to use the indoor arena. Two other riders scheduled to follow them had already called to cancel their training sessions. Okay was the word.

RRC Test Event 2016 – Elizabeth riding one of the RRC ponies through the snow while waiting for her lesson

With their season beginning in two weeks, in Texas, the girls said they could always use more practice. This week and next, their training schedule is a bit compressed with the spring term coming to an end. Both Mark and Trish remain impressed at how well the girls are riding.

RRC Test Event 2016 – Snow Princess Tara with Brie (mom Laurie’s favorite)

When they begin their season, at least there will be no snow. But, they are ready if it happens.

Riding Lessons: Lessons On Life

[The second part of a special series, “Making of A Champion”, contributed by my equestrian daughters. 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.