Let me see. Where was I? Yes, having the time of my life at Equidays in New Zealand. On consecutive weekends on each island, Equidays is an annual national horse event with a focus on education and entertainment. It’s a high-five to the equine community.
It wasn’t my first time at an event like this. As a farm kid, I showed Grandpa at the county fair. He was an old Suffolk ram who dragged me (behind him) a lap or two around the arena. I have competed at plenty of shows, including Colorado’s National Western Stock Show with two species. Sold books at equine expos and horse fairs in a few states. But it was Equidays where I crossed the line. They gave me a microphone.
This is different from a clinic situation where I might be speaking to a horse and rider, or to eight or ten riders in a group; different from book talks and demos where there might be fifty people. Equidays involved grandstands filled with people. I was in the arena, giving the riding lesson to the crowd with the demo horse and rider as my training aid. At first, it felt a bit like a living room with badly arranged furniture.
Ever been a demo rider? It might be one of the most emotionally dangerous things to do on a horse. It’s every bit as stressful as competition, except that instead of one judge there is a grandstand full of them. You might get ripped to bits by the clinician, to amuse the audience. If you don’t know the clinician, and none of mine did, that adds another degree of difficulty. I’ve been a demo rider, it takes a crazy kind of courage.
[May I take a break here and explain exactly what I love about a hotel room? I’m an introvert, I need time to breathe for myself. When I travel I write blogs in bed, email organizers about future clinics, do my laundry, answer emails from readers, and edit my next book. I confess I like my own solitary company, there I said it. At Equidays, it was one hotel for six days, and then another for six days, sheer partially-unpacked bliss. With great showers and real milk for my coffee. I love hotels.]
Back to Equidays: Before each presentation, I scurried out back looking to the demo riders, so I could explain that I always put the horse first, that I’m grateful and promise nothing bad will happen. As I say this, I tie a neck-ring around the horse’s neck and gently let them know they’ll be practically riding without reins. It’s possible that action negates everything I’ve just said.
About now I notice that most of the clinicians do their own demonstrating on their own (or borrowed) horses. Do they know something that I don’t? Oh well, where’s the challenge in doing it yourself? And if you believe in your discipline like I do dressage, then it should work for anyone, right?
I had a handful of great topics through Equidays, like Dressage for Non-traditional Breeds, with plenty to say on each one. Balance that with the best part: I had no idea how the rider rode or how their horse would be in this busy environment, or if I would get anywhere near the topic. If there are two demo pairs, double the thrill. Add to that, on the South Island there was a round pen at the other end of the arena with some intermittent whip-cracking going on.
It ends up that it was the exact circus act that horses had trained me for all my life.
Horses have taught me contradictory skills: always have a plan and love spontaneity. Crucial clinician skills but even more so here. I know I’ll stick to my plan about 11-13% of the time. Then the horse will teach the rest if I listen and translate well.
Each horse and rider transformed in ways I didn’t expect. The horses and riders were perfect. I could go on about the hot track horses and the young riders on stallions and how each horse found a way to relax and feel good.
Some of the riders got plucked at the last-minute. On the South Island, my demo rider for Dressage for the Competition Horse wasn’t there and the organizer asked me who I wanted her to find, so I told her my idea. At the appointed time, the rider entered with a nervous smile, on a midlife Quarter horse. And a western saddle. She’d come to do the cowboy challenge and gotten roped into a dressage challenge. What a brave pair! (The quarter horse stole the show.)
I always spend a fair amount of time defending dressage, true dressage, in a world of false expression and bad ambassadors. My best fun at Equidays was letting the horses show people what a gift it truly is. Thanks to all my demo horses and riders, you made dressage just like massage!
Between presentations, I’d try to make my way to the bathroom, but I ran into people I knew (half-way around the world!) That would be amazing enough, but I also got stopped by strangers who seemed to know me. I was gobsmacked by their kindness and smart questions, even as the bathroom seemed to recede over the horizon.
At one point, I managed to make it to the lounge for tea and I complimented the woman wearing this vest. I thought it was such a great logo and I asked where she got it. As I copied down the name of the organization, she took it off and insisted I have it. She literally gave me the shirt off her back. That’s what I mean, start to finish from the Equidays staff and volunteers and attendees, kindness everywhere. No, thank you!
In the week between Equidays events, I gave two clinics. They were small experiments in a new idea of teaching I’m formulating. So, yes, minis and marmite. Marmite is kiwi for vegemite, for the readers who only watch Australian movies. See? I do learn about some things other than horses.
On my last day, I get to the airport for a 7:30 pm flight. Onboard, I manage to enjoy dinner, a movie, and have a restful sleep before landing in LA. I think I hear my dogs start to bark when I enter US airspace. There’s a 9-hour layover, so I settle into writing thank-you notes for all the thank-you notes sent from strangers who saw my presentations. It isn’t just that people in NZ are kind, they actually write the note and it’s so kind, I write them back.
Finally, it’s time to board the flight to Colorado Springs, but we are held on the runway for 90 minutes, it’s 10 p.m. and the woman next to me meticulously does her make up. Then she somehow switches to holding her baby, who she bounces on my knee through the flight. I don’t mind the baby a bit, the woman is driving me nuts.
Finally home at 2 a.m., just 6 1/2 hours later in clock time. I let the dogs tear all the buttons off my shirt. It’s best to just sit down and let it happen. A stroll through the barn; we almost lost the donkey foster while I was gone but thanks to my sainted barn manager, she’s on her feet.
Tucked in bed with the two smaller dogs jumping up and down on my chest, I’m aware of the vulnerability that’s part of the work I do, finding a way to balance loving my farm and loving my extended herd of perfect horses and riders and friends. Perfectly bittersweet.
Thanks again, New Zealand! Coming back soon.