Amateur Hour

Trading Places

©Ashley Campbell/Flickr CC by 2.0

The other day I woke up at dawn with mixed feelings of exhilaration and concern.

I was going to be riding a new horse with a new-ish trainer.

To provide some background, the horse was Quinn, a six-year-old Thoroughbred mare very recently off the racetrack. As for me, I will be 65 soon, fit and actively riding my own horses but perhaps a bit rusty to be attempting to influence a young horse on my own.

The photogenic Quinn strikes a pose before the author mounts up.

My trainer is Samantha, and we began riding together 20 years ago when she was eight and I was 45. By blood, Sam is my niece, but we have been connected at the heart as parent and child since her mom, my wife’s younger sister, died 15 years ago. We have been working together as trainer and student for only a few months.

I’ve never been especially anxious once I’m actually sitting on a new, unknown horse.

I will admit that my sleep was a little restless the night before, anticipating the ride, though it turned out (as it frequently does) that my concerns were unwarranted as I felt myself settling in to my familiar position. I could definitely feel the racetrack still in Quinn; she felt alert but quite willing as Sam reminded me that the more relaxed I could stay, the more relaxed she would be.

I appreciated the reminder even if I no longer need to be convinced of that fact, as the other ex-racehorses in my life have made a much better rider out of me by mirroring my own emotional state.

On this morning, as the three of us figured each other out, we were able to walk, trot and canter comfortably and trot some ground poles as well. From a technical standpoint, a rather basic and uneventful ride.

The author riding Quinn, a six-year-old OTTB mare recently off the racetrack.

But there was something else going on here.

I enjoy riding different horses, but I’m pretty much a one-trainer guy. It had taken me a long time to find a trainer that I fully trusted and worked well with, and my former trainer Laura and I had a great seven-year run.

Ultimately, time marched on and increased family and business responsibilities on both our parts made scheduling an insurmountable challenge. I was a little sad. Although I realized it was a necessary move, I was pretty much convinced I would never be able to duplicate that dynamic we had. I trusted her 100%, and her directions went straight from her lips to my hands, seat and leg, seemingly without having to stop at the brain for validation.

I went trainer-less for two years, and when I was ready to resume formal training I found that I struggled with finding a trainer who I could imagine myself working with.

One day in the barn, a crazy thought popped into my head: after a few rough patches here and there, my relationship with Sam had evolved to one of mutual respect and support. I guess we both had some growing up to do, and time can work wonders in humans as well as horses, but… could I switch roles and become her student?

Sam Mullen. The author put her on her first horse at age eight; now she is his trainer.

Sam had a training philosophy that I easily related to…. and she had been trained by Laura! The question would be: with this person to whom I had once thought I needed to appear invulnerable, could I allow myself to be vulnerable enough to be coachable?

We agreed to test out the concept and, anticipating our first lesson, I began to mentally formulate a series of instructions for Sam, outlining how I needed to be taught. Yes, I’m helpful like that.

But when she walked into the arena with a confidence I had not before observed and a plan for me that I hadn’t anticipated, I mentally tore up my list. I’m not sure who was more surprised at how well we actually worked together, but I found that I trusted her implicitly and didn’t second-guess her directions at all (kind of a big thing for me.)

In learning again to trust enough to let go of my own fear-based defensive reactions, I found I could pretty much become putty in her hands as she worked toward retraining these recent racetrack arrivals. I could feel the synergy between rider, horse and trainer—the one I was convinced I’d never experience again.

Horses always seem to have been the catalyst taht has held our little non-traditional family together and our recent experiences have just been another illustration of that. Just when I begin to think that there is nothing left for horses to add to our lives, they seem to find a new dimension toward which to lead us.

In my case, I had no idea what I was looking for… but the horses seem to know and keep leading me toward it in spite of my own fears and misgivings.

On a summer afternoon 20 years ago, I put my foot into the iron and swung my leg over a horse for the very first time. I remember thinking that after five or six lessons I would probably know all there was to know about horses. I chuckle now at that thought as I anticipate what breakthroughs this week’s lesson might hold.


About the Author

Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually was a competitor in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he spends his time working with his APHA eventer DannyBoy, his OTTB mare Lola, training her for a second career, and teaching his grandson about the joy of horses. He enjoys writing to share some of life’s breakthroughs toward which his horses have guided him.