Last Spring I was helping my partner to sell a horse. It was a horse that I referred to as ‘that idiot cob’ having seen him cart himself full speed around the arena with riders on more than one occasion. My partner had bought him as a four year old from a dealer at a sale and always believed in him but unfortunately a career in the riding school or as a student horse just didn’t suit Sammy so as an eight year old he was up for sale to try and find him a new home. We brought him and another horse that was for sale to a local venue to do some schooling. I’ll admit I was very much surprised – with a professional rider on board the ‘idiot cob’ became something else and despite not having left the yard more than twice in four years he didn’t even look at the fillers in the indoor arena.
Soon after my partner needed a guinea pig rider for student coach. I sat up on Sammy for the first time and he wasn’t what expected – sure he was a bit mouthy and uneducated but he was kind and willing and as comfy as a new couch. I was asked to jump him in another session. I hadn’t jumped in months and had lost a bit of confidence so on the way down to a very big upright I froze. The horse just jumped. I wasn’t really looking to buy a horse right then and had my eye long term set upon a brave Connemara or a small foreign bred dressage mare but I hadn’t clicked with a horse so well in a long time and he reminded me of a mix between my old mare Siog who was mad as a bag of cats but brave as a lion and Benny a lovely gelding I rode the year before who made me enjoy jumping again. So the for sale adds came down, I bought him and I named him DBS Second Chance – DBS because I believed he would be good enough to deserve the prefix of the yard he lived on and Second Chance because I felt he deserved one. I was going through a few big changes in my life at the time too so I felt we could start again together.
Getting to know each other was interesting. Sammy went from living out in a herd to being stabled with turnout. For the first three months I owned him we went through at least ten lead ropes – whenever he didn’t feel like being tied up he would break a rope and feck off back down to his old field and wait for me to catch him. If the stable door was open an inch he would shove it open with his big head and go out it and he capped it one day by jumping the wheelbarrow as I was mucking out. I learned not to leave a head collar on him in the field as he was able to remove them with his back hoof. If anything suddenly touched his hindquarters or backside he would have a meltdown and getting his back shoes on for the first time was interesting. It took a lot of time, patience and repetition but soon he stood quietly to be shod and tacked and he started to see his stable as home.
We did our first competition on home grown last Spring. It was a dressage competition in the riding club and given he had never seen a dressage arena and we couldn’t bend very well I wasn’t sure how that would go. He was himself – a bit worried, a bit flighty but ultimately trying to do what he was asked and we won our first rosette together, a red one. Soon after I was asked to be on a team for a riding club show jumping championship qualifier. Sounded great but the horse had never competed over fences and I had no idea what he would be like or how, being a nervous sort, he would cope with the competition environment. I hadn’t competed in a long time either so we headed to a local venue with my asthma inhaler and a friend to kick my ass and tell me to cop on. I don’t know what I was worrying about – he wasn’t green or spooky or even as high and strong as I feared – he went in and jumped. The only thing I did realise was that he was a bit too clever and by the second round he knew where he was going and got a bit fast and strong and overexcited but to be honest I never had a worry that he wouldn’t jump. The day of the qualifier didn’t quite go to plan for us – he was still a bit unfit and weak and I was still getting to know him so we had a few poles on the floor but for a horse in his first month of competition I thought he was pretty damn brilliant – it turned out my team mates were even more brilliant and so, at his second ever show jumping competition, we somehow qualified for the championships at Dublin in the RDS.
I’d been to the RDs a few times – on Siog my mad but honest to the end mare where all I had to do was steer, on Sally the ex-racehorse where everyone knew I would either win or fall off (I won but had fallen off at the qualifier), on Nora the sleepy Connemara who turned into a wild thing in the ring while I realised that borrowing a saddle owned by a ten year old that’s half the width of your arse isn’t wise and on Poppy the world’s most unflappable Connemara who at four years old thought Dublin was nothing to get excited about. Having experienced the various changes the atmosphere at Dublin can create in a horse I was worried about how Sammy would cope so last Summer I brought him anywhere that there was jumping and noise to try and get him a bit more experience of show atmosphere, different types of jumps and surfaces.
We went to Dublin and were drawn second to go. The issue this presented was the very short warm up we got as the parade was just before the competition and there were 32 horses and riders milling around a very small space. At this point I realised I had no steering, no brakes and the horse was high as a kite. We went in and to be honest I rode him like I stole him as I figured if I had minimal control we were sure as hell going to jump. On the way into the first fence a potted tree fell down right as he passed it. He dived sideways, locked back onto the fence and jumped it. I knew then we were okay and we managed to only clock up four faults. The second round didn’t quite go to plan as we had a few down and sometime faults and he decided to try his party trick of seeing if he could touch his chin off his chest but I was so proud to think that in six months this horse had come so far.
I had jumped 90cm tracks for 17 years. I’d never had my own horse before- I was a catch rider and a loaner for years and I would jump 90cm all day on pretty much anything. Over the years I jumped it on what anyone else didn’t want to jump on and whatever there was. Trouble was I never jumped higher. With Dublin out of the way I had no excuse now not to jump higher but I was terrified and a bit institutionalised. So I decided to face my fears and one day by myself I brought Sammy to a local SJI class, got up on him, warmed up at speed and went in and jumped the 90cm and then the 1m class. I hadn’t even walked the course I just repeatedly kept telling myself to shut up, leg on and jump the fences and there where it was just me and my horse, I conquered a fear that had conquered me for a long time. I know I will never be a showjumper and will never clear great heights but this little green horse gave me confidence that more experienced horses couldn’t.
While we have yet to compete much at cross country, schooling has been entertaining. I’ve never had a horse before that will throw himself into water because he loves it. It’s a funny contrast to Dolly who hates getting her toes wet. On board Sammy for the first time in a long time I can choose to opt for some of the bigger fences which is a huge confidence giver. In fact big solid fences isn’t too much of an issue for him so we are currently trying to learn how to ride what I find are the trickier fences – skinnies and corners.
Dressage training presented a new issue. We went to a few competitions to get some experience but I knew we both needed a lot of work so we started regular lessons with a trainer I have respected for years and am delighted to get the opportunity to train with. The biggest issue was teaching an uneducated forward going horse who tended to fall on the forehand and pull hard downwards to canter slowly and in balance. My tendency to use too much hand, not enough leg in half halts and to tip forward really wasn’t helping either. We cantered every day for a long time. I sweated over canter, I cried over canter! I spent weeks in the horrible cycle of either cantering too fast or splatting back to a ragged trot. I honestly at times wanted to give up altogether. I knew he could do it as I’d seen him finally submit if my partner rode him but I needed him to do it consistently, without so much asking and most importantly, with me. One day I took him down the gallops in my dressage tack, asked him to canter and just kept repeating the aids to slow down knowing that he would not break to trot as he associates the gallops with going forwards. Finally he cantered slowly. One giant step for me, one insignificant occasion for anyone else. For anyone who loves dressage, isn’t this why we do it? For those small, seemingly invisible changes and achievements. Canter is still a work in progress for us but having broken the rushed canter raggy trot cycle I know now it can and will come right in time.
Since then we have had good days, bad days and great days. We had an awful day where it all didn’t go to plan in the dressage ring or over fences, we had to withdraw from the dressage championships last year when a horse kicked me and I went lame, we competed in and won our first working hunter and most recently we won our dressage class and qualified for the Dressage Ireland finals this year. I don’t know what the future will hold but I am looking forward to achieving everything I can on this brilliant little horse.
This experience has reinforced a belief I always had – breeding and potential are all very well and good but for an amateur rider there is so much to be said for buying an animal that you click with and that will deliver actual. On paper last year an eight year old gelding with no breeding recorded and no competition record wasn’t a great prospect but my partner was right – he deserved a second chance.