“We’ll put you on Buster Brown. He’ll dump you.”
I’ll never forget those words that greeted me many years ago. I had just started work as an assistant to a then-famous A-circuit hunter and jumper trainer. His barn manager, Patty, seemed determined to tarnish my crown as a respected show rider. I’m sure she viewed me as yet another hunt seat princess who looked pretty on a horse but lacked any true ability to actually ride.
And thus I climbed on the back of Buster Brown, a 17-hand bay gelding with a notorious reputation for sliding to a stop in front of a jump. His refusals lacked any predictability, and therein lay the propensity to toss an unsuspecting rider head first into the ground like a lawn dart.
I slid my feet into the stirrup irons and started hacking Buster around the arena. When it came time to jump, I made certain I rode assertively to a definite take-off spot. When Buster’s front feet hit the mark, I closed my legs against his sides and waited for him to rock back on his haunches to leave the ground before making any attempt to break over at my hip. I wasn’t about to commit the horrible sin of jumping ahead of my horse, particularly not aboard the undependable Buster.
Fortunately for me—and less so for the sour-faced Patty—Buster Brown didn’t stop once with me. In fact, I grew to enjoy riding him. The next summer I competed him at several rated shows, winning ribbons in the green hunter division, until he was sold for a handsome price.
But don’t think my success with Buster Brown was due to any kind of mythical talent I possessed. No, I learned how to ride naughty, devious and untrustworthy horses the hard way: through experience.
When I was a teenager and young adult I had an insatiable desire to ride yet lacked the money to buy a finished show horse. Those circumstances led to me owning a succession of cheap ex-race horses and castaway rogues that no one else wanted to ride. In exchange for lessons and training, my instructors had me ride the evil-doers in their barn. It’s impossible to recollect how many times I was flung from saddle to earth during those years. Yet certain commandments were seared into my brain: Do not change your mind at the base of a jump. Do not ride a poor approach to an oxer. Thou shalt not jump ahead of thy horse.
Unlike my barn buddies, whose wealthy parents made certain they were mounted on impeccably trained solid citizens, I was comfortable being a cowgirl in an English saddle. At shows, my friends vied for blue ribbons and championships. My goal? Get my rebels and rejects around a 3’6” course without a refusal.
Though I suffered numerous bruises and concussions, and produced several dramatic performances in the show ring, I can honestly say that the tough horses I rode made me a better horsewoman than most of my peers who enjoyed the easier route. By combining challenging horses with structured, “let’s figure out how to fix this” sessions with knowledgeable mentors, I gained priceless insight into the art of horsemanship. Ultimately, I learned the most important lesson: Quite often, the toughest horses turn out to be our best teachers.
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