By the time I was 15, I had ridden and taken care of my own horses and ponies every day for five years. Along with devouring every book available and weekly lessons from esteemed riding teachers, I learned about horses from the horses. I was stepped on, pushed over, hip checked, tossed over the head, caught in inter-horse squabbles, nipped, kicked in the head, you name it. And these were with mostly docile, "safe" animals.
It's called a learning curve, and learn I did. One learning experience happened on a rainy Saturday over a couple of rounds on the Rombout Hunt outside course, near Hyde Park, N.Y. Back then, outside courses in fields were the norm and in hunter classes the fences were large and solid -- like jumps out on the hunt field. Many courses were on the side of a hill, as was Rombout's.
My division was junior hunters -- for kids up to 18 years of age. I was riding against older kids, over the biggest course I'd ever jumped at 3' 6", on Full Cry, a horse borrowed from a friend, in the rain. Full Cry was a field hunter with the Old Chatham Hunt, sure-footed and savvy.
Before the show started we warmed-up over the outside course, jumping each fence from both directions. Full Cry was unfazed. When it came time for our division, we had a hunter under saddle on the flat and two classes over the outside course. By then, the take-off area in front of the jumps was chewed up and muddy. Having faith in Full Cry, I moved him out into a gallop onto the course.
I can still see his pricked ears ahead of me as he soared over the fences, until we came to the coop on the downhill side of the course. As we approached that fence, balanced and forward, Full Cry surprised me by nipping left and jumping the lower pony portion. We won the class, I was sure the judge must have missed that antic. The second time around the course approaching the coop, I was prepared to strongly direct Full Cry over the correct jump. He set his jaw, neck, whole body against all my aids and popped over the pony side again. We won again.
And yes, Full Cry was the champion junior hunter. I looked at the judge's cards for the rounds and saw she had marked that, indeed, we jumped the pony coop. I had to ask why she had placed us so well. It was Jan Conant and she told me that my very nice horse was taking care of himself and me, despite me; so, she didn't penalize us.
Jumping big coops is many years in my past, but the lesson learned that afternoon, to trust in my horse's instinct has stayed with me and probably saved me a couple of times. Thanks, Full Cry.