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Moving On With Hope...

Moving On With Hope...

By Betsy Kelleher

     After weeks of anticipation for the Illinois Horse Fair, I can’t believe it has already come and gone! The weather was warmer this year than usual. Instead of cold biting wind in our faces, walking back and forth was quite enjoyable! I didn’t find many bargains; my only purchase was a dressage girth for my Courbette saddle.

     Speaking of dressage, I enjoyed watching two lessons by dressage clinician Lilo Fore and actually shed emotional tears at a certain Grand Prix level Swedish warmblood ridden by a Star West student. There’s a certain feeling that wells up from my chest whenever I see a good Piaffe or an extended trot with those front toes barely grazing the ground! I had to start riding lessons again.

     Ms. Fore seemed to be an excellent instructor and I could actually understand what she was telling the student! I remember that she said to focus on the quality of the gait. And another thing: when you realize it didn’t happen the way you wanted, just move on. Learn why it didn’t happen, then do it again and try to make it happen. At the time, it seemed like a simply fabulous epiphany!

     Of course I had to attend the annual meeting of the Illinois Trail Riders, and I may share more information on that in a later column. If you ride trails anywhere, this is a great group to join and the membership fee of $15 is a welcome low price in today’s economy! And you get a newsletter. They also have a Handbook of Trails, Camps and Services for $20 (plus $3 mailing). Website is  

     It was good to see some old friends and a former neighbor from the Loami area. She emailed me later with some bad news, however. Sunday morning during the Horse Fair, a tornado leveled the old barn on the property where I once lived for ten years. It had been a strong old barn, with wooden peg construction, probably 100 years old (the house was built before 1900 with some later addition). That barn had withstood a tornado back in 1981 (while I sat in the kitchen listening to the howling wind and the chimney bricks hitting the outside walls of the house!).

     We were in the basement of the Livestock Center at the time of this year’s storm, with Connie Owens in the Illinois Horse Network booth, and I noticed that it suddenly seemed more crowded than usual. Someone said the sirens were going off and they had been told to come downstairs. Many were on their cell phones. It didn’t seem very long before the crowd thinned out and someone said the storm was past. They did mention a tornado had been sighted, and that some damage had been reported east of the airport. I didn’t see any damage at the fairgrounds.

     During the Fair, I enjoyed the two hour gaited clinic with Liz Graves. Russ and I compared the movement of the horses in the clinic with our own. Ever since I’ve been riding gaited horses, I’ve watched several DVD’s to help me figure it out. It helps even more to see actual horses being ridden and to see how the gait changes when the rider uses seat and rein and leg a bit differently. One horse in particular modeled an exciting change in movement in a very short time, while another horse that was used to trotting still favored that gait in spite of being ridden by the clinician. 

     Most of this clinic reinforced what I had already learned. A collected walk is an important beginning to correct gaiting. Work for an even four beat footfall. Too much speed can ruin the gait. Learn how to put the horse into the correct frame to maintain the proper gait. Hold the reins; don’t pull. Placement and fit of saddle and pad is very important. When a rider braces the lower back, that stiffness makes it more difficult for the horse to gait freely. Horse should have a level back for a running walk. The horse should bend at the 3rd and 4th vertebra, not at the poll. Gait should be established before working on the canter. And for multi-gaited horses, distinct signals are needed for each gait. Ms. Graves also mentioned that swivel stirrups are good for the rider’s knees (I will put those swivel things I bought for my husband on my own saddle now).

     I was excited to learn that one of the horses, a large palomino TWH (Cotton’s Golden Generator), had been trained with dressage methods. Of course I had to later talk to the owner, Cecelia Stearns from Kentucky, and was even more pleased to learn she had read my first book, Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse! I hope to get in touch with her again, as I now have her email address and phone number.

     I can’t say I came away from this year’s fair with anything unusual. But I did get a nudge in a few areas, and instead of coming home from a mountaintop experience, I feel I am looking at a very realistic plan of action that will take a lot of work and dedication and perhaps more energy than this older body usually has. We’ll see. My first riding lesson after coming back was a bit humbling. My instructor often reminds me of many things I have learned previously and apparently forgotten! You know the old saying: use it or lose it! That’s why I take lessons now and then. I need to apply what I learn and practice it. Have I said that before? It seems familiar.

     If I want to FEEL what I saw other riders doing, I have to work at it. I know I won’t ever ride and compete on any horse like that Swedish Warmblood. But my 14’3” gaited Rocky has the potential, I believe, to give me something special. I’ve already felt the quick response to my asking and the balanced lightness in my hand—if only for a moment. He is attentive and he tries to please, and he may not be a big strong guy, but he is multi-gaited with a lovely canter.

     I want to base my efforts on realistic expectations and appreciate what I have. I want to be able to move on when things don’t happen the way I wanted—to learn why they didn’t happen and to try again. And it’s the same with life itself.

     Many of us have been through difficult times. My son still battles his cancer but is home again and doing better at the moment. One friend has lost a precious large part of her family. A church congregation has lost a beloved pastor after 22 years and a wife and two girls miss their husband and father. Even in the spring of the year, with bright daffodils and forsythia, and the joy of Easter, there is still pain and grief. BUT LIFE GOES ON. The flowers still bloom, temperatures fluctuate and storms come and go. We have horses that need us. We have family to support us. We have things to do. We have a God who loves us and cares about us. Life can still have joy and hope when we appreciate what we still have and remember we are never alone. God has promised He will never leave us. Whatever obstacles He allows in our path, He will help us overcome. 

     My Traveller taught me something several years ago. After another horse died in the pasture, he didn’t eat much for a few days and he seemed quite depressed. Hoping his buddy’s passing was really all that bothered him, I took him on a Hunter Pace. We did something together and he was with other horses enjoying themselves and he came home that day back to his old self.

     We need also to help our friends who have experienced loss to find new hope and joy in life again. Grief is a necessary part of the process, not to be totally avoided. But as we learn to focus on the One who is the Source of all comfort and hope and joy, He works it out according to His will. Our faith in the eternal outcome is the strength that keeps us moving on.

(Originally published in the April 2009 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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