By Kathy Serio
Riding as an amateur certainly has the good, the bad and the ugly. For many years, the Handy Hunter Over Fences class was removed from the Amateur Owner division and we were given a reprieve from having to show the “handiness” of our mounts. The class came back into popularity within the last decade, so here we are once again, trying to prove how “handy” not just our trusty steeds are, but also trying to prove how handy our own aging bodies are with inside turns, trot jumps, bounces, etc.
There used to be a running joke between my husband, Tommy, and I whenever I’d take a lesson. If he wanted a good laugh, he’d have me trot a jump since he knows I cannot “find” a trot jump to save my life. Seriously, it’s quite comical, and baby horse after baby horse I buy and train has to come with some serious self-preservation for trot jumps because they’re on their own!
Some weeks, Tommy will say, “Do you want to go jump a trot jump before you go back in the ring for the Handy?” To which I respond, “Yes,” then I proceed to miss terribly in the schooling ring, walk into the ring and nail it! How is that possible? I seriously think I’ve only bombed once on the trot jump in the ring, and it was last summer in Kentucky when literally, I almost fell off! Chapeau took an extra step and I ended up in front of the saddle on the landing side. I thought for sure we were parting company!
I guess there’s something about being able to canter around a few jumps in the ring first, then come back to a trot jump that makes the trot jump easier for me to “find.” Another inside joke we have is when Tommy says, “Honey, be sure not to trot too soon — wait it out.” I’ve heard it a million times … got it! One time at Middleburg, he must’ve said it 100 times; he knew he said it 100 times, so he had someone else say it to me so I wouldn’t roll my eyes at him like usual. I’m a firm believer, though, that if you flub the trot jump, you’re toast. Technically, I think you’re “off course” if you don’t actually trot the trot jump. So many horses rush and canter the trot jump; I find it offensive. For me, it’s the same if you add in a line — it’s a 55 at best, and you’re off course in both scenarios.
The hard part about the Handy class is that it’s almost always (at the Winter Equestrian Festival, especially) the first day of horse showing since the Stake class is the second day. Just when you come out of the ring, ready to fix any mistakes in the first trip, you have a completely different Handy course to try to maneuver.
This year, during the last week at WEF, we actually had a different Handy element — we had to come to a walk and walk through a chute of logs, then pick up the canter and continue the course. It certainly was a nice change from just a boring old trot jump. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Honey, don’t come to the walk too soon.” I can recall in 2001, at WEF, we had a Handy class that asked us to dismount before the last jump and then lead our horses in a trot over the jump towards the in-gate. That was really different and would probably never happen today. Think of all the scenarios — horse trips, rider trips, horse falls on rider, rider falls on horse … too much left to the imagination and too many lawsuits to even think about!
My favorite Handy memory of all time, hands down, was at Cincinnati Turfway Park in July 2000. The course consisted of jumping four jumps, stopping at a gate that was erected in the center of the arena, opening the gate while mounted, walking through the gate, closing the gate and then continuing the rest of the course. People were walking up to the gate in the morning while hacking, just to get their horse used to the idea of seeing it; no one really knew how it was going to be utilized.
When the courses were posted, the stress levels began to rise. The biggest concern was to halt at the gate, do not let your horse walk backward or forward, open the gate, close the gate, then canter off! Most people actually had no problems with this test, except for one person … this person was sitting on the HOTY (Horse of the Year), who was stunning; he was a rock.
She cantered up to the gate, halted and proceeded to try and open the gate. The horse never backed up, never moved a muscle. The rider began to push the gate, kick the gate, strike out at the gate, yell at the gate and the horse did not move. After the kicking of said gate, the rider turned to the in-gate and yelled, “I can’t open the d__n gate?” To which her husband quietly “yelled” back and said, “Lift the d__n lever!” She lifted the lever, the horse walked through the gate, never stepped backward and completed a beautiful trip, and even with outside help, and probably halting at the gate for at least 60 seconds, she still received a 78. Her husband then dead panned everyone at the in-gate, “Sorry, my wife is a princess and has obviously never had to open a gate.”
Days like that it’s fun to be an amateur…