zrBy the time Great Grimsby -- or Grimm as he came to be called -- entered my life, I had been riding and training horses for almost two decades. I'd had a successful show career as an eventer in my college days, and I had a wall full of ribbons and trophies won on horses I'd made myself. I'd ridden with prestigious trainers; I could sit just about anything a horse could dish out; I could get a horse to do pretty much whatever I wanted; and I was practically fearless. I had trained and sold dozens of horses, had built up a riding program with a bunch of horses I'd schooled for the job myself; and my students did well when we went to shows. I knew what I was doing. At least, I did until it came time for Grimm to teach me that what I really needed to learn was how much I didn't know. Unfortunately for both of us, in the beginning, I was a very slow student. Poor Grimm had to go to some desperate measures to get me to wake up and smell the coffee ... in fact, it took me a year to be ready to learn the first, most basic lesson: Listen.
At first, Grimm's training progressed exactly as I'd hoped. I got his flat work squared away in no time, and soon I had him started over cross-rails. He had a little trouble at first, some stopping, some unwillingness to go forward to his fences, but it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary for a horse off the track. I knew how to handle it, and it wasn't long before I had him going over low hunter courses and took him to his first schooling show.
Grimm had retired from a pretty impressive racing career.. His papers show a list of wins, lots of money, and I had been told that his jockey rode him to the post every race; he didn't need a pony horse. That same work ethic came to the fore at his first show. He settled in and got to work the minute I mounted up. When I rode him into the covered arena filled with flower boxes and brightly painted fences, he didn't even blink. In fact, I could feel his confidence building as we made our courtesy circle and headed for the first fence. It was like it clicked for him. "Oh. This is what we do now? This is what all of that stuff at home was for? Got it." He hit a confident, forward distance to his first fence, and nailed every single distance after that, too. It was the best round he'd ever jumped, and he ended up in the ribbons, first cracker out of the barrel. I was in heaven. A horse who performed better at a competition than he did at home? Wow! What luck! We finished the day with me nearly giddy with joy, and I drove home on cloud nine.
It wasn't long after that, however, things started going downhill. Although he was a powerhouse over fences, he never seemed to get comfortable with jumping. Then he started refusing. It didn't make sense. He went from calm and compliant, even eager-seeming to outright slamming on the brakes. Then he started resisting his flat work, too.
I didn't find out until a full year later that the cause of all these problems was pain from an injury he'd sustained to his back when he was still racing. By the time I got him, he'd already started developing arthritis in his sacroiliac joint and lower back, and the jumping hurt. The more he did, the worse it got, and the kind of flat work I was doing didn't help, either. Although I didn't know it at the time, the pain he was in was the cause of his bizarre change in behavior ... so, in my ignorance, we battled it out every ride for a while until I finally had to admit that I was in over my head. I'd finally met my match, and I needed help. But getting help was problematic because I didn't want to ride with anyone in my area; they all did it wrong.
I'm not saying that I thought I knew everything. Far from it. I just knew what kind of help I needed, and nobody in Phoenix taught it. I didn't know what to call it then (just one of many things I didn't realize I didn't know), but correct classical instruction is hard to find. I'd been introduced to it first by Chris McKechnie, a trainer from New Zealand who worked in the Phoenix area for a while when I was still an assistant trainer at my first barn. He'd made a huge impression on me in the few lessons I was lucky enough to have with him, but when he returned to New Zealand, there wasn't anyone who could match what he helped me to feel ... until Kim Walnes. In clinics with her, as a young trainer, I was introduced to what correct position feels like, what a happy horse feels like, what connection feels like. I loved it. I thrived on it. But when it just wasn't possible to get her out to Arizona anymore, I was on my own again. NOBODY could help me the way she and Chris had done, and I knew in my heart that if I couldn't find somebody who could, it just wouldn't be worth it.
So Grimm and I kept struggling.
There was one person, Justine Wilson from California, who was able to help for a brief period. When I rode with her, I called it 'marriage counseling' because she could always get me to stop fighting with Grimm, get him to relax and try new things, and get me to quit worrying about 'what he was going to do' and let him work at his own speed. When I rode with Justine, it felt ... right. She was my first real, focused classical dressage instruction, and Grimm was definitely a fan. She didn't make him do anything, but she started with relaxation. With the tension out of his back, he could work with less pain, and since everything we did was low key and low stress, Grimm was always willing. While the issue with his back had not been diagnosed, Grimm and I just knew that something about the way Justine approached things ... worked.
Sadly, as with Kim, it became impossible to get Justine out to Arizona, and again, Grimm and I found ourselves on our own. Our progress stopped when I didn't know how to carry on from where Justine left off, and as months passed, he got more and more reticent about working. He got so horrible over fences that I just stopped jumping and focused on trying to fix his flat work (without success), and I got desperate. As a last resort, I signed up for a clinic at our barn with one of the leading dressage riders in Phoenix. ( I won't mention her name, because ... things didn't go very well.) I figured that while Grimm and I were considerably below the level she usually taught, she had to know what she was doing. She'd schooled horses and riders all the way to Grand Prix, so if she'd have us, I was willing to give it a try. I probably shouldn't have.
Unlike Justine, she seemed to take an immediate dislike to Grimm. It was understandable. Because of his back pain, his trot had become stilted and choppy, and he was tense, unhappy, and arrhythmic. Cantering a 20-meter circle was out of the question. But, she didn't seem to notice his limitations, and we ended up doing work that was way beyond what Grimm was capable of offering.
Knowing what I know now, I understand that what she asked us to do would have made sense with the average horse. But it couldn't work with Grimm, not with his sore, sore back. He simply didn't have the strength to do what she wanted, and it hurt when he tried. I didn't know the reason, but I knew the lesson wasn't going well. I knew that Grimm was getting less and less confident, more reticent, more ... ANGRY as the session went on. But I didn't speak up in his defense. I didn't question her reasoning. I didn't pull up and ask for a break for him. I didn't excuse myself from the ring. I just kept doing what she told me to do, even though poor Grimm was telling me in every way he knew how that things were going even worse with her help than when we were muddling through on our own. I should have listened, but I didn't, and I will always regret that I learned this lesson too late.
By the end of the session, he'd started bucking, which he had never offered to do before. We both left the lesson frustrated and embarrassed ... and with an even more broken trust between us (not to mention a new repertoire of aires above the ground) that took years to mend. Thank goodness we found Heather.
Heather Wilson-Roller came to Arizona from Wellington, Florida with a wealth of experience and expertise in riding top quality dressage horses. She has an incredible gift for understanding how horses think, how horses move, and what riders need to do and to learn in order to ride correctly, but I was horrifically gun shy after that lesson with the Grand Prix trainer, and my friend Kristen had to basically trick me into trying a ride with Heather. Since there was no way I was going to risk putting Grimm in another lesson with another upper level trainer I didn't know, Kristen offered to let me ride her young mare ... and to pay for the lesson. It was a small thing to Kristen, but for me and Grimm, it was a life changer.
In the beginning though, I didn't make it easy for Heather. I had built a giant mental wall around the precious information that I remembered from riding with Kim and Chris so many years ago, and for the first twenty minutes of that first lesson with Heather, it must have been like teaching a brick. Then, all of a sudden, when I finally listened to what she was saying instead of walling her out, it hit me: she was saying the same things Kim said, just in different words! I felt the first glimmer of hope that I'd had in years, and little by little, I let the wall down until by the end of the lesson, I knew I'd found the help Grimm and I so desperately needed.
Grimm had been trying to talk to me for a year before we started working with Heather, but I hadn't been able to understand. He'd tried to tell me that jumping hurt, but I didn't listen. He told me that the way I was riding him didn't work, but I didn't know how to listen when he tried to tell me what he did need. When he let me know that the Grand Prix trainer's methods were wrong for him, I listened, but I didn't act. Thankfully, I got it right when I listened to Heather, because without her, I never would have solved the mystery of Grimm's behavior, and I never would have been able to build the partnership of trust and love and communication that I share with the best horse -- the best teacher -- in the world. It took me a while, but I did eventually learn Grimsby's first lesson: Listen.