My greatest teacher- RIP Epizootic

Who names a horse Epizootic? http://www.pedigreequery.com/epizootic2 When I first set eyes on this horse he had arrived at our farm for training. He was covered in scars from being beat up on by other horses and jumping a fence to escape the cows nearby. I only knew him as Jonesy. He belonged to a teenager in my pony club who had bought him for a local sales barn. He was a 4 yr coming off an unsuccessful racing career where he ran 7 races and made $3200. They tried him over fences and in his one and only steeplechase race he fell.

This poor pony clubber wasn’t much of a rider herself and this horse kept throwing her off any way he could think of.  The whole situation was a mess and this horse was considered useless by everyone involved including my mom who was doing the retraining. She had gotten so frustrated with him because he went every which way but forward.

I had grown up around racehorses being involved with all aspects of the industry. Breeding, breaking, racing, layups and retraining. I had just come off a horrible experience with the first ottb my parent’s let me own. He had gotten stung by bees one day while we were riding and took off around the grounds of the Middletown Pony Club. I must have made 4 laps around the place waiting for him to stop but he was in a blind panic and I pointed him down the middle of the two rings hoping he would stop but we ran to the dressage ring where he went one way and I went the other. That was the most terrifying experience of my young life and I was determined not to go fast anymore (Lost crop was sent back to the track and won his next race..we all said I breezed him really good :))

At this point, I had sworn off racehorses but Jonesy didn’t look to dangerous as he wasn’t going fast. His favorite thing to do was run backwards and boy could he go backwards. Backwards, bucking and spinning were all things he did really well. For whatever reason at the age of 12 I took over his training. I feel in love in the serious kind of way. I begged my parents to let me have THIS horse. My mom was dead set against it and at that point we had money and I could have had any horse I wanted. Nope, he was the one. We traded a horse that I had gotten for $400 for Jonesy so he became my $400 project horse. He doesn’t look dangerous does he?

Our first year together at dressage rally

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Hamming it up for Santa

He was thin as a rail to the point of starving, covered in scars, hair falling out and he ran backwards. I thought he was the best horse in the world and hated anyone who said anything different. He was vetted by Dr. Riddle who said he was basically lame in every leg and strongly recommended we not buy him. He has strained tendons and suspensory’s in both legs along with some navicular changes in both feet.

The journey began and I will honestly say it might not have been the best way to learn but the horse taught me so many life lessons and at a time when i needed a friend he was the best friend I could have had. I seemed to forgive him for anything he did and the list of things he did wrong was an impressive one. The barns we were at during the first year or two of his retraining didn’t have fenced in rings. He would dump me off and go running all the way back to the barn. I would be cussing mad by the time I got to him but I would get up and be that much more determined to straighten him out.  Most of the times the falls were caused by him randomly bucking, dropping his shoulder and spinning or launching me after a jump. He was quite athletic but boy did he use it in all the wrong ways.

That lack of foward..well that sure was an obstacle. I had some really great dressage trainers and he had to learn the whip meant go. One of the funniest memories I have of him is the day he gave my mom the ride of her life. It always drove her crazy how slow this horse was. She got on determined to show me how to get him forward. She gave him one good smack with the dressage whip and he dropped his shoulder so fast to the left and she was still on. Then he went rodeo bucking down the ring with her screaming. She got off and handed the reins to me and I don’t think she ever rode him again after that incident.

I could and probably still can ride some pretty good bucks. He didn’t just buck it was a buck with a twist, shoulders rolling and at any minute he could drop the shoulder on you or change direction.

I had begun to get the flatwork sorted out but the jumping was another story. The horse could jump the moon and I was told the dupont’s had tried him out as an eventer probably based off his steeplechase experience. Although, viewing the race record he was 35 lengths back and then he fell. That did not suprise me because he was terrified to jump and more terrified to be out in the open. He jumped everything straight up and straight down as high as he could. I had a good background in riding really tough ponies but I was no where ready to deal with a horse with all this baggage. If I made a mistake he either refused the jump or if we did jump and I made a mistake in my distance he would just buck me off on the landing. I learned to be very accurate, ride straight and not to lean over my fences!

Our early days riding at home- my mom was an instructor but look at my sneakers, shorts and chaps.

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I was one of those kids who just loved ponyclub and everything about it. I have always been one of those types that cared more about learning than ribbons. Our club was a very rich club filled with members that had really fancy horses. I endured a lot of teasing with my unreliable horse who never seemed to be good when it counted.

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I swear every single show jump rally he would jump 2 rounds really well and then the 3rd round we always got eliminated because when he was done that was the bottom line and no convincing him otherwise. He was a fantastic jumper not textbook in his form but scope like none other.

Showjump rally in 1997

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joe show jump rally

I tried to make him event and boy was that an eye opener right there. Let’s just say we traveled all over within a 2 hr range to seek the best professional help that money can buy and nobody could get this horse to event. He was TOUGH! The main issue was the drop the shoulder and spin move that he liked to do whenever it suited him best. It was nasty to ride and unseated even a few pro’s. I basically gave up eventing him and stuck to dressage and show jumping. He was happiest in a ring. Let’s not even talk about trail rides 🙂 Let’s just say they were really rides of terror. He invented things to spook at and I have so many funny stories of him.

We had a lot of this!

joe running away

joe crash

One of the funniest that my mom likes to tell is of a ride we did together after I had gotten him back after college (more on that later). We always ride at Blackbird State Forest and my mom was on a nice appendix horse but for whatever reason our two horses were setting each other off. It was really muddy and we were trotting alongside of the woods. I was in a dressage saddle and my snaffle bit thinking I was older and I could handle him. Ha! He was feeling like he was ready to blow and about that time some birds shot up and off we went. He went across that field just a rodeo bucking and I could hear my mom yelling for me to bail. The problem was that damn dressage saddle was not letting me off. I was in front of the saddle, in the saddle and then behind the saddle. Finally I let go with a huge thud and landed right in the mud. My mom thought I was dead (not the first time) but I was alright just a bit diry and sore.  We like to have family dinners and laugh about all the trail rides we had. He never wanted to lead but he wouldn’t follow either. A true pain in the ass.

As the years went on I had learned to ride him better. We were competing in the 3’6″ jumpers and also did some straight dressage fooling around at 1st level but he was capable of much more. The time had come for me to go to college and my parents got divorce at the same time. I couldn’t pay for school so I decided the best thing to do was to sell him to finance my education. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do but he was a horse who craved attention and I couldn’t get home enough to ride him.

He found a great home with someone local who was a high school student. She continued to do some jumpers with him and during that time I missed him like crazy and visited him a time or two. I had graduated college and had just gotten a horse when I got an email from her asking if I wanted him back. Of course! The problem was I had no money and another horse so I emailed her to give me some time to get it figured out. In the meantime, I got another email saying he is yours for the shipping bill. My $15k horse was returned for me for $500 and I was the happiest person in the whole world. My mom said he walked off the van and looked around like he owned the joint. So typical of him 🙂

I began to compete him again but I was really determined to event him. So we once again began the journey of trying to get him a bit braver. Once again he was prepared to teach me a lot of life lessons and a new set of skills. I did have some success with him and we were winning a lot of the local novice events. I schooled, schooled and schooled some more. We also had a lot of success at jumper shows and I was amazed how much easier he was than I remembered. I had developed a lot more skill and could get him around the courses. I want to say he was 16 or 17yrs old and we would go places and instructors encouraged me to keep moving him up the levels as he still showed off his scope and good dressage.

Joe and Me in air feb 05

Jumping the big brush

Joe over 4ft brush

Out and about

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I began to feel like he didn’t want to do the big fences anymore and he had earned an easy life. I looked for an in barn situation for him and gave him to one of the teens at the barn for $1 with the stipulation that he would always stay with me. She competed him a bit and he taught her the ropes. Lots of other people rode him as well and he had finally stopped pulling so many stunts although you could just never let your guard down on him!

My mom’s student on him during a lesson

Perfect Joe and Leann

My husband learning to ride

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His teenage owner

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All the years I had owned him he never took a lame step but once his new owner got him he had lyme which we treated. Then he injured his hind suspensory from running back to the barn after he had bucked her off. Got healed up from that when he hurt his pelvis. We had chosen to retire him then figuring he wouldn’t come back but he was looking great so he was lightly being ridden. Then he got hit by a truck. Worse night of my life for sure two gates left open by accident and a knock on the door at 4am. He appeared okay with a minor wound on his hock but the hock had took the brunt of the force and the ligaments were torn. I was able to keep him comfortable for the past year but winter was hard on him. This summer he looked incredible and my vet could not believe how sound he was! He took retirement very seriously and spent all his time eating and cribbing. The books would tell you that a horse with no teeth who is a cribber would be hard to keep weight on but that never was the case with Joe!

Joe 5-8-09

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I saw the decline coming and decided to do the right thing for him and let him go when he was happy and healthy. I just couldn’t be comfortable with watching him limp as the cold weather set in and having to bute him so frequently to keep him comfortable.

I am really sad and will be for a long time to come. The barn feel so empty and I haven’t felt up to riding these past few days. I have had a lot of laughter as the hubby and I pulled out pictures for scanning and talked about old times. The life lessons this horse taught me will just never be forgotten. I do believe I owe my passion for Tb’s to him and he taught me so many things I might not have learned if I rode that made horse my parents wanted me to have.

Some of the lessons he taught me along the way:

-Never act out of frustration. The quickest way to get yourself launched off of him was to lose your temper. I am constantly reminding those who I teach along with myself to take a deep breathe and explain the concept another way or if things are just that bad put the horse away and try another day.

– you are only as good as your last ride. When I was younger I used to think I was all that and then some. I was real cocky and that got me in trouble. He taught me to be humble because one day you could be on the top of the world and the next on the ground.

-don’t be in a hurry. Patience is the key to success when training horses. He always reminded me not to skip steps as they came back to bite you in the long run. At the same time, don’t try to fix everything at once. Have a training plan and stick to it. Baby steps were always the best way to approach new concepts with him or else he would get overfaced and then I had to take that many steps backwards.

– Forward and straight. Ha, so simple but that is really the basics to any horse and it took me years to truly learn to ride him forward and straight. When I could master that success came my way. If you don’t have forward and straight don’t proceed any further until you do as it is just a waste of time.

– Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. For me that meant just because I could jump anything I wanted on him because height wasn’t an issue didn’t mean I should. Sort of like when you are having a really awesome day and think you must jump that one last fence really do you need to? I could also think of it as quit while you are ahead. So many times he proved to me that I should have stuck with the originial plan instead of getting so excited and trying to cram in a bunch of new jumps, new concepts or whatever it may be.

– Treat every horse like it is your only horse. My parent’s would always get on saying he was the only horse I was getting so I better take care of him. Don’t run their legs off or jump them to hard. I am all for giving a horse a hard workout but within limits. I want every horse to last so that might mean being selective about footing, frequency of flatwork, frequency of jumping and that sort of thing. Not taking an unfit horse out for long trail rides. Have the best farrier, dentist, chiro and vets to make sure that horse has all the tools to stay sound.

– know your horse and treat them as an individual. I learned a lot of lessons on how to put my horse first. Some of these lessons were learned the hard way. For example, knowing when to say NO to a clinican because your horse wasn’t ready for an exercise. Knowing how hard you could push, how high you could jump, how aggressively you could discipline and those types of things. Each horse is an individual and they can’t speak for themselves so it is our jobs as riders to know our horses inside and out. That doesn’t mean that I close my mind to other advise but I do know when to speak up and say I am uncomfortable with something based on what I know about my horses likes or dislikes.

-When to move on- I can’t say I took my own advice on this but I probably would now. Joe never liked eventing and he wasn’t a great event horse. He was a chicken and it took me basically giving him a hand ride with the whip all the way around the course to get around. If I was a rider that strictly event I should have allowed him to move on to another career and for me to move onto a horse who liked the job a lot better. I did get him around but it wasn’t fun and riding is supposed to be FUN! I have had to tell so many people that their horse is just not the right horse for them and I think that is the hardest thing to hear. Joe was my heart horse so I was never going to sell him but now I would not keep a horse that didn’t want to do the job I intended it to do.

– How to ride bucks, spooks and other bad behavior 🙂 Stay relaxed and allow your body to follow the motion. Don’t anticipate them going one way or another you just have to let yourself follow them where they go so if you anticipate you always end up going the opposite way they do. Sit back and keep that damn head up 🙂 Spins- if you already know they will spook and spin at something hold that outside rein. A loose outside rein lets them spin quite easily. Rearing- when they come up lean forward and grab mane not reins!

-How to think like a horse- I honestly think that I do good on the young horses because I have learned to think like a horse and develop a sense of feel for what is coming. Then have the plan to stop it before it happens. If you can think like a horse you can prevent the bad things from happening so the horse don’t learn to use them as options. Keep the brain engaged! The biggest thing he taught me is that there is no down time on silly pea brained horses. From the minute I am on they are working and I have a plan. I need to keep the focused on me every single second. I am always giving them something to do and teaching them something.

– The importance of flatwork. I have always been a big dork and was the kid who actually liked dressage. I can not stand to ride a horse that doesn’t at least know the basics of dressage. It is not comfortable and jumping on a horse without good flatwork is really challenging. Good flatwork makes for good jumping and better communication all around. Horses almost find comfort in it so if you go off the farm and they are wild you can put them into their routine and that helps them settle. There is nothing worse that sitting on a horse that wants to blow and has no concept of working across the back, bending or accepting the leg.

– I came back to add this one because it is something that struck me last night. It is not about the ribbons! On paper, I really have no grand accomplishments to speak of as a rider nor do my horses. Growing up most of my competing was based around pony club and the rallies we went to. We took clinics twice a week from the best riders on the east coast. Most of them were olympians or trained with olympians.  I never had a lot of money to compete that frequently or at recognized shows and I still don’t.  Joe and I started out so horrible there was no where to go but up.  For the longest time my goal was just to jump around clean without any refusals.  I always got caught if I started thinking about the ribbon instead of just riding my horse and focusing on the task at hand. Some of my favorite ribbons that I won on him were after I had gotten him back and had taken up eventing him again. We always seemed to be in the top 4 after dressage at the local starter trials so the pressure would be on but he taught me to focus on each phase and not take anything for granted. Stadium you rode each and every fence. X-C you came out of the start box like you were coming out of the starting gate. I developed a routine that worked for him. I would give him a few smacks with the stick and it seemed to make him think he could. Really..I swear it did. If I started to feel him lose his cocky attitude I would give him another tap or two until he was back up on the muscle. Only then could I get him around the course. I was 1st or 2nd at a few of the local starter trials and those will always be my favorite ribbons but to tell you the truth on paper that sounds pretty pitiful. In real life I can tell you that was the best that horse could do and the best I could have ridden him so for us that was a true accomplishment.

I compete to make myself work towards goals but as a rider my goal is different for every horse and it is never about the ribbons. It could be to stay in the dressage ring, just stay on :), have a forward stadium round, go around x-c with no refusals, go to a hunter show just to hang out and teach them to be relaxed and quiet, go to a dressage show just to teach them the white chain won’t kill them and so forth. Some horses might never win ribbons but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great horses. You have to learn to appreciate the horse for what it is good at or else you will always be left feeling disappointed. Some of my greatest moments as a rider have been just getting a difficult horse around the stadium round with no refusals or getting my ditch hating horse around the x-c clean. It can be as thrilling as teaching a horse how to work into contact, helping a horse become brave via trail riding or gaining the trust of a horse who had bad experiences. Winning the baby novice on Dixie early this spring was like winning Rolex for me. Taking Charlie around his first ever event with a good dressage score and clean jumping when he previously was terrified to jump a x-rail is a thrill I can’t even begin to describe.  There are no ribbons in foxhunting but let me tell you there are times out there when I feel like I deserve one 🙂 It has also made me appreciate the partnership you can have with a horse that has nothing to do with competing. Every horse is good at something and those little accomplishments are worth way more than a ribbon to me.  

There are hundreds of lessons he taught me but each time I get on a horse I will remind myself to be thankful that I had such a good teacher. The putting me on the ground to teach me the lessons wasn’t so nice but that is part of what made him and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

I hope horsey heaven has some good wood boards for him to crib on 🙂

Joe cribbing

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9 responses to “My greatest teacher- RIP Epizootic

  1. LOVE THIS! Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Jess, I loved this entry–it was wonderful. Godspeed Joe, you were one of a kind!

  3. Jess,
    I really, really enjoy your blog. I learned a lot from you and I love following the story of your horses. You’re a natural writer. I’m looking forward to your adventures in 2010. RIP Joe, and can’t wait to hear more about Miss Indy. Happy Holidays!

  4. Jess, this was great. It’s sad, but it sounds like he taught you more than most people learn in a lifetime with horses. Big hugs to you – he sounds like he was such a character – and I have to admit chuckling over that picture of him trotting away from you on XC 🙂

  5. Jess, what a wonderful tribute to Joe. Great blog -enjoying the really interesting, insightful things you have to say.

    Both you & Joe were lucky to have each other.

  6. That is a wonderful tribute, Jess! I hope Joe appreciated his good luck in finding you. The section about lessons he taught you needs to be published somewhere.

  7. Jess-I’m sitting here at work tearing up now, that was so sweet and touching. I love Joe, and he taught me a bunch, too, in the short time that I got to ride him. Thank you for letting me have that opportunity. That pic of me and him jumping is still one of my all time favorite pictures!

  8. Jess, so sorry to hear about Joe, but like you said life lessons, you do a great job with your writing and your stories, good luck with Sea Flip, sorry it didnt work out for us, the right CANTER horse will come around when I need it I am sure 🙂 hope that you are not too snowed in we are only getting rain rain and more rain 🙂

    Cindy

  9. Hi Jess
    At least a couple of times a month I try to check your blog. I always find it inspirational. My first OTTB will be 26 in Jan.. I’ve had him 20yrs now. He was also my first eventer. He liked everything about the jumping phases – especially XC, but thought Dressage was for “sissy’s”. He once cantered (nearly in place) an entire dressage test. I continued to do the pattern so as not to get eliminated and had to keep kicking to get him to, at least, go forward. After we cantered up the centerline and halted, he turned completely sideways to the judge – I believe if he had fingers…he would have also given her the finger. Needless to say, the judge was NOT impressed! I know our time is limited and I will miss him when it’s up.
    Thanks for sharing Joe’s story.
    Patty

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