I arrive about 15 minutes early and have no idea where I'm supposed to be. There is a barn, but I get the impression Dodon might have several barns. There is also an indoor arena, but I don't see the outdoor. I wander around a bit looking for anyone, not a soul. I try calling Steuart's cell, convinced I'm in the wrong place. Normally 15 minutes before a showing, the horse is being prepped, groomed, beautified, whatever. No answer, so I wander around the barn, at the very least the mare is probably in one of the stalls, so maybe I can have a look at her. Nope, only one horse in his stall, and this one I have to see, Salute the Truth. I take a quick peek and he looks up from his hay, like, who the hell are you? I don't linger long, I haven't been around stallions, at all, so the last thing I want to do is upset Steuart's prize stallion by harassing him in his stall. I continue to wait and try to call Steuart again, now it is past our appointment time. I'm starting to think maybe he forgot, but I see the showing listed on their schedule board in the barn. I'm kind of annoyed at this point. And then Steuart and his barn manager, Michelle, appear on two lovely horses, returning from a hack. All of my annoyance dissipates, they are so friendly and easy-going and apologetic for being late. There are no "putting on airs" at this barn. I'm not sure if I expected that or not. I guess I didn't know what to expect. Steuart Pittman is a great rider and well-known on the eventing circuit. His homebreds are also well-known, and the thought did cross my mind that Steuart might see me riding his mare, determine I am awful and wholly unworthy of sitting atop one of his horses.
After our first introduction, I am slightly, awe-inspiringly, in love with Steuart. He's just so....cool. And really tall. And an awesome rider. And I've read all of his Steuart Says... articles on his website. I'm considering asking him to sign my cleavage but "Steuart Pittman" is kinda long and I don't actually have any cleavage and it seems a tad on the inappropriate side. (I mean all of this with the utmost respect. Not trying to offend any spouses here, both Steuart and I are happily married, and somehow I doubt Steuart was awe-inspiringly anything upon meeting me. Get your minds right people). Puppy love aside, we go to fetch True Testimony, aka Streak, aka the mare I've come to try. Already this showing is completely different than any horse showing I've been to. They haven't even caught the mare yet, she could be covered in mud from head to hoof. Normally you show up to try a horse and he/she is already groomed to the nines, hooves polished and all, just short of mane braided. Like I said, no "airs" at this place. And I don't mind at all. It actually relaxes me how casual the atmosphere is. I was afraid there might be some signs up, "Grand Prix Riders Only" or something similar which would increase my anxiety about showcasing my mediocre riding prowess. Not the case, I haven't even seen the horse yet and I'm already having fun. And while I realize they are trying to sell me a horse here, so OF COURSE they are going to be nice to me, Steuart treats me with such an easy familiarity and an air of equality, you feel like you are instantly good friends and it makes the whole situation less stressful for me (yes, I generally stress out about riding new horses in front of people I admire). Steuart even drops a couple of F-bombs. Being a veritable potty-mouth myself, this relaxes me even more. Now, when I inevitably screw up a fence, I know the normal flow of expletives that follow won't offend Steuart. We get to the mare pasture and Steuart asks me if I can pick out Streak. To be fair, there are a lot of chestnuts. He says, "she's the one that looks in-foal." Indeed. By golly, she is a wide one. I'm not judging though, open-mind, not choosing a horse for looks. Learning from my mistakes, you see. Our little newbie is growing. We walk her back and tack her up, I do note that Steuart is very gentle and slow when putting the bridle on over her ears. She could be a little head-shy, which is fine, but I make the mental note. Steuart rides her in the indoor first, she flips her head a bit, but he gets her working and forward and she stops (with the head flipping). I'm not a horse-movement expert, but I think she looks nice. Now its my turn, Steuart asks how I feel, I tell him I'm a little nervous because I'm not a very good rider (better to set the expectations low and then surprise Steuart with my mediocrity). He assures me I will be fine. To my delight, I do not completely embarrass myself, yet. She's tossing her head, which is annoying but we work through it and I put her into a frame. She needs a lot of leg and our canter departs aren't brilliant (perhaps I'm just not asking brilliantly), and she doesn't have a "confirmed" flying change, which is a little disappointing, although I'm not real sure why. What she is though, is the smoothest horse I've ever sat my butt on. She's like riding a couch or your favorite easy-chair. I could easily drop the reins, grab a margarita, some chips and salsa, sit back and relax, all while riding this horse. Its actually kind of hard to post her trot, she is that smooth. I'm impressed. Steuart might even be a little impressed too! (I did set the bar really low). He said a lot of people are turned off by her head tossing, but I got control of it quickly and put her into a nice frame without over-riding or under-riding her. I'm beaming! Not only do I not completely suck, I got a compliment on my riding! Let's go jump her.
We walk to the outdoor. I'm nervous (par for the course, isn't it?). I really haven't ridden in a month because of my busted butt (which Steuart knows about) and I haven't jumped in even longer and I have fence-anxiety any ways and I'm on a new horse. Time for game-face. Do NOT be a pansy-ass in front of Steuart Pittman! Make Tom proud, and sit down, leg on and do not lean at the fence. My inner pep talk. I think Steuart notices the increase in anxiety and has us canter around a few times to relax. We pop over some small fences, I don't think I'm awful, but I'm not perfect either. Streak, for her part is great. She is attentive and quick. Steuart tells me to just let her do the work at the fence and the approach, she always finds her spot. He also tells me my fence-anxiety is definitely all in my head, because my balance to the fence is good, I just over-think it right before. Excellent. Shut-up brain! I'd say things are going pretty well, there was one hairy moment when I put some leg on, asking for Streak to give me a bit more pace out of the turn, she gives it to me, and then for some reason unbeknownst to me, I stupidly pull her back, confusing both of us and we end up with a very awkward spot to the fence, but we make it over and correct it the next time around. Now Steuart wants us to do a combination with an oxer. I absentmindedly mention I've never done an oxer before. Ever? Ever. He starts re-planning our course, but I tell him I'll do it. (Oh, you go Julie, way to bluff some confidence). So, we eliminate the combination element and just do the oxer. And its good! We do it several more times and switch directions. I don't know why the direction change triggers anxiety, but it does, its like a different fence now. We approach the fence, Streak finds her own pace, she is quick to fences without running at them, so its a bit of a different ride than Bernie, but I let her go, as per Steuart. We get to the oxer and I think she's going to take it long. Here is my first mistake, thinking. Streak wanted to throw a chip in and get closer to the fence, which was the wiser decision. My second mistake is not waiting for my horse (sorry Tom). I classically throw myself forward for the long one that isn't there, Streak assesses the situation of being completely off-balance on the fore-hand, at a long distance in front of an oxer and decides, no, this is all bad, so she slams on the breaks. Can't blame her, really. I put her in the worst possible scenario to clear an oxer and she politely called me an idiot and declined. I launch over her head, take out the second rail of the oxer with my left thigh and right-side collar bone (how?) and land....on my upper back! My butt is okay!!! Remember, the derriere is still injured from Bernie's impression of a bucking bronco. So another landing on said tush is less than desirable. (I realize this begs the question "if your butt is still sore, why are you riding?" But you rational people can mind your own business). And now its my turn to really surprise/impress Steuart Pittman. The look on his face of concern, bewilderment and disbelief is priceless. Before he can say anything or even rush to my assistance, I pop up, announce I'm fine because I didn't land on my butt, dust myself off, collect Streak and say, "well, let's do that again." This increases Steuart's disbelief. "You want to do it again?" Yep. He helps dust me off, I assure him I'm fine (I guess the fall looked pretty bad), and off we go. Steuart has me drop the reins, do some arm circles, relax, pop over some other fences to get our bearings again and then we do the oxer. Again. And again. And maybe its not perfect (I'm quite sure its not), but we did it. I pushed my comfort zone, fell out of my comfort zone (quite literally) and impressed myself and possibly Steuart, by getting right back on and not shying away from it.
All-in-all it was a great experience. Being around someone as experienced, calming and confidence-building as Steuart Pittman, if even for an hour, made the trip worth it, and Streak is a great horse. I leave really happy. And then half way home I realize I've left my helmet and gloves at Dodon Farm. Fail.