I find the lone wolves in our sport to be fascinating, but I am not one of them.

From the get-go, I’ve relied on a whole army of people to help us succeed in distance riding with our horses.  It takes a village to keep us going, an entire armada of individuals who have a skill set or perspective or philosophical spot on our team.

Dorothy Hokanson started out as my dressage instructor, oh good gravy, has it been twenty years ago?   I had a draft cross mare and she’d shown a Shire stallion up the levels in dressage, so I knew she could help me with a horse with some heft.  From there she taught me on Ned for years, learned about our sport by coaching me, then started to condition with us a bit here and there.  She’s ridden Ned in a few LDs, kept Sarge legged up after Rich’s accident and has crewed for us on more than one occasion.   She knows our horses in and out and appreciates their quirks, and is quick to notice a change in biomechanics or any NQR (not quite right) movement.  It is absolutely the best to watch her enjoy ‘the boys’ — just let go of her DQ self, hike up her stirrups and fly with us for 8 or 10 or 15 miles!

Through Dorothy and my association with WNYDA (Western New York Dressage Association), I got to know Ann Forrest of Equestrian Imports.  A Grand Prix dressage rider from Scotland, and a Master Saddler, Ann resides now in Florida but makes a visit to Dorothy’s farm each year to fit saddles.  Ann has been fitting our horses saddles annually for at least fifteen years, and I recently joked to someone that I don’t think we own a treed saddle with the same width tree that it started — all have been tweaked and modified for our changing horses, or in many cases our same horses’ changing toplines.  I watch other riders go through Saddle Fitting Hell and I simply refuse to do that.   I have Ann.  Enough said.

(Besides, she really likes it when we toss our saddles casually on the ground or stack two per horse to get them back to the trailer.  This makes us stand out from her usual dressage rider clientele, I believe.  I think she’d really LOVE it when we soak them with water when sponging the horses at a ride!)

Dozens of more experienced riders were a part of the village we joined. We begged, borrowed and stole ideas from those whose skills we admired, whose horsemanship was spot-on, and whose horses seemed to be having a good time, just like their riders.  They laughed at us, we crewed for them, they took us under their wing, we shared ideas.

The list is endless and each one, without having any idea they were doing so, I suppose, fit nicely somewhere in our evolving jigsaw puzzle.   They helped us with sage advice about feed or electrolytes, or said something about conditioning that stuck in our head, or they re-calibrated our attitude; in some way they influenced us, and what they said worked, it became part of the framework of our own beliefs about the sport.

Our horses have their own health care team — a constantly-evolving group of vets and practitioners who look out for their well-being and coach us to keep them in tip-top shape for our demanding sport.  It’s safe to say that our horses get more blood work, supplements, body work, podiatric scrutiny and nutritional attention than we do.   Okay, so maybe you have an app for this or that!   I’m telling you, if a question comes up, I’ve got a member of the team for that.  Not everyone we work with has experience with endurance riding; in fact, most do not, but they share an appetite for knowledge and a desire to do the best they can for the horse, sharing concepts and being comfortable with having a misconception corrected.  We share a partnership that is all about what is best for the horse, passionately so.

The village concept extends to ride management too.

When we first ventured in to managing our endurance ride, the Allegany Shut Up and Ride, we were like babes in the woods, entirely unaware of what we were really getting into.   I still recall Buck and Donna Shrader sitting us down and laying it all out for us — Ride Management For Dummies!  My favorite line from Donna is one I often repeat today — “Patti, it doesn’t matter HOW well you mark the trail.   Some of these riders, if you attached them to a cable at the start of the ride that followed the whole course, some of them would find a way to get unhooked and make a wrong turn and get totally lost.”   (Every year, some rider proves her right.)  Buck and Donna are the lynchpins for our ride — we might swap vets and in-timers and pulse-takers, but if Buck and Donna can’t make it, the ride’s not happening.

Mary Coleman, in a way that only Mary can, full of Tennessee twang and declarative statements, kept us on course — with a philosophy that was all about keeping it simple.   Unlike Mary, however, we found it necessary to mark our trail with more than a single roll of ribbon!   But Mary knew how to get the job done in a “less is more” way and the riders had no trouble staying on trail.

As with our riders, I find that our successful ride managers are an opinionated sort, but more than willing to reach a hand down, always, to lend another ride manager a hand up.

Villages evolve, they change, they mature and grow.   New members join; others move away.

Roles change in the village, they even flip-flop.

In the last year or so, I’ve been teaching Endurance 101 and 201 clinics for AERC in my region.  At this point, clinics are booked and overbooked and I’m unsure how I’ll keep up with the demand to teach other horse people about our sport.  These clinics have brought some new villagers to the neighborhood.  It’s put me in a different spot, too.

I teach adults for a living, a vocation that comes naturally to me.   My mother was a teacher, and while her artistic skills by-passed me on the genetic pipeline, I got the teacher gene in spades.  But for me, teaching had always been about my profession, my business, than about my passion.  Or as I laughingly told people, my vocation rather than my avocation.   Now, I am mixing the two, and loving every minute of it.

It was the most natural evolution to have a couple of members of the village, some riders who had been around for some time to consider managing an endurance ride or two locally, and just as natural to have them over to the farm for a day so Richard and I could coach them, just as Buck and Donna taught Richard and I all those years ago.  The coached have become the coaches.

My friend, Anita, sharp knife and past crew person and athlete and sports aficionado looked at me with a shoulder shrug and said “you have a coaching tree.”

“Coaching tree?”

“Yeah, google it.”

(So much for the vision of my friend explaining the concept to me.  Why would she, with the advent of Google?)

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“A coaching tree is similar to a family tree except it shows the relationships of coaches instead of family members. There are several different ways to define a relationship between two coaches. The most common way to make the distinction is if a coach worked as an assistant on a particular head coach’s staff for at least a season then that coach can be counted as being a branch on the head coach’s coaching tree. Coaching trees can also show philosophical influence from one head coach to an assistant.”

So sure, coaching team it is.   But I still like the village image.  It sounds cozier and as though no helmets or scores or penalty flags are necessary, and definitely no arthroscopic surgery for ACL repairs.

It’s strange indeed, to have spent enough time in this sport that we are considered veterans.   I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror from time to time, or my sister takes a close up photo of me, big-grinned, face to face with my giggling three month old nephew Jackson, and I am surprised at the crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes, my laugh lines.   I remind myself they were borne of 46 years of joy and do not rush out to arrange a botox injection or order some fancy cream to make them go away.


Photo by Elizabeth Scarlett

Or a friend sends me the photo on this blog; me on Ned at an endurance ride (thanks Barb Horstmeier!), he still with dapples, me with short hair, and I can’t even recall having ridden it (although our AERC records say that we were there and completed).   He started competing at five; he’s coming twenty.  You’ve been at this some time if you forget an entire ride.

It happens.   We age.  Our roles change.   We go from the one being coached to the one coaching in some aspects, while continuing to be coached in others.  We find our role in that village, maybe not the mayor of the village, but perhaps not the town drunk either.  A spot that feels “just right.”   A place where you know you fit in and can contribute without attempting to jam your square peg self into a round hole.

There’s a certain relief in knowing it is so, knowing that one cannot survive and thrive entirely on our own, seeing where one has to lean and finding others you can lean upon, who will lean back when the need arises on their end.   Or mentoring those that may need your assistance today but whom you can just feel will be there tomorrow to lend others a hand up.

Coaching tree, village, tomato, tomahto.

I still like the Maggy Price bumper sticker AERC membership drive of years ago.

“I Got Mine.”

Others have been suggested.

“Each One, Teach One.”

In my little corner of the village, where I look out my window and find myself in a little community that’s growing and thriving, I like them all.