Polished Pitch Forks

I was talking with a student yesterday, telling him about my experience at one of the country’s most respected schools of horsemanship. You see, in the mid 1970’s, I was one of 21 people from all over the world selected to ride for one scholarship at Morven Park International Equestrian Institute. This world renowned school is in Leesburg Virginia, near Washington DC. I was in Roswell, New Mexico…

I was writing articles for magazines: The Chronicle of the Horse, Horseplay, Dressage & Ct and others. I saw an ad for the scholarship and applied, giving Mr. deKunffy and some other instructors I had ridden under as references. I was around 23 years old, but had been operating my own school for 5 years. The move to Roswell came after our family’s corporation went bankrupt. My father’s alcoholism caused the bankruptcy and soon after, his death. I had very little financial resources and, after notification that I was one of the selected few, had to figure out how to get back to Virginia!

I could afford a bus ticket. Because we were required to bring a saddle, bridle, boots and helmet, I called the administration and asked if I could come without a saddle. They approved it. I rode the Greyhound buses to Virgina; boots, bridle and helmet in my lap in a tote bag, a backpack holding my breeches, clothes, swimsuit and flip flops. It was summertime. I sported a very dramatic farmer’s tan on my face, shoulders and 3/4 of the way up my arms.

MPIEI had arranged a shuttle from a nearby hotel, so that was my destination and, by taxi. I settled into my little room at the hotel the night before our exams began. I brought protein type bars and vegetarian “jerky” with me and planned to eat each supper somewhere cheap. There was no good place within walking distance, so I ate suppers in the hotel restaurant, using up my emergency money.

That first day we were assigned horses and divided into 3 groups, each to ride in the indoor school, showing our Dressage. There was some confusion because I did not have a saddle – I was put in the last group and a kind young woman from the second group offered her saddle for me to use. But, the staff had found a saddle for me and brought up a fresh, black, 17.3 hand gelding straight from his box stall. The saddle-offering young woman took her sweet, well mannered mount (a chestnut, 16 hand gelding) back to the stables. I kept telling myself to “BREATHE”!

My gelding was certainly gorgeous. He had a huge stride that took a little getting used to – but I had ridden ponies, Arabs, my brother’s Shire TB cross… I was adjustable. But this black horse bucked. Just for the fun of it. He had floating half passes at canter and a mean bronc inspired flying change. It popped me forward every time, but I kept on top of him and held back the need to break into tears.

That saddle was slick, so I had to move a bit to get back into position after every change of rein and Big Black Bronc took every shift to mean something and most of the time he decided it mean “crow hop” or “bury head and neck between front legs”. I stayed on! But I began to get nauseous thinking about the next day and jumping…. Crikey. We were required to continue with our assigned mounts. I decided to apply everything Mr. deKunffy had taught me, philosophically and equitation-wise and at least survive this.

When I went to supper that second evening, having now made a couple of friends, I watched the slender, beautiful, very tan girl from Florida flirt with the wait staff. She got a note from the chef asking for a date. She got free dessert. She told us that her dad was going to pay for her enrollment at MPIEI, but she was trying for the scholarship anyway – if she won it, she could use the money for a new car (yes, it was comparable and no, she did not win).

It was hot in Virginia and I was NOT used to the humidity anymore! I decided to take a swim to cool off and to enjoy the pool as the evening turned to night… the bluish lights around the pool made my very pale skin look ghostly white, except of course, where my face and arms were as brown as coffee from the southwest sun. Gorgeous Florida girl came to swim, too and she had a tan all over. I felt so self conscious, I went back to my room, took a cold shower and went to bed. I had to leave the television on to cover the strange noises in the hall.

Morning back at MPIEI had us in a classroom watching videos, hearing lectures and taking written exams. They had doughnuts and coffee and I devoured them. Then, we had free time to explore the stables. The barns were incredible. The arenas impeccable. The jump courses were dazzling, the indoor schools felt like churches to me. As I absorbed the beauty and tidiness, I began to notice that all the tools, hung perfectly in each barn’s aisle, were polished. I am serious, the shovels and pitch forks and rakes and hoes had all their metal parts polished. Mental note to myself was – guess who polishes these!

I am not afraid of work. But, sometimes excessive work would wear out my injured hand and I kept thinking that I should have told them about it…

Not to worry, the jumping exams seemed to seal my fate. Big Black Bronc was true to form. We jumped a 3’3″ course, then they put the jumps to 3’9″. The jumps looked small from on top of him (where I stayed, by some miracle of pure willpower), it was the giant leaping buck after each landing that made me gasp in panic. Tan face now pale and ghostly, I rode the best I could and even tried to smile.

We had coaching. They had their (internationally respected) instructors and head master evaluating us and giving us instruction. They kept telling me to lean back; lengthen BBB’s stride when he gets all “bottled up”; use more inside leg to outside rein. I did my best. In the end, BBB started looking quite brilliant and I was breathing and being more assertive. I learned a lot. I was glad I had gone and tried, but I knew I was not the winner.

The next day, I sat in the grass with the director of the Institute. The other riders seemed intimidated by him (he is famous) and I figured, what the heck, here is a chance to keep learning. I asked him about collection and compression; I asked him if he felt certain breeds were dramatically better than others; I asked him he thought the injuries to my hand were my biggest limitation. He said that, for any of us, our biggest limitations were “between the ears”. I decided to be unlimited.

We rode through jumping grids. I studied charts in the classrooms showing muscle structure and relationships to the human body. When I got back on the bus to return to New Mexico, I silently thanked BBB for showing me that I could conquer that fear and that I could learn from him how to ride him. I put my now grungy, sweat covered, Spanish top Marlboroghs, my bridle and helmet back into the tote… let the bus driver put my backpack into the luggage bin and I gathered change from the bottom of my purse to buy candy bars and juice at the bus stations all the way home.

I returned to Roswell feeling strong. The girl who won the scholarship was not one of the riders who could pay for it if not the winner and her Mom had come with her to be supportive. It was the right choice. I came home with new determination for my own school of horsemanship. And I knew that, at no point in my life, would my mucking tools be polished. And that was just fine with me.


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2 thoughts on “Polished Pitch Forks

  1. Diedra

    What great experiences you’ve had! I’ve attended Tucson’s De Kunffy symposiums the past two years. It’s amazing what a difference he can make to the relationship with your horse. I feel honored to have been there–but to ride with him–wow!

    • I feel so deeply blessed to have known & ridden with Mr. deKunffy for many years (off & on). He is a light shining in the world. And whenever he rode one of my horses, I would cry to see the understanding & lightness & the dance. I also rode a demo test for a judging video he did, but I think something bad happened to the films that could not be recovered….

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