I was afraid to canter. In ten years of horseback riding lessons, I had become adept at walking or trotting through obstacle courses and trails. I didn’t think the fact that I had a disability was what was holding me back. There was something about the feeling of going too fast that made me feel like I was going to fall off the horse. I had made great progress in my adaptive lessons in spite of being disabled by a stroke when I was 25. Riding was instrumental in my recovery.
I saw tremendous gains in strength, balance and coordination as a result of regular riding lessons. I had gained so much more from my involvement with Take The Reigns Adaptive Riding Center. I was able to attend gala events among New Jersey’s horse country elite, as well as compete in their annual horse show where I usually won Champion in both the walk/trot and obstacle course classes.
Yet, the cantering class had eluded me. I often resented the younger riders competing against me who were able bodied but had emotional disabilities. Kim was 14 years old and suffered from autism, but was physically fit as a fiddle. I watched her as she effortlessly walked the obstacle courses before the competition. If I wanted to walk the course, I would need assistance on the uneven terrain of the show ring. I always felt she had an unfair advantage, but was never really sure since I couldn’t imagine what her life was like with her emotional challenges. She usually took first place in the cantering division.
I maintained an account on Instagram under the name Meghan- the- Merry Rider. I only posted photos of myself that hid my disability. This was fairly easy if I was on a horse’s back. The photos I posted from EQUUS, the annual gala, included my walking cane. I slowly amassed 1,000 followers on Instagram. I enjoyed engaging with like minded horse people on social media. Many of my fellow Instagram horse people were vendors who sold equestrian fashion and accessories online, but the remainder were competitive riders and breeders.
When I posted photos with my blue ribbons on Maverick at the spring horse show, a man named Georges from an equestrian touring company in France sent me a direct message asking about whether I rode in the cantering division. I directed him to visit the Take the Reigns’ website so he could learn that it was an adaptive riding program. I told him I had been having issues with fear as I tried to learn to canter.
The photos on his Instagram account were amazing. He led tours on horseback through the French countryside. It looked like something I would love to do someday.
After he had a chance to look at the Take the Reigns website, he asked what my disability was. I explained that I had been recovering from a stroke for 10 years, and had found horseback riding to be an invaluable therapeutic system. When he heard about my struggles with weakness, spasticity and poor balance he was more impressed with my accomplishments as an equestrian. He posted photos of groups of riders as they passed French Chateaux and castles.
Georges was taking a vacation from leading tours for the summer, and planned to work as resident caretaker at a stable of horses at Château en Auvergne in central France while the family who owned the Château went on an 8 week holiday in the Maldives.
“I’m pretty sure I could teach you how to get comfortable with cantering if you spent a few weeks with me at the Château this summer,” he wrote.
I wasn’t sure how to take this proposal. I tended to trust horse people’s intentions, but I had only been chatting with this guy on Instagram for a few weeks. The horseback tours looked incredible on the company website where Georges worked. I assumed I would be able to ride similar tours if I decided to go to the Château.
I asked Georges about how long he thought would be a good length of stay and if we would be able to ride through the Forest of Troncais I had seen on the website.
He replied that his contract prohibited him from taking individuals on private tours in areas where his employer offered guided trips. He suggested I come to the Château for 2 weeks in the summer while the owners were on vacation to learn to canter, and maybe try a little dressage.
The Château was built in 1836 and had a 40 stall stable along with a heated swimming pool. It sounded like a nice place for a summer vacation. Maybe a relaxed atmosphere was what I needed to muster up the courage to canter. I hadn’t thought about trying dressage, but hadn’t ruled it out. Georges seemed to have a lot of confidence in me.
I booked a flight to Paris and planned to stay at the Château for the first two weeks in August that summer. Hopefully I would be in shape for the horse show the following spring.
Georges met me at the airport in Paris. He was tall and handsome, with short brown, curly hair, green eyes and a horseman’s strong physique. He had warned me that there was a two hour drive from the airport. This gave us a chance to talk in the car. I told him about my medical history, and how learning how to ride had given me my life back after
I had a crippling stroke when I was only 25.
I went on to tell him about the last ten years at Take The Reigns up until the last months of classes when I had struggled to make the next step to learn how to canter because of fear.
The last hour of the drive meandered through ancient villages leading to the forest where we climbed the long driveway to the magnificent hilltop estate. There was a gorgeous view of the pond where guests went canoeing and fishing in between horse tours. The Château itself had 19 private guestrooms where riders stayed during their tours. The house was furnished with fine French antiques.
I asked to see the stables first. There was some uneven terrain at the approach that Georges helped me to navigate safely. Upon entering I found the wood floors easy to walk on. The vaulted ceilings had skylights.
The barn was nicer than many homes I’d seen. There were 40 horse stalls with polished brass railings around each of them. The bathroom was modern with a full tub shower. It was fitted with custom made window treatments made of equestrian themed printed fabric.
Georges introduced me to a small paint horse named Tinkerbell. He suggested she would be a good fit for me to try to learn how to canter since she was so gentle.
There was an indoor riding ring that was as large as the outdoor facilities at Take the Reigns back home. I couldn’t wait to get started. Georges suggested an early class the next morning.
We discussed plans for the next two weeks over dinner.
“What made you ask if I wanted to try dressage?” I asked.
“It’s a specialty of mine.”
“Let’s see if we can get me cantering first.”
“OK, we start first thing in the morning.”
“That sounds great. My endurance usually fades by the afternoon.”
The sun was setting as we talked.
“I’ve had a long trip. I think I need to get ready to go to bed.”
“Ok, let’s get you situated, and we can continue our conversation at breakfast.”
I settled in a luxurious room with an en suite bathroom. I fell asleep instantly.
I dressed in my riding gear before breakfast, anxious to try a ride on Tinkerbell.
Fresh buttered croissants and coffee were served.
“I am having the staff in the stable tack up Tinkerbell for you and warming her up.”
I used a motorized lift at Take the Reigns to mount and dismount. They didn’t have one here so I climbed up a short set of steps with the help of Georges and a few guys who had been warming Tinkerbell up for me. Georges mounted a larger thoroughbred horse to demonstrate as we rode together.
I immediately felt comfortable on Tinkerbell as she had a gentle, smooth trot. I made excellent transitions from walking to trotting and back to the walk. I felt a strong connection to her, and felt she was responding well to me.
As we rode easy circles around the indoor ring, Georges explained that we would take a few days to get used to each other. There was no need to hurry the process along. We had two full weeks. Sometimes horses take a little longer to adjust to a rider with a disability. They need to learn how to compensate for the rider’s weaknesses.
It looked effortless when Georges transitioned from the trot to cantering. He pointed out that it was important to have a good sitting trot before making the transition. He told me that many riders are startled when a horse starts to canter and they react by pulling back on the reins which gives the horse a conflicting message. If you are asking for a canter, you can’t be pulling back because that is the signal to slow down or stop. It is better to use a half halt technique where you pull and release the reins. Leaning forward will cause you to get ahead of your horse. He showed me how to roll your hips in a scoop like fashion to follow the horse’s rythym when it started to canter.
We spent the rest of our first day letting Tinkerbell and I get used to each other without putting too many demands on us. I spent two hours transitioning from walking to trotting and practicing my sitting trot.
It was a beautiful summer day so we continued our class in the outdoor ring. There was a view of the swimming pool. It glimmered like a promised reward for a day of hard work. I was having a great time working with Tinkerbell, but the pool looked inviting. I mentioned to Georges that I would appreciate a swim later, and he assured me that would be our next stop after our cool down ride.
He demonstrated cantering as I rode at an easy walk around the ring. Finally, he took a few easy laps around at the walk to give his horse a chance to cool down.
We rode back to the barn where there were apples waiting for me to give to Tinkerbell for a job well done.
I felt refreshed and accomplished when I finally dove into the pool late in the afternoon of my first full day in France.
During the rest of the first week we worked on the same things every day with Tinkerbell which were centered around building a rapport between us. She needed to trust me in order to do what I asked. I was completely comfortable on her.
Georges and I decided over dinner on my ninth night at the Chateau that I would ask Tinkerbell to canter the next day. He reviewed the basic instructions for me as it is easier to understand them when you’re not trying to stay on a horse. He told me it is best to try to ride only in straight lines at first and avoid trying to take any turns when you first start to canter.
My head was busy trying to remember everything that night while at the same time trying to stay calm. I used a sleep meditation app on my phone before slipping into a deep sleep.
Breakfast was hearty the next morning. We had quiche lorraine, coffee, and fresh fruit with croissants. He asked if I was nervous. I admitted that I was a little bit, but I was intrepid and would not accept defeat.
We warmed up outside in the larger ring so I would have longer straight runs without needing to turn. I could trot down the long side of the ring and transition to the walk for the short sides. Hopefully this would work when I started cantering with a trot down the short sides transitioning to a canter on the long sides.
The moment had arrived. Georges showed me how to trot the short side then ask for the canter down the long. He finished by walking all the way around the ring.
I gathered my courage. I continued the easy walk around, then trotted a few circles just to wake Tinkerbell up so she knew she had to listen to me. I told myself to stop taking the easy route and procrastinating.
At the end of the next short side of the ring, I asked Tinkerbell to canter with a kick and a cluck. I startled on the first big step as predicted and pulled on the reins. She immediately returned to an easier walk. She was just doing what I asked.
Georges circled around and reminded me, “Meghan, you have to mentally prepare for the transistion ahead of time. Take some deep breaths and get ready before you ask. Aim for only a few steps at first.”
I returned to trotting circles around the ring to collect myself. I took the time to remind myself of the instructions I’d been given. Don’t lean forward. Don’t pull. Don’t chase. Scoop your butt through the horse’s steps.
I trotted through the next short side and asked again. This time I was better prepared. When she started to canter, I exhaled and relaxed. I rolled my hips as I had seen Georges demonstrate. We cantered about halfway down the long side, then I carefully used the half halt technique to transition to trot around the turns. I continued to trot and was jubilant about my first successful canter, even if it was only about five steps.
I repeated the entire process three more times to make sure I could replicate it. With each attempt, I was more relaxed.
Georges commented that I looked great, and in a few days I would be cantering down the entire long side. This was all I would need to compete in the cantering division at the Take the Riegns horse show. He suggested we finish the day with an easy trail ride just to relax.
We leisurely walked through the forest in the immediate surroundings of the Chateau. I was tired and it felt great to take it easy and simply enjoy the scenery.
When we sat down for dinner that night, I mentioned that I would only need to be able to canter the long side of the ring in order to compete in the cantering class in the horse show. Since it was an adaptive program, they kept the requirements fairly simple and easy. Each competitor had either a physical, emotional or developmental disability.
I felt relaxed and confident when I went to bed that night. Truly exhausted, I slept like a rock.
After an easy morning meditation and big breakfast, we got right back to work. It was thrilling to pick up where I left off the day before. I was able to canter half of the short side several times. Then Georges said it was time to push myself to try the long side of the ring.
On my first attempt I made it halfway before my body got too unorganized to continue. I continued at the trot around completely several times to get organized again. I repeated the entire process once more.
If only I could hold it together long enough to make it all the way down the long stretch of the ring, I could continue practicing and call it mission accomplished with three more days to go.
I collected myself on the next circle, and attacked the long side. I kept it together and made it to the end. It was an easy transition to trotting the rest of the way. I took a trotting victory lap and howled at my success.
Georges came around and asked, “Does this mean you will be leaving soon?”
“No way. You can’t get rid of me that easily. It’s too nice here. Besides, we need to spend the rest of the time cementing my new trick. I won’t have Tinkerbell when I get home.”
I continued to gain confidence and skill over the next three days. I was able to canter along both long sides of the ring by the end of the last day.
Over dinner on my final night at the Chateau, we talked about where I would go from here. Obviously, I planned to ride in the spring horse show back home. I would continue lessons at Take the Reigns. I asked Georges if he might be able to come to the US for the show. He said he would try to see if he could get away from work once we knew the date.
I took a few weeks to adjust to being back on Maverick when I started lessons at Take the Reigns. He was much bigger than Tinkerbell, and not quite as gentle.
I waited until my fifth weekly lesson to ask him to canter. I startled at first, but quickly made the adjustments I needed to succeed. My instructors were amazed that I had made so much progress in two weeks. I felt as good on Maverick as I had on Tinkerbell after that lesson. We could canter the long sides of the large, outdoor ring.
We enjoyed a beautiful fall season of classes outdoors.
Things got a little challenging when we had to move indoors for the winter. Riding in the smaller ring meant I had to transition from the trot more quickly and back again after a quick canter down the long side. This was actually helpful in building my confidence.
Georges called to see how things were going on Maverick. I told him all about how impressed my instructors were and the challenges with regard to moving inside for the winter in New Jersey. He told me a young girl from the local area had started taking lessons on Tinkerbell when I asked how she was. I told him I would let him know the date of the horse show when they announced it in January. He said he would do his best to come, but it depended on being able to get someone to cover his tours for a week or two.
I rode weekly until Take The Reigns closed for two weeks over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. My skills stayed steady and my confidence improved.
When I posted photos of me riding Maverick on Instagram, Georges commented that he was a very handsome horse who looked much bigger than Tinkerbell.
Take the Reigns held a New Year kick off party in January. It wasn’t glamorous like the annual EQUUS gala, but it was a fun night of dancing. My instructors tagged me in a few photos which they posted on Instagram. They announced the date for the annual horse show as April 20th. This gave me nearly four full months to get ready.
After registration for the show was closed, I asked my instructor about my competition. I specifically wanted to know whether Kim had registered as I knew she would be the strongest competitor in the cantering division. She was in fact registered for all three classes including the canter.
I immediately messaged Georges with the date. I asked if he could stay from April 16th-22nd. I was hoping he could help me prepare for a few days in advance. It was hardly worth it for him to travel that far for only a few days. I thought he would have plenty of time to find someone to cover his tours in four months.
It took him until the first week in March, but he did arrange for coverage at work for the show dates. He booked a flight and hotel. We planned to meet at Take the Reigns on April 17th to start practicing for the show.
April 17th was a gorgeous spring day. It was 75 degrees and sunny. The outdoor ring at Take the Reigns had been dragged to perfection. The trees were budding, and birds were singing. Volunteers were hard at work cleaning up the grounds and decorating with flowering plants for the show.
Maverick was tacked and warmed up when I arrived that morning. Georges planned to arrive by 11:30 AM. I sat in the waiting room drinking coffee until he got there. I wanted to show him how the mounting lift worked.
He arrived by 11:15 looking slightly bedraggled. He had flown in late the night before. He was carrying a small, blue box tied with a ribbon.
“Here,” he said, “for good luck.”
I opened the box and found a sterling silver horseshoe on a chain. It was the Tiffany necklace I had seen on many riders over the years.
We walked into the barn where Maverick was waiting in the mounting area.
After he walked over to the mounting block, I was lifted up and onto his back.
“Wow,” Georges said, “that sure makes things easier.”
He walked alongside Maverick as we rode outside to the outdoor ring.
Georges stood at the fence and waited for me to show him what I could do on Maverick. After a few laps at the walk, I trotted around six times then on the next lap I cantered down the long side.
“Looks to me like you are ready for competition.” he said.
“Thanks to you and Tinkerbell.”
I showed off for about an hour on Maverick. Georges commented on the spectacular condition of the footing of the ring.
“Let’s hope the weather holds up until Saturday.”
The forecast called for rain the next day with clear, sunny skies for the day before and the day of the show. This would tamp the footing down with rain so it could be dragged back to perfection the day before the show. We would need to practice in the indoor ring that day while the outdoor ring was being prepared for the show the next day.
Georges and I ate lunch at the nearby historic Tewksbury Tavern where there was always an interesting mix of well dressed and coiffed “ladies who lunch” together with rough and tumble horsewomen with their messy hair and mud caked, dirty and often tattered barn clothes and riding boots.
“I would like to take advantage of having you at the show this year to help me walk the obstacle course to familiarize myself with it before the competition.” I said.
“Of course, what else can I do for you?”
“Take some great photos and post them on Instagram for me, and just be there for moral support.”
“We should practice trotting some circles and figure eights on Friday just to be sure you’re ready for the obstacle course class. You don’t want to keep your focus solely on cantering.”
“You are absolutely correct. That will be a little tricky indoors on a horse as big as Maverick, but I’ve done it before.”
As predicted, it rained throughout the next day, and Friday was a beautiful day. The footing of the outdoor ring got tamped down by the rain, then was dragged making it nearly perfect when the volunteers came out on Friday to set up the obstacle course for the show.
I wore my show coat to practice in on Friday in order to have some time in it at the canter before the show.
We met at Take the Reigns early on Friday for my final practice. It was much more difficult to canter the shorter sides of the indoor ring, but I did it. This gave me more confidence as I figured if I could do it inside, I would have no trouble the next day when I rode in the larger show ring.
I struggled in the tight space to trot circles and figure eights. I hoped it would be easier outside.
Georges and I went out for an early dinner to make sure I could get to bed by 9:00 the night before the big show. I pressed my show shirt and put the rest of my show clothes out before I went to bed. I had been wearing the Tiffany horse shoe necklace since I got it. I needed to get to Take the Reigns by 8:00 AM on Saturday to register and get my number. The show would begin at 10:00.
The grounds at Take the Reigns looked perfect like the weather on Saturday morning. The footing in the show ring looked flawless. There were pots of flowering plants set around the show grounds. The obstacles were set in the ring.
Georges helped tie my number around my coat. He walked through the obstacle course once by himself in order to familiarize himself with it so he could help me to do it at least once before I mounted Maverick.
I spotted Kim carefully counting her steps while she walked the course. She was startled when she met me walking through it with Georges. She stopped and said “Hi, Meghan.”
“Hi Kim, this is my friend Georges.”
She squinted while giving us the up and down. She looked confused for a second, then said, “I saw you are registered to canter.”
“Indeed I am.” was all I said.
Warm ups started at 9:00. I decided not to canter during the warm up. I trotted some circles and figure eights. I reminded myself that the point of the horse show was to have fun even if I had been dreaming of competing in the cantering class for years.
There were six of us in the walk/trot class. It was the easiest of the three classes except for having to navigate around the other riders.
For the obstacle course class, three riders followed the judges instructions to walk over the cavaletti poles, perform figure eights around the barrels, and walk in a serpentine pattern across the ring. This was no problem at all.
Three of us rode one at a time in the cantering class. We were asked to only canter down one long side of the ring. Kim went first and had no problem with it, as usual.
Jennifer, a teenager who had Downs syndrome, rode next. She trotted around the entire ring before she transitioned to the canter down one long side. Her left foot slipped out of the stirrup when she transitioned back to the trot and she had to stop so a volunteer could help put her foot back where it belonged.
When it was my turn, I momentarily regretted not cantering in the warm ups. But, I knew I could only keep moving forward and mustered my courage and confidence to just do it. I reminded myself to have fun. Just as I had done many times, I easily cantered down the long side of the ring.
All riders were called to walk around the ring while the judges tallied our scores. This was when I noticed Georges at the fence taking photos.
In the walk/trot class I was awarded the first place blue ribbon, with Jennifer getting the red reserve champion ribbon. A rider from a neighboring barn won the yellow third place ribbon for the class.
I also won first place in the obstacle course class, and Kim won reserve champion.
The prizes for the cantering class were awarded last. Kim got first place Champion, and I won second place Reserve Champion. I was thrilled. I had had a lot of fun getting there which was the whole point of the horse show.
We ended the day by posing for photos on the horses with our ribbons. Georges was there to take my photo, and posed for a few standing next to Maverick while a volunteer took our photo together.
That night, I joined Georges at his hotel for dinner. We saw that the best photo he posted on Instagram had been viewed over 700 times and had 463 likes.
Over coffee Georges asked “What’s next for you, Meghan-the-Merry-Rider?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll join you on one of your tours or just come for another visit next summer to try dressage. I have to thank you for everything. I am so proud of myself for conquering my fear about learning to canter. I’m sure I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
We stayed in touch through Instagram and Facebook for the rest of the year. I ultimately did return to France many times to ride with Georges who became my lifelong equestrian friend.
Thank you for reading :)