My life with Evil Munchkin: Part 2 – How I became an expert at landing in the dirt

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I rode Evil Munchkin, aka Rambo, for seven years. Together we went from Beginner Novice all the way to the two-star level. This winter, I made the gut-wrenching decision to sell him because I realized it was what needed to happen to keep me in this expensive game and it was time for him to teach someone else the ropes of Eventing. We won our last event together, the Intermediate Rider division at Rocking Horse Winter III H.T., on a Saturday and he was sold and gone to his new owners on the Tuesday. I was an emotional wreck at the time he sold, I knew he was going to a 10-star home but he is my baby. His new owner is a junior rider, Haley Rosenberg, and I could not have asked for a better new jockey for Rambo.

 

Rambo came into my life as a result of a tragedy “From Tragedy to Triumph”, and the day I loaded him on the trailer and took him back to Canada with me from Will Coleman’s Tivoli Farm, was the first day I did not cry for what had been 2 months.

He arrived in Canada and I was so proud of him, he had a lot of presence that made up for his lack of height. Our first couple of rides together I really just sat on him and treated him like a piece of fine china, these rides went relatively well. Then on my third ride when I asked him to simply canter, he did an arial acrobatic routine that landed me on my butt in the dirt, getting the feel of the actual horse I had.

I was quite shocked but I had young horses prior to him and they used to buck also but they were not athletic enough to actually send me soaring through the arena. Despite being a tad sore I hopped back on and finished the ride telling myself it was an isolated incident and he must have gotten spooked. Then several days later when I mustered up the courage to jump him, I ended up on a high speed flight to the ground. We had jumped a few fences fine then midway through the ride, he landed off a fence, leaped across the arena like a Lipizanner, then proceeded to perform a rodeo show that would have put a bull to shame. Of course with my lack of grace, I ended up in a heap in the dirt (again…) then watched in horror as he levitated around the arena. There were several spectators who were more knowledgeable than me that convinced me that he acted that way because I caught him in the mouth going over the fence. So I got back on and caught a few more fences with a bigger release, then got off and semi-limped back to the barn. At this point I had come to the conclusion that he was super athletic which partly excited me (if he could buck that high surely he could jump high!) but his unpredictability had me concerned.

Early in the second week of riding Rambo I ended up in the dirt for the third time but this time I stayed there longer. Just as I had, went to swing my leg over him while getting on at the mounting block, he took off and I landed behind the saddle which lead to him bucking and me getting catapulted through the air. I do not remember this but eye witnesses (my parents) report that I laid in the dirt and kept repeating the words “I’m OKAY” in a robotic voice. My mom got me up and into the barn and started quizzing me on what I remembered about my life. This was my second concussion and I knew what was wrong with me but I could not recall what month it was. I got taken to the hospital by her while my dad lunged Rambo (he does not ride). After a night of throwing up in the hospital, doctors reassured my mom I was going to be okay and sentenced me to no riding for two weeks.

After being in the dirt so many times in three weeks, I started questioning his suitability for me. I talked to my mom and told her I felt that he was too much horse for me at the time and I needed professional help (for the training not the concussion)! She contacted a professional and we sent him for training. The arrangement was he lived at the trainer’s barn and I would travel the two hour drive twice a week to ride him in a lesson and the other days, the trainer would ride him. Luckily for me, I still had one of my first two horses, a paint mare named Katie, to ride “safely” every day so I did not go into riding withdrawal.

Rambo chilling with his buddy Katie.

Rambo chilling with his buddy, Katie.

Rambo’s first cross country school was horrific and left my mother and I questioning if the horse should event at all. To this day I have never seen a horse jump a ditch that dramatically or get so deep to  fences that he hits them with his front legs before taking off. When he did take off at a normal distance, he doggy-paddled through the air. But the trainer said he was fine to go to his first event regardless. At the time Rambo’s show name was “Silver Lining” a name I had came up with when I first picked him up in Virginia. He was a silver colour at the time and he seemed to be the silver lining to the tragedy that had just occurred. Although that name seemed inappropriate after his variety of antics.Rambo quickly worked towards becoming the trainer’s least favourite horse in the barn. His wild man bucking fits landed the trainer in the dirt twice that fall and I’m sure there were numerous close calls. By the end of January I headed to Ocala, Florida with Katie and Rambo and my trainer came down with his horses. The trainer was going to ride Rambo most of the week and then take him to his first two events at the Novice level, after which I would take him to his third event and downgrade him to Beginner Novice.

The dressage test looked more like martial arts as Rambo kicked at nearly every letter in his test (this trend continued throughout the season). The trainer went up to cross-country with him while I tacked up Katie, with whom I was preparing to run Novice. Just as I was bridling, I heard people yelling “LOOSE HORSE! LOOSE HORSE!!!” and I looked towards the screaming to see Rambo dodging people who were trying to grab him as he came trotting back without his rider… I yelled that it was my horse and told them he was coming back to my trailer. Sure enough, he stopped with his head a few inches away from Katie’s and she gave him a look that said “Oh Oh you’re in trouble.” I was quite concerned about my trainer but he was close behind, on foot, covered in dirt and grass stained. He was not impressed but I think his anger helped him get around cross-country double clear.

The next show went less disastrously, so I felt confident enough to do my first event on him. I think Rambo had begun to enjoy the hot Florida weather because that was the least terrifying event I did on him that whole season and I went back to Canada pleased with how everything was beginning to work out and a third place finish at our first event ever!

Surviving warm-up at our first event together...

Surviving warm-up at our first event together…

That spring we kept Rambo in training and I continued to have two weekly lessons on him. Before the Canadian event season kicked off, Rambo’s show name underwent a monumental change. My trainer had been calling him the “Evil Pony” and I was calling him “Munchkin” then one day when I was tacking him up for a lesson my mom being such a comedian did this evil cackle and said “muhahaha I’m the Evil Munchkin, try and stay on me today”. I died laughing and when I had enough breath to get the words out I declared, “That is his show name. Evil Munchkin.” At the time most people were appalled that I was going to call my horse Evil Munchkin and insisted that he needed some gallant and majestic name but I held my ground and argued that he had earned that name.

The Canadian event season aboard Evil Munchkin commenced and despite my sickly fear of warm-ups and portions of our dressage tests, we went on a “red reign of terror” as my mom named our consecutive victories (in Canada, the winner gets a red ribbon). The horse won nearly every event at the pre-training level, including championships and the overall leader board. But my trainer called them ugly wins because the jumping looked horrendous. I was so scared of that horse, that at some shows I would skip warm-ups because he would get too out of hand. I wish my dad would have videoed the warm-ups because I’m positive they would have been YouTube sensations.

In August we went to the Richland Horse Trials to run the Novice there and that was a complete disaster. In stadium warm-up, we landed off the oxer while someone beside us landed off of the vertical and that sent Rambo into orbit. I sat more than my 8 seconds worth of his antics but then he did his famous dive to the left and off I went. I laid on the ground trying to breath because the wind got knocked out of me. This sucked because I couldn’t get up fast enough to avoid drawing further attention to my situation.

After the medics cleared me, I got back on and headed to the ring to wait for my round (I had enough warm-up trauma). The TD showed up before my round and told me he would be watching me and if it was not safe, I would not be allowed on xc (great, no pressure). Despite putting a 3 stride in a 2 stride line the round was “safe” enough and I was allowed to complete the event. Although after that stadium round I was so nervous on xc that I racked up a slew of time penalties at Novice level.

Richland was not one of his wins but on average at events, his fancy pants movement would win the dressage phase consistently (if his wildness did not ruin too many movements) and we would manage to jump around clear to keep the lead. One of the tests, where he did come out on top, had the overall comment from the judge “When he is good he is really good. But the stuff in-between is awful. Well named!” That comment practically summed up most of Rambo’s work… Either brilliant or awful. It was a strange end to the season winning a majority of our events but with such poor jumping that I was in no position to upgrade to training.

The trainer concluded at the end of the season that Rambo was a dressage horse since he was too dangerous to jump. I was far too in love with Rambo to sell him and had zero interest in doing only dressage. Rambo was like an abusive boyfriend; no matter what that horse did I would make an excuse for him, blame myself and continue to convince myself he would change. So of course I did not sell him, instead, I ended up parting ways with that trainer, which made me sad.

That fall, my parents purchased the ex-advanced mare Pamela from Nicole Shinton. She had been doing second level dressage for the past two years after Nicole had switched from eventing to dressage. Pamela was an experienced horse that I could ride around Training and Preliminary, so upgrading Rambo would be more of a possibility. That winter I went to Florida and stayed at Nicole’s farm (I had purchased both Rambo and Pamela from her.) I was without a coach and Nicole recommended Kyle Carter, with whom she had trained when she evented Pamela.

Pamela & I in a lesson.

Pamela & I in a lesson.

My mom called Kyle and managed to book a lesson on each of my horses with him. I need to add here that he was reluctant to take me on as a student. He made it clear that I must commit to his program!

My first lesson was on Rambo.  I nervously rode him up to Kyle’s big cross-country field and began to warm him up. Rambo always made me nervous in new situations but I was also nervous to meet this Kyle Carter who did not seem overly interested in me as a student. When Kyle showed up, he began to warm me up on the flat. When he asked me to lengthen his canter, I was unable to make a difference in his stride length because I wasn’t quite in charge of him. Kyle told me to tap him with the crop to get a reaction and lengthen his canter. I tapped him very feebly and Rambo kicked in distaste so I immediately backed off (Rambo had me impeccably trained).

Kyle could clearly see that Rambo was running the show and told me to get off. Kyle hopped on, picked up the canter, then asked Rambo to lengthen his stride and when Rambo did not lengthen his stride Kyle tapped him with the whip, resulting in a buck. But instead of backing off and letting Rambo away with his naughtiness, Kyle hit him just a bit harder. This lead to an impressive rodeo show but Kyle was totally unfazed and calmly rode him through it until Rambo would lengthen his stride and collect, then lengthen it again. This ride was revolutionary, it marked the shift in power from Rambo to his rider.

Kyle hopped off and told me that he did not just fix my horse and what he just did would wear off in 5 minutes, so it was up to me to continue to take charge of Rambo like he had just done. I got on and finished my cross-country lesson with Kyle. Kyle Carter is totally responsible for getting me to the two-star level with Rambo. Others filled in and helped me at certain points and I am thankful for that, but without this first lesson with Kyle this story would be different.

From that day foward, I started working with Kyle and began to make progress with Rambo’s jumping while remaining in the saddle. That lesson fueled my determination to continue eventing Rambo because I knew he could be trained and ridden.

 

Read the full Evil Munchkin series to find out how our lives played out together:

 

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