Essay: Teaching Tucker

I walked into Destination Eventing Farm in Maryland on my first evening as a working student on November 2, 2013. Instantly I was surrounded by beautiful horses, laughing people, and the smell of a clean barn after all the chores are done. This being my first ever working student gig, I wasn’t sure what the whole thing was going to be like and I wanted to find out as soon as possible. I also really just wanted to see the horses.

It took a minute but I was introduced to Tucker, a dark bay, 16.1 hand, five year old, off-the- track Thoroughbred gelding. He had a small white star under his forelock and two white socks on his hind legs. He was very quiet, munching on his hay, and only gave me a half-hearted peek—as a courtesy, I assume. He was to be my project horse. The task of training him well enough so that he could be sold to a new person fell to me. I didn’t really know it; but he was also going to be one of those wonderful things we like to call a “learning experience.”

Introducing Tucker

Introducing Tucker.

The first thing I learned about Tucker, besides that he was not easy to faze, was that he was the slowest Thoroughbred I had, and probably will ever, have the fortune to meet. I made the mistake of not bringing a whip with me on my first ride with him—a small hack through the woods—thinking I had a hot enough seat. After five minutes, the novelty wore off for him and I was Pony Club kicking just to keep up with the other horses. My first challenge with him was to teach him to be responsive to the aids. We worked for weeks, I kid you not, on simply transitioning from walk to halt, trying to get a good strike off the first step.

I will say this though about little TT Tucker, as I found out was his jockey club name: once he understood what the purpose and meaning of an aid was, he learned fast. After we made that good walk, the trot and canter followed quickly after. And when we went cross country schooling, he only needed to sniff a fence once before jumping it. A series of fences took a while but that was alright. He proved willing and able.

And as winter melted into spring, it was time Tucker was listed to be sold and I had grown very, very fond of this horse…

Before I had arrived, Tucker was frequently the last horse to be worked, the last one on the list of priorities. This was not the fault of the farm, they simply had many horses and not enough time in the day. Tucker had also not passed a vet check due to growing pains, and they had given him time off to grow. The second challenge for Tucker—now that he had grown and had his very own person—was to get stronger. We worked at building his top line, working his hind end and back so he could carry himself easily and comfortably by trotting up hills, going on long walks, and attempting to get in frame in the ring. Tucker had a wonderful mind and if given breaks, could easily focus for an hour. But, as he was a baby, and a horse, we had a few temper tantrums.

I fondly remember the first one.

We were working on getting a good canter as Tucker had decided to canter on what felt like an eight-foot stride. I asked him to lengthen and he sort of hopped in place. I asked more firmly, giving him a longer rein, thinking perhaps I had confused him. But no, Tucker had decided he had enough and did an almost perfect, startlingly fast, canter pirouette. At the end of this pirouette, he stopped. My trainer and I were so surprised by this unusual occurrence, that neither of us said a word. Then we burst out laughing at Tucker’s rather pathetic attempt. I asked for forward motion once more and with a big huff, he walked off, annoyed he had failed but grudgingly willing to listen again.

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Tucker continued to improve by leaps and bounds.

He loved to jump but given the chance, he would happily fall into a flat canter and jump, crash, or otherwise go through anything in his way. We broke quite a few poles, not all his fault, to my embarrassment, including one at a clinic with Olympic eventer Phyllis Dawson who, before I broke her pole, told me Tucker and I were a good combination.

This seemed to me the ultimate test. I had worked with this horse for months.

And as winter melted into spring, it was time Tucker was listed to be sold and I, who had grown very, very fond of this horse, had to watch other people try Tucker for the purpose of buying him. I didn’t really have a problem with it, I was even happy Tucker might find a forever home, until the week before his first event at the Maryland Horse Trials at Loch Moy Farms. A woman named Katie came to Destination to try a few of our sale horses. She rode one or two before she got to Tucker and then didn’t seem to want to get off of him. This niggled at me but I told myself it was because I was nervous for the coming show and tried to put it out of mind. Katie, who was very nice, very kind, and whom I very much liked, disappeared into her car to go try some other horses at other farms and I went with Tucker to cool him off.

The day of the show dawned and I was so nervous, I could hardly stand still. I worried how Tucker would handle the atmosphere, the dressage ring, the horses running by on the cross country course and the warm up ring. Cool cucumber Tucker perked up for a little while when we arrived and went on a walk but when we returned to the trailer, it was all about the hay.

The trend held even when we went to the small warm up ring for the Elementary division, navigated my nervousness, and worked between horses. This seemed to me the ultimate test. I had worked with this horse for months. Whatever problems he had were created by me and now we were going to go into a dressage ring with a teeny tiny fence and basically get graded on every movement. Had I prepared Tucker enough? Had I prepared myself enough? We’d been having trouble with the canter departs, would that be a problem? Dear Tucker just went into the ring like a veteran show pony and did exactly what I asked of him. We scored a solid 36.0 for his first event!

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Success!

I took Tucker back to the trailer and with a small squeal of glee, grabbed his neck and hugged him tightly. Tucker wanted none of this business and shook himself. Laughing, I began to prepare for show jumping. I had noticed during my dressage warm up that Katie had shown up and watched our test. I tried not to think about it and luckily, or unluckily, distraction came in the form of my trainer.

“What did you think?” I asked.
She laughed. “You were more nervous than he was.”
I laughed back. “I know.”
We basked in the moment before she spoke again.
“She gave us a check this morning. We didn’t want to tell you before dressage.”
I smiled, actually happy despite the fact. “Oh good! He liked her. He’ll be happy with her.”
She smiled back. “Yeah, he’s gonna be a little hunter pony!”

We finished that day in seventh place and Tucker left for his new home a week later. I thought about, and still think about, Tucker a lot. I learned so much from that horse—more than I probably will for a long time. He was the first horse I ever trained, the first horse I could ever really call mine even when he wasn’t and the first horse to give me a concussion. I get updates from Katie about Tucker. They’re bittersweet. I am genuinely happy he’s with her and couldn’t have chosen him a better human if I had tried. But I do wish he was still with me, chugging along in the arena, working on getting a good walk.