A Recipe for Learning

Reprinted with permission from the Horse Connection Magazine

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Start with a deep connection with horses. Add hefty doses of discipline, personal integrity, family support, and gritty determination. Season with a mix of adversity and luck. Bake with the big picture of life.

This is the recipe that took Hannah Cohen from no horse and no experience above Novice level to completing the Rebecca Farms CIC*** in two years time. This remarkable achievement is all the more astonishing considering that Hannah is from New Mexico, hardly a mecca of eventing, and did it on one borrowed horse, Simply Larry.

The story starts with a love of horses. Hannah’s sister Emma sat on a horse when she was a baby in diapers and could hardly be pried loose. Hannah had a similar enthusiasm. Joe and Ronnie Cohen indulged their daughters, paying for pony club and lessons, unaware of the slippery slope they were headed down.

Travis was the original family horse, a lanky paint of unknown breeding and moderate willingness. He could do a nice dressage test and jump a clean round if he didn’t buck his rider off in the process.

When soundness issues with Travis prevented him from going beyond Novice, the Cohens purchased Rusty. His unusual behavior was stopping and rearing about ten strides out from a jump. Hannah added a strong leg and stickability to her riding skills. The goal with Rusty was to get to Preliminary level and maybe qualify for Young Riders. Sadly, a farm accident prevented Hannah and Rusty from even getting to Training level together.

Many young riders would have given up at this point, and if not the rider, then certainly the parents. A bit of good luck came along just when it was needed.

Hannah moved Rusty to a new barn during his recuperation and started taking lessons from Gilly Slayter of Simply 3-Day. Gilly was in rehab herself, having hurt a knee, so she put Hannah aboard her 13-year old TB gelding, “Larry”. Larry had been with Gilly since she found him as a two-year old in a pasture with Mo and Curly, the polo ponies. Together they competed through the levels up to Advanced, with a goal of the Rolex Kentucky 3-Star, but injuries to both of them had interrupted the plan. It made sense to give Hannah the ride while Gilly figured out her own soundness issue.

There was no looking back. At a cross-country schooling session in Flagstaff a few days before Hannah’s first competition with Larry in August 2005, Gilly watched the pair sail over a warm-up fence. Larry then tucked his chin into his chest, spit out the bit, and took off like a freight train. A bit change and some new riding instructions enabled Hannah and Larry to safely negotiate the course at week’s end and finish her first Training level in 10th place.

Hannah and Larry competed at Training in three more horse trials over the course of a year, the last one being at the Coconino Spring Horse Trials in Arizona. Together, they gained their first USEA point there.

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Three weeks later, Hannah moved Larry up to Preliminary at the June Copper Meadows Horse Trials in California. They had one run-out on cross-country and finished 11th. They nailed their next outing at Shepherd Ranch H.T., adding only one time fault to their dressage score to win on an impressive score of 21.90, against 17 in a very competitive Open Preliminary division. They had a new secret weapon in the form of coaching from Gina Miles.

When Hannah realized how much she wanted to qualify for Young Riders, she convinced her parents to let her defer enrollment at UCSC for a year. With advice and encouragement from Gilly, she contacted trainers in California about their working student programs. After touring several barns and submitting videos of her riding, Hannah was accepted by Gina Miles. Hannah and Larry moved to Rainbow Ranch in Creston, CA following Copper Meadows.

To be a working student for a top US rider means learning their methods, preferences, facilities and all the things they do to be successful. Hannah benefited greatly by being immersed in such a program and so did Larry. Hannah would call Gilly in New Mexico and say, “McKinlaigh is getting Legend and Adequan every other week – should Larry?” Gilly would laugh and answer, “If it works for McKinlaigh, let’s do it for Larry.” If McKinlaigh got a treatment in the magnetic blanket, then so did Larry. By the way, this quality of care helped McKinlaigh win the individual bronze medal at the Pan American Games with Gina this summer in Brazil, representing the US.

Hannah had daily lessons with Gina and rode as many as six horses a day. She schooled a lot of the young horses on the farm and even got to take dressage lessons on McKinlaigh. She groomed horses and taught lessons to defray her expenses. She got really good at organizing all the gear for competitions, likening it to planning a military operation. She learned to manage her schedule so that she could get Gina’s horses ready at shows and still have time to concentrate on her own horse.

Most of all, she was challenged to improve her riding skills by competing in tough divisions in the western United States. From her debut at Preliminary in June of 2006 to her final outing with Larry at the CIC*** at Rebecca Farm in July of 2007, Hannah and Larry entered a remarkable 17 competitions. Hannah overcame her show nerves to the point where she could enjoy all aspects of a competition. Her confidence increased exponentially and the more she was able to relax, the better her horse performed.

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Hannah’s goal of qualifying for Young Riders at one* level was thwarted by a rule change. A rider’s age previously was determined at the start of the calendar year but it changed in 2006 to be the age as of the date of the national competition. For the 1* North American Young Rider Championship the age limit is 18. Hannah turned 19 in 2006. Upon learning of the rule change she simply changed her goal to qualify at two* level.

With two Intermediate runs under her belt, Hannah entered the CIC** at Galway Downs in March, 2007. She and Larry added a mere eight points to their dressage score (two rails in show jumping) to finish 8th out of 24 starters. Wayne Quarles, head of the ground jury, complimented Hannah by saying he thought she had the best cross-country round of the whole division.

Based on that preparation, Hannah entered Larry in the Twin Rivers CCI** a little over a month later. A good finish there would book their ticket to the Young Riders Championship. Alas, stormy weather, tension, and a flying top hat during their dressage test meant a score just a few points over what they needed to qualify. Despite good performances in the jumping tests, this put an end to the dream of going to Young Riders.

A lot of people would have thrown in the towel at this disappointment. Hannah talked things over with Gina and Gilly. They hatched a plan to shoot for the CIC*** at Rebecca Farm, a scant two months away. After one more run at Intermediate, Hannah moved up to her first Advanced at Copper Meadows in June, 2007. With a good run there and another one at Galway Downs in July, Hannah and Larry were able to get on the trailer for the long drive to Montana.

Hannah’s fan club at the CIC*** included proud horse owner Gilly Slayter-Voigtlander and proud father Joe Cohen. Ronnie Cohen, Hannah’s mom, was banned from ringside due to her high anxiety level, so she received regular reports by cell phone. Hannah competed against the likes of Sara Mittleider on her seasoned Rolex Kentucky partner El Primero, and Hawley Bennett on her Badminton horse, Livingstone.

The cross-country course at Rebecca Farms looked huge to Hannah. By the third fence though, she had Larry settled into a rhythm and knew they could handle the course. All the lessons in not mistaking speed for impulsion, in holding a line for accuracy questions, and how to set up for the jump paid off. The hours spent on the tread mill at Rainbow Ranch and doing trot sets up a hill were all worth it. Their 10th place finish felt like gold.

Larry has returned to Gilly in New Mexico. He will be ridden by her again, after taking a well-deserved rest. Hannah is excited about entering the Environmental Sciences department at the University of California-Santa Cruz this fall. It just so happens that the UCSC campus is a short drive away from Gina’s farm, so no telling where Hannah might be found on weekends.

Was the hard work and dedication of the past two years worth it? Hannah would say yes. Wherever life takes her now, Hannah gained the self-confidence of knowing she can answer its challenge.