A trainer to remember

by smokinchestnut

Some people enter your life quietly, silently nodding their head from across the room and slowly making their way over to you and into your life. Others are like a battering ram, with personalities so forceful they knock you off your feet as you sit in stunned, happy surprise at their arrival.

This is Hank, and he is in the latter category. I started my riding career at age seven but didn’t become a real rider until I met him seven years later. A friend of mine persuaded me to switch from a somewhat snooty (and completely uninspiring) Hunter/Jumper barn to Hank’s pasture boarded paradise on the outskirts of Atlanta’s suburbia. He rented 60-acres of horse property and lived in a worn-out, character-filled house with a wood-fired stove. It looked out onto rolling acres, an ancient barn and a pasture filled with horses ranging from retired lesson ponies to spunky ex-racehorses. Then there were our own horses who graced the herd — never perfect in the show horse sense but fulfilling every part of our childhood dreams. We traipsed through treacherous trail rides (No Trespassing signs? “Pshaw,” said Hank), found our sea legs in a deep pond (my water hippo of a horse decided to roll in the pond first) and discovered that jumping 3′ for the first time in the pouring rain created character for all parties involved.

Hank and my parents are who I owe for me becoming the rider I am today. For fueling the horse side of my soul. For inspiring a passion so deeply ingrained that to leave it behind will mean (and has meant) leaving an irretrievable part of myself behind, too.

To meet and to know Hank is to know someone whose personality lives outside of themselves. He can be as crass as the day is long. He’ll make your eyes roll out of your head — after you’re done cracking up — when listening to his jokes . He’s unyielding in his old school political beliefs. He actually showed up at a local Army recruitment office and wanted to reinstate the cavalry after 9/11 happened. (I secretly love that story.)

But he has also loved deeply and lost many of these loved ones. He’s sensitive and open. And best of all, he doesn’t hold back. That’s what a great trainer does — tells you like it is, but without malice and always in a way to make you a better rider.

I was younger when I met him (in seventh grade, I believe) but I remember being in awe of his talent as a trainer and the way he handled his students. He listened, he watched and he was completely engaged. My lessons at my previous barn went something like this: “Trot in two-point, please.” *Trainer proceeds to rudely talk on the phone during the next TEN minutes while we the students began our weekly hour of torture. Our equitation and resolve slowly melted off our horse’s bodies until we became puddles of pure misery and embarrassment.* My only consolation during this awful, albeit brief, period of my riding career was that I nearly ran this woman over with my horse during a lesson (accidentally, I swear).

But then came Hank! Enter Hank, stage right, with shining armor, an army full of horses and an open mind to anything new and exciting. Trail rides on steep power lines (so happy I did not die that day), fox hunting at top speeds (so happy I did not die those days, either…), and Halloween rides which included dressing up our horses, trotting up to $200,000 homes and sweetly chirping “Trick or treat!” I found myself awake in the early mornings, both reluctantly prepping my horse for shows (ugh) and happily slapping on boots for a local poker ride (yay!). We never won anything but my experience and infatuation with horses grew through every hoofbeat my horse took.

But rarely does a rider evolve on their own. There is always someone in the beginning, the middle or the end of one’s riding career who is pushing them, molding them or encouraging them in some way. And certain people will leave a deep impression, as Hank did.

Here are a few photos I took of him to work on my portrait photography skills. Hank used to model when he was younger so he made this shoot so easy for me. He had three different outfits to represent himself — the classy gentleman with a tumbler of whiskey, the quintessential weathered cowboy, and finally the James Bond, who is always itching for adventure. This was the first time I worked mainly in the manual mode of my camera after discovering the preset modes like A and P were not helping me. How appropriate is it that the same person who fed my appetite for horseback riding also kindled (albeit unknowingly) my passion for photography? Here’s to you, Hank.

I must say that the next few shots from inside a shed are my favorite from the album. They are almost completely unedited and this is where I really started learning the manual mode of my camera. The lighting was perfect, the background was perfect for his outfit and his eyes are so arresting, almost as if they are peering into your soul. Who knows, maybe they are?

And, naturally, for any who knows Hank, there is and always will be a bloopers category.