Planning to Shine

It’s been just over two months since Shakespeare departed and the Wednesday wave of grief continues to roll through. Each week its impact is less, still, I  choose to be gentle with myself on this day when the waters are stirred once more.

Today my thoughts begin to turn away from loss to what may be found from its experience. The silver lining, I suppose.

Bear was a huge part of my life for a long time, and for the past two and a half years our journey was shared by a beautiful Hanoverian mare, Sophia Loren (Sophi). Now she is the full focus of my attention so, in the spirit of getting on with life, I would like to tell you about her.


This little mare is as larger-than-life as one might expect from one bearing the same name as a cinema icon. I didn’t name her. Like Shakespeare, she arrived in my life offering a challenge. Shakespeare, named for one of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, helped me to find my heart, and my voice, as a creative writer; Sophia Loren, named for one of the brightest shining stars in the firmament of Hollywood, is helping me to shine. I’m not going to get into all the complex ways this is meaningful to me. I believe, however, that my experience with these two horses rather underscores the idea that the Universe will send you what you need, when you need it. You just need to be open to recognizing and receiving it when it lands on your doorstep.

Sophi and I struggled, in the beginning. Not that we weren’t well suited. Not at all! Like Bear, she was only the fourth horse I looked at and we fit like a glove. No, our struggles came through outside influences. Finding our groove in that first year proved difficult as our coach, it seemed to me and for whatever reason, chose to dumb everything down. Sophi was training Third Level dressage when she passaged into my life, and our coach was keeping me stuck at First Level, a place from which I was determined to rise.

That coach and I parted company after a year for a variety of reasons. Four months later I was introduced to Nancy. A brilliant, accomplished coach whose only agenda was to help Sophi and I realize our potential. Within a couple of lessons she had us training Second Level movements. Six months later we were preparing for our first dressage show ~ my first time in the ring in 10 years! In such a short period, Sophi and I had risen together through the watchful eye and skillful teaching of a coach who truly cared and wanted us to succeed. No quick fixes. Everything I had learned over decades of training had been held within waiting for the right person to draw it out. It was a matter of trust.

Shoulder In

Shoulder-in … Image: Victoria Sambleson

In July and August of last year Sophi and I participated in our first shows together. Three tests over three days at each show. I learned all the Second Level tests by memory and Sophi was an absolute star. Sure, I was nervous, and adrenal fatigue was a concern as always, but feeling Sophi’s confidence, and the encouragement and support of those around me helped to override that. Our scores improved from test to test and we ribboned in the top four in all six classes.

We had so much fun. I’m so grateful to all my friends who encouraged me to take that uncertain leap, and to my coach for showing me it was possible. I’m grateful for Victoria who groomed for me at the show, and JF who transported Sophi in the horse box, his journeyman show confidence underpinning the whole adventure (“Go get ’em, tiger!”) For Eira who did such a lovely job braiding Sophi’s mane; and Courtney for doing such a beautiful body clip on her. Sophi looked immaculate and so proud of herself. And, naturally, I’m so grateful to Nancy for working with what she saw in me, not with what someone told her to see.


Extension … Image: Victoria Sambleson

Sophi thrives in the show ring and this gives me confidence, and as we share in each other’s confidence we thrive together.

Now we’re training Third Level, starting to introduce all the fancy moves that Sophi already knows (lead changes, passage, etc.) and loves to pre-empt. (“Oh, I know what you want…” and gives it to me before I even ask.) She’s a very smart mare.

We’re planning to show next summer. We’re planning to shine.

Nurture what you love …

Horse Mom

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2018 



Confessions of a Coaching Intern: The Buck Stops Here … Part II

The third instalment of  Confessions of a Coaching Intern. A series in which I re-visit my experiences as an equestrian coach-in-training, 1995-1997.

 Enjoy the ride!


Finding Clarity with a Pitch Fork and a Song (Freshly Pressed)

The Buck Stops Here … Part I




After granny’s passing I had the sense that her death meant a resurrection for me. Honouring her memory by doing something meaningful with my life, by doing something that would have made her proud, became really important.

I believed that she would have been pleased for me to start taking my life back. And I believed she would have been doubly-pleased for me to involve horses somehow. She’d loved horses.

My original intent was to apply to the agricultural college in Olds, Alberta.

However, as I was going through the motions toward this goal a conversation with a riding instructor at a barn where I found myself back in the saddle brought me to a different conclusion.

She advised that the infamous farm of my most recent riding past was under new management as a hunter/jumper show barn and riding school. She suggested I check with the new people to see if they were offering a coaching internship program.

This sounded interesting, so I soon made a phone call and set up an appointment. Within a week I was returned to the place of my former doom and telling the nice new people, with some emotion, my big plans.

They were, in fact, looking for interns and, after some discussion we reached an agreement. I would start my equestrian adventure in the fall after I’d wound up a few things, including my career in public relations.

Now, they may have looked at me sideways a bit as I was in my 30s and, perhaps, a little “old” for this kind of thing, but I was so excited I didn’t care what anyone thought. I’d always dreamed of working with horses and my dream was about to come true.

Doubtless my husband at the time questioned my sanity. Why did I want to quit a perfectly well-paying desk job to hang out in a barn all day?

It may sound awful, but what he thought became of no consequence to me. His was a short memory. He’d quit his job several years earlier, with my support, to get a Masters degree in Sports Administration (his dream) in the States. I was there for him 100 per cent, with a low Canadian dollar to boot. I’d also returned to live with my mother to make it all work.

In this instance, my schooling was 10 minutes from home and was going to cost us nothing (except the loss of a pay check, as I was often reminded). We were still living at my mother’s.  So, darn it, I was going to live my dream. It was my time.

While waiting for the internship to begin I returned to the barn of my former doom to get a feel for how it had changed under the new regime

The riding school was certainly more sophisticated. My new coach, J, was great and I really liked the horses I was riding, some of whom were still there from before.

As it got closer and closer to my internship start date, however, my husband began to throw obstacles in my path. He was desperate for me to change my mind.

To appease him I pushed the fall start back until after Christmas.

A Christmas start was then pushed back to February. With each delay I became more and more restless until finally, at the end of February and with my husband’s protests ever ringing in my ears, I made my stand, quit corporate life and, after a one-week break, launched full throttle into the internship and my journey to self-discovery.

I describe in some detail in Finding Clarity with a Pitchfork and a Song the slog and turmoil of the experience.

The fun part was riding twice a day ~ flatwork in the morning and jumping in the afternoon.

Over time each intern (there were four of us) paired off with an appropriately experienced school horse. What was considered appropriate? The horse had to be able to do a simple dressage test in frame and jump a course of 2’9″ fences. We were going for Canadian Coaching Level I here. It wasn’t complicated. By the end of my internship I’d be able to teach various levels in an equestrian centre setting. Achieving a higher coaching level to train athletes for competition was always going to be beyond my scope as I had no significant experience in the competition ring.

I staked my claim on a young, dark bay thoroughbred mare, Feebie. She was a lovely mover with a terrible stubborn streak. When she was good she was really good, and when she was having a bad day you may as well forget about it. This left me plenty frustrated, but it was part of my challenge to work it through before exam time.

It was a tough and happy 18 months of training. Of course, spending so much time together Feebie and I bonded. She was like my own horse. We managed our good and bad days together. I was having marital woes and found consolation and release working through my challenges at the barn. Spending time with Feebs allowed me to forget my troubles at home and experience some joy.

I felt like a kid again, having fun improving my riding and general horsemanship skills while working toward a worthy goal. I was participating in exercises I would teach; understanding the different challenges riders would face with each exercise, and learning techniques to help riders work through these challenges while overcoming their fears.

And while I was learning I was growing, becoming more confident, understanding myself a little better and exploring my creativity.

While learning to nurture others through teaching (and we’ll get to that in a future instalment) I was learning what it meant to nurture myself. It was so win/win!

And, of course, an important part of nurturing is issuing suitable challenges to expand the comfort zone in ways that increase confidence.

One of the most fun ~ and challenging ~ exercises I encountered was the gymnastic grid

A gymnastic grid is a series of obstacles (see diagram) designed to focus on pace, straightness, balance and coordination, and test the connection between the rider and horse. The obstacles gradually increase in size and this is determined by the riding level being taught. In our case the final obstacle was usually set around 2′ 3″. They don’t have to be huge jumps. That’s not the point. The point is to be able to create the desired form and maintain it for the duration of the prescribed exercise.

The exercise is made all the more exciting when the coach injects the additional challenge of negotiating the grid with no stirrups, no reins and, if they’re feeling particularly testy, with eyes closed while singing Twinkle, twinkle little star.

Knowing I could do it gave me the confidence to teach it.


After 18 months it was time to take part in the preliminary coaching exams. This would determine whether or not I was properly prepared for the finals which were to follow a month later.

It didn’t go so well. I was nervous and Feebie wasn’t that cooperative. After talking with the examiner and my coach it was agreed I would wait another six months to do the finals. During that time I would continue to work with Feebie to see if we could sort this out.

Naturally I was disappointed by this turn of events but decided to make the most of it. Que sera sera. My new mantra, right?

Still, regardless of my new go-with-the-flow mentality I was not prepared for the shock that was to follow.

About six weeks before the final exam Feebie, now deemed unsuitable, was removed from the coaching program.

What was I going to do?

There was only one option open to me ~ an option I had strenuously avoided never mind considered.


If you haven’t read the last instalment of this story you won’t know that my previously harrowing experience with Buck some six years earlier was the reason I’d stopped riding in the first place. And now he was going to be my exam partner?

What cruel twist of fate was this?

Even as this terrible news was being delivered I could feel the colour draining from my face; a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t understand what was happening.

Surely there was another suitable horse?

No. All were spoken for. Buck was next on the list. Buck with his knobbly knees, weak caboose and bad attitude. Buck my nemesis. I could hardly believe it. How was this horrible challenge, at this late stage, going to increase my chances of passing that exam?

Next post: Heaven help me, I think I’m going to die …


Bear Smiles

Nurture what you love …

Dorothy 🙂
Horse Mom


©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013


Confessions of a Coaching Intern: Finding Clarity with a Pitch Fork and a Song …

Horse Lover

This is the first in a series of intermittent posts about my experience as a coaching intern, 1995-1997. The memories will flow as they may so events are not likely to be in chronological order … but they will be fun to re-live. And we may actually learn something along the way … 😉


It wasn’t so long ago (okay, more than a decade but who’s keeping track … ) that I was a lost and confused early 30-something.

With a failing first marriage and tenuous hold on a career path through the jungles of corporate communications, I was feeling unhinged. When my maternal grandmother, with whom I had a somewhat conflicted relationship, died in 1994 I was forced to take stock. I quickly realized my life was broken and needed to be fixed.

Within months my world turned upside-down.

A trip to the Calgary Stampede soon after the funeral (because we’d already bought the tickets) convinced me that all I wanted to do was work with horses. Much to the chagrin of my husband I left my corporate gig eight months later and became a barn hand and coaching intern at a local hunter/jumper barn/riding school. My big idea was to get my coaching certification. It was a somewhat strange notion given that just four years earlier I’d abandoned my love of horses as a childish pursuit and moved on … to nothing.

But somehow our passion always finds us …

As we often do when change presents itself I approached this fork in the road with much enthusiasm, little realizing the many pot holes that lay ahead.

After only a few days I was appalled to realize how little I knew about horses, this despite a life time love of them and trips to the barn every week to ride. Where had I gone wrong?

And I was doubly appalled to learn, over time, just how little I knew about myself.

I went in a a marshmallow and came out toasted …

The two years spent in this school of hard knocks provided plenty of opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth. It was the first step to exposing the cankers in my way of being and beginning the healing process.

Only I didn’t know this at the time.

Since, like me, my then husband couldn’t see the bigger picture his support of my “crazy” endeavour was reluctant at best. His main concern was the loss of a second income ~ this in spite of the fact that with my sole income I’d enthusiastically supported him through his expensive Master’s degree in Sports Administration at a U.S. university. My foray into self-education was costing us nothing, and as we had no children and were living at my mother’s at the time we weren’t risking much. For me the timing could not have been better, whether he supported me or not. I pressed on.

Have I mentioned it was hard work?

This was no ordinary equestrian centre. It was the largest in the area, set on at least 100 acres with three massive indoor riding arenas, barns for 200 horses, several groomed outdoor riding rings and lovely hacking trails. It was the venue for many local and national shows and was thus, for many years, the hub of the horse world in the Greater Toronto Area.

Me with Buck, my nemesis and the subject of a future post. He may look like Bear but my Bear he wasn't.

Me with Buck, my nemesis and coaching exam horse. Our experience will be the focus of a future post. … Photo taken in 1997.

The riding school, where I worked at first, had 32 horses. Rain, snow or shine I, little Ms Corporate now liberated from the dress suits and high heels I’d sported for most of my working life, eagerly arrived at 7 a.m. to help feed and turn out the horses into their respective paddocks.

The labour intensive task of mucking stalls tested my fabric. On good days there were four of us to do this dirty work ~ that’s eight stalls each. On many days there were just two of us. Our goal was to be done by 9:30. No mean feat.

Following a short break I, with my fellow interns, headed to theory and then rode. Then lunch; teaching theory; more riding practical; distributing hay; bringing the horses in; feeding … and whatever else remained to be done until I could leave at 5:30 p.m.

It was a tough slog for this former girl-about-town …

I worked 10 hours a day six days a week. Within days of starting my internship I came down with the worst cold of my life. But I still had to work. No sick days. No time off. No sympathy.

I lost weight. At one point my soft hands, whose toughest task until that point had been to pluck words out of a computer keyboard, became so mangled by the manual labour I couldn’t wrap either of them around a door handle or hold a pen.

At day’s end, exhausted from a surplus of fresh air and exercise, I was in bed by 9 p.m. and slept dog-like until 5:30 a.m. when it was time to begin all over again.

Above and beyond this I continued my weekly singing commitment in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I couldn’t imagine my life without music. On performance weeks with extra rehearsals I burned the candle at both ends. Exhaustion became my middle name.

Still, I had to keep up. I wasn’t old but I had to use almost twice as much energy as the early 20-somethings around me to achieve the same results. I look back now and wonder how I did it.

I might add, however, that I was no saint. I whined … a lot. When the school barn manager had had enough of my complaining (This is hard; I don’t understand; Why this? Why that? Why? Why? Why? etc.) she arranged for my transfer to the show barn. This, she hinted not so subtly, would really give me something to whine about.

Life got bigger …

The show barn was across the parking lot and an industrial complex by comparison. It was amazing, actually. (I say was because at the end of my internship the whole farm was razed for commercial/industrial property development. 😦 ) The barn housed an Olympic-sized indoor arena where shows were often held and had attached to it an enormous warm-up ring, also indoor. Between the two buildings were enclosed aisles of 50 large box stalls each. One wing was completely occupied. The other was saved for show stabling.

Big stalls house big horses and there were a few of those. Whether by design or chance I was assigned the stalls with the behemoth horses. My daily quota was 12-15 stalls. The riding school was paradise by comparison.

Apollo, an impressive grey, 18-hh show jumper, was the largest horse in the barn with the messiest stall. Mucking it was an exercise in unfettered misery for me until one forbiddingly hot day in July (at 8 a.m. it was already in the high 20s with humidity) and a moment of clarity.

It happened while I was in the throes of pitching hooey onto the conveyor rolling beneath the open trap door in front of his stall.

Beads of sweat trickled mercilessly down my forehead and pooled in my eyes while particles of pine shavings floated in rogue waves through the sunbeams, landing as a scratchy film on my damp flesh and drifting up my nostrils.

I had for some time felt the whole situation to be absurd, even surreal, wondering what on earth I was doing at my age and stage of life, shovelling horse hooey and wishing for a career with horses. I felt invisible; invalid; small. I felt I had somehow let myself down. My dream of horse ownership so buried in disappointment I had no idea where to search for it.

Why had I allowed my promising career in corporate communications be derailed so unceremoniously? Why was my marriage failing so miserably? Why was I feeling so aimless? Why?

Relief came by way of a song …

Because music lives so deeply in me I have a wealth of songs stored who-knows-where that pop into my head and onto my lips in moments of stress. Interestingly, the songs usually reflect my state of mind or emotion at the time without me realizing it.

And so it was between forkfuls in the midst of my mucking nightmare that these immortal words, made famous by the iconic Doris Day, tripped melodically from my lips:

When I was just a little girl I asked my mother what will I be. Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me …

(Altogether now … )

Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.

Once I really started listening to these simple words I somehow felt permission to let go of any worries about my future. A burdensome chore evolved into a mindful meditation. I became the rhythm of the pitching fork and learned to revel in the experience of “cleaning house.”

It was my first conscious lesson on the importance of expelling the detritus of life to make room for new growth.

The truth is, positive life changes require this of all of us. If we aren’t willing to fork over the hooey in our lives we are doomed to continue watching it pile up and then wallow in, and complain about, it.

From that moment of clarity forward my experience as an intern changed dramatically. My mind opened; I began to embrace the journey; … and I stopped whining.

Bird buddies

Fast forward 16 years …

So, the other day while at the barn visiting Bear and just 10 days after getting married, I grabbed a pitch fork and spent a few minutes tidying up his stall. I didn’t have to ~ the boarding agreement includes daily stall cleaning ~ but I wanted, needed some grounding.

With fork in hand I picked through his bedding, scooping up the missed poop balls. I dug out the ammonia-laden shavings in his pee spot, which sometimes gets missed, and banked the walls a little with a mix of old and new shavings. I smoothed and plumped up the bedding so it would cushion Bear easily when he slept at night and, just as in days gone by, sang Que Sera, Sera. … but not with angst of not knowing, you understand ~ with the conviction that life unfolds as it should.

ForksWe are the masters of our own destinies only in so much as we become awakened to our state of being, consciously aware of the choices we make, and grounded in the effort required to live the changes we seek. As well, we need to accept that at any time we could be unceremoniously dumped in a more challenging scenario which, though it’s painful at the time, might actually be the making of us.

My experience as a coaching intern rocked my world. And little did I know, as I was mired in the angst and confusion of the time, that it would open the door not just to my understanding of the world of the beautiful horse but to the amazing, complex and awe-filled world that resides in me.

For me clarity began with a pitch fork and a song.

What about you?

Nurture what you love …

Dorothy 🙂
Horse Mom


Copyright Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013