And The Good News Is…“You Didn’t Come Here To Drink Coffee”

True Stories from The Trail

Silver Johnson and Spinner
Silver Johnson and Spinner

For several years now, I have been reading comments by many of today’s riders and clinic/lesson auditors alike, shaming their coaches for actually reminding them to pay attention. Call me blonde, but aren’t those same riders and auditors actually ‘choosing’ to learn from these master horsemen and women? Willingly ‘paying’ for their coach to pass on their knowledge and experience? Shouldn’t they be responding in kind with respect and their undivided attention? Thanking and apologizing to their coaches instead of reprimanding them for a verbal reminder?

Upon further reflection, I rode back in my own time as a clinic participant to an event that proved not paying attention would be responded to with more than a verbal reminder. Long ago, that message was delivered with a stampede of information, unlike anything any rider or auditor has most likely seen, or will experience, today.

When you are done riding this breath-holding tale, it will have raised more than one hair or two in your mane in the telling, just as it did ours in the living. It will underscore today’s verbal reminders as thoughtful by comparison.

The Good News gleaned from this true-life account will also raise your learning curve. And deliver a message that if today, you are offended by a simple verbal reminder for not paying attention…YOU are getting off easy!

Back when I was one of a posse of Pony Clubbers, along the trail of our equestrian experience, we all invested in learning from many riding master clinicians. Lucky for us, Gordon Wright, Hugh Wiley, Lowell Boomer, Carol Durand, and Warren Wofford, to name a few of our great masters, were regular clinicians and instructors at our barn. Led by Bev Chester, a no-nonsense, very gifted horse woman and our Pony Club DC, all these greats and pioneers in Olympic level Equestrianism gave me first-hand experience at gleaning different perspectives as they offered brilliant insight into the body, mind and soul of a horse.

From the basics to beyond, right through to the finer points of learning how a horse thinks, moves, eats, communicates…what it truly means to be a thoughtful and skilled ‘equestrian,’ one thing was for certain. We all knew they were there to teach us, not babysit.

The only time our infamous posse wasn’t together or on a horse, was when we were in school or church. There we were, learning something again. At least some of us went to the same school or church. In any case, we all ended up at each other’s houses when we weren’t in places of learning. If we didn’t have time to change into our breeches and boots before we went to a show or event, heck, we’d wear them to school, church, or out to a meal before or after.

Besides, it was Kansas. Summers were a hot, humid mess, and often in the 100’s. Clothes were like a third layer of skin. Nothing was easy to get on or off. Winters were cold and brutal. Layers were unavoidable. No matter the weather, changing was unwelcome. When we weren’t in our ‘barn clothes’ which consisted of blue jeans, boots, a sleeveless shirt in the summer and too many bulky layers of wool in the winter, ‘Clean’ was also part of our breeches and boots wardrobe. At least starting out white glove test clean was expected.

Participating together in decades of lessons, clinics, every Sunday and other days of the week for 11 months out of the year Pony Club sessions, Pony Club Rallies, Horse shows, Hunter trials, 3 and 5 Day and Combined Training Events, as a close-knit posse, we developed mind reading abilities, our horses as well as each other’s. From a very young age, we learned to read horse and human body language from close up to long distance, from a gallop and so on. We had to. Our equestrian lives, futures and daily safety depended on it. We were brave, dedicated, and addicted to learning how to be our own personal bests. This meant we spent our days and lives on or off a horse, ‘paying attention.’

No matter who was instructing, whether we were riding or watching from the rail, we were all expected to listen and pay attention. What happened when you didn’t is told through this true account.

One hot, humid week during a typical Kansas summer…

The lot of us were participating in one of our regular Combined Training clinics with well-known Combined Training legend, Col. Robbie Robertson. I might not have mentioned that most of our parents came to the barn with us, attended every horse show, event, Rally, clinic, etc. Our barn was large with an extended close-knit family. On this one particularly slimy footed morning, as we would find out, Robbie would use our Pony Club posse’s collective, ready-to-learn and do-just-about-anything attitude to prove not paying attention was unacceptable and not just for riders.

Basically, everyone revered Robbie and knew without a doubt, dirt feared him.

Bow legged just in the sense that made you truly believe he was born on a horse and saluting at full attention, we all respected and loved this man who made mounting from the ground look like a ballet move and riding truly an artform.

On occasion, he would sit on one of our horses to prove a point. Mounting to riding to dismounting, it was all done with grace, ease, and well…just plain magic to watch.

Every clinic, his attire was military kit perfect. I didn’t know anyone who ironed cotton knit polo shirts until I saw the creases in his sleeves. The thick, yet soft, tan leather belt that held up his breeches also doubled when needed as a crop, halter, stirrup leather or whatever use Robbie saw fit. We were all certain his freshly pressed breeches, with huge pegs starched at full attention, stood up in his closet all by themselves. Brilliant walnut calf-skin military dress boots, with three buckles precisely placed down each calf, were monumental reminders of his strength and firm stance.

Robbie’s commanding barrel chest and perfectly square shoulders was a wall of a reminder that we were there to listen and learn. Our safety, our horse’s safety and our future were in his hands. We felt cared for and respected and were not inclined to show disrespect. Instructions were typically delivered in a quiet voice, sometimes with the wryest of smiles. He knew we were all serious about learning. He also knew how kids learned. There needed to be some element of fun involved. Yet, if by some fluke, any of us got carried away with the fun part and his words fell on deaf ears, Robbie would proficiently launch his silent attention-getting weapon.

Coming out of nowhere, with sinless aim, at the exact moment he intended, his always present leather crop with the flat leather head would somehow hit your horse’s butt just in the right rhythm to put you a moment in time, yet safely, behind your horse’s motion. This launched you into being immediately present. If what he was saying didn’t capture our attention, he made sure our horse did!

We never questioned his ability or right to remind us if our minds appeared to be drifting. Softly delivered or boomed from the depths, you could feel the love and valuable riding skills rock through your body and soul like a verbal earthquake. No matter how he got it across, none of us were exempt from his deliberate and faithful attention to increasing our learning curves, expanding our riding abilities and raising our awareness as equestrians.

Now on to the hair-raising reminder part…

On that particularly dank and stormy morning, Robbie proceeded to describe what he said was a new drill for us. Six of us were to walk in two circles each, in opposite directions, then pick up a trot and repeat the circle. The puzzled look on our faces said there was something fishy going on and nothing new about this exercise from our young un-rated Pony Club days. Quickly, we learned about the ‘new’ part of this drill…the hair-raising reminder to pay attention part he was planning.

His unfolding revelation went like this.

“Do the same drill again, only this time, pair off until you are all in a long line, pick up a canter, then gallop straight toward that telephone pole where all your parents and instructors are sitting drinking coffee. Then, I want you to start screaming like banshees! Don’t’ stop! No matter what happens, keep galloping toward them, keep screaming, wave your arms and then jump the jump.”

He couldn’t have been more matter of fact in his delivery. And we couldn’t have been more in disbelief which had immediately turned us all to stone. Desperately trying to turn our heads so we could check in with each other…register if what we heard was really what we heard, our horses could tell our respiration rates had dropped to just above coma stage. All twelve of our stealthy steeds were hardly breathing either. Barely able to look at each other for posse support, our wide-eyed glares said a whole lotta internal head shaking was going on. At the same time, our one-minded collective selves were silently asking the same and only question. It wasn’t a matter of if we were going to do this. How we would accomplish the mission at hand and live to ride this afternoon, let alone find a way home after we had run over our parents, was our single concern and question of grave importance. It seems this was a fleeting thought.

The why question showed up and took over.

Reallllly Robbie…really? Why on earth do you want us to do this? Of course, not one of us dared to ever ask this out loud. So we took our stance out there in that mucky, midge infested pasture. Heavy grey clouds gathered around us. Our newly formed league of 12 soon-to-be-galloping banshees commenced with our very own charge of the lightning and thunder brigade. ‘Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die.’ Lord Tennyson is alive and well right here in Kansas, living inside Robbie Robertson, I thought. It never crossed our minds to question his intentions. Today, it was his motive we were all wondering about. At first after-thought, it must be about learning some sort of lesson about following orders? Or was he testing our judgement?

We had no choice but to assess the situation.

About a thousand yards away, all our parents and instructors were casually sitting on that long telephone pole jump we had all jumped oh so many times before, sans parents and instructors, of course. Lined up in the distance like sleepy birds on a thin black wire, they were a flock of unawareness, casually drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, having a lazy morning chat or sky watching, timing heavy Kansas clouds for their next downpour.

What they really were, was clueless. In about two minutes, they were all going to be shooting feathers like flying porcupines fleeing for their very lives.

There was no saying “No” to Robbie. Only “Sir, Yes, Sir!” We had our orders. I’m sure inside us all, a tiny flicker of a retribution glowed as bright and fast as one July firefly about to go dark. Fleeting and real as that thought was, we rapidly exchanged our dare-we- use- this- opportunity- to- get- back- at- our- parents-and-instructors- for-something-or- ‘whatever’ thought for tightening our girths and preparing to learn whatever it was Robbie had to teach us.

Then, it began to dawn on us what our mission was… and the why of it all.
This wasn’t about us paying attention at all. It was about our parents and instructors…about THEM NOT! Oh my God, we were all going to die a young death at the hand of our own parents if we didn’t kill them first! As loudly as we were all playing this in our heads, Robbie’s voice began to bellow orders like God speaking to Moses.


Slowly, hesitantly deliberant, the dank morning dozen of us began our simple drill of deception. As we took a deep, collective breath, we exchanged looks to confirm, and then…we picked up a canter. Nothing left to do then but gallop. Flat out and full on, in one giant group gulp, we took a final look at each other. Waiting for someone to let out the first terrifying rendition of banshee, a cacophony of bone chilling screams simultaneously rose from somewhere inside us all. Increasing in volume, we horse riding banshees rattled the clouds with our ready-or-not-here-we-come warning.

Even with the heat and humidity, our horses were fresh on this early morning maneuver. Mine was more likely to buck like a bronc without warning at any moment he chose. Everyone knew this. With all the galloping and screaming and arm waving, a buck-n-fart frenzy might ensue and make things even more frightful.

Oh well, here goes nothing. We went faster and we got louder and faster and louder…


Blood curdling screams rang from our lips, setting our horses on fire as the ground swelled to the rhythm of hell-bent-for-that-telephone-pole hooves.


Banshees everywhere would have been proud and jealous. No zombie army sounded more terrifying or looked scarier.

So we thought.

Forty-eight iron clad hooves pounded their way toward our still clueless parents and instructors. Arms waving, our swords of screams swathed the air as we galloped united. With all the commotion we were making, funny thing was, no one on that telephone pole was moving at all.

Not one living soul moved an inch, except maybe to take a sip of coffee or another drag off their glowing embers. Striding toward them like an army of well…the banshees that we were, our parents and instructors, ALL of them just sat there like vultures in the rain, limp lumps on a log. Someone looked up from their coffee cup and casually gestured to another. Smugly thinking we were slightly humorous, that our banshee screams would fade with our speed and direction, our slumbering parents and instructors remained slightly amused and oblivious to our approaching predation. The louder and closer we got, the more in disbelief they all seemed to be.

Until they weren’t.

Suddenly the sleepy spectators finally realized we were headed straight for them and we WERE NOT GOING TO STOP. All at once, the entire flock switched from total denial to totally scattering as fast as they could off their long perch. Cigarettes went flying, coffee cups spewed steaming hot coffee through the air. “Dammit WHAT ARE THEY DOING???!!!?” came out of someone’s mouth as they launched themselves to safety. Our parents and instructors went every which way. Even my mom, who never ran anywhere…EVER, flung herself off that pole faster than I’d ever seen her move. Skirts flew, khaki’s ran and breeches beelined for safe ground.

Cuss words were foaming out of fury-faced mouths that had never let a bad word fly before. My dad was so mad, he couldn’t even talk, let alone get a rarely spoken cuss word out. “Well, hell, I never…” was as close as it ever got for Bev to cuss in front of us. Yet, her wide crazy grin and scarlet face proved how mad she was.

That’s how close we were when they all finally made it off that long pole. Close enough to read their faces and hear them cuss just before we jumped that jump. All 12 of us… in tandem.

As soon as our horse’s hooves hit the other side of that jump, without previous planning, by instinct and for self-preservation reasons only, we all high tailed it right back to Robbie for protection. Twelve, wide-eyed kids on wide-eyed snorting horses stood behind the man who gave the orders. Protected by shoulders as broad as our posse was long, our fearless leader crossed his arms in front of his precious soldiers and escorted us back to the barn. Half way back, it seemed our parents and instructors had regrouped to brush off their fear, discuss the event and brave up the one and only question they had on their minds.

Whites of their eyes bulging and still in shock, still gasping for breath, the grounded flock mustered up the courage and one spokesperson to ask the question. Bev, of course. “Why did you send them on that crazy mission??! We could have been killed!”

She was laughing her nervous, in disbelief, laugh. Silently, we were waiting for him to answer her/them. What would he say that would make a bigger impact than what we had all just done? Robbie looked at the group of ruffled feathers, and cruised the line of questioning eyes with one long perusal. Then simply, profoundly, and in his ‘soft’ voice, he delivered his answer.

“You didn’t come here to drink coffee.”

If lightning didn’t strike them right there and then with an exclamation point revelation, whatever happened before our very own eyes certainly mimicked an electric response. Head-slaps and humble looks on our parents and instructors faces apologized for not paying attention. They were quite astonished at our delivery of Robbie’s non-verbal and oh so memorable reminder. However, they got the point and the message, and took it to heart. And no, none of us got in trouble which was a miracle in itself.

The point was and is…Paying attention is your responsibility. Rider, spectator, auditor, attendee… what you are ‘paying’ for is your instructor’s knowledge and attention. A lesson or clinic you attend given by any riding master, especially whom you respect, admire, value their expertise and pay a gob-smack of money to learn from, is an investment in your own future. Our responsibility as riders and attendees is to respect and value our time with horses. Most importantly to value the time learning from our instructors and clinicians. The amount of time and effort it took for them to learn from others, and horses of course, to actually ‘become the knowledge’ so they could share it with us is priceless! For the price we are paying to learn from them, we are getting a deal!

And The Good News Is… the next time you attend a clinic, lesson or equestrian event, whether you are a rider, or otherwise… if you find yourself sitting on a horse, in a chair or on a really long telephone pole, getting caught not paying attention while you are sipping coffee, smoking a cigarette, casually perched like a bird on a wire, cloud watching, and the clinician verbally reminds you to ‘please pay attention,’ maybe you will be reminded that same message could be delivered straight to your face by a posse of twelve galloping banshees!

After all, you didn’t come to the clinic to drink coffee.

S.Johnson And The Good News Is…Copyright 2017 All Rights Reserved

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