March 6, 2023

Axioms to Live By

A story of horse riding and perseverance.

We all need some comic relief now and again. One of the more humorous moments in my life happened at The National Championship for Bird Dogs at the Ames Plantation in West Tennessee.

The Championship is in the 124th running on the same grounds so is certainly a venerable event, full of nostalgia and old friendships for those of us that return. The dogs are handled off horseback and if you are in the gallery to watch you are mounted as well. There is a morning and afternoon course, each three hours in duration. The terrain is not really difficult. There are some gully crossings and creek crossings. It helps to be a moderately experienced equestrian.

I began riding the Nationals in the early 1980s, a practice I kept up for years. At that time the gallery could be quite large — sometimes up to 800 horses and, frankly, many I think showed up just to have the opportunity to ride those hallowed grounds.

One evening in the late fall years ago, several of us were around a campfire having enjoyed a wonderful day outdoors. My friend Jimmy asked if he could go to the upcoming Nationals with us. Without thinking, I agreed and said I would arrange horses for all of us. The day arrived and four of us drove through the night to arrive at the stables at 7:00 in the morning to tack up and be ready for the 8:00 release of the first two dogs.

I had slept in the back seat most of the way down and woke up as we pulled into the plantation. My friend Jimmy in the front seat turns and asks, “Well, Mike. Any last-minute tips on how to ride a horse?” I said, “Well, Jimmy, when was the last time you were on a horse?” He replied, “I’ve never been on a horse.” That might be a problem…

We get him mounted and trot to the breakaway where the event will start. When the dogs are released and are on the course, when they point a covey of quail, the handler raises his hat and yells “Point!” and the judges and gallery gallop up to see the action. As luck would have it the dogs pointed five minutes into the event right after the first creek crossing and the race was on.

Jimmy’s horse got pulled along by all the other galloping horses and by the time he came to a stop with the rest of us where the dogs were pointed, he had lost his reins and a stirrup and was hanging on for dear life. His horse stopped right beside an elegant older lady who was obviously very experienced and collected. She was in full English riding attire complete with white gloves. She looked down at Jimmy and said, “Been riding long?” Jimmy, totally deadpan looked at his watch, looked up at her and says, “Well, about 15 minutes.” And that was the truth.

In that same era, I worked with a fellow named Rex Carr in Escalon, California. Rex is known everywhere as the “Father of Modern Retriever Training” and has been the guiding force behind numerous National Champions as well as a mentor to the best trainers in the sport. What was his secret? Mostly hard work and experience. But he often said, “We are the best at what we do the most.” Rex also encouraged us to think with different approaches if what we were doing wasn’t working. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail,” he used to say.

These simple axioms have stood me in good stead throughout my life.

And what of our friend Jimmy and the rest of his ride? He hung in there for the duration and by the end of the trip had become reasonably comfortable on that horse. He fundamentally understood that we truly are the best at what we do the most and acted accordingly both on that trip as well as in his professional life.

He is now CEO of one of our nation’s major teaching hospitals.

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