The post-horse show tradition among the circle of eventers I know (after settling horses back at home and peeling off show clothes) seems to be to shower, pick up some takeout, and write a Facebook post summing up the successes of the day and thanking the support team that got them through. It’s through reading such posts I’ve been introduced to the sense of personal achievement, sportsmanship and optimism that I think really hallmarks the sport.
As I completed our season opener, our first show in eight months, I found myself idly wondering after stadium how I wanted to sum up this experience. On one hand, I was pleased with our dressage test but frustrated my nerves had caused a couple of hesitant jumps in our stadium round. Several years ago, when Jitterbug and I were still struggling to make our circles round and our canters buck-free, I set a goal for us: I wanted to see if we could complete a novice horse trial. My brain wandered into wondering what I would write when we finally got there.
Before I could really think about it, I realized the only emotion I could imagine feeling after the finish flags of novice would be: “We’re done.”
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I enjoy about riding. I’ve never been much of a competitor; I grew up as a Sunday lesson-taker who would ride the same horse weekly for a couple of years because what I loved was the friendship with a horse more than the exercise of riding itself. Shows were an opportunity to test our skills together, which I should have known was misplaced, since even friends can disagree about, say, the spookiness of the concession tent.
I came up with the lofty goal of running novice years ago, when Jitter was green-broke and angry, and I couldn’t ask for a downward transition without wobbling around in the tack. Novice horses and riders were calm, strong, experienced and nimble, I thought. The horses bathed, clipped and loaded without incident (not a given for her at the time), and the riders were polished and brave. What I really wanted for us long-term was to be experienced and in sync enough that she’d be a fun horse to play around with later in our lives when I assumed I’d have less time for riding.
Never did I set my sights on the level because I looked at a novice course and thought, “That looks like so much fun.” And that’s a problem.
I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I’m used to getting where I want to go and not shying at hard work to get there. It’s a trait that’s served me well, but as we all know, horses don’t have much patience for pressure. I’ve put such pressure on every combined test, every dressage class, even every lesson; I’ve scheduled each week’s rides around building the many skills Jitter and I needed to work toward our goal. Although our stadium round at the horse show was comprised of eight good fences, I couldn’t top thinking about the three ugly ones, because it didn’t bode well for the prospect of moving up. It all stopped feeling like fun and started feeling like an extra job.
Later that afternoon when I took Jitter back to the ring for a dressage ride-a-test class, I was surprised to find she was energized, alert and professional. I’d expected her to be tired and resistant. “She likes this,” my trainer told me. “She’s happy. She loves her job now.”
Finally. I think I got the novice horse, without running the novice trial. And I’m more than OK with that.
Jitterbug and I are going to take a break from showing for a while. I’ve stopped making schedules for the week and started taking each afternoon’s ride as it comes. When I’m itching to get back in the ring, we’ll enter something again. Our current goal is not to have goals—which of course, is fine with her, because horses don’t really care about any of this nonsense, anyway.
You’ve gotten to know Jitterbug, the Chronicle’s Quadruped Correspondent, over her years of posting hilarious columns from a cantankerous draft-cross mare’s point of view. And now her “Human,” Natalie Voss, has joined our roster of bloggers to share her adventures as a hunter-rider-turned-eventer mounted on the ever-opinionated Jitterbug.