Amateurs Like Us: Cheerleading From The In-Gate

Jan 6, 2016 - 3:54 AM
The warm-up arena can be a tricky place to navigate as an amateur rider. Photo by Amy Dragoo

I’m convinced that every horse show warm-up ring has them. We’ve all seen them. The one horse and rider who are flying around at speeds that would rival American Pharoah, making the same mistake over the same warm-up jump, over and over again, then revving up for another attempt.

I think I try relatively hard not to judge other riders, especially fellow adult amateurs. For one thing, I’m still relatively new to the world of eventing and am never totally sure that at any given time, I’m not inadvertently doing something wrong myself that could make for a great cocktail party story for some experienced stranger I don’t know is watching.

For another, it has taken me a long six years to learn (some of) the subtleties of my mare and I’m sure the process has looked from the outside like an utter trainwreck.

But still.

“What’s the strategy here?” I wonder as I try to navigate my plodding half-Perch out of the way of the Mach 5 missile. “Is she going to ride the course like this, too? Is there something wrong? Why don’t I hear anyone coaching her? Say, she looks really nervous.”

Well, now I understand that rider a little bit better, because in our last combined test (our beginner novice debut, no less), I was that rider. My trainer had to show a green horse on the other side of the grounds just 20 minutes before I was set to go in for my stadium round, so I had to warm up alone for the first time.

It was all supposed to be fine. We’d walked the course twice, and for once, I felt confident about the height of the jumps and sure I could nail some of the trickier turns. Everything was supposed to be easy, so long as I used plenty of leg on Her Laziness to avoid her token Half-Hearted Plop, which sometimes results in her taking rails down out of sheer boredom.

For some reason, my beginner novice group came in after the prelim division, and I realize now the ground crew in the warm-up ring probably did not lower the jumps far enough. At the time though, we’d been schooling larger stuff at home to build my confidence, so I looked at what I suspect were novice fences, shrugged, and asked for an assertive, forward canter. I got it. We came bounding at the crossrail confidently. And I got left behind. Way behind. Gut-punch behind. Whiplash behind.

We tried the vertical. Same story. We even tried the oxer, over which I somehow managed to allow my upper body to shoot straight into the air and tried to compensate by over-doing my release, desperate not to catch her in the mouth. I yelped at the same time, because the result was a little like tipping over the edge of a rollercoaster with no safety harness.

That’s when I realized that everyone in the ring (and a startling number outside) were staring at us. Not glancing. Staring.

I panicked. I couldn’t figure out what our problem was, but we couldn’t go through a whole course like this, so I kept trying, and then got the sneaking feeling that people were pausing their conversations to see what I’d do the next time I came hurtling toward the fence. I didn’t see anyone snapping our picture for Missed It Mondays, but I may have been too busy hyperventilating to notice.

In the end, our course was double clear, but ugly. I’d freaked myself out so completely in warm-up that I backed off in the ring and we half-jogged to several fences (including an oxer, which wasn’t much fun). I sat by the in-gate, fuming at myself for failing in my one objective—ride forward—watching what seemed like everyone else in the division ride with both calm and confidence. I was even jealous of the riders who had rails.

Then, one girl rode by me wearing what I guessed was a similar shade of green face to mine aboard a mare who was completely unimpressed. They managed quite nicely until she hung a left after a fence when she should have gone right. From across the ring, I could see her freeze, trying to figure out what came next. She kept turning left until her horse began wandering toward the gate, looking worriedly through the fences, and then toward the crowd, trying to decide what to do. Then, silently and simultaneously, five of us on horseback pointed to where she was supposed to be.

I wanted to become an eventer for many reasons, but one of them was that it seemed such a friendly sport. Even professional riders seemed humble, and amateurs so accepting. This probably isn’t unique to eventing, but it was central to my first experiences with the new discipline and I loved it. When we all started motioning to our competitor to help her find her way back on course, it occurred to me that this doesn’t happen so regularly in other sports. I’ve never seen a basketball player suggest to his opponent that zone defense might be a better strategy here, and I don’t think football players point the other guy toward a gap in the defensive line.

Sure, by then she’d already have gotten the penalty points, but we could have left her hanging and we didn’t. We didn’t because all of us have been in her boots before. I did exactly the same thing at a starter trial last year, in the same ring in fact. That feeling of camaraderie extends, ideally, beyond scoresheets, and I think it keeps us from judging each other too harshly most of the time.

Rough days in the saddle are part of the journey, no matter how far up the ranks you’re aiming. And, I guessed it was time I left the warm-up ring behind and stopped judging myself so harshly, too.

You’ve gotten to know Jitterbug, the Chronicle’s Quadraped 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. 

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