Last year was the first I became a member of the regional eventing association for the first time. I thought it would be a good opportunity to be more officially part of the local eventing community, and it just made sense to become eligible to earn year-end awards at shows I was already attending.
As it turned out, Jitter and I had an excellent learning year doing combined tests at beginner novice, with largely mediocre ribbons. We tackled just one full trial, and to my surprise, my trainer agreed with me that it made sense to step back to starter for it. We hadn’t run cross-country in two years and hadn’t done serious schooling in nearly one year.
I was glad she made the suggestion, and despite the fact it was a wickedly hot weekend, Jitter and I both had a blast. I was completely shocked when she put in a strong dressage test and ran double clear and ended up with a red ribbon. What a great bonus!
Photo courtesy of Natalie Voss.
I realized through the autumn that I may be one of two or three riders in our association with any points in starter horse trials, along with qualifying volunteer hours. It was possible, then, that I might receive second place in my division for having come second place in one show.
Initially, it seemed ridiculous to me that I should get a ribbon not for a season’s performance, but for one good weekend. It was like getting a five-dollar ribbon for…having gotten a two-dollar ribbon. No matter, I thought. Sometimes that’s just how things shake out. It’s a little funny, but it wasn’t anything to get excited over.
After a few weeks went by, I found myself watching the point standings more and more closely. I started wondering about whether there were any remaining trials left on the calendar with a starter division, or if the totals were final. I started to get very concerned the results be declared final.
That’s when I realized: I cared about the one thing that’s not supposed to matter when you’re an adult amateur eventer. I wanted to win the five-dollar ribbon.
I’ve read so many think-pieces since I started this sport about how important it is to focus on the ride and not the result, the learning process and not the scores, the horse and not the awards. I agree with them.
I’m the former Dean’s List student driven by achievement. Doing ‘well enough’ has never been easy for me to take, because it’s never been the norm. I’ve always required more of myself, and as a result I continue to expect more. But I’m not the only one in the arena in this sport, and horses will teach you a lot of lessons you didn’t know you needed about perspective.
I’ve learned to be happy with a really nice stadium round, or one really strong trot circle in dressage, because I have to be. For many, many shows, little moments have become the focal point, because the final standings aren’t really worth celebrating anyway, and that’s fine. Now that I’m building confidence, I can finally (mostly) enjoy my time on-course, which is an enormous gift after all we’ve been through. Joy really is more important than ribbons.
I can’t help but feel I’m not totally wrong for looking forward to the day I pick up my five-dollar ribbon. It won’t have a lot of significance on its own merit, but it’s a reminder, a physical symbol, of so much more. When Jitterbug and I first began working together, she was five years old, a former neglect case, and had never seen a saddle. Her feet had gone months without trimming. She didn’t tie, didn’t stand for the farrier, didn’t lunge and definitely, definitely didn’t load, bathe, or clip.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Voss.
Lots of people told me she wasn’t a good investment, and they were right. Lots of people told me I’d be lucky if she became a halfway reliable trail horse. There were people who said she’d never trust me or care enough for any human to be a safe ride. Eight years after we began together, we can jump courses and do haunches-in (sorta). We go on hunter paces and to jumper shows and take bareback rides on winter evenings. And although I’m smart enough to know we didn’t get to this point because of any great skill on my part (rather, it was all stubbornness and the aid of really great professionals helping me), I’m still so proud we got here.
As stupid as I realize it is, that big puffy ribbon is a symbol of all the wonderful things I thought I’d never be able to do with this horse. When the day inevitably comes for her to retire, I’ll have photos, memories, lessons, but I’ll also have the big ribbon on the mantelpiece to remind me of our achievements. The main thing she’ll leave me with is tremendous love, but I’m proud I’ll be able to look at it and think, “We achieved the impossible together, too.”