COTH Horse Show Dad: Ghosts, Dreams And The Way It Goes

Jan 13, 2017 - 10:55 AM
Ada and K.

I suspect we’ve all got them. Places that bring on floods of memories. The old neighborhood. A school.

For me, a walk around the campus where I went to college triggers recollections of a time when my head was full of a youthful mix of confidence, confusion, and insecurity. And, of course, dreams. Some were foolish. Some came true. And some, to my occasional regret, I didn’t pursue. It’s a story that everyone can tell.

My last post told of Audrey and Alex’s adventures at the Kentucky National Horse Show. I wrote about a conversation I had with Alex in his stall in Barn 7. What I left out of that post was what happened next, after I started to walk to my car.

It was late, the twilight was deepening, and I seemed to have the Horse Park almost to myself. My talk with Alex had put me in a thoughtful mood. I slowly started down the aisle between Barns 6 and 7 and caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I paused, and looked more closely. It was a ghost. Or, more accurately, two of them.

I squinted a bit and felt a rush of recognition. One of the ghosts was me. The other was 9-year-old Ada. We were walking around the very Barn 7 where Alex had his stall. It was BreyerFest, and this was where the celebrity horses were boarded.

We had not been to the Horse Park before, and we were in awe of the place and the horses. It never occurred to us to imagine that just over six years later a horse of ours would spend a week in one of those stalls.

I watched the ghosts for a bit, then turned the corner and kept walking, my senses heightened. There we were again, two years later and still in awe, walking past the empty Stonelea Ring on our way to have a look at the start of the Rolex CCI**** cross-country course. We didn’t know the ring’s name, nor did we suspect that in another three years Ada and her horse Cash would have one of their last trips together there.

A short ways on I nearly collided with Audrey and Melody. They were hustling through the early morning darkness to a modeling clinic at last summer’s Pony Finals, with me tailing along behind. From that point there were ghosts nearly everywhere I looked.

It’s no surprise, really. The girls have done nowhere near enough showing at the Horse Park for it not to seem like a big deal. Every visit and every show has been a significant milestone.

I’ve thought about that walk often in the months since. Those ghosts, like the ones I see at college reunions, had dreams. The girl who went to BreyerFest dreamed of showing at the Horse Park. The girls who got to show at the Horse Park dreamed of doing so on the truly big stages. A little time among ghosts will leave you reflecting on where you’ve been and where you might be headed.

* * *

Here I’m going to ask you to imagine that record needle scratch sound, signifying that our path is about to change. When I started writing this post it was about how those ghosts reminded me to live in the moment, to enjoy the experience while I could. Those are important points, and always worth a reminder. But unfortunately we’ve got to take this in a different direction.

When the call came I was in a hotel room in Ann Arbor, Mich., in my alternate capacity as Figure Skating Dad. It was very early, I was sick, I hadn’t slept much the night before, and I hadn’t had a drop of coffee. And then I suddenly had to confront a situation of the sort that you don’t ever want to confront.

Ada’s horse K was colicking. It was not a mild case.

If you remember my early posts you’ll recall that buying K was a huge step for us. She was the horse on whose back Ada’s dreams of equitation finals would come true or not. She was the basket into which we had placed an awful lot of our eggs.

They say you shouldn’t do that.

There’s a clip in the movie Harry & Snowman where Rodney Jenkins talks about the importance of the specific relationship between a horse and a rider. For that relationship to go really well, things have to click between them. A similar idea appears several times in George Morris’s autobiography. It’s something that you can never quite fully explain, but that you recognize when you see it.

Ada and Cash had that. During their last summer together they were at the height of their powers. I’m not suggesting that every round went according to plan, and he was not the world’s fanciest horse. There were limits. But it was obvious that they entered the ring believing, every single time, that perfection was within reach.

Ada and Cash in the Stonelea Ring.

I know that a father’s eyes are not always clear. But a father who has been there every step of the journey knows things that no one else knows, and appreciates things that no one else understands. What this father saw was a girl doing the very thing she was born to do. And doing it well.

K was a beautiful horse. But she and Ada had a partnership that was as star-crossed as any. One or the other of them was hurt for well over half of their time together, and they never managed to mesh the rest of the time. There were moments of brilliance, where they seemed on the brink of putting it all together. But some sort of setback always seemed to follow.

On the whole, the show ring was a frustrating place. More nights than I care to remember I would wake feeling like I had been kicked in the stomach, awash in the dread sense that I should have seen this coming, that I ought to have done something differently somewhere along the way. In the end—especially in the end—it’s no overstatement to say that nothing about our ownership of K went according to plan.

K’s passing was something to be mourned in its own right, of course. Untimely deaths always are, especially of those who have shared a good portion of life’s journey with us. To compound things, Audrey had been K’s primary rider since Ada’s injury in April, had grown very attached to her, and was especially devastated.

But there’s more. Her passing also represents the death of a dream. It was a dream that wasn’t going to come true without good luck and the taking of some substantial risks, but luck’s not always good and the thing about risks is that they often don’t pay off. There were lots of eggs in that basket, and it crashed to the ground.

The equitation finals are dreams for the ghosts now. They’ve taken up permanent residence at the Kentucky Horse Park, at the farms and showgrounds in Wisconsin where they first took shape, and in the ring at Millcreek Farm where it seemed, for a short while, they might actually come true.

It’s not a happy story. And it’s difficult even to make sense of the many layers and stages of the grieving process, let alone to put them into words more elaborate than “it sucks.” As a parent the whole experience broke my heart in ways that I would never have appreciated as the child. They weren’t my dreams, but I saw them form and evolve and shape every waking minute. I became invested in them. With my time, with my money, with what we might, somewhat clinically, call my emotional capital.

Lately I’ve been visited by one more ghost. It’s my grandfather August Hamson, a man whose memory keeps me grounded. He was a farmer for most of his life, and he held the fatalistic outlook that Norwegian farmers tend to hold. When you farm you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she doesn’t always come through. Sometimes it rains when you need it, sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Either way you’ve got to get up the next morning and do what needs to be done.

By his later years my grandfather had experienced a lot of loss. As a young man he saw a brother and a team of horses killed by lightning as they worked a field. As an older man he suffered through the death not only of his wife, but of an unfairly high number of children and grandchildren. He knew tough times.

His recent visits have featured the same reminder, a phrase I heard him utter in the face of tragedy more than once. He starts with a word that is something like a combination of “yeah” and “yup” but that doesn’t really fit into any package of letters I can string together. What’s clear is that it signals a summing up, his last word on whatever the subject might be. Here is what he says: “That’s the way it goes.”

It doesn’t sound like much. But there’s an entire philosophy of life packed in those five words. One fully informed by culture and a life rich with experience. Among other things, it’s a shorthand way of acknowledging that life will kick you in the stomach sometimes, but you’ve got to keep going anyway, to figure out what comes next.

Because what other choice do you have?

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s blogs for the Chronicle.

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