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May 20, 2014

Cowboy Up

The next time Cowboy and I show together, we've got some redeeming to do. Photo by Liz Crawley

Every five weeks I have a counseling session. For about an hour we chat about my career change, the challenges of working with animals AND children, and the advantages of aluminum versus steel. Some people have psychologists, others have bartenders—I have a farrier.

There are advantages and disadvantages of using your horseshoer for such a dual purpose. In the plus category, the per-hour rates are pretty great considering the breadth of services provided. On the negative side, when you hand someone your mirror of professional self-reflection, they can hold it up for you to look at whenever they want.

Even if its right in the middle of a horse show when all you want is a shoe tacked back on.

When I ran into Scott, my counselor/farrier, at a small show, he wanted to know if I’d brought Paintball, my new import, as he was eager to see what all the fuss was about. 

No, Paintball wasn’t there, I told him, but I was going home that afternoon and bringing him back, along with my veteran show horse, Cowboy.

“Cowboy? Why?” he asked with an eyebrow raised and his face wrinkled in disapproval.

“I thought it might be fun to do the class tonight,” I replied oh-so casually.

Regarding most facets of my life, I am prone to last-minute decisions, changes of direction and general spontaneity. But when it comes to Cowboy’s show schedule, I make a year-long plan several months before we enter our first show of the year, and I stick to it. Those in Cowboy’s inner circle, like Scott, know that I use uncharacteristic discipline when making decisions for my beloved partner.

Scott’s face remained contorted. Were counselors really allowed to look so judgmental!?! Hmm, probably not. But I guess farriers can judge all they want.

I spewed irrelevant details in an effort to defend my sudden change of plan.

“…and Cowboy really needs to do something, he hasn’t been to a show since…December” My monologue dead-ended.

“There is only one person here who can beat you,” Scott said, so devoid of emotion that I actually looked around to see whom he might be talking about.

“You.”

I faked a confused look, while replaying in my mind the last courses I jumped on Cowboy. I was sure Scott was replaying the same scenes in his head and I wondered how different the perspectives were. He had been watching when Cowboy and I showed a few months prior, in the $5,000 SCHJA Derby Finals.

From the side of the ring he wouldn’t have been able to see me reach down and pat Cowboy on the right side of his neck after the third jump; the moment I realized that he was nearly unbeatable. Scott probably didn’t realize that I stopped looking for distances and allowed Cowboy to canter to the jumps, keeping rhythm with the splash of the mud underneath us, confident that his jumping style would be flawless regardless of where we left the ground.

But when we returned for the handy round with a substantial lead, Scott might have noticed Cowboy’s eyes focusing on the low option jump while mine studied its neighbor, the high option. He might have even known I was in trouble before I did. He might have said the same word under his breath that I did when Cowboy slid to a stop in front of the high side of the third jump—just a split second after we both realized that we were not on the same page—a rarity for Cowboy and me after eight years together.

“Oh no, I am so over that!” I said, shaking the image out of my mind.

It was kind of the truth. This was one class in a 30 year career—yes, probably the biggest of my short professional career—but I’ve had more disappointing lows and more gratifying highs along the way. The memories of both have melded together and softened, and the blown lead has already started to join them.

But my stomach still drops a little when I hear Katy Perry’s song Roar; the victory gallop song from that night. My daughter Holston’s favorite song. A few weeks after the class we were rocking out to it together and when I sang the line “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar,” Holston chided that I was not a champion, I was a mommy.

Ouch. 

As it ended up, I didn’t bring either horse to the show that day. I ran out of time. Or nerve. Or something.

Paintball made his debut a month or so later. I thought long and hard about what classes to enter, since the big gelding could excel at just about anything. My counselor/farrier of course weighed in—“He’s too pretty NOT to be a hunter!”

I entered the pre-green hunters then scratched in favor of the low schooling jumpers at the last minute. Paintball was awesome and even though I had a total of 46 time faults over the weekend, I remembered why much of my junior career was spent in the jumper ring. For now, Paintball will be the jumper in the barn and when Cowboy finally goes to another horse show he will be the hunter.

I haven’t made a plan yet. I think I’m having a hard time moving on to a new goal when the previous goal has been left so blatantly unreached. But I’m also disenchanted with the idea of hanging my hopes on the same class again this year.

So as it turns out, it probably will take a spur-of-the-moment decision to get Cowboy and me over this hump. But he is fit and shiny. My shadbelly has been dry-cleaned. It won’t be long.  

And if it doesn’t go my way next time we step into the hunter ring, maybe Cowboy can be my speed horse.

Jennifer Barker St. John grew up as the daughter of two hunter/jumper trainers and rode as a junior and on the Clemson University (S.C.) NCAA team, winning the individual championship in 1998. During her career outside the horse world, she showed her Rhinestone Cowboy to multiple amateur-owner hunter championships. You can read her hilarious introductory blog, "Living The Glamorous Life" to get to know her. 

Now, St. John runs Congaree Show Stables in Eastover, S.C., alongside her friend Elizabeth Grove. They concentrate on students (or as, they call them, “minions”) from 7 to 17 years old who do well on the South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association circuit. “Among our greatest accomplishments: teaching them to wrap correctly and properly muck a stall,” St. John, who serves as the president of the SCHJA, said. She balances training and riding with raising her “sweet, polite, usually well dressed but always sort of dirty” toddler daughter Holston.

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