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August 9, 2011

To Each His Own: A Comparison Of Passions

Our columnist takes a light-hearted look at her husband’s hobby—and wonders how anyone can consider dressage to be boring.

Anyone who thinks watching dressage is lacking in excitement has never been to a car show.

My husband is an avid fan of classic cars, and when he first told me of his interest, I assumed they competed in races with the old timers, or at least took them on long trips. After all, a car is for driving, right? Many years of observation have taught me otherwise.

When you arrive at the car show, the main attractions are already there, parked in line and more often than not delivered by truck. Now, it may seem odd to ship horses, which originally were intended to transport us, but times have changed, and horses can’t cover the distances we need to go within a reasonable amount of time. But they could, if needed, take us where we want to be, while the pampered cars of yesteryear are no longer capable of rolling anywhere.

There they stand, squeaky clean with glittering chrome and lacquer you can use for a makeup mirror. And, let us not forget, “whiter than white” white wall tires. The height of suspense is when the hood is lifted and locked in place to enable the honorable judges to peck and peak into the inners of the sanctuary, the motor that never moves the car anywhere. It must be impeccably clean and polished and painted as if new.

But, of course, it must not be new, oh no! It must be original. This word is holy in classic car circles. Every knob and window and part of the engine has to come from the first edition. To accomplish this, the car owner spends endless energy searching for rusty old junk and matching numbers to fit this picture.

Some smart individuals store and fix them up and resell them at exorbitant costs to the grateful car fan. The same person who thinks my bills for the blacksmith and veterinarian are way out of line will stop at nothing to land some original feature like a window that looks just like any window or a radio that does not work but is the real thing.

Not to speak of the restoration. This process commences soon after a suitable wreck with potential has been located in some long-forgotten barnyard and spotted by a clever operator, who buys it for a couple of bucks. He then turns around and unloads it on the panting classic car aficionado for a mark-up which makes the most crooked horse dealer look like a beginner.

The Non-Sale

The happy new owner undoubtedly will tell wife and company that he is going to restore this prize into a presentable feature. What he means is that he has a buddy who will actually do the work. The husband has both the skill and all the bells and whistles installed in the garage to pursue this little hobby, but nevertheless the car in question lives somewhere else getting his liposuction and facelift taken care of.

In my barn, we do the work ourselves. The horses get groomed and cared for and ridden on location, and we rarely buy them out of nostalgia when they are sway backed and long in the tooth.

The most persuasive argument to add yet another wreck to the collection of standing still wonders is how much they increase in value every moment. This would be a good point to make, if the owner would ever sell one. We have valuable wrecks in varying stages of decline that have lived with us forever, and there is no sign of imminent departure or plans to sell any of them.

When I train a horse to a certain level and get a reasonable offer, he gets sold. It would be so much more attractive to sell cars, when you do not have to have it picked apart by a veterinarian, and it will not walk out lame for the first time in its life the day the prospective client arrives!

Since it’s emotionally taxing to sell a horse you have a long relationship with, I like the idea much better when it comes to cars. However, if you think you’re attached to your horse, you should see the unconditional love showered over these hunks of steel.

On a rare occasion, when it’s not too wet, dry, hot or cold, one of them is allowed to actually go out on the road, and love is in the air. When you drive up to a party or a restaurant, love becomes obsession. Valet parking is not an option, which the driver makes obvious when he bares his teeth at the attendant.

Then the love object has to be parked in such a way that it can be viewed from the house or restaurant. This demands a window table for dinner. And during the meal, there are constant interruptions when someone stops to look at the car and the owner has to run out to inform about the year and the model and how many horses are comatose under the hood. Plus make sure nobody touches that baby and disturbs its shiny image.

Grooming is nice, but when it becomes more important than the performance, we in the horse world consider it a problem. Whenever you demand any kind of a performance from a classic car, it’s likely to be too much to ask.

I will never forget the embarrassment of standing next to our huge black Cadillac from the 1940s, dressed to the nines in high heels and holding up the Hampton traffic for miles. It was in the summer, and the old girl overheated. Horses overheat on occasion, but they usually don’t hold up traffic.

The Non-Event

Once I made the mistake of promising to go anywhere my husband wanted to be on his birthday. Carlisle, Pa. I should have known. It poured rain for days. We walked forever on narrow planks and inspected hundreds of carburetors half buried in the mud. I’m sure they all have a distinctive personality; it was just difficult to detect.

There were cars parked ad infinitum, just like in any mall parking lot. Nothing happened. And continued to not happen. An exception was Amelia Island, which can be compared to a CDI in the rating of car shows, where the stars were parked indoors or in tents to avoid catching a cold.

We had an incident there: A yellow beauty of unimaginative value had been, most probably, carried on a stretcher to its appointed exhibition spot. In transit it had bumped into something, and there was a big dent in its otherwise perfect fender. It was interesting to watch the drama around this blemish. People did a whole ballet of body motions and made sounds of shock and dismay as if they had just got word of some national disaster. I wonder who they executed to punish for the dent.

Other than that, although the cars were fancier and shinier and more expensive than the ones in the mud, nothing happened, but on a higher level. When the non-event was over, the stars were bubble wrapped and loaded onto enormous trailers and returned home to their own garage, or the mechanic/restorer to polish some imagined blemish or make the motor sound even better, while idling.

One positive thing about my husband’s passion is that as old age approaches, and he looks as if he wants to put me out to pasture, I can remind him of how much he values antiques with all their parts original.

Anne Gribbons is the U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor for dressage. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she’s been a member of the FEI Dressage Committee since 2010. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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