The college I went to was elegant, expensive and academically ferocious. Did any of that factor into why I chose it? Of course not. It had a stable on campus and the Head of the Riding Program was kind enough to let me work off my riding fees.
“Head of the Riding Program” sounds a lot more glamorous than it was—she was the entire riding program, except for an elderly groom who’d been working at the stable since forever.
Our horses were re-claims: A posh lesson barn in a nearby city would send us their sour, spoiled or cranky lesson horses because with us they got less work, a change of scenery, and some first-class reschooling. They were nice, as far as lesson horses go, but they were, however, lesson horses.
There was Patches. He was, obviously, a pinto. The less said about his conformation, the better, but he was a good soul and tried his heart out. To say that he was heavy on the forehand was rather an understatement, and anyone who drew Patches for a dressage lesson was in for a rough time and a subsequent trip to the school chiropractor. He would, however, do his best to jump whatever you asked him to. He looked a little odd when we spiffed him up for shows, since even the most skillful braiding job couldn’t disguise the fact that he wasn’t exactly blue-blooded.
And there was Petunia. Petunia was small, round and fuzzy, but again, she tried. With proper and aggressive riding, she could get around a three-foot course in reasonable form, and she would cheerfully gallop her little legs off for you on a cross-country course if you asked. Time was never an issue with Petunia—you knew there were going to be time faults. But you got around, and she brought you home safe because, after all, that was her job.
Confetti and Gloribee were both fruitcake mares. Either of them could do a passable dressage test if there were no distractions (blowing leaves counted), and they could usually get around a simple hunter course leaving most of the poles up. To say they did any of this with grace, style or elegance would be blatant falsehood, but they did their jobs safely and reliably and were honest about it.
The Silver Spoons
There were a couple of financially well-off girls in our group. Jenny came from a society background, and she brought her own horse to college with her.
Party was tall, dark and handsome, and he did the equitation, regular working hunters and open jumpers at all the big shows with equal élan. He was also a pet and a pleasure to care for. He would try to sit in your lap and purr if you petted him.
Party was so far above the standard of our school string, and Jenny was such a brilliant rider by our standards, that we were in awe of the pair of them. They warmed up over jumps that we couldn’t touch on our best day. And they were both sweethearts.
Helene, on the other hand, was the classic poor little rich girl. Her parents had bought her a horse that cost more than her entire college tuition. They refused to let her keep it at our college because the barn was “not what the horse was used to.”
So they kept it with Fancy Trainer. Fancy Trainer required Helene to use another horse for practice, so that “she wouldn’t ruin her good show horse.” Helene was not allowed to take the horse out of its stall, or even pat it without permission.
All of us envied Helene the fancy horse (it was a really, really nice horse), and none of us understood why she would put up with keeping her own horse under these totalitarian conditions. Furthermore, we couldn’t grasp why Helene didn’t want to help clean her own stall, feed or groom her very own horse (most of us would have given our teeth to have our own horse), when that was part of the fun of being around horses.
So there we were. We loved riding; we adjusted our class schedules to maximize riding time even with heavy academic course loads, and we worked our buns off in the barn to pay for otherwise unaffordable lessons and fees.
The barn was roomy and weather-tight, but that was the best that could be said about it. We kept it spotlessly clean because it was ours. We repaired our own fences, had parties to pick rocks out of the turn-out pastures, had jump-building parties out in the back 40 so that we would actually have some jumps to jump, and we got to be very proficient with saw, hammer, nails, sledgehammers and weed-killers. (I will someday tell you about my fight with poison ivy, but not now.)
Rare Moments Of Glory
There were a couple of times when it all came together. Remember that this was before the days of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, and that we were riding reclaim projects. We’d been taken to a large local show for a chance to test ourselves against the outside world. This fall show had a history of being used by the local stars to warm up for the fall indoor series, so the competition was fierce.
It had rained buckets for the week preceding the show, and there was a swamp in front of the first fence on the hunter courses. Helene (with Fancy Trainer) and I were in the same early schooling hunter class, which must have had 40 entries. I was riding Petunia and was completely intimidated by Helene’s fancy horse, which was posted in the order of go directly behind me.
Petunia went into the ring, and we began our courtesy circle. I could hear the snickers and sneers as the spectators (the few braving the rain) watched fuzzy, furry little round Petunia slosh her way into the ring. Petunia, however, didn’t care. She lived outside, and enjoyed splashing around in mud puddles (trying to keep her clean was a trick at the best of times). We plodded through the mud and the rain, got soaking wet but jumped eight reasonably nice fences (for Petunia they were awesome) and sloshed out of the ring rather pleased with ourselves.
Then I saw Helene and her fancy horse enter the ring, and the warm, fuzzy feeling drained out of me like sawdust. They were beautifully turned out; even in the rain there was not one hair out of place, and it looked like mud wouldn’t dare find a resting place on those spotless socks. They began to circle, and Helene turned the horse to the first jump. He took one look at the swamp he’d have to wade through to get to the jump and stopped dead. She turned him, aimed him again, with the same result. And a third time. This horse was having no part of what he obviously considered water sports.
But there was better yet to come. We went to another show, again completely outclassed. The entries (except us) were all from the very expensive regional boarding schools and colleges whose students regularly rode at the huge fall indoor shows. We had Petunia and Patches and Gloribee and some of the others on our team.
We did respectably, if not brilliantly, in the equitation classes. We were completely outclassed in the hunters—although we did put in rounds that were respectable enough to satisfy our teacher—and won some ribbons. Near the end of the day, the announcer published the point standings by school. Even though we hadn’t been brilliant, we were in the hunt for the high-point trophy on the basis of consistency.
At the last minute, the show committee added one last big, double-point class to entertain the audience, and, it appeared to us, to guarantee the host school’s victory, as they had a couple of good jumpers in their string. It was to be a jumper class, Gamblers’ Choice.
We needed as many points as we could rack up to have a shot at the high-point award, so we did a tally of our available entries.
Jenny had brought Party along as a school for indoors, and she was automatically in. A couple of our other riders signed up Gloribee and Confetti.
There was no way that Petunia and I were going to make it around that course in anything near a winning time, so my friend Tracey, who’d come along as a groom, asked for the ride. She’d not brought any of her riding things, so there was a scramble to find her something to wear. I stayed in the trailer half-naked, because Tracey was wearing my breeches and boots, and I couldn’t fit into her jeans. She threw Isabel’s coat over her gingham check shirt with her boyfriend’s necktie, Suzi’s helmet, the teacher’s saddle, and Petunia.
Tracey had grown up riding games ponies, and she had no qualms about overdrive. Tracey had also been hanging around ringside while I rode, and she had been listening to the rich kids making snide remarks about Petunia. Tracey and Petunia had been fast friends since freshman year, when Petunia practiced a capriole in the backfield with Tracey aboard. The unkind and snobbish cracks made Tracey mad. (“Don’t shoot him—bullets only make him mad.”) Tracey was the first entry in the ring.
The class was against the clock, and each jump had a point value assigned to it. You were allowed to jump each fence once in each direction. The course was set up with a pen in the middle (four jumps in a square making a box of two one-stride in-and-outs), and the rest of the fences were scattered around the ring. Since it was ride-your-own-line, Tracey gunned Petunia, headed for the pen (mid-range points) at a dead run, and jumped it the allowed times each direction in a cloverleaf pattern with rollbacks. Petunia had never done a rollback in her life, but she sure learned that day.
Tracey knew there was no way Petunia could handle the highest point value fences, so she settled on speed and accuracy and hit the afterburners. When she and a panting Petunia came out of the ring, our teacher commented that she didn’t think Petunia knew she could run that fast.
The next half dozen entries were from other schools, and only two of them managed to beat Petunia’s points and blinding (for Petunia) speed. The kids weren’t as careful about turns and hadn’t, it seemed, worked out plans for the course, so it was sort of random jumping, pulled rails, and the points just didn’t happen. Then came Jenny and Party.
Jenny, being an old hand in the open jumper divisions, cantered into the ring straight to the 100-point jump. Party flew over it, sat back four strides later into a perfect rollback and went right back over that jump. They did the same with the 90 and 80 point jumps and were on their way to the 70 when time was called. Needless to say she won the class, and our college squeaked into the high-point award by the narrowest of point margins, exactly the number of points earned by Petunia!
Sometimes, if you are persistent and careful, you can beat the big boys. Not often, but it’s sure sweet when it happens.
Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a "Foreign Service brat," and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. "I'm a survivor of ponies of all sizes," said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.