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November 22, 2011

A Question For Special Adult Amateurs Everywhere: Why Can’t I Think Inside The Ring?

"Once in the ring, I’m physically incapable of thinking. I’m not sure when the brain takes leave. I’m guessing that it’s somewhere in the opening circle," said Danielle DiMaria. Photo courtesy of Danielle DiMaria.

People in the horse world have a different definition and perception of amateurs than the rest of the world.

Horse folk think of amateurs as ammy-owners: the over 18 crowd who jump their horses 3'6". Everyone else thinks of the fools who try to do things that they’re not quite capable of. It’s sometimes used as a put down: “What an amateur!”

The hard part is when you take a person who belongs in the second definition of amateur and put them in the horse world. I know all about these people. I’m one of them.

I’ve watched all types of people from all walks of life in the hunter/jumper world. I’ve seen young girls for their first season of lessons flop around on the most generous lesson horses. I’ve been fascinated by bold young pony riders at local shows and at USEF Pony Finals. I’ve learned from juniors at clinics and programs like the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athletes Program, and I’ve respected them at ASPCA Maclay finals.

I’ve envied the ammy-owners as well as the cool, impressive professional riders at all types of competition. But I find myself most drawn to adult riders who have not, nor ever will, jump 3'6", or 3', if anything at all. These riders might not necessarily be the backbone of the industry, but they’re there. And if you look around a little, or just listen for the laughing or the swearing, you’ll find them.

The Wonder Class

We have a group of “seasoned” ladies who ride at our barn for one lesson a week. They’re affectionately known as the “Wonder Class.” We wonder how they stay on. We wonder how the lesson horses know to treat them so tenderly. We wonder if we’re giggling too loud during their lessons.

No worries: We’re not laughing at them, we’re truly laughing with them. These ladies never plan on showing. Most of them won’t even jump a crossrail. It’s more like a bowling league or a ceramics class. They come once every week during oppressively hot summers and freezing cold winters. They share a great experience, challenge themselves once in a while, and have a great laugh. It takes them a little longer to tack up, and perhaps they talk to their rides a little more than the other students.

Mounting the horse takes a great deal of their time as well. The patient horse will only stand still for so long while its rider finds enough courage to put her left foot in the stirrup, and even more courage to swing her right leg over. And as the horse blasts off for half a step, there’s a slight pull on the reins and a big “whoa” to ease them up.

Then the lesson begins. Almost. The ladies stretch and adjust, tuck, and verbally bribe the horses one more time. And they’re off to a trot. Until one horse has to stop to scratch his nose. The next horse sees this and quickly falls into pace at a nice casual walk. In a matter of seconds, all four horses are either walking or standing in a cluster at the far end of the ring. At this point, the ever-so-patient trainer yells to them, “OK, we can all walk now.”

These women will not make or break the future of the industry. But they’re a part of the heart of it.

The Special Amateur-Owner

I’m not quite in the wonder class…yet. I’ve classified myself as a Special Amateur-Owner. I am an owner. I own a remarkable horse. I am an amateur. (Who on earth would pay me for my expertise?) And I am special, as in special adult division special.

The word special, unlike amateur, carries the same meaning in and out of the horse world. And I am special, both in and out of the horse world. Because of my special experience, I know what an amateur, or special adult, really thinks. I know this comes as a surprise to my trainer. I understand that she finds it hard to believe that I actually do think. She always has a dumfounded look when I come out of the show ring.

It’s that same look that you would give a small child when you’re trying to explain the most basic fundamental rules, and he just doesn’t get it. You thought he did, but he just doesn’t. You tell a 4-year-old that he’s not allowed to take the toy away from his small sibling. He understands this. You turn your back for a second, the small child is crying because the 4-year-old took the toy away. He understood you. Why can’t he follow simple instructions?

My trainer tells me to ride into the corners. She explains that will give me several more strides to get my horse straight to the next jump. I understand her instructions. I agree with the reasoning behind it. I know we’ve practiced it at home, and it works.

I go into the ring. Do I ride into the corners? No, of course not. Why not? Is it because I didn’t listen to my instructions before going into the ring? No. Is it because my horse suddenly is no longer capable of riding deep into the corners? Nope. Is it because a strong wind blew my horse out of all the corners? Not quite. It’s because I am a special adult.

Once in the ring, I’m physically incapable of thinking. I’m not sure when the brain takes leave. I’m guessing that it’s somewhere in the opening circle. As I transition from walk to trot to canter, I also transition from dumb, to dumber, to dumbest.

I don’t see this phenomenon in any other group of riders. The young pony kids might not understand everything all at once, but what they understand, they keep with them the whole time they’re in the ring.

The juniors always maintain their intelligence throughout entire courses. Oh sure, they occasionally have brain farts in the middle of their class. Usually to that one long one where all of a sudden their neurons misfire for a bit, but then they recover at the end. No, this total temporary brain loss belongs in the special adult ring.

As a spectator watching the special adults, it always amazes me how easy it is from the sidelines. I don’t lose brainpower; in fact the opposite occurs. I become smarter. When I’m not on a horse, I’m cool, calm and collected. I see the correct path to all the jumps. I know where I would be collecting and where I would be pushing. I would be patient to every jump, while using two arms and two legs at all times.

But the special amateur takes over as soon as I’m tacked up and on my steed, heading in the gate, and physically jumping ahead a stride out in front of every oxer. The instructions my trainer gives me aren’t repeating themselves inside my head. All I hear is a cross between that hollow, empty sound you hear when listening to a seashell and prayers that my life should be saved.

But it’s all OK, because I don’t take myself seriously. I think that’s the key. I’ll always try my best. I also want to continually improve. My brain hopefully gets a little saner, even though my body’s on the decline. I want to enjoy my time and know that I gave it my all.

And if for some reason my horse can’t continue to save me after I jumped ahead for the first three jumps we come too, at least there’s another positive to the day. I’ve met some very fine medical technicians. Usually after they find out I did survive the fall, and they help me get up and dust me off, I so often see them shake their heads.

I might have imagined it, but I think I heard one or two say the same word: “Amateurs!”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Why Can’t I Think Inside The Ring?" ran in the Nov. 21 & 28, 2011, Amateur issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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