I boarded my first horse, Tory, on a 1000-acre cattle farm just outside a major city. The horse facilities, if you could call them that, at the farm consisted of a run-down barn with stalls cobbled together from old cattle pens, concrete cattle feed troughs and lots and lots of barbed wire-fenced pastures, which would have benefited from some serious fertilizer. The scant wooden fencing that existed was chewed halfway through by bored cows and horses, and then it was patched together with more barbed wire or baling twine.
Oddly enough, our horses flourished on this program. There was minimal maintenance, minimal vet care and clueless help, but the horses were uniformly fat, glossy and happy. The farm grew its own hay and feed, and although an A-show trainer would have flinched at the care (or lack of it) the horses got, we had very few injuries or illnesses related to stable-management issues. Our horses were tough.
Beside the barn there was what could generously be referred to as a riding ring. Between the rocks, the weeds and the guy-wire strung across the middle of the track to hold up a light (the arena did have a light for nighttime riding during the winter, I’ll say that for the barn) it only remotely resembled a real arena. But we spent most of our time in the vast pastures or exploring the forest behind the barn. The farm backed onto a national forest, which meant that we had miles and miles of paths to explore, creeks to swim in and logs to jump.
It never occurred to us that a paint job on the exterior might have spiffed the place up a little, or that cleaning the cobwebs off the rafters might aesthetically enhance our environment. All of our time and energy were spent on the arena. We’d get work-parties together with scythes (we couldn’t afford a weed-whacker, and the farmer wouldn’t lend us his) to hack at the waist-high weeds and trim enough around the light-pole that you didn’t decapitate yourself riding under the guy-wire by accident.
We had a couple of decent instructors who came to the barn to give lessons every once in a while (these visits were always “coincidentally” scheduled the weekend after a weed-whacking work party), and I had a regular group of students that I coached at local events and hunter shows.
Jump Building Required Ingenuity
In order to provide suitable training for the kids, we knew we’d need some respectable fences to train over. Since we weren’t in a financial position where we could just go out and buy jumps, we were forced to improvise. There was a lumber mill down the road, and we discovered that if we sent the right kid out with a pathetic look on her face, (she could leak tears on command) she would almost always come back with some scrap lumber of suitable size. On two separate occasions, she came back with the makings of panel jumps. (Someone at the lumber yard had cut a 3x10 foot plywood panel just off the true measurements, and the buyer refused to accept it.)
We scavenged old tires, old oil barrels, traffic cones (no comment there), and old broom-heads. The father of one of my students, a pediatrician, had just finished repainting his office. He went in for a lot of cheerful, bright, eye-popping colors which his wife refused to let into their earth-toned house. We scavenged the leftover paint and brushes.
We made a pair of “stone” walls out of plywood and paint. We made a brush-box with old push-broom heads for the brush. And we made a couple of panel fences that had to be seen to be believed. One member of our group was a reasonable artist, and she painted a snarling tiger on one of the panels.
The theory was that if our horses would jump that, they’d jump anything we could find at a show. There was a pair of old coops that we sanded down and painted in rainbow colors. These coops were later set in a barbed-wire fence line for the use of the local hunt—I shudder to think of the reaction of the hunt horses to rainbow-painted coops! The last panel was the best. We all dipped our hands in different color paint and left our marks on white enamel.
Since we now had fancy jumps, the next logical move was, of course, to have a show! We decided on the charity we were going to benefit, warned the barn owner of our plan, and spread the word to the other ramshackle places in the area. We found a place that would do ribbons for us on the cheap, bullied a knowledgeable friend into judging, found some nice trophies at the five-and-dime and informed the mother of one of my students that she was show secretary.
Things like where to park trailers, what to do for sanitary facilities, what to do if it rained, or even what to do if someone got hurt never occurred to any of us. We carefully raked the arena for rocks, pulled every weed we could find, painted everything that could be painted (the colors were, to say the least, dazzling), and scrounged numbers from the local feed store.
A couple of parents volunteered to run a food concession (the barn didn’t go in for amenities like refrigerators or drink machines) and, when other parents discovered that we really did intend to benefit a local children’s hospital, they kicked in and turned it into a bake sale and refreshment stand.
The Great Equitation Derby
We threw in all sorts of fun-and-games classes: bareback, egg-and-spoon, pole-bending, obstacle course, and a long-stirrup leadline class for parents. We had “real” show classes, hunter and equitation on the flat and over fences. None of us knew the first thing about measuring distances for hunter courses, so they were really a test of survival instincts. The idea of a measured six strides (I don’t think you could have fitted six 12-foot strides into that arena, and I don’t think that any of our horses could have covered a 12-foot stride anyway) was foreign country to us.
Our two most popular classes were the Great Equitation Derby and the Chase-Me-Charlie. Let me explain. The idea for an Equitation Derby was born when one of the kids, in a moment of childish arrogance, told me there wasn’t a course designer alive who could design a 2-foot course that she couldn’t jump. In equally childish reaction, of course, I said, “Oh yeah?” and bet her that I could do it.
So I did. The course had five jumps (about all we could safely get into the arena) at 2 feet. The first jump had aluminum foil strips dangling from the cross-pole with a fan running to make sure that the strips waved in the breeze. The second was a spread fence with a water sprinkler arcing under it just below the height of the jump. The diagonal fence was our masterpiece—a pig. Once before, we’d caged two chickens in wire crates and placed them under a spread fence, but the horses seemed to have gotten used to that, since the farm’s free-range chickens liked to free-range in our arena. To be different, we placed the piglet under the spread fence. All still at 2 feet. The fourth fence had helium balloons (shiny ones) tied to the ground rail. The last fence, just to startle everyone, was a simple post and rail.
The course was a very simple hunter one, and the class was to be judged by equitation standards. We ended up awarding placements in order of the lowest number of refusals. When that didn’t provide us with enough placements for the ribbons we had, we placed by the lowest number of times eliminated. There were, I believe, 15 entries (after all, how difficult can a 2-foot course be?), and every single horse took exception to something on that course. In fact, several of the trainers later requested permission to school over those fences!
And there was the Chase-Me-Charlie class. For those not familiar with the concept, it’s essentially the kids’ version of a puissance class. You start with a jump at a suitable height. All the entries line up, and one after another they hop over the jump. It’s then raised a notch, and anyone who’s clear so far goes again, until either the rail falls or the rider chickens out, whichever comes first. By the time we’d gone over 3 feet (remember this is a backyard show with backyard horses) there were three entries left, and everyone else was on the sidelines cheering. There was Carolyn on Addie, Kathy on George, and a little girl we didn’t know named Rachel on a huge lumbering hulk named Mongo. (Someone had been watching Blazing Saddles too often.)
Addie was an elegant little show pony who actually would have preferred to be an event horse. She’d go politely in the hunter ring, but her eyes would light up on cross-country, and then you had a horrible time getting her back to jump a civilized round in the ring. Addie and her rider bowed out when they cleared 3’9”, on Carolyn’s mother’s orders and much to Carolyn’s disgust. The mother took objection to the pony’s looking up at the fence she was about to jump.
George was next. George was a foxhunting collection of bad points, but he had heart. He wasn’t very careful, and he wasn’t a really good jumper, but the kid on his back was enthusiastic and vocal, so George kept going because it was much less trouble than stopping with that infernal noisy nuisance on his back. George’s very straight shoulders finally caught up with him when he dragged his front end at the 4’3” level and had the rail down.
Then came Mongo. Mongo had lumbered into the jump every round like a knight’s charger, making the ground shake each time he took a step. How he got over the rails, nobody knew, because he really shouldn’t have been able to. Rachel sat perched up on his back (she was maybe 80 pounds, and Mongo easily cleared 16.3-hands and was correspondingly broad), pointed him at the jump and hung on.
When George had the rail at 4’3”, we all thought that this would probably be it, but the rules gave Rachel her turn, and she was determined to take it. So there went Mongo. As one of the parents put it, you could almost see Mongo muttering to himself in a raspy bass voice like Stallone’s on a bad day “Mongo jump fence for Rachel” as he made a huge effort, cleared the rail, and landed with a thud on the other side to huge cheers from the audience. Mongo looked inordinately pleased with himself, and everyone at the show seemed to have had a good time. In fact, I was asked, at the show, when we were going to have the next one.
Sadly, not long after we got the place spruced up and presentable, the owners sold the land to a developer who was going to put up a championship golf course with an “equestrian community” of McMansions. The first perk tests dropped gaping holes in the middle of our galloping track. Our access to the forest was restricted to one particular path, and a good many of the pastures were placed off limits entirely.
The barn still stands. One side is now elegantly faced with bright-white siding (so that it looks good on television when they film the golf tournaments), the arena is fenced in (liability, y’know), access to trails and fields is almost nil (those McMansions), but the horses are still fat, glossy and happy.
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.