Tucked up in the top of my closet, along with a summer-weight sleeping bag, mosquito netting, and a fancy hat once required for a Derby party, is a box of horse show ribbons. I don’t remember when I last pulled it out to look at them, but the box has survived several Marie Kondo-style purges. Many of the ribbons are so old they predate my children. But each one has a story.
Many are from combined training events, when a rider spends a whole weekend in pursuit of a single ribbon. And, as all eventers learn, there are hundreds of ways to be eliminated along the way. You started your dressage test before the bell, or you forgot your test, or your horse stepped outside of the arena, over the 6″ high barrier. You missed a fence cross-country or jumped one outside the flags or in the wrong direction. A friend shouted advice to you while you were on course. The list goes on for pages in the rule book. So a single ribbon, no matter what its color, is worth celebrating, hanging from your rearview mirror on the way home.
The best ribbon in the box came from the final event of the season, held on Halloween weekend. Dressage was always my horse’s weak spot (and mine), but the arena had flooded and frozen overnight. The footing was slick in spots, and my horse, apparently concerned about her feet, held herself in perfect balance. For once, we had a good score. The cross-country course included a bank combination that kept me up worrying most of the night before. Fortunately, my game mare was in the air over the jump at the edge of the bank before she realized how big the drop was. Then there was the creep feeder set just beyond a steep downhill. Even my super honest horse looked at that one, but she jumped it, with a little encouragement.
By the time we did our show jumping, we were in second place. Way ahead of us was the director of a college riding program, who’d bragged during the course walk that there was hardly anything worth his time at the event. That’s always dangerous. The show jumping arena had several jumps built into the outside fence, some of which we had to jump earlier as part of the cross-country course. So, in his round, when he failed to turn his horse in time, the horse simply jumped out of the arena. After all, that’s where he was pointed. Furious at being eliminated, the rider jumped off right there, punched the horse and stormed away. He was reprimanded by the association, and we wound up winning. It was great fun.
Some ribbons were from the hunt races. One blue was the result of an odd bit of luck. In the Ladies Race, the horse just ahead of me, in the lead, saw its pasture buddy on the side of the course and veered off to join it. The hunt team race was harder. At the end of my section, I tried to pass the hunt whip to Dan, the next rider, but part of the thong lodged under my saddle’s gullet. So the two of us galloped along side by side with me trying to yank the long thong out from under my saddle as we ran. After the race, Dan commented, “See, I never have that problem ‘cause I always let my thong hang loose.” Some things only guys can get away with saying.
One was from the last horse show I rode in, at least back then. I had a capable but bratty mare who balked if she was headed away from the barn and took off running as soon as she was headed home. Before my class in the hunter trials, I added a pair of spurs and swapped out her snaffle for a Pelham. Minutes into our round, she sucked back as usual—and met the spurs. I swear a lightbulb went off over her head. Later in the course, as we turned toward the finish, she dug in and took one quick stride then settled like a model hunter. Too bad I didn’t figure out the right tack sooner, but it was a satisfying way to end.
It would be OK if the box of ribbons was just a collection of old stories like those. Lots of people have them, old trophies on the shelf. Stories that grow better with time.
But now, it’s a problem.
See, these ribbons were won a long time ago. The hunt races were in 1977. The big event was in 1981. The last class was in 2005.
After a couple of serious falls and some life changes, I quit riding. I walked away so completely I sold all my tack and clothes. It was like a bad break-up. I kept a few pictures, but they meant less as each year went by.
Then, one winter, I missed being in a barn so much I called the number on an ad for a hunter/jumper trainer looking for new clients. I tried to explain that I used to ride, but it had been 11 years since I’d been on a horse, so my brain remembered some stuff, but my body really didn’t. The trainer said she had a nice old walk-trot horse I could ride. Perfect, I thought. I’d ride a sweet old lesson horse, and, like magic, it would all come back.
Except that’s not what happened. Although the kind old horse who packed me around was good for me, I realized fairly quickly that things I used to be able to do were now a challenge. At the end of a lesson, I kicked my feet out of both stirrups and went to jump off, the way I used to. Right, not. My outside leg caught on the saddle, and, with the momentum I’d created, I wound up flying off and landing flat on the ground underneath the kindly old lesson horse who stood patiently while I dragged myself upright.
After every lesson, I’d go home aching—everywhere. The best fix was a heating pad, aspirin and a glass of wine. When I looked to old riding friends for support, I found them less than enthusiastic about my attempts. “What? Are you trying to be a teenager?” one commented.
No, I’m not. I realize I’m not young. Heck, I’m not even middle-aged at this point. And I’m not trying to be. I just want to do what I love to do: ride horses. Even if I’m not as good at it as I used to be.
But the box of ribbons is an adversary. It’s a younger, gutsier version of me, and it’s mocking me for my fears. It’s the classic image of the old athlete haunted by the younger, more successful version.
Of course, if I really examined the box, I’d remember what isn’t captured in ribbons: the problems with lameness that undid whole seasons, the nerves that took over and made me veer off course so often a fellow competitor offered to buy me a compass. And lots more. But nobody gives a ribbon for a failure. So only the golden moments make it into the box.
Now I’m looking at competing in my first hunter show in 20 years. These days, a course of 2’3” seems plenty big to me, and I worry I’ll forget the course halfway around because my brain seems to go out to lunch occasionally (OK, frequently) without permission. Plus there’s the ghost of the box of ribbons standing out there, somewhere, judging me. You used to do so much more.
But I keep working at it, taking lessons from an excellent trainer who tries not to yell at me when I’ve once again misunderstood or jumbled the course directions. Sometimes, everything goes exactly right, and I’m sure I’m headed for endless perfect rounds from here on in. Certainly, I rehearse them often enough as I’m falling asleep, and they’re almost always flawless.
Then I get on and screw up. The approach is too ragged, too uneven, the corners a disaster. The ghost is shaking its head.
I wonder if every rider, every athlete, suffers from that feeling—that their past self was so good that in retrospect, the mistakes are forgotten. There’s only victory, as if it were inevitable. That day was always destined to end with that amazing performance, that ribbon, that medal, that photo.
But if we were transported back in time to that moment, it wouldn’t feel inevitable. It would feel full of heady potential, maybe, or raw talent waiting to be tapped, or nerves that had to be overcome, but it was never a sure thing. It was a leap of faith.
So I’m asking the ghost of the box of ribbons to step aside for a moment. Truly, it doesn’t matter what I could do 30 years ago. And maybe the ghost could shut up about how much better I used to ride back then. I just want to do this, now. I want to take my turn in a horse show and give it my best shot. If, for some reason, we do well enough to win a ribbon, it will be a delight of the moment: enjoyed, shared, then stored away. And, with a little luck, replaced by another in the future.
Caitlin Rollins used to compete in local hunter/jumper shows and combined training events. In the 1990s she served as whipper-in and master of foxhounds for the Metamora Hunt (Michigan). After more than a decade away from horses, she’s now a returning rider trying to figure everything out all over again.