There was a brief time a couple of decades ago, when local horse shows were a familiar part of my equestrian pursuits. Back when I was able to take the extra burst of preparation—and the nervous knot in my stomach—a little more in stride.
But when you don’t go to many horse shows, a show turns into a Show. And every mundane task that goes with it takes on Significant Meaning. Cleaning the tack. Packing the trunk. Completing the entry form. Finding the show pads and girth. Digging out the show breeches, shirts and jacket. (Hoping they still fit.) Wincing at how much it is going to cost. Praying my horse doesn’t inexplicably turn up lame. Questioning my sanity.
At first, 2015 was going to be my year to do more Shows (to the point, I hoped, they actually became mere shows, like they are for normal people). But a brief bout of mystery back soreness (his), a mild ankle sprain (mine) and the barn show schedule conspired to derail that plan.
So I found myself recklessly entering a relatively high-profile, rated Show without the careful preparation I’d envisioned for myself. It was a definite step outside my comfort zone, but for a variety of reasons I was determined to make it happen.
Regardless of the self-inflicted magnitude of the Show, my goals are always the same: 1. Stay on my horse. 2. Remember my course. (Really, quarterline-inside-outside-outside-inside should not be taxing my brain to the extent it invariably does.) 3. Do not embarrass my trainer with my performance, or lack thereof.
Some might say I set the bar too low. In this instance, they would be wrong.
Day 1 of schooling, before the Show even started, I blew two of the three goals in one fell swoop. Or one swooping fall, to be more precise. In short, I counted six strides in the practice line, my horse counted seven, and I left without him.
He tried valiantly to catch me on the back side of the jump, but my enthusiastic body fling carried a little too much momentum and I bounced off his side on landing, uttering a string of regrettable words in that moment of suspension between the saddle and the ground.
There I lay—schooling ring road kill. My horse stared down at me as I anchored his lower jaw with my full body weight, still uselessly clinging to the reins. Uninjured in body if not pride, I scrambled to my feet while my trainer made her way over to claim me from the dirt and escort me on the walk of shame out of the arena to remount.
In my defense, I am always rattled by the schooling area, as I think most sane people are. I’m much more comfortable with the order of a lesson or the solo expanse of the show ring. I’m constantly on edge with the barely masked chaos of show schooling, all of us riding different directions and gaits, jumping random obstacles on command at the instruction of a chorus of trainers’ voices. Like the Show itself, I know the schooling ring would become less of an intimidation with a little more exposure. But, that day, it got the best of me.
It was an inauspicious beginning to the week, one that fanned Fear of Failure at the Show for this Aging Adult Rider. In my mind, I knew it was a simple and harmless spill; in my overactive imagination, it was an omen of more misadventures to come. The week that already heralded very little sleep was punctuated every night with wakening, heart pounding, an hour before the alarm—already set for the ungodly pre-dawn hours known only to horse show participants and veterinarians on call—sounded.
Attempts at controlled breathing and visualization to calm my frayed nerves were futile. My visualizations were not the kind the sports psychologists have in mind. Rather than seeing a flawless round of perfect distances and crisp lead changes, my mental pictures were more the stuff of how I would salvage my ride if any of a litany of disastrous possibilities transpired. None of which were even remotely likely since my horse is as seasoned and reliable as they come, and my trainer methodically and skillfully prepares us both.
Knowing this, why the unfounded, torturous mind games, I have to wonder. Why put myself through the gnawing mental stress, the physical grind, the expense? The answer comes easily and, given more time and money, I know I would subject myself to showing much more often than I do.
Because regardless of the level we may ride, there is an undeniable urge to challenge ourselves—to brave whatever doubts may lurk within and to test our skills against our personal goals, however humble or lofty they may be.
Best of all, we don’t face the challenge alone, but astride our most trusted ally, buoyed by the encouragement of our trainers and the camaraderie of our barn family, in a dusty place where time stands still for a little while—the Show.
Despite her childhood dreaming and scheming, Kim Kitson was deprived of her true horse obsession until climbing into the saddle as a beginner rider at the advanced age of 27. By day, she dons a corporate suit as a public relations professional for a St. Louis health care system to desperately support her horse habit. Evenings and weekends find her at Katana Kennedy O’Brien’s KEE West Farm torturing her saintly Dutch Warmblood, Sox, who wonders what he did in life to deserve this fate.
Kim was one of the winners of the Chronicle’s writing contest with her entry “Caution: Aging Adult Rider.” She can be reached to commiserate about the foibles of the aging adult rider at firstname.lastname@example.org.