Anyone who has spent a lifetime around horses and horse shows has some great stories to tell. Many of them involve odd circumstances under which they competed.
Like the year I went to the American Royal in Kansas City. It was a multi-discipline show with a huge number of entries (my number was 1210 if that tells you anything) and a small number of arenas.
Hunter/jumper schooling was very restricted and tightly scheduled by fence height. The show did not have warm-up classes, so unless you wanted your horse to play a game of, “Yeeeeee haw, I’ve never been in this ring before” during your Zone Finals ride-off, you made sure you didn’t miss your allotted time.
Which, in my case, was 1:30 to 2.
In the morning.
Then there was the year at Indio when we ran out of daylight during the adult equitation over fences classes. The solution was to park a searchlight (the kind intended to sweep across the sky, or make the Bat Signal) on each side of the arena and point them across the middle.
Seventy-five-million watts lit the center of the arena like the surface of the sun. Unfortunately, the ends of the ring were in total darkness. You would jump a line, disappear into the dark, emerge several seconds later and have three strides to the next line. Who knows what went on in the corners? You could have stopped to adjust your stirrups, asked for directions or completely swapped riders, and nobody would be the wiser.
The most amazing part was that every horse (including mine, bless his OTTB heart) marched around that bizarre landscape without flinching.
But the strangest venue and most challenging competition had to be the horse show at Remington Park.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The name probably brings to mind a serene landscape of rolling fields, stately oak trees and butterflies.
Except Remington Park wasn’t a park.
It was a racetrack.
A horse racetrack.
A place where, 10 times per day, a bell louder than an AC/DC concert split the air, and a dozen horses hyped up like preschoolers on espresso thundered around the track as though they were being chased by Satan.
Yeah, let’s have a horse show on the infield at a racetrack, said no rational horseperson ever.
Let me mention that this was back in the days when 90 percent of the horses on the show circuits were Thoroughbreds that had come off the racetrack. Horses we’d spent years re-training to understand there that was another gait between trot and gallop, and not to go from 0 to 60 when they heard a bell ring. Horses who were about to forget everything we’d taught them.
The energy of the racetrack environment affected the horses from the second we arrived.
Once we’d unloaded them from the trailer, we had to maneuver the horses through a tunnel and across the track to the showgrounds on the infield. I say “maneuver” because “lead” doesn’t accurately describe trying to steer a 1,200-pound animal that is dancing in circles on the end of a rope.
Temporary stabling was set up under large, airy tents, and makeshift show arenas were staked out on the grass. Someone commented that it looked like the circus had come to town.
That description turned out to be regrettably accurate.
Our morning schooling sessions coincided precisely with the jockeys’ training runs. It didn’t matter that the horse I had at the time hadn’t come off the track. He had no problem channeling his inner Secretariat at the sound of squealing 3-year-olds galloping through the fog.
It became apparent early on the first day of the show that horse racing and horse showing did not mix. Every time those gates flew open, it was two minutes of mayhem on the showgrounds. And if you were on course? Just hurl your own body to the ground and get it over with.
We could not, in all fairness, expect a herd animal not to react when a flock of its brethren took flight around it. So by afternoon on the first day, show management decided to pause the competition during each race. As the horses went to the post, riders would dismount, get a grip (literally and figuratively), and make futile attempts to keep their steeds calm. When the bell sounded, their heads would shoot up, and they’d prance and turn in fascinated unison as they followed the progress of the horses around the track.
Then there was the challenge of getting back on. Some of the horses wouldn’t stand still for a second, which made mounting a bit of a pickle.
It’s one thing for a vaulter to mount a moving horse when it’s doing a slow rhythmical canter on a perfect circle. It’s quite another when you’re standing on the tailgate of a pickup truck waiting for the groom to get your horse close enough for you to make a grab for the saddle.
Behaviors that would normally take you out of the ribbons became just another thing to factor into the score. It was up to the judge’s discretion whose horse spooked in the most hunterly fashion, did the most mannerly series of hops and bucks in the corners, or jumped with the best, back-cracking bascule over a jump that, apparently, only the horse could see.
In equitation classes, trotting in place for at least four counts was, for all intents and purposes, a “halt.” Trainers abandoned the finer points of instruction for advice such as, “Try to go more forward than sideways” and “Whatever you do, don’t touch him with your leg.”
There were no “lineups” at the end of flat classes, unless you call 15 horses doing canter pirouettes in the middle of the ring a ‘lineup.’ The results would be announced, and the ribbon-hander-outer would toss yours at you as you exited. Too bad if you missed it.
Charlotte Dujardin would have been impressed at the way the jumpers combined impromptu piaffe and spontaneous passage with varying combinations of oxers and verticals. She would have seen movements she didn’t know existed done with a level of athleticism that defied the laws of physics.
I remember the expression on the judge’s face—looking like he was certain this was a hidden-camera TV show, and at any moment the real show horses would come out of the barns. I remember the jog in the rated classes looking like a quadruped version of Riverdance. And I remember more than one spectator commenting that horse shows were a lot more interesting than they’d imagined.
Bless my liver-chestnut appendix Quarter Horse. He was one of few able to keep himself together enough to put in some decent performances. I came away with the reserve championship in the adult amateur hunters and a new appreciation for the calming influence of Quarter Horse DNA.
Oh, and a really good story.
After years of trying to fit in with corporate America, Jody Lynne Werner decided to pursue her true passion as a career rather than a hobby. So now she’s an artist, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, web designer, writer and humorist. You can find her work on her Misfit Designs Cafepress site. Jody is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition. Her work also appears in print editions of The Chronicle of the Horse. Read all of Jody’s humor columns for coth.com here.