Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

Coming Full Circle After 17 Years

After a busy junior career, the author walked away from horses but found herself drawn back almost two decades later.

I am having an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. I am standing at the in-gate at the Tucson Winter Classic (Ariz.), about to enter the ring. It is a familiar feeling, going over the course one last time, listening to the last-minute tips from my trainer, imagining my round before it takes place, planning each corner, each fence.

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After a busy junior career, the author walked away from horses but found herself drawn back almost two decades later.

I am having an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. I am standing at the in-gate at the Tucson Winter Classic (Ariz.), about to enter the ring. It is a familiar feeling, going over the course one last time, listening to the last-minute tips from my trainer, imagining my round before it takes place, planning each corner, each fence.

I have done this hundreds of times before. The jumps are familiar, the smells, sounds are all familiar. What’s different this time? This will be my first time in the show ring in 17 years. The last time I was here, I was 17 years old. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was competing in the junior hunter ranks with my horse, Signature. So, why has it taken me this long to get back to this place?

I grew up riding every day. I showed in leadline classes, short stirrup, pony hunters, children’s hunters and finally, the junior hunters, equitation and jumpers. I rode in the rain, in the freezing cold, on weekends and after school. Even after a tragic riding accident paralyzed my father, I still rode. It was what I knew. It was all I knew.

Time To Move On

Like most juniors, I rode right up until I left home to go to college. Once I left for college, it was time to move on, and I have spent the past 17 years “finding myself” and “moving on” from my past. And now, here I am, back where I started. Back at the in-gate.

My mom always said that once horses were in your blood, there was no going back. I guess she was right, and thanks to her, here I am after 17 years of pushing that part of my life away, trying unsuccessfully to find a replacement.

So, am I nervous? Scared? Excited? All of the above.

But more than anything, I am surprised that it feels normal. Like I was here at the in-gate just yesterday. Like I have never left. I guess after putting in thousands of hours in the saddle, my body, and more importantly, my mind, have not forgotten. Just like the proverbial bicycle that you never forget how to ride.

What’s different is that this time, I am here for me. There is no pressure. I am not trying to qualify or chase points, and I’m not even worried about winning (well, maybe a little). This time, I am here to have fun. To put in that elusive perfect round. To feel connected to my horse. To feel the camaraderie of competition. To spend time with my mom, who is in the twilight of her showing years.

This time I have no expectations. If I screw up, I have my excuse ready: I’ve ridden less than a dozen times in the past few months before getting here. Somehow, I can’t help but think that some of those things I might have missed the first time around.

The Junior Dream

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My junior horse, Signature, was very fancy. We bought him when he was a green 6-year-old and I was a green 10-year-old. We grew up together from the children’s ring to the large juniors to showing Medals and Maclays. By the time I was 16, we were hitting our stride, getting more and more consistent, and winning some. He was a much nicer horse than I was rider, but I was getting better.

By the time I was 17, we were winning more and more. Before I knew it, halfway through the season, we were second in the country. This was definitely not in the plan.

The plan, my dream, had always been to show at all three East Coast fall indoor shows in the hunters. While my dream had involved the large junior hunters, I had also always done the equitation classes on Walter. It was never my favorite, but he was a natural athlete and made up for my deficiencies. Judges seemed to overlook my less-than-straight back, my elbows that tended to stick out, my slightly rounded shoulders, and my broken wrists—all because of Walter. He was nice enough to distract even the most discerning of judges.

And so it was that I went to the St. Louis National Horse Show (Mo.) for the junior hunters as well as the Maclay regional qualifier. And wouldn’t you know it, I qualified (by pure luck, in my mind) for the finals in New York. I was going to Madison Square Garden as a young, naive 12-year-old.

I barely knew what the National Horse Show even was. I had never been to New York, really hadn’t been out of the Midwest at this point. I had no idea what it meant to bring a horse into Manhattan, let alone show. I had no idea what a big deal it was to even qualify.

We made the trek to New York anyway, holed up in some farm in New Jersey because we weren’t allowed into the city until the night before the big event. After a few days rest, after being trucked into the city the night before our class, a 2 a.m. wake-up call to practice, we did it.

Walter trucked me around pretty respectably before we were promptly rushed out, so they could clean out the ring and the stabling for a hockey game later that night. It was such a whirlwind; the whole experience barely had time to register in my young brain.

And while I am proud of this accomplishment, I could never shake the feeling that it was a fluke, that I didn’t belong there, that it was by dumb luck that I qualified. So, the seed was planted that I would come back. Only next time, I would qualify in the hunters. And I would belong there.

Next time, it wouldn’t be a fluke, and we wouldn’t be rushed in and out in less than 24 hours.

Not The Perfect Ending

So, as Walter and I became a better and better match and he shined in the hunter ring, my goal was always to go back and show in the large juniors.

Together, we made it to the Pennsylvania National (Pa.) and the Washington International (D.C.) a couple of times. But 1991 was our year. We were clicking. I was finally riding consistently, and he was in his prime. Even though I still had another junior year left, I was headed to college soon, so I wasn’t planning on showing my last year. This was it.

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I had just graduated from high school and didn’t have a care in the world, except to get to New York (by this time, the National Horse Show had been moved to The Meadowlands). I was planning on taking the fall semester of college off so I could concentrate on indoors. Everything was perfect.

Well, as we all know, there is nothing perfect in the world. Just when I thought the stars were aligned, Walter got hurt.

At Harrisburg, we made it into the ring, but it was not pretty. Something wasn’t right. I knew it, Walter knew it, my trainer knew it, but we gave it a shot anyway. He wasn’t lame at this point, just not himself. So, we struggled through Harrisburg and Washington, far from our best.

We had all sorts of vets come in. We stayed up late at night trying to figure out what was wrong. Flexion tests, bute, Banamine, jogging, nerve blocks. You name it, we tried it, but nothing worked. Finally, the vets determined the problem and that he would need time off. So as Walter was shipped home to be turned out to pasture indefinitely, I continued on to New York to watch.

Talk about a painful few days. I am not sure why I went. Maybe it was to see my competition. Maybe it was to support my friends. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe I had nothing better to do with my time before I went off to college. Anyway, that was it. I suffered through New York, drove home to Michigan, and left for college a few months later.

In My Blood

I put Walter behind me. I put it all behind me. Seventeen years of braiding, mucking stalls, cleaning tack, wrapping legs, grooming, getting up at dawn. Seventeen years of politics in my favor and out of my favor. Seventeen years of lessons, of missing school dances, of no social life, of no life other than horses. Seventeen years of triumphs and heartbreaks. I was ready to move on and do all of the things I could never do because of the horses. I was bitter and angry and sad and disappointed and ready to move forward and explore the world without looking back.

So, for the past 17 years, I have done just that: not looked back. I have moved forward in my life and never allowed myself to relive the elation and the disappointment, the roller coaster of emotions that I had with the horses.

I have gone to college, traveled, moved, earned a master’s degree, found a career, gotten married, found other hobbies and things to do with myself. I have tried countless ways to feel complete and fulfilled: some successful, others less so. And now, after all that, I have gone back to the one sport that is in my blood. I have filled that gap for which I could just never find the right peg.

Except now, the horses are a part of my life, not my life. I respect them and love them as animals rather than a means to my goal. Now, I am riding for the pure joy in it. I am competing to win, but for myself, not for anyone else. I have nothing to prove this time around, especially to me. Now, I am riding to spend time with my mom, who has been a part of the horse world her entire life, who has quietly wished I would get back into riding, but smartly has never pushed. And, probably the best part, I am having much more fun than I ever did before.

So here I am, going through my mental checklist: checking my girth one last time, making sure my boots are dusted off, visualizing the course, imagining the feel of my horse’s canter, blocking out all of the distractions. And finally, I walk into the ring and pick up my canter just like I did 17 years ago. 

Weatherly Stroh

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