I spend a lot of time at horse shows year-round, but very little of my time is spent in the show ring. Until this year, the last time I showed over a course was in 2017. Sure, I’ve hacked a bunch of horses for Amanda Steege over the years when we have two or three entries in a class or helped with ticketed warm-ups, but rarely do I show myself.
At this year’s HITS Ocala circuit (Florida), I got to show Sam Greenbaum’s Guinevere (aka “Gwen”), who did the Platinum Performance USHJA 3′ Green Hunter Incentive Championship (Kentucky) and indoors last year with Amanda. I was super excited! I don’t get upset if I don’t show—that’s just not how I am, and ultimately, that’s not the job I was hired to do. But I’m not going to lie: I was THRILLED to have this opportunity.
I showed Gwen two weeks of the 10-week circuit, once during the week and again over the weekend. I knew I was going to have to work extra hard to pull this off. Showing a horse yourself and working is one of the hardest things to do. I’ve had plenty of practice over the years with my own horse, but I was worried I would be a little rusty. In addition, showing would require my complete focus for 30-40 minutes, and I could not be worried about the guys getting other horses to the ring, missing spots in other rings, or coordinating the rest of the day’s schedule with the clients. My mind spun. This was going to be a difficult task.
I like a challenge though, so I set myself up for success. I meditated the night before to focus my brain. It may sound corny, but it helps me center myself and makes me more intentional throughout my day. I stretched my leg and hip muscles so my hamstrings wouldn’t be tight. Amanda and I planned out the first part of the morning, so I knew which horses to check in where and at what times. I warned the guys they needed to ask me any questions about the morning before I got on Gwen at 7:30 a.m. to ride her down to the ring because I wasn’t answering my phone after that. I organized them with the first three horses of the day, and our other girl Jessie was on top of her duties. All of these things helped bring my anxiety down, and by the time I reached the show ring, I felt more relaxed and confident knowing there was a plan for at least the next 30 minutes.
I love showing first thing. I’m a morning person, so I do way better with anything in the morning than I do in the afternoon. I would much rather be the first rider in the ring and lay it down than watch 15 people go and psych myself out.
About 15 minutes after I got to the warm-up, Gwen and I were walking toward the show ring, and my heart was pounding. My tall boot had split during my first couple of schooling jumps, but I was trying to ignore it. I needed to stay focused on the task at hand. I didn’t need distractions; I just wanted to go in there and feel like I used my skills correctly. Amanda gave me a few last-minute instructions, and then the starter sent me in.
I trotted my opening circle and then walked for a few steps, taking a deep breath and focusing my brain before I picked up the canter. I could feel my nerves kicking in a bit, and because of that, I was a little long to the first fence. No big deal, but I landed and knew I needed to get my act together and make some better decisions. I needed to prove that I was capable of this opportunity.
I asked Gwen for the lead change before the corner and then squeezed her to take longer, more confident steps as we neared the first line. It is the coolest feeling in the world when you and your horse are on the same page. I felt like Gwen and I were gliding around the course with ease. I didn’t quite steady enough into the last line, but I also didn’t drop my body forward at Gwen, which is my personal bad habit. I tightened my back muscles and sat away from her, allowing her to help me and cover up my mistake, and then I squeezed her as we landed to make up the space difference in the line. I landed with a smile, feeling proud of myself. Was it perfect? No, but I had reacted to what was happening to me on course. Riding is not about being perfect; it’s about paying attention and knowing how to react to things that unexpectedly happen on course.
As I went back in for the second round, the announcer said my nickname, “Smiley,” and I smiled out of habit as I picked up the canter. Everyone usually gives up trying to pronounce my last name, but I like it when they use my nickname. Focusing on the announcer’s voice for a few seconds allows me to bring my brain back to the task at hand and not the hundreds of thoughts running through my head.
This time I was determined to get the first jump right. I urged Gwen up into a bigger canter to start and then steadied her as we approached. Found it. The next two lines were well done; I felt what her body and my body were doing and reacted properly to that.
We landed from the last jump, and I patted her. For someone who doesn’t get to practice much, those were two respectable rounds. I was proud of myself for thinking through every stride of my ride, a skill that I have failed at in the past.
I completely agreed with everything Amanda said to improve my rounds. I gave Gwen a big pat and a mint out of my pocket before heading back toward the barn.
I ended up with two fourths in those classes, which was pretty good considering my couple of mistakes. However, my performance on Thursday wasn’t as stellar—my first round, I was too long to the first jump again, and then the second round I accidentally touched Gwen with my spur through the turn with my outside leg, which led to a chip. Ugh. Gwen still got her mints for saving my butt. She was also third in a tough hack class.
Not many of my friends really noticed me showing the first week; I went too early in the morning. But by the time we got to Week 7, and I was walking to Hunter 4 late on Saturday afternoon dressed in show clothes, everyone I passed took notice (and I mean, EVERYONE). Fellow professionals, show employees, riders and friends were so excited to see me competing.
“Are you showing?! That’s amazing; good luck!”
“Look at you, ready to go!”
“Go get ’em, girl! You’ve earned it!”
A huge grin broke out on my face, and I blushed, thanking them. It felt incredible to have so much support. “You’ve earned it.” Those words kept ringing in my head over and over. Years ago, I had a bad habit of psyching myself out. It’s all a mind game for me, and I’ve realized that I need to have control of my mind and my thoughts if I want to succeed. I often feel like I haven’t worked hard enough, but that phrase kept echoing in my head: “You’ve earned it.” And suddenly, I realized something: I did earn this chance. All those early mornings and late nights, years of grooming horses, mucking trailers, cleaning water buckets, mucking stalls, setting up and tearing down, riding, bathing, organizing tack trunks, cleaning tack, tacking up and untacking hundreds of thousands of horses—I had earned my chance to be in the ring. I deserved to have a good class.
I was one of the last ones showing that day, and Amanda was still finishing up our Platinum Performance Hunter Prix horses, so I warmed Gwen up and gave her a pat as she snorted around the ring, clearly annoyed that I was asking her to work at dinnertime. Amanda showed up about 15 minutes later and set up a small vertical to start. I was super focused on my rhythm and keeping Gwen straight, something I had forgotten about last time.
I trotted in confidently, picking up a solid canter. I was not falling into my first jump-itis again, and I cantered right down to the first jump. NAILED IT. The remainder of the course was quite good, except I was a little longer to the outside single oxer than I wanted.
All in all, Amanda was pretty happy with that. “You just need to think about what you’re doing in your turns more and where you are,” she said.
I patted Gwen as Amanda told me the last course. “OK, you’re gonna go in and nail this one. I feel it,” she said with enthusiasm.
“Go get ’em, Smiley!” trainer Kim Perlman called out.
This time, I felt weirdly calm. I wasn’t focused on anything but Gwen and me. It’s hard to mentally achieve that type of focus all the time but when I do, I’m determined. I was looking up and ahead and focused on the quality of my canter, not on the distance. And nail it I did. I didn’t lean, I didn’t push past anything, and I completely fixed my single oxer by staying out a step longer, half-halting with my outside rein, and trusting the canter. I landed after the last jump to a lot of whoops and clapping.
“There ya go, you did it!” Amanda exclaimed from the rail as I walked toward her, patting Gwen’s neck the whole way.
Amanda headed back for the rest of the hunter prix, and I waited for the hack. I did the best I could to show off Gwen. We ended up second, and we won both over fences! I started the long trek back to the barn so Gwen could have her bath, ice and Bemer blanket time. But the day wasn’t over; Amanda and I still had one more horse each to ride, and it was after 6 p.m. Saturdays are always our busiest days.
On Sunday, Gwen didn’t need much prep for our classes—I did a quiet ride with her mid-morning to get her muscles and body warmed up. I was the last person showing of the day; I had three horses out waiting for amateur-owner hunter jogs as I tacked up Gwen at the barn and mounted up.
I had a great warm-up but suffered from a bit of first jump-itis again in both classes. I managed to let those mistakes go and continue on without any other issues. Gwen felt amazing, and I tried to do the best I could with her. We were third and fourth and ended up champion! Gwen got a lot of mints and extra grass back at the barn. This was my first Ocala tricolor in a long time, and I hung it proudly in my camper right by the front door. There, it reminds me that all my hard work really does pay off.
I’m so grateful to everyone involved for giving me this opportunity and trusting me to do a good job. I’m not sure if this was a one-time thing or something to look forward to again in the future, but I’m proud that I allowed myself to enjoy all of these moments. It also gave me a chance to learn what riding skills I still need to work on—no one ever stops learning in this industry.
Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.