Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023

From My Backyard To Devon Leadline: How Stressful Could It Be?




That was my mantra when I submitted our entry for the leadline class at this year’s Devon Horse Show. It’s a one-time thing. How stressful could it be? My only goal was to avoid looking like a fool and embarrassing my 3-year-old in front of famous horse people. I can set the bar crossrail height. 

If my kid doesn’t have an epic tantrum mid-ring, and our pony doesn’t buck her into outer space or headfirst into a member of the Bloomberg family, it’s a success, right?  After all, we live 16 minutes from the showgrounds in Devon, Pennsylvania. It would be cruelty to deprive my precious child of this heritage horse show.

Wrong. Very, very wrong. The second I hit “submit” to enter my daughter and our backyard pony, Cupcake, I felt insecure.  A 60-day countdown immediately began to: buy a fab hat, flirty dress, itty bitty show clothes, saddle pad (cha-ching!!!); line up the clipper, the braider, the trailer …  Arghhhh!!!  

All this, while instructing my fidgety toddler to sit up like a princess who grips reins. How could I muster the courage to put myself and my daughter on display for the fanciest people in the hunter/jumper world? A world that, let’s face it, can feel judgmental regardless of what level you ride and show.  

Cupcake and her 3-year-old jockey practicing at home in Pennsylvania for their Devon leadline debut. Photo Courtesy Of Jamie Sindell

We had purchased our close-to-Devon farmette at the end of last summer and our 24-ish-year-old saintly pony in October. Since then, we have done “trail rides” around the property, “ring rides” in a tiny paddock adjacent to the barn, but mostly grooming and treat sessions. Now, we had exactly 1,860 hours to get Devon-serious. Heels down or BUST!

We practiced our best Devon position—in between plucking flowers off trees and crying about bumblebees. There were fleeting moments of brilliance, where I could envision gracefully leading my future Big Eq rider to collect our ribbon among the cheering fans. Those daydreams invariably would be unceremoniously interrupted by toddler arms and legs flailing in the saddle: “Momma! A bird. See a bird!” Sigh.

I Googled “Devon fashion” and was presented with women in outlandish hats, hair perfectly coiffed (no sweaty pits, frizz or dark-circled-eyes) leading mini-mes in Charles Ancona 2T jackets that may cost more than our pony.  

OK, Google, I’m a mom of five. If I adorn myself with leggings that aren’t covered in hay, my kids ask why I’m dressed up. I dragged some non-horsey friends to a discount store to outfit myself. The store had one oversized sun hat, which I nabbed, along with a pink mini dress (which made my legs neon white). Still a schlub

As we continued our riding “lessons,” I searched those beautiful Devon photos over and over, until I had convinced myself my whole ensemble was a fashion “no.” I bought a more structured second-hand dress off Poshmark, and though it hid my pooch-belly, it was navy. Still not Devon-worthy if I look like a stewardess attending a funeral in the Dixon Oval.  

While worrying about my own fashion, I simultaneously had to outfit my kid in a costly ensemble she would likely wear just long enough to stain before growing out of. With a supportive trainer friend, I hit up a consignment tack store, praying we could find something lightly used. We ended up with a saddle pad, garters and smaller stirrups. Thanks to a Facebook group, I was able to find an R.J. Classics show jacket and shirt at 50% off then paid full price for Belle & Bow show jods because they were the only brand that fit her little booty. 


Two weeks before the show, and the plans I had for braiding and trailering crumbled, but my same trainer friend came to the rescue. A week before, the clipper arrived to work magic. (Who knew that beneath Chewbacca-pony, there was a shiny little cougar?) The week of Devon, my daughter caught the stomach bug but rallied just in time for the show. The night before, my friend trailered us over to another barn for a sleepover. We squished in a last practice ride, and in five minutes, she convinced my daughter to “hold a present,” with her hands, positioning them correctly above the saddle, perfect width apart. We scrubbed Cupcake from head to hooves, cleaned all our gear and readied everything for the next day when we would trailer over for our ultimate glow-up.

A freshly clipped Cupcake and her kiddo doing a last-minute, Devon-serious cram session (“Remember to look up”) with author/mom Jamie Sindell during their sleepover the night before Devon. Photo Courtesy Of Jamie Sindell.

At 7 a.m. on leadline day, we met the truck and trailer and followed it over to a Devon trailer lot, our home base for the day. The braider appeared, and I fretted over the color of yarn, the most effective placement of pompoms, and how I hadn’t remembered any special charms to be braided in, all of which seemed as perplexing to solve as world hunger in the moment. Were we classy and traditional, fun/festive, or straight-up kooky? I selected sparkly yarn and pompoms in both the forelock and the tailgo big or go home style. I then walked Cupcake around the grounds, imploring her to be good, and cleaned her up again. 

My husband deposited my daughter in my care, and I carefully slid on her show clothes. My friend worked some witchcraft and was able to braid two of the tiniest French braids in history for our bows, which coordinated with the yarn and pompoms. We sat our girls down together and bribed them to stay clean.

I was still fretting about whether my outfit was Devon enough. Yes, it was cute, but as I saw women changing into their luxury brands, fruit prints and titanic hats, I became concerned I looked like a diner waitress. As a Hail Mary, my sweet friend handed me her entire outfit—hair piece, earrings and all—and used her backup. I jammed myself into the trailer tack room, peeled off stinky clothes, stuffed myself into her outfit, struggled to paint on makeup and tame my unruly hair, then slathered deodorant on all the body parts. I wasn’t Google’s version of Devon majesty, but acceptable.  

The rest is a typical horse show Twilight Zone time warp: We had SOOOOO much time, then NO time. I tried desperately to get the kink out of the fake tail we had borrowed to no avail, then gave Cupcake a last brush. I buttoned my daughter into her show coat, buckled on her borrowed helmet and grabbed the pony for our march down to the warm-up ring.  My daughter was chattering away excitedly as we navigated the crowds and miraculously met up with my husband, friends and my offspring. My attempted hair style was quickly deflating like a defective balloon, and my natural deodorant was dissolving along with my confidence. 

My older daughter took the pony as I tried to again make us all presentable when an Exorcist-style scream pierced the skies: Our dear little Cupcake was standing directly on my kid’s tiny boot. When I shoved the pony’s butt over, the screams intensified. Had a toe had been crushed alongside our Devon aspirations?

My husband held our inconsolable little one as she continued to wail. I yanked off her boot and inspected her toesies as time for our last pre-ring polish slipped away: All fine. Whoops, wrong foot. I found the right foot, and though her foot was red, she could wiggle each little piggie. She wept as everyone else seemed to stroll effortlessly by with their glistening ponies and stoic children.  

With more hugs, the crying and hiccups subsided. I succeeded in getting my daughter mounted, and we joined what appeared to be a line heading into the Dixon Oval. However, I soon realized it most definitely was not a line. People were cutting in left and right like New York drivers. I had no idea how long we would be in this line, and where in line was opportune. Though I had rushed like we were in a jump-off to get to this point, we stood in place for what seemed like eternity, waiting to be ushered into the ring, kinky tail, dusty boots, crooked garters and all. 

As we inched closer to the Devon archway into the ring (supposedly one by one, but perhaps due to excitement or to wanting to be “seen,” some adults struggled with this concept), my insecurities suddenly melted away (just like my budget had for this horse show). My daughter, who had regained her cheerful demeanor, was thrilled as we entered the ring, and she took in the grandstands. 

From the time we got in line to the time we exited the ring, she and I chatted about how she was holding “her present,” how her heels were down and how she was looking straight, but mostly we talked about how special Devon was. 

When it all comes together: Sindell and her daughter chatting away during their much-anticipated spin around the Dixon Oval in Devon, Pa. Kind Media Photo

When the class officially began, we were already around the ring past the judges, and when told to change direction, we were still along the backside of the ring.

I was frustrated as we waited in a crooked line for the results. I didn’t understand the judging, and for all our blood, sweat, tears and ShowSheen, it felt like we were owed a full lap and at least a glance from the judges. I imagine it isn’t easy to watch a trillion cherubs on their perfect ponies and pick the top eight, but it wouldn’t hurt to pretend you are trying. 


I had heard all the rumors about how you win a ribbon at Devon: the division pony, the cutest kid, the best dressed, riding side-saddle, the “right” last name. My friend who is a judge had said, “Can’t you just get someone famous to lead your kid?” Still, I felt the prick of anger. The judges hadn’t even seemed to give the underdog-no-names a shot, after we had run what seemed to be a two-month marathon on the Keto Diet.

We exited the ring with my feet rubbed raw in my last-minute-Amazon shoes, exhausted from a long day of stress fueled by caffeine and three ample chugs of champagne. My daughter, however, was elated and unconcerned about the judging: 

“Look at my ribbon, momma! I want to hang it on my wall like sister does,” she exclaimed, brandishing her light blue participation ribbon.  

She immediately dismounted to rip off her uncomfortable show clothes. When we finally reunited with the rest of our family, instead of posing for cute pictures, I had a pony on one arm and a half-dressed but happy kid in the other.  

That night, after tucking Cupcake back in her stall for the night, I felt a soup of emotions. I was grateful our old gal polished up well and took the Dixon Oval in stride, and for my daughter who was elated that she had done “The Devon,” (which she re-branded it, quite brilliantly). I was grateful for my kind friend who propped me up along the journey and for other friends who came to watch us, though they could barely see us among the sea of 50-plus ponies.   

As I sat with a well-earned glass of red, contemplating why none of the Devon shops sold an “I Survived Leadline 2023” T-shirt, the texts came dinging in: The U.S. Equestrian Federation posted leadline highlights on social media, and we were in one of the featured shots. In my head, we were a rolling dumpster fire, but in the picture, while we weren’t Devon elite, we weren’t ogres. What I most relished in that shot was my daughter’s I’m-a-rock-star swagger—it trumped all my remaining self-doubt, vulnerability and frustration.

The photo posted on USEF’s social media that got Jamie Sindell’s phone buzzing. Devyn Trethewey/USEF Photo

As much as I would say I did Devon solely for my child, I would be a big liar; I’m not even sure it was 50/50. She, most likely, would be satisfied at a local show if there were ice cream involved. 

Nonetheless, we will always have the photos and the shared memories of The Devon. The other day my daughter drew a picture and handed it to me: “This is a picture of my Devon ribbon, Momma. Can we go to The Devon again?” In her eyes, she’s still a celebrity.

I told my husband there was no way in hell I would do this to myself again next year. One and done. Over it. He glared at me and said, “You are full of s***.” And darn, that man is right.    

Jamie Sindell has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has ridden and owned hunters on and off throughout her life. She is a mom of five kids, ages 2, 3, 6, 10 and 13. She and her family reside at Wish List Farm, where her horse-crazy girls play with their small pony, Cupcake, and her son and husband play with the tractor.



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