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July 24, 2014

Location, Location, Location

One of the perks of being a horse husband is the opportunity to travel the world. Or perhaps I should say, the opportunity to travel the horse world with a horse trailer. You tend to plan vacations by reviewing horse show prize lists to see what’s showing instead of glossy travel brochures to see what’s playing. It’s given me the chance to see the state in a whole new light.

This week, we are in the Heart o’ Texas. On the map, it’s written Waco, but on the streets and signs, it is all "Heart." Everything from stores to billboards to television commercials advertises HOT deals, HOT specials, and it’s not until Saturday that I realize it’s an acronym for “Heart of Texas.” HoT, huh? Yeah, but it's not the heat, it’s the humidity. If I’m honest, Waco wasn’t really a destination for me before I became a horse husband. As the home to Baylor University and Dr. Pepper, it has been a place I have enjoyed from afar, through its prodigious outputs, passing acquaintances, fizzy sugar highs and loose associations. I’m not giving away which was from the former, which of the latter.

Traveling with a horse is kind of like traveling with your extended family, a lot like “Little Miss Sunshine.” You have your destination, an idea what you are going to do when you get there, but there are absolutely some steps to be figured out as you go. It’s kind of like when you book rooms or rental cars. They may indicate the class of vehicle, but you never know exactly what you’ll get until you pick it up. And so it is with stall location. You pay stall fees up front, drive 100 miles to get there, and check in at the office to see what you got. It’s somewhat akin to finding upon check-in that your hotel room is next to the elevator and the ice machine, sentencing you to a night of Pavlovian nightmares—ding, avalanche, ding, avalanche. Or like finding your rental car is in part Ford Taurus AND part Chevy Elantra. Details matter.

There are a few desirable traits in a stall location. End of the row is important, so you can set up a reception area with a couch, fans, some cold beverages, and decorate the wall with ribbons. Ideally, you want to be set up on a big thoroughfare on the way to the ring or concession stand to get more people-watching traffic. People wander by, and you have an opportunity to be social. Diane thinks it’s funny that the neighbors hang out and watch TV in their garages, but it seems pretty similar to me; they are just lining the thoroughfares.

You want the stalls to be close to the hoses so you can fill your water buckets, but you don’t want to be right next to the wash racks. It’s like living outside a high school boys’ locker room. A crowd comes in, leaves a big wet mess, and troupes out flicking wet tails at you like rolled up wet towels. On a good hot day, the wash racks steam like a horse sweat sauna. That’s a spa treatment for those with very particular tastes.

In fact, getting the right stall is such a key factor in a successful show, I once saw a guy set up a corner stall almost entirely, and then move it all to the adjoining stall after finding it was a few square feet bigger.

In the dead heat of a Texas summer, ventilation and temperature control become super important. And sometimes, those are conflicting goals. Do you want to be close to clean air, or is it just important that it be cool? It’s not always an easy decision. Luckily, there is a variety of equipment deployed to assist. Port-a-Cools line the big aisles, blowing hot air from one end and cool air out the other, making some winners and others losers. Big Ass Fans twirl overhead, pushing air from the rafters to the stalls, and a whirring fleet of holstered stall fans blow on stall-bound horses, while oscillating fans work the aisles and common areas. You could literally sneeze once and get the whole barn sick. A fine mist of dust covers everything. IPads become high dollar Etch-a-Sketches. A straw broom sweeping shavings in the aisle may reduce visibility to an eighth of a mile, so the smart thing to do is close your eyes. I just hope I didn’t sweep too much dirt into passers-by.

Accommodations for you and your horse must be coordinated but are rarely co-located. You almost never see fancy hotels across the street from an equine facility, but imagine how convenient that would be. You go ride, come back to the room and shower. You wake up in the morning, feed, and muck the stalls, you come back for … and that’s why there’s a healthy distance between them. The stall mucking part. I can see the signs already. There is a plastic pitchfork, a loaded wagon with fumes coming off it, and a big red X across it. No mucking within 50 feet of the lobby.

At away shows, I have a few additional horse-husbandly duties. One is packing, which is I guess a regular husbandly duty—just amplified by the number and size of family members attending the outing. I might not know what the heck it is, or what you are gonna do with it, but I can fit it in the truck if it needs to come.

Packing, or rather the aversion to it, can drive a lot of the decisions in a trip. We bring five horses and do it with a two-horse, a three-horse, and a six-horse trailer coming from and going to the same place. No one wants to repack their tack room. And it’s not just us; I watch the trailers on the road. There is a capacity surplus. We probably could have hitched a ride to Waco, standing with Malloy in his halter and saddle on the side of the road, waving down one of those half empty horse trailers going our way. The capacity surplus is really just in the horse stalls part of the trailer. The tack rooms are all a bit constrained. Going into Diane’s tack room is like going into her walk-in closet at home. When I go in there, I want a miner’s headlamp and a canary. I want to let somebody know where I am going and when I plan to be back.

I wonder how long before someone invents a horse trailer with a sliding partition, so you can expand the tack room by just pushing the wall further. If you are bringing one horse but three saddles and six pairs of boots, why can’t you just make that adjustment on the fly? The only part that worries me is it’s a slippery slope. You might go to the show, do some shopping, and find you don’t have enough space left to get all your horses home. But still, I think it’d be good to have the option.

The other major duty I pick up on the road—no pun intended—is minding the safety, wants, needs, itches, aspirations and whims of our smallest family member, Cooper. As a tri-colored Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Cooper is our sole connection to English Royalty, and a special consultant on English riding. He brings the attitude. Attitude is not an officially scored attribute in the hunter divisions, but I have to think walking in with a Corgi lends a bit of street cred. Corgis have natural leadership abilities. A Corgi’s natural stance has head held high, chest out, butt up and an expression of rapt attention. When I see Diane heading to the ring leading Malloy by the reins in one hand and Cooper by the leash in the other, I want to walk alongside and hum the A-Team theme music. I wonder if I could train Cooper to carry a chewed cigar in his mouth. He loves it when a plan comes together.

At the end of the week, it’s time to pack up. I know a lot of people come back from a long vacation and say, “I didn’t want to leave.” But I suspect none of those people were coming back from horse shows. Don’t get me wrong; it’s fun and all, you look forward to going, it’s good while you are there. But by that last day, you’re ready to go. Malloy is ready to get back to his paddock. Cooper is ready to get back to his spot on the couch. Your average horse husband can pack a horse trailer in about half the time it took a week earlier. You have a sense that it’s a race, the last contest of the event. They don’t award ribbons for getting on the road home, but it’s still the most popular division – 100 percent participation every time. And not without its own set of obstacles. Every competition has a unique set of challenges. A bending line to a bending line to a double-wide oxer, or whatever. You look at the course diagram, and you figure out what the challenge is, and you plan for it.

For going home day, there is only one thing you worry about: getting parked in. You can’t hook up, you can’t pack up, and you can’t leave. Luckily, there were no incidents leaving HOT. We weren’t parked in, I got us packed in record time, attending to every last detail. I think HOT was actually ready for us to go. They were shooting at us earlier in the week—well, our hotel anyway. We slept through it, and I guess it wasn’t a local, so you can’t take it too personal. We got home a few hours, a few naps, and a few drive-through burgers later. I unlock the door, and Cooper goes to his water bowl and laps up water for two minutes straight before he stops to breathe and looks up at me. OK, so I attended to every last detail except one: gotta water the dog. Still, we did make good time getting back.

Jesse married into the horse world in 2009. His wife, Diane, rides and trains with Dev Branham (on whose website these blogs are also published) in Tomball, Texas. He has ridden, if you must know, but he does not ride regularly. Jesse prefers to interact with horses more on an eye-to-eye level, two and four feet firmly on the ground, respectively. He enjoys long walks in the pasture and grazing on a rainy afternoon.

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