If you’ve been reading my stuff here for a while you know I tend to get a bit nostalgic at times. It’s no surprise, then, that I clearly remember a lot of the “last times.” Senior year of high school, sitting in the bus after my last football game, the locker room after my last wrestling match, the dugout after my last baseball game.
Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t some great high school athlete wrapping up his glory days. But each one of these last times came in a setting where a win would have meant another game or another match, and a loss brought an abrupt end. That was it, the last time I would ever compete in a sport that had been a significant part of my life to that point.
The equestrian world’s not quite like that, of course. Aging out of the juniors or the young rider division marks a significant transition, but it doesn’t mean the end of competition.
I understood that on an intellectual level as we prepared for my oldest daughter Ada’s last show before heading off to college. But there’s sometimes a difference between what you know and how things feel. My own experiences told me that this was a significant moment. It felt like this long journey was coming to a close.
If you’ve been with me since the beginning of my blogging you know that things had not gone as planned. There were big dreams. I had the audacity to speak the words “Maclay Finals” out loud. I might’ve been more than a bit naive.
Still, if indeed there are parallel universes out there, I’m sure there are an awful lot of them in which those dreams came true. Fortune did not smile upon them in this universe, however, offering up instead a series of injuries to both horse and rider and then, in a final bit of cruelty, the untimely death of the horse on whose back the dreams were to have traveled. That, sadly, is the way it goes.
In the wake of all this, Ada decided to give dressage a try. That proved to be a trickier thing to make happen than we anticipated, but after a few false starts we found a good situation. And then Fortune, perhaps feeling a bit badly about how things had gone before, provided Ada with the opportunity to ride a horse named Ruudi, a talented and experienced Dutch Warmblood.
The initial plan was to show over the course of the entire summer, but things didn’t line up that way. Rather than a steady progression it was a concentrated dose. Five weeks, four shows, two different trainers. (Our thanks to Bonnie Bowman and Nicole Trapp, and three cheers for cooperation!) They’d start at first level and, if things went well, end showing third.
Things had gone well. The week-to-week and ride-to-ride improvement was clear even to me.
And so here we were. Last show of the summer, third level debut. A mere three days separating the last minutes in the saddle from the first moments in a new dorm room. My work schedule meant that I could be there only for the final ride. There was no way I was going to miss it.
The show was in Wayne, Illinois, at the Lamplight Equestrian Center, which was also hosting the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. It had been a while since we’d been to Lamplight, long enough that all the original goals were still in place. What might have been Ada’s best hunter/jumper show took place there. But so had the injury that began the run of bad luck.
As I walked around, burdened with the sense that this was the end of the line, I couldn’t help but remember those prior shows. I couldn’t help but hear the voices of all the trainers and barn managers and friends whose various contributions had brought us to this moment. Phrases came to me in bits and pieces, with two floating to the top: Bernadette Ruckdashel’s constant injunction in those earliest years to “be a rider and not a passenger,” and Charles Zwicky’s simple, consistent and enthusiastic last words to his riders as they enter the ring: “Have fun!”
Finally it was time to head to the ring. Was I kind of a wreck? Maybe. Did I cover it up? Well, I did make a point to walk in front of everybody else. And, you know, there was lots of dust and pollen and stuff in the air. So, maybe.
Ada and Ruudi warmed up, I took a few pictures, and then it was showtime. (Do you know how much I love the fact that dressage shows post and actually stick with set ride times? I’ll tell you: a lot.) Nicole Trapp, who graciously let Ada join her team for a pair of shows, sent her in the ring with the injunction to, “Ride it like you stole it,” and off they went to tackle third level, test 1.
It was a good ride. It might have been the strongest one of the summer, though by no means the highest scoring. Ada clearly felt good about it, flashing the big smile she wore almost every time she came out of the ring on Ruudi.
I don’t remember whether I walked in front or behind on the way back to the barn, but I know I walked alone. And that my thinking, still clouded by the various ends of my own high school athletic careers, was basically a stunned, “That’s it. It’s over.”
We got back to the barn, Ada hopped off Ruudi, and I gave her a hug. Then she untacked and led him to the wash stall, where I, once again, stepped in to hold the lead rope and attempt to keep him from squirming around too much. We took lots of photos, same as we did at other milestone shows over the years. Meanwhile, I tried to make sense of it all. We were doing something we’d done countless times before, but it was different now. We were at the end of the line.
And then a funny thing happened. Ada started to talk about next year. A reader of this blog who’s become a Facebook friend stopped by to say hello. We all talked about next year and what the future might hold. There was more of the same on the drive home. Next year. When we do this again.
I had been dreading college drop-off. Too many of my friends had told me how difficult it was, and I expected it to be the same for me. I’m not saying it was easy. But somehow that last show, by so clearly being not the last show, made it less difficult to say goodbye when we left Ada in her dorm room. It’s a new chapter, but the same book. The journey’s not over.
These past few weeks I’ve often thought back to one early morning during that run of shows. Ada and I were sitting outside Ruudi’s stall when a truck drove past and parked about 15 yards away. A rider emerged, a woman who looked to be a few years older than me. So, too, did a woman who appeared to be her mother. The rider was dressed to show. The mother was dressed to support. They quietly got to work, each knowing what needed to be done.
The message is a hopeful one. We could be at this for a long time to come.
I hope we are.
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking readers along on his horse show parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him.