Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Ten Things I Learned When I Returned To The Ring

In 1979, the year I turned 18 and entered college, I traded in my horse and trailer for my first car. After three consecutive summer vacations spent on a horse farm in Virginia, I did what many other horse-crazy girls my age had done before and since.

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In 1979, the year I turned 18 and entered college, I traded in my horse and trailer for my first car. After three consecutive summer vacations spent on a horse farm in Virginia, I did what many other horse-crazy girls my age had done before and since.

I ditched mucking out stalls for a job at the beach. Early morning feeding for late night partying. Horse shows for boys. It was really that simple. My passion for riding and all things horsey never completely went away, but it was certainly on the backburner while I conentrated on school, jobs, marriage and, eventually, two children.

I rode occasionally in college and during the decade after graduation, but I grew frustrated with my lack of fitness and eventually stopped altogether. I tried golf and briefly played in a local tennis league. Mostly, I lived vicariously through my children as I shuttled them to swimming, soccer, baseball and lacrosse.

About nine years ago, my husband gave me the best Christmas gift of my life–a package of riding lessons at a local barn. Regular riding morphed into leasing, which led, inevitably, to purchasing my own horse in October of 2000.

In 2003, we bought another horse for our then 12-year-old daughter Cait, who caught the bug early from her mother and began showing with some regularity when she was 9 years old.

For the past several years, I’ve fulfilled all the duties of a horse show mom–grooming, holding horses, scanning course diagrams, filling out entry blanks. And writing the checks. Always, writing the checks. Always wondering if I still had it in me to try showing again myself.

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Last spring I took the plunge. I swallowed my pride, summoned all my courage, worked harder at riding than I ever had in my life, started
writing more checks–and returned to the hunter ring on a regular basis for the first time in 27 years.

“You’re not getting any younger,” my trainer Becky helpfully told me in March when I threatened to back out. “And neither is your horse.”
Ouch!

I was 44 (OK, almost 45), my horse 16 (OK, almost 17) and fresh off his second hock injection. Sad, but true, if we were ever going to do it, it had to be now.

Nine shows later, the local season has come to an end. I’ve had a blast, and I’ve only been publicly humiliated a few times. Along the way, I learned a few things about returning to the show ring after so many years away from the game.

  • The fences are bigger now. MUCH BIGGER. As a teenager, I regularly showed at 3′ and occasionally at 3’6″. Somehow, 2’6″ or even 2′ looks much more imposing at 45 than 3’6″ did at 16. Go figure.
  • Someone changed the fashion code. Whatever happened to those lovely rust breeches? They looked great with navy jackets and were handy for hiding the bulges and bumps, not to mention panty lines, which show so clearly through the tan. (Of course at 16 all that hardly mattered, but at 45 this is definitely something to consider.) And don’t get me started on the helmets with the pink stripes down the front.
  • Speaking of headgear. If you’re not careful, the helmet police will get you. Back in the day, we wore black or brown velvet hunt caps and cut off the narrow elastic band which served as the chin piece, hoping and praying that if we ever fell, our helmets wouldn’t hit the ground first. In September, my horse and I put in our best round ever–only to be told upon leaving the ring that my eight-year-old helmet no longer met safety standards. Those new rules that went into effect last winter? Well, I may not have paid attention, but some judges apparently did.
  • What happened to all the Thoroughbreds? The breed was the gold standard back when I was a teenager. At some point while I was working and having babies, the warmbloods staged a successful coup.
  • Falling off still hurts. It didn’t take long for me to find out. Third show back, header over an oxer. A sprained finger my only real injury, I lived to ride again, crooked index finger, wounded pride and all.
  • Did we really braid every week? We braided for every show when I was a teenager–schooling, unrated, C-show, A-show. Didn’t matter, we braided. It bothered me in years past, as a show mom, that the horses weren’t braided for our local C-circuit. As a rider, um, not so much anymore!
  • Lead changes are important, really important! For the life of me, I can’t remember ever stressing about leads while showing at the same local level back in the ’70s. Now I go to sleep thinking about lead changes and wake up worrying about lead changes and wonder constantly whether they’ll ever become second nature to me or my horse.
  • Double bridles have their place. I never liked pelhams, never wanted to mess with double reins — until this summer. (See lead changes and why they are really important.) My horse, a jumper in Ireland in his earlier life, re-visits his younger days when asked to do a flying change. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the art of careful bitting.
  • Stride matters. As a teenager, my definition of a lovely hunter round was eight nice fences and an even, flowing pace which suited the particular horse. Either I just didn’t know any better back then–a distinct possibility–or things have really changed. I find counting strides almost more than my over-burdened mind can handle. (See lead changes and why they are really important.) After all, I’m losing brain cells everyday.
  • Winning isn’t everything anymore. Okay, so I no longer display my ribbons — pinning them above my bed didn’t seem fair to my husband — but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t matter. I’ve cherished each and every one I’ve brought home, although I’ve sometimes wondered if the judge was serious or just feeling sorry for me.

My mother recently watched me compete for the first time in 27 years. She is well aware of just how much time and effort I’d put into this endeavor this year. “Is it worth it,” she asked. “All the work you do for what, less than 2 minutes around the ring?”

Oh yeah, it’s worth it, and then some. After all, my horse and I aren’t getting any younger–thanks, Becky for reminding me–so next spring I figure we’ll need to give it another try. Until then, I’ll keep dreaming about those lead changes.

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