Caring for a horse in a big class at a horse show is an adrenaline rush. I live for it.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a class like the Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships (Kentucky) or indoors or the $500,000 grand prix in Wellington, Florida. It could just be a 2’6” non-pro derby or a 3’6” speed class, and I would get excited the same way. It’s different than a normal class; it’s more special, and it’s important to your trainer, rider, clients and owners. It should always be taken seriously.
I love to be a part of a horse’s career and see them excel. I want them to look and feel their best. When they win, I win. Even if they make a mistake or there’s a rider error, all of the work was still worth it. It just means that it wasn’t our day that time. It happens; horses aren’t machines.
Bigger classes mean more work and longer hours, but I always feel like it’s worth it, even if it doesn’t go as well as you thought. I like to take my time getting them ready and spend as much of my day doing it as I can; I hate being rushed. You learn how to help the horse peak and feel their best so they can go out to perform the job successfully.
When I talk about prepping and caring for a horse for a class, I’m not referring to longeing them for an hour and then riding them for another hour. That’s not how you make a horse feel ready to go out and do their best. Horses should like their job; they should want to do it. You need to know your horse and what works best to prepare them for a big class.
There are so many tools you can use to help make them feel better. This takes time and must be done properly and with some regularity. Some examples include ice boots, magnetic blankets, the Bemer therapy blanket, Theraplates, packing their feet, poulticing, liniments, hand-walking and and grazing them. (This is the easiest tool ever—you don’t need anything but yourself and a lead rope!)
Certain weeks out of the year are especially exciting, like derby finals in Kentucky in August. Amanda took five horses to Kentucky for derby finals week, which begins immediately after USEF Pony Finals finishes. Beau and Perfect were competing in the regular horse show in the adult hunters and 3’3” amateur-owners; Gwen and Selfie were competing in the Platinum Performance USHJA 3’/3’3″ Green Hunter Incentive Championships, and Lafitte was competing in the 3’9” green incentive finals and derby finals.
Amanda spends a majority of the year qualifying for these events, and we were super excited about our group. This was Gwen’s first trip to Kentucky for the incentive finals, but she’s won several big classes throughout the year. It was also Lafitte’s first time doing derby finals. He just did the 3’6” green incentive last year because he was greener and less experienced. Selfie did 3’ incentive finals last year, so he has that under his belt, but we were excited to see how he would handle the 3’3″ this year.
Twenty minutes before the 3’ incentive finals were about to start, a monsoon crept up on the showgrounds, and show management (rightfully) postponed the show for over 1½ hours. Not an ideal situation, but at least we had gotten back to the barn before the downpour occurred. Once they restarted, the first several horses had problems with the sudden cool temperature, puddles and the wind that had picked up, and their freshness and greenness came out.
When it was Gwen’s turn, she marched right around like she had done this a million times before. She never put a foot wrong and got all of her lead changes, something she struggled with a bit when she was younger. Her scores were very solid for Day 1 and meant that she would be returning for the next round the following day. Gwen’s owners came a long way to watch her—they’ve had her since she was in utero, so it was awesome for them to see everything come full circle!
Selfie showed several hours later, also laying down a solid and confident round to make Round 2. He doesn’t get flustered very easily, and nothing in the Walnut Ring intimidated him.
Day 2 brought no rain, but plenty of Bemer-ing and bathing to get the horses ready. Both Gwen and Selfie put in solid rounds, but unfortunately, they weren’t good enough to make the final round on Thursday. We were disappointed, but that’s horse showing too. Neither of them made a catastrophic mistake, so we were still happy with them. They got several days of cookies and trail riding as a reward.
Lafitte’s scores in the first round of the 3’9” incentive were in the low 80s, which qualified him for the second round that evening. He came back to jump his heart out and put everything he had into that round. He scored in the high 80s and got a 90, scores we usually see with him when he shows. Lafitte is just such a pleasure to work with and such a joy to watch. He really loves his job. He held the lead for a majority of the class, ultimately claiming third.
On Friday morning, I woke up with butterflies. It was the official start of derby finals, and I really wanted Lafitte to do well. I spent the majority of the day with him until it was time to head to the ring. He was so relaxed jumping in the schooling area; it was like watching him the first year at the Aiken Charity Show (South Carolina) when he was second to Tori Colvin and Private Practice. Tom Wright, Tim, and I headed down to the in-gate as Amanda went in with Lafitte, and my heart was pounding. We had done all we could do; now it was time to see what happened.
The round was going beautifully until Amanda and Lafitte got to the in of the in-and-out. My heart plummeted as I watched the gray vertical’s rail fall to the ground with a loud thud, and I remember staring at it hard, like I thought I could will it back into the cups. I murmured, “Noooooooooooo,” under my breath as the two men beside me took deep breaths in. Lafitte had barely touched the rail behind, but sadly it had still fallen. Our hopes of making it to the handy round were dashed so quickly, but we could still enter the consolation class on Saturday afternoon. But again, that’s horse showing. You can do everything right and still have bad luck.
Our luck turned around in the consolation class when Lafitte was third. He looked confident on course; he was jumping well, and he and Amanda were very in-sync. He always looks proud of himself when he finishes and when he gets a ribbon in the winner’s circle—Lafitte thinks it’s all in a day’s work. My greatest challenge for the afternoon seemed to be figuring out how to get the 40-lb bucket of Platinum Performance back to the barn in one piece—thank goodness for Tim and the golf cart!
In the normal horse show our amateurs did not disappoint that weekend either—Beau and his owner Jackie won a class of the younger adult amateur hunters with an 86, and Perfect and Sammy also won a class and ended up reserve champion in the division! Our entire team was thrilled. The guys always get super excited when our horses get good ribbons—they love seeing the horses go well as much as we do.
I always feel like I’m part of something super important when I do weeks like these. And maybe that stupid excitement should have worn off years ago, but it obviously hasn’t. I’m still ready to get up each time and go help the horses be successful. It takes an entire team, and we certainly have one of the best ones there is!
The horses have had a few weeks at home before we begin our fall schedule. The start of September always signals the beginning of the busiest season on the A-circuit: Indoors. And trust me, we’re going to be busy! Stay tuned for more action straight from there.
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.