What is more magnificent than the sight of galloping horses: tails in the air and manes flowing, bucking, snorting and running with abandon? Even among the non-horsey, it is a heart-stopping spectacle that inspires awe and stirs the soul.
There’s a word for a group of horses running out of control on the open range: a stampede. But when those horses are in an arena, and have riders, and have ribbons attached to their bridles—well, then it’s called a victory gallop.
The victory gallop (literally defined as celebrating victory by galloping) probably originated back in the day when horses were ridden into battle. Galloping and cheering whilst waving swords, shields and possibly a few severed heads was no doubt a gratifying way to rejoice in having thumped the bejeebers out of one’s enemy. It was a mounted, whole-team version of football’s end zone dance, which probably included boisterous whoo-hooing, and might have included spiking the aforementioned heads in the dirt.
Through the years, this feral form of victory gallop has been domesticated (somewhat) for the show ring. The obligatory, single-file ride-around-the-ring acknowledges the winning riders as they celebrate victory (minus the head-spiking) and accept accolades from the cheering crowd.
The victory gallop is propagandized as an honor, and I’m sure the idea of “riding for ribbons” seemed innocuous enough on paper. But the originators of this institution somewhat overlooked what inevitably happens to the group dynamic when horses are asked to gallop all at once. Particularly horses, like jumpers, who aren’t accustomed to performing in a group. The only place jumpers share space is in the warm-up ring, and that spectacle alone should have been proof that a group “gallop” of any kind was ill-advised.
As if the galloping concept wasn’t problematic enough, it was decreed that the horses be further over-stimulated by the playing of loud, upbeat music—basically the hunter/jumper equivalent of ringing a bell and shouting “and they’re off!” Oh, but not before we fasten a suspicious object to the bridle, because being whapped in the face with a flappy-slappy ribbon will make it even easier to channel that inner Seabiscuit. And even though it’s not supposed to be a race, the order in which you send them off is never the order in which they finish.
Flashback to my early days of showing in the 1970s:
As kids and juniors, participating in a victory gallop was something we looked forward to. The possibility of getting a little out of control was the whole appeal. It was one time we could get away with “going fast” and not get into trouble. We made sure we went fast.
Since the only thing better than one questionable practice is two questionable practices, it was also customary for the leader of the gallop to jump a fence as part of the victory lap. It was typically a lower, less-imposing obstacle, but sometimes the leader would pick a bigger fence, effectively challenging the also-rans to cowboy up and follow suit. We were often so bunched up that several of us had to peel off last-second, because the fence couldn’t oblige five fat ponies at once. Once in a while a horse would decline to jump, and we’d all end up in a pile behind them. Given our antics and the number of loose horses that regularly had to be collected from the ring, I’m surprised that the victory gallop wasn’t stricken from the specs 40 years ago.
Now, the victory gallop is often called the “victory lap” or the more banal “riding for ribbons,” as though removing the suggestion of “gallop” might surreptitiously make it play more Spanish Riding School and less “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Regardless of what it’s called, and despite riders’ earnest attempts to maintain order, the horses still have their own agenda.
I have borne witness to world-class riders who barely make it out of the “victory lap” alive. I’ve watched horses that have seen and done it all come completely unglued when asked to canter in a group.
You can’t blame them. They’re amped up to begin with and have just completed a timed jump-off. For all they know, they’re going back into the ring to joust for the trophy.
Hunter horses aren’t immune to the entropic dynamic of the victory gallop either. I once saw a friend of mine, a steely-nerved derby veteran who jumps the high options without putting down the newspaper, exit the victory gallop paler than paste. As she passed me she said, “I thought I was going to die.” Or maybe it was “I need some pie.” Either way, she was clearly rattled.
Should you find yourself in a situation where a victory gallop may be required, here are some tips to ensure your survival:
Ride like I usually do. This is the most effective way to keep you out of the top 10 in any competition. I have video, and a study guide in the form of angry texts from my trainer, available upon request. If the class contains fewer riders than ribbons, you’ll need a contingency plan.
• Keep adult beverages at the ready. Things you dread start to sound like fun once you’ve knocked back a few shots.
• Carry a Sadl-Tite or similar grippy-stick in your pocket. Apply liberally to saddle, boots, stirrups, gloves and pants prior to victory gallop.
• Hire a stunt double. Scouting any local bar that has a mechanical bull can yield promising leads.
• Return for the victory gallop on a stick horse. No part of the phrase “winners must ride for ribbons” implies that it has to be on an actual horse.
• Make sure somebody gets video. You know, for insurance purposes.
• Accept the inevitable. Ask the ribbon-giver to just fling your ribbon into the dirt, so the other horses can trample it. That’s what’s going to happen anyway, and now it won’t terrorize your horse until it falls off his bridle.
• Request the same if your prize includes a bouquet of flowers. Or anything, really.
• If you’re toward the bottom of the top 10, just cut your losses and slip out the gate. Nobody will miss you.
• If you are leading the victory gallop (congratulations), make the tiniest circle possible and leave the ring. Nobody said you had to circumnavigate the whole arena. And what a great opportunity to show off that canter pirouette.
Finally, hang your ribbon in a place of honor! It not only says that you bested a class of your peers in a contest of speed and skill—it’s proof that you survived the most daunting test of all: the victory gallop.
And that is worth some bragging rights.
After years of trying to fit in with corporate America, Jody Lynne Werner decided to pursue her true passion as a career rather than a hobby. So now she’s an artist, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, web designer, writer and humorist. You can find her work on her Misfit Designs Cafepress site. Jody is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition. Her work also appears in print editions of The Chronicle of the Horse. Read all of Jody’s humor columns for coth.com here.