"Canter your horses, please,” the announcer calls over the loudspeaker.
Easy for him to say, wielding a microphone in the safety and comfort of a covered porch atop the show office. Less easy for me to do in a flat class on this sunny June day. Playing well with others isn’t my gelding’s forte. I’m just as focused on dodging my 17 competitors as on showing off Bindigo’s gaits. If he can refrain from tossing a buck when another horse nears him, I’ll declare victory. A ribbon would just be icing on the cake.
Last spring held great significance for me. It marked my 7-year-old Dutch Warmblood’s first show season. It also marked my return to competition at age 60 after an absence of nearly 20 years. Most important, it marked my learning---better late than never---to view showing not as a run for the ribbons, as a test of who’s best, but as a valuable opportunity for growing, training and bonding.
When I gave up showing in my early 40s, I owned an off-the-track Thoroughbred whose elegance and athleticism were matched by his hot temperament and imperious nature. Depending on how governable he was on a particular day, he could be the toughest or easiest horse to beat at local hunter and dressage shows.
We amassed a boxful of ribbons, but we paid a heavy price for them: Showing made us both nervous wrecks. My horse was tense, I assumed, because showing reminded him of racing, and I was nervous because he was nervous. Profound performance anxiety only compounded my fears. When should I get ready for a class? What if I couldn’t find a reader for my dressage test? How could I memorize a hunter course when my brain had turned to mush?
Far younger then and less accepting of who I was, I let too much of my identity revolve around how well I did at shows. I viewed my failures as embarrassments and found no deeper meaning in competition than the color of my ribbons. This attitude guaranteed me many joyless moments.
One opportunity I missed was to make friends. I felt lonely but only partly recognized the cause. Few of my fellow boarders went on the road with me, and if they did, they viewed me more as the competition than a friend. But much of my loneliness stemmed from self-imposed isolation, from my single-minded pursuit of success.
After six years of this, I relegated my show clothes and tall boots to a distant closet, slipped my feet into paddock boots and buckled on a pair of chaps. For the next 15 years---until my Thoroughbred died of colic at age 27---I enjoyed riding simply for pleasure. My next mount, I vowed, would be a calm, experienced horse I’d ride just for fun.
Then I met Bindi. He was easy on the eyes---a 16.2-hand bay with a huge, symmetrical star. He also was just 3 years old and only recently started under saddle. But I was wowed by his uphill build, rhythmical canter and tight knees through a jumping chute.
In nearly 50 years of riding, I’d never seriously trained a youngster. His breeder tried to warn me of the challenge in store for me. My head told me to buy a more seasoned horse, but my heart won the war.
Training Bindi proved a bigger project than I imagined. How naïve I’d been to think my task was limited to teaching him aids. In reality, I’d have to teach him nearly everything and work to desensitize him to new experiences. He was frightened of many things my Thoroughbred had considered routine. Chief among them was sharing an arena with other horses. And, when Bindi was frightened, he was frightening. In our first two years together, I rode out a multitude of bucks, bolts and spooks. All but twice, that is---and I can attest that the ground feels a lot harder in middle age than in childhood.
Once, in my most terrifying moment astride a horse, I rode out a straight-up rear. Clearly, something had to give. I sought help from a local trainer with experience starting young horses. She felt confident our relationship was salvageable---but only if I earned Bindi’s trust and respect. I could do so most easily, she explained, by working with him on the ground. If he didn’t pay attention to me there, he surely wouldn’t when I was in the saddle.
She taught me how to use voice commands and body language to dictate Bindi’s gait, speed and direction when free-longeing him or working him in-hand. Increasingly quickly, he’d focus on me, his calm eyes showing his trust. By the time he turned 6, he was solid on trail rides, willing over small fences and far less likely to try to pitch me off when another horse approached him in an arena.
To my surprise, I began toying with the idea of showing him. After all, as I’d discovered when hauling to trailheads, Bindi was fun to travel with, and he was becoming calmer all the time. Plus, he was bursting with potential.
My other motivation was strictly social. I’d recently moved Bindi to a new barn, where I discovered new friends who approach showing with a refreshingly healthy attitude. They see it as a chance to train, hang out with their barn buddies and drink gin and tonics.
In late summer 2012, I cautiously tested the waters. My barn buddies planned to enter the last hunter/jumper show of the season, and I tagged along with Bindi. I wanted to help them out and cheer them on. Also, I planned to school Bindi in the warm-up ring, stroll with him around the show grounds and decide how I felt about competing again. Bindi was so calm I entered him in two classes. One was on the flat, the other over fences---our maiden trip around a course. The jumps were only 18 inches, far lower than the ones I used to compete over. But green horses and rusty riders need to start somewhere.
I battled some of the same old butterflies, but at least I wasn’t a nervous wreck, and neither was Bindi. To him, showing seemed to be nothing more than eating and napping occasionally interrupted by exercise. His nonchalance sealed the deal: I was hooked on showing again---for the right reasons this time.
Our next time out, at a local schooling show, was a mixed bag. We won two flat classes, but the judge would have needed a calculator to add up all of our refusals in an over-fences class. In the old days, a round like this might have left me in a shambles. But now I regarded it only as excellent practice and an outline for what we needed to work on. I analyzed what had gone wrong, took
some remedial jumping lessons and set my sights on the next show.
A few weeks later, I found myself right here, at my favorite ven ue in Montana: Rebecca Farm, 640 lush acres a horseshoe’s throw from Glacier National Park. It’s a warm Saturday morning, and we’re competing in a hunter-under-saddle class. I’m sweating under my new wool show coat, dying for a bottle of water and counting the seconds until the announcer asks us to drop from a canter to a walk.
“Walk your horses,” he intones at last. “Walk your horses, and line up with your backs facing the judge.” I let my reins out, nearly to the buckle, as the microphone crackles to life. “In first place, we have number 114,” the announcer begins.
That’s my number! My friends hoot and holler from the grassy berm beside the arena as I lean forward to accept the blue ribbon.
Glancing back at the riders still in line, I notice that almost all of them are far younger than I. But none of them, I’ll bet, feels as young and full of life as I do right now.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #440.