Four years ago I attended my first ever “real” Hunter/Jumper show. It was the September Pony Club. Looking back, I can vividly recall almost every detail of that auspicious Friday. I agonized over what to show in (a Limited purple button down with Bradley breeches), when to leave work for schooling (I took a half-day after receiving a work award), and what classes to enter (2’3″ hunter under saddle, because I was too fantastic for 2′). I had a very fabulous schooling session in the south ring on my very fabulous (but oh-so-moody) lesson horse, Chip.

My confidence was insurmountable. You could practically see the blue ribbons I anticipated winning dancing in my eyes.

And then my world shattered on Saturday. I didn’t foresee being so nervous that my hands were shaking. I had problems during warm-up (problems that I can see now were indicative of how my rounds would go, but at the time, I was blind to them). Chip, sensing my anxiety, only pushed my buttons more by biting me on the arm (and refusing to let go) before I had to get on to show.

I just kept telling myself that everything would be fine as soon as I got in the ring. But they weren’t.

I managed one round. I remember thinking as I did my courtesy circle that the jumps looked like mountains. And then I refused the first jump twice. After we got over that hurdle, I thought I was home free. I manged to scramble over the next one, but refused the second jump in the line. Hello, humiliation. I’m pretty sure I decided at that point that I didn’t need to jump that second jump, and went around it to the next jump (another line. Also, I’d officially gone off course). Suffice to say, I refused more jumps than I went over. And in my nervous, mortified state, I never heard the officials excuse me–twice–from the ring.

Someone had to come get me to make me leave the course.

I attempted a second round–with worse results. I came in on the wrong lead, over corrected in the turn by turning too tightly, and nearly got bucked off for my efforts (I’m sure even a deaf man could have heard all the audible gasps of surprise from the audience). I never made it over the first jump before I left the ring.

I cried all the way home.

I had utterly and completely humiliated myself in front of my friends, my family, and my new barn mates. I’d ridden all my life. I’d competed before. And I had never failed quite so spectacularly (or publicly) as I had that day. My heart was broken, my sense of self in tatters.

By the time I walked in the house and curled up on my bed, I had decided: I was done. I was quitting.

Except that my pushy trainer wouldn’t let me. On Sunday, I slunk into the empty barn, intending to put away my tack and never return again. Instead, I found myself getting back on the devil horse that refused to help me one iota the day before. I gathered the shattered pieces of my pride while I sat astride the fiery beast. And we went back to work.

Last weekend marked the end of my third rated show. Hands down, it was the best I’ve ever ridden.

On Saturday, at the end of my flat class, I left the ring, dismounted, and found my eyes full of tears. Happy tears. Not because I’d won first place–I didn’t, for the record. I got sixth out of eight–but because in the course of the four years since my first show, that crazy horse and I had become a true team. For the first time ever–and I mean ever–he was quiet and happy at a show, and he didn’t feel the need to race the other horses or do his usual spunky shenanigans. He was so consistent and steady, like a well oiled machine.

I trusted him to behave like he does at home. He did. But more than that, I rode him in such a way that gave him the support and guidance that he needed to feel. We worked together. And at the end, my heart couldn’t have been more full.

Considering that just last year, at the last Harvest Time, I could barely get him around a 2′ course, and we completed 2’6″ courses this weekend like our eyes were closed, that’s saying something.

I wasn’t a perfect rider this weekend. I caused him to refuse a jump. I couldn’t get off my butt. I still have things I need to work on at home. And I still get nervous before showing. But I’ve learned how to control my emotions better, and I’ve learned how to trust that my partner will take care of me even if I make mistakes.

So here’s to the baby steps, the long road between that first show and now. To the hard work spent in the saddle and out, the long hours my trainer has put into both my horse and me (and to all the times she’s yelled at me to stop driving with my seat bones), and to the effervescent support system of my barn mates that keep me lifted, even when I’m low.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my times at the shows it’s this: Forgive your mistakes. Smile through the tears. And never let your failures define who you are.

**I’d also like to give a giant, heart-felt thank you to the ECHO Foundation, for the development grant that allowed me to attend this year’s Harvest Time show. It was an excellent opportunity for us show off our skills and learn from our mistakes.**