This is the tale of an adult amateur with a closet type-A personality (or maybe it’s not so closeted…) after attending her first Rated show.
As someone who’s ridden all of her life in one aspect or another, there’s no denying that horseback riding really is a very unique sport. Trying to find that perfect symmetry between myself and my horse so that we’re speaking the same language is completely different than any other team or solo sport.
Sometimes, I can manage to find that happy medium and the conversation flows fantastically. Other times, I’m speaking English and he’s speaking Pig Latin and we’re both irritated that neither of us can figure out what the other is saying.
At home, I practice trying to find and maintain that line of communication with my horse.
At a show, I attempt to demonstrate our conversation abilities to the judge, my trainer, my friends and family, and the random parents and other well-wishers standing near the ring watching while they wait for their rider to go.
It’s exciting, but it’s terrifying. It’s also frustrating, stressful, fraught with some serious self-doubt, and somehow… still very rewarding.
Let me walk you through the experience.
Tongue in cheek vocabulary lesson.
Rider: The person in charge of the horse.
Horse: Elegant 1,200 pound quadruped who likes to let the Rider think she’s in charge. Is really calling the shots 90% of the time.
Rated Show: Voluntarily signing up to be scrutinized. For multiple days.
Round/Trip: Where Rider attempts to adeptly demonstrate her/Horse’s abilities. Horse sometimes has other ideas.
Judge: The person the Rider paid (in a roundabout way) to find all the faults during her and Horse’s Rounds, and then rank them against other Riders and Horses in ascending order of flaws.
Trainer: Skilled Equestrian who imparts knowledge to Rider and creates plans for Rider to execute during Rounds. Also provides emotional counseling and handholding between Rounds.
Day 1 & 2 (Schooling)
In my spare time, I play a mental game with myself, where I close my eyes and picture myself in the show ring. This close to the show, I feel myself get nervous–my stomach feels fluttery, my palms sweat a little, my heart rate kicks up. And then I tell myself I’m okay and let go of the image. I practice being nervous so when I enter the ring to compete, I’m used to the feeling and I can ignore it.
My schooling has improved each day. Aside from show nerves, I’m excited and optimistic about my upcoming classes.
Day 3 (First Day of Showing)
The jumps are bigger than what I’ve chosen for shows in the past, but I’ve practiced and I’m comfortable. I’m confident and ready to go, especially after our warm-up round.
The class is tiny, so I have to hurriedly cram the course in my head before going back in the ring, which stresses me out.
First round & second round: Get a refusal in each round. Goodbye illusions of Champion grandeur.
Hack: Goes great until we pick up the wrong lead several times.
Hello, last place in all three classes.
While the ribbons don’t matter, I still find myself walking away feeling rather dejected about my ability to show my horse in a better light. The refusals were my fault. I should have ridden differently.
Spend the rest of the day replaying the rounds in my head, alternating between being proud of myself and feeling like the world’s lousiest rider (yes, you CAN feel awesome and crappy at once).
Day 4 (Second Day of showing)
I’ve swallowed my disappointment from yesterday, accepted what happened, and am ready to rock the new day. The jumps are smaller—significantly so. This should be a walk in the park.
Clearly, today is an English and Pig Latin kind of day.
Warm-Up: Everything I ask for is met with stony face silence. I can’t get my horse to pick up his leads, I can’t get him to move forward, I can’t get him to get on the rail and to stop leaning on my legs. Optimism goes down the drain and is replaced by frustration.
First Round: Same as the warm-up. As my horse moseys around the ring—despite my instance that he go faster—I’m questioning my sport of choice. Pondering giving up. Something fun should not be this hard. Clearly, my skills are not up to snuff and I should choose to play solitaire in my spare time instead of riding.
I leave the ring feeling like a train wreck. I’m frustrated, and angry, and embarrassed. We didn’t refuse any fences, but we weren’t the picture of grace and beauty. We weren’t even a second cousin twice removed.
By the second round, I’m over showing. I’m just ready to be done.
But then I stay the rest of the day, to watch my other fellow riders, both barn mates and strangers. Because loyalty trumps wallowing in failure.
Day 5 (Last Day)
It’s been five days of riding and jumping and two days of riding the emotional rollercoaster. I’m tired. He’s tired. I considered scratching today, after our rounds the previous day, but I’m determined to make this into something positive. Whatever our mistakes were yesterday as a team, we will not be making them today.
I’m not a quitter, and I’m not a failure. I accept my faults, grant my horse the leisure of his own pace, and realize that I’m here to learn and have fun.
And I do.
Though we silently argue over how much effort he’s supposed to put into a jump height that doesn’t interest him, at least the give and take of communication is happening once more. Whether letting go of my competitive streak and loosening my figurative hold of the reins has allowed us both to be more relaxed, I’m not sure. Either way, our last two rounds of the show are smooth and happy.
And we beat some ponies. 🙂
In retrospect, after watching all of my rounds on video, things I thought were awful, really weren’t. In the moment of riding, it feels different than it looks sometimes. And despite the ups and downs of my rounds, I enjoyed my time at the show. I got to bond with and pamper my horse–I’m pretty sure that was his favorite part–hang out with friends, and watch a bunch of other very talented riders.
Whatever my issues were this weekend, looking back over my entire riding career so far, this was a milestone for me. I’ve come a long way, and in the spirit of competition, I think I forgot that.
So solitaire will just have to wait. Because I’m going to the barn.