I started riding when I was three, but didn’t enter the hunter/jumper show world until I was 13. Horse shows were a mystery. I remember going to watch one of my friends compete in something called “equitation” and she lost because of a “wrong lead”. I just sat there wondering who led her in the wrong direction. I remained completely clueless about horse showing until the summer of 2003 when I tried my first “great beginnings show” at my trainer’s barn.
“This is a blast!” I thought as I walked out with four brightly colored ribbons and a reserve champion title. I was bitten with the show bug.
My first horse was a green Appendix Quarter Horse named Rusty. Lessons started to become longer and jumps grew taller as I poured sweat, tears, and occasional blood.
I remember three things about our first show. One, I stood out like a sore thumb in my grey show coat and pink shirt. Two, Rusty developed deer-like powers to spring over the jumps with a three foot clearance. Three, controlled schooling turned into a demolition derby with horses.
My trainer Diane could probably sense my anxiety, I hadn’t eaten breakfast and had barely touched liquids. My stomach was tying all sorts of knots.
“They will open up the ring here in a few minutes for controlled schooling and we’ll go in together,” Diane explained reassuringly. “Just listen to my instructions and it’ll give you and Rusty a chance to jump all those scary red flower jumps.” I sighed with relief and a slight smile spread over my face. Thank goodness for controlled schooling.
The last class before the schooling break ended, and a flurry of jump crew volunteers poured into the ring. I deepened my heels in the stirrups as Diane took a light hold of Rusty’s bridle to guide us into the ring.
“Track left and trot in, canter out of the blue diagonal line,” Diane said, releasing her grip from the bridle and sending me on my way. I urged Rusty into a trot. He felt more like a prancing giraffe than a handy hunter.
Rounding the turn I placed my eyes on the first blue vertical and steadied my breathing while singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat to maintain a stable rhythm. We were two strides from the jump, Rusty perked his head up and prepared to bound. Just as I felt Rusty gather himself beneath my legs, a rider on a large gray cut across our line. Rusty veered left, I veered right, but managed to grab enough mane to stay seated.
“WE’RE JUMPING THE DIAGONAL!” I heard Diane yell at the rider on the gray.
“Come back around, Lydia, and try it again!” Diane hollered from the middle of the ring. I turned Rusty to the left and was met by three different horses cantering in my path. I jerked Rusty to the left, his head flew up in protest and he bucked into a bunny-like canter.
Every way I looked there were more of them! Ten, no, twenty horses and riders all jumping in the most disorganized manner possible. It was like watching ants at a picnic swarming the jelly sandwich. If I tracked to the right I was in the way. If I tracked to the left I was still in the way, not to mention the searing looks I received from more seasoned riders.
“Outside!” One rider called, and by the time I realized the call was directed at me the rider had swerved past me. She called back, “Stay on the inside!”
I was petrified. Schooling was supposed to be nice! We were supposed to take turns like in elementary school and stay in line. We were supposed to track same direction and chat pleasantly when it wasn’t our turn to jump the course. This was utter chaos! A mild form of psychological warfare on the young rider.
By this point, I had Rusty turning small donuts in the corner, trying to find an entrance into the river of horses and riders.
“Follow the chestnut down the line.” Diane’s voice sounded miles away. I locked eyes on a leggy chestnut and rider trotting down the outside of the ring. If I was going to show, I had to follow the flow. With this mantra in mind, I gathered up my last bit of courage and urged Rusty forward.
I grabbed a handful of mane, propped myself into two point and resisted the urge to close my eyes out of fear. Rusty broke into a canter one stride out and hurled himself over the jump. My legs flew behind the girth as I bobbled around like a lead line kid and nearly broke my nose on Rusty’s neck. My butt slammed back in the saddle with Rusty bounding down the line.
“Keep him going to the oxer!” Diane instructed.
We all know that feeling when your horse stops thinking and just starts panicking. I like to refer to this phenomenon as “crazy horse mode” and Rusty had switched to this gear five strides before the oxer.
The oxer’s huge. My horse is crazy. I’m going to die. In reality, the oxer was probably 2’3” but in my mind it was a grand prix worthy spread. To my short-lived delight, Rusty didn’t refuse, but took a half stride before leaping like a gazelle. As we flailed over the jump, I felt my balance abandon me, my right foot bid farewell to its stirrup and Rusty landed in a coiled manner which only meant one thing. He was about to buck. So there in front of all my friends, Rusty gave a bronco-worthy kick and I toppled into the sand.
Well, this is it. I have officially ruined my career as a rider. I thought, lying on my side, while my horse skidded off into the traffic of riders who were now all screaming, “Loose horse!”
Of course, Diane made me get back on, though we were done with schooling. “Go walk him around the grass and shake it off,” she said as I brushed the sand off my breeches and a few embarrassed tears from my face.
“Now, Lydia, you’re not a real horse show girl until you fall off.” Diane grinned, “Welcome to the family.”