It has become an annual pilgrimage. The content of the group varies from year to year, depending on schedules. And sometimes, someone has to leave early because of a wedding or other milestone event they need to attend. This year, there were nine of us — eight riders, and one very supportive partner who isn’t interested in horses. That’s Leah, Laura, Emily, Paula, Elizabeth, Heather, Saralee, Gabi, and me. It’s truly a group effort — Leah makes the travel arrangements, a couple of us do the driving, others stock our initial refreshment supplies. We rendezvous at my house, usually at some ungodly hour. This year was only 8am, so not so bad. Until you consider Saralee’s trek nearly a hour to get to my house in the first place. That’s dedication!
There’s a specific Starbucks where we stop for our morning coffee as we get underway. There’s a specific gas station/convenience store just over the Pennsylvania state line. I almost think they recognize us at this point. There’s the annual memorial photo at the Mason-Dixon Line, which is even funnier to Saralee and me. You see she’s from Atlanta and my family is from Alabama, so we aren’t sure the others in the group really know what “The South” is. Usually, there’s a stop at the Bit of Britain tack store for some retail and aromatherapy (nothing smells like a tack store). Lastly, we stock up with food and drink at the local Wegman’s (the world’s most amazing grocery store). And then on to Devon!
This year, we went up on Thursday so we could see the hunter derby and the Grand Prix. We made tracks the best we could, but it rained. Some of our back roads were under construction, and the detours weren’t very clear. We made it eventually, but admittedly missed a fair bit of the hunter derby class.
No matter. We had arrived at the Dixon Oval! We even had our own birthday to celebrate in the group. I’m not sure some of the spectators fully appreciated our rendition of “Happy Birthday,” but Emily, the birthday girl, was all smiles. So we didn’t care what everyone else thought. We assumed our seats in the center grandstand, armed with coolers of food and drink, and settled in for three full days of horse-filled fun.
We’re all hunter-jumpers. But I’m getting into eventing, so the hunter and jumper classes took on a new significance as I watched. How to conserve energy when your horse is tired. How to take fences on an angle to get a better line. Who was ahead and who was behind the motion of the horse. That kind of stuff. Others of us noted similarities with our own horses or competitors.
We checked out everyone’s form, watching riders’ posture and heel position. We counted strides between fences, and looked at whether the horse picked up the correct lead coming off one fence, heading for another. We checked out lines, and looked for where a jumper could cut a corner to pick up some time.
There were great efforts by the horses, when riders lost their balance, but the horse snapped his knees up in front and kicked out behind to save clear on a fence. And there were great efforts by riders, staying back and out of the way so a horse could stretch and make a fence from a bad spot.
Or when riders like Laura Chapot refused to lose to the clock, and rode all out on both her horses in every event.
My favorite moment was when 17-year-old Lillie Keenan rode into the arena on Pumped Up Kicks for the Idle Dice Open Jumper Stake. She took the arena just after McLain Ward and HH Ashley, who had just posted a clear round with a time of 38.642 seconds. Potentially intimidating! But not for Lillie. She threw down a clear round with the blazingly fast time of 37.684. She was eventually outpaced by Todd Minikus and Quality Girl. But Lillie announced her presence with grace and authority! I’m looking forward to seeing her and this beautiful grey again soon.
Not everything went perfectly. There were missed distances, and crashes, and refusals. And then there were the falls. Some were anticlimactic, almost as if the rider had chosen to dismount. Some made you suck in your breath, when the rider catapulted over the horse’s ears, often clearing the jump, but often coming down between the spread on an oxer.
The most nerve-wracking fall involved Lisa Jacquin on Chapel Z in the Grand Prix. They missed their spot coming into the last fence, and Chapel Z hit the jump with his chest. Lisa fell, but forgot to let go of the reins. The bridle broke off the horse’s head, and trailed behind him under his belly, along with the Martingale. The reins got tangled in his legs, and he stumbled, which spooked him, and he took off around the arena. It took quite some time, and several PA announcements to quiet the crowd and allow the field staff to catch him. Fortunately, both horse and rider survived the incident uninjured.
Through everything, we fully realized the great talent in front of us, and appreciated all the effort that went into getting them there, and how both horses and riders were giving their all in every round.
I got to meet my fellow HJU blogger, Amy Vodraska, and baptized her into the group. We also met several of the riders, both amateur and pro. OK, more amateurs than pros. We met riders’ parents and families, trainers, grooms, show volunteers, vendors, and spectators.
We drank it all in — hunters, jumpers, coach drivers, standardbreds, Australian cowboys, Budweiser Clydesdales — everything! We watched well known names like McLain Ward and Georgina Bloomberg; and young talents like Hunter Holloway and Lillie Keenan. We held our breath at the myriad of falls, which seemed a lot more frequent, and of a lot more consequence than last year. We saw competitors who won so much they could hardly carry their bounty from the ring. And we saw others who called it a victory that they walked out of the ring in one piece. We walked through barns, talked to grooms, watched young local Pennsylvania riders, and stared at the amazing feats of Guy MacLean, the Australian cowboy. We stayed from dawn to dusk. And then stayed a little longer to eat fried Nutter Butters!
I’d go back again tomorrow. But I’ll have to wait until next year…