Charlie Brown and I went to a horse show last weekend. It was a schooling show — very low key, with a generous crew that didn’t get nasty when dressage ran late, and a hostess who was truly in it to give everyone a good experience. We did the Elementary division, which was one level above Introductory, and one level below Beginner Novice. The weather was decent, especially compared to our recent inferno-like temperatures. But it was still oppressively humid.
I got there before my trainer and her wife, who were my ground crew for the day. As I made my way to the check-in desk, I noticed the other competitors. Many of them were young. Really young. Young enough to be my children. Yikes! But here I was, competing against these other riders who were so much younger than I am. What business did I have riding against these relative “children”? I’d have no chance of doing well against these nimble, fit, and agile youngsters, right? Should I adjust my goal to be “just don’t fall off!”? Or should I just scrap all that garbage, and go out for a fun ride across the fields on my boy?
I’ve never really been bothered by age. After all, it’s just a number. And I think your age is more in your attitude than anything. Plus, I ride with people a lot younger than me all the time at home. Why would a show be any different? So I decided to forget about the rest of the riders, and just focus on us. I made my question of the day, “What do I need to do for Charlie to make this an amazing ride?”
The indoor where we were to warm up for dressage was stuffy, so we didn’t do very much — just enough to get Charlie listening to my leg, and stretched out. Then we left, and waited our turn in the cool of the shade by the dressage ring, because that’s what he needed. We chatted with other competitors who were also waiting, and breathed because he needed me to be loose. When we were on-deck, we just walked around the space to stay loose because he didn’t need to get “cold.” As soon as the competitor before us finished, we entered the arena and checked out all the potential “boogeymen” like the photographer sitting on the ground outside E, because he needed to know she wouldn’t eat him. We took a relaxed spin around the ring, and checked in with the ring steward in the judge’s stand, because then he would be free to roam around and stay relaxed.
At the whistle, we left the arena, took a slingshot around the outer space, and entered up the center line with our best attitude. We laid down a good, solid test. Yes, there were a few bobbles, but I knew exactly where they were: a halt that didn’t quite stop, a canter that lasted a bit too long, a transition up to trot that came too soon. But we knew what we did well, too: a clean test where we were never lost for what came next, generous and round circles, and better impulsion (our perpetual work-in-progress item). In a way, I didn’t care what we scored, because our victory was in the doing.
We were the last pair to run the show jumping course in our division. It was a longer course than we normally do, at 11 jumps. This is an unusual show jumping arena because it also contains an up bank, a down bank, and a pair of ditches. The course contained both the up and down banks, but they were optional at our level. When we walked the course, I decided to skip the down bank, because it was larger than I thought we were prepared for, and the point was a good experience for Charlie. Also, the footing was pretty hard because of a lack of rain, so we took things rather slow. Even so, we had an enthusiastic up bank, and an unhesitating ditch (usually our nemesis). I even regretted not doing the down bank, but that’s hindsight for you.
Then we milked all the break time we could on the way out to cross country — 14 jumps over expansive fields, and rolling terrain. There are still a couple of fences that I think would have been appropriate on a Beginner Novice course. And we are still working on our balance cantering downhill, so we walked and trotted where we needed to. But we took every fence on the course. I think I talked to Charlie all the way through the course, and counted our striding to the fences out loud. I’m not sure if that was all for his benefit or mine, but it felt like he understood whatever I was trying to accomplish with my monologue. We both finished in good humor.
All in all, our rides weren’t perfect. But they were what we needed that day.
As we headed back to the trailer, we stopped at the check-in desk to return our pinny, and pick up our scores, it finally dawned on me — I AM the old woman! And that’s alright! In spite of all the mass media messages telling me I’m no good unless I’m 21, there are plenty of great role models in the riding world for me. Phillip Dutton just won an Olympic bronze medal at age 52. Bunny Sexton did her first Rolex at age 51. I have no delusions about me going to the Olympics or Rolex! But if Phillip and Bunny can accomplish those feats in their early 50s, then my goals at Beginner Novice and Novice become much more achieveable.
At the end of the day, Charlie Brown and I had accomplished a score of 34 in dressage, a clean show jumping round, and 20 penalties on cross country. But I take full ownership of those cross country “dings” because I thought we were about to take a wrong fence, and I pulled up. It turned out we were in the right place, and I should have just gone ahead. But even with that, we finished in 5th place out of 21 competitors. Not bad, especially considering I was probably the oldest rider in the division. It felt good to compete against other riders, regardless of age (theirs or mine), and come out well. The age factor thing was just icing on my cake.
That said, I am rather looking forward to competing in the USEA shows that recognize my “Master” status. OK, the cat’s out of the bag! If you’ve read the USEA rule book, you know that Master status means I’m over 40. Truth be told, I’m 50. But I feel like I’m 30. So I’ll be damned if that number is going to get in the way of doing the things I want to do with Charlie Brown. I just feel like I get my own special category now.
I’ve got another clinic this weekend, a dressage show early next month, and one more schooling horse trial before the season is over.