By Elizabeth Sanborn
It would be easy to look at my horse’s array of only blue and red ribbons from her first show season and make the incorrect assumption that I am some sort of amazing rider. But of course, the color of the ribbon only tells half the story. What you don’t know is I am a true adult amateur, competing at the tadpole level on my aged retired racehorse on her third career.
That’s right, we competed this year in Introductory level dressage tests and Pre-Elementary events. Yup, walk-trot baby dressage with 18” jumps, and I loved every moment of it. Even better, my mare is not an OTTB as you might assume when I say “racehorse”. She’s a Standardbred, not a breed one normally would associate with trotting down centerline. So while our strong ribbons are not from a high level of competition, what they represent to me means more than any blue or tricolor rosette.
After training my previous Standardbred (now retired) from never-been-sat-on through First Level, my riding aspirations are pretty tame. If I could bring along this new mare to that same level, I would be thrilled! I don’t need to move up the levels with this horse or any horse. I have taken her from a twelve year old racehorse and failed broodmare who had never been backed as of four years ago, to a fun and safe low level horse. Besides taking lessons on her, I have done all the training myself and THAT matters more to me than what level we ride at or what color ribbons we earn!
I adore dressage, but it also drives me incredibly crazy. I am not a naturally gifted dressage rider. I was taught to ride hunt seat at age six, so my body wants to be in a forward seat. It is my comfort zone. And I am a short 5-foot-nothing, so I will never look long and tall and elegant in the saddle. OK, I have moments of elegance, I suppose. But I am short and stubby and I want to ride forward like I am about to go over a fence!
While I define myself as an equestrienne, I am also a mother, wife, and full time school teacher. I have to find time to ride every afternoon between helping with homework and cooking dinner. I took last year completely off from riding (as did my mare) because I was pregnant with my second child. Regaining the strength and core muscle from that alone was more work than any dressage test or cross country course I will face!
I will always be an adult amateur, and while I do not have my sights on ever becoming a professional or riding at elite levels, I do think it is important to always learn and be the best horseman I can be. As a school teacher, I believe in education. I think I am a fairly bold rider and am willing to try new things, but I also want to be safe and have fun. Above all, it is more important to me to give my horse confidence and create success situations for her (which does not always equal success in competition – there are other types of successes!). Would I love to have a fancy, young horse to bring along? Sometimes, I admit I long for that opportunity. And perhaps someday it will happen. But for now, I am thankful I have my own horses living in my backyard, and I can carve out time to ride and compete despite life’s numerous responsibilities.
So while my Facebook friends may roll their eyes as I posted yet another show update, complete with a photo of my mare sporting another first or second place ribbon, I can assure them all that the ribbon is only half the story. The effort, sweat, tears, and sacrifice that went into earning that ribbon is what makes me proud of my horse and her accomplishments this year. I honestly would have been just as happy with a green ribbon, or even nothing at all, just for the chance to do what I love. And of course, despite a fairy tale first show season, we are planning to move up to Training level next year and I know our ribbon streak will end. But that doesn’t matter, because I know that success as a rider is about the journey and my commitment, not the color of the ribbon or the level at which I compete.