In the quiet post-victory gallop, pre-press conference atmosphere of the ring at the Longines Masters in New York, there was a little girl still in the stands with her parents after the other spectators had left. She had pigtail braids, a barn sweater, and McLain Ward’s silver medal from the Riders Cup at the Longines Masters in New York City. She was bursting with excitement. I waved to her and asked to take her photo, and she turned to me, beaming uncontrollably.
This little girl is us. She’s the one still trying to master posting diagonals but dreaming of the Grand Prixs. She’s the one practicing her braiding technique on her Barbie horses. She’s the one counting down the days until her next riding lesson and dreaming of a day that she can have a pony of her very own.
Whether she grows up to be the next McLain, or a lifetime fan of the sport, that medal stoked a fire that will never go out. She’ll bring it to school for show and tell. She’ll sleep with it under her pillow. Maybe in 70 years she will show it to her grandchildren, and tell them about her hero who tossed it to her.
McLain regularly gives his ribbons to children in the crowd. This small gesture is an important physical connection between those at the top of their game, and fans who are dreaming of making it big themselves. In a sport where the only way to get to the top is an immense amount of hard work, such actions are valuable sources of incentive.
I remember being that little girl, sitting on the rough-planked bleachers of my local show grounds. I remember lusting after those ribbons that were being doled out, and marveling at the poise and skill of the riders. The 2’6″ hunters was my equivalent of the Olympics. It was inspiration, before I even knew what the word meant.
A decade later, I was leaning over the shoulder of my obsessively brushed and show-sheened horse, accepting a colorful high-point ribbon. I looked up, and there was my little-girl mirror image in the stands, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. That was me, I thought, and felt proud.
There was a period of time in which ribbons crowned every available surface in my teenage bedroom. They were an important part of my self-esteem and identity. I worked hard for those colorful bits of polyester, and rearranging them to add new ones every few months gave me an intense feeling of fulfillment, even when the boy I liked didn’t like me back (or other such adolescent tribulations).
And at some point, the ribbons started migrating to boxes. Years later, one Tupperware bin remains, kept for old time’s sake or some kind of DIY decor project.
Seeing this girl, bursting with happiness at McLain’s medal, made me think of all the opportunities I passed up to encourage a younger generation of riders. We forget that even though we aren’t top-level athletes, we sure look like it to these little kids. What would have happened if I had made a point of giving my ribbons to these tots, telling them that not so long ago I was just like them, dreaming from the sidelines?
The world needs more McLains. More people who understand that success is for sharing, and the importance of reaching out to create a full circle of dreaming, work and success.