What on earth am I doing here? I thought to myself. I was finishing the last touches on Star’s grooming before heading out to the warm-up for my barn’s “adults only” schooling show.
Up and down the aisle, grown women of various ages and backgrounds were frantically calling out questions. Questions, under less stressful circumstances, they probably could have answered themselves. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Shows can be nerve-racking at the best of times. For a group of ladies who’d finally decided to take up their dream of horseback riding later in life, their first show was basically the Olympics.
I helped out where I could: bridling horses that had turned into giraffes after borrowing their riders’ anxiety; correctly placing hunter saddle pads; and just generally doing my best to keep everyone calm. Some of them might have been in their thirties, like me, but most were closer to my parents’ age. I shouldn’t have been the one they looked to, but that was okay. I’d done this a lot more than they had.
Star wasn’t super pleased at all the commotion, and started to stomp and fret a bit. I walked her by hand to a smaller ring to mount and loosen her up before warm-ups. The second I sat on her back, she acted crazed. Bucking, snorting, and just generally worked up. I kept trying to bring her back into contact, trying to help her center herself. She quieted, but only slightly.
The trek to the warm-up ring was a joke. We were zig-zagging laterally more than moving forward. My coach and the barn owner, B, eventually helped by hand walking (pulling?) Star and me into the ring. “Keep her going forward,” B urged. So that’s what I did. Lots of circles, lots of attempts to bring her back, but nothing seemed to be working. The ring was crowded with riders, trainers, and coaches. I set Star in the center, asked her to reinback, and then praised her when she listened. I looked around the huge ring to try and find an opening where we could work and perhaps regain our focus without having to slalom the other horses. I wasn’t paying enough attention. I looked left, Star shied right, and for the first time in over a decade I fell from a horse.
What on earth am I doing here?
Before I go any further, I need to back up. I started riding as a 7-year-old in Florida. Western only until I saw someone else go over a jump. Never looked back. Horses were in my blood. I did the local hunter circuit in Texas for years, riding school horses and an occasional leased horse. Usually, though, it was a horse that someone at my barn wanted to sell. I did well, showing in the time when you couldn’t compete without a stock pin and hair bow/net combo. In the world of rich oil, I was lucky to do as well as I did. My family didn’t want the responsibility of a horse and, even if they had, I wouldn’t be able to buy the caliber of horse I often competed against.
University found me a chance to work on an Arabian ranch. For the first time I rode unbroke horses and learned that I was not as good a rider as I’d always thought I was. By the end of that first year, I’d figured out a bit about being better.
Sporadically as an adult, I rode. Sometimes it had more to do what I could afford than what I wanted, but sometimes life just felt too busy. Whenever I got back into it, I quickly became a pickup rider for others, or the go-to person for a tough horse. It made me uncomfortable, because I had zero desire to be that ride-anything show kid again. Then I got married and had my daughter. Life took on different priorities. I spent four years away from the saddle.
I’m not sure if this is a singular occurrence, or common to all parents, but shortly after my daughter turned one I felt like I came out of a fog. I suddenly had more time and energy, and I wanted to get in shape and start riding again. For real this time, competitions and all. I started spending time every day writing emails to local barns, checking horses for sale sites, and just generally reorganizing my life.
I found a barn that showed in-house all the way up to A levels. I took some private lessons and then started wondering about how I could go about affording a horse of my own. Seven weeks later I saw a posting about a 10-year-old Thoroughbred mare whose barn name was the same as my nickname growing up. She strongly reminded me of a horse I’d adored as a child the first time I saw her, but her price was far above my limit the first time she went up. Now she was being offered at half her original price. I couldn’t get her out of my mind, and absently started talking about horse memories and her with my coach. Who proceeded to tell me that the mare’s trainer had offered her to local coaches at an even more reduced price.
I went to see her, bought her, and changed her official name with the Jockey Club all in three weeks. The mare who’d spent most of her life being Starzanna, the pretty pasture pony who occasionally threw a foal, was now Rockstar Royale, the mare who would hopefully grow with me into the A/O jumpers. Around the barn, she’s always been Star.
Three and a half months into our partnership things were starting to go really well. Topline and muscle tone had visibly improved, her trust in me was growing, and I felt like a simple thing like a flat class in a schooling show might be good for her. And me, for that matter, although I also wanted a bit more…
Two days before the show I texted B and asked if I could enter a flat class with Star and do the jumper division with one of the schoolies. I’d never actually ridden any of the school horses, but I wasn’t particularly worried about it. Jumpers, for me, tends to have as much to do with the will to get it done as it does with anything else. I had the will, that’s for sure. B picked one of her former horses, who now worked as a school packer. Ramses was a big 17hh, long-legged warmblood. I agreed to ride him and do a quick lesson on him the Saturday before the show.
Saturday rolled around with an explosion of rain. Our indoor arena is a fabric covered “megadome” and Star did not care for the sound of the rain hitting it. We managed to come out of our lesson okay, but it was a struggle. Ramses was as cold as Star was hot, so I had to pull on my dressage hat to remember how to get him to canter. Once I’d found “the button” he was an easy, if a bit slow, ride.
Besides all the pre-showing rituals (e.g., braiding, oiling tack, shining boots, etc) I was all set for the show. I didn’t expect to win on either of them, but I hoped to at least walk away with a ribbon or two. It had been fifteen years since I’d earned my last one.
From the ground, I saw Star start to slink off and told her, “Stand!” Thankfully, she obeyed. I had a decision to make, as I dusted myself off and collected my beautiful horse. Her eyes showed whites and her nose dripped with clear mucus. Every muscle in her body stood out, almost locked into place. This was ridiculous. I had nothing to prove and neither did she. We walked out of the ring together, thanking concerned standers–by as we went.
“B, I don’t think she can do this today.” My coach helped me fix my helmet and gave me a good mix of sympathy and advice. We decided to turn Star out in a pasture across from the ring. She would have complete access to the show, without having to be actively in it.
Pulling out braids is always depressing. It takes forever to put in and no time to pull out. That day I felt it more. I felt the 5am arrival time, the hour and a half it took me to put in the 15 to 20 rubber band button braids (I was out of practice), but mostly how much it sucked to cover her sparkling coat back up with a fly sheet. I tried to turn out my disappointment along with Star.
Helping out and watching pushed away the bad and helped me focus on the good. I was a bit chagrinned to see Ramses refuse to pick up the canter for his beginner rider, dropping them down a few ribbons in the class. The day was lovely and, despite the occasional vocal protests from Star, I felt myself lighten.
Hours after my fall, I collected Ramses to prep him for the jumper ring. I’m not going to lie, I put on spurs. The judge called time to walk the first course, and I took off. I started out on my own, but was soon joined by the only other riders competing in the class from my barn. Both of them were semi-heroes to me. They showed regularly, had gorgeous horses and bodies that reminded me of mine pre-baby. That last shouldn’t matter, but it’s a personal cross I bare and a topic for another time.
Regardless, I learned the course instead of fixating on my intimidation. Together we worked out the best course of action to tackle the first round. I planned on making it around without any further embarrassments. B handed me a crop the second before I entered the ring. I didn’t need it. I asked Ramses to go, and he shot out like a cannon.
Ramses is a gangly gelding not great with hairpin turns and long distances. That didn’t really end up mattering. I asked him to turn tightly, and he did his best. I asked him to run, and his hooves flew over the ground. Once or twice he chipped-in or disagreed with me over a distance, but mostly he answered yes to the question I asked.
We never managed a first. One of my semi-heroes on her speedy seasoned thoroughbred took home those honors in every class. That was okay, because we were never worse than third. I wasn’t sure until they announced it, but I thought we had a chance at Reserve. I managed Reserve Champion on a horse I’d ridden once before, on the same day I’d fallen off my own horse.
After a bit of celebrating, I went to collect star and turn her out in her own paddock. She ran up to me as soon as I called her name. A couple people saw and commented on how sweet it was. She does do it sometimes, but not often, so it felt a little bit like an apology.
For a junior rider who decided to take back up her dream of horseback riding later in life, my first show as an adult was basically the Olympics. Fall and all.
|Christine Sharpe is a Canadian who grew up riding Hunter/Jumper in the Southern USA. Now living in Toronto, she is a thirty-something who is recently back to riding after four years off and having her first child. Christine is aiming her new Thoroughbred mare, Star, toward the Trillium Jumper Circuit in 2016. She struggles daily to juggle family, work, and her equine lifestyle, with occasional success.|