My Horse has a Love Interest and Other Important Truths that can Totally Wreck a Horse Show Performance

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I’ve had some less than optimal horse show performances before but this one takes the prize.

We had been schooling since last show season. I had spent the better part of the week getting ready. By day I had worked my full-time job. By night, after a long day’s work and a training session with my horse, I cleaned tack. I packed. I clipped my horse and on the day before our departure I bathed her. The hotel reservations made, I journeyed off with my friend and horse show partner the evening before the show to get settled and to prepare for the early start ahead.

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Once we arrived we walked the horses around the grounds allowing them to acclimate themselves while also stretching their legs from the trailer ride. Then, after a bit of jockeying to see which stabling position worked best, they quickly settled in. After spreading the sawdust bedding we fed, watered, and organized then went away to grab a bite to eat and get some rest for the long day ahead.

The morning started quietly enough. The horses seemed to have overnighted well. We replenished their water, fed, and picked stalls before preparing everything we would need for the day’s show. When the announcement came that the main arena was open for schooling we walked the horses up for a look around. Since it was smooth sailing, we had high hopes for a successful show.

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I was to show first so we headed back to the barn to get ready. Once I had the final “polish” applied I slipped into my show clothes then tacked up. A minor moment of panic arose when I realized that in my haste one evening to reassemble her bridle following a thorough cleaning I had flipped the crown piece. With the help of my friend the crisis was quickly averted but it now seems an omen of things to come.

By now, because the over fences classes were first, I was looking forward to popping over a few practice fences to make certain we were truly ready for our classes. And that’s where the trouble began. As we walked away from the barn she began to call out to my friend’s horse.

If you follow my blog you know that my horse lives alone. Except for a brief period, it has always been this way. She doesn’t seem to mind it and in fact has never really shown an affinity for other horses that is, except for my friend’s horse Jake. She, for all intents and purposes, appears to be truly, madly, and deeply in LOVE Jake. She is visibly perkier when my friend brings Jake up to our farm for a trail ride or when travel off the farm to meet and ride together. My friend and I joke that Sally that feels she and Jake are married.

While we ride alone often and have attended shows alone in the past without issue last year, at the same show, she began to demonstrate insecurity when she was away from my friend’s horse. Luckily, we were able to work our way through it and went on to have a nice show. Little did I know; this year was to be very different.

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Sally & Jake. In her defense, he is a handsome guy. Photo Credit: Christina Stewart

From the moment, we entered the arena she became unmanageable. Try as I might with my attempts to refocus her attention, the entire way around the arena she bucked, jumped, and spun. I considered scratching our classes. While I managed to maintain my seat, there was no way I was going to attempt to negotiate a course of fences in her current frame of mind. My normally calm, sane, treasure of a horse was having a meltdown.

As I considered what to do, I knew that although I didn’t want to reward her bad behavior I also didn’t want to attempt to fix it at a horse show. Her behavior was not only distracting for her and for me, it was also distracting for others. Reluctantly, I asked my friend to bring up her horse so that he could be nearby and hopefully settle her nerves. Only…having him nearby didn’t work. Her bad behavior continued. I investigated a physical cause and came up empty handed. Something clearly, whether it saved the day or not, would have to be done.

I walked back the barn and retrieved the longe line and headed back to the outdoor warm up arena to commandeer a corner. I had serious reservations. The use of a longe line hasn’t been the answer to any issues she has had in the past. If a horse could exhibit dislike for something surely this was it. After outfitting her I sent her out on the line, sans Jake. True to form, at first it didn’t go well at all.

She bucked. She kicked out. She ran big circles and small ones. She threw her head in the air and shook it. She raced full tilt on the end of the line. A bystander and fellow competitor called her sassy.  In short, things got western. It was exhausting to control and it was exhausting to watch.

She worked up a lather between her hind legs. Her beautiful coat that I had worked so hard to wash and groom to a glossy shine for the show grew dark with sweat. She kept going. We changed direction and she kept going. Unkind words filled my thoughts as she jerked away at the end of the line.

After what seemed like an eternity spent in a whirling vortex of arena dust that collected on both of us, she stopped. I took off the longe line off and carried it outside the arena. I got back on. Sometimes, I guess, you just have to work these things out of your system.

Once back on I put her through her paces. She was far from perfect but I was able to get some solid work out of her and successfully negotiate some warm up fences. Despite the odds, I decided to show as planned. So far though, her appearance wasn’t the only casualty. My show clothes were a sweaty disaster. My polished black field boots a dusty mess.

The only problem with my plan was by now I had had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast at 5am. I was dehydrated and had grossly miscalculated just how much all the preparation leading up to the show and her antics the morning of had taken out of me. In fact, I had spent so much time trying to fix the problem that not only was I tired, I would learn that I had failed to spend enough time memorizing my courses.

We entered the main arena for our first round and I went off course. She too, it seemed, had found her bottom. She felt strung out and rubbed a rail on fence or two before we went off course. We left the arena for a break after which I decided to give it one more try.

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We both have some things to fix but at this point I felt lucky to be alive. Photo Credit: Christina Stewart

We went off course again and left the arena with head bowed. It was time to reevaluate. I did my best to limit the reevaluation process to the situation at hand. At the moment, I have to admit, I was also thinking about why I ever wanted to spend a life riding and sometimes showing horses.

We returned to the barn. Though I felt immensely frustrated, I stilled cared about her comfort and well being. I hosed her off, fed her some more hay, and topped off her water bucket. I picked out her feet and the stall. I gave my tack a rub down. I drank several bottles of water and ate some lunch. I took a restless nap in a canvas chair outside her stall dreaming of better days.

By the time our flat classes came around later that day I felt we had both rallied a bit and we had, somewhat. It was just that neither one of us truly had enough gas left in the tank to put on our best performance. Unfortunately, the morning’s liveliness seemed to have placed the rest of our day on a downward trajectory.

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She’s cute but naughty. Photo Credit: Christina Stewart

Now that we’re back home she’s back to being her usual charming self. I could, as the saying goes, safely put my grandmother on her. With no more shows on the calendar for the rest of the year, I don’t expect a return of that behavior any time soon.

The day allowed me to see where the holes are in my training and I have plenty of time to work on those. Ultimately however, I’m not sure how to fix the biggest one. I may have won the war of calming the fire breathing dragon and continuing on with the show but it was a costly battle and prevented me from having the success I had so hoped to achieve. Given the infrequency of which we show, my answer to the problem on this day isn’t a good one for the long term. I’m going to have to think on this one a while.

Were there some positives? Absolutely. I learned a great many lessons about training, about myself, and about her. I earned at least one point in my breed organization’s Open Event Incentive Program. As we worked through some issues, I also logged some non-competitive riding hours in my breed organization’s Frequent Rider Program. Thanks to a lot of reassurance and help from my friend, the day was not a complete loss.

We both live to fight another day. Sadly though, the day that I had anticipated for so long didn’t go as planned. Oddly enough, I’m looking forward to another chance to do it all over again if for no other reason than to see where we have improved and we will. I’m too tenacious to do other than grow from this experience.

This is my story about my personal worst horse show performance in recent memory. What’s yours?

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