Though my recent trail rides have been quite memorable, I think that my favorite memories involve the many years I spent competing on the show circuit. They're all so vivid that it seems like yesterday, though I haven't dressed myself in show attire since my riding accident, and that was almost 3 years ago. Yet when something gets me to thinking about a particular show ring incident-- whether it's glimpsing a faded photograph or chatting with an old horse show buddy-- I almost feel transported back to that time and place.
The first big show I ever rode in was held during the Orange County Fair. I boarded my own little horse at the fairgrounds, which was located just inland from the beach here in Southern California. Though it was July, the cool ocean breezes made for perfect horse show weather and I decided that I couldn't miss an opportunity to join in with the festivities. But I couldn't possibly ride Honeybee, my scruffy, barely civilized sorrel mare. Instead I set my sights on showing Smoky, a coal black gelding who, rumor was, had been professionally trained as a western pleasure and trail class horse. Though he was definitely out of shape and out of practice (I remember his bony, angular frame and his unruly mane), I brokered an agreement with his owner: I'd muck his stall and work him regularly in exchange for being allowed to show him in the 14 & Under Trail class.
Being an industrious 13-year-old, I spent hours with Smoky. I shampooed and curried him until his ebony coat glowed with a midnight blue sheen. I finally got the dreadlocks out of his tail. And I could almost get him to step directly from the walk into the lope, something I figured would be required for the rail work portion of the class.
As the county fair got underway and the horse show approached, I became so excited about my debut! I settled on what to wear: my black Wrangler jeans, a checkered red blouse and a bolo tie. I scrounged around and borrowed assorted western show tack from the other boarders. In retrospect, nothing Smoky and I wore matched. But that really didn't matter because, as you can imagine, I knew next to nothing about showing in a trail class. All I knew was that I wanted to be a part of the atmosphere of a nationally rated horse show.
When the show day came, I warmed up in the schooling area with all the other riders. Some part of me recognized that Smoky and I looked like foreigners among the sleek, royally bred Quarter horses, Paints and Appaloosas that seemed to glide along at the jog and lope. Their riders were so sophisticated, so poised. And then there was me: flogging Smoky with the end of my romal reins with one hand to get him into the lope, and holding onto the brim of my straw hat (that I'd spray painted white, by the way) with the other hand.
When the class was called to order I rode Smoky through the in-gate with the rest of the competitors. I don't remember much about the rail work or the trail obstacles, but I do clearly recall gazing up into the grandstands and being enthralled by how many people were sitting there, watching me. I was on stage, and my performance was taking place on the back of a horse. How cool was that? I'm sure that's when I was officially hooked on horse shows.
The fact that I got fifth out of five riders didn't dim my enthusiasm. I clutched that huge pink ribbon and trotted Smoky back to the barn, and breathlessly recounted the entire experience to anyone who'd listen. Though I've certainly won more prestigous ribbons during my life with horses, that inconsequential piece of pink satin changed my world.
On the home page of Horse Channel you'll find a short article about horse show memories. It's part of Horse Illustrated's "HI Spy" series, where we ask readers to contribute their thoughts and experiences. You can read the article and contribute your comments by clicking here:
Favorite Horse Show Memories
I hope you have something to share. Some of your comments may end up in a future issue of Horse Illustrated magazine!