** some photo credits (c) 2009 Matti (Mr CPHA) Leshem (others trusty iPhone)
Three days at a children's horse show can take it out of you. For those who are unfamiliar with the territory, let me explain; three rings filled with jumps of various sizes, three schooling rings (where competitors warm up), aisle upon aisle of temporary stalls for the horses festooned with banners and drapes and barn logos of all shapes and sizes and colors, gay red tents and tables clothed in gingham offering quesadillas, burgers, tuna salad sandwiches, lemonades, hundreds of children, mostly girls, ranging from about 4 to 18, hundreds of parents, mostly mothers, in large straw hats, jeans and sensible shoes, touting large bags filled with water, sunscreen, schedules, horse treats, people snacks, hoof picks, brushes, cloths for polishing boots, lip balm, saddle-tite, gum, mints, cell phones, books. Lots of tears, lots of ponies having meltdowns, lots of gossip. Although the experience isn't altogether an unpleasant one. I wear my father's old panama hat, my big shades, some shorts, some sneakers and my sensible bag which I can strap around my middle and I settle down on a shady piece of lawn with my dogs and my water bottle to watch the action. The "action" can be quite stultifyingly dull, dozens of horses going around the same course (single, outside line, diagonal line, single, judge's line) in an effort to make it as boring as possible. That is the goal. In hunters, the horses are encouraged to be long and low and on the forehand. Lines are very straight and horses don't bend in the corners. The riders are encouraged to pose in a "half-seat," their bottoms out of the saddle, bodies perched slightly forward, and hands held still right above the martingale strap with ideally slightly loopy rains (or the impression of slightly loopy rains; actually the horse is encouraged to "find" the bit, rather than the rider taking a hold).
I was raised to believe that only namby-pamby children had show ponies and that the real fun was to be had on the hunting field or cross country. It has taken me a very long time to appreciate the beauty of show hunters, of the quiet, effortless ride than wins classes. I prefer showjumping, because it seems somehow more egalitarian. The middle ground is equitation, a American hybrid -- part hunter, part jumper -- wherein you ride around a jumper course full of twists and turns, roll-backs and bending lines while being judged. Equitation is fun. The jumps are big, the courses challenging, and you're forced to ride both prettily and effectively.
The 14yo child has had a pretty crappy year when it comes to riding. Her lovely pinto, Artie, which started out as a match made in heaven (as my ma likes to point out) turned out to be just too much horse for her (he's a big 17.1hh warmblood) and riding became miserable. For the last few weeks she's been riding a little black mare, Toska, lent by a very sweet friend, and the transformation has been almost miraculous -- happy horse, happy child, happy picture, happy mamma (even though my heart leaps into my mouth each time they trot into the ring). This weekend's show was an epiphany & the ribbons (rosettes) came a tumblin' in, much to her pleasure. "Sometimes," my sage trainer Susie points out, "a combination of horse and rider comes along and you don't know how it happens and you couldn't make it happen if you tried, but a kind of magic appears." I'm probably paraphrasing horribly, but you get the jist. This is one of those sweet matches.
Artie left for San Diego, where a woman is trying him out for two days. Minks rode him down to the truck bareback and talked to him all the while. There were tears as he was loaded inside and she sat with him for a few minutes while he munched hay and he nodded sagely as she told him what a good boy he is and how much she will miss him. He had the best show ever, ridden by the talented Kaley, and ended on a blue ribbon in the children's hunters.
The thing about success for children in any extra-curricular activity, as Tania Kindersley points out in a wonderful paragraph in her book "Backwards in High Heels," is that it translates positively into real life, and gives children tools with which they can negotiate the big, bad world out there. I read Minks the paragraph in Tania's book about the little girl whose pony wouldn't jump water but managed to overcome this setback by practising day after day at home until finally, back at Peterborough, they managed to put in a very respectable round against tough competition. She listened to me and thought about it and this weekend she stole her courage to the sticking point, focused herself, and rode better than I've ever seen her. In between classes, she and her friend Kaley, sat down and did their school work, finished her book and cheered on her friends. In the evenings, she found time to write thank you letters (without my asking) and to be a witty and engaged guest (as opposed to a surly teen) at a grown-up dinner here last night. I cannot help but think that all of these things are related. As I dropped her off at the bus for school this morning she turned to me and said, "thank you, Mamma, that was an amazing weekend." I sniffed a bit and drove home smiling.