Riding the Second Time Around: Back in the show ring

After the loss of her equine best friend of 20 years, Honeycomb, Jessica Fox didn’t think she’d ever ride again. This is part 6 of the story of her climb back into the saddle.

If you missed Part 1-5 of this series, you can read them here (#1), here (#2), here (#3), here (#4), and here (#5).

From Jessica:

As a kid, showing had been fun.

Preparation would start weeks before.  Breeches, jacket and tack were carefully examined and cleaned, rat catcher pressed, gloves and stock pin located.  At the barn, wraps were unearthed, along with my fancy white saddle pad.  I’d spend hours reacquainting my fingers with the task of braiding while Honey dozed, lower lip twitching.

On show day, I’d meet my riding friends at the barn before the sun rose. Quick as sparrows, we’d lead our blinking ponies onto the trailer, stash our stuff in the truck’s hay-strewn bed, and climb into someone’s mom’s wood-sided station wagon.

It would still be early-morning dark, the sky a bright purple-pink, when we arrived at the show grounds.  Nervous and excited, we’d tumble out of the car and into heaven. Row after row of trailers, each with horses even more beautiful than the last, ushered in morning’s sleepy sunlight with each swish of a braided tail.

After a frenzy of grooming, braiding and dressing of hooves, we’d collect our numbers and proudly carry them back to the trailer. There, we’d take turns transforming from Diana Prince into Wonder Woman.  Velvet helmets and boots brushed, the slow-moving minutes before classes would be passed watching other’s rounds and memorizing courses.

Toes curling and uncurling within my glossy boots, the thud of hooves in the arena echoing my heart, I’d wait until it was almost my turn. Then, I’d scurry back to Honeycomb, tighten her girth, extract a promise that today would not be the day I fell off, wish I had time for a quick bathroom break, mount and, ears burning, barely make my time.

Once in the ring, like snowfall, sand muffled all sound. Viewers lining the rail became nothing more than whispering, frost-covered pines. Jumps came and went in harmony with hooves and breath. Then it was over.  Faces came into focus, horses called to one another, my stomach would rumble. Blushing and breathless, I’d await my results, silently thanking Honey for another smooth, clear round.


Jessica & Honeycomb, the winter Jessica got him for Christmas

In my teens, I switched trainers and moved Honey to her barn.   It had a horse vacuum, dressage court, cross-country course, jumping rings, and a track winding through a hilly, honeysuckle-scented hayfield. The tack room was heated.

For all its amenities, this new place fit me about as well as men’s dress shoes. My trainer took her reputation for winning seriously. Lessons became tortuous and often ended with my center-ring examination of Honey’s crisp golden mane to stave off frustrated tears.  Nothing was up to snuff. Not my instincts, position, mindset, or tack. The other riders my age followed her lead, and, after one unasked-for critique too many, outside of lessons, I began riding when and where no one else would be.

Showing became a disaster of nerves. Losing myself in a ride and entering the ring without getting sick was a thing of the past. Even the fun of preparation turned into a litany of self-doubt. Maybe I did need a nicer saddle, better wraps, custom boots, a monogrammed cooler. Next to my stable-mates, I felt like some kid out of Dickens. But that didn’t feel right, either.  Since when did expensive stuff a better rider make?

When, in the name of my riding future, my mom and I were prevailed upon to exchange Honey for a Hanoverian, I knew I should move on. No matter what my trainer said, selling Honey or owning two horses was out of the question. However, despite that, I stayed, sure that hard work and determination would earn improvement.

But it wasn’t until what would be my last show, in which Honey uncharacteristically refused jumps and I doggedly circled, then pushed her over, that it became clear to me something was terribly wrong.  The scolding I received for humiliating my trainer, her barn, and myself still makes me cringe. I left the trainer and her stable two weeks later. If that was what it took to show, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I spent the following years until Honey’s passing without lessons and riding as I pleased.

Several years later, while tooling around on Playday the Wonder Horse, wondering why our straight lines were more like the path of a drunken sailor, it hit me.  I needed…wanted…help.  And you know what? Lessons weren’t painful. In fact, they were, and are, great (thanks, in no small part, to an exceptional instructor).


Playday The Wonder Horse

Now, with that fear out of the way, I’m ready to conquer another one.  Showing.

Not with the intention of lining my bedposts with ribbons or climbing levels, but to prove to myself I can do it and maybe even have fun.  As an adult, I know competing imperfectly does not equal failure, and that things became so ugly before because of the wrong kind of coaching and a Mean Girls atmosphere.

Still, a couple weeks ago, while watching a friend compete at a local dressage schooling show, I was haunted by the phantom of shows past. Everyone looked so nicely turned out, and no way could I ride as well as those I observed, especially a woman on a handsome chestnut.  What if I embarrassed myself? Besides, my tack was not nearly as spiffy and the prospect of white pants…horrifying. Forget it.

Then, I overheard someone comment that the woman and chestnut in question were past members of a Canadian Olympic dressage team, and I felt silly.  Why was I comparing myself to her or anyone else?  The gear I have is perfectly fine (well, boots instead of half-chaps would be nice, but I want those anyway), and, I don’t have to wear white breeches. So, this summer, I’m going to ride in a schooling show.

Riding the second time around, I’m learning, is all about getting back on that horse.

About the Author: Jessica Fox is a freelance writer and novelist-in-training who dreams of the day  she can sit a trot without flailing about. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA where she writes as much as possible to feed her increasingly voracious horse-habit and almost rides Dressage. www.foxywrites.com

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