Published: October 23, 2015
It starts early. Really early. Hours before the sun rises early. A group of about 15 girls crawl into a few cars ready to take a nap for the two-hour minimum drive. The driver is prepared with a cup of coffee, usually her second before 6 a.m., wishing she were one of the sleeping girls in the back.
Once they arrive, normally the sun has risen by this point if they’re lucky, they try to take a few minutes savoring the warmth of the car. Outside it is cold, really cold. By the time they work up the energy to bundle themselves up and leave the cozy car, it is time to get to work.
Most of them will not be competing until later in the day, but there is always something to do. They all pitch in to help the other riders from their team.
Normally equitation is an individual sport. It still is, but in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, everyone competes as a team. Nobody is able to bring his or her own horse like is the norm for a competitive horse show, so they all work together to best prepare themselves for the unknown.
Probably the most exciting part of the day is picking the horse draw. I know it doesn’t sound too exhilarating, but up to that point the entire day has that little fleck of anxiousness at the back of your mind, wondering which horse you will draw. Will it be Mystery, the slow pony? Einstein, the good bay everyone loves? Or some wild card that has never come to an IHSA show before?
All day the question repeated over and over again by every rider is, “Who do you have?” Everyone wracks their brains trying to remember if they have ridden the particular horse their teammate drew. They search their memory to remember if the horse can do flying lead changes, needs a lot of leg, needs a crop, spooks easily or any small detail that they might have the chance to control in this situation everyone is about to enter blindly.
After hours of watching the show, keeping an eye on the horse you will ride later, fixing teammates’ stirrups, cleaning their boots and freezing your butts off, it is finally your turn.
The first dilemma is figuring out when to get dressed. The uniform dress meant to impress the judge and make everyone look identical is quite the process to put on. There are about 10 different parts including a jacket, collar, helmet, boots and much more. There is no set schedule and the classes can fly or drag. It all depends on the judge and organization. You are always ready too early or rushing to make it on without fail.
Next is frantically searching for your horse before it is time for you to go so you two can bond, hoping it will love you and not throw you off. When you find your horse, you are obligated to talk to it in a baby voice so it knows you mean no harm.
“Find and mount.” The scariest three words of the day. Everything has led up to these few minutes of action. After grabbing a steward to check the girth, adjusting the stirrups and walking around a bit to get comfortable it is time to go.
With a few encouraging words from your coach, you head into the ring repeating everything she said in your head: “heels down, soft hands, sit up, heels down, soft hands, sit up…”
“You are now being judged at the walk.” The scariest eight words of the day. It is show time, quite literally.
“Heels down, soft hands, sit up…” You keep repeating this in your head.
Finally it is time to pick up the trot, the first test. You’ve never ridden this horse before, so you do not know its quirks. The best you can do is keep it going and make sure you have good form, especially when you pass the judge, which almost always ends up being your worst second.
Passing in and out among the roughly 10 riders in the ring, you start to find your groove. Then they tell you to walk and you know what is coming next—the canter.
Once you hear the words, it is time to relax. Your horse knows what is coming, you just have to be in perfect form to have a nice transition. And you finally sit down, pull your leg back and squeeze. He picks up the canter and at first you are thrown, you have never ridden this horse before. There is a moment of panic but it passes quickly.
Finally you find your stride and remember why all this stress and long days are worth it. It is a feeling like nothing else, moving with a strong animal, running together. You must be in perfect sync to feel connected to the horse. If he feels your confidence and resolve, it becomes fun and turns into a bond between you and the animal. It is exhilarating.
Just as you really start enjoying yourself, you have to stop. It is over. You pat the horse good job while picking over every mistake you made in your mind. As you line up to be judged you are convinced you did not place. Sometimes you do not but sometimes you do. Everyone has adjusted to the uncertainty and the main focus is to have fun.
The show is finally over and after collecting ribbons and a quick picture the girls pile back into the car for the long drive home, ready to do it all again the next week.
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