Our first show of the season was yesterday, a schooling show that's held by the Thoroughbred Exhibitors' Association every year down at the local fairgrounds. It was not a very nice day for it -- chilly and windy and threatening to rain -- but last year, when it stormed and hailed and snowed, was much, much worse.
I got up at 4:30 and put on my breeches and boots and three sweatshirts, heated up the oatmeal I'd pre-made the night before, and hauled my bag of show stuff to my car. I was at the barn by 5:45, but ended up waiting around for awhile, because, as it turns out, one of the trucks meant to haul our 4-horse trailer had broken down. We ended up leaving the barn at 6:45 instead of 6:15 but still squeaked in to the fairgrounds in time to (barely) make the first class, which I happened to be competing in. (There were a harrowing few minutes where I was hurriedly stuffing Cookie's face into a halter while a friend was helping brush her mane and my trainer had her hand up my jacket, pinning on my number.)
Halter classes at horse shows are the equine equivalent to the dog shows you see on TV: a handler on the ground walks a horse into the arena, "sets" them (squares their feet, as is done with dogs, in different positions depending on the breed), and then trots away from the judge so the judge can see if they have good leg conformation. Then you line up next to the other competitors and (hopefully) make your horse stand still and look pretty and alert for the remainder of the class. Cookie does very well in halter classes, and would do better if we ever practiced setting up, which we don't. We compete with her as though she were an Arabian (she's a half-Arab), which means she should stand like this:
but occasionally we end up like this instead:
We entered three halter classes and took third, third, and fourth respectively, earning three ribbons but not passing through high enough to move on to the championship round. She was very, very well behaved, stood quietly, did not shuffle her back feet, and wanted to love on me a little but didn't try to be in my pocket (which, incidentally, was her problem in the photo of us above).
After halter was through we tacked up for our English classes -- we weren't even bothering with Western -- and I walked her back and forth across the grounds about four times so we could both settle down. She was a little tense and anxious in the warm-up ring, and I was thankful that the footing was very deep, so she had to work harder to trot and canter. Eventually she settled down, only to go through the same scary thing again in the show arena warm up. Our first two classes were messy but not bad; she still has problems riding in a straight line and I am still constantly asking for her head carriage, but she didn't run off or spook, which is a tremendous improvement from just a few weeks ago.
We rode in three classes and then had a long break, so we walked up and down the gravel path outside the arena, then stood at the door. I was really wanting to place in at least one riding class, so that I felt like Cookie wasn't the only one winning the ribbons, but I was simultaneously really proud of her for being significantly better behaved than at our last show, when she literally could not stand still the entire day. Outside the gate before our third class, I leaned forward and gave her a long scratch on the neck and face; everybody chuckled at us as Cookie craned her neck back so I could reach her face better from the saddle. I told her I was proud of her, that she was being such a good girl.
Our fourth class was an 18 & over class, typically the hardest for me because I'm riding with all adult competitors who have been riding as long or longer than I have and who are typically WAY more skilled at showing (and often at riding). All the riding classes of the day had been very long, with extended trots and canters, so we were already tired. But we were just on. Cookie had settled into an equilibrium where she was still pretty pumped up but relaxed enough to settle in and listen, and she'd become familiar enough with the arena that I could convince her to ride closer to the rail (which she'd been afraid of in the beginning). My riding felt tight, Cookie was holding her head well, and I'd found a sort of .. I don't know, lightness? in my seat that finally allowed me to ride her into the corners without having her head ganked in one position while her body was in another.
When we passed my barnmates at the lower end of the arena they were so encouraging! They are always encouraging but they're also there to murmur "wrong lead" or "drop your hands!" or whatever else you need to fix. Every time I passed they just said, "Beautiful, Jess!" "You look great!" "Go Cookie!" I was also happy to notice that the dad of one of our lesson kids was there, a former Arab trainer himself who almost always sees me in lessons where Cookie is bucking or steering badly or generally being an ass.
The class took forever, and after walking, trotting, and cantering beautifully in one direction we had to reverse and do the same in our bad direction. At the canter, we'd been going and going FOR A THOUSAND YEARS when Cookie broke into a clippy, bouncy trot; I frantically asked her to pick up the canter again, but again she broke into a trot. I knew she was not being "bad" -- she was just plain exhausted. But we were nearing where the judge was standing, and we had been going SO WELL for the entire class, and I knew if she caught us trotting it would dash any dim hope we had of ribboning in that huge class. "Come on, sweet stuff," I said, "Please? Do it for me, please do it for me." I cued and she picked it up one last time; we turned into the corner and around past the judge, and then they called for us to walk and line up.
It had been a great class, and I felt it was our best chance to place; I also felt that it should be our last class, because Cookie and I were both exhausted and I really wanted to reward her for her awesome work. In the line-up, waiting for the results, I try so hard never to get my hopes up, because in a large group we rarely ever ribbon -- we just have too many issues right now. So I was truly thrilled and surprised when they announced my number for third place! I think I even did a victory fist pump.
We ended up entering the class directly after that one, despite my initial misgivings, because it was a colored horse class and there were only 6 horses in it. And we finished sixth :) Getting Cookie to keep trotting in that class was like an act of god. I had to pull my outside foot (the one out of sight of the judge) completely out of the stirrup and lay it into her side to even keep her moving. But I didn't care at all. At the end of the class, I walked Cookie over and thanked the judge, who had clearly liked my horse in halter classes. "You're welcome," she said. "You need to put a headset on that horse." Don't I know it.
When I came out of the ring, my trainer handed me our yellow ribbon. "BEAUTIFUL JOB, you two," she said. "This is a blue ribbon in my book." What can I say about this? I teared up a little. There's this great scene towards the end of National Velvet when Velvet and the Pie have won the Grand National; they come back home, and Velvet is so exhausted and emotional she's in a swoon. She explains that towards the end of the race she knew that the Pie was totally done and had nothing left, but that she asked him for just a little more and he put his whole heart into it for her. She is full of wonder and gratitude. It sounds completely cheesy but that's how it felt yesterday: like Cookie was absolutely exhausted but gave it one more burst for me because I asked her for it. I truly could not love that third place ribbon more.
I stayed for the rest of the day, although I was done riding, to watch all my friends and barn-mates compete in the Western classes, which they rocked. All 7 of us walked off with ribbons. After we were through we all pitched in, cleaning stalls, blanketing horses, emptying water buckets, and then loaded up the horses and drove back to the barn. I love the post-show flurry of returning everything to tack rooms and stalls; everybody's tired and glad to be done. There's a great sense of community. Usually a group goes out for dinner at the cafe down the street, but not tonight! We all trudged to our cars, cranked up the heat, and went home. I can hardly keep my eyes open.