Alone in the car on my way to the horse show, first thing in the morning, against the flow of the commute, listening to my favorite music, and it’s Your Favorite Music (Clem Snide) or Eels’ Souljacker and I’m going just a little too fast. I am headed to the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, in Monroe, a grim, paved facility with large metal structures, chain link fences, and dank cinderblock bathrooms. The main ring of the show is indoors, but built for rodeos, with row upon row of bleachers, climbing up into the eaves where the steel I-beams of the roof meet the corrugated steel walls. It has cow pens and chutes and a snack bar with curly fries and grilled American cheese on salty white bread.
But I’m not a rodeo rider. I don’t know anything about western riding or cows. I’m at a hunter/jumper show. The parking lot filled early, and a late-comer would be parking her new-ish 2002 BMW on weeds at the end, near the long row of parked horse trailers, gravel crunching under her low-profile tires.
I’m wearing jeans and paddock boots, carrying my show clothes in a monogrammed garment bag, and my tall boots in another, matching bag, banging against me as I walk to our barn, the boot pulls rattling against each other with my every step. I polished those boots at home, and won’t put them on until I have to.
I’ve worn my show shirt, unbuttoned; later I will have to button it up to the top, and put a monogrammed collar over it, backwards like a priest’s collar. It’s called a rat-catcher, and sometimes it makes me feel like I’ll have an asthma attack. On top of this shirt I will put on a freshly dry-cleaned wool jacket, called a hunt coat; mine is the traditional navy blue, but I have a brown one with a subtle plaid, too. Over my hair I will stretch a heavy-duty hairnet, back to front, tucking the knot up into my hair or it will press into my head and give me a headache later. Then I will pull on the helmet, back to front, tucking in the hair to make it even. It’s supposed to cover my ears, but I think it’s too ugly and I leave most of my ears exposed. I will wear the clean black leather gloves I save for showing. I will decide at the last minute if I will wear spurs; it depends on how bright the horse is today. It’s still early in the week, so he might be fresh. I will carry a crop, but the most I can do with it is wave it past Petey’s flank; he’s a sensitive fellow, though a giant at almost 17 hands. I will have to find my number and tie it around my coat before I get on, too. The number is printed on a white oval of cardboard, with pre-punched holes in either end. I tie it around my ribs, with the number on my back, threading the black string through the second button-hole and tucking the bow inside. I will step up a tiny set of stairs and mount my horse. Hello, Petey.
Before I get dressed, I’ll have grooming to do. But on this day, I’m not showing until much later, and there are other horses to help with. Petey’s grooming routine will wait until just before I get myself ready and get on. Since it’s early in the week, most of the classes today are warm-up rounds for later days. It’s a chance to show your horse all the scary sights and sounds and smells of the ring. Many trainers ride all their clients’ horses’ rounds on this day, leaving the separate adult amateur and childrens’ divisions for the owners to do later in the week. There are few spectators on a day early in the show week, and the horses go in the ring, jump their course, and leave with the next horse entering and doing the same without a pause in the action.
By the time I get Petey groomed, I’ve groomed a couple of other horses, set fences, held horses, eaten a grilled cheese and watched twenty or more rounds in that indoor ring. I’ve seen my course so many times I don’t even need to check the printed and labeled sheet outside the ring. I know all the strides between fences, as well.
When it is time to groom Petey, I put on his halter and walk him to the grooming stall. His mane is not braided today, though he will be braided tomorrow. We’ve hired a braider for the show and she will come and braid him before dawn for my first thing in the morning class the next day. I start with picking out his feet. I curry his face and legs with a grooming mitt, and his body with a different curry comb. I comb out his mane, put product in his tail, and brush it. Next, I brush a few spots with a stiff brush and then everywhere with a soft one. He’s a plain chestnut horse, red-brown from hoof to tail. We body-clipped him during the winter, revealing his homely yellow-gray winter undercoat, but as the days have lengthened he’s been growing back his sleek, shiny summer coat.
I slide a fleece show pad on his back and put his saddle on top and buckle the girth; Petey likes to fill his lungs with air as the saddle goes on, so I will take up the buckles on both sides several times before I get on. I put protective jumping boots on all four legs that my trainer C. will pull off before we go in the show ring. I bridle him last, throwing the reins over his head, sliding the bit into his mouth, and buckling the noseband and throatlatch.
I climb a short set of plastic steps and get on the horse in the barn area, about 20 minutes before my expected time in the ring. C. and I walk over the warm up area together; I can walk Petey on a loose rein because he’s a pretty chill guy.
I get about ¾ of the way around the ring at the walk and start feeling a little impatient so we break into a trot. My stomach reminds me that I’m actually a little nervous. I learned my course earlier, but still, there are always show butterflies. I change directions, trot around some more, and pick up the canter. Now I find out just what I’m sitting on today. Is he fresh? Is he lazy? Is he leaning on my hands? Is he on the forehand? I come back to the trot, turn around, walk and canter the other way. Slipping between all the other horses warming up, I attempt a flying change of canter lead, just to see if I can brighten him up.
C. has claimed a warm-up fence in the middle of the ring. She sets up a small x (crossed rails, set in cups on the uprights, known as standards). “Catch this off the left when you’re ready,” she calls.
When other horse traffic allows, I canter over it on the left lead. There are several horses warming up at once. One or two will be the horses ahead of me; another will be the horse after me. There are only three fences between four trainers, so the rider after me waits. My first jump goes well enough, so C. says, “Come back the other way”, and makes it a vertical (where the top rail is straight across). I pick up the canter again and jump the vertical. This time Petey arrives at the fence at a funny distance and breaks to the trot to fix the situation; he’s a good boy, a safe horse, and honest, but this horse is not, as horse people say, ahead of my leg. He has chipped it. Chipping is when the last stride is shorter than the others. It looks ugly, and it sounds ugly. “Get him ahead of your leg,” C. calls.
I give him a squeeze and pick up a livelier canter. Now I’m feeling nervous about going in the ring soon, so I start to count his stride, “1, 2. 1, 2. 1, 2,” silently in my head. Petey settles into a rhythm. “Get it again,” calls C.
This time I’m counting, I see my distance five strides out and count them down, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, jump.” This time it’s a nice distance. C. builds an oxer, a square fence with two vertical poles of even height. She says, “Get this off the left.”
Soon enough, D. at the gate makes an announcement over the loudspeaker, saying who’s on deck, who’s in one, etc. When she says, “Maggie’s in four,” we walk out of the warm-up ring and out onto the pavement. Someone brings me a sip of water. C. pulls a rag from her pocket, wipes off my boots, and bends down to take the open-fronts off my horse. If someone remembered it, she’ll put a coat of hoof oil on Petey’s hooves. As you approach the doors, C. asks, “Do you know your course?”
The correct answer to this is not, “Yes.” The correct answer to this question is, “Right lead canter, home down the quarter line, up the diagonal four, down the judge’s five, up the single diagonal away and home on the outside five.”
“Don’t let him build coming home; that last five is easy,” says C.
Inside, there are bleachers on both sides. The judge is sitting by himself, halfway up on my left as I enter the arena. He has finished his sandwich which I heard him order earlier when I was watching other rounds. I had come over and sat down near him to get his perspective, before you got dressed. A lot of horse showing is sitting around waiting, and this day has been no exception. As a rider, I’m still new to this game of showing, and still learning. I heard the judge on a walkie-talkie, discussing what kind of bread they have for sandwiches and whether the rye bread has seeds or not, all the while a woman was in the ring doing her best to jump eight nice fences. Whether the judge was watching was unclear, but the sandwich has been ordered. I watched a few more rounds, all the same: single vertical with yellow flowers coming home on the quarterline, past the in-gate, up the diagonal over the four stride line, a vertical followed by an oxer, both with red flowers. Then around the far end of the ring on the left lead to the judge’s line, an “easy” five stride line facing home, then up a single diagonal oxer with blue flowers and little wishing-well line next to the uprights. And a finishing circle.
D. says, “You’re next.”
I don’t wait for the horse and rider who’ve just finished to come out of the ring. Instead, I slip in and pass them as they leave. The people at the gate appreciate that I know to keep things flowing, but really I do it because I know that horses don’t always like to be alone, and some horses will pitch a fit going into the ring. Petey is a trusty gelding though, and he walks in like an old pro. I turn right straight away, so that I can turn left and make a long, straight diagonal line across the show ring at a trot. He is not the fanciest horse in my division, but he is pleasant and calm. My long trot across the diagonal shows him as much of the ring as I can. And as I reach the other end of the ring, just past the judge, we pick up the right lead canter and go to fence one.
I’ve been at the horse show so long this day that I think I know everything about the course. Which are the verticals, which are the oxers, the color of all the flowers. It is conceivably possible to jump the wrong first fence since there is a single fence on the diagonal. Fences in the hunter ring typically have a front and a back, but it isn’t marked with red and white colored flags as it is in the jumper ring, where you compete for speed and leaving the rails up. Here in the hunter ring, the fences are meant to look natural and are decorated with a mixture of real and artificial flowers. While a square oxer has rails at the same height in front and back, many oxers have a ramped appearance from the front. They would never have you jump an oxer with the front rail higher than the back since this is considered a bit of a dirty trick for the horse, who might get his eye on the back rail and then clunk the front rail pretty hard with his hooves. In the hunter ring a clunk like that would be penalized for interfering with the smooth relaxed and effortless picture the rider tries to make on course. In the jumper rung, with you’re not judged for looks, it only matters of if the rail comes down, in which case it is four faults.
As we round the end of the ring and canter to fence one, I notice for the very first time today that the flowers at fence one are actually purple. They were yellow on the other side, but I never came all the way down the arena and around to see what color things were on the other side. Of course the color of the artificial flowers is of no matter, but it is unexpected– so much so that they take my attention and my eye down to them. I am now riding to a problem; your head weighs about 10 pounds, and more with a helmet, and your horse can feel when you turn it. Where you look matters to a horse. If you stare at the base of a fence, there is a very good chance that the horse you are sitting on will canter slowly to that spot and stop there. Refusals are major faults in a jumping competition, and after three refusals (or two in Canada), you will be excused. I needed to do something, now.
I was taught to have a high focal point. I raise my eye, deliberately, and I find N., the announcer at this and many other shows, sitting in the announcer’s booth, wearing a blue ball cap. I like N. He plays Van Morrison, and Tom Petty, and pronounces my name correctly. I watch his ball cap as we canter calmly and vigorously down to jump one, and we get a beautiful open flowing relaxed distance land and canter down around the end of the ring past the in gate. Well, I think, that went well! But I don’t allow myself to celebrate, because now I’m trying to canter away from the in-gate, and this is requires my concentration, too. Leg on. I decide that the high focal point was a good idea at the last fence and I find another impossibly high one, on the ceiling in the corner, where there is a hole or a dark shadow where maybe something like raccoons live in the roof. I don’t think about raccoons. I count the rhythm into this four-stride line, “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… .” The four strides are perfect, and we jump out just right, land on the left lead, and continue.
As we turn the corner onto the judge’s line I can see out of the corner of my eye that someone is there bringing him a coffee. I hear him say, “I love this, old-school hunter,” absently. I find my third, high focal point in another corner of the arena, up where the high walls meet the arched roof, in among the I-beams. We are on an easy rhythm, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… and he jumps in, makes the five strides, and out, 1, 2, 1, 2.
We pass the in-gate again and are chugging up the diagonal we entered on, 1, 2, 1, 2 and I’ve got another focal point, this time it’s an exit sign. It’s a game now. 1, 2, 1, 2, and the fence meets us in rhythm. Petey lands on the right lead and heads for the last two fences. There is N. again. He’s moved, and we’re twenty feet to the left of him now but I feel like if we just stayed on this rhythm we could keep going forever, and jump anything.
Sometimes in lessons I have been known to have last-fence-itis, where I’ll do a good enough job on the first 7 fences and botch the 8th. But not today. Today we have 8 out of 8 perfect fences, good enough for 4th place in a huge open class, against a lot of other riders, a few amateurs and mostly trainers. The ribbon we win is an unassuming white one, not impressive really, but what it represents to me is a perfect hunter round. I keep the ribbon on the mirror of my dressing table until we move from Seattle in 2011. I never have another hunter round like that, on any horse.
The magic of a perfect round, though, is that I can recall every detail– the purple flowers, the judge, N.’s blue hat. The magic of a perfect round is that you can be beaten, and regardless of the ribbon, it is yours forever. When you have those moments as a horse and rider you are absolutely sure you could reach up into the sky and rearrange the stars with your index finger.