Thursday Schooling

 

I arrive at the horse show in Vermont just before the horses do. It is raining vigorously. There are just two client horses coming with the commercial shipper, and I watch from inside the barn as they are unloaded. I lend a hand stretching a tarp over our hay. I step in to help carry a big box of tack.  I unwrap my horse’s legs.  The show groom tells me where I can find scissors to cut the twine that holds a bale of hay and asks me to give a couple of horses a flake each. She also confides that this is her last show with our barn because she is giving notice on Monday and moving to a new job. I don’t want it to be true, so I quickly decide I must have misunderstood her. I want to wait for my trainer to show up with his horses before I get on, but I can lunge. Gidget stands quietly for a quick grooming and I walk her to the lungeing ring.  

She reacts to the new place, giving the rain-gorged creek her most crooked parrot-eye, answering the whinny of another horse, letting a passing tractor blow the wind up her skirt. The show facility has a new lungeing area, shaped like a rectangle on three sides and curved like a bean on the fourth. I’m clumsy with the gate latch. I walk Gidget into the center of the lungeing ring, into the bend in the bean, and stop her to adjust the side reins, which are new, so I’m guessing at what hole they should be on. I remember to walk with her in a large circle, showing her the situation counterclockwise and then clockwise. Gidget settles into working on a circle, trotting and then cantering, with me in the center. A big truck blasts by on Route 106, and my mare celebrates with a buck and a fart and a surge of galloping with her tail straight up. I hold on. I get her back to trotting, and then ask her to walk. I stop her and adjust the side reins again and take Gidget over to the other side of the ring shaped like a rectangle on three sides and a bean on the fourth,  making room for our trainer who has arrived with his horse.

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Didn’t it rain?

A friendly staff member of the facility comes and asks how the new footing is. We tell him it’s good. He explains how the lungeing area ended up shaped like a rectangle on three sides and curved like a bean on the fourth. We both finish and go back to our barn to take off the side reins. 

We get on and ride into one of the show rings, because this is what everyone does on arrival day at a show. The same friendly staff member comes, shouting and shaking his fist at us, saying that the ring isn’t open, and we’re gonna ruin the footing, what with the rain. I go tour the property instead, letting my horse see everything I can. She snorts like a crocodile at the dairy cows at the farm across the street. When it’s time to put the horses away, I think about when the friendly staff member had almost finished the new lungeing ring and had three straight sides of fencing up and someone came along and told him that people want a curved shape for lungeing. I wish I could picture him farting and running or snorting like a crocodile, but I can only see him raising his eyebrows or shaking his fist.

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I think Vermont is still one of those places that we’re supposed to write poems about. You’ve got time to, if you live there, because mobile phone coverage is spotty at best, and high speed internet is a rare and prized luxury.  I lived there in the eighties, before I cared about the internet and I still wrote poems regularly. My poems were about the biting black flies in the mountains and the crabby yankees who were my neighbors in the city and no one ever read them. Then I got a paying job, and threw myself at adulthood, and (mostly) stopped writing (but especially poems).

Gidget marched around the show ring six times over the next few days, and by the last trip had mostly gotten over the creek, and the tractors, and the too-fast trucks. The cows will still be there next year. I did not misunderstand the show groom, and I will miss her.

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I rode the Robo-Pony



What I did: rode the Robo-Pony (not its trademarked name), a mechanical horse with computerized controls and feedback, available for one-on-one lessons with a professional instructor. 


Who went with me: S. and K., my barn friends. We took turns. 

What I did beforehand: watched the FEI Grand Prix CDI 5* at the AGDF Wellington, Florida 

What I wore: new running bra and breeches, purchased for the experience.  

How I got tickets: we just, like, you know, walked up to this vendor’s tent, and saw a woman having a lesson on the Robo-Pony, stuck our heads in and started asking questions.

Why I tried it: it looked like fun.

Where I sat: slightly left, as I do, according to the sensors, and spent at least five minutes getting used to the terribly uneven feeling of sitting symmetrically in the saddle.  

Things that were sad: someone had yanked the left rein and broken the sensor, so the Robo-Pony was completely dull on the left side of its mouth. Also, I forget its name. Also, we had to pay the full amount, even though the Robo-Pony was kind of busted.


Things that were funny: I clucked at the Robo-Pony to get it to go. K. patted it. 

Things that were not funny: we were not supposed to kick the Robo-Pony to make it go. K. struggled because her long legs were below the sensors on its sides. Both S. and I kicked the Robo-Pony to make it go.

Something I bought: new Pikeur breeches in a lovely shade of French blue

What it is: an opportunity to ride an equine simulator and see on seven sensor screens some feedback about your position when riding, but probably not a substitute for real riding. The Robo-Pony revealed many of my known positional flaws, including my tendency to drop contact with the bit when I ask the horse to go forward; dropping the reins made the Robo-Pony stretch out and down and the computer screens filled with red bars of failure signals. Of the three of us, I am the least experienced dressage rider, and probably the only one interested in trying it again. I thought it was fun.


Who should see it: bored and curious visitors to the 2017 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival 

What I saw after: 2016 Rio Olympic Games bronze medalist Laura Graves riding her 2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding Verdades, in the “Friday Night Stars” FEI Grand Prix Freestyle CDI-W, with the winning score of 80.728%.

I left early

What I saw: the 2016 New England Dressage Association Fall Festival of Dressage, a Level 5 USEF Competition, held at the HITS showgrounds, in Saugerties, New York.
What I wore: show attire, including a new, “nude” sports bra under my show whites, because my mother didn’t raise me to wear a colored bra under a white shirt. 

What I did beforehand: years of riding, months of practice, and four horse shows this summer, with particular attention to rides in qualifying tests in pursuit of two scores above 63% at two different shows from two different judges. I had, in fact, received five scores above 63%, at three shows, from four judges. However, due to a mis-communication, I did not enter in time to get on the schedule to compete in the final championship class for my level. I was able to enter the show late, and was able to add three other classes, two on Thursday and one on Saturday. Everyone encouraged me to try to add more classes on Friday and Sunday, because there are usually openings left when people scratch and go home early. But there were no scratches for the coveted spots in the championship class. 

Who went with me: my new barn friends, who, along with my trainer, manage to demonstrate pride in their best rides without gloating, and show both a good-natured acceptance of their own mistakes in the ring and a sense of humor about their horses’ mistakes. I think this is what what sportsmanship is. I am glad to know S. and K. and B. and C., who each helped me stay focused on what’s important in this sport. I am grateful every day to have found my trainer, D.

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How I ended up with five sparkly bun covers: I didn’t see my hair stuff when I was packing for the show, and when I arrived I realized I might not have the sparkly nets I wear over my hair in the back. I rifled through my stuff and did not see them. So I found one of the vendors at the show and bought a blue one and a black one to replace the lost ones, and a dark brown one because I hadn’t seen that color before. Then, later that night, when I was getting my suitcase out of my car, I found the helmet bag with the missing bun covers. I also found that I had a pair of rain pants but no raincoat with me. 

Something about this show: last year at this time, I had plans to take my young horse Mars to this show. I’d had him about two years and we had come a long way together, starting with the early days where he’d try to run down the long side of the arena. Last year, Mars came up lame about a week before this show; I sent him to a rehab facility in New Jersey where he spent the next three months healing, doing daily water-treadmill and treadmill work. When he came back to work he was pretty wild, and the second time he bucked me off, I got a concussion. When I heard my friend P. was looking for a project, I sold him to her. 

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Where I sat: I am binding my latest quilt, so I sat on a grassy hill to watch and did some stitching by hand.

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Things that were sad: my late entry meant I didn’t make it into the program. It also meant I could not compete on Friday. I stopped by the office a few times, looking for a spot, and they were pleasant and patient with me, but no spots emerged. I had a lesson and spent the day watching my friends. 



Things that were funny/not funny: the HITS showgrounds has two buildings with actual flush toilets and running-water sinks, but sometimes the walk is too far (especially right before you get on your horse). So, there are Port-a-Potties. I have a rule about Port-a-Potties that goes like this: if you are someplace where you are going to have to use the Port-a-Potty more than once, you pick one and keep using it. My theory is that you get the major horrors over with on the first visit, and fresh horrors are at least in the context of already processed ones. I chose the middle one. It was a random choice. It was no worse than any other I’ve seen at horse shows this summer. I tried not to touch anything, as you do. When everything was zipped back up and tucked back in, I went to unlatch the door. It’s not a complicated latch on a Port-a-Potty, just a simple sliding plastic latch to hold the door shut and spin the dial on the door to show the Port-a-Potty is occupied.  But I couldn’t make it budge. 

My first thought was: that I didn’t want to die in a Port-a-Potty. Not, I might get stuck in here, or How will I get out? Straight to I don’t want to die in there.   No food, no water. Trapped in a hot plastic portable john. Death by exposure to scary blue liquid and a mountain of other peoples’ crap. 

Things that were better than dying in a Port-a-Potty: when I persuaded the latch to slide, I stepped into the crisp air of early autumn and brilliant sunshine and was animated with the prickly skin and heightened attention of an adrenaline surge. And I had a pretty decent lesson on my horse. It’s so good to be alive. 

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What it is: after I rode on Saturday I stopped by the show office to see if there had been any scratches for Sunday. There hadn’t. But the patient women in the show office who now knew what I wanted without my asking again said it would be OK to check back with them again, and I did, six more times on Saturday and twice on Sunday morning. Finally, on Sunday morning as the training level last class began without me securing a ride time, I gave in to the tears I’d been fighting on and off the whole show. I had had a great first full season, and I did not want to end it with feelings of disappointment. I found my trainer and thanked him and told him I wanted to go home. 


Who should see it: about thirty minutes into the drive home I got a message on The Facebook from a friend who said they were adding adult amateurs to that training level class. I didn’t see the message until I arrived home about an hour after that. 
Would I have turned back? I don’t know. I might have. I think that there is a parallel space-time continuum where all the happy things we promote about ourselves on The Facebook are true and predominant, and here in Our Reality it’s almost like our good news doesn’t matter at all. But in that parallel universe, I rode in that class, and I broke 70%. Why not?



What I saw on the way home: there were dead baby raccoons on the shoulder of I-84, one after the other, and the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-boat 20 in the audiobook I was reading. I surprised my husband in the kitchen. He was packing for his next business trip, and wasn’t sure he’d see me before he left. It was good to spend a couple of hours with him. On The Facebook, I saw that Mars won his first event with his new owner on the strength of his dressage score. If luck in this life is a zero-sum game, I’m satisfied mine got apportioned that way this weekend, because someone should get to have a happy ending.

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I did not scratch

What I did: Centerline Events at HITS on the Hudson 3, a benefit for the Mitchell Equine Retirement Farm

What I wore: Charles Owen Ayr-8 black micro-suede helmet, heavy-duty hairnet, rhinestone-decorated black crocheted hair-bun-cover, white Ariat or Goode Rider performance-fabric show shirt, stock-tie (not pre-tied), turquoise pin that had been my mother’s or that antique blue glass horse pin that had been a gift from my mother, new navy Pikeur show jacket that I tried on at the show and when it fit me perfectly I had to buy it, white full-seat Pikeur breeches, new white leather belt that I had custom-made because even your grandpa doesn’t wear a white leather belt anymore, custom Vogel dress boots, Prince of Wales spurs with new straps because the old ones were about to break, sunscreen, no watch because it’s being repaired, and no glasses because I’ve misplaced the ones I normally wear to ride in and my new ones slide down my nose.


What I did beforehand: bought bagels so no one would starve in my absence, reassured my dog Captain because he really hates it when we get out a suitcase and start packing; fed the cat; downloaded Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” to my phone.

Who went with me: 269 other riders, and 359 horses (minus those horses who were scratched from the show at the last minute), including Hado. 

How I got there: in the fall of 1998, I decided to take care of some unfinished business. At the time, the plan was to learn to ride and get it out of my system. It isn’t out of my system yet.

Why I went to this show: my brother (who plays at least two instruments serviceably well) once told me that when you start a new musical instrument, you are ready to play in front of people as soon as you know a song.


Where I sat: in a custom-embroidered black Sports Director Chair by Picnic Time from Wayfair dot com or on a black Devouxcoux single-flap dressage saddle.

Things that were sad: I was unexpectedly nervous. 

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Things that were funny: this was my fourth rated dressage show with Hado, and I’m still tickled when other competitors wish me luck. I try to say, “Have fun!” more than, “Good luck!” Because I think the whole idea of luck is weird, and but so I can’t always control what comes flying out of my mouth at a show; after all, I’m on a horse, I’m on a real, live horse. I might say, “Have luck!” or “Good fun!” 

There’s a little bit of space around the outside of the show rings where you ride in and wait for the judges to ring a bell or blow a whistle letting you know they are ready for you. One of the rings at this show had to use an old fashioned horn, the kind where the judge or the scribe had to squeeze the bulb. To me, there is no better signal to Bring On The Clowns! 

Every horse is different; some are excited to be at a show, while others need to be inspired to temporarily abandon their general mega-chill attitude. Hado is usually of the latter category (although he has been known to spontaneously and without warning bounce up and down in the show ring). Despite his normally calm demeanor, Hado has a secret vice, which is to stand quietly and look completely mellow while invisibly persuading other horses to run and jump and leap into the air. Sometimes we walk around the paddocks at our home barn and one horse after another lifts its head and gallops towards us, while Hado walks along lazily, perhaps expressing some false-innocent surprise as a horse comes storming in and snorting at us. 


Our last class of the show, on Sunday, we were headed into the ring and passed the competitor who did her test before us just outside the ring. Her horse shot sideways, and Hado cantered off. Because he can be lazy, I decided to make him keep cantering all the way to the end before trotting. I was about to congratulate myself for being in charge of the situation when I met the competitor who did her test before us again, as she was exiting the ring a second time. They had, it seemed, shot sideways and jumped back into the show ring. 

Things that were not funny: she looked fairly irritated and understandably discombobulated, and I asked, “Did you just jump back in?” 
And she gave me a sharp, “Yes.”
I apologized. And I tried not to laugh.


What it is: a standard dressage arena at a competition in the United States is 20m by 60m, with a very low, white perimeter fence, and letters marking various spots 12m apart. A rider enters at A, and the judge typically sits at C. When I am going right in the ring, I can read my initials in order.  
Who should see it: we’d had a good round Sunday morning, and I thought about being finished at that point. Sunday afternoon at a three day show gets pretty quiet as competitors pack up and leave and tired riders scratch their last classes. I knew Hado was tired, and I was tired, but I also knew that we need the practice. So I did not scratch.

Thanks to Hado’s enthusiasm about scaring another horse, we had an 8 for our entrance and opening halt at X and a 68% for the test. Maybe that sounds like a C- in school, but it was good enough for third place.


What I saw at home: the Bacon Provider was bottling our third batch of home-brewed beer (the first was a delicious success, the second a complete failure). We named it “Brexit,” in honor of recent events, and used an old English IPA recipe The Graduate unearthed. 

I got eliminated

What I saw: I traveled to a weekend of dressage shows at the Green Mountain Horse Association Show Park, in South Woodstock, Vermont


What I wore: Charles Owen helmet, glasses, heavy-duty hairnet, fancy snood, earrings, stock tie secured with an antique pin, Ariat show shirt, Pikeur black show jacket and white full-seat breeches, belt, ProCompression white socks, custom Vogel tall dress boots, Prince of Wales spurs, white SSG gloves.

What I did beforehand: dropped dogs at a friend’s. Drove to Vermont via the back roads.


Who went with me: the Bacon Provider, who proved to be an exemplary horse-show husband, holding my horse (which is actually his horse), taking pictures when asked to (but not not taking too many), watching us go, clapping, and saying we did a good job.



Why I did this show: you have to keep at it if you want to get better.



Where I sat: on my horse and on rocking chairs on the covered porch.

Things that were sad: Sometimes when you come out of the show ring, someone from the show management puts on rubber gloves and does a spot check, inspecting the bit in the horse’s mouth, making sure you haven’t stuffed their ears, checking for spur-rubs on their flanks, and measuring your whip. The rule is a whip can be no more than 120 cm long. It’s a sport; you do have to have rules. At 8:14 a.m. on Saturday, I rode my first test, and got checked by the blue-eyed and friendly red-head attending my ring. Everything was fine. At 10:42 a.m., I rode again, and had a slight error. On our way out of the ring, we were checked again, by the same friendly red-head. This time, my whip did not pass the test, and she looked at me with her bright blue eyes and said I’d have to wait while the TD was called for. The TD arrived in her golf cart, looked at my whip, and left. The red-head returned my whip to me, and then I saw what the problem was: the tassel on the end of the whip now had four almost imperceptible threads teased from the end, lengthening it.  She looked at me again with her bright-blue eyes and said, “It’s fine. She says just go trim it.”

I understood, “It’s fine. She says just go trim it,” to mean that everything was ok. But it wasn’t. Later when I went to get the sheet with the judge’s comments and scores, “ELIMINATED” was written across my test sheet in red pen on both sides.

Things that were funny: I won my 8:14 class, and had the high point amateur score at training level that day.


Things that were not funny: of the English riding disciplines I’m familiar with (eventing, dressage, and hunter/jumpers), it seems everyone thinks theirs is the superior discipline, and the others are doing it wrong. I have heard hunter/jumpers say that dressage riders are fussy control freaks, and that dressage is boring until the highest levels. I have heard eventers say that dressage is a tool, but that jumping is the whole point of riding. I have heard hunter/jumpers say that the eventers ride mediocre horses and risk their necks (and their horses’ lives) galloping pell-mell over cross-country courses jumping solid obstacles. I have heard dressage people say the hunter/jumpers don’t know enough flatwork. 

What it is: most of dressage competition is simply riders and horses performing written tests. The thing I like about it, despite the vagaries of a subjectively judged sport, is getting written feedback. 
Selfie, with Chainsaw Squirrel at GMHA
The weather was almost perfect the whole weekend, everyone–from the show office to the cook shack at GMHA– was friendly and helpful and nice, there is a terrific tack store next to the show park, and Woodstock has nice places to stay and decent restaurants to try. The show park has limited to no wireless coverage: one of those rare and annoying treats which is simultaneously anxiety-provoking and liberating.



Who should see it: Within the last decade or so, someone noticed that the classes well-attended by spectators at dressage shows were always the musical kur, or freestyle classes. There is something fundamentally irresistible about horses moving to music. Originally, these classes were reserved for riders at the highest levels, but the USDF added musical freestyle for lower levels, and these are popular and surprisingly fun to watch. 

I am not always the best sports spectator, having a short attention span and a squeamishness about witnessing amateurish mistakes, but I do enjoy watching people and horses that I know. Anyway, we took our chairs to the top of the hill and watched a bunch of freestyle programs. At first I joked that it was like watching figure skating. The similarities are obvious (music, an arena, judges). What surprised me, though, was how inspiring it was to see a freestyle to music that really matched a horse’s way of going, how entertaining it was to see a horse throw a fit, crow-hopping across the diagonal like a bronco, and how entertaining it was, even when I didn’t like the music (yes, I did hear flamenco Mozart Jupiter symphony and Pachelbel’s Canon in D). I have to say that a horse and rider moving in harmony to appropriate music had, for me, the satisfaction of real art. 



What I saw on the way home: a big, muscled guy  stopped his pickup truck in the middle of Route 4 in Vermont to help a duck cross the road safely. In Perkinsville, three large white bedsheets hanging on a picket fence with a large message on each in red spray paint: “THE VILLAGE DON’T NEED SEX OFFENDERS.” Between Chester and Londonderry, a “Trump for President” banner strung across the collapsing roof of a rotting shed, which housed a rusting, tow-behind pop-up camper. In Amenia, we stopped to get the dogs, and to eat ice cream and see people we don’t see often enough anymore. On Route 22 south of Wingdale, NY, a violent rainstorm drenched us with great blasts of rain, lasting for a half an hour, and when we reached home, the pavement was dry and it hadn’t rained at all.

I went to a Horse Show

Where I went: Centerline Events Dressage Show I at HITS, in Saugerties, New York

Dressage Hair

What I wore: Charles Owen helmet, heavy-duty hairnet under a rhinestone-decorated black crocheted net to cover the hair in back that doesn’t fit up under the helmet, white performance fabric show shirt, stock-tie, pin in the shape of a riding crop and horse, black Pikeur show jacket, white full-seat Pikeur breeches, custom Vogel dress boots, Prince of Wales spurs. 
White breeches, tall dress boots, and spurs
What I did beforehand: put my suitcase, bootbag, and hanging bag in the car, threw my purse in the car, broke my favorite glasses with my purse, filled a five gallon water container, drove to get gas, heard glugging noise, discovered two gallons of water had spilled into the back of my car; went home to get towels, left late, drove to Saugerties without a functioning radio or GPS, hit a piece of rebar on a freeway ramp. 

They were my favorite glasses
Who went with me: my horse Hado, and he’s really my husband’s horse, and his show name is Remonta Hado which is a name that means he is a “remount,” or, calvary horse. Hado came from the military breeding program in Argentina; “hado” is a Spanish word, and means, “fate.”
Hado, napping at the show
Why I went to this show: when you learn to ride, you spend a lot of time in a ring, going around in a circle or down the long side at the walk, trot, and canter. Not every horse and rider will go to shows, but many horses seem to enjoy it, and it is a very different experience to leave your barn and go someplace new, even if all you’re doing is walk, trot, and canter. You get nervous. Your horse gets nervous. When it goes well, it makes the months of work feel worth it. When it doesn’t go well, you know what you need to work on at home. 

Show horses get a lot of baths
Where I sat: everyone going to shows from our barn got these chairs with our names on them so we have someplace to sit in the barn area at the show. The chairs have pockets and a little table, and I will keep saying that they’re for the quiz until someone actually laughs.

Hado getting braided

Things that were sad: when I left the barn on Saturday, I dropped an antique pin that had been a gift from my mother. When I arrived on Sunday, someone had found the pin and put it on a table, so I decided I needed to wear it. One of the grooms noticed that it made a tiny, rattling noise and thought it might be annoying to ride in. It was somewhat annoying when I was in the ring, doing the tests, but the rest of the time I didn’t notice. When I got home I noticed that I lost the other pin–the one shaped like a riding crop and horse. It, too, had been a gift from my mother (this was the sad part). 

Hay twine on the ground at the show
Things that were funny, or real things I heard trainers say in the warm-up area:
“Generate some magic.”
“More electric! More electric!”
(Shouting) “Don’t overreact! Stick! stick! GOOD!!”
“Kill it, ok? You ride. You deserve to be here.”
“Now! Kick him now! And trot! And trot!!”
“Go get busy! Thaaaaaat’s better.”
“Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg!”

Tractor waiting to drag the warm-up ring
Things that were not funny: over two days, I did the same two tests, and something went wrong each time. My first test I had learned incorrectly, and on my last test (when I did it a second time), the judge rang the bell to let me know I’d made an error; I was very confused because I had done the test the first day and that judge hadn’t let me know about my error. The other test was slightly more interesting and exciting to Hado, so the first day I rode him tentatively because he felt like he might explode. The second day I rode him forward, and he bounced with excitement in several corners.
What I ate: bacon-egger, coffee, and juice
What it is: dressage is a French word, that means “training.” It is a separate discipline from other English riding competitions like showjumping, though it is one phase of eventing, but the basic techniques underlie all riding. At the high levels, riders and horses perform freestyle programs to music, so some people call it Olympic horse dancing and think it’s silly.  

Hado and Me
Who should see it: like other equestrian sports, it is hard for non-horsey people to know what they’re watching at a dressage show. If you do want to go watch, don’t bring your dogs, don’t make a lot of noise, and do sit down next to someone who seems to know what they’re looking at, and ask them to tell you what you’re seeing.

Graduation party: I sat on the floor

What I saw on the way home: after my last class on Sunday, I hopped off my horse, handed him to the grooms with a hearty, “Thank you!”, grabbed my bags and jumped in my car without even taking off my helmet. I took off my spurs and helmet in the parking lot, but couldn’t unfasten the antique pin, so I left it on, with the tie, and made a detour from Saugerties through central Connecticut to go hug my niece who just graduated with high honors from Wesleyan University. My brother was there, and his ex-wife, and five of their college friends from their Wesleyan days, and my sister-in-law’s best friend, and both of her parents, and one of her brothers, and my niece’s boyfriend and his father and sister, and one other woman who I met but I have no idea who she was. I was still in my tie and white breeches and tall boots, and probably looked like George Washington.

Boots

This past Sunday, Mars and I competed at our second rated show together. The judging was harsh. This week I’m wondering when and if I’ll ever have a more independent seat, softer elbows, and a more elastic connection. The one positive comment was, “Attractive pair.” It’s not nothing.


Last summer, just before I moved out of TriBeCa, I went to visit Vogel Custom Boots, in SoHo, to be fitted for my first pair of dress riding boots. I changed riding disciplines in the last few years, moving sideways from the hunter/jumper world to the other, even more froufrou, dressage. The tiny Vogel store front sat on a narrow, quiet street in a neighborhood of exquisite historic cast-iron buildings now bustling with high-end retail stores; it fit in nicely with its carved wood sign with gilded lettering, and custom shoes in the window, displaying the full spectrum of English riding boots.

My trainer likes to remind me that the word “dressage” is from the French, meaning “training.” It’s the flatwork, the not-jumping part of riding. At the Olympic level, the horses seem to dance, and they perform freestyle choreography to music.  At my level, you learn a test, in advance, that is written out on paper, with different gaits and figures performed at the letter-labeled points of the ring. The test takes 5 or 6 minutes, a long time for an athlete (horse or rider) to concentrate and really give a peak athletic performance. It looks like plain old horseback riding, and it’s judged by a person with a scorecard, giving you marks for the different movements and then a written score at the end. You can read where the judge thought your horse hollowed or fell in or bulged or hurried, where you needed more bend or impulsion, and you are welcome to use it to become a deranged and obsessive perfectionist about your riding and your horse’s way of going. Or, you can use it to reflect on those things you need to work on, and get to work improving.
The way a test is written, “3. K-X-M Change rein; 4. Between C &H Working canter left lead. 5; E Circle left 20m,” is not how it always rides. At a recent (unrated) schooling show, for example, my 6-year-old horse Mars whinnied violently at M, beginning at step 3 of the test, and then again, each time he passed the corner marked M or even got close to it: at step 5 when we circled at E, between step 8 & 9, at step 11 when we circled at E again, and then, again after step 13. I think another horse somewhere on the property was answering him.
A horse can whinny gently and quietly, almost under his breath. This wasn’t that kind of whinnying. This was like the horse equivalent of screaming. You can feel it emanating from the bowels of the horse, rumbling up under the saddle, vibrating through his chest, and then erupting from his great jaws. What are horses saying when they whinny? Maybe the horse version of, “WHERE YOU AT?” and the reply, “WHERE YOU AT, BRO!?” Whinnying during a test does not do much to earn a horse “submission” points, added to the end of one’s dressage score, for “willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” Alas.
Coming from the hunter/jumper world, where flatwork is to prepare a horse and rider for jumping courses, it was my experience that trainers had limited patience to teach me flatwork in a way that I understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and how I might do it better. I was vaguely aware that I was bad at it, that flatwork, with my stiff, arched back and turned-out toes, my unforgiving arms and hands always at odds with the horse. But I didn’t have the slightest clue how I was supposed to get better at it until I started serious dressage lessons. And I’m still working on it, every ride.
Dressage was also a way to use my older, semi-retired horse, whose old injuries have meant that she will only be sound for trail riding and light work. Soon, though, I had ordered a new, black custom saddle, made in France, of course, specifically for dressage. And I had a new, young horse; a project we named Mars. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Of course, I owned tall boots for riding already, but they are field boots, with laces at the top of the foot, going a short way up the ankle. The subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in equestrian disciplines start with big, expensive things like boots and saddles, but also include variations in show apparel, and fundamental differences in the rider’s position. A dressage rider will wear a white stock tie, with a pin, as a foxhunter would; a showhunter wears a backwards collar called a rat-catcher. A dressage rider has a long stirrup and an open hip angle; a hunter jumper will run her stirrups up and crouch in the tack. It will take me years to develop new riding instincts.


Now, I had been to Vogel before this visit, when I had my trusty old field boots serviced the previous year, getting new soles and heels and having a ripped boot loop replaced. But it’s such a small shop with only a few chairs for customers that it can be quite awkward to walk in. The Vogel showroom was a few steps above the street, and smelled intensely of leather and leather dyes. I stood there in the small showroom, my messy, dirty hair going in strange directions, my wrinkled shirt untucked, and asked the first person in the back who noticed me if I could be fitted for some dressage boots, please.
“Do you have your riding pants?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She took me through the crowded work area to a small changing room in the back, where I put on my riding pants. When I returned to the front room, there
were two customers being measured for custom shoes. Both were sizable men, with shiny, combed back, black hair. One wore a suit and tie. They were peppering the salesman with questions.  “Why would it take so long? Why didn’t they make a mold of your feet? Why are the soles leather? Which pair is the most comfortable?”
Somehow, in New York City, there are still people who aspire to dress and talk and comport themselves publicly like mobsters. They purposely ask dumb questions, demand to know why everything is so expensive, excessively quote mob movies, and constantly assess whether others are with them or against them. For the purposes of this story, I am going to call these guys in the custom boot shop mobsters.
The younger mobster of the two asked, “How long do these shoes last?”
And the salesman said, “Well, it depends how much walking you do.”
The older mobster pointed to his fat stomach and said, “If I did a lot of walking would I look like this?”
I was introduced to Jack, the guy who fits the equestrian boots. He asked me if I’ve had boots made by them before, and I said I have. We reminisced about Olson’s, near Seattle, where I bought my boots a number of years ago, and Mike, who he’s known since he was a young employee there, long before he was manager or owner. I go back that far with Mike, too.  Jack went to look up my earlier order, and came back out with a clipboard, pencil and tape measure. I was still standing.
Jack sat in a chair next to the coatrack; one of the mobsters had left his coat draped over the seats, instead of hanging it up. Jack took down my address and email, perched on the edge of the seat so as not to crush the coat.
The mobster grandly offered to move the coat, and now that Jack had their attention he was able to find me a place to sit. Jack took a lot of measurements, all with me sitting, tracing my foot onto a piece of paper. We talked about my bunions, and the scary surgeries suggested by the two podiatrists I’ve seen. He told me no one he knows is happy with their bunion surgery. I concurred. He made me pull up the leg of my breeches, over my knee. Underneath my legs were really hairy, of course. 
The mobsters were still discussing leathers and soles. They were not coming to a decision. They said they’d call with their final decisions, but it seemed they’d be making no purchase that day. Though they’d said nothing to me, as they left the younger mobster called, “Good luck with your horse.”
He didn’t even say it like he believed I have a horse. He said it like he thought I made up the horse, the way that a kid in elementary school who didn’t believe your uncle was an NFL kicker would say, “Yeah right, sure.” Also, tucked under the “Good luck with your horse,” was, of course, that scene in the Godfather movie, where revenge came in the form of a horse head in a guy’s bed.
I learned my left calf is bigger than my right, and I’d have to have an elastic gusset if I didn’t want a zipper. I chose a squared toe, and a spur rest. I didn’t want mine as stiff as the sample he brought me, though I liked the stiff souls and the ribbed bottoms. As I paid (a sobering $1366 with tax), I asked how long it would take. I was told 10 to 12 weeks. I didn’t say that I wouldn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore in 10 to 12 weeks because I couldn’t face that at all. Moving in New York City is another tale of mobsters; with complicated rules of daily tipping and separate insurance and the always suspicious requirement that the whole thing be transacted in cash. I promised to lend Jack my orthotics for a few days without a word about my move.

Only six weeks later, I got a call that my boots were finished, and was told Vogel was two days away from packing up the place and closing. They were moving to Brooklyn. Someone made them an offer for their location; it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.