If we are granted one perfect day in our lives, then last Saturday was mine. One would not think that being rousted from bed at 4:15 a.m. would be the start of this most perfect day, but for me, it was.
That unholy hour is the rise and shine time for a horse show that begins at 9 a.m. 30 miles away. Even with all the tack polished, shined and packed in the trailer the night before and the horses already shampooed, groomed and corralled in a paddock where they hopefully wouldn’t roll, show day starts well before dawn.
Besides the unpleasantly early start, my perfect day possessed other potential for disaster. It was, after all, my first competition in an athletic event since the “Little Redskins” peewee football debacle of 1967.
I used to wonder why equestrian events were in the Olympics. Doesn’t the horse do all the work? My first riding lesson last winter cured me of that notion. I was sore from head to toe, more sore than I have ever been in my life. My horse friends just laughed and said horseback riding uses every muscle in the body. I don’t know if that’s true but it sure feels like it.
Sports have never held much interest for me. I just never understood what all the hoopla was about but after competing in my first horse show, I get it.
During the course of a few minutes I experienced excitement and stress powered by a totally incredible rush of adrenaline laced through with seconds of paralyzing fear and all washed down with an avalanche of joy, pride and a sense of accomplishment that all mashed up together to create a sensation that can only be described as a “high.” After that experience, I finally see why people get so worked up about sports. I also knew for sure that riding a horse is a sport.
Like a second-string player who never knows if he will go on the field, show day was well underway before I even knew if I would compete.
Best Five, the six-year-old off the track thoroughbred I would ride, is green and so am I. Neither of us had ever competed in a show. He had basically been hanging out on the farm since retiring from the racetrack a few years ago, rehabbing at first and then being a schooling horse and taking the occasional trail ride. It was totally unknown how he would react to the crowds, the noises and all of the strange horses so my trainer had a more experienced rider warm him up first. He was surprisingly calm and after a long morning of cheering on my teammates, I went out on the ring to warm up with him during the lunch break.
If you have never seen the warm-up during the lunch break of a hunter show, it can only be described as madness. Riders walking, trotting and cantering horses of all sizes and temperaments at varying speeds in both directions passing on the left and right, while simultaneously other riders are practicing jumps on the interior of the ring in several directions at once. It was a nerve-shattering experience but we survived.
When it came time for our class to compete, my trainer led us to the arena giving us a pre-game pep talk just like in the movies.
She said: You’re both here for the experience. Don’t think about the competition. The object is to not get hurt and to have a good ride (note: a good ride is defined as exiting the ring as you entered it; still mounted on your horse). If anything starts to upset him, get away from it. Just go to the center of the ring. Do what you need to do to get away from it. If any part of the arena is distressing him, stay away from it. Don’t worry about the judge. And finally, you can do it.
And that’s exactly what we did. I had no illusions about winning a ribbon. It never entered my mind as a possibility. I was inexperienced and not very good. But what I failed to take into account was my partner and a thoroughbred’s desire to excel. Best was a little confused as to why I wouldn’t let him run and pass all of the other horses as that has always been his job before but if I insisted he walk and trot, then he would give me the best walk and trot he had. And he did.
The judge apparently had a soft spot for a silly old man with marginal skills barely in control of a spirited young thoroughbred and gave us fourth place. And yes, there were more than four people competing. There were seven.
When the judge called out our number and then our names (completely against all odds), the excitement, fear and adrenaline that got us to that point melted away into an indescribable joy and sense of accomplishment that I have never felt before and probably never will again because never again will I go in with such a total lack of expectation.
I get sports junkies now. I can now see what crashing around on a football field, or shooting basketballs or bopping a soccer ball with their head does for others. They’re chasing the same dragon that I will be chasing the next time I go into a show ring. And sports fans in the stands or at home in front of the television are chasing it vicariously.
I’d like to think that if my Dad were still alive that he would be proud of me. He loved horses himself and like me got a late start. He was well into his 60s when he bought his first one. The English tack would give him pause and like his cowboy friends, he took severe offense at posting, but unlike the peewee football disaster, this dream is mine and I had to do it my way.
Bill Colvard is lifestyles writer for the Mount Airy News. Reach him at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.