After competing in two horse shows—one in 1966, the other in 1971, I swore I would never do it again.
I was not what you’d call a star.
My first show took place in Vermont, and I didn’t earn a ribbon. The only thing I remember is ignoring my mother when she told me it was time go home. I defiantly trotted my borrowed pony around the show grounds, until he rebelled and dumped me. I ended up with a bloody nose and my mother’s admonition: “That’s what you get for not listening to me.”
My second show, a 4-H competition in Crawfordsville, Indiana, carried more glory. I won a golden trophy and a showy purple ribbon in the English pleasure class. It might have been impressive if there had been any other horses in the ring. Everybody in Crawfordsville rode western, so I had no competition—just my riding teacher hissing from the sidelines, “Wrong diagonal!” I never could figure that stuff out.
Performing makes me anxious, maybe because I’m an introverted perfectionist. The thought of competing in a horse show brings up all the anxiety I buried back in the day when I did figure skating competitions, piano recitals, swim meets, speech team contests, and theater roles. I quit my performance career for good when I forgot my lines during a college Shakespeare production.
Only my good riding buddy, Tim, could convince me to return to the spotlight. He told me about the Jack Benny class at HorseFriends of North Carolina’s Open Benefit Show on June 7, then added, “You and I are riding in it.”
A Jack Benny class, for those too young to get the reference, is for older riders. I’m not sure how the late actor and comedian became associated with an equine event, but I like to think he’s laughing about it.
A relaxed class for us middle-aged folks sounded like fun, especially now that I’m older and know that people have better things to do than brood on my performance. It’s nice to get over myself, a little.
The HorseFriends show is a sweet, good-natured production that raises funds for their therapeutic riding program. It’s low-key as horse shows go, with the egg-in-spoon contest and apple-bobbing-and-carrying-in-mouth being two highlights.
Yet some of the riders looked pretty serious. The fanciest ones wore English riding jackets and tall black boots. They sat straight in the saddle, their horses equally formal and focused.
Mystic and I were relaxed by comparison. I gave him the obligatory bath, then hung around with Tim and his mare, Laea, while we waited for the Jack Benny class. I took Mystic to the lower arena and practiced walk-trot transitions. He was responsive yet easygoing. This would be a piece of cake.
“You two will take the blue ribbon,” Tim said generously.
I tied the cardboard square with my number—232—around my back and put on my helmet, but we still had a long wait. The show was unfolding very slowly, and the day was getting hot and long.
As I waited, a little seed of anxiety made itself known in my stomach.
Huh? This is just a lark, nothing to get nervous about. Silly.
Finally the announcer called the Jack Benny contestants to the ring. There were four of us, including a woman wearing shorts without a number on her back.
That nervous thing in my stomach? It was getting bigger by the moment. Maybe it was the radioactive waste of my childhood performance anxiety. Maybe it was a hard-wired compulsion to be top primate in the group.
Whatever it was, Mystic felt it. As I’ve learned through studying natural horsemanship with James and Kate Cooler, horses are exquisitely fine-tuned. They feel what you feel, and they reflect your issues, for better or for worse.
I don’t remember the class very well—I do know my nose didn’t bleed—mainly I recall Mystic’s head jerking up every time we transitioned from walk to trot. I remember him starting to canter when he should have been trotting.
I remember having a little bit of fun, but not much.
When it was over, we lined up in the center of the ring. The judge walked up to the woman in shorts and said, “We have to disqualify you because you’re not wearing proper attire and you don’t have a number. I hope you understand.” The woman laughed. “This is the first time I’ve been on this horse. It’s my daughter’s—I just decided to jump on it.”
Clearly she didn’t have performance anxiety.
Mystic and I ended up with a lovely, marigold-yellow third-place ribbon. I imagine it would have been fourth place if that numberless lady had been wearing breeches. Tim and Laea swept the competition, earning a royal blue ribbon. I wish I’d relaxed more and watched them do their thing instead of fussing about getting things “right.” I bet they were a wonderful sight.
Tim’s already talking about doing it again next year—he thinks we should do a pairs class. Based on my imperfect, anxious showing this year, I should say no.
But, you know, it could be fun.