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January 31, 2017

In The Quiet, In The Dark

Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

I like the quiet moments at the shows. I like the mornings especially, when I come to feed Ella and clean her stall before heading out to the farm to work the rest of the horses. I like the stable compound before the masses descend, when it’s just quietly eating and breathing horses and a handful of riders or grooms going about their morning chores.

And while of course I don’t begrudge anyone for having a groom—I have help when I show too, and I don’t have a spouse or kids or a life who demand my attention in the morning—I like seeing Big Time riders doing their own morning or evening chores, laying their hands on their horses legs, checking in with their horse, their partner, their friend.

And I really like it when those Big Time riders stop by to chat, say hello, ask how my ride went. These folks don’t know me from Adam, and I’m nobody, but there’s a few in particular who always make a little time, and I find that lovely and gracious. We hear so often about the ugliness of high performance sport, the drugs and the double commissions and the highest of stakes. Little moments like that give me faith in it all again.

I like when I just take Ella somewhere, when it’s just her and me, because she’s one of those neurotic mares who, when she travels with another horse, even if she’s never met that horse before in her life, that horse becomes her Best Friend in as little as a 15-minute trailer trip, and she focuses on that horse and what he’s doing and where he’s going and screams her head off when anything happens. That horse becomes her herd.

When its just Ella and me, I’m her herd. And as she’s not the snuggliest or sweetest-natured mare that ever walked the earth, I treasure the moments where she’s into me, and wants to know what I’m up to. She touches my neck, my shoulder, with her muzzle, the gentlest touch, as I'm cleaning her stall, or she'll just stand quietly behind me, breathing into my hair. I know they’re contrived, these moments, and I don’t care. Hey, if her love is for sale, I’m buying it.

And this may seem stupid, but I like getting on in the dark. I like the feel of my foot in the stirrup and my leg on Ella’s sides and my hands on the reins and no visual cue to remind me that she’s there, just the feel of her, the sound of her breath. 

Ella, of course, hates this. If Ella is ever going to be a nerd about something, it’s going to be about lights and shadows and stuff on the ground, and for whatever reason, at this first show of 2017, she decided that there was something evil and wicked in the ground at the Global Dressage Festival, a showgrounds at which we spent a fair bit of time in 2016. She was terribly backed off in our Grand Prix—one of Ella’s signature things is her extended trot, and as such I normally just pop around that first corner off the centerline, bring my upper body a little forward, and just give permission. So I don’t know what to do when I do that and nothing happens, because I’ve never had to ask for it in my life. We got a 6. We never get 6.

But sometimes them’s the breaks, and it was one of those tests where there was no moment where I could stop asking, no moment where she met me with energy of her own. Last year a test like that would have sent me into a panic and made me ride messy. This year, 66 percent, a 3 percent improvement over the same show last year, and not even with the ride I wanted.

And in the freestyle, more silliness about the ground and the shadows. She hit the brakes 15 feet into the arena, didn’t want to go past the judges’ booths, finally got past them and I kind of hand galloped around the ring, barely stopped to cue my music, and when I asked for the one-tempis I usually do on our entry centerline and felt Ella twist like she wanted to stop, I abandoned ship and hand galloped into my halt as well.

And that made a little skid mark in the footing, freshly dragged, as I was the first rider of the night. And those marks gave Ella heart failure every time we went past them, causing us to blow both our twos and our ones—another of Ella’s highlights, and a mistake I don’t think I’ve EVER had in a test with her. I had her sorted out by the end, and the last few movements were nice, but what do you do? 

In spite of all that, 67 percent, 3 percent higher again than the same show last year, even with the mistakes and the yuck.

I am grateful, so grateful, for every butt kicking I got last year, because being at the bottom means there’s nowhere to go but up, and it takes the pressure off. Just quietly failing, working out the kinks, without anyone paying you any mind? It’s a beautiful thing, actually. I’m grateful for it. 

I’m grateful for my girl, even when she’s a dork who thinks aliens from the Planet Zanadu are lurking in the shadows. 

And I’m grateful for the morning after the show, coming into my barn at home to the sounds of horses quietly eating, when there’s nothing to do but laundry and letting Ella rest to prepare for the next week. There’s another show ahead, and we’ll be ready for it. But the quiet in between is lovely too.

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