4:30 a.m. The raw end of a half-baked sleep. I was not yet living in Scott County so I had about an hour’s drive to the farm. The cool September sky was beginning to brighten as I arrived alone at the quiet stable and slid open the tall barn door. Sounds of hooves brushing against hay. Horses curled in their stalls or snoozing upright. It was show day and I had to wake up my mare for the first segment — the dressage portion — of the three-phased Berryhill eventing competition in nearby St. Bonifacius.
Rooney got up when I quietly slid the latch to her stall door. She came to touch my hands with her soft nose and put her muzzle into the waiting halter. I swept the sawdust from her long mane and while she ate her grain, I gently brushed the sleep out of her coat which still shone from yesterday’s bath. I loaded my saddle, bridle and horse show essentials into the trailer. I had no groom but there would be someone to help me unload at the farm hosting the event.
There’s a businesslike tension in the air when I arrive. The show announcer uses his well-known gentle cadence and tone to keep all of the moving parts on schedule and in sync. His voice can be heard as I confirm my registration at the horse show office and pick up the numbers I will need to pin to my dressage coat and saddle pad. I try to eat some of my peanut butter sandwich but somehow, I can manage only a few bites.
As a collective group, we competitors hang our anxieties on what we need to do to care for our horses. I groom my mare again, wipe off her legs and hooves one last time and gently put the saddle on her back. Only then can I put on my black coat so that everything will be crisp and clean for my ride. I bridle my mare, give her a last little kiss, and we walk toward the warm-up arena.
There’s so much for a former racehorse to look at! Fluttering flags and orange traffic cones. Bystanders, trainers and grooms moving through the area. The sun glistening on cars lined up behind their roped-off parking spots nearby. And so many strange horses in different phases of readiness — some whinny from their trailers, some are too fresh to warm up quietly, some have settled into their work.
And, visible just beyond this portion of the venue, the cross-country course hints at its challenge to come, extending out of sight through the rolling hills of this vast farm. We search for calm and order in our minds; our grasp of it will be tested when our turn comes, when that voice — kind but fateful — calls our number and we are summoned to appear at the gate.
I push aside all the gut-wrenching jitters and all thoughts of forgetting the lengthy required pattern. The judge rings a hand bell and we enter the empty arena. We trot down the center line, halt and salute and then begin our six-minute test, hoping all of our work and preparation will coalesce into an accurate depiction of how far we’ve come.
But my test rode like a blur. It seemed there were so many details I hadn’t managed according to my perfect plan. It seemed somehow like I hadn’t done enough, as if the ride had unspooled on its own without my best effort. The final movement, a halt and a closing salute to the judge, came and then went and I left the arena.
How quickly it was all over. I felt with regret the morning’s trip had all been wasted because I just hadn’t been active enough during my ride. I patted my horse and tried to focus on how lucky it was just to be a part of such a prestigious event on this beautiful day. But I was disappointed.
Back at the trailer, unsaddling my mare and thinking about all of the moments from my test that were so imperfect, I was starting to say to myself, “Oh, well, there will be other shows next year” but just at that moment, a friend came running up to say that the dressage scores had been officially posted and... I was in first place! I couldn’t believe it and had to go see for myself and sure enough. There was my name with our score. I was on top by two points.
In the time since that day, I have realized that Rooney and I simply flowed on the foundation of our work together. Stage actors say they must learn their lines and then forget they ever did so in order to give a fresh performance each night. I think that’s what occurred that September day. I think we both just let go and let it happen.
But there could be no errors in the following two legs of the competition: the cross-country course and the stadium jumping still lay ahead. The competitor with the lowest score overall wins and two penalty faults would be easy to add to our score if we made any errors tomorrow. We loaded up the trailer and headed back home.