I can feel my sweaty fingers shaking as I grip my reins. Waiting outside the show ring, I look over my course one more time. My head feels scattered like a spilled bag of marbles that are now rolling all over the floor. I compare the course sheet to the actual ring and I think of every turn and jump I have to take. It’s just a hunter course, I tell myself, it’ll be obvious where I need to go. Still, I’m terrified. This is only my second out-of-town horse show in Germantown, Tennessee, and the most prestigious trainer from my stable will be eyeing my every move. I can’t afford any mistakes, for the sake of the ribbon I could potentially win, and my dignity.
Every jump looks like it was made by elves straight out of the forest. Even the standards (the vertical part of the jump that holds the horizontal poles) look like they were carved out of oak and birch trees. The poles are all brown or green, some covered in turf to resemble moss, others left bare to appear like tree branches. Each fence has a wooden gate or a brush box, which is a small box placed under the poles that have fake leaves, or flowers, or similar “woodsy” things in it and a flowerbox in front of that. This is why hunter courses are so easy: all the jumps can only be jumped in one direction and they make it very obvious which side is the front. As long as the first jump is memorized, it’s pretty easy to guess where the next fence is.
“Are you ready?” Shannon, my trainer asks me.
“Uh, yeah, as ready as I’ll ever be.” The words stubble out like a toddler learning to walk: hesitant and awkward.
“Alright, go have fun then!”
These words hit me like a train. Fun. That’s the reason I’m here. Forget the stupid ribbons. Just do what you do, Emily. I tell myself. I take a deep breath and gently squeeze my horse, Aladdin’s sides with my heels. He pins his ears at me and nips at Shannon. “Hey!” she scolds him as she pops him in the mouth. He throws his head and skitters forward and sideways at the unexpected blow. Shannon mutters something inaudible under her breath. I pull back on the reins to slow him to a walk. Now he’s all wound up and my confidence is shattered. Shannon grabs him by the bit and walks him in a small circle outside the entrance of the ring. I sit there like a ragdoll.
“Take a deep breath, you’re okay.” Shannon comforts me. I half-smile and swallow, then closing my eyes, I take a deep breath in and let it out.
“I’ll go in now.”
“Yup.” I wasn’t sure at all.
I gather my reins and kick Aladdin with my spurs. He throws his head and hops forward, as though I’m the bad guy. We walk into the ring and suddenly he’s a whole new horse. I gently move the bit back and forth in his mouth asking him to put his head down into a frame and he obeys without any argument. I ask him to pick up a trot, and he listens immediately. When we get into the corner of the ring I ask for the canter and he transitions quickly. His sudden obedience comforts me a little as I look for our first fence. Riding the perfect track to it, I count his strides to keep a steady rhythm and avoid a chip. He soars over it and changes leads in the air as we change directions. When he lands I ride a straight track over to the rail.
Have fun. The words suddenly pop into my head. I smile a little bit and feel the power and grace of the animal below me. I can’t communicate with him using words, only touch and sounds. I’m suddenly aware of every part of my body and how he’s responding to it. I’m careful about where my spurs are so I don’t accidentally poke him with them when I don’t need to. I sink further into my heels and allow my seat to barely brush against the saddle with each stride. My fingers stay tight around the reins, but my elbows relax and move to follow the motion of his head. With the grace of a swan we complete the course.
I slow him to a walk as we exit the ring. I rub his neck and let the reins loose so he can lower and relax his head. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I let out a huge sigh of relief. Sweat trickles down the side of my face, and Aladdin is panting, but we both know how beautiful that round was. He walks with pride, confident in his performance. I chuckle at his cockiness and look up at Shannon, who is at the entrance of the ring beaming at me.