Aside from the rain in the morning, the show went better than I expected, mainly in part to the reduced class-size (due to people not showing up because of the thunderstorms that moved through at about 6 AM) and the rain-cooled temperatures and rain-soaked arenas. Horse shows have a tendency to get hot and dusty, so an inch or two of precipitation in the morning makes for some perfect footing and conditions for the rest of the day.
I had forgotten how long it had been since I'd been to a horse show (March 2006, for those who are counting, the infamous, poorly-run San Antonio show where I mysteriously hurt my back). But honestly, it was like I'd never left -- the people were the same, the same smells, same general atmosphere. There was the token "Loose horse!" who somehow ditched his rider in the warm up ring and took off at a happy gallop across the show grounds, with his rider's trainer trotting behind him shouting "Bucky! Bucky!" (Note to potential horse buyers: never purchase a horse named Bucky.) The obligatory youthful EMTs were there, lolling next to their ambulance, waiting for something other than a loose horse to happen, staring at everyone as if they had stepped into some foreign world.
If you've ever seen the Christopher Guest movie "Best in Show," you already know the type of people. Mildly-neurotic women and flamingly gay men are the only people who attend horse shows. We do have another category, which would be the entitled children, ranging from ages four to twenty three, popping their horse's flank with a crop for no reason, milling about with armfuls of ribbons.
I had an interesting cross-section to judge, because they had moved the "Special Beginners" into my ring, which had 13 riders in it. Special Beginners is a division they made because Beginners was too challenging for the average beginner starting out. It's a division that everyone from my generation on up has to go through. The course of jumps is very simple, you're allowed to trot or canter the jumps, as they're only eighteen inches high.
Nevertheless it becomes a very cutthroat division where kids who probably could make it in the beginners scoop up the ribbons. Then you have people who actually should be in the division who are just struggling to make it around the ring. It's hard to judge because the question becomes: Should you give first place to the very talented child who should be in the next division up, proving to her trainer that she should move up, or should you give first place to the "true" special beginner, who exhibits the skills necessary at that level. Things aren't quite as cut-and-dry as they might be in a class of more advanced yet equally skilled riders.
I tried to do my best, feeling my own twinge of nostalgia during the flat classes. Riders show over fences individually; they are judged in two "Hunter over Fences" classes (judged on the horse's style of jumping) and "Equitation over Fences (the rider's position over fences). The results of those classes aren't announced until later. Then the entire division of kids/adults comes back into the ring for two flat classes, one "Hunter Under Saddle" which is judged on the horse's way of moving and one "Equitation on the Flat" which is judged on the rider's position, or "equitation."
At the end of each flat class, riders are told to walk and line up facing away from the judge (so you can see the numbers on their backs). The judge calls in their selections (first through sixth place in most cases) and they are announced right then, with each horse and rider departing the line to collect their ribbon, in order of which they were called.
So inevitably, you are sitting there in the line up for the flat class with high hopes and dreams, and each number gets called aloud. It is a very public thing and for someone like me, who at age nine only wanted first place (who am I kidding, all of my life all I wanted was first place) had to sit through four other riders until their number was called.
I always remember that moment, my first big horse show when I was nine, the feeling of coming in fifth place, and walking out of the ring second to last. Now I realize that it was actually a pretty good ribbon, considering the size of the class I was in and the horseflesh I was up against. But at the time, I felt like a failure.
After the Special Beginners, I had a few different divisons come through, all of which were at the 3-foot level. This was ironic to me because I had only shown at three foot once in my life, at my last show as a junior. Because I never owned a horse, and lesson horses were limited to 2'9" jumps, I only got the opportunity to show at 3' when I took a horse named Tate to the year end horse show. He was owned by the owners of the barn and was like a Cadillac compared to the chitty-chitty-bang-bang horses I'd been riding all my years.
And so here I was, judging a class that I'd only been in once. I guess no one kept track of my statistics but me. In the end, it didn't matter. A good trip is a good trip, a bad trip is a bad one. It was easy to separate the winner from the rest of the group. I felt confident in my choices and feel as though I gave fair scores.
It is a strange phenom to be the person who the little eyes dart toward when they pass you, looking to see if you are paying attention to them, trying to sit up tall for you, clucking at their horse frantically as they get closer, trying to keep old Pokey going. It is one thing to stand on the side of the ring as a trainer and proffer advice whenever the student comes around, but they usually look at you more with a frustrated glare than anything else, for as the trainer you are always the veritable thorn in their otherwise ambitious side, telling them what they can and cannot do and when they can do it. The parents, rather than staring at you expectantly to tell them what their kid could have done better, stare at you respectfully, as if you hold their children's dreams in the whitespace of your judges card. Very strange, indeed, to turn the tables on something that even I myself at one point considered hallowed. It almost felt like the old saying, "If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it is yours forever." I felt like suddenly I had more control over something I had never even come close to grasping. The elusive ship on the horizon (I know who gets this reference) had finally come to port. And you know what? It was just a regular old ship the whole time. I don't know what I had been so afraid of.