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Winning Lessons Instead of Ribbons

LOUISVILLE 2016 IS IN THE BOOKS! What a week. What an incredible, thrilling, exhausting, stressful, emotional week, with the highest highs and the lowest lows. But that’s why we do it, right? That’s why we’ve all chosen this sport. A sport with a live animal as your teammate, rife with unpredictability, subject to the judgement and finality of three people standing center ring.

Kathryn, Morris, and Gracie.Kathryn, Morris, and Gracie.

My aunt Misdee put it perfectly in her post-win interview, saying, “the pressure is self-inflicted...everything you’ve been working for, everything you’ve been trying for, comes down to those ten minutes in the ring.” I found, this week, that a lot can happen in those ten minutes.

I’ve decided to compile a list of this year’s personal highlights. I showed three different breeds in ten different divisions, coming to nineteen classes overall. I ended up with a lovely rainbow of ribbons, including three Reserve World's Championships, four World's Championships, and two World's Grand Championships. BUT, I don’t want to talk about the results; those are available online already. I want to talk about the emotions, the lessons, and the memories. 

County Fair night, my mom showed a pony she had never driven, and she won. This was REALLY exciting for her, but equally as exciting for me. For the last seventeen years, she has tirelessly supported me in this passion, supplying me with horses, cheering for me, and giving me love. For all the work she has put in being an owner of multiple World's Champions, she hasn’t been in the winner’s circle herself since the 1990s, when I was in academy. Getting to be the one on the rail, screaming my heart out, was once of the best moments of my week. Congratulations, ma!

Another incredible moment happened Sunday afternoon, during the junior exhibitor section. A few years ago, at the Chattanooga Charity horse show, my mom watched a young girl show, and was blown away by her ability. Her name is Alyssa “Gracie” Ridings. A few months later, she presented her with my park pleasure horse, Callaway’s Silent Partner. 

Monkey and I after our class.Monkey and I after our class.

Partner (now Morris) was a very green horse with a terribly uncomfortable canter but an incredible sense of humor. The few times I showed him, it was all I could do in the ring to successfully complete all of the called gaits. Gracie, Morris, and their trainer, Kathryn Taylor, have worked tirelessly together, bonding with one another, smoothing things out, learning patterns and, above all, learning to love one another. This week, in the 14 year old equitation class, it all paid off when they were announced the World's Champions. I cannot describe the absolute joy felt by all involved, but the inspiration was clear. Dreams do come true when you work hard, and love harder. (This also applies to Jessica Moctezuma and Tito  so awesome).

Now, to get to some personal highlights. I showed several horses this week, and the most valuable lesson I learned is trust. You and your horse have got to know each other, to trust each other in order to make it through the class. My three-gaited gelding, Northern Asset, was a great example for me. He was gliding through his championship class, showing me more bravery and gusto than I had seen from him all season, when suddenly, he threw a shoe. He stood kindly and patiently, and when they got the shoe on, we returned to the rail. I knew something was wrong. I’m still not sure if it was pain from losing his shoe, or anxiety from the process, but I couldn’t get him to come back to me. He threw his head up, his back went up, and it got a little hairy. I just kept talking to him, asking him to relax, telling him he was okay, and finally he settled ... just in time to throw his freshly duct taped shoe off again. We ended up fifth, but by then, the ribbons were a waste of time. What was not a waste of time was the hours spent in his stall, petting him, loving on him and teaching him the sound of my voice. I know now that Monkey (Northern Asset) would go through fire for me  what more could you ask for in a team mate? Big thanks to Tyler DeVore, Monkey’s trainer, for working so hard to make Monkey’s personality extend to the show ring. I owe you big time!

One of the toughest, most wily team mates I competed with this year is everyone’s favorite crusty, leaping old man, Twin Willow’s McDreamy. Y’all  this pony cracks me up. He is truly a wild animal, and although his etiquette has improved (he no longer needs to be bridled under a blanket), I’m not sure his fire will ever go out. For the record, he snuggles as aggressively as he shows. It is an honor and a privilege to pilot this pony, and I do not take it lightly. Especially at Louisville. Something about this ring makes Mickey’s edge a lot closer than normal, and the entire class is spent trying to collect him, show speeds but, most importantly, keep all four feet on the ground. There may be a lot of pressure that comes with Mickey, from following a great trainer to maintaining his record, but I honestly don’t feel it that much. All I feel with Mickey is a wild mustang on the lines, laughing down every straight-a-way, waiting until he can soar through the air again. After every class he shows in, he walks back to the barn on his hind legs, or without touching the ground at all. I couldn’t love or respect him more.

Mickey got in a very polite rear – it's all about compromise.Mickey got in a very polite rear – it's all about compromise.

Finally, I’d love to talk about Memories of Cabo, the giant, chestnut, almost undefeated gaited horse with a heart and motor the size of Texas. We had a spotty ride in our qualifier; he was a lot more horse than I was used to, but we pulled out a win. In the championship class, we had to slam on the brakes in the chute, lost our trot, and, unfortunately, never picked it back up again. Through the dropping of hands, the adjusting of reins, the stopping, the circling, several people told me I should take the gate, but when they asked for the walk, and we hadn’t trotted a step, a fire had been lit in my belly. I wasn’t going to get a ribbon, and I definitely wasn’t leaving. I was going to ride as hard as I could. All I could think about in that class were two things: the unbelievable pressure of letting down Cabo’s supporters, and, conversely, not setting a bad example. I knew it was no longer about Cabo or me. I don’t ever want young people watching me show to think that, because I screwed up, I’m going to quit. Because I’m not going to be in the top ribbons, I’m just going to leave. That’s never been my style, and if someday it is, I need to find a new sport. I now know that screwing up is one of the highlights of my week. I had let the pressure get to me, the pressure of exhibiting a great horse, the pressure of disappointing everyone if I made a mistake, the pressure of winning. Now that we’ve really messed up on the Green Shavings, I feel absolutely liberated. I am coming back to the reason I started riding in the first place  because I love it and it’s fun. Pressure be damned, I came here to have a good time, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Finally, I want to thank the entire industry for being exactly what, and who, it is. Every incredible competitor pushes me to be better, stronger, and smarter. Every person who was on the rail for someone else, but gave me words of encouragement  thank you. Thank you for being a part of something bigger, for being a part of my family, of everyone’s family. I am proud to call you my peers and my friends; coming to a horse show feels like coming home. There is nothing I love more than the horse, and there’s no better group of people to share that love with. 

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