Thirty plus years ago, (How has it been that long?!) when I first started showing horses, I was fascinated and in awe of the adult competitors. Some were ammies, some were actual trainers, but they represented the epitome of what I wanted in life. They had expensive shiny horses, the fancy tack/show clothes, and the fancy rig to transport it all. The adults travelled to compete at shows I could only dream of attending as a competitor and managed to do it at a frequency that just wasn’t a possibility for my family.
As I progressed into my teens, I still admired the adults, but I was beginning to come into my own as a rider and competitor. Even though I still wasn’t on their high dollar horses, and my tack/clothing cost significantly less, my horse was big, white, and moved with a grace that demanded the judge pay attention. I could pilot him around a course and started consistently out placing most of the adults I had idolized. I began to capitalize on the advantages of youth. The ability to bounce like a rubber Barbie doll on the few occasions I did hit the ground breeds a riding fearlessness that I scoffed at adults for lacking in youthful hubris. Even though I stopped competing my own horses after my senior year of high school, I continued competition through IHSA in college. Then the long winter, as I call it, set in.
Advancing my career to a point where owning horses on my terms was a reality, required sacrifices. I didn’t want to board at someone else’s farm. I wanted to own the farm. In my late 20’s I occasionally rode at barns that needed people to help keep excess sales and school horses in work to get my horse fix, but horse shows were only distant memories. I enviously followed the few of my friends that continued to compete or show post college, but even those few friends all succumbed to the realities of life in their first ten years post-grad. While horse ownership is not required to compete, I never saw the point in or really even enjoyed riding someone else’s animals. To me the joy of competition comes from the partnership with my animal, and seeing how far I could progress the animal, not how well I could sit on/cue another trainer’s work. I do have one friend that managed to achieve all of that while never taking a break from horses, but she is the exception. She is also an equine dentist, so her career and working with horses is really one in the same. Almost everyone I used to show horses with stopped riding competitively more than a decade ago and have yet to return to the show ring, because life (jobs, kids, responsibilities) just got in the way.
Returning to competition in my mid thirties, I couldn’t help but notice the significant differences in competition now versus my teenage years. Horse show fads change sometimes greatly in certain disciplines. Depending on the discipline, the movements a judge looks for and places is completely different from a decade ago. The height of my show experience was in the 90’s. Take a look on YouTube at winning western pleasure/trail rounds at Quarter Horse Congress in the 90’s versus today to see what I mean. The upper level dressage movement and technical cross country questions asked on today’s low level courses rival courses two levels higher in the 90’s. Of course some things never change. Many sights at today’s competitions remain the same, like the nervous amateur competitors, the uptight know-it-all coaches, the drama, the clueless show dads writing the checks, and the scrappy youngsters just trying to make a name for themselves.
To me the best part of being an adult competitor is that I totally control the show experience, albeit I’m also entirely responsible for the cost. In my youth I was dependent on others for permission to attend shows and transport my horses. Now I sign up last minute for competitions in addition to the planned shows just for shits and giggles. I check in with Darling Husband to make sure he has no objections, but there are shows where I’ve loaded up, finished my classes and was headed home before DH or Offspring had changed out of their jammies. If I want to throw three extra horses on the trailer for no other reason than to let them stand tied to it at the show for experience, there is no one to tell me “I can’t”. If my horses are behaving like complete dragons, it’s all on me to deal with. I’m a type B “Que Sera Sera” personality. I don’t feel the need to stick to the plan, if I see the plan failing me. In my youth I was dependent on two strong “stick to the plan at all costs because that builds character” type A personalities. I have no problem scratching from classes now if I realize I was overly ambitious in the number of classes entered, my horse is off that day, or by 3:00pm I’m exhausted, over it, and just really want to relax with a beer. Adult beverages are a huge pre/post show perk, now. I’m not particularly competitive, and my previous performances are ultimately what I compete against in the future. Those type A personalities in my youth were highly competitive. Even as an adult when they ask how a show went, the most important details to them include how many horses were in my class/division and where I ranked among them.
I can afford the high dollar horses now, and at one point in my youth dreamed of owning a big flashy pedigreed warmblood, Friesian, or equally athletic purebred. Now I just can’t bring myself to buy them. For one thing, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am thinking about/actively funding Offspring’s college fund. Secondly, there are so many quality horses that find themselves in the slaughter pipeline and mustangs overpopulating government lands waiting on someone to give them a chance. So all of my animals with the exception of two ponies are either starvation rescue cases or mustangs adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. There’s a satisfaction in taking a reject of the horse world on to outperform highly overbred, professionally trained and coached competitors. My two unruly Appaloosas have begun to make a small name for themselves in our division, if for no other reason, than I have the two loudest colored horses of any show I attend and they make it over the fences.
I can afford the expensive tack, now, and even though I did have a custom working western saddle made last year, for trail and any ranch competition I may decide to get into, I still frequently use/compete with bridles and saddles from my high school days. I could still wear my hunt coat, breeches, boots, and show shirts from the old days (I still fit in my chaps from high school!), but would never consider it. The technology changes in clothing with synthetic fabrics is one incredible difference between my old show days and now. Every time I slip into my thin, breathable Ariat show coat, I wonder how I survived showing in a stiff, 100% wool jacket over a cotton/polyester blend button up shirt in eighty to ninety degree summers for outdoor shows. I’ve even been eyeing a mesh show jacket that from distance looks like a traditional coat, but up close is barely more than a net for those triple digit heat days here in Texas. It used to take me ten minutes just to pull my tall boots on over my breeches. Now all my boots have zippers and they’re on within thirty seconds.
The elephant in the room of competition as an adult versus competition as a junior is fear. Now that probably isn’t a huge issue for those adults that lope western pleasure horses around an arena at the speed of smell, but for those of us whose passion lies elsewhere it can be a huge problem. There is no doubt in my mind that I’m a far better rider right now than I ever was as a teen. My training toolbox is exponentially larger, and my weekly ride time is triple if not quadruple the number of hours I put in as a youth. Back then I was riding one/two horses tops. Now I have three horses in full competition training and that doesn’t include the driving ponies I work. I currently ride year round when in my youth I basically took the entire winter off. I almost never rode bareback as a teen, but spent almost the entire year of 2019 training Odessa bareback due to a surgery that prevented me from putting a girth/saddle on her while the incision area healed. Despite a lack of experience or hours in the saddle, as a teen I would not have thought twice about throwing my horse at a Novice or Training level cross country course. Now I sometimes think I’ll top my horses’ careers out at Beginner Novice. The height and spreads of Novice and Training level cross country jumps literally make me sick to my stomach at this point. I just don’t bounce like I used to, and it requires significantly more pain killers to keep me functional post fall now than it did in my younger days. I’m also riding shorter horses, so they have to make more of an effort to clear a jump than my teenage unicorn.
All in all competing as an adult is a thousand times better than competing as a youth. It is everything I dreamed it would be as a starry eyed youngster inspired by the adults, and even after a tough show when I’m beating myself up or frustrated that my horses behaved more like dragons than equines, I still wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love the entire process from training, packing, travelling, and seeing our progress as we improve.