Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sports Equipment and Other Best Friends

I spent this past weekend with my daughter and her horse. This isn't exactly news — I spend most weekends with my daughter and her horse. Unless it's the dead of winter, in which case she spends the weekend with her horse and I watch old movies under "the best blanket in the world," a huge and cozy patchwork fleece made by my talented sister-in-law.

On Saturday, I drove about two and a half hours out to the Berkshires, then another 45 minutes or so down to Connecticut. It was a gorgeous day, but a long ride. On the way, I had to pick up day-glo orange duct tape and a box of Apple Jacks. Apparently, the cereal is our horse's new favorite snack. (He also likes Wheat Thins and Parmesan Goldfish.)

The show was enormous and our stable was well-represented. We stayed with another rider and mom in an eclectic "inn" that looked like a plain old motel on the outside but decorated by Holly Hobbie on the inside. (Would you like some calico with your calico?) There was a pizza and burger place down the road and millions of fireflies.

Sunday morning was sunny and very very hot. The girls left early with their trainer, and the parents followed soon after. The horses had spent the night in a gorgeous stable a few miles from the event grounds. There were hundreds of riders and it promised to be a very long day.

My daughter's dressage test was scheduled earlier than the other girls', and she carefully groomed her pony before just as carefully grooming herself. Dressage is all about precision and appearance is important. To this day, I laugh that the woman who has had short hair all her life (that would be me) has become absolutely expert at constructing and securing perfect buns. Really, I could be on Dance Moms

But, I digress.

Dressage went extremely well and we were encouraged. After lunch, my daughter and her trusty steed would compete in stadium jumping and then on a cross-country course made up of logs and ditches, various types of fences and water obstacles. Typically, this is where they do their best (and have the most fun). 

But, as soon as they started warming up, my daughter could tell that something was wrong. Her horse didn't feel like himself. He was sluggish and resisted her commands. He also seemed to be dehydrated although, try as she might, she couldn't get him to drink. Nevertheless, they had a double clear stadium round (no faults, no time penalty) and with her trainer's encouragement, they headed to cross-country.

The trouble started early. The horse refused two jumps (something that never happens), then stopped dead in his tracks when they got to the water. Disappointed of course, but also genuinely worried, my daughter "retired" from the event and from the overall competition. 

As I watched her sponge him down and encourage him to eat and — especially — drink, I thought about how different equine eventing is from other sports. Like many athletes, my daughter relies on her equipment: thousands of dollars worth of saddles and tack, and most importantly, her horse. But, if a champion tennis player isn't satisfied with her racquet, she can get a new one. If a NASCAR driver wrecks her car, she can get a new one. 

In theory, I guess, an equestrienne can get a new one too.

But, my daughter never would. 

Tennis racquets and racecars (and sailboats and lacrosse sticks and ice skates and football helmets) are not living, breathing animals. They don't have feelings. They don't experience pain. For my daughter (and countless other riders), the horse is a combination of athletic equipment and beloved pet.

He's also her dearest friend.

Whenever we attend events, I see riders who push their horses too far. I've seen jumpers whip their ponies to make them go faster and leap higher. We know some who've happily traded up, buying better trained and more accomplished mounts (and assuring more ribbons and trophies in doing so).

If we had the money, I'm sure my daughter would love to have an elite Class 1 horse. But, it would be in addition to her current one, not as a replacement.

She was very sad to leave the Connecticut show without a ribbon, but she was far more concerned about her horse. She felt bad that she had pushed him when he wasn't feeling up to his usual self. She was sorry if his loyalty to her had kept him going past his comfort zone.

It looks like he's on the mend now. We had to scratch from an upcoming event (even bigger, even farther away, and probably even hotter), but — with our vet's approval — my daughter should be back in the saddle by the end of the month.

Being a fine horsewoman isn't just about winning. And, this particular stable mom couldn't be prouder.

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