Could you Point me in the Direction of Civilization?

We were long past that point of exhaustion when everything seems funny and yet our failure to find a store was really not funny. My groom and I, in need of a few items like water and duct tape for the show we were attending, had driven around for nearly 40 minutes passing nothing but tract homes and barren fields drying out in 100 degree heat. Surely, any moment, we would pass a gas station or a 7-Eleven or a supermarket or at the very least a roadside fruit stand. But nothing. We drove endlessly in our bubble of air conditioning finding not so much as a can of iced tea.

Our agitation stirred up as we admitted aloud to each other that we expected this. We were, after all, at one of the large shows held at a facility in the deserted valley between Sacramento, CA and the Sierra foothills. It’s a no-man’s land, populated by a handful of retirees who can handle the heat and apparently enjoy living on a flat plain void of trees or stores selling goods that facilitate human survival. Things like food and band-aids, ice and towels and string.

In our disgruntled– and very thirsty– state, we returned to the showgrounds to sit on overturned buckets in the blazing sun and wait for the day to end. Twirls of sand occasionally blew up in our faces, adhering to our sweaty skin and causing me to wonder how I’d ever squeeze into my competition gear for the last class of the afternoon. The equation of sweat+dirt+skin tight clothing made me want to run off and find a different job. It’s moments like these that make me wonder why I chose horse training as a profession over, say, banking or designing or something civilized.

But the larger question for me was why on earth do people organize horse shows in California in the least desirable places? If you’re going to invite participants to come be hostage at your event for five consecutive days, at least make sure your venue is some place people actually want to go. My grumpiness on this matter derives, as most things do, from my New England upbringing. Back East, where land is more affordable and large horse facilities proliferate the countryside, horse shows were always held just outside charming little villages. So, if you found yourself gritting it out to finish a class during a torrential downpour one minute, you could then be sitting in a cozy breakfast nook having a warm scone 5 minutes later. A friendly waitress calling you “honey” might inquire why you look so sodden and bring you a complimentary warm beverage. And should you need some duct tape or band-aids or string, you will find them within 25 steps of your scone at the main street hardware store.

Every summer through my youth, my dad and I traveled all over the Northeast for Combined Driving competitions. I served as his groom, traveling companion, and cheerleader. We went to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania– the same circuit of shows every season. After the first couple seasons, we had our favorite stomping grounds in every horse show town. In Massachusetts, we liked to go to the Blue Bonnet Diner for mid-afternoon hot chocolates and a break from the bustle of the showgrounds. In Pennsylvania, we hit the Iron Skillet every morning for gigantic breakfasts that kept us fueled all day. In Connecticut, we knew exactly where to stop for ice, supplies, and carrots for the horses. Whenever dad broke something on his carriage or harness, we knew who to call and where to go. And any time we wanted to just sit down and take a break, we knew the best places in all those charming villages. We knew where to get the best croissant or berry pie slice, the best quiet bookstore, the best outdoor park where we could nap in the grass. Sometimes, these things were vital to a good performance at the show. I grew up naively assuming it was all part of competing horses.

Then I moved to California.

Land is a precious commodity here in California, the largest available amounts of it existing in far-flung deserted areas. And these deserted areas during mid-summer show season tend to be so hot that many folks get heat stroke just from standing around. Less of them might fall victim if there were cozy stores nearby where one could duck out of the elements for a moment or grab a buttery scone after morning classes. But there are none of those. No shops, no stores, no villages. Just a horse show venue sticking up in the midst of these flat bone-dry plains. Some days, I’ve wandered around so long looking for a single tree under which I could sit and shade myself that I’ve nearly missed my class. I’ve finally realized that trees just don’t grow in hot barren plains and therefore gotten used to that sizzling skin-scorched feeling on my forehead and cheeks.

On this particular day of failing to find a store, as if one might miraculously appear on our hundredth search, my groom and I pondered aloud about the oddity of the scene. The mercury pushed past 100-degrees, dust swirled, horses wilted. And the show went on. Participants tried their best to present themselves glamorously with polished black boots and shiny saddles, but the glamour fleeted quickly. Within five minutes of all the polishing, everything was drenched in sweat, filmed in dust. Ladies’ makeup melted and dribbled down their starched collars, making pink and blue stripes from eyelids to ribcage. Wet rings blossomed under their arms, triangles of moisture pressed through the backs of their show jackets. The horses huffed and puffed, their sleek coats turning to foamy lather.

I dreaded my own class within an hour and the temperature by then well over 100. To assuage my bitter mood, my groom reminded me that things weren’t that bad. They could be worse, after all. Remember Woodinville? With that, I almost fell off my bucket.

A year ago, we’d gone to an early spring show in Woodinville, a town that maps describe as “historical.” After spending 72 hours there, I discovered that ‘historical’ is a euphemism for “place you never want to visit.” I entered town via main street, where all the buildings seem to have emptied out at the turn of the 20th century, and promptly locked my car doors. I couldn’t tell if I’d somehow driven onto the set of a creepy Hollywood movie or if the place was for real, but nonetheless, the town– if I can call it that– sent out bad vibes in every direction.

Block after block was filled with abandoned stone buildings rotting into the earth. I passed one or two other cars carrying folks trying to figure out the quickest route out of there. For miles, I passed shuttered saloons, deserted storefronts, and crumbling facades, all of which were surrounded by acres of scorched plains baking in the heat. In fact, the temperatures that weekend held steady at 112 degrees and all I fantasized about was a cold bottle of Gatorade. My horses fell sick from the heat and my car broke down, but all I could think about was a cold Gatorade. For 72 hours, I dreamt of getting the hell out of Woodinville and its ghostly downtown and sitting down in a patch of shade with a Gatorade.

On this particular day, my groom was right. Things could have been worse. My makeup might melt down my shirtfront and I would undoubtedly contract some minor heatstroke by day’s end, but at least we weren’t in Woodinville. We would get by without the towels and ice and string we searched for earlier. Then, like delirious souls clamoring towards a desert mirage, we will tell stories about our favorite aisle in Target. Oh, Target. What we wouldn’t give right then for a place like that with bonafide signs of civilization! Then, my groom will listen politely as I reminisce for the billionth time about those charming little horse show villages in my youth.

And the show goes on.

Re-defining Fun in Classical Dressage

Not often prone to surfing the internet, I decided last week to buck that trend. I plunked myself down with morning coffee and logged on to a horse web site that offers 10-minute videos on every equine topic imaginable. Initially, I planned to check out videos about any discipline outside my daily world as a dressage trainer, like maybe an expose on spotted draft horses or the price of hay in Iowa. But then I saw a really curiously title that yanked my attention: “The Fun of Dressage.” What? I read it a few times to make sure I saw it right. The FUN of dressage?

Anyone who’s spent five minutes either doing or watching the stiff-lipped sport of dressage knows that “fun” might not be the most accurate description. After all, we are talking about a pursuit based on trying to achieve perfection, not one where folks spend most of their saddle time laughing. I am by nature a studious creature, relishing in pursuits that require fierce concentration (which is a colorful way of saying I take myself too seriously), so dressage has always suited me. However, I DO recognize that we dressage riders quite often need a reminder to lighten up a little. Or a big “Don’t Forget to Have Fun” sign hanging in the tack room.

When I stumbled upon this video, I thought maybe I’d found the Holy Grail we all needed. Perhaps this was something I could recommend to my students when they turn purple-faced from holding their breath and micro-analyzing the latest set of aids they picked up at a recent clinic with Mr. Famous European Trainer.

Click. I hit the play button, put my feet up, and readied myself for a good chuckle. Bring on The FUN of Dressage. Curiously, a stiff-lipped British fellow opened the first scene in customarily tight beige riding apparel. He donned a riding helmet and leather gloves– everything clean and tidy. He stood in the middle of a perfectly groomed arena with manicured flowers landscaped around its edges. The camera zoomed in for a close-up as he reminded viewers that learning dressage can be fun. Just to give us all a sample of this process, he mounted up on a gleaming Warmblood whose trot looked so uncomfortable that it would probably bounce the kidneys out of any mere mortal who tried sitting it, except for this British chap.

By now, I’d become positively excited to see how this guy could transform the process of learning dressage from complicated/frustrating/fleeting to pure fun. I slurped my coffee and leaned forward closer to my computer screen. Bring on the FUN of Dressage, indeed!

The camera panned out now as this well-dressed British gentleman carried on in a bone-jarring sitting trot, trying at the same time to speak. Immediately, his face flushed and beaded with sweat. His eyes narrowed as he described the correct riding position and the camera focused on his nicely straight spine sucking up the shock of sitting the trot on this 17-hand catapulting horse. His breathing became irregular while demonstrating how to hold one’s legs close to the horse’s sides while riding. Viewers quickly recognized that, were this fellow not in exceptional physical fitness, his limbs would be whipped around like a rag doll’s. He reminded viewers to hold their hands still when riding, and by now his face was truly contorted from fatigue and concentration. He asked his horse to walk so he could catch his breath.

So far, he hasn’t said anything remotely humorous and he himself appeared to be in physical agony. What happened to the fun? I was still waiting for it. While regaining his breath, he gave the viewer a few allegedly light-hearted reminders. Make sure your horse uses his body properly at all times. Practice sitting trot without stirrups every week. Don’t even think about going for a ride without doing a precise and consistent warm-up and cool-down.

And then the credits rolled. It was over. Surely, I missed something, even though I hadn’t taken a bathroom break or even so much as averted my eyes once. Where was all the promised fun?? For its alluring title, the video ended up being just like all the others in the universal Dressage collection. It left the viewer with that combination inspired/deflated feeling that she is pursuing a sport that is, well, very difficult. It really is. There’s no way around it. Damn! So much for the Holy Grail, or at the very least, a good side-splitting laugh.

Ah well. I suppose I’ll just keep my brow furrowed as usual and keep concentrating intensely. But don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I find myself having a really FUN time when sitting the trot without stirrups.