My Quarter Horse gelding King always kept me guessing. Some days he was the sweetest boy around and would let me jump up bareback and ride my cares away. Other times I’d think everything was going smoothly—until he pulled one of his unexpected stunts.
One such stunt occurred the time I entered him in a showmanship class to add variety to our usual Western pleasure routine. It was one of those hot Indian summers in southern Indiana, where chaps, hats, and long-sleeved shirts are not what you want to be wearing, and a dusty arena is the last place your horse wants to be.
Ready to Win
Despite the heat, I was determined to win a few more ribbons to add to our collection. My family and I loaded up King and drove the half hour to the showgrounds. The arena that day was new to us, which I didn’t think would be a problem. King would soon prove me wrong.
With my gelding tied to the trailer, I surveyed the area to check out the competition. Even with the soaring temperature, the event had drawn one of the season’s largest groups of exhibitors. There were my usual rivals: the girl who trained in the same arena I did, with her bay gelding; the guy who showed up at every event and made a fuss when he didn’t win; the siblings who constantly swapped horses.
I glanced back at my palomino; he looked half asleep. Envying his calm, I told myself there was no need to be nervous. It’s all about having fun, after all, right? Still, anyone who competes knows the line between fun and frazzled nerves can get blurred the moment you step into that arena.
“OK, boy,” I said to King, scratching under his mane to wake him up. “Let’s win some ribbons.”
Even as hot as it was, King looked terrific. His golden coat sparkled. Not a hair in his glossy white mane or tail was out of place. His new, dark-leather halter gleamed, its silver trim flashing in the sun. To my eye, King was the ideal specimen for a first-place in showmanship.
My confidence flowed as we practiced in the warm-up area—walking, squaring up, trotting out under the shade of a few trees. This would be our first class of the day, and we hadn’t yet had a chance to enter the arena. Still, I was sure our practice routine would be enough. We were ready.
Off the Cuff
Finally our class was called. Baking inside my glittery show outfit, I settled my black hat over my neatly styled hair and squared my shoulders. Then I headed for the gate, King striding obediently at my side.
Chin up, Miss America smile radiating, I led my boy proudly into the arena. Then I discovered we were…the only exhibitors in the class! It was just me, my horse, and the judge straight ahead of us.
Oh, well, I reasoned. This blue ribbon will be a piece of cake.
We walked forward, the two of us moving as one, and reached the judge. Then King surprised us both. Tossing his head up and to the right, he reared, pawing the air with his front feet. Sunlight glinted off his coat, and his nostrils flared in a way that would’ve made Trigger proud.
I was not proud. And it didn’t help that someone from the crowd yelled, “Hi-yo, Silver, away!”
My cheeks burned and not from the sun. As I struggled to calm my horse, I spotted overhead the only thing that could’ve caused his little performance: a large American flag waving above the trees. It was visible only from the arena; that’s why we hadn’t seen it during our warm-up.
“Hey, it’s OK,” I crooned to my horse, drawing him in circles until he settled down. Then I led him through the rest of the showmanship pattern, feeling a bit deflated. Still, we won that blue ribbon, and as a bonus, just as we headed for the gate, the judge leaned over and said, “You handled that well.”
I learned several lessons that day.
First, if possible, get your horse into that arena before your first class, to give him a good look-see.
Second, no matter how thoroughly you prepare in advance, be ready for the unexpected.
And finally, most important, no matter what does happen, just do the best you can…and everything will probably turn out OK.
Nichole Osinski, a writer based in Tampa, Florida, has been riding since she was 3 years old. She and King enjoyed more than eight years of successful competition in Western pleasure and showmanship. By the end of King’s show career, the pair had also enjoyed horse camping and parades, “and were once chased by a buffalo,” recounts Nichole. Now she watches her younger sister compete, and trail rides with her on the family’s two horses, Bandit and Amira.