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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Horsemanship, Indeed - Part II

"Uh, I don't know." - Maclay Region 5 Finals competitor, when asked the breed of horse he was riding

To say I was disappointed in this young man's response is an understatement, and I have no doubt that Alfred B. Maclay would agree with me. Excuse me? This is supposed to be a Horsemanship class? Knowing the breed of horse you're sitting on, that you're supposed to have a partnership with, just might be something you ought to know? Now, I know a lot of these Big Eq horses are leased or borrowed. I suppose I could give the kid the benefit of the doubt and assume that maybe he'd just met the beast the day before. Maybe I'm being far too picky. However, I can tell you that I would want to know every single thing about a horse that was supposed to carry me to fame in short order, including what breed it is, but that's me...

I must have had a look on my face, because after that the boy did turn turn, mutter something to the groom who was busy cleaning his boots, and then reply to me, "Warmblood." Gee whiz, I never would have guessed! >.< (And for the record, yes Honey, I do know that Warmbloods come in specific breeds.) The reason I asked in the first place is that I was playing "spot the TB" during this class (and also during the Hunter Derby).

I'm afraid I came up blank... I could be wrong, but I doubt it. You already know Thoroughbreds are my favorite breed; back in the day, everyone in the H/J world rode them, including in the Big Eq. Here's some clips I found from the 1982 and 1984 Maclay Finals which illustrate this nicely:

In contrast, here's last year's Maclay winning rider, Hayley Barnhill, on a Warmblood:

Whoo-ee, look at those olden-days riders go (especially Peter Wylde - he was flying)! I was cracking up at some of the Comments posted on these videos by today's youth, particularly the ones that noted, "Those horses look really hot" (I'm sure the kid who wrote that had absolutely no idea they were TBs) and "It looks really jumpery." Yes, that's how we used to do it, there was none of this slow n' genteel Warmblood loping around the course business (what's ironic, though, is today's courses are so twisty and technical they practically are jumper courses). You'd be left in the dust far behind the hounds if you tried that look in the real world, and hello, HUNTERS are supposed to be able to actually hunt! I've read stuff that says "we need Warmbloods to get down the lines," but maybe the course designers started building them longer when everyone began showing up on Warmbloods? Seems to me it's the classic chicken/egg conundrum.

Anyway, I saw no Thoroughbreds, which saddened me, but I did see some very nice horses. Some of those parents shell out serious money for a special Big Eq horse and for the most part I'd say they got their money's worth. I've heard that some are BTDT babysitters and others are real firecrackers, guaranteed to give anyone you have to swap with fits - I think I saw the latter in person during that first Big Eq class I watched the week before!

Let me hasten to add that in general I also was impressed with the sportmanship and conduct of the young people in this Maclay class. Their poise, class and nerves of steel were very evident. When you have worked your tail off to qualify for an event like this, it would be extremely upsetting when Horsie suddenly decides to be a jerk and buck and kick out when you ask him for a lead change, something I would imagine he's done perfectly thousands of times in the past. Or slam on the brakes in front of a reasonably-sized, non-scary oxer to which you've found a great distance. Maybe they went back to the schooling ring afterwards and had a meltdown, but I didn't see it happen in the ring. I saw smiles. I saw focus. One rider fascinated me for her absolutely neutral expression; I don't think I've ever seen someone with such immobile features, especially someone less than 18 years old. She kind of scared me!

I had a nice conversation with the young lady who wound up finishing third, while she was watching earlier go's. She was sweet, friendly, and didn't mind answering my questions. No stuck-up attitude there. I went back into the barn area to congratulate afterwards, and tell her I'd be looking for her in Lexington, but it was like she'd vanished into thin air: I could not find her or the horse. Oh, well, I remember her name, so that gives me at least one person I've met to root for. What's that? YES, I am going to the National Horse Show! I'm terribly excited and of course I'll be writing all about it. First time in 30 years or so that I'll see the Maclay finals... no Victor H-V announcing, no MSG, but that's okay, I'm still delighted the big event is finally going to be within driving distance.

As far as the results of the class, I mostly agreed with the placements. I kept careful notes. Here are my score sheets:

Out of 35, I really only saw one or two riders that I thought were clearly outclassed by the competition. Most fell somewhere into the middle, earning a Very Good from me. A couple were absolutely, obviously superlative, none more so than the eventual winner. Literally from the second she stepped into the ring, I just knew that she was top-notch. Why? Beautiful position. Invisible aids. Horse balanced perfectly between hand and seat. Legs nailed to horse's sides. If you look on the first page of my notes, you'll see her about 3/4 of the way down, with her number (204) and the word EXC. circled, along with a *. She also rocked the flat phase, which included a request for trot lengthening that went on... and on.... and on. My legs would have been Jello!  I told my daughter, who was watching with me (she's a "horse-liker," not "horse-lover," to borrow a phrase from a fellow blogger), "If that girl doesn't win I'm hanging up my helmet. She. Is. AWESOME."

On the other hand, I sure was perplexed at the choice of a couple who finished in the top 10. For example, #206 earned a No Good from me for her jumping round. Yet she was called back in the top group and finished 8th. Huh? (Contrast that to poor #10, who'd gotten an EXC., and fell out of the top group after the flat. Didn't see her do anything awful but she was out, replaced by #39 who'd been brought back in the second group). The one that bugged me the most, though, was one of the boys. He got an OK after jumping, but I thought his position was horrible. Very hunched over with a swinging leg. He finished FIFTH, and the only other boy got 4th (he'd earned a Very Good for his jumping and truly hadn't impressed me all that much). This annoyance was only reinforced when #5 boy appeared the next day in the Hunter Derby, more hunched than ever. I don't just mean over fences, either, though he did roach his back there in a way that would have GM in fits. No, he rode like my old trainer who was 50ish and had back trouble. But apparently his dad is some big cheese trainer??? Makes you wonder... Do you think maybe they like to send the boys off to the Finals, no matter what they look like, since there are so few of them?

A note, regarding tack and apparel: I think that maybe, just maybe, I saw a bit more variety in show coat color this year. Generally these riders are indistinguishable from one another, all sporting the ubiquitous greige Tailored Sportsman breeches, navy show coat, Ariat Monaco or custom boots and Charles Owen GR8 helmets. In addition to the slight variations in coats, I also spotted some of the "bug head" looking GPA Speed Air helmets with lots of vents, which I was a bit surprised to see in any hunter ring, much less this one. I thought those were favored by jumper riders. Nothing different in saddles, bridles, martingales or fleece pads, but that's no surprise. (What's fun to look at is those perfectly flat zero knee-roll saddles the riders are using in the old Maclay clips. I used to ride in one myself, and boy, do I appreciate the return of the padded flap!)

I will wrap up this discussion of the Maclay Regional with this moment, my favorite of the whole competition. As I said, I headed back to the barn area after the class was over. The first thing I saw was the rider who had finished 11th, still mounted on her horse. She had tears streaming down her face and was hugging and petting the horse over and over. Her mother was crying and petting the horse. The trainer was crying and hugging the mom, hugging the rider and hugging the horse. I heard the mother say, "I'm just so proud of you and you worked so hard for this!" It was all very emotional, and I was so glad to see it! Just writing about this is making me sniffle again. It was wonderful to witness true appreciation of achievement, and of course appreciation of the horse; after all, they're the ones who "do all the work." Wink, wink! :-)


  1. Those old videos are interesting! I'm new enough to riding that I'm used to the warmbloods dominating the show ring so it's interesting to see what it used to look like! I was surprised at how flat those two TB's jumped.

    I liked the first rider's round that you posted but I was pretty unimpressed by the second one. That horse was wiggly between the second and third jump and I keep getting distracted by the horse opening his mouth when the rider is pulling on the reins.

    The modern rider's course sure was smooth and flawless though! See, I think that horse is so balanced that he could easily open up his stride and gallop down to a fence if asked for it. It's too bad they didn't have a hand gallop in that course.

    That story about the rider being so happy about placing is so heartwarming!

  2. Your observation about the pace of a modern eq class is really interesting. The same thing has happened with dressage. Compare videos of Ahlerich in the 1984 Games with those of Totilas and the difference in speed is striking. I much prefer the older way. I think modern horse people spend too much time riding in circles and rings and not enough time actually going places and doing things.

  3. I agree with your last statement Jenn, absolutely! Although I would add "playing games" to it. And I don't mean "egg and spoon," if you get my drift. I think NH is a fine thing as long as it has its place in an equestrian life and is the means to an end. Namely, mounting up and RIDING. :-)

  4. Hey Jenn! I was looking back through my last junior year of equitation on google, and found your blog because you posted the picture of the 2011 Maclay finals course. It's actually really ironic - I was number 17 in this regional last year, and somehow made it to 6th place after that really deep distance! I really liked reading what you had to say, and I wish I could've met you when I was riding. Looking forward to what you think of this year's equitation group, and the subsequent Adult Amateur division at Zone 2 ;-)

  5. Anon (Elizabeth), hope you have seen my post on this year's (2012) Maclay Regional! That's neat that I saw you ride last year, and yes, I wish we could have met. As I said above, the only rider I talked to was Bethany B. and she was lovely. She almost didn't make it back this year, but her flatwork moved her up, thank goodness!

    I was hanging around with a notepad this year and I was kind of tickled because some lady asked if I was writing an article. I said no, just my own blog, and then she asked if I needed to buy photos. Unfortunately, no, my lousy iPhone photos have to suffice on my budget. :-/

    I am probably not going back to the NHS for Finals in KY this November but I haven't ruled it out completely. I think I'll make my annual KY visit for Rolex next spring instead; I've been wanting to go for a couple years and it's high time.

    Good luck in the Adult Ammys! You were probably showing at the Charity and if I'd been paying better attention I would have looked for you. Will keep my eyes peeled at future NEC shows. So if some middle-aged gal comes up and introduces herself as RiderWriter, you'll know it's me. ;-)


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