By Susan Friedland-Smith
I admit I thought, “What did I get myself into? Why did I buy a green ex-racehorse?” when I took my off-the-track Thoroughbred, Tiz A Knight, to our first schooling show at the end of May. My otherwise quiet gelding would not stand at the mounting block, pranced around at the in-gate, and exhibited a horsey form of PTSD when the announcer spoke over the PA system. I think he might have almost piaffed unintentionally.
Debut Horse Show for My OTTB
It had been about ten years since I had competed and I was reintroduced to the horse show concept of “hurry up and wait.” I also had to figure out how to pile my hair in a hairnet again so it looked classy on the outside without giving me a migraine on the inside of my helmet. And I had to be the adult in the situation and assure my horse that a horse show was indeed a fun experience!
As I watched my trainer school Knight, his eyes were literally almost popping out of his head like a cartoon. Outwardly he behaved, trotting and cantering, but his facial expression revealed his mind was being blown. Normally when he’s ridden he looks happy. My trainer observed, “He probably hasn’t heard an announcer since he was at the track!” No wonder he was a different horse!
After my trainer worked Knight both in the warm-up ring and then walked him up and down the pathways between all the arenas, I mounted. Knight was a coiled spring. Horses cantered past us from both directions and schooled over the warm-up fences. I kept talking to him and finally was able to get a few circles of somewhat stretchy trot and not-crazed canter. I honestly felt like I rode well and confidently, but it was not enjoyable. A pigeon did a dive-bomb in front of Knight’s face as we trotted and he didn’t respond. He was trying really hard to listen to me.
I pulled Knight up in the center of the ring to game plan with my trainer. I don’t remember who suggested scratching the three classes first, but I said I am in this for the fun and neither Knight nor I were having fun, “We’ll just use this as exposure. He’s being so good with all the other horses cantering past. And this is a baseline.”
The next day after most of the horse and rider teams had trailered home, we entered an equitation class on the flat. With the exception of Knight side-eyeing a jump pole that for some reason was placed perpendicular to a standard, he walked, trotted and cantered quite nicely. My sitting trot was another matter. Out of the three riders I placed third, but felt like a winner when my trainer told me the other women would not have known what to do if they had had to ride my greenie.
Second Show: Knight and Day Difference
Our second show experience was completely different, and led me to believe my horse is “getting” it. First, on Friday, the schooling day, I got as much exercise as Knight did in the round pen. I did not have a lunge whip and my bay boy was L-A-Z-Y. I actually didn’t even have a lunge line, so I used what I think were long reins we found in our borrowed trailer — they had a snap on each end.
Since Mr. “Why Canter When you can Trot?” kept transitioning down, I had to try to flip the long end of the makeshift lunge line and cluck and run up after him to chase him forward. Let’s just say there’s a reason some brilliant person invented a lunge whip.
Knight knew my awkward attempts to fling the free end of the line would not reach him and so he pretty much ignored me. At one point I flung the line so hard it ricocheted back and hit me with the snap end. At the end of that time I regretted not having my cell phone to track my steps. I probably ran a mile. When I rode after my I’m-glad-no-one-saw-that lunge session, my Thoroughbred was relaxed, fun, and tuned out all the other horses and riders schooling in the same arena.
The second piece of evidence that Knight was a different horse at the second show was how he tricked me into thinking he was colicking. Saturday morning when I arrived at his stall, he was lying down, legs folded neatly. His chin rested on the shavings. My trainer and the other riders from my barn weren’t in sight. My heart skipped a beat, but I went into his stall thinking that would encourage him to stand. Instead he made little moaning sounds. I leaned down, put my hand on his hindquarters and urged him, “Get up! Come on. Up!” That didn’t do anything.
I wondered how quickly I could get a vet out. I grabbed the halter and buckled it on his brown head, said an audible prayer while tugging on the leadrope. He finally stood. I led him to the aisle at which point my trainer walked in and I told her what happened. She said she noticed him lying down and checked him and he was fine, just relaxing.
The third reason I know Knight is getting the hang of being at a show was we walked all over the grounds on a loose rein and even “escorted” another rider’s Thoroughbred mare who was in heat and very nervous about the new setting. Knight paused a split second to look at the concessions stand, but moved past it with a little more leg. And when I mounted him during this show, I didn’t need anyone to hold him. I even hopped on one time while holding a water bottle. That’s progress!
Horse Show Results
At the second show we entered five different flat classes, both equitation and hunter. Knight was great for a horse show newbie. We missed a lead a couple of times and he thundered like a freight train at the canter during one class (but my trainer said he didn’t look like he was at the track — it was a good forward). Our transitions were sharper and more concise than at home.
During the last class at the end of the day Sunday, my steed started a little nervous head flipping. My leg was probably tired, he was probably tired. Overall we earned some red ribbons, a white, pink, and green, but in my mind they are all blue and we were a success. And now we have our homework for the next show!
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher who has been horse-crazy since girlhood, lives in North Tustin, California, with her budding equestrian husband, Golden Retriever and Doberman. Knight, the ex-racehorse, has recently joined the family and is the main character of Susan’s blog Saddle Seeks Horse which chronicles her amateur adventures of balancing a green rider hubby and green horse. Follow her blog at susanfriedlandsmith.com for all things OTTB or see what’s up on Twitter and Instagram @susanwordlover.
Photos courtesy of Susan Friedland-Smith