Friday, July 25, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter7/Horse Shows

The Big K has a theory about learning to show your horse. In order to win, you have to show. As many shows as you can manage. He doesn't waste his time schooling at the local clubs, and he doesn't want you to either. He swears your horse knows the difference, and so do you. He schools at AQHA shows. He expects his clients to do the same.

"Showing isn't about money." He'll tell you. "It's about getting out there and letting everybody see your horse. It's about stepping up and showing what you can do.
The only way to become confident in the show pen is to spend time there."

Easy for him to say. He wasn't on Sonita. He wasn't me.

Of course, I was his client. I was showing in the open classes. Everybody knew I was riding with him. So I guess he had his own pressures. Sonita and I weren't exactly turning the show world on fire. By winning that is. We did draw a certain amount of attention.

Sonita went absolutely bat shit when I took her to a show. Head thrown high, eyes bulging, she'd stop and blow, and spin. She pin her ears and lunge at horses she deemed too close. She'd bolt and scatter when another horse came up behind her. That was just getting her out of the trailer.

One of our first shows was the Pre Denver in December. This is a large AQHA show held the week before the stock show. The classes tend to run bigger than the stock show itself, and you don't have to deal with the crowds of looky-loos from the stock show. They don't run cattle classes at the Pre Denver, so I was to show in reining. Probably a good thing, since I couldn't reliably fight my way through a pattern yet, much less get my horse down the fence.

I talked the woman trailering with me into coming to the show a day ahead of the rest of the Big K's barn. I wanted to give Sonita time to acclimate, and to work on my own case of nerves.

I am the kind of person who completely falls apart when put in any kind of public situation.
I come from a life of forgotten grade school reports, suddenly tangled fingers during flute solos in high school, and frozen, red faced, stuttering presentations in college.

Why did I pick a sport that put me alone in the arena with nobody but my whacked out horse and a judge? I haven't a clue. If you've got one, please share. I think it's probably some Catholic guilt thing. You know, public humiliation is good for the soul.
Sonita kindly kept me busy enough to keep my mind off my impending doom.

The Denver Horse Show Complex is an imposing beast. Echoing halls wind through what seem miles of stalls. Soft yellow lighting is diffused in drifting dust, keeping the horses in an artificial twilight 24 hours a day.
Row after row of slick, shining horses stood in the stalls. All covered in pricier clothes than I had ever been able to afford for myself, much less consider putting on Sonita. AQHA shows come with beautiful horses, and beautiful people. I was so intimidated by the wealth around me I could barely speak.

Except to yell, "Whoa Dammit!" as Sonita drug me, bucking and plunging down the aisle.

I managed to stuff her in her stall by backing her into a corner, and running for the door. I slammed it shut on her nose.

She spun in circles, squealed at the horse next to her, and bit the bars dividing them. The fact that the neighboring horse was her trailer buddy meant nothing, she was out of her mind. Her water buckets flew, and she ground her hay into her bedding.
I stood and watched, mouth open, looking every bit the Gomer I imagined myself to be, as Sonita raged for the next half hour.

She finally settled to a nervous pacing, her white rolling eyes glaring every time she passed me.
"What are you going to do?" My trailer partner asked.
"I guess I'll go ride her in the arenas. You want to come?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."

There were only a few riders in the arena. For the most part, reining trainers, tuning their young horses. The majority of horses would arrive the next day. Sonita blew in at a high trot. Her head slung back and forth, as she tried to absorb the world I had plunged her in. A high ceiling decorated with hanging, streaming, glittery, banners arched over us. The stands on either side of us gaped empty, tier after tier. She slammed herself to a spraddle legged stop and stared, mesmerized by a lone janitor, mopping the upper level floors, high above her head.

I tried to keep my reins loose. I wanted to give her time to see, and file away, every bit of information she needed. I sat quiet as she looked around her, her eyes getting buggier with every passing second.
The other riders quietly loped by, eyes politely averted, faces expressionless. One thing I've learned to love about cowboys, they wait to mock you until they're out of the arena. Once they get to know you, they'll tease you to your face. Oddly enough, their mannerly colts all had the same look in their eyes.

Sonita eventually calmed enough to begin to lope some circles. Her circles were smaller than everybody else's, as she was too terrified of the white arena walls to come within fifty feet of
them. This was going to make our big, fast circles interesting on show day.
She loped with her head high, and her nose constantly pointed to the upper tiers. She had to keep watching for that scary janitor. But we were loping.

Sonita and I worked into the night. We loped big circles, and small. We aired up in the middle and I let her look around. We loped some more.
Finally, two hours in, she stood with her head level. She cocked a hip, and relaxed a little. Still alert, but she stood quiet.
I stepped down, loosened her cinch and took her back to her stall.
Sonita stood still at the wash rack, and enjoyed her late night bath. When I put her in the stall, she only lunged at the horse next to her once, before she settled into her hay.
As I walked down the aisle, towards my own hot shower and bed, I heard her kick the wall, once, twice, then silence.
I figured if the place was still standing in the morning I might be able to show her after all.


  1. What a horse! And what a story!

    Oh - and thanks for the new post... I was starting to go through withdrawl!

  2. mugwump said, "One thing I've learned to love about cowboys, they wait to mock you until they're out of the arena. Once they get to know you, they'll tease you to your face."

    OMG - so true! I knew I'd finally cracked the locals (instead of cracking them up behind my back) when one of them offered me the perfect trailer for my Arab - "It's fully padded! See, he can't hurt himself banging around back there at all." Yup. My horse loads better than his, and rides like a pro. Wait, maybe that was a comment on me being a worrywort? In retrospect, probably - lol!

    At any rate, can't wait to read the rest of the story! I wanna see what Sonita does when the stands start growing people :-)

  3. Oh Wow, That sounds like my first trip to shellbyville. I can't wait to hear more.

  4. Thanks for the belly laughs I sure needed it today.

    I then pent the next half hour printing out your Sonita posts for my husband to read. Now you've got him hooked too.

  5. Oh my lord... what the heck did a horse like Sonita do when there were people in the stands!?
    My friend and I are taking two "green" horses to our provincial barrel racing finals next week. Her green horse is actually green. Mine has been around but never to something like this.
    I'm not expecting to win anything on him this year. This year is for him to get out and experience the crowd, announcers, banners etc. To get a taste for 24/7 stall living. Next year I plan to actually "try" for something.

  6. ROTFL!

    That said, my girl was like that until we set foot in the arena itself. Then she relaxed. Looked around, went "Oh. That's why we're here." And proceeded to have fun watching all the other horses, plus be Queen of Mellow herself (after her first runthrough the big arena).

    BTW, I talked to my own Big K about the issue of what happened to the old packers of yesteryear. He had some interesting points:

    1.) As was pointed out before, many of them were working horses.
    2.) Breeding's changed over the past twenty-thirty years, and the kind of horse who does well in the show pen now and babysits a rider in the show pen isn't going to be a good babysitter outside the show pen. We have better temperament in our show horses, but they don't do as well outside the arena.

    And I forgot the rest, but will probably remember later....

  7. That titanic events center arena sets a lot of people shaking in their boots. I mean, lots of venues use big arenas but there's something about that one...
    I want to get Jasmine up there for the stock show some day, I have no idea what she'd do in a bigger arena.

  8. half-assed- I'm telling you, if you have a normal horse that doesn't look up, that arena is nice. Good dirt, and the rounded corners at the top make for an easy turn on the cows. But it's scary for me personally, I get more jitters there than anywhere else....I think it just feels like the big time.

  9. Oh, man. I wish I were in good enough shape to ride for two hours on a hot horse. They'd probably learn a lot faster knowing that we could go for two hours. They probably all know what a marshmallow I am and they know they can get away with a certain amount of mischief because I dont have the energy to fix it.

  10. I know the feeling with the gargantuine arenas. My first EVER show, and consequently my green as grass four year old, former flunk-out working cattle/roping horse's first show as well, was in an absolutely ENORMOUS arena in Lake St. Louis, Missouri (big enough that I've watched Grand Prix level jumper courses there when I was riding H/J). I thought for sure I was going to get my ass thrown into the dirt, that arena was SO intimidating to ride in. Fortunately for me my usually very level-headed quarter horse decided it, like much of the world, wasn't really worth his attention and plodded around like an old pack mule. He may not have blinked a single eyelash at the enormity or bustle of it, but I was shaking in my boots the entire time. I still feel like I'm going to puke whenever I enter the show ring, but at least I'm learning. Thank God for the occasional sensible, level-headed greenie to show you up and make you feel like the weenie of the pair. *snark*

  11. I don't have anything constructive to say, just that I absolutely adore your Sonita stories :)

  12. Awesome.
    I have to do a big, big big big big (etc) arena show next year in front of a whole grand stand of people.

    Mugs: Oh, remember when you said a few posts back about riding my old mare like shes 2 due to her confidence thing. Well I rode the three year old first today who has a major fear/bolting issue due to a carriage accident a few months ago. We are working through it as I ride her (shes green in riding, this would be her ooh....8th ride. She was convinced the round bales in the field would eat her until she realized they were indeed food) and it made me a lot more aware today of what was scaring the hell out of my older mare.
    She was excellent today. Not one spook thought she did try and eat every round bale we went within munching distance by. Piggy mare.

  13. The nice thing about the Denver events center is the bleachers are high enough up where the crumsnatcher kids can't bother (most) critters down in the ring.
    I just need a longer warmup with Jasmine. When we get her some place new she doesn't act like a calm mule at all. She's getting better- I've had both good classes and bad classes at indoor and outdoor venues.
    The key, for me, seems to be warming up where everyone else is warming up. She likes company.

  14. Wow - this is like my show experiences with my Champ, but jacked waaaaay up!

    I have only ever done schooling shows, but yeah, I had the bug eyes and sweat and pacing and shrieking.

    He was visibly nervous too.


    I never looked nervous but I fell apart in the ring. I still do, even after taking a break from showing for about six years. I do know now that my horses will ride to what I expect of them in the ring. If I'm not there mentally, they fall apart too. It's weird though, because I've done public speaking, read at church, sang solo in front of people, and survived - plus I have a totally irrational panic disorder - but put me in a show ring and I BLANK OUT.

    I also believe one thing about excitable horses: they are soooo much harder to work with, but man, once you get them dialed in, and they trust you, they will be brilliant. I rarely achieved that. I'm really looking forward to the next chapter of Sonita's story.

  15. Sonita sounds like a real trip - you know there's a skinhead black techno singer in england with the same name?
    They remind me of each-other. enjoying your posts, by the way, you write really well.

  16. More! That's all I can say. I want to know what happens next...

    (And you're not really untutored, just raw sometimes. I would certainly rather read this than undergraduate nonfiction essays any day!)

  17. -you know there's a skinhead black techno singer in england with the same name?
    I love it.
    So would Sonita.

  18. great cant wait to hear how she did ... do you still have her?

    P.S. the cowboys laughed at me showing lungline in my hunt seat gear. Aparently I run funny in my tall boots.

    The judge laughed too ;)

  19. Man, I give you credit. I freely admit that if I had that horse, and longeing didn't settle her down, I'd have put her back in the trailer and gone home.

    I have fewer show nerves than you do, but you have WAY much guts than I will ever have.