A Classic Tale

I made arrangements last year to show in Gulfport, Mississippi for this February – March circuit because it has long been one of my favorite show management companies, my former student Dani lives there now (mini-me), and they were offering a $5.00 pre-green division for circuit which I thought was such an incredibly generous move I could hardly pass it up. Westin could basically show for free. I also love the derbies held there, and Week V the derbies would be held on the grass Grand Prix field.

That’s the business side of showing, I guess. The flip side for me is the fact that I hate giving money to show management companies I don’t like, REGARDLESS of weather, location, or money offered. This is a personal decision, and could care less if I am criticized about it. We all have our own idiosyncrasies.

I like to be able to arrive to show grounds, when I am exhausted from a ridiculously long North to South drive, and be surrounded by friendly, helpful people who seemed genuinely glad to see me. The next morning when I walk in the show office, I like how absolutely everyone lifts their heads and takes the time to say hello, even if they are busy with another exhibitor checking in, no one seems to have forgotten their manners, and even the four legged show office dogs sniff your feet. I particularly like the cookies (Belgian cookies) and peppermints off to the side, and noticed my “lollipop for pap smear recipients” container is sitting on a shelf which leads me to spark that conversation all over again. In return, I was given an earful about the embarrassment of having to explain what a pap smear is to a 5 year old boy who wanted a lollipop. lol oops. This explains the height of the shelf the lollipop container now sits on.

The Classic Company motto has always been about providing horse show competition for every level of rider, and from various backgrounds. It is a transient group that follows the shows run by Classic, very few of them have purchased property around one of their circuits, and I have noticed it is a different category of people who work amazingly hard, have respect for their fellow horsemen, and share some tight camaraderie within the horse show community. You are going to see a lot of good sportsmanship at these shows. People show together, but also eat meals together, explore together and party together. A local church opens their doors for free dinners every Wednesday night to exhibitors, (which a handful of us never miss), and it is clear how hard the staff has worked to garner meet and greet parties on and off the show grounds to integrate not only all of us together, but all of us within parts of the community. It really is extraordinary to see the efforts. Casino life is a big life in and around the Gulf Coast, and it is very clearly incorporated through sponsorships and events held during the circuit. Every Monday night a selected casino hosts an exhibitor party.

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me, Bob Bell, Brooke Kemper, Grace McShane, Katherine LeBlanc and Drew Coster

They are also always open to ideas. Which I have a lot of. Maybe too many, but whatever. My plan in my head was to gather up all my ideas and present them to Bob Bell and Janet McCarroll at the end of circuit to think about for next year. However, Life had different plans than the ones in my head, and in a very freaky, unlikely mishap, I was spun of my horse and broke my leg one evening of Week V and have been in the hospital ever since. Crap.

One handicap about being a transient equestrian is the difficulty of traveling with special equipment for the horse(s). Unless you are local, and/or have an enormous operation, the ability to haul a treadmill, or multiple magna wave suits, or thera plate is often not a reality. At least not without a tractor trailer and an amazing amount of staff. Why not create a spa for horses. The space is available. If you want people to remain for the entire circuit and think more long term rather than a couple weeks here and there, create enough of an environment to make it plausible. More focus is going to be put on the welfare of horses in the future, and here is a great opportunity to be one of the first ones to provide more services for the horse. If Classic bought a thera plate, and a couple of magnetic blankets, hired a massage therapist, or chiropractor, or both, and set up shop in an area we all had access to, they could rent out these or other services. You could even have an aqua treadmill if you wanted! A complete service facility exclusively for the horse! If you had the incredible misfortune of bringing a clients horse down for circuit and it went lame week one, instead of losing that client altogether, you could participate in the rehab of that horse, and the owner might be really surprised by your efforts and be loyal for life. I would. If I had to turn to an owner and say we have to send your horse home lame or keep it locked in a stall to end of circuit, or here! – a mobile rehab facility is on the grounds let’s try this – what do you think I am going to do? Not only for horses that have unfortunate accidents, but horses are athletes too, and many of us want to be able to provide as many health services to them (but aren’t made of money) to keep them showing in top form. I would absolutely take full advantage of a valet service for my horse to give him an hour on the thera plate whenever he needed or wanted it. Thinking outside the box is what companies outside of Florida need to do in order to keep people coming in and staying for good during winter circuits. The $5 pregreen division worked this year, there were loads of young horses, and I hope that tradition continues into next year as well, but is it enough?

Classic has done everything to provide incredible footing and beautiful fences to jump, which we love, but the reality about the weather in Gulfport is that it is the number one deterrent for people deciding on winter circuits. It is pleasant only about 50% of the time. The airport is the other deterrent and access to the show for weekenders is expensive at best, which may have explained why Apollojets was a huge sponsor for one of the weeks, so they could get their information out to people considering alternatives in flight travel. Brian Hillen was an amazing advocate for the company, and even if this isn’t a viable solution for everyone at the moment, he might be able to provide options in the future.

But if horsemen knew they had access to equipment that would help keep their horses sound and happy through circuits, would it change their minds? And would it be enough? It possibly would be a good start. Classic runs shows all through the year, so the horse spa could travel to Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charleston, Pensacola, Gulfport, and be considered a regular feature included into whatever event wherever they are at any given moment. Grand Prix horses to small ponies would benefit from it, and you may even see some sponsorship opportunities come up from the creators of all those kinds of equipment.

I also bet a spa for people would close up that gap in vendor’s row pretty well, too. Girls need their nails done, you know, even horse girls. I remember pitching this idea with Mary Ruth last year. A group of ladies introduced one at Thermal to offset their showing costs, and it was a tremendous hit. Ohio has a mom spa, right by the pony ring. Still want to incorporate the locals? Then hire them to do the work. There is literally nothing more luxurious to a horse girl than to have someone else shampoo your hair every once in a while, and the reality of horse show life is that we just can’t always find the energy to deal with hair on a daily basis. Help us help ourselves from dirty hair syndrome.

Bring in hot dealers to help us learn how to waste our money in Casinos. I actually did have success with this suggestion, and if the Casino life is really that important and we should be honoring our sponsors, then we need confidence builders to educate  the few of us not comfortable pushing the doors open to casino and walking up to a blackjack table and taking a seat. However, if a hot dealer showed up and educated me on when to say “hit me” I would pounce my over confident butt right on in to the Beau Rivage, order a drink, and go for it!

Even if these ideas never gain momentum, Classic Company is still considered the nicest show management company around. This show has so much camaraderie going for it, it is almost impossible to feel like an outsider. We all help each other out when tragedy strikes, we all regard our fellow horsemen as just that –  fellow horsemen, we understand the need for us all to show up and work everyday in order for shows to go on, and we all have a more grounded outlook on the horse world. If you were going to let your kids roam free and learn from professionals from the sidelines, this is a pretty safe community to do that in. I wanted to offer a pony clinic for modeling and jogging and every trainer I approached about the idea was on board, and enthusiastic about the idea. If I hadn’t been tossed, it might have even happened. Crap again.

 

Week V offered an International Derby with the substantial amount of $77,700 in prize money offered. It was a big deal this year. It also was a big deal when the realization that a very notorious farm would be descending upon us with several horses to compete for said prize money. My brain was churning. It still is. When I started writing this blog, I had intended to address EVERY aspect of this world, the horse world, good, bad, and ugly, and without any planning, just delved into the far reaching corners of my brain to extract what was getting under my skin. The point is that the fear of the kind of person I become weighs heavily on every subject I bring to the table.

Sportsmanship is such a tricky subject, but I am not sure why it should be so tricky. Fierce competitors claim that being the nice guy will not bring the first place prize, so they forgo manners for wins. In all sports, not just horses. Soccer parents are just as guilty as anyone when they are screaming obscenities from the sidelines. It’s gross. We all know it. The image bad sportsmanship behavior leaves behind actually does have an impact on young people and young people will be the future of sport. Whether you like it or not, SOMEONE IS ALWAYS WATCHING YOU AND LEARNING FROM YOU. Our tolerance for people who have major temper tantrums ringside is enormous. We all look at each other, stay silent, roll our eyes, and give thanks we don’t have to endure the side show on a regular basis. But I am sick of it. I am sick of fence lines being kicked out of frustration, I am sick of the shouting in the schooling area, I am sick of wondering what junior rider is influenced by the drama. There is no excuse for it. It is simply not that difficult to tone down the rhetoric, act like an adult, and quit with the insults.

Watching the International Derby in the absolute worst weather conditions possible with torrential rain that just would not give up, I was depressed about what I was seeing. It was clear we were watching for all the wrong reasons. Whether we had personal ties to some horses didn’t seem to matter, the lack of encouragement for certain riders was abundantly clear. I almost wish I was watching on the computer instead of live so I couldn’t witness the weak applause for the winner. I felt guilty and justified at the same time. What kind of person had I become? Probably not the person I want to be.

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starting to gather under tent for derby

That night I broke my leg. I remember every detail. I waited until late in the day to ride my horses because of the bad weather, and my only choice was to ride in the covered arena, a clay surface not ideal for much except rodeos. However, it is the only option in heavy rain. There was one other person schooling in the ring with me, but he left, walking out into the dark, back to his stall. My horse, never having been keen on being left alone, lifted his head to look for him outside the ring as I was cantering a circle in front of some jumps. In that moment of distraction we passed by some standards and when he brought his attention back to me, he was surprised by the proximity of the jumps and suddenly spun around in a panic, leaving me wholly unprepared and vulnerable. I spun off in spectacular fashion with one leg landing perfectly on the ground, only to see the second leg meet the clay right at ankle height, instantly snapping the bones off right through my clothes, and right through my chaps. If I was 5’8” instead of 5’10” I would have landed clean with no injury. It was gruesome and depressing all at once, and I just lay in a heap in utter shock at what I had done. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to call Brooke (who I knew was home on her couch drinking a beer), and suggested she call for help. She did.

Within minutes I was surrounded by wonderful, kind, caring friends, and as TJ held my head up out of the dirt and Paulie held my hand as the ambulance drivers cut off my boots and chaps, my main concern was not seeing any of them again before the end of circuit. I knew I wasn’t returning and I was heartbroken. I was leaving on such a sad note and didn’t want to. We still had one more church dinner left and they were baking a special chocolate cake just for me (I was insisting on the same icing as before and not switching to lemon) and we still had to get the popcorn machine going again because it was such a hit last weekend. Allen Reinheimer was pacing nervously and I am sure his thoughts about what I might blog about were swirling around in his head, but honestly I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to be exactly right there at the time of that fall, knowing they would never, ever abandon me.

Brooke Kemper, Nigel Potts, Cathy Jolly, Tom and Tracey Brennan, TJ Le Blanc, Paul Jewel, Dani DiPietro and countless other people deserve more than just my thanks for seeing me to the hospital, taking care of the horses, packing my stuff at the show, and at the house, driving my horses home,and all the million other things that had to be done as a result. If you see any of these people around feel free to acknowledge their kindness and never forget your world can change forever in just a 5 second incident.

I will recover, I can still participate from the sidelines, I will finish reading the strange and disturbing auto biography of George Morris which was delivered a few days ago, I will continue to search for solutions for the horse organizations we are all members of, and I most definitely will return to the show ring, and Classic Company horse shows will still be at the top of my short list of competitions I love to attend.

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Kevin McQueen recipient of Sportsmanship award

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Dani showing Westin in adults

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family dinners

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