When I started riding at hunter/jumper show barns again in my late twenties after a few years off, I was that person in the barn who was always spouting off about turnout for horse & rider. Collared shirts only! Always wear a belt! Clean your bridle after every ride! Tie-dye polo wraps should be burned in a blazing inferno!
I was deeply concerned about my appearance, because I felt it was part of proving myself in the hunter/jumper world. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that I was an unsupervised teenager, jumping my bought-from-the-newspaper Quarter Horse without a helmet with my untucked t-shirt flapping with each stride.
Yeah, I was that horse kid but for each bad habit I picked up, I’m just as proud of the things I learned from being a backyard rider.
1. I Did My Own Horse Care
The five-stall barn I grew up riding at was in my horse trainer’s backyard. I was the only boarder and lesson client, and there certainly were no grooms. My trainer instilled in me a simple mantra – horse first. Horse care was more important than riding or ribbons. When we would go fox hunting or trail riding for hours and jump off our horses hungry and tired, it went without saying that I would untack, offer water and sponge my sweaty horse off before doing anything for myself.
This tiny barn is the same place my parents would drop me off for hours in the summer, and I’d spend time cleaning the stalls with nothing but the sounds of horses’ hooves shuffling around in the dry lot or manure thudding against the muck bucket. I learned to soak feet, measure feed and dress wounds and I did all of these things because I wanted to. Because it was fun, and because I was taught that healthy animals come before anything else.
2. I Tried New Things
Since I rode with only my no-frills trainer’s guidance, there was never a gaggle of tween girls trying to influence my every move. There was no one around to think I was foolish for trying something a little out of the norm.
I fox hunted before ever doing a courtesy circle for a hunter round. When I did start to show, there was nobody to tell me that a hunter/jumper girl couldn’t try her hand at Western Showmanship. In this little barn, I never felt any pressure to belong and on my own schedule, I could learn the kind of things my horse and I enjoyed.
3. I Had Seizure-Inducing Tack
Remember how I would berate the kids at my hunter/jumper barn about their tie-dye tack? Yeah, that was a straight up hypocritical move.
I had the craziest saddle pads for the longest time… and you know what? I LOVED them! It wasn’t until much, much later in my riding career that I realized these things were terribly untrendy, but now I wonder why I even cared.
There’s so much more to horses than looking like you walked out of a Dover catalog. Would I wear these saddle pads to a clinic or school at a show? I wouldn’t, especially not today. But I think they’re fun, and I think they’re functional and I think there is absolutely no harm in having a little bit of flair in your riding wardrobe if it makes you happy.
4. I Braided Poorly (Until I Didn’t)
Because our barn was so small and our outings were primarily hunter paces or fox hunting, shows were a big deal. I was taught that braiding is a sign of respect for your horse, your judge and your dedication to the sport and so I always wanted to braid my cheap little Quarter Horse for the piddly schooling shows we did.
At first the results were… bad. They were very, very bad. But! I kept trying. A friend showed me some braiding tips, and over the years my attempts became more and more passable.
Now I can knock out acceptable braids, and am happy to have that skill in my repertoire. I still braid for the occasional schooling show, if there’s a local derby or I just feel like it. I guess my inner twelve-year-old still thinks horse shows are really special.
5. I Was Happy With What I Had
When I was the sole rider in the backyard barn, I didn’t spend time thinking about all the things I didn’t have. My saddle was a cheap Collegiate All Purpose, but I used allowance and chore money to split the purchase with my parents and didn’t know that I should really be riding in a CWD 2GS.
My $2,000 Quarter Horse was an angel to me. He didn’t ever buck me off and didn’t spook when we cantered through the woods. I could throw him in the trailer and take him adventuring anywhere by myself, and we’d spend long days sharing a bag of Doritos in-between classes at $7/class, anything-goes schooling shows.
My horse life was simpler back then. I didn’t know the intricacies of the show ring that I do now. My long-backed, short-strided little horse was totally fine with me until I took him to college and learned more about what it takes to succeed in this world with its fancy warmbloods and pristine riding clothes.
In some ways, I miss it. I miss those hours spent by myself trotting through the sloped grass riding ring in my trainer’s backyard. But I carry it all with me as I move forward in my riding career — crazy saddlepads and all.