Last week I was a presenter at Equine Affaire in Columbus OH. In case you’ve never been to this expo, it is huge—with hundreds of vendors, every kind of junk food imaginable (and some that are unimaginable—like fried Oreos), marvelous entertainment and an educational program from some of the top trainers in the world. I love this event and always have a good time, even though it is non-stop action and long days.
This year, in addition to doing presentations every day, I also was the emcee for the Equine Affaire Versatile Horse & rider competition. I enjoy narrating as each riding negotiates the course, commenting on what the judge is looking for or educating the spectator on why the particular obstacle is a challenge and throwing in a little humor when I can. It’s not always easy to do all of that without offending or embarrassing the rider but for this year’s competition, the quality of the horses was so high that it made my job easy.
The top 10 riders in the final round of the competition were all very impressive and represented a variety of breeds. In years past, Quarter Horses have definitely dominated this type of high-action trail obstacle contest but this year, the top 10 included a Gypsy Drum, a Lusitano/Kiger Mustang cross, a couple Paints and a spotted saddle horse. But, as it turns out, the best horse of the weekend was a mule! He was absolutely perfect and even though he was competing against some really awesome horses, he was flawless and machine-like in his performance. Nothing beats a good saddle mule and if you have never ridden one, you don’t know what you are missing!
In addition to helping with the competition, I also did several presentations over the weekend on topics including riding better, building confidence, horse behavior, ground manners, canter leads and even one about riding challenging and difficult horses. Needless to say, it was the latter topic that got interesting.
Actually, it was a good clinic, with several horses and their riders that were dealing with minor but annoying behaviors like spooking, refusing to go somewhere, being distracted or going too fast. I spent a lot of time talking about establishing authority in the beginning of your ride and how to do that, controlling your horse’s path and speed, how to use your arena wisely and exercises to help get your horse’s attention. The horses were just the right amount of bad—enough to be interesting, but without any extreme or dangerous behavior and they all made tremendous improvement. But there was one minor mishap in the clinic when a rider fell off.
To be honest, I’ve never had that happen to me in a demonstration in front of a large audience. While it occasionally happens at clinics (not very often), usually at expos, with just a few horses in the arena that are hand-picked for the job, things are pretty controlled. In this case, even though it was a clinic for challenging horses and even though the horse in question was not easy to ride, it really was not the fault of the horse nor was it stemming from any malice on his part. But with a rider down in the arena, I was a little unsure of what to do next.
Frankly, I did not see what happened to initiate the problem—I was clear at the opposite end of the arena from that horse and looking the other way when I heard a loud “ooohhhh” go through the crowd. I turned to see what the commotion was all about, just in time to see the rider hit the dirt and the horse immediately stopped and stood quietly. I have learned over the years to watch closely when a rider falls because you can get a lot of information about how badly hurt they may or may not be and what injuries may have occurred. In this case, I could see that the rider did not hit the ground very hard and although I thought the chances were good that she was unhurt, I did the prudent thing and told her to stay on the ground and not move. While paramedics attended the rider, I caught the horse and returned my attention to the audience.
It was sort of weird; with the rider laying on the ground and paramedics in the ring, I wasn’t sure if I should keep going or stop the clinic, which still had about 45 minutes left. Ultimately, after sharing my concerns with the audience, to try and divert some attention from the rider as she very publically lived out this very private moment, I kept going.
I mounted her horse right away so that the horse had to keep working and regain his focus and to see if it would be safe for the rider to remount once she was cleared by the medics. As I mentioned, he was not easy to ride, but he was just a green 3 y/o—no fault of his own; he just didn’t know much. After I was up for a few minutes and had resumed the clinic, the rider was pronounced healthy and allowed to get back up off the dirt. Ironically, this caused spontaneous applause from the audience, which sent the horse into a spooking bolt across the arena. For a few seconds, while I struggled to stop the horse, I saw this same scenario playing out only with me laying in the dirt this time. But I got the horse stopped and after settling it down again the rider remounted with a big smile on her face.
I was so impressed with this young lady’s composure and maturity. Imagine the embarrassment of falling off in front of a huge crowd (over 1,000 people watching), not to mention the blow to your personal confidence. She picked herself up, dusted off the dirt and got right back up on her horse and rode it like a champ. No tears, no anger, no blaming; but she did have a smile on her face the whole time. She just rode like a cowgirl (but in breeches and tall boots) and I think everyone in the audience, like me, was both empathetic and impressed.
And by the way, you might wonder what led to this incident to begin with and why we were quick not to blame the horse. As I mentioned, I didn’t see the whole thing start, but the rider and audience filled me in on the details. She was riding along just fine when the horse suddenly stopped, put his head down (pulling the reins out of the rider’s hands) and shook his whole body (sometimes, when you have an itch, you have to scratch it). Don’t you hate it when that happens? Unfortunately, not only did she drop the reins, leaving her with no means to control the horse, but then when he shook, she slipped back behind the saddle, startling the horse and causing him to run bucking across the arena. The rider had no reins and she got way out of balance when the horse turned to bolt, so with the first little buck she was air borne. It was a very unfortunate series of events but there was no malice or intention on the part of the horse and the rider knew that.
This gal was young; but her composure and maturity were that of an old soul. I was so impressed with her attitude and that she did not blame the horse. She was an excellent role model to all of us and I just hope I can be that classy when and if it happens to me.
Enjoy the ride,