We recently attended our local county fair and I wanted to write about how great it is. How unique it is. How fun it is. But when I sat down to write that story, I couldn’t. I tried, and several times at that, but couldn’t find the entry point.
Instead, I wrote this.
As a kid, I participated in 4-H and every year the season culminated in the county fair with each participant bringing completed projects and/ or animals: a steer, a horse, a pig, a goat, or even a sheep. I participated in the 4-H horse project and therefore, brought a horse.
My 4-H Horse Project, circa the 1990s.
I’m 12. I roll out of bed, put on my barn clothes, and head to the 4-H barn to feed my horse. The morning is clean, bright and happy. But I’m not happy. I’m too nervous to be happy: today is show day.
Tatter Magoo greets me with a gentle whicker and I smile, calmed momentarily by his friendly good morning. I toss him fresh hay, give him a bit of grain, unsnap the water bucket and bring it to the faucet, fill it, and lug it back to the stall, spilling half the water on myself in the process. I’m 12 but determined.
As the gentle gelding eats his breakfast, I look him over carefully. Like all the other horses, Tatter spent the night in a stall and though I bathed him the night before, he’s no longer shiny clean. Curled pine shavings cling to his tail and a green manure splotch decorates his left hindquarter. My stomach squeezes into a knot. I have to remove the shavings and more importantly, remove the unsightly spot before my first class, Showmanship.
There’s never enough time on show morning. Like me, 4-H kids scurry around madly—feeding horses, walking horse, grooming horses, clipping horses.
Some horses know the drill and eat quietly in their stalls. Others are frantic, some dangerously so, and I’m grateful for Tatter’s calm. The cacophony—hooves clanging against the metal stalls, horses whinnying loudly for their herd mates, and parents hollering directions to kids—is show day.
I run back to the camper, choke down two bites of too-thick oatmeal and pull on my show clothes: gray-colored breeches; a tailored button down shirt, specific to the English riding tradition; an English riding jacket; rubber riding boots. Mom yanks my thick hair into a French braid, tucks it in, and secures it with bobby pins. I check the three-quarter length camper mirror and see a slim girl—sweet faced—with pink cheeks and a nervous expression.
It’s nearly time for the Showmanship class. Kids with their horses mill around the warm-up area, sneaking in last minute practice: squaring up the feet, pivoting on the haunches. For some, it’s simply too late. No amount of last minute practice will have any discernible effect.
I find Tatter in his stall, still quiet, still pleasant, still calm. I exhale.
“Okay, boy. It’s time,” I murmur. “Are you ready?”
Of course, he doesn’t answer me but he doesn’t fight me as I slip the metal bit into his mouth. I secure the throat latch and the cavasson (the noseband on an English bridle), gather the reins in my hands and we step out of the stall.
I commit the showmanship pattern to memory and watch as competitors enter the gate, walk to a cone, pivot, and trot to the judge.
And then, it’s our turn.
Tatter moves with me as we enter the gate. We reach the cone and pivot. I begin to jog in place, hoping that he reads my body language and begins trotting. He doesn’t.
Come on, come on, come on.
Finally, he trots. I smile at the judge—not because I want to smile, but because I know I’m supposed to—and my mouth feels as dry as a cotton ball. We halt and I do my best to square up his four hooves. We get close. I make eye contact with the judge, pointing my rubber-clad toes towards Tatter’s shoulder, thereby indicating that we are ready for closer inspection.
I move as I’ve been taught to move, stepping from one side to the other so that my body never obscures the judge’s view of my horse. He smiles kindly at me and nods. I pivot Tatter, turn and make eye contact with the judge. This time Tatter trots easily. And just like that, we’re done. We find our place in line and wait for the class to finish.
We finish fourth.
To sweet girls and the horses they love,
PS // I want and plan to write the other story too, but for some reason this one needed to be told first.