At the risk of aging myself, the concept of the hunter derby was foreign to me when I grew up at the horse shows. Sure, there were classics and shows with a field had some large hunter classes, but the idea of having a Derby class with food for competitors, and everyone sticking around at the end of a LONG day of showing was pretty unheard of. When I started delving back into the world of horse shows with my daughter’s first shows, the first few derbies we watched sucked me in with the braids and the shadbellies, and the course that deviated from the normal outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal that we have all become so used to.
In case you, like I was several years ago, are unfamiliar with the derby, it is basically a class that more accurately mimics the hunt field. Jumps can be more narrow, without ground lines, made of straw bales or coops. Courses incorporate roll backs, unrelated lines, and trot jumps. There are high and low options, in which the rider can accumulate bonus points for taking the more difficult jump. In short, they are a way to bring back some of the heritage of what our present-day hunters extended from. The derby’s goal is to challenge horses to step outside of the usual hunter box and display more bravery, athleticism and handiness.
Many years (and many horse show bills) later, the derby still had this air of untouchable for me. It is a class the professionals, or the talented junior riders, participated in. Sometimes a rogue kid on a pony would enter a local derby, but in my head at least, it was definitely NOT a class for the lowly adult PonyMomAmmy on a green pony.
I will be the first to admit, my riding has improved tremendously in the last six months, but my nerves…maybe not so much. So when asked to make a goal for myself for the year, I threw out there that I wanted to do a derby. Never thinking my trainer would remember, or at the very least, that I could talk her out of it if she did remember.
Well… she remembered and entered me in a local derby at the very next show. Despite my best attempts to come up with a million reasons why I should not do it – I didn’t have a shadbelly, my pony hates anyone close to his ears so braiding would be a nightmare – as the weekend approached, it was still a part of the plan. We spent the week before practicing roll backs a la the “circle of death” and figure eights.
My biggest struggle in the saddle is actively thinking while on course. My brain has a tendency to shut down in the moment. If you’ve ever seen the movie “For Love of the Game,” and you know how when Kevin Costner steps up to the mound and “clears the mechanism”? That is the best analogy ever for what my head would like to do when I’m jumping. “What were you thinking over that jump just then?” my trainer might ask. And I could honestly say, “nothing. I was thinking absolutely nothing” and that was 100% accurate. It would all work out fine, except that bad habits die hard, y’all. When my brain shuts down, those old bad habits come back with a vengeance, and I don’t even know I’m doing it.
But what I found, when practicing those turns, bending lines, and trot jumps for the derby, is that my brain couldn’t just shut down. When all I had to remember was outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal, it was fine to go on autopilot – once I found the first jump, everything else was old habit. But when I had to think about where I was going, and how I was going to get there, I stayed engaged in my ride the whole time. And when I stayed engaged the whole time, I actually used my legs to steer, used my seat to balance, remembered to breathe…I actually rode the course.
I am not going to lie, I seriously considered chickening out multiple times the day of the derby (and this was a local one…my PonyMomAmmy nerves are not cut out for 4 ft high options at this particular moment in my life), but I didn’t… mostly because I was too embarrassed to bail. My kid was so excited to watch me try it, and my fellow barn PonyMomAmmy was doing it too. Plus #fomo is real, y’all.
So I did it. I didn’t die. And I actually had So. Much. Fun. Like the most fun I’ve had in the show ring in a long time. It wasn’t perfect – we swapped one stride out from the last jump – but it was our best effort. I wasn’t even out of the ring from the classic round, before I was grinning and telling the trainer how much fun I had and thanking her for making me do it.
We made the top 12, and were called back for the handy. That round wasn’t as smooth as our classic round, and we (ok, I, not we) totally botched the last fence, but again it was a blast. We finished 6th, which while not 1st, I was thrilled with. My little green pony got a big green neck ribbon AND (the best part, at least for him) the victory gallop. My fellow barn PonyMomAmmy finished 3rd, and we decided that from now on, all great moments shall be celebrated with a victory gallop! Nail that lead change you’ve been working on at home? Victory Gallop! Figure out how to sit up and fit in an extra stride? Victory Gallop! Do something really spectacular, feel free to throw in a good solid fist pump in your gallop lap.
It’s funny how the thing that scared me the most, is the thing that made me think the hardest, and that is what made me actually relax and ride. And THAT was a whole lot of fun. I think that’s the whole point of the derby – it’s not the same ole boring rounds with 8 identical jumps. It is designed to be challenging, but it reminds me of being a kid on my pony out in the field, cantering jumps with wild abandon. It’s hard yes, but there is joy in that challenge and isn’t that what it’s all about.