BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I’ve spent a long time feeling like I was lesser within the equestrian world. Growing up riding at a small private barn, our focus was fox hunting and horsemanship, not equitation medals and hack classes. I didn’t have anxiety about my junior career, because I had no junior career.
But it didn’t take me long to learn that I wasn’t as “proper” as anyone else. College brought hunter barns, IHSA and equitation. I traded my black coat, rubber field boots and show bow for a navy plaid coat, Tailored Sportsmans and real leather field boots that didn’t come halfway up my calf. Even decked out in my new attire, I never felt like I looked the part.
At horse shows, everyone focused on the bigger jumps, the “real” divisions. My Quarter Horse, a perfect field hunter, had a long back and a short stride. He was saintly, but not athletic, and we struggled in the 2’ Long Stirrup division at local shows. My friends were going around in classes I didn’t understand, all kinds of “Greens” and Adults and Owners? All I knew is that the jumps were bigger, and therefore more important.
Fifteen years later, I’ve educated myself in the industry. I know all of the divisions, can score a hunter round, braid an acceptable mane, spectated some of the biggest horse shows in the country and own a suitable horse for the sport. For years, I’ve been showing locally for year-end prizes, have worn a coveted shadbelly for Derbies, and even won an equitation medal. I am living the hunter/jumper dreams I made in college, but many still don’t consider me part of this world.
I don’t like jumping bigger than 2’6”. Sure, I’ve done some 2’9” classes but the mental barrier between me and the “real” divisions is huge. I know it’s only a difference of 3-6” inches, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it into the Adults. Wide oxers give me anxiety. I don’t want to punish my horse if (let’s be real, when) I miss a distance. Every time I think about moving up, the blood drains from my not-as-low-as-they-should-be heels. It’s not fun, and if I know anything about this sport, it’s that it should be fun.
Whenever I head to a big horse show like WEF, Coachella, or any of the other glamorous circuits I love to watch but don’t participate in, of course I spend some time by the big rings. International Derbies thrill me even more than Grand Prixs. There’s something amazing about watching these talented riders and their beautiful horses make it look so easy.
But I also like to swing by the smaller rings too, the ones labeled with a higher number, the ones that aren’t surrounded by the grand stands. Often times, these rings have tighter competition than the classes that get all the fanfare on the prizelist. 2’ hunters, adult crossrails, pleasure divisions, pre-child/adult. As exciting as the big jumps are, I know this is my home when I make it to the rated level. These are my people.
I think it’s easy for someone who grew up on the back of a horse and has spent more hours in this sport than I have on the planet to dismiss these kind of riders. Oh they must need a participation prize. She’s been showing that horse in 2’3” forever, isn’t it time to move up? Watching crossrails all day is so boring!
I hate hearing those kind of comments. I hate it when people act like the smaller classes aren’t as important to the horse show as the main rings. I hate it, because it’s not true.
It doesn’t matter if a rider looks perfect on the back of their amazing hunter cantering around a small course. We have no room to criticize anyone for swinging a leg over and joining our sport. We don’t know what kind of journey they’ve gone through to be there. Riding is a hugely expensive endeavor, both with money, time and emotional energy. Getting to the horse show at all is a giant win—no matter how tall the jumps are.
And let’s not forget the fear we all have inside. Yes, even those of us who regularly jump over 3’6”. We know this is a dangerous sport. Anyone in the big rings is one bad fall away from needing to step down to build confidence again for them or their horse. Sometimes the biggest victories can be won over 18” and I won’t take that away from a rider who’s worked hard to be there.
These small classes are the backbone of the horse shows. They’re why we have the numbers to offer prize money and keep this exquisite system going. The lower rings open the door for newcomers to join us in a safe and welcoming way, as well as provide a haven for more experienced riders who might need to step back down and remember what this is all about: having fun.
To those of you who show in the “real” divisions, keep being your kick ass self. We look up to you. We love watching you. You give some of us something to aspire to.
But don’t ask us when we’re moving up. When we win at our height, don’t let us say something to the extent of, “Oh it doesn’t matter. It’s just 2’.” We are your champion, but be ours too. Even if the stakes seem much lower than your Amateur Owner prize money, they’re just as important to us.
One day we might show alongside you in the international ring, or we might not. But we all love this sport. Anyone who makes it to the horse show isn’t lesser. Everyone here is quite “real.”
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About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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