BY KATRINA BALDING BILLS
I’d finished braiding Fella’s mane for this show just a few moments before loading him into the trailer. Even in the relative warmth of the barn, my hands were cold from braiding his wet mane. Fella’s mane normally stuck straight up and made him look even hotter and more explosive. If we had any hope of resembling a quiet children’s hunter at the show, he needed to be braided. Braids stayed in best when working with a wet mane, and if there was anything we could do well, like Mom always said, it was to show up looking our best. “You two can’t be the winners every time out,” she’d say, “but you can at least look like winners.”
I stared at the ever more glowing horizon and thought about that word, “winners.” My definition for it had changed in just a short couple of years. I had thought it only correlated to those who were listed in those columns in the back of the weekly local horse magazine. The ones pictured with the shiny trophies and long tri-color ribbons. Or the full page glossy ads, whose photos captured that elusive moment in time where the horse’s knees were up to his eyeballs, ears perfectly perked, body rounded in a perfect bascule over the flowered and plant bedecked jump, the rider seemingly effortlessly following the horse’s motion with their arm outstretched toward the bit, heels way down and legs in the perfect position next to the girth—all with not a single braid out of place.
Winners. Well, I wasn’t so sure today would be that day, but we’d do our best to look like that going into the ring.
Fella came off the trailer as proud as a Triple-Crown winner, and I could sense he recognized this place from being here the summer prior. Gone were my jitters over how he would behave on the ground, replaced with a stern determination that we were going to go into the ring and do our absolute best.
Some of the barn friends just hung out till their time in the ring. I didn’t want to take any chances. For us, it was tack up and go trot, in all the rings, to see all the various other horses and jumps and anything that might be spooky.
Tucking the ends of Fella’s wool cooler around my legs, we set off to explore the showgrounds and expel some energy. The cooler was a bright plaid made from a remnant of Ralph Lauren fabric and trimmed with rich green. We felt so fancy—and cozy—while wearing it. As we went along, I chomped a blueberry muffin and chugged the hot chocolate Mom and Dad brought, knowing I might not see another meal until the end of the day.
No one else needed to “go trot,” so we went on our own. As we walked, other riders I recognized from the few shows we’d gone to said “Good morning!” and “Hello, Fella!” Well, huh. I thought we were pariahs, but they seemed to recognize us in a positive, even encouraging way. I smiled, our step picked up and we kept going.
We got to the fairly quiet schooling area, with only a few other riders who’d clearly been told to “go trot” on their young wildlings. The walk from the trailer day parking to the rings would be enough to warm up his back, I thought, so I sidled him up to a jump standard and said very clearly “Now, Stand!”
Dropping the reins, I turned around to gather up the large wool cooler, fold it, and hang it on top of the jump standard. He didn’t move a muscle. Another rider trotted by and said “Wow, he stands so quietly. I couldn’t do that without a groom’s help.”
I smiled, “Thanks.” Then gathered up my reins.
I asked Fella for a trot, and we set about doing circles, figure eights, and leg yielding exercises before the day got too busy. And the oddest thing happened.
He moved off of my seat and leg, right and left. He went wherever my eyes looked, so my hands could stay down and soft. He trotted and cantered and hopped the little schooling jumps without batting an eye. I tried not to fall off in sheer amazement. Instead, I acted nonchalant and collected my cooler. We went to the next ring and did the same program. And again, I could hear him say, “Of course Momma”
He was alert, he was athletic, he was enthusiastic, and he covered more ground than anyone else around us. And he behaved. No ears pinning at other horses, no bolting across the ring for no reason, none of the previous year’s tricks seemed to be up his sleeve at all. I was caught between what I knew I should do, wear him out, and what I wanted to do, hop off right then and heap the praise and pats on him, to reinforce his good behavior. I struck a compromise with myself—two more laps of trot until I heard the unmistakable deep sigh, and then dismount. A quick dismount and a loosened girth was as good a reward as any treat.
I walked back to the trailer, with Fella draped in his cooler to meet looks of aghast horror on the faces of my parents and everyone else. The goal when I’d left had been to stay on him and trot until he was tired. They had thought I’d come off and had been sent back by the ring steward.
Assuaging their worst fears, I even turned around to show I had not landed on my butt in the dirt! “No no no, I didn’t fall…he was just being so good I had to get off to reward him. Yup yup, we trotted in all three rings. Jumped everything we could! People even said nice things about him!” I said to cheers and encouraging hugs!
I bit my lower lip and secretly crossed my fingers for luck. Had the morning been a fluke? We would soon see.
This entire show existed in a vortex of time because the day went as smoothly, quickly and efficiently as possible. Every competitor showed up to their ring on time, there were no complaints nor inquiries. Fella continued to be a chill cool customer the whole day, despite the brisk temperature. He jumped around his courses bravely and keenly, without being overly fast or ridiculously flamboyant. He completed the under saddle classes like a gentleman instead of a prize fighter looking for a knock-out round. Mom didn’t even have to storm the in-gate, as she’d done in the past, loudly wondering why none of these other Green Hunters were bucking or squealing in the corners. I came out of most classes with tears in my eyes, happy ones. Because finally the world was getting to see the horse I always knew I had on hand.
The icing on the cake was when the same Steward who’d excused us from the grounds the year prior, walked by.
“Well, thanks for making the trip again. Wait, this isn’t the same horse? It can’t be! My goodness how he’s matured so nicely! Well done, young lady. Most people wouldn’t have had the patience.”
He gave Fella a pat and turned away to speak to our trainer again. Fella returned that touch with a clack of his teeth and made a slightly nasty face towards the Steward’s back. For a split-second I expected him to lunge and sink his teeth in the man’s shoulder or butt. Luckily, the threatening look was where it ended. Thank Goodness. I turned Fella’s head away from the Steward’s back, just to be sure.
As ever, Fella marched onto the trailer, backed himself into his stall and settled right into his hay net for the ride home. As we drove back to the barn, our hearts burst with all the great results of the day as well as renewed optimism for Fella’s future.
Katrina Balding Bills lives in Purcellville Virginia with her husband, two kids and four dogs. The family’s three horses and two ponies live at her parents’ farm, just in the next town. She graduated from Sweet Briar College with a BA in Economics in 1997. When not writing, she is likely walking the ever-energetic dogs, trail riding or foxhunting with the horses and kids, supporting her business clients or attending one of her husband’s gigs. Dragon is her literary debut and an absolutely 100% true memoir. She is proud to be his girl, forever. You can learn more at katrinabaldingbills.com.