Going back into the show ring after several years away isn't like riding a bike. You don't just get on and have it be real easy again. It's not easy. But I think my being back is good for my students-they respect me more as a teacher if they see me out there competing and working hard, the way I want them to. And it's good for me: Because I'm riding and showing, I have more feeling for what my students are experiencing when they're up there.
The show ring was my main focus for about my first six years out of juniors, when I rode most of the top hunters for Don Stewart Stables. Being twenty or twenty-three years old and having nice horses to ride week after week feels pretty easy; you think the world's out in front of you. Then when Don hired Kelly Farmer (the 1993 Maclay winner), she took on most of the showing, and I got to stay home more, concentrating on teaching kids and giving clinics, which I enjoyed. (I earned my judging license, then, too.) But when Kelly moved on to another barn, Don needed me to show again.
At first, I felt a little rusty. Although I'd been riding and training a lot, I hadn't competed at all for several years. Warming up horses for somebody else, you can circle in front of the jump if you need to, or slow down and do a simple change instead of a flying change. . . . But when you step back into the ring, you have to learn to finesse things again so you look smooth and get the job done.
My first show back was in Jacksonville in January 2000. The show was a smaller one; there wasn't a lot of pressure. Still, I felt a little nervous. I was on a first-year green horse, and this was his first show ever-so even though I'd been working with him for a couple of months, it wasn't just a matter of going in there and finding the jumps. I had to steer and make sure he knew exactly what I was talking about. We ended up doing a little more weaving down the lines than I expected.
Since then, though, being back showing has become more and more a positive for me. There's so much crossover from my experience that I can use in my teaching, telling students what to do and what to expect. I've always wanted them to know that I can get on and show them anything I ask them to do. I try to keep my teaching very basic; and when I put up an equitation course at home, I always ride it myself first to make sure it can be done and done smoothly. My kids know I won't just stick them on and say, "Why can't you get that forward three?"
And there's more. I think anybody who rides and shows as well as teaches becomes a little-well, a little "softer" in how he teaches. If you don't ever ride, and you just watch kids go back and forth, you can get a little hard on them. But if you're out there riding yourself, you know you're trying your best and you realize that your students are, too-and that sometimes it just doesn't work out. If a kid's horse isn't there for her that day, he isn't, and it's not the end of the world. Tomorrow can be a different kind of day.
This article first appeared in the December, 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.