At 10 p.m. the night before the 1998 Maclay Finals, Kristin Mauks was staring through trainer Missy Clark's truck windshield at a Manhattan side street teeming with rigs, horses, and people, with Madison Square Garden looming beyond. She'd worked hard toward this chance for six years. For a moment, though, the reality was overwhelming.
"I was thinking, I have to unload these horses here. I have to take the tack trunks up this five-story-high ramp. This is insane! Missy kept saying, 'You need to check into the hotel and get some rest.' But I kept thinking it was only an hour until I needed to be on a horse."
Kristin knew she'd be riding in the Finals uin only a few hours, but the work for which she was responsible was the first thing on her mind. That sense of priorities was what had made it possible for her to be here in the first place. Kristin had ridden with Missy since age eleven, including one season as a working student in training with North Run on the Florida circuit, but family finances limited her time in the barn and at horse shows. "It was summer 1997 before I was able to show enough to qualify for the AHSA Medal Finals; I didn't try for the Maclay because I couldn't afford to do both." Completing high school a year early in the spring of 1998 enabled her to use a year before college to work and ride full time with Missy.
'MORE LIKE A FAMILY"
During summer 1998, Kristin finally became an ongoing part of North Run instead of a student who came and went for lessons or for brief stints on the circuit. She thrived on the change. "It was always hard to get back into the swing of things when I was just having a lesson every four or six weeks," she said at the end of that summer. "Now I'm always in it."
First, there was the riding. "I get to ride lots of different horses, and each one--whether trained or just out of the pasture--teaches me something. I feel so much more confident, so much more solid."
And there was constant exposure to Missy's training. "A lot of times I'll be out flatting a horse and she'll get on another one and I can just sit there and watch her for a while; it's like I'm always having a lesson. I'm learning a ton, and my riding improved a hundred percent in my first few weeks."
The routine was grueling. Kristin was usually responsible for three horses' care. "There were days when my alarm rang at 3 a.m. and I thought, 'Is this real? Do I really have to get out of bed?' When we're on the road, I'm at the barn at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. most of the time, earlier at big shows like the Regionals, and I stay until 8 p.m. or later. At the Finals, for the whole weekend, nobody sleeps."
Missy usually arrives at the show early, while Kristin is feeding horses and mucking stalls in the pre-dawn hours. "I have a lesson at 6 a.m. on the horse I'm showing at the time. I bathe him after our lesson. Later, after my class, it's back to the barn, do his legs, put him away, then take care of the other horses I'm responsible for. And the day just goes on. But Missy is putting in just as many hours as the rest of us, if not more. She never shows up later or misses classes. We're more like a family organization than a business."
The barn work, Kristin found, helped the ring work. "You get to know the horses more. You know who you're riding, the horse's attitude, how he acts in his stall, and you notice differences from day to day--maybe a slight stiffness that's going to affect the day's work."
The horse that Kristin rode much of the summer and fall of 1998 was Amsterdam. "He didn't seem happy with his job at first; he was very head-shy and standoffish and sometimes stopped in the combinations." After a few weeks of patient work and lots of treats, he came out of his shell. "We started to click. He's a sweet horse once he trusts you." It was on Amsterdam that Kristin placed twelfth at the Northeast Regionals and qualified for the 1998 Maclay Finals.
The Maclay itself, beginning with that late-night arrival at the Garden, was a blur of nonstop activity. "I knew I was tired, but my adrenaline and the excitement of being there kept me going." Once again, North Run's camaraderie provided energy for the all-nighter. "There were three or four of us working with Missy: our on-the-road barn manager Brian Robinson, the grooms--we were all there at the same time, which made it easier."
Riding into the ring at the Garden was another boost: "When I walked in, I thought, 'My gosh, I'm showing at Madison Square Garden. OK, two minutes of concentration--that's all I need."
The small mistake that kept Kristin out of the callback--"Amsterdam gave me a big round jump over an oxer and I lost my position for a couple of strides"--was partly due to fatigue, she says, and "partly that my lower leg position is a bit weak."
Missy added that Kristin's position reflected the years she spent working mostly on her own before coming with North Run full-time in 1998. "She had a habit of being more on her toe than on her heel. For as long as I'd given her lessons, I said she needed to fix it. Now she did indeed realize it made a huge difference, and began riding diligently without her stirrups."
TURNING CONS INTO PROS
If any part of Kristin's story--including the great anecdote about her inexpensive boots, so worn out by early 1999 that her mother helped her reconstruct them with duct tape to get them through the Florida circuit--makes you think about feeling sorry for her, think again. For her, the working-student route changed from the way she had to do it to ride at this level to the way she wanted to do it. Most of the apparent disadvantages turned out to have significant up-sides, both for her development and her ultimate career plans.
Although qualifying for and excelling in the Finals is more difficult for someone riding a series of new horses, Kristin eventually found it "more fun than stressful to have different horses. I felt more able to get on anything and do well with it."
Her commitment to riding cost her a normal teenage social life, but she gained "people skills" that few her age possess. "In this business you meet so many new people, and everyone is so totally different. You have to have an open attitude and relate with everyone. That's the biggest thing I learned out of the whole experience."
UPDATE! Kristin, now a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is excelling there in a totally different sport: She is a member of Penn's varsity women's rowing team.
Excerpted from an article that first appeared in the September 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.