From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Horse Laugh

Be like a sponge when it comes to each new experience. If you want to be able to express it well, you must first be able to absorb it well.

Jim Rohn

It was one of those horse days you look back on with embarrassment and laughter. One of those times you want to forget, yet can’t help remembering.

At the time, my fifteen-year-old daughter, Mikkel, and I had been considering investing in a high-powered, expensive show horse. In search of the Holy Grail of Quarter Horses and to size up our competition, we had been to countless horse shows and watched with envy as confident women in bespoke clothes expertly guided beautiful, wellgroomed and well-trained horses to ribbons, trophies, even the highly coveted buckles awarded in the Western pleasure category. In our hearts—and yes, our wallets, too—what wouldn’t we give to get one of these saucer-sized buckles, the horse world equivalent of having your name in lights?

I had visions of myself in an ornate shiny vest with matching shirt, sausage-casing tight pants, suede chaps and the most fashionable color of full quill boots. My crowning glory would be an expensive Western hat, perfectly shaped to highlight my competition hair. I dreamed of sitting backbrace upright, yet utterly composed and, relaxed on my show horse. Trainers, riders, spectators and most important the judges would marvel at my ability to show no perceptible movement as I cued my horse with just my legs and the Psychic Hotline (loose reins held above the base of the horse’s neck via motionless hands).

The horse gods must have been yelling, “Wake up. WAKE UP!” because I was jolted back to my own barnyard reality. I had chosen my large palomino with an unknown history in the summer of 1997 before moving to our new horse ranch deep in the mountains of northern Idaho. I found him in the busy stockyard corrals, where he was ridden by migrant workers to herd cattle. With his golden coat aglow against a backdrop of black Angus and red Hereford cattle, it was love at first sight. Squinting with my mind’s eye, I can still see him galloping around the arena as the savvy horse trader showed me what he could do. A magnificent animal that showed more moves in that corral than the contestants of Can They Dance?

In the movie, Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger has a line, “You had me at hello!” I felt the exact same way and never bothered to look for right or wrong leads, correct canter, a low neck, penny-pushing head or any other signs of a welltrained horse or untrained horse. I didn’t even know about them at the time. It turned out I was in love for all the wrong reasons. Blissfully unaware of this, I named him Gabriel—as in the angel Gabriel—because we were all going to live happily-ever-after at Almost Heaven Ranch.

Shortly after we moved to the ranch, we heard about an open horse show in the neighboring town of Sandpoint. It was scheduled for August at the fairgrounds so we only had a couple of weeks to prepare. I was excited, nervous and hopeful all at once. Could Gabriel and I dance the dance?

In a role reversal, my young daughter was confident and I was not. Mikkel told me to train hard, be confident, do my best and that she’d be proud of me no matter what. I watched Mikkel on her horse Chex and tried to imitate the way she made his head and neck stay level with the ground. I worked on cueing Gabe with my legs and using subtle kissing and clicking sounds to encourage the required movements.

When it came time to purchase our outfits, they were just as we’d dreamed they’d be; we felt like Sargeants’ catalog models. The big day was soon upon us with its dry, dusty heat. Cocksure, Mikkel signed up for five classes and I, almost collapsing with fear, reluctantly followed her lead.

Our first class was a trail class. Chex did it all quite well. Gabriel did fine until he had to cross a fake bridge made of slats of wood, about a thousandth of an inch off the ground. Gabe walked forward to the bridge, then backed away, then like an instant replay loop, went forward and back, forward and back, but never over. Eventually, we went around the bridge and finished the course.

The next class was the Western pleasure class. We were instructed to enter the ring at a jog. Mikkel and the other riders entered the ring as directed, at a slow, controlled jog. Soon it was my turn and I rode through the arena gate atop my magnificent Gabe, confident that we were at a slow jog. I could hear Mikkel’s words, “Be positive! Think blue ribbons! Win belt buckles!” ringing in my head.

That was the right side of my brain talking; the left side of my brain soon acknowledged that Gabe and I were passing horse after horse after horse. Then the judge called out “Lope your horses,” and on cue Gabe picked up the prescribed gait. But again, we were going faster and faster, passing all of the other horses in front of us. If looks could kill, we were probably dead a dozen times over because both horses and riders hate to be overtaken by someone who’s out of control, but at the time I was oblivious.

As we passed in front of the judge, I could see the clipboard in his hands, the look of concentration and seriousness on his face. Looking back, I wonder how he kept from tossing out decorum and breaking into hysterical laughter. Not only was I circling the ring three times faster than everyone else, I was bouncing up and down as if my rear end and the saddle were playing Ping-Pong.

I did not know Gabe cross-fired when I first saw, bought and trained him. And that day at the show I never noticed the cattle just outside the riding ring that got his blood percolating like an old-time coffee pot, aggravating the crossfiring to new unbalanced heights. Gabe and I were having such a great time! Not only didn’t we notice that we were out of step with the rest of the horses and riders—we thought we were better!

Finally, mercifully in retrospect, the class ended and we all lined up for the judge’s decision. One by one, the lighter colored ribbons were awarded and both Mikkel on Chex, and I on Gabe, were still standing proudly, hopefully in formation. Perhaps we’d get first and second, something we’d always remember as a mother/daughter horse-loving team.

Well, half the dream came true: Mikkel did get first place. And Gabe and I? Nothing! I couldn’t believe it. Hadn’t we been worthy of a pictorial in Horse & Rider magazine?

Since that dusty August day in 1997, Mikkel and I have purchased a well-trained show horse and have ridden successfully in many AQHA shows. By reading and riding, watching videos and observing riders at major horse shows, I’ve learned a lot about showing horses. Along with that knowledge has come the realization of just how awful Gabe and I were that day.

Yet, I also appreciate the fact that Gabe is a sure-footed trail horse with instant overdrive if I feel like a four-feet-off-theground gallop. Gabe’s kept his cow-horse heritage by helping with the branding time roundup at our neighbor’s Angus ranch. And my big old palomino excels at hearing a whistle and racing from the distant pasture to the fence by the house for an apple, molasses cookie or a little loving.

In the end, I think I love Gabe for all the right reasons. I’m even glad Gabe’s a lousy horse in competition. Whenever Mikkel or I feel sad or have a bad day, we can just say, “Remember the day Gabe was a show horse?” and we immediately break out laughing until the tears stream down our faces. It’s a very different—but equally wonderful—memory for a mother/daughter horse-loving team to share.

Teresa Becker

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