This weekend I will be traveling to the Skowhegan Fairground to compete at the Arabian Horse Association of Maine’s annual Spring Classic Horse Show. I have gone to this show for the past six years, but this year is different because I am not taking my horse. I am taking A horse, just not MY horse.
Skowhegan is one of my favorite places to show horses. The arena is big so there is plenty of space for everyone, and it’s covered, which means protection from sun and rain, both of which are guaranteed elements of the horse showing. There are barns so horses can be stabled right on the show grounds, and the staff running the show is patient, professional and as accommodating as possible.
Raphael (Raffles) is a Swedish warmblood, a breed of horse bred to be competitive in dressage and jumping events. Raffles was athletic enough and had the training to be a participant in those sports, but he did not have the mental capacity. For such a big, macho, rugged horse, he is a downright chicken. In his bred-for sports, horses enter the show ring individually. Raffles was too scared to go by himself. I tried for years and struggled through many dressage tests to show this horse, but each one was a frustrating effort as our tests were filled with brilliant moments and then moments when Raffles was scared to death of the flowerpots and went running the opposite direction.
One summer I switched gears, trying to find a venue the horse enjoyed, and I took him to the Spring Classic, a show populated by much daintier breeds of horses. Arabians, Morgans and saddlebreds are the main competitors, although there are also quarter horses, Appaloosas, Friesians and an occasional “other.” Raffles was the only Swedish warmblood. He stood out like a sore thumb, but fit in like a cog on a wheel.
At Skowhegan, he got to go in the ring with a crowd of horses, which made him feel secure and confident. His inner ham began to emerge. The crowds cheering and whistling only fed his ego and he performed as he was meant to. Not every show was wonderful. There were times when he was a little too fueled by the crowd and would have a bucking fit, but generally he showed well and we came home with many championship ribbons. He became a rock star of the horse show and people would tell me they would go to the show ring just to watch his ride. People stopped by his stall to visit him and ask if they could pet him.
Often, people would comment about him being a push-button horse, meaning a horse that was so well-trained you only had to push a button for him to perform. Oh, if only they knew. I could ride Raffles because I understood him and knew him so well, but he was no easy ride. He took a great amount of strength and delicacy to ride. He required strict attention and a rider could not get distracted for a moment. The only reason we showed so well is because we worked together so well. Raffles was my poker horse; I had to know when to hold him and when to fold. If I held him too much, he’d rebel, but if I backed off too much he would gambol, and someone else would take home the pot.
Last year was his last year of showing. At 25 years old, I thought it was time to retire him. My weekends at the Skowhegan shows were always something I looked forward to because I got some undivided attention time with my horse. It was through those shows that I began to relish riding my horse instead of dreading it.
I will miss showing Raffles. I know him by heart. I am glad to have found something we enjoyed doing together, even if it wasn’t what we were “supposed” to do. Not every horse is going to fit in the slot we have picked out for them. It is up to us to be flexible, consider other options, and not force a horse into a career for which it isn’t suited.
All of the horse shows at the Skowhegan Fairground are open to the public and have no admission cost. Though Raffles the Rock Star won’t be there, there are many, many other magnificent horses to watch. Look for my new show horse, One Chance Fancy, owned by Emma O’Connor of Glenburn. I’m betting she’s going to ace her first big show.