Horse show schooling rings tend to inspire a wide array of feelings, but mostly, they inspire dread. Walking my horse up to the in-gate, nervously contemplating my admittance into that swirling, six-lane autobahn of wringing tails and tremulous hoof beats, I’m reminded of yet another uncomfortable sensation: the feeling of walking into a party for the first time.
Parties, like schooling rings, come in a variety of shapes and sizes — and in varying degrees of harmony or mayhem. Heading up the drive, wine bottle in hand, preparing to knock on the door and ushered into the unknown is its own kind of trial by fire. Much like the schooling ring, your experience is likely to go one of three ways.
The Vibe Is Right
Every once in awhile, you get lucky. You arrive at the schooling ring without feeling rushed or unprepared. Your horse is sparkling, you’ve got your course on lock-down, you’re wearing your lucky boot socks, and somehow, as if by magic, your trainer nonchalantly grabs the middle schooling jump when you’re comfortably five riders out.
Photo by Sportfot.
The flow is right, everyone is cantering in the same direction, and people are — miracle of miracles — exhibiting actual courtesy. Like a homing missile, you find your first jumps of the day, nailing every distance. In fact, you look around and realize that, not only do your fellow riders seem to be able to steer effectively, but they’re watching out for you in the landing, passing left to left, calling out fences in normal, measured voices, and generally helping to ensure that the experience is a pleasant one for all.
In party terms, this is the ideal evening gathering of new friends. It’s the kind of place where you show up late, not expecting much, and find, to your surprise, that your favorite Spotify channel is playing, the catering is on point (is that lump meat in those crab cakes? And that chipotle aioli — wow!), and the company is pleasant and genuinely invested in making sure you’re having a good time.
“Why not? I’ll have another glass of pinot,” you say, proffering a large handful of cocktail nuts and leaning back in your chair, suddenly wondering why you were ever anxious about coming here to begin with. You think, “Why do I always tie myself in knots over these things?” Oh, my sweet summer child.
Ten’s a Crowd
You can almost always gauge the quality of your future schooling ring experience by the number of paired up riders strolling side by side along the rail.
Sure, the in-gate starter is juggling 30 trainer conflicts, there are half the requisite number of jumps to go around, and the schooling area is currently feeding the grand prix ring, jumper II, and some stray walk-trotters from “pony island.” But barn mates Mackenzie and Jessica, in their matching powder blue show coats, have some serious catching up to do, and it can’t wait. Not five minutes, not for an hour, and certainly not until they get back to their tent, where, by happy chance, their horses are also stabled next to one another in the same row.
Photo by Sportfot.
Who among us have been personally victimized by the Mackenzies and Jessicas of the horse show world? The answer is: everyone. And while you may be yelling “Heads up!” at the top of your lungs as you attempt to rollback to a giant oxer and the announcer is calling you on-deck for your classic trip, Mackenzie and Jessica, Liz and Gabby, and Eric and Whitney are planning their Monday pub crawl, duck-facing on Instagram live, and discussing the state of Patrick’s rear end in his new, white breeches over there on the bay.
In party terms, this may be the same feeling you get upon entering the apartment living room, only to find that not only do you not know anyone else in attendance — as your host turns heel and abruptly abandons you in this strange, new Serengeti — but that, mysteriously, everyone there seems to already know one another.
... you attempt to join in with the small talk ...
“Is anyone sitting here?” you ask the girl in the hot pink Theory dress, who barely conceals her disdain as she tells you her boyfriend went to the bathroom and is coming right back. Moving to the right, you attempt to join in with the small talk, only to realize, sadly, that you don’t belong to the loveseat kickball league and have nothing to add on first baseman Kevin, the state of his marriage, or his dynamite left foot.
Photo by Sportfot.
Giving up, you quietly retreat to the corner, suddenly unsure what to do with your cocktail napkin and taking increasingly large pulls from the flute of prosecco in your hand. You check the clock on your cell phone and quietly set the timer on vibrate for 30 minutes. Just 29 more minutes to go.
The End of Days Rager
Then there are the days — God help us, those days — when it feels like all reason and common sense have abandoned the horse show population at large. Upon entering the schooling ring, you’re met by a Dothraki hoard: a tempest of rising dust, shrill shouts, and nervous snorts emitting somewhere from within.
Stepping forward, you’re nearly blindsided by a white-eyed, screaming stallion, his rider barely clinging on, while other pairs thunder by on your right and left. Your own horse pins his ears as he adopts, what you will soon come to understand, is a permanent state of schooling ring apoplexy. The announcer’s call list is ticking down, and though you’ve somehow managed to “warm up” against all odds, you realize, with a sinking feeling, that your chances of actually getting a schooling jump in this chaos are nil.
Rails are flying like pick-up sticks and metal shoes clang as rider after rider misses their mark, horses launching over, under, and through jumps into space. A gaggle of trainers stand at the wayside, their shoulders slumped, looking out from under sun hats with long dead eyes, their only solace the thought of that ice-cold Stoli bottle awaiting them back in the camper freezer.
Photo by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.
Were this a party you knew you’d be walking into, you would have immediately RSVP'd with a severe case of food poisoning. But as it happens, you’re already through the door, and now, for the love of all that’s holy, for some reason you’re walking down the basement stairs.
The air is thick and hot with humanity, the heavy metal so loud in your ears that they instantly start to ring. Warily, you dip your Solo cup into the nearest vat of grey-purple jungle juice, your brow furrowing as you wonder, “What have I done?”
You have to use the restroom, but you know already that’s a scene you’re not prepared for. Not on your best day, not ever. These are not your people and this is not your place.
Upon entering the schooling ring, you’re met by a Dothraki hoard ...
There’s a frantic Dance Dance Revolution showdown taking place over there in the corner, and through the strobe light’s flickering haze, you’re pretty sure you glimpse not only what appears to be an entire, chap-clad biker gang, but an actual adult woman, walking around in honest-to-God cat ears.
No good will come from finishing your drink or spending another moment in this room, you realize, slowly putting your cup down on the counter. Back to the stairwell, you begin to inch upwards, your Irish exit all but assured.
“Hey! Where you going there, partner? Get down here!” It’s your jovial, already-over-served host behind you, and now he’s clapping an ironclad arm around your shoulders and is leading you back down … down, into the abyss.
Putting on your bravest, deer-in-headlights smile, you grit your teeth, call your jump, and leap.
Read this next: How to Salvage a Bad Day in the Ring
Feature photo by Stefano Grasso.
Written by Douglas Crowe
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.