The Trail to Washington
My first trip to Hunt Night at the Washington International Horse Show
by Charlotte Cannon
As a young girl growing up on my trainer's farm, Summerduck Run Farm, I idolized Rosemary Thomas. She represented all that I hoped to be as a young child. She and her family lived and worked on a humble farm by Virginia standards; the small block house, the converted dairy barns and the deep black mud in the winter. The sparseness of her surrounding and the sacrifices she made to survive kept my parents from understanding why I wanted to be Mrs. Thomas. The person I knew was the picture of a strong, great and noble character. She saw nothing a woman couldn't do and worked harder than anyone I'd ever seen then or since. She loved her animals and NEVER compromised on their care. She showed us how to put the horses' and animals' needs before our own. She was knowledgeable, talented and had a feel, an understanding of horses that was so deep it was part of her, yet she never bragged or boasted even to youngest of her students. She never coddled us either, she pushed us to be better than we thought we could be, and when we made a mistake or we were wrong, she came down on us hard. She was honest in everything she did and everything she said, she was not willing to bend the truth for friendship, love nor money. Her honesty and integrity were beyond reproach and everyone around her and anyone who ever dealt with her knew it. She never complained about money, the weather, her students, the judges, her children, her husband, nothing. She might have few words to say for a few days, but I never heard her say anything negative about anyone. The worst she would call a horse was "common" or "no count"; she had the most unbelievable mental and emotional fitness of any human being I have ever met. When my parents would scoff at how, "she lives at the poverty line!", I would see her as a martyr who had given up the childhood dreams of big homes, fancy cars and beautiful clothes to be the perfect steward of the horse, a leader of both children and adults in the proper way to maintain and ride the horse, and an example of uncompromising human character in the face of daily adversity and hardship - she was my vision of a true horseman.
When Rosie had a dream, she dreamed out loud and I felt it in my soul like it was my own. She had a dream that she would be on a Hunt Team that showed at the Washington International Horse Show. She would wax on about how beautifully the horses would match and how elegantly the riders would ride. She had a black TB stallion, Thaos, who produced lots of big black babies, and she would speak of raising her own matched team that would make her hunt proud to send to the prestigious event. She never really spoke of winning, she always spoke of doing an excellent job that would be respected by the other great horsemen there to observe or show. I can still see her cleaning a stall painting that picture in our minds as an ultimate moment and experience that could be held in one's heart and mind forever. Deep inside me I knew I wanted to be on that team and I wanted to make her proud, so years later when the opportunity arose, I knew I must go for it!
I had moved 'down South' to escape the cold long winters and to follow a first love. He lived in South Carolina, in an unimpressive town, especially to someone used to living in and around the historic state of Virginia where horsemen have gathered for over 100 years to host grand horse shows in rings filled with ancient oak trees and rolling fields of grass. I went looking for a place in SC that had the Hall of Fame Horsemen and the respect of quality horses and horsemanship I was used to. I found it in Camden. A town where the northern 'snowbirds' come to winter their racehorses and themselves, steeped in tradition and quality, it felt like home. After attending a few hunter schooling shows I was extended an invitation to bring 'my children' (my students) and myself out to cubhunt with the Camden Hunt before the official foxhunting season started in late November. I was thrilled knowing this would be something Rosemary would not only approve of but also be pleased I was doing.
It must have been within the first three Saturday morning hunts that Hunt Night at Washington was brought up. My ears strained to listen to what was said during the large breakfast. The Camden Hunt would be sending a Hunt Team of three riders to represent them at the prestigious horse show. The Masters were giddy with excitement because the Camden Hunt had never been represented amongst the historic Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania hunts. These hunts took tradition, turnout, quality horses and excellent horsemanship to entirely different level. Foxhunters from these colder climates were a breed all their own, staff positions were earned by the most dedicated and talented few; land within a hunt's territory and the families who owned it were involved generation after generation in preserving the sport of foxhunting and its longstanding traditions and ideals put in place centuries ago in England. These hunts are very serious and Hunt Night at the Washington International Horse Show is a place they send their best to compete. I asked about how one might be chosen to go in the future, and got the long crazy stare of someone who may not have ay idea of what you are capable, but knows they do not see you in that position. I smiled graciously, and bought the poster (still have it) a local artist had created to celebrate the event and to raise money for the team. My sights were firmly set on creating that opportunity for myself in the future, hopefully the following year.
After being invited to join the Camden Hunt and demonstrating my worthiness in the huntfield the year before, I was ready for the big Camden Summer Classic 'A' rated horsehow and its Hunt Night classes. These were the first qualifiers for teams or individuals who desired to be considered to go to Washington in the fall. Although I never heard how the team the year before had fared, it is safe to say by the silence, the performance must have been less than stellar. I had made a few new friends in the hunt and had tried to find my best possibilities for two hunt team partners from them, but it was difficult. Most foxhunters don't show regularly, they are brave, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types who find ring work somewhat tedious and boring with all its details. And although strong and bold out hunting, most hunt horses are afraid of the colorful show jumps and just don't want to go over them. I suspect this might have been the fate for the first team, so it was difficult to convince my new friends to give it a try. Seemed like the riders I perceived were the strongest, were just not interested in making the long drive to DC to be put up against the best riders the northern hunts could muster. I finally talked two friends in at least doing the class at the qualifying show in Camden in July,"" no commitment", I said, "let's do it for fun."
Acting like I knew what I was doing (which I only knew about half) and a promise of a good time, our team was born! My cool friend Amy Truslow (now Amy Cantey) was game to go. She was a 'hot blond' and a great rider. She rode for one of the most prominent families, not only in Camden but they were American royalty in the horseworld, Dale and Judy (Firestone) Theil. For the Theils, Amy hunted a chocolate brown TB gelding who had been a successful steeplechase horse in his time, and lucky for him, was beautiful and had good sense. 'Gold Sealy' was being 'groomed' to be Mrs. Theil's next Master's horse. She loved a classy, good moving, well bred horse, but she could not be risked in the re-training of the horse from racehorse to hunt horse, as many just don't make that transition safely. Amy wasn't scared of getting hurt and she did a fabulous job keeping him quiet as he accustomed himself to his new career. Unfortunately for us Gold Sealy did not have any show experience, and he was too valuable to the Theils for Amy to borrow for our trip to Washington. She was game to go, but needed a horse.
Our third team member was a junior rider who had been overlooked and undervalued (in my opinion) by the other riders considering the trip because she was only 14 years old. Kelly Cribb was a neat horsecrazy girl, daughter of two foxhunters who lived to hunt. They homeschooled Kelly and her little brother and seemed to live life on a 'shoestring', shall we say. They were not the 'old money' southern family with a 'whatever the horses/kids/etc needs; money is not an object' type of family. Their place was small and simple, horses were safe and healthy but not big, fat and slick. Neat thing about Kelly and her mounts was they were gritty and talented. Kelly had a big rangy faded brown TB gelding with his neck coming high out of his wither. He went in a pelham bridle with double reins and seemed mostly in control the better part of the time, but could be scary too. Her best mount (and in my opinion the best the family had) was a pretty chestnut large pony with a blaze face and flaxen mane and tail. That pony came from very nice Welsh stock, and I never heard how they got her, they must have splurged since Kelly showed so much talent for riding. I had three horses from which to choose. My husband hunted a tall, handsome solid black TB gelding named Romey. He had been a 'timber' horse (raced, like steeplechasing, but instead of brush fences that the horses can jump through, timber horses jump huge, solid wood fences around 5' tall with no give) and although pretty quiet in the ring, was a handful out in the huntfield, spending more time galloping sideways than going straight. Good thing he would jump the moon and was not afraid of anything. My second choice was a lovely, refined dark brown TB gelding my friend Susan Yeaman (now Susan Deal) had sent to me to try to sell for her. He was big, pretty and had some show experience, but would he still be around in three months if we were chosen to go. Sales horses are notorious for not selling when you need them too, and selling right away when you hope they don't. My third and final choice was my little sorrel quarter horse, Breezy. Even then I would trust him with my life. Everyone at the hunt always made fun of me because he was barely bigger than a pony. I didn't care, I had spent a lifetime up to that point riding big beautiful TB horses who had screws loose. I loved the fact I could easily mount Breezy, stop him with no fuss, ride him in huge groups or completely alone with no trouble, could jump whatever I wanted to jump easily and go wherever I pointed his nose. His drawback besides being the completely wrong size, breed and type, was that he had little show experience and had never been in a covered arena much less a huge indoor colliseum. After looking at what we had, the clear choice for our team was the two big dark TB geldings I had, and Kelly's big TB gelding too. They were a nice match, all big, tall, leggy horse with no white markings yet tons of presence. Funny how Kelly and I brought our back up ponies anyway that hot summer day...
Little did we know there were already three other riders on three big beautiful bays who were planning to be 'the' Hunt Team sent by the Camden Hunt. Each rider had a long resume of big horse show wins, plus all three were at the very least, second generation Camden Hunt members and supporters. They had literally grown up in the Camden Hunt and had had their 'colors' for years before now. They were certainly the popular, old-school vote. With tremendous size and fancy pedigrees their horses were as equally impressive as their riders. One knew just by looking, these warmbloods were undoubtedly imported from some castle in Europe.We thought this really was meant to be a competition; they knew it was only a formality.When their number was called, they entered the show ring with the proper appointments (flask, sandwich case with sandwich crusts cut off, etc), wearing matching tailored coats of Camden charcoal grey, yellow colors on the collar, matching windowpane tattersall vests, boots and spurs glowing from fresh polish, tightly braided manes and tails and coats glistening like new money in the afternoon sun. Dripping with sweat, the crowd, weary from a week of baking in the SC heat, had shown little interest in the class, but when those twelve oiled hooves hit the dusty arena all heads turned. Even the most bored onlookers snapped to attention as the trio effortlessly took the course perfectly spaced in line until they came together as one and floated over the final fence abreast. They were beautiful. It was poetry. We were lost in the crowd.
Our first attempt with our big, less polished, rangy, partially sunburnt team was like bad dream. I rode Romey, my husband's horse in the front because he went crazy following anyone. Romey was looking and jumping everything much too big, but we were surviving as we went around the course. Amy followed me on Susan's horse who was certain he had never seen any colored jumps before. He was refusing nearly every fence, and only to make it worse, Kelly's horse Jim Beam, would not stay back and nearly ran over Amy as she was trying to get hers to jump. I had to stop and wait for Amy and Kelly before we could go down to the final fence. I hoped Amy's horse would gain some confidence approaching the fence between the other two braver horses. I didn't anticipate Romey breaking in half bucking 5 strides before the final big fence. When he started bucking, Kelly's horse bolted forward and took the jump way too early. With all the chaos around him Amy's horse decided he would just behave and got to the jump and took off at the same time I got to it. Both horses took off and landed together, but at the very first stride my horse plunged his head to the ground made a sharp turn toward Amy and nearly knocked her down as I hung on like a ragdoll to keep from flying off. It took a few moments for us to regain our composure to leave and when I looked up, every jaw around the arena was hanging open in disbelief at the contrasting performance they had just seen after watching the picture perfect team of beautiful bays.
I don't know if it was the adrenaline encouraging us or the absolute need for redemption after such embarrassment, but what happened next feels like it was divine intervention. We had our back-up horses (I use the term loosely) tied up at the trailer. All of a sudden we did not care what size or color they were, we knew we could depend upon them to behave. Kelly and I had won the Hunter Pairs class at the Camden Hunter Trials that previous fall. It was a great upset (that we were oblivious to), the second place team had won the class for years and they were in line to retire a lovely sterling silver trophy if they could repeat the win again. Our pony/horse were so perfectly matched when in motion it was eerie, but with whom would we pair them? Amy knew she needed a horse that would take the jumps without stopping, but also needed a horse that didn't try to kill its rider and all those around him bucking like a maniac, so my two big horses were out. So she chose Jim Beam, Kelly's big horse and leaped on to get a feel for him as we ripped tack off and tacked up our blonde babies.
As we raced back down the hill to the ring, we decided my horse Breezy would be in front, he was brave. Kelly's pony would be last because she could speed up or slow down as needed without risking a refusal. Amy would go in the middle like big slab of meat between two tidy slices of bread. We would regulate our speed to Amy's to the last jump that was meant to be jumped side-by-side or abreast. We trotted right in as they were making the final call for the class. My precious Breezy does many many things correctly and as I request, picking up the right lead is not usually one of them. So when he picked up the wrong lead on the long approach to the first fence, I was not shocked and let it go. He jumped the fence well and I listened as the other two followed seemlessly. Jump after jump, we floated around the course with great style. When we made that final turn toward the final fence I held my breath. Amy was unintentionally building speed, no worries, Kelly and I kept right with her. All three of us got to that final fence a little long, but we still took off together, that flight in the air felt like it took forever before our front feet hit the ground and the crowd stood up and cheered!
It certainly was not the best trip of the class, we actually placed sixth, but I think the crowd was quite happy for us getting around safely and not giving up and hiding our heads. That course changed our minds about what a Hunt Team was; a hunt team is not about the best matching horses first and foremost; it is about the best, most trustworthy horses first, if they happen to match that's a bonus. We also found out that day that a hunt may send up to two teams to represent them, in every specialty class each hunt may have two entries. We felt we still had a chance to go even if the perfect Camden team went too.
That started a three month marathon of driving to Camden to get together to practice. When cubbing (or cub hunting) started in September nobody in the hunt would acknowledge we were serious about going, especially the Camden Hunt Team A. They seemed to poke fun at our unorthodox team of kid, ponies and mismatched gangly beast. Not one of the three of us had our colors with the hunt so as the show approached we kept a low profile. We had grown tired of the jokes and the teasing. I believe the words were not meant to be hurtful, people believed they were funny, and they could not fathom that anyone would take that tiny, mismatched team to one of the biggest, most prestigious horse shows in the United States. There was just no way people saw that we would not just fail and embarrass the Camden Hunt. Only our Masters truly knew what had been turned in on the entry forms they sent. It was also fortunate that Amy worked for and was a friend of Judy Theil, Joint-MFH of the Camden Hunt. Judy did not like to see limits imposed upon anyone, she and her husband Dale had watched us practice countless hours over the outside course at their farm, they knew what we could do. She entered our team as Hunt Team B and sent us with her blessing.
When the time came to go, I called Rosemary Thomas to tell her I was going and doing it! I was living the dream she had had so many years before. She was thrilled and offered for us to keep our horses at her farm (my childhood barn) and use all the practice stuff available in the area. When we considered the option, Amy and Kelly did not understand. Why would we choose to stay 2 hours away from the horseshow instead of getting stalls and staying up there? Cost was a great selling point initially, we could stay for free with my mom and save an expensive hotel bill, stalls were also free because Rosie was so excited I was doing this, but the biggest bonus was the support we had in Culpeper vs cold Washington, DC. Less than 2 miles from Rosemary's farm was an indoor ring with all the important elements of the Hunt Team Course set up and available to use! There are numerous hunts concentrated in this relatively small area. The Hunt Team Class is a big deal and a huge bragging right for a hunt to say they have won. The owners of the indoor arena want to help the VA hunts be better prepared and beat the the MD or PA hunts. They also enjoyed the local banter as the show, and that particular class, approached. Unlike the Master's Class, Hunter Hack or any individual class, the Hunt Team Class has a wild card element to it that keeps it from being totally dominated by the fanciest horses. Usually the fanciest 'show' horses, not the 'real' hunt horses like ours, have a tendency to win the individual classes but they blow under the pressure of this class with all the following and jumping abreast, it is too much for many horses (as we saw in the summer in Camden with our big boys).
When we first arrived Friday evening we were eating dinner with my dad at the Club, when an old childhood friend happened to be there eating too. She hunted with the Rappahanock Hunt and informed me/us that they had won or been second in that class with a RH team for the past 5 years straight. They had heard we were coming and encouraged us to 'bring it on'! They also had been over practicing the course in the indoor two afternoons earlier that week, and they were ready! It felt good for someone to give us some respect and that dinner told us we made the right choice to stay in Culpeper. As we were leaving that night we ran into another friend, gentleman farmer type, who had a lovely sprawling farm reminicient of an antebellum plantation complete with big white mansion with enormous collumns across the front sitting atop a rolling hill. He had loved to foxhunt all his life and now he had decided he would start his own 'unrecognized' hunt or Outlaw pack on his own property by gathering and collecting all the unwanted, untrainable hounds from the many local hunts. He was doing them a service by getting the unwanted hounds out of there kennels and providing some fun for a group of great riders with a renegade spirit too long contained. He insisted we come and hunt with him Monday afternoon, "Baby Charlotte you must come and join the fun! Bet you have gone soft living down south, let's see if you can still hang with us here in Virginia?" A bit of friendly taunting and challenging was the perfect thing to get my mind right before our big class. We graciously accepted his invitation and planned to join his group Monday afternoon, how 'crazy' could they really be? Right?
Saturday morning was bright and clear when we went out to load up to go school. Rosemary was super excited and even rode over to the indoor with us to help. Walking into the indoor we saw the perfect place to prepare. They had natural looking jumps, they had a single and a line to get you ready to follow, but they also had 3 skinny staggered jumps and a post and three rail final fence just like the real ones they used at the the Capital Centre (the venue/location). We had planned to trot in with authority and get going, unlike the more beautiful teams who would walk in and bask in the glow of the spotlight before starting their course. We felt we looked better when we were moving plus it didn't give our nerves and our horses a chance to freeze up and blow it.
We tacked up and hopped on. Super excited to show Rosemary how cute my Breezy was, I marched right on into the indoor not thinking twice about the fact he had never been in a building. He had shown in covered arenas, this was no different, right? Wrong! He seemed hesitant to even trot around, not spooking from the jumps I didn't understand the problem until I went to jog over a crossrail and he all but squatted when he jumped. What was wrong? Breezy always jumped well, he never faultered, yet he was challenged by a crossrail?
Rosemary saw the fence and knew right away what was wrong, "He thinks he is going to hit his head on the ceiling. Many horses who have not been inside will do this. Good thing we came over! I've seen it many times on Hunt Night when true foxhunters try to show indoors." She instructed me to keep trotting over the crossrail until Breezy understood he was safe.
I did, and after 5 or 6 crossrails he believed it was ok and was fine. Isn't it amazing how horses will blindly trust us in spite of their own feelings?! Once he saw we were safe we started practicing as a team. The beginning of the course is pretty straightforward, you need to stay evenly spaced. The tough spots are the second to last fences are staggered, which means we each get our own skinny fence and we must jump all at the same time. Since I was leading I could not see Amy and Kelly, so I had to be consistent so they could time it right. That was a challenge or all three of us! The final jump is taken side by side or 'abreast'. All three horses had pretty good speed control and would syncronize pretty well. We were feeling cautiously good as we left the indoor that afternoon, loaded our horses and went back to Summerduck Run Farm.
As we gave them baths in watered heated by the same metal water heater I had used as a child, I wondered if the dream was too big? I wondered if the hunt people were right to act as though we didn't exist? I wondered if this challenge was just too great for my tiny quarter horse bought for $625 from a wannabe Rock Hill horse trader? He had committed suicide the year after I bought Breezy, he couldn't make it in the business. Was I about to make career suicide and prove I wasn't enough rider to step up and perform in this big an arena? I was grateful we had chosen to stay in my childhood home the night before we were to show. It gave me comfort and security to be in the space where this dream was born. I stood on a box braiding in the same crossties like I had done years before and just kept my eye on the plan. It was too late to chicken out now.
The morning was early and crisp when the alarm hit us to go. I think I had not slept a moment even though it was my childhood bed in my mother's house. I was as excited as I was for my first show in 1975 on Easter Angel and for my first big 'A' show at Upperville in 1980. I was up and ready, game face on and ready to go live a dream.
Kelly and Amy were keyed up too talking fast as we drove to the farm to pick up our ponies. We needed to get them and be in Washington around 9am. Rosemary was up getting ready to go cubbing that morning. She was excited for us but would only be there in spirit, no childhood trainer to hold my hand today. We loaded swiftly and as I turned my truck north on Route 29 with Bon Jovi blaring out of the bad speakers, I had no idea what lay ahead. I just knew it was in my destiny to go find out.
I don't think we really realized how 'country come to town' we were until we hit the Washington Beltway. We had a nice GMC dually hooked to a matching 18 foot stock trailer. I was proud of what I had and could afford, but the missing taillight on the trailer ripped off by an impatient driver trying to pass me on the wrong side, proved to make moving through 6 lanes of morning rush hour traffic a challenge. Amy had to roll the window down, reach her whole upper body out, to get those city drivers to see us and let us over when we needed to exit for the show. It was funny and we all laughed, but I think it hit all three of us at the same moment, turning into the massive asphalt parking lot where the stall tents were erected and the massive semitruck horse vans were parked one next to the next, that we had set a high goal.
The city of the horse show with its blue and white striped tents, looked tiny next to the huge Capital Center. As we got closer we could see the familiar hustle and bustle of a big horse show. Heads down, jaws tight, eyes dark from stress and lost sleep, this was the face of a national/international horse show. The pressure in the air was tangible as normally affable, outgoing people were so focused on their own inner deamons that a glance and a piece of a smile was too big a strain.
We drove around the building catching a glimpse of the other Camden Team under the tent at their stalls. They were far less impressive in this moment and looked as nervous as we felt. They never looked up in all the commotion, I secretly wanted to wave and speak. I hoped this far from home we would bond as Team Camden and hang out. I had no idea what was about to happen, but that was not to happen.
We parked and jumped out of the truck carrying all our paperwork. When my feet hit the ground, my focus kicked in, I was at a horse show like a million before, I knew my job. We quickly found an open door and the office. The line moved quickly and we were surprised no other hunt team people seemed to be in line with us.The schedule we had been mailed said hunt night riders were to get into the ring at 11am for an hour, since it was 10am I thought we were fine. Panic struck me when my turn arrived and I confirmed our time in the ring. The office lady said, "No it was changed last night to 9-10am. The international riders needed more time so they switched to 11am. We made the announcement several times. You should have heard it." My throat swelled and my stomach dropped instantly. I explained we had just driven in and were not here to hear the announcement the night before. She explained as she looked at me with no emotion, "That's not my fault. The schedule was changed and it is your responsibility to keep up with it. There are NO EXCEPTIONS!"
My focus was broken, my teammates had dissolved into the concrete floor, I started to cry. As he tears started to run down my face and my chin quivered, my feet were frozen and I could not move to let the more important people have their turn with this heinous woman. She instructed me to move on and good luck. I broke down and started talking really fast and begging her for 5 minutes, just 5 minutes in the arena. She was a real soft heart, not, but she agreed to give us 2 laps each direction to trot around the ring, no jumping the schooling fences, stay out of the international riders' way, and get out quickly.
As bad as that may sound now, it sounded amazing then and I thanked her profusely as she shoved me aside to wait on the next person in line. We ran from the building and unloaded our horses quickly. We were not going to miss this window of opportunity. We saw well that it could slam shut easily at any moment. We threw our tack on and hopped on from the fender of the trailer as fast as we could move. I pointed Breezy toward the ramp leading to the colliseum past all the stalls and focused people. His ears went up and his body got tight, he told me he had never been to the city and this might be scary. I explained quickly this was no time for fear, we must get down to and inside that arena window closed. His friends, Jim Beam and Kelly's pony, were siding with him, but he had pity on me and proceeded forward in a stilted, hesitant trot. We made it by the oriental rugs, mohagany furniture and famous old portraits that decorated the stalls, when we got to the long ramp leading down into the ground Breezy took a little more coaxing. We walked slowly down the ribbed concrete ramp as it began to sprinkle rain.
When we reached the bottom I was happy we had practiced at that indoor the day before because the low concrete and steel beam ceiling felt like it was coming down on us. The 'makeup area' was small and tight with one jump set up and tractors and other various and sundry equipment lining the walls. It was as dark and colorless as the faces rushing through it. We were like fresh faces from the sunny south plunked down into a blurry black and white movie. It felt surreal. Reality hit with full force as we approached the white gate leading into the arena. The enormous space with all the bright lights, vivid colors and seats so high up you couldn't see the top, took my breath away. A garden club had vomitted on his place with its tiers of flowers in each corner and up the far end to the concourse. Huge Crown Royal umbrellas of royal and gold dotted the far end amidst the generous flowers and accents of silver fully prepared for the evening's formal party of the rich and famous. My eyes were as big as the jumbo-tron above my head when the gatekeeper informed me it was schooling for international riders only, you hunt riders were over at 10:00. I caught my breath and started explaining what had happened and how the office lady said we could have one lap each way. I opened my eyes wide, "We really neeeed it." I pleaded. He looked us up and down, twice, and said, "I'm sure you do. But that woman doesn't make rules or exceptions to rules down here." I was stunned.
I just sat there at the gate by the gatekeeper wondering why he seemed to enjoy being such a hard person with which to get along. He instructed us to leave and Amy and Kelly turned around and started slowly walking back. I refused to move. And even as the international riders went in and out staring down their fancy European noses, I refused to move. Kelly and Amy stopped and called to me, "its over, just come on, we are too late." I said , "No. I will stand here until this gentleman allows me to walk around this arena at least once each way. There is no law against helping someone with such a small request." The gatekeeper turned around and said, "You cannot be serious." And I responded, "I trust you I am." He swung open the gate and said, "One lap, one way, I will give you one lap one way if you will leave." I sprung through that gate as I thanked him graciously.
Breezy had absorbed and acclimated to size and brightness of the space standing at the gate, but the colorful signs on the walls were something he had never seen. He twisted his body sideways off the rail to escape a Snooty Fox and several other colorful characters lining the wall. The international riders played chicken with us riding their massive jumpers whose noses were as large and full of character as their rider's. We kept our heads down and marched around that huge arena unphased by their looks or mumbles, we were grateful to have a trip around. One trip is never enough but we kept our word and quietly exited after our lap feeling empowered by getting in and getting around.
We floated back up the ramp past the stalls to the trailer together as the rain get a little harder. The aisles that had been bustling earlier were empty as everyone huddled under the tents and in their cars. We jumped off and put our horses covered with tattered wool coolers back into the trailer to keep them as warm and dry as possible. We took a quick breath and grabbed our clothes and raced to the building to get dressed.
Once my show clothes were on, I felt ready for battle. Freshly polished black custom Vogel boots and shiny silver spurs gave me power. My brain slowed down and focused again on the task at hand. Our first class was the 'Under 30 Yrs Field Hunters'. It was a normal judged class that most all hunt night riders (under 30 yrs old, they had another class for over 30 yrs old) did to get their horses around the course. I jumped a few jumps outside in the drizzle then proceeded down the ramp so I would not be late for my order of go. After jumping 2 or 3 times in that dark hole, I felt ready to go. I had shown Breezy many times at home over 2'6" and 3' but never 3'3". I had no idea when I trotted in that the jumps would look so huge! I picked up the canter but I don't think either of us took a breath as we barreled around the course. The strides were set too long for us to comfortably do, so we flew and still didn't do the numbers. I was happy when it was over, glad I survived. I began to feel survival was the theme of the day. It felt very personal, how was I too know it would later become a common theme for many.
After thanking my wonderful boy Breezy, and feeling the relief only another competitor under such stress can comprehend, I gave him hay, water and some time to chill tied to the trailer. There was a break in the rain and all three horses enjoyed some freedom from the cramped quarters of the trailer. The three of us, smiling to have made it this far, went inside to watch some classes until it was time for us to show again. Kelly was our hero. She and her pony were 7th in the Under 30yrs Field Hunters, while Amy and I were delighted we didn't die. The jumps for that class and the following ones were pretty normal horse show jumps with poles, gates, standards, brush and flowers around the base. We watched many lovely horses jump and hack beautifully around the manicure course. There were a few obvious fox hunters, who were as or even more overwhelmed than we were, but most horses and riders looked elegant and at home in this extreme environment.
That night as I watched the classes, The Master's Class really impressed me! The Master's of Foxhounds from each hunt were so dignified and elegant. They had a presence, spirit and character that filled the building. Their classic TB mounts were out of a fairy tale, big, good moving, excellent jumping, beautiful and full of charisma as well. The pairings were timeless partnerships that 'felt' like history before you. I dreamed that day that I would be a MFH and I wold compete at the Washington International Horse Show in The Master's Class and win.
It was one big dream, but not one any greater than the one I was living now. How was I to know the future? One must dream big, its our greatest treasure. You will never achieve great dreams if you never have great dreams.
The Hunt Team Class followed The Master's Class. They were the crown jewels of the night. Each hunt had entered its riders in classes all throughout the evening. The points earned by the hunts in the various classes (Field Hunters, Hunter Hack, Staff Class, etc) were added together and the winning hunt would have big bragging rights. It was a hotly contested title for the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania hunts especially. The Hunt Team Class and The Master's Class count double for points plus they are just plain prestigious. And one knows how prestigue, tradition and strong burbon all make for great fun in competition. I kept thinking about my Virginia friend at the country club taunting me about how her hunt ALWAYS won the class. It was a personal challenge. If you know me you know how deep a challenge goes.
We had drawn the number 23 spot out of 27 in the Order of Go that night. I felt we had time to watch a few go before getting on our horses. I was surprised when the tractor entered the ring and the jump crew removed all of the 'horse show jumps' and replaced them with more hunt field type jumps. They also set them up with tight turns and unrelated distances, unlike the super forward lines I failed to make earlier. I didn't know what to make of it. It looked like a hunter trail course set up in a fancy coliseum. I knew I had actually practiced turns like these. And I trusted my horse that if I pointed and asked him for his heart, he was there to give it every time. It did start on our tough right lead, but I noticed an especially spooky sign along the rail. I thought if I aimed him at that sign and asked for the lead right as he was spooking, he was most likely to get the lead. It was my plan anyway.
The course started off the right lead coming back toward the gate over straw bales stacked 3 tiers high, left turn up a traditional outside line, around the turn to a rollback over a skinny high white gate with no standards, broken line to the right to telephone poles, right turn to the skinny staggered jumps, mine was a long approach up the rail, Amy's was half the approach to the middle jump, and Kelly's was nearly a rollback out of the turn, after the staggered jumps was the long approach to a straight up and down 3 rail post and rail fence, sharp left turn as you land and you were done. Looked challenging but do-able until we started to watch.
Elegant team after team came in and turned the course into toothpicks scattered far and wide. Bertram Firestone (of Firestone tire wealth) sailed over his horse's head and straddled the white gate as it tipped over beneath him. They kept replaying his fall on the jumbo-tron to a gasping full house. The crowd had been sparse early in the day but by the time the first hunt team cracked the gate, the seats (at least below the concourse) were full and the Crown Royal was flowing. As team after team tried and failed, the crowd who was feeling rather good groaned and gasped at each mistake. Even our Camden Hunt Team #1, who garnered their usual, "Ahhhhhhhhh" upon entering, sent the telephone poles sailing in every direction, leaving the poor third rider dodging the oncoming poles.
We left shortly after watching team #1 to get ready. I was still confident, seeing an opportunity for my tiny horse to shine. Perhaps my confidence was crazy considering the path of destruction that lay before us. My sweet mother, who believes in and supports me completely in my riding, came outside and asked if I wanted to reconsider showing? She said, "I know you know what you are doing, but we have been out here watching the class and it looks bad. This course is literally taking out the biggest, fanciest teams and I'm afraid for you to go out there on those tiny horses. I know you believe in them but if the big horses can't make it over these jumps, I see no hope for you." She meant well and was truly trying to warn us but we had come too far to chicken out now.
As I mounted Breezy and we walked to the schooling area, I focused my mind and the two of us 'got into the zone'. The 'zone' is a place where emotion and time don't matter, you feel like you transend time and space and you and your horse are total professionals doing your job. We jumped a few jumps, put out teammates behind us and jumped a few more. We were ready. We walked silently down the ramp to the holding pen (make up arena), we waited as the course was reset for the team ahead of us, and again for us. Strangely this failed to phase me, I had jumped this course over and over n my mind perfectly already, I had no doubts. When the gate cracked I whispered to Breezy, "Its showtime!"
Breezy stepped through the gate and I felt the enormous crowd all waiting to see what was about to happen. It must have felt as those people back in Athens, or wherever they were, in the stone colesiums, when they were sent in to battle the lions. The crowd hopes to see success but expects to see a bloodbath by the time its over. I closed my leg, he dropped into the bridle and the professionals went to work. I trotted across the ring in a long diagonal line, crowd pushing and clucking at us as though we meant to be cantering but were too afraid to. I aimed at the colorful sign and he spooked right on cue, I directed the spook and we had our slippery right lead. We were off...
I made the turn at the end at a nice rhythm, many teams had really tried to go much faster, but I was going to go the pace from which Breezy jumped best. When I made the turn and straightened up to that first tripled stack hay bale jump I saw a slow deep distance, but I could feel Amy and Jim Beam breathing down my back. I closed my leg, stood on that gas, we jumped that straw big and confident. It felt so good I never let off the gas again. Breezy changed leads and drew me right up the outside line without a blip. I landed and packed him to the rail, the rollback to that skinny white gate was next. I was not going to be on the jumbo-tron! Coming around the corner on the rail i was looking for the perfect line for my turn, I saw it, rolled him right back, took two strides and we were up and over that devilish fence. Next I looked for those telephone poles and saw the perfect distance, galloped up and over.
All this time Amy and Kelly were right behind me. We kept our order tight so the horses could 'pull' each other over the fences. Landing from the telephone poles, the crowd started to clap, few teams had made it this far and the crowd rewarded us. I faded out and waited to see where we all were before sighting in on the narrow staggered fence. They were right behind me, so I made a clear chute with my hands, closed my leg and sent Breezy right through those cedar trees. A roar went up from the crowd and I knew we must have hit the staggered jump just right. The crowd was drunk and loud as we made the turn for the last post and rail. The distance was long and the jump was too big to chance taking back and having a refusal. I hunted down to the fence, Amy stride for stride next to me, but where was Kelly? She was not up next to Amy yet! If we slowed down we would wreck the fence, but how could anyone accelerate fast and accurate enough to meet us this close to the fence? As Amy and I took our last stride before the jump, Kelly had jetted to meet us as only a great riding kid on a lightning fast pony could do.
We all three jumped together in unison as a bank of flashing cameras went off and the crowd went wild! It was the most amazing moment! I can still see the flashes going off as I was in the air! We hit the ground and I felt the lightning strike, I knew we had won! I pumped my fist high in the air absorbing all the energy in the building at that moment. It was magical!
We broke to the trot, came together and walked by that same gatekeeper from earlier. He gave me a big smile, a wink and a nod. It was his appology and respect for a job well done despite his fatal predictions. There had been only 5 teams that had gone 'clean' up to this point, so I felt sure we would be getting a ribbon. The seconds that went by as I waiting for those call-back numbers to start again after we finished seemed like an eternity.
Then it scrolled through and we had the top call!!! OMG!!! We were so thrilled and freaking out! The holding pen police were pushing us out to no avail, there were 4 teams left to go and there was not enough room down there for the teams to warm up and for us to stand. So we got out and went to stand on the ramp where it had started to drizzle again. We didn't care, nothing could dampen our spirits that night!
As I stood there vibrating from happiness, relief and disbelief, the mother of one of Camden Team #1's riders approached me. She is a most beautiful and elegant southern woman, like those from days gone by. And Sarah Floyd is an excellent horseman and steward of the horse, her expertise is beyond reproach. She doesn't play and will always be honest, I was almost frightened to hear what she would say. I wanted to savor my moment. She looked solidly at me and said, "Charlotte you did a 'fine' job leading that team." My heart was full and I nearly cried. It was like my trainer, Mrs Thomas and all those old Virginia horseman had given me the smile, wink and nod all at once! I was humbled and elated!
But my mind flew back to the class, there were 4 teams left to go, any one of them could knock us off! Then I looked up and saw the final team. They were from Potomac, Maryland where money and fine horses flow like water from the tap. They were elegant, tall bays without a stitch of white on a one. The riders were mature, athletic women with that slender body and man-ish face that is slightly frightening. Their tack was clean, their horses were glistening and their game faces on, we were those dirty loud kids you roll your eyes at and wonder who let 'their kind' into our fancy event.
They couldn't shake my happiness, but I did sneak back into the make up area to try to see their trip on the jumbo tron. The crowd went wild again, but not quite as wild. When the numbers came rolling back across the top, ours was still first! The 'police' were again trying to run everyone out. The tractor had to get through to remove the jumps. Only those in the call-back were allowed to remain. They kept pushing us tighter and tighter together and I ended up packed up close to the leader of the bays.
Upon closer inspection, I think her horse was at least 2 hands taller than mine and the lines on her face matched the road map of the United States. Her hands were large and thick, deeply stained and cracked from cleaning stalls and caring for hounds in the cold Maryland winters. I began to feel sorry for this seriously unattractive woman when she looked over her haughty nose and said, "You have to leave! Only teams in the call-back are allowed to be down here!" I looked into her face, which would have possibly benefitted from some effort at makeup, and said, "I know. I'm in the call-back." And I went back to twittering with Amy and Kelly. Again this woman speaks up in the most cutting smoker's voice I've ever heard and said," You WILL have to move your little horse because I need to go in!" I looked at her and smiled. Then she glared and said, "I AM second in the call-back!" I just responded smugly, "Well I am first..."
That mean woman backed up and walked over to the other side to wait with her teammates. She caused us no more trouble. The tractor came out with the jumps and the gatekeeper started lining us up to go in. Our team lined up first and Breezy reached forward and poked his head over the white in gate. When the crowd saw it was us, the place errupted! The gate keeper yelled at me to stay back but it was too late, another guy opened the gate and we were going in!
The crowd was screaming, flashes were going off and my parents were there to see it! My sweet tiny quarter horse boy had risen to the occasion and truly fulfilled a lifelong dream for me! The three underdogs were now on top enjoying the spotlight and appreciating everything that went into making it to that moment! Sometimes the most unlikely people and horses can do the most amazing things! Never give up, you next dream might be the next step away!
We were thrilled with our win and The Camden Hunt was too. It was their first big win at Washington and they placed our picture in and engraved silver frame in the clubhouse. The Chronicle of the Horse wrote a fabulous article complete with pictures about , "Camden's spunky underdog team that rose brilliantly to the occasion and bested all the big guns at there own game." It was quite the upset apparently. Jack and Lisa Towell even threw a lovely party/hunt breakfast to celebrate the victory! It was quite a special time!
Breezy and I continued to do amazing things together and many incredible stories were made upon his back. I was elected Master of Foxhounds for the Mecklenburg Hounds a few years later and Breezy took me into 2 Master's Classes at Washington before I finally won it. We had a great 20 years together and my life became what it is in great part thanks to him.
I was deeply saddened but also greatly honored to hold my best friend Breezy this morning when he told me his work here was complete and it was time to go. He was my best friend and he held on for me, I held him as he went. Rest in Peace Breezy 1988- July 4, 2012.