This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A First Time for Everything

They say there's a first time for everything.  Usually, of course, that doesn't mean all at once, but sometimes...  I decided to take the plunge and enter Saxon in his first horse show.  It ended up being a day full of lot of firsts for both of us.

My plan (by now you've probably figured out that I almost always have a plan) was to take Saxon on a nice little trip to this show, let him soak in the show environment and all of the action, enter a couple in hand classes, and maybe try a riding class if things were going especially well.  The show was part of a local winter show series held at the Shelby County Fairgrounds.  This particular fairgrounds really deserves a nicer title than fairgrounds.  It boasts two indoor arenas, permanent (and very nice) stabling, a large Saddlebred arena with box seats and a grandstand that hosts numerous rated ASB shows, all basically smack in the middle of downtown Shelbyville (the self-appointed Saddlebred capitol of the world). Being February, and wintertime and all, this show was held in the main indoor, which is long but narrow and has a 4 foot tall slatted rail with a row of stalls on either long side.  This means that spectators like to congregate all along (and over) the rail, with a menagerie of dogs, ponies, children, parents with cameras, ringing cell phones, etc. lining this railing.  It is a pretty high-distraction environment for a horse show, and not exactly what I would have hand picked for Saxon's first show experience.  It's February, though, and I was excited to see how Saxon took to showing, so it's not as if I had a whole lot of other options.

I arrived about 45 minutes early despite that the written directions indicated that the last two turns were a right then a left, instead of a left then a right!  It's a good thing my fuzzy memory of the one time I'd shown here before served me well!  There was nobody in the show office when I checked, so I opted to walk Saxon around before getting a stall assignment.  He was nervous and attentive, but manageable off the trailer.  Rather than struggle to declothe a potentially dancing horse, I just walked him around the arena in his full shipping regalia.  He did a lot of pausing, looking, and sniffing things, but didn't seem especially spooky or unnerved.  I ran across one of my HCSC friends, so I was able to get a stall near hers.  (I considered it a good omen that the stall card adjacent to mine read "Legacy.")  He stalked around the stall and I was barely able to remove shipping boots and head bumper.  Apparently hay fixes all - as soon as I put his hay bag and water bucket in his stall, he was a happy camper.  I registered for three in hand classes, leaving an open check just in case.  Most shows start off with the halter and showmanship classes, while the horses are still all clean and free of saddle marks.  For whatever reason, this show put the in hand classes in the middle of the day.  Though there were several under saddle classes I could have taken Saxon in before Open Halter (class 32), I figured it would be most prudent to see how showing in hand went before mounting up (or not).  I occupied myself watching a few classes, studying the showmanship pattern, getting my stuff out of the trailer, and braiding Saxon's mane.  But the show dragged on.  He was still a little nervous and dancy in the stall, so I booted him up and took him out on the lunge line.  We walked around the empty Saddlebred arena (you enter through a tunnel - it's really quite freaky), and I lunged him in the corner.  It was about the third or fourth time I've lunged him.  He was doing a lovely toe flicking trot and listening quite well, despite traffic noise from the adjacent street.  We practiced our showmanship pattern a couple times - perfection.  They were still only on class 14 or so.  I checked the showbill.  Class 18 was Green Horse Walk-Trot.  Hmmmm.     

There are a multitude of reasons why I shouldn't have ridden Saxon in that class.  It was his first class, his first show, his first time in an indoor arena, his first time being ridden in the company of multiple other horses...  A green horse class has the potential to turn into a real rodeo if one greenie sets off the whole lot.  I'd only ridden him in my hunt saddle once before, usually favoring my cushier, grippier dressage saddle.  By this point, the rail was absolutely crowded with spectators and distractions.  I didn't even have time to warm him up under saddle.  There were really only two reasons to just do it - he's a Standardbred, and he's Saxon.  Every once in a while I just dare myself to do something against my better judgement.  Saddle, bridle, helmet, boots, and number - check.  I borrowed a mounting block as the prior class was starting and convinced a stranger to have the show office add me to the class.  I didn't even know how many were in the class.  Saxon picked his way through the melee along the rail, completely unfazed by the dogs, children, and other horses.  I ran into another HCSC friend.  "Is this Saxon?  I thought you were just showing halter?"  "Yeah, I was, but I figured what the heck..."  We headed into the ring, and when I saw seven other horses join us on the rail, my stomach dropped.  "OK self, just keep him calm and out of trouble.  Just finish horse side down and try to stay relaxed and out of everyone's way."  We were able to make a couple laps before the judging started, so Saxon got to sniff the signs, stare at the hyper kids, nuzzle a man with a camera, and nicker at the ponies before the class got started.  "And you are now being judged at the walk."  Here we go!  They called for the first trot, and we rounded the far corner by the food booth where they had just tossed something sizzling on the grill, and an ambulance siren sounded from the road outside the ring.  Seriously?  Does this have to happen right this instant?  And Saxon... Saxon didn't care.  He just trotted steadily along, ears pricked, listening, interested in the stuff going on, but unconcerned.  We had to use our corners smartly, and circle a couple times to try to stay spread out (and a girl on a paint seemed to think that she needed to mirror every one of those moves we made to not be stuck to her side.  sheesh), but he listened, made an honest attempt to (mostly) go on the bit.  When she cut across the ring next to us drill formation style for the third time when I tried to lose her, he gave one mini Saxon buck (his version is snaking his head around without his feet leaving the ground), but he stopped when I sank into my seat and heels and took up slightly on my reins).  He was a little looky the second direction, especially at two girls unfurling a stall curtain outside the ring, but quite composed all in all.  We got to the lineup, and he stood like a stone.  They called out the placings, starting with sixth, then fifth, then fourth, then third.  We were still standing there.  Then second.  Still there.  Then first, there it was, our very first class of our very first horse show ever, and Saxon had won it!  I laughed, nearly cried out, hugged his neck, and he stood there sweetly, ears pricked, like this was an expected sort of occurrence.

Given our extreme success in our first outing, I decided to enter him in the Open Adult Walk-Trot Pleasure and Eq classes.  They were run concurrently, so it meant one trip would be judged for both classes.  He was a little less consistent in pace (a lot of which was because the girl and horse entered in the next class was just hanging out in the corner of the show ring and Saxon wanted to stop and check them out every time we went near that corner), and I felt like my leg was all over the place with his springy trot, but I tried to give him a positive, sympathetic ride and we held things together well, earning a 3rd for the pleasure class and winning the equitation.  You certainly wouldn't have guessed him as a green three year-old with just under two months riding experience on his first trip off the farm. 

Well in hand seemed like no big deal considering we'd gone and tackled the hard stuff first.  I had told some people he was just three, and that this was not only his first horse show, but his first time off the farm.  He made me look like a liar.  One girl guessed his age at 10 or 12 and thought he was an experienced show horse.  I can see why.  Heck, he could have fooled me.  He handled the halter class like a seasoned professional.  He stood up nicely, standing quietly and attentively, even when the judge inspected him.  He trotted off smoothly and easily in hand, and lined up quietly again.  Out of the nine horses in the Open Halter class, guess who took home the blue ribbon again?  I'll give you a hint - it was the Standardbred!!!  He was just as much a consummate professional in Sport Horse in Hand, even trotting the triangle, and we took second.  In Showmanship, he put in a near perfect pattern, but due to bad luck, we were next to a very fidgety horse in the lineup.  That horse kept dancing and circling, and swinging her rump next to Saxon.  To make matters worse, the handler would reach around and swat the mare with a riding crop in Saxon's general direction!  Repeatedly - not just a couple times!  [sarcasm] Yes, why wouldn't swatting your horse with a crop work to make it stand still? [/sarcasm].  I tried to say something to her about her upsetting my horse, but she ignored me.  She wasn't being malicious or anything; I think she was just really frustrated and didn't know what to do about it.  Unfortunately, I couldn't escape it as there was nowhere else to go in the line up (all seven of us were crowded into the short side of the ring), and no ring steward to approach.  Saxon tried to behave, but he couldn't help catching her anxiety and I had to circle him twice to stay out of the fidgeting mare's way.  I found that he would stand better if I positioned myself between her and him, but it meant I was working the judge from the wrong side in the lineup.  Oh well, it's better than him dancing around too or getting kicked by the mare.  We ended up third, and I was satisfied with how hard he tried to behave despite it all.

All told, we entered six classes, earning 3 firsts, 1 second, and 2 thirds.  What really impressed me was how incredibly mature Saxon acted throughout the entire show.  I knew he was a good horse, but to behave that well in such a new and different environment far exceeded any of my expectations.  Though there were a few other riding classes later in the day that I contemplated entering, I ultimately concluded that I just couldn't ask him to act any better than he already was, and I didn't want to sour him on showing by making him tired and cranky.  He was cheerful and obedient throughout the show, and I wanted that to be the take home message for him.  There will be other shows - as fabulous as he is - there will be MANY other shows in the future, and I think we got off to a fantastic start.  We capped off our day by sharing an apple, a little hand grazing, and getting a few photos with our ribbons before heading home.

As an aside, on of our aisle-mates with some nice looking Saddlebreds spotted his freeze brand during the day.  "Is that a Standardbred?"  "Why yes he is."  "He's GORGEOUS.  Absolutely beautiful.  I just love his look.  And a chestnut, too."  She wanted to know about his breeding, and whether he was fast (sadly, no, that's his one shortcoming, though it worked out rather well for me), and thought he'd be lovely in roadster.  Funny she should mention that... ;-)