November 12, 2007

Show Me State

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My lone assumption going into the Cornell Horse Show at the Oxley Equestrian Center on Sunday was that the show would be outdoors. In my imagination the show took place on a spacious, sunlit course presumably made of grass. In reality, however, the show took place in a claustrophobic indoor course, lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, in desperate need of ventilation. “It would be a disaster if it were outdoors,” scoffed Katie Allero (as we’ll call her), a senior rider for Colgate, when I asked her if this venue is considered normal. Perhaps I deserved to get scoffed at. My knowledge of horses is limited to Seabiscuit and repressed childhood memories of Black Beauty; maybe I shouldn’t have been pressing my assumptions on an experienced collegiate rider. A horse event taking place outdoors? Too normal. Normalcy in a horse show, as I came to realize on Sunday, is a twisted thing.

A horse show is like a swim meet in that there are individual events that add toward a final team score. It’s like a figuring skating competition in that a judge decides the winner. It’s like horserace in that there are…horses involved, and to a greater extent, people riding horses. It’s like the Westminster Dog Show in that the judging is based on such subjective things as “elegance”. So basically it’s like the Westminster Dog Show but if people rode the dogs and were on teams…and horses were involved.

I arrived at Oxley in time to see the flat portion of the show—as opposed to the jumping portion, which I imagine is more potentially dangerous and thus more exciting. But then again I also imagined that horse shows happen outdoors and look how that turned out.

In the flat portion there are classes (essentially heats) of between five and seven riders based on experience. The riders ride around in a circle, cycling between walking, trotting, and cantering at the judge’s call. After the judge ceases the walk-trot-cantering, he ranks the riders. Clapping, hugging, and, in three instances, crying ensues, and then the next heat begins. The winner gets a blue ribbon and an oversized shot glass.

Three seemed to be the motif of the day. There were three African Americans in attendance, three dogs wearing coats/dogs in coats, three male riders, and the aforementioned three tearful breakdowns. There were also three EMT personnel on hand, who seemed to be keeping themselves busy during the show by doing homework and text messaging. “Yeah it’s not really a high risk sport,” one of the EMT guys said to me as the announcer told the riders that they are now being judged on walking.

As the show labored on spectators and the non-riding team members began to lose interest. The sound of clapping became less prevalent than the incessant buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead. Even the dogs tired. A truly ugly little white dog with greasy, stringy hair, wearing a Nylon coat that said HARTWICK COLLEGE on one side and REILLY on the other, even stopped pretending to get excited when little kids would inexplicably come up to pet him.

This waning of team pride indicates that the horse show is less about the team and more about the individual. Despite what the riders will tell you this is truly an individual sport, with the riders caring more about the name on the back of the sport coat than the name on the front of the polo shirt.

When I asked Katie Allero, the Colgate scoffer, what the team’s expectations are like this year she nonchalantly replied in a smoke-stained voice, “To win.” Allero, by the way, wore the standard riding gear under a full-length jacket with fur-trim around the hood, oversized sunglasses, and a mink scarf that was made of roughly twenty minks. She never put down her hood or took off her glasses through our entire conversation, which took place indoors. Picture a horse-riding Eskimo from Westchester County (she actually grew up in Michigan) who drinks canned Pepsi through a straw while smoking a cigarette and text messaging. “I think we’re in, like, second place right now,” she added.

The horse show is its own animal. It is not like other obscure sports where the followers try to convince other people of its merits—think of soccer diehards preaching the virtue of the World’s game to anyone who will listen. Equestrian doesn’t try to be something it isn’t—normal. There are dogs everywhere and four-dollar sausages and a frowning judge in an overcoat perched ominously above the ring and the rank, unventilated smell of dung and the words I LOVE POLO etched into the bathroom door and dozens of issues of a magazine who’s slogan is “For horse people, about horse people”. There is a superficial prioritizing of team over rider that everyone recognizes but no one admits to. After four hours of being a stranger in the alternate reality inside Oxley you see the logic of an indoor horse show. You take something you know to be ironic and now realize that, as Allero put it emotionlessly while staring out over the ring, “this is pretty standard.”