Whether as a volunteer or paid staff, I have been involved with the organization or management of hundreds of horse shows or clinics. Whether large or small, sanctioned or schooling, public or “in house”, some similar themes always seem to apply. At the same time, each gathering has the opportunity for new (mis)adventures.
This past weekend, I went up to the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, to volunteer for the day in the show jumping phase of their spring horse trials. I spend so much time organizing, judging or coaching at horse shows that on the few occasions that I can go be a regular volunteer, I am sort of picky about which job I am willing to do. I offered to scribe for the show jump judge, a position from which you can watch the horses jump the course, but one that didn’t require running around on my feet all day.
So as I was getting ready to head up on Saturday morning, I debated my footwear. I mean, I wasn’t really going to be around the horses directly, or standing, so I could just wear something casual and comfortable, right?
Then I remembered Chapter One from my someday to be published book, “Tales of a Horse Show Organizer”. And I threw my paddock boots in the car.
Chapter One: Consider Your Footwear
The University of New Hampshire Equine Program runs several sanctioned shows each year; at one point, we ran three US Eventing Association horse trials and two US Dressage Federation dressage shows. My role at the dressage shows was usually more behind the scenes than the front and center one of manager for the horse trials; most often, I helped set up the arenas and then assisted with scoring during the show itself.
One particularly notable year, we were positively stuffed to capacity with entries. Eighty stalls of temporary stabling were full, with overflow in the main UNH barn and even a few stashed at neighboring facilities. To accommodate these riders, we set up a fourth dressage arena. The facility layout is a little bit sprawling, with most of the show (secretary’s tent, scoring, awards, three arenas and one large warm up) clustered together; stabling is out of sight from this, around the corner and down the road. Ring four was set adjacent to stabling, so for the competitors down there, I would imagine it felt like they were at a completely different horse show. Though we had radio communication with the group up the road, for the most part we had little awareness of what, specifically, was going on down there.
I was scoring as per usual; my two pugs and I were stationed in the air conditioned trailer, surrounded by computers, calculators, printers and white out. Historically, our dressage shows seem to be plagued by high temps, humidity and sometimes disruptive thunderstorms. While I wore my traditional khaki shorts and UNH polo, in deference to my scheduled role as scorer and the heat, I only had a pair of Crocs with me. Not even Crocs– some sort of cheap knock off that I picked up at a discount store. Definitely not “Pony Club approved footwear”.
Sometime towards late morning on the first day of the show, we received a call that the EMT was urgently needed down at the warm up for Ring Four. A rider had been bucked off and landed quite badly; I can’t remember if she was conscious or not, but was certainly concussed. The speaker reported that the horse had headed down the road towards us at the main show at a pretty good gallop.
Everyone leapt into action; the EMT was mobilized, the TD notified, show staff buzzing here, there and everywhere. I kept waiting to hear on the radio that the horse had been caught; the call never came. The horse never appeared in our area of the show. I picked up my own radio and asked if anyone had caught the horse or knew where the horse was. No response.
I left the scoring booth to see that the secretary’s tent was now being staffed only by our intrepid secretary, Liz. I asked her if she knew anything about the status of the horse. We concluded that he/she was MIA, but had last been seen speeding towards the Dairy Facility…which borders busy intrastate Route 4.
The horse was loose. No one was looking for the horse. The horse was heading for a busy highway.
I hopped into Liz’s car while she stayed at the tent and sped off for the Dairy Facility.
When I arrived, I don’t even know that I closed her car door before one of the dairymen, all casual like, said to me (in a true New Englander accent), “We were a-wondrin when when ah you hoss ladies was gonna come looking”.
“So the horse came through here?”
I glanced around and saw neither tracks nor a horse.
“It upset the cows, ya know.”
“I am sorry about that. Which way, please?”
They vaguely gestured off towards the edge of the facility, towards the wooded tree line. I took off in that direction at a jog. Somewhere in this process, I had thought to call our barn manager and have her notify the local police. She was reluctant at first, but it was clear to me that we had a real public safety risk if the horse had managed to reach the highway. As I neared the trees, I caught sight of horse tracks—the horse was clearly still moving at speed, and headed straight into the woods. I plunged into the overgrown tree line, stomping down the underbrush, fronds poking through the holes of my Crocs. I tried not to think about how much poison ivy I was running through or the scratches my bare legs were incurring from the brambles.
The path taken by the horse became quite clear once I picked up the trail. He/she was breaking through footing that had been undisturbed by something as large and quick moving as a horse, and with some recent rain the track had easily yielded to the horse’s momentum. The ground cover quickly changed from a leafy forested area to a bit of a wetland, replete with cattails and other associated swamp like features. I was still running along the horse’s trail, hearing the sound of the highway increasing in proximity with each step. I should add at this point that there are very few circumstances in which I will willingly run. I am one of those people who, if you seem them running, you should too as likely something quite bad is coming behind me.
So there I am—running after a loose horse (which I still have not seen), towards the highway, in my Crocs, in a swamp. And all of a sudden I just sort of sunk in—my foot slid into a print from the horse and the next thing I knew I was stuck almost hip deep in the muck with one leg. I managed to extricate both my leg and my trusty Croc, and soldiered along, slipping in a few more times. I was totally covered in swamp mud. My colleague Sarah had now caught up to me; she was a distance runner and had jogged the entire way over to the Dairy, catching up to the same farmer and then following me into the brush. Together, we made our way out through the rest of the swamp and broke out onto the shoulder of Route 4. It wasn’t clear which way the horse had turned, so we each headed in a different direction and began running.
I kept waiting to hear squealing brakes, or galloping feet, but instead, after a few minutes, I was instead approached by a cruiser with blue lights flashing. Sarah was sitting in the passenger seat, and the officer rolled down his window. “The horse has been caught, and I saw you two out here, so I figured I would give you a ride,” he said. “Hop in”. I slid into the back seat. Fun fact: the back seat of police cruisers is just a plastic shell, which worked out quite well for my “swamp creature” self.
As the officer drove the cruiser towards the UNH exit, we came upon our naughty dressage horse—a beautiful, flashy chestnut with chrome, still in full tack (bridle, saddle, boots—and no, I never got the brand name of the products which stayed on through the horse’s jaunt through hill and dale)—BEING RIDDEN by a gentleman in his tennis shoes and shorts. The man was clearly a horseman, and rode in the style of a saddleseat rider or similar. The horse’s head was up and he was smartly stepping along as the gentleman purposefully trotted him along the side of the road. We provided police escort to the pair all the way off the highway, down Main Street, and back to the Ring 4 warm up where the whole situation had begun. The rider did not let up on the horse until they had reached the arena, where he smartly dismounted and took the reins over the head.
Sarah and the officer hopped out of the cruiser and headed towards the horse and rider. An additional fun fact: when you are in the back of a police cruiser, you cannot get out unless someone lets you out. So I sat there, covered in swamp mud, in my UNH Equine polo shirt, waiting in the back of the cruiser to be released. I sort of wondered if this would be the one occasion on which our Dean might arrive at one of our horse shows, to find me locked in the back of a cop car.
Eventually, the officer noticed my predicament and came to let me out. I joined the group around the rider, who said he used to show Morgans and was actually the uncle of one of our students. I told him that if he had liked the horse, he could probably get him for a quite reasonable price at that moment in time! I also said that I thought he was quite brave, to get on a strange horse that was running loose alongside the highway, with no riding gear or helmet. He looked at me quite strangely and said, “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to LEAD him off the road!” To each his own.
The horse’s owner did end up receiving off site medical treatment, but her barn mates assumed possession of her horse and we broke up to continue our respective duties of show management or keeping the peace. The advantage of my Croc attire was that with a good hosing, I looked moderately presentable and was only modestly stinky for the rest of my day in scoring.
But I will say that if I had to do the whole thing again, more sensible shoes would have been appropriate. It doesn’t really matter what job you are supposed to be doing at the horse show, I guess there is always a chance you will need to catch a loose horse.
And this is why at GMHA this past weekend, I wore paddock boots for my non-horse involved volunteer role.
I still have the Crocs.
PS: I stole the featured image (of the UNH dressage rings) for this blog from my friend Liz’s page, On the Bit Events, LLC! She loves organizing horse shows so much she started her own business to do it! Check her company out!