I was invited to judge Triple Rise's schooling show today, and I accepted without hesitation (well, a little hesitation - me? a judge?). It turned out to be one of the most beneficial things I've ever done for my own riding. Sitting in a chair for almost four hours, carefully critiquing and evaluating each horse and rider's performance made me aware (painfully so, at times) of my own equitation and corresponding goals. Having to pay such close and critical attention to the competitors and weighing their strengths and weaknesses was really difficult - I mean, these are my barnmates! I know how hard they work and I know the areas where they are focusing and that made it hard at times to be objective.
This was all well and good for me on a nuts and bolts "fundamentals of riding" scale - I'll be able to take what I learned and observed judging back to my own lessons - but it was something Mike said after the show was over that caused me to really sit back and say "huh." The last riders were cooling their horses out and parents were coming over to talk to them as they were leaving the arena and getting their mounts comfortable. Anna's mother was there with a young girl (5? 6?) who I'm guessing was a cousin or something. The girl (Mercedes) was very intrigued with everything that was going on and asking about a dozen questions a minute. Mike was instantly charmed. He may not have any biological children, but his riders are his kids and he has a definite soft spot for youngsters. In no time, he had tracked down one of the smallest helmets I've ever seen, plopped it on Mercedes' head and was lifting her onto Cuervo's back. She could not have been more pleased - her grin stretched from ear to ear as Anna led her in a small circle. Mike said, as much to himself as to those of us standing with him, "Let's not forget, this is what horses are all about."
It was a poignant thing to say at that moment. After a day of competition, with some riders feeling jubilant as they strung up multiple blue ribbons and others feeling glum because they didn't win a single one, we all needed to remember that riding is not about awards or being better than others. It's not even about snappy lead changes or getting the correct number of strides in a line. It's about the thrill, the connection, the feeling of flight. Mercedes got her first view from the saddle today and I could tell from the look on her face that she liked what she saw. For those of us who have been riding for several years, it's easy to forget the novelty and excitement. I'm not saying we shouldn't push ourselves. I'm not saying we shouldn't have goals or be proud of our accomplishments - but I think we'd all be better off if, every time we climbed into the saddle, we did so with bright eyes, looking at the world from the back of a horse as if it was our first time.