After nursing my intense headache I had developed on Saturday at about the same time that my team momentarily forgot how to ride like superstars, I slept like a rock in my hotel bed (other than a moment at which I had to open the door in my pajamas and politely-yet-nastily ask the man having an animated conversation on the phone right outside my door to take his business elsewhere.)
In Alfred style, we arrived at the show grounds about an hour earlier than we needed to and sat in the cars for a few minutes, waiting for the host staff to turn on the lights in the arena so we weren’t sitting in the bleachers in the dark. As the team slowly trickled into the stands, Harry and I lingered next to a palm tree outside the show office to discuss the previous day. Most of what we discussed was our lack of regret: so what if the previous day hadn’t gone completely as we had hoped? So what if our riders made a few mistakes? One difference between this year’s team and last year’s team was a lack of prior experience: about a third of the riders we had brought with us were first-year students completely new to this caliber of show and this kind of showing. We still had faith that the team we had selected was the team we wanted to show, the team we would continue to stand proudly behind and support.
Our first rider in, again, was our reiner–this time riding for the team. Bolstered by her confidence from Saturday’s ride, she and I found the horse she drew getting prepped by his owner and walked right up to ask questions. The woman was gracious enough to give our rider a brief rundown of his “buttons” and wished us luck. I scurried off to the in-gate to watch the first rider in the class: the girl we had marked down as our toughest competition from the day before. I took note of some dragged leads and a break of gait which left the class still wide-open for us to win.
“Good luck,” I called as our rider entered, looking considerably less confident but still prepared. She started her pattern off according to the owner’s instructions, and Harry and I watched, delighted, as she laid down perfect maneuver after maneuver. After she had completed her final spin (more than redeeming herself for the previous day) we were sure she had done her best.
From the stands, we watched the next riders like hawks. There were one or two that I thought could have beaten our rider, and I waited for the results from the edge of the mounting paddock, assuming that at best we were second and at worst probably only as low as third. When the announcer rattled off placings up to second I let out a cheer. Our girl had won it. And suddenly, Alfred was back in the running.
We sent our individual intermediate riders into the ring with high spirits; one made it the finals and eventually placed sixth. The next flurry of activity surrounded our beginner walk-jog rider, a sweet young woman we had drafted out of my Western I who was also riding for the hunt seat team.
I continue to be impressed by this rider’s nerves of steel. Ultimately, I agree with her opinions: what IS there to get so worried about, anyway? At the same time, it’s unnerving to look up and see her completely casual expression as she rides into the biggest show of her life, completely cool, focused, ready and yet mellow.
She put in a very good ride–not the best, but enough to earn us fifth. As our final rider mounted, my very reliable and versatile captain and the only boy rider we had brought with us, I frantically added and re-added the point totals to make sure I was getting it right. I must resort to another cliche to describe the tension in our section of the stands–thick.
We were currently in a three-way tie for third. Our reining victory made up for some lost ground and our lowly-seeming fifth place had bumped us into the running for the Nationals bid. The top three teams qualified–so it came down to this, the final class. I circled the riders from our other tied schools in my program and stood railside to wait. Our rider needed a constant stream of talking in his ear to keep the weight of his responsibility from crushing him alive.
As he jogged and loped by I muttered continual nonsense–but one line of truth. “You’re having the best rail ride out there.” It was true–his position never wavered. While perhaps he was taking the show a bit too seriously, he was a competitor, and he knew his job. I felt a rush of pride as the team captain gave the judges a nod after completing his pattern–he had just put in one of the best rides of his life.
Harry stood alone at the top of the ring, checking off our competitor schools as their riders were called. When the second of the tied schools was called out at fifth place, he cheered and punched the air. Our rider was second. We were going.
Except were we? We had forgotten about the fourth place team, whose rider had just won the class. Amidst my celebrating team, I quickly jotted down the point totals and then raised an eyebrow.
We were tied, again. Mercifully, the tie was for second place. No matter how the tiebreaker fell, we were still going to Nationals. I knew the first tiebreaker was the number of firsts–and surely Michigan State had two.
They didn’t. They had one. They also only had one second place, as did we. The third tiebreaker was highest team reining score.
Hello, victory. Or, at least, reserve championship. As we stood in the team line-up, the Alfred banner held proudly by my riders, all showing solidarity in our new team shirts, I was pleased. The last time Alfred had won a reserve championship at the Semis I had been a point rider. Now I was the coach, and things were coming neatly full-circle. I have to say that I enjoyed standing there with my team as coach much more than I ever did just as a rider. I had brought them here, and I look forward to seeing them through.