Regional velvet

The girls love their horses. The parents love their girls. And they'll all do just about anything win.

"Joetta wins everything because Joetta rides her own horse. Now I'm not saying she doesn't get some help; everyone gets some help. But Joetta rides her own horse--and she knows every nitpicking thing that sucker's gonna do wrong."

Inside the ring, the fourth "split," or group of 20 or so contestants, is leading their animals through a complex dance of turns, trots, pivots, and stances. Each run takes three to five minutes, and four judges mark each contestant based on the precision and speed of the pattern, as well as the fine points of how they present the animal.

On the surface the whole exercise seems to serve some JonBenet Ramsey ideal, some notion of little girls as pretty, ornamental princesses. Yet underneath, showing horses is subtly subversive. Equestrian sports are one of the few arenas where men and women compete head-to-head, and the women more than hold their own. The girls outnumber the guys by about 10 to 1, and barely seem to acknowledge their male competitors.

The girls' worldly wise parents, looking on from the bleachers, seem convinced that the judges score boys higher. "They look a little more natural out there," explains the parent of one dolled-to-the-nines contestant.

As each split finishes, anywhere from two to six semi-finalists are announced. They will return for another run, after which the judges will award ribbons. The callbacks so far seem to convince the parents of what they suspect: The fix is somehow in. "It gets real political at this level," explains Stephen Beverly. "Who you are. What trainer you're with. Whose horse you bought." Nevertheless, several well-known contestants, including members of this year's Youth World Cup team, aren't even called back.

The parents' suspicions are symptomatic of that most common of sporting maladies: competitive transference. Bekki, to her credit, knows she's a sufferer. "Oh, yeah. I'm very competitive," she concedes. Meghann, on the other hand, isn't--not on the surface, anyway. A sweet girl, extraordinarily calm and poised, she simply doesn't wear that I'd-sell-grandma-for-a-tricolor expression common to most of the entrants. "She's had to learn to be competitive," Bekki says.

For now, though, Joetta Meredith, the reigning world champion, is up. Confident, in command, she performs the pattern quickly and flawlessly. In a class in which horses and observers alike look bored to tears, she even causes a murmur of excitement in the stands, backing her horse so rapidly that for an instant it looks as if she will plow over the judge. "She's going for it," comments one ringside spectator. She is, of course, called back.

Finally, Meghann's split is called and, to her parents' consternation, she lines up right behind a tall, lanky guy.

He backs his horse crooked. Meghann's run is flawless. She's amazingly confident, not too solicitous, extremely competent. She's called back; the guy isn't. So much for horse-show strategy.

Meghann's parents are happy, but worried. "One of the judges doesn't like Meghann's horse," explains Stephen Beverly. According to the Beverlys, Holly Hover, a judge from Colorado, is familiar with Shamu as a result of his previous owner's having shown against Holly. Most AQHA judges are professional trainers themselves and have run across many of the horses and contestants over the years; some even used to train the horses or the kids they judge. The AQHA bars judges from judging horses or contestants with whom they have been associated in any financial sense--but only for six months. The short time frame results in many perceived, if not actual, conflicts of interest.

The semifinalists finally begin second runs at 2 p.m. Meghann has another flawless go. Joetta has another spectacular one. Nicole Story, Meghann's barn-mate, has also made it back to the finals, and she does well too. John and Jill are pleased with both. It's all up to the judges now. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the winners are called. Meghann gets sixth place; Nicole gets eighth; Joetta wins.

Meghann's parents are pleased, if not overly excited. "She had a good run. She's happy with herself," says Dad. "That's what matters. Because it's real political at this level."

They get Meghann's scores the next morning. Holly Hover placed her; another judge did not.

Back at the barn, Meghann is giving herself a manicure to match tomorrow's show outfit. Several professional manicurists have set up shop in an adjacent show barn, and on moms and contestants alike, it's hard to find a broken nail that lasts more than a few hours. It's a strange coupling of the behavior society expects from women and the demands of sport. These women may bring home the trophy saddle and pitch manure in a can, but they'll never let you forget you're a man.

The lessons are carried into adulthood. Mine was a generation of women who, foolishly or not, grew up believing we could compete head-to-head with men and trying to be glamourpusses at the same time. Many a time I've run across some former competitor in the show ring, now an assistant district attorney or a state bar official or a doctor in private practice, always immediately recognizable, always wearing her show-ring makeup. Even those who stayed with the horses, becoming veterinarians or trainers or even AQHA judges--professions I never saw women in as a girl--maintained the value system.

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