By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As Meghann does her nails, a 6- or 7-year-old horsemanship entrant walks by, big silver-roweled spurs clinking. Tiny, suspiciously blonde, fully made up, she is a vision in pink ostrich feathers and black chaps. At 60 pounds, maximum, she walks with the easy authority that comes from mastering a 1,200-pound animal. The 200-pound ones don't stand a chance.
A parent, standing nearby, sees me studying the girl. "You've got to go see the small-fry horsemanship," she says. "Now there's a whole penful of JonBenets."
Sunday morning is trail, Meghann's best event. Though quarter horse classes are of endless variety, all have one thing in common: They supposedly bear some relationship to various functions the horses are bred to perform. The trail class, however, has about as much relationship to actual trail riding as show jumping does to riding the hounds. Show officials set up a tiny, intricate maze of tricks and traps and things designed to send most horses to the moon. Successful trail-show horses have ice in their veins yet are sensitive enough to respond to riders' subtle cues.
Meghann got her pattern yesterday, and she's concerned. The horses will be scored on whether they clear the obstacles without tics or knockdowns, as well as on general manners, disposition, and movement. But the devil is in the details--specifically, a series of wobbly rails-on-stilts over which the horses must pass at critical junctures. Nobody's having a clean ride. One by one, world champions and former Congress winners are going down.
Meghann would really like to do well; she believes she was unfairly marked at the youth world show this summer. "She had a tic there at the very end, at a big high cross pole. But other than that, it was beautiful," Bekki recalls. "But...she was buried right the middle. And we're not a big name." And Meghann was not in the ribbons.
Slowly, as the morning wears on, a few horses are emerging with near-perfect rides. Finally, toward the end of the morning, Meghann gets her chance. She looks great--until Shamu knocks over a stilted piece maneuvering through the gate. And then another.
All in all, a disaster.
Just outside the ring, Meghann pulls to the side and waits for Bekki and John. She knows it isn't her best ride, but doesn't seem to realize just how bad it was. She looks expectantly at John, who breaks the bad news.
"There'll be 10 who don't knock it over," says John Briggs.
"You won't be in the top 10," Bekki says more directly.
Meghann is on the verge of tears. "It wasn't my fault," she tells her mother.
Slowly, she walks Shamu back toward the barn. She has an hour or so to shake it off before her next class, Western Horsemanship, a class that, as its name suggests, judges the Western riding skills of the contestant. Meanwhile, Sibyl, Meghann's barn-mate, has placed fifth in 11-and-under showmanship.
"Be sure to put it in the paper," she says. "Fifth place, Sibyl Parsons."
Meghann changes clothes for her next class (her trail ensemble would have worked fine, but this is a "major fashion show.") Bekki was up half the night ripping the decoration off the sleeves of Meghann's brand-new equitation shirt, which had white yoke and rhinestones at the cuff; John doesn't want anything that might show untimely hand movement on Meghann's part and earn her a fault in horsemanship class.
John and Jill take their pupils to watch the first few splits of horsemanship; both Meghann and Nicole have drawn a late round. Meghann is calm but determined. It's not her best class, though she's done well enough to tally nearly 40 youth points.
"Until we started with the Briggses, she hadn't had any real horsemanship in--in a long time," explains Bekki. "You know, body position and all that. It's just been kind of ride by the seat of her pants. But now they're working on her position and all that. And she's really improving."
John gives instructions. Meghann should ride aggressively. "I'd rather see her go down going for it than see her be too cautious," Jill says. As for Nicole, she has to do the opposite: calm down enough to pay attention to where she is in relation to the cones in the arena.
Meghann's ride is beautiful, and she's confident she'll be called back for semifinals. She isn't.
Meghann's parents seem more disappointed than she is. "It really isn't one of my best events," she says with a shrug.
Meanwhile, back in the arena, Nicole is having a great run. ("It's the first equitation shirt I've ever bought Nicole," beams her mother, Jan.) Her mom is hopeful. Keep your fingers crossed, she advises.
It works. Nicole is one of five riders in her split called back for the semifinals.
"I need a drink," Jan announces, darting off during a quick break to the nearest bar, conveniently located next to the manicurist in an adjacent barn.
The semifinalists include eight of the top-ranking youths in the nation. Nicole's semifinal run isn't as good as the first, and Jan holds her breath as the finalists are culled.