By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Nicole is the fifth rider called back for the final round.
"Yes!" yells Jan, halfway through her white Russian. "I didn't think she'd make it back," she confesses.
After a short break, 18 finalists, including Nicole Story, enter the arena at a jog. Savvy, jockeying for position, Nicole is the sixth rider in. They go around once.
"They're watching Nicole!" whispers her mother excitedly. Indeed, all eyes are glued to the young woman in black wool and black suede chaps and gold-beaded ultrasuede riding by other contestants. After one more round, a judge says something to a ring steward, who points at Nicole and motions her to the center.
"She won!" yells Jan, her eyes like silver dollars. "I can't believe it!" But now something is terribly wrong. The gate is being opened as the others continue on the rail. Nicole turns, face expressionless, and slowly rides out of the arena. The gate closes behind her.
"Oh God, what's wrong?" asks Jan, who runs toward the gate where her daughter has exited. In the well, a passel of parents and trainers are arguing with show officials. In the center stands Nicole, who has dismounted. No longer composed, she is holding the reins of her horse, great black rivulets of mascara running down her cheeks.
"They gated her horse for lameness," explains a bystander.
Although AQHA rules provide that "obvious lameness shall be a cause for disqualification" in horses, there is a lot of confusion about exactly what lameness is. The rules themselves provide as examples "marked nodding, hitching or shortened stride"--none of which seem to apply to Nicole's horse. In the end it is in the eye of the beholders--the four judges.
Mother, a quiet, petite blonde whose southern-belle manners mask an intense competitiveness, swings into action. "Nicole's had such a tough time lately," Jan explains in a quieter moment, her big green eyes welling. "Her dad just died last month."
Jan and Jill go to the show office to file a complaint. The show officials are sympathetic; they will help her file a grievance and determine what happened. After they leave, however, the show official shakes his head. "Three of the four judges had to call that horse lame for it to be thrown out," he says. "I just don't think they'd do that, embarrass someone that way, unless the horse was lame."
Back at the barn, Meghann and Nicole have gone to the midway; as a sort of consolation prize, John and Jill let them take the golf cart. Exhausted, discouraged, the parents collapse into canvas chairs or onto precious $6.50-a-bale alfalfa.
"I'm so confused," Jan Story says with a sigh. "It's the kind of thing that's so discouraging to the kids...and the moms. And the trainers."
"You don't want to think it's political," agrees Vicki Parsons, Sibyl's mom. "Because then you can never win anything.
"We put all this money and all this time into it, and everything is so subjective. The only way around it is to go into speed events."
There is another way, of course: buy a great horse. Unfortunately, great horses cost great sums. It is not unusual for top show horses to sell in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.
There are alternatives. "Many, many people who cannot afford $100,000 horses have had the opportunity to buy a great horse that does not pass the vet 100 percent," notes a guest editorial in a recent issue of Show Circuit, a glossy hunter-jumper magazine. "Through good management, care, and yes, some medication, they have been able to successfully compete at a level they probably could not afford to otherwise."
Nicole's horse is an example. He is a nice animal--and one that might well have been far out of their price range, but for the fact that he didn't pass the vet's inspection. They bought him anyway, hoping the problem--a bone spur in his hock--could be managed.
"I can't say that he who has the most money can't go out and buy the best horse," says Nancy Cahill. "But there are so many people who don't eat this week so they can have a nice horse too. It does cost a lot. But there are lots of people who start with just one, and take five years to make him, and he's a great one."
Unfortunately, by the time most kids have the ability and experience to "make" one, they're out of the youth division.
Meghann heads off to bed. Jan and her daughter head off for a little therapeutic shopping. The Congress features two massive barns filled with equine gear, a veritable traveling Neiman Marcus of jewelers' booths and $10,000 silver-trimmed show saddles and acres of $50,000 horse trailers knocked down to $45,000 as "Congress Specials." Almost half seem to have sold stickers. According to the Congress' marketing fliers, the average quarter horse owner spends $5,000 a year on sporting gear--and the people who come to Congress are hardly your average quarter horse owners.
Wandering the endless aisles, Jan and Nicole begin to feel better. Besides, good southern girls, there's one thing they know: Tomorrow is another day.
Unfortunately, it doesn't start off well.
"He may have been fine yesterday, but he's definitely lame today," says Jill Briggs. Apparently, Nicole's horse is so sore he can't be ridden.