By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Nicole, Jan, and Jill are gathered around the alfalfa, discussing their options. Nicole's horse has an appointment with a vet at 6:30 that evening. One of the options: to "block" the joint, or inject it with some unspecified substance that will presumably get the horse through the show. (The hunter classes, which Nicole has entered, are the next day.)
Under AQHA rules, "blocking" joints is illegal.
The AQHA's drug rules are the toughest in the horse world--so tough, in fact, that they have been under siege. The rules ban "any medication, drug, mechanical device or artificial appliance which...could affect a [horse's] performance or appearance." (Technically, the rules are so strict that they could bar fake tails, although they have not been so interpreted.) For years, the AQHA's well-publicized motto was "nothing goes into our horses but hay, oats, and water." As a result, they suffered a series of high-profile embarrassments when champion racehorses and show horses began testing positive for Butazolidin, a pain reliever for horses that has long been allowed in limited dosage at shows administered by the American Horse Show Association. After 10 years of resistance, the AQHA has finally agreed to relax the rules; next year, Bute will be legal.
But this is not next year, so Nicole has a problem.
"I've come up with a plan," Nicole announces, plopping down onto the hay and addressing the worried adults around her. She wants to sell ZZ and buy something that will be "more dependable" at the big shows. She has her eye on a horse being ridden by a youth from California. Problem: The asking price is $55,000.
"They'll come down, Mama," says Nicole. "I know they will." The horse, she says, won't pass a vet check. "He's got bad front legs," she explains.
Jill rolls her eyes; after all, it's the same problem Nicole has now.
Nicole is determined. "I know we could get them to come down to $25,000."
"Personally, I wouldn't pay more than $10,000 for a horse that won't vet check," Jill cautions.
Jan tables the topic. "No more changes this year," she pleads, looking at Jill and her daughter. Jill tells her they don't have to agree now, but they really should decide before January. In the meantime, they pull Nicole's horse out of his stall and start to walk him toward the barn where the vet is located. (They aren't going to the show vet's office.) To their consternation, they seem to have picked up a tagalong: me.
Looks of concern go back and forth.
With aplomb worthy of a career diplomat, Jan fixes the problem. "Come with me," she says, as Nicole, Jill, and the horse take a sharp left into a barn. "Let me introduce you to that masseuse I've been telling you about."
Since my shoulders are, in fact, aching, I decide to bow out gracefully.
Thirty minutes later, the entourage returns. The problem, Jan says, was a hamstring, and the solution deep-heat massage.
Meghann, meanwhile, is saddling up for the toughest class she has entered yet: Senior Trail. "Senior" classes are not youth classes, so she will be showing against professional trainers riding the world's best trail horses.
Once again, Meghann is in one of the very last groups to work. By the time Meghann gets in the arena, it's past midnight and there have been eighteen clean rides. She must have a perfect ride.
Shamu blows it again at exactly the same points, kicking over the piece at the gate and several of the trick rails at the end.
Meghann is disappointed. She has only three more years, then she's out of the youth division. She not only has to win at shows like these, and now; she has to start riding additional events at the big shows and winning those too.
If she has a lot of work in front of her, though, she's also determined. Next week her string of horses will double with a new horse--a half-brother to Joetta Meredith's horse. She'll still be able to earn trail and showmanship points on Shamu, while the new horse will be shown in events she hasn't been that good at. "We only show up here in three classes, because we're just not competitive on that level in the others," Bekki explains.
At the moment, however, Bekki is extremely frustrated. "Girl, you are going to be doing walks [over poles] until..." She backs off. She'll get her own chance later in the week in an adult competition, and in the meantime, she half suspects it may be her fault. They pushed Shamu hard, hauling him all night and expecting him to snap back like a horse half his age. Discouraged, puzzled, exhausted, the mother, the daughter, and the horse head quietly for the barn.
It's 1 a.m. John and Jill tend to the horses as quickly as possible. But in a quiet moment, John considers the obvious question: What is the critical factor, the difference between those who win all the time and those who win sometimes?
"It comes from experience," he says thoughtfully. "And the amount of time they put in. And how much they want it inside. The kids who win consistently just have that little extra edge. It's all how much you want it."