By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
And for young women of certain classes and cultures--that is to say white, middle- to upper-middle-class, and not too far removed from the farm--chances are, the golden vision involves a horse, as it does for 16-year-old Meghann Beverly.
"I don't go to football games, that kind of stuff," says the blue-eyed, brown-haired teenager, settling into her coach seat on an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Columbus, Ohio. It's a Friday evening in October, homecoming night in McKinney, where Meghann is a junior. But while most pretty young women occupy themselves with chrysanthemums and cheering on lads in shoulder pads, Meghann has other concerns. "I'm too busy," she explains. After all, she has just three more years before she turns 19 and is out of the youth division of the American Quarter Horse Association. There are goals to accomplish, so boys can wait. "It would just be a pain to have a boyfriend come to a horse show," she says.
A few hours from now, she'll be hard at work in a practice ring at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, the world's largest single-breed horse show. One of a handful of breeds to emerge in America, quarter horses were named for their prowess as sprinters--they are the fastest horses in the world at a quarter mile--and have long been the horse of choice on the great spreads of the south and west. They differ from the old-world breeds--the Thoroughbreds and the Welsh ponies and the big, Germanic warmbloods--not only in stature, build, and temperament, but also in their traditional uses. Though quarter horse shows feature competitions that range from jumping and pleasure driving to cutting cattle, the breed remains primarily Western.
The plane wings its way over Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana, territory the breed has colonized since its studbook was opened in Fort Worth 58 years ago. Meghann is chasing a dream that began at the usual age--about the time she could talk--while I tag along to see what has become of the sport I remember as a girl growing up in rural Texas. Part of the answer, I already know. Even as the country has become increasingly urban, quarter horses have become phenomenally popular. In 1974 there were one million animals in the AQHA studbook; 24 years later, that number has nearly quadrupled. They have become part of the undertow sucking families from the city, an increasingly popular parental stratagem for countering drugs, sex, and body piercing.
Along with the increase in numbers has come increasingly fierce show-ring competition. The Congress itself is evidence. Twenty-five years ago, super shows such as the Congress were just getting their shaky start, lasting a few days and scrambling to break even. Today, the show is a massive affair. Held for 22 days every October, the Congress is to the world of quarter horse showing as the Belmont Stakes is to Thoroughbred racing, one of two or three annual events in the quarter horse galaxy where you get to test yourself against the best. Each fall they descend on the Ohio state fairgrounds from 50 states and three U.S. territories, as well as from Europe, Australia, and South America. This year, the show boasts 13,000 entries in more than 200 classes. More than 500,000 spectators will take in this peculiar combination of fashion and stock show, commerce and athletic contest, this strange piece of Americana that's at once crass and wholesome, kitschy and sublime.
"It's a great honor just to come up here and place," observes John Briggs, a young horse trainer headquartered in Pilot Point, east of Denton. "It means you're one of the very best in the nation."
On paper, Meghann already is. An extraordinarily sweet girl who takes honors classes and likes theater, Meghann is ranked second in the youth standings in one event, 12th in another, according to the Quarter Horse Journal, the fat, glossy magazine of record for the quarter horse world. "And I haven't been showing that much," she notes proudly.
She's also an increasingly rare phenomenon in the upper ranks of quarter horse youth competitors. She doesn't have the world's most expensive horse, doesn't have particularly wealthy parents, and doesn't have the money to travel to horse shows across the country week in and week out, which is why the AQHA has suggested her as a guide.
"Meghann competes against kids who spend more on a horse than I make in a year," says Bekki Beverly, Meghann's mother. "We do this on a budget." During the week, Bekki Beverly works as a pharmacist in Denison, while Meghann's dad, Stephen Beverly, installs phone systems for Lucent Technologies. They are working stiffs trying to compete in the most elite of sports. It's a world populated by wealthy, successful parents who are as competitive as little-league dads, where there are large gaps in sophistication and financial means. It's a world sharply divided between the middle-class, rural farm kids, the 4-Hers and the Future Farmers of America; and upper-class horse folk, where the have-nots suspiciously watch the haves, convinced the latter are getting unfair advantages even beyond those they naturally enjoy. In short, a world much like the one outside the horse arena.
And most importantly, it's a haven where, underneath their carefully maintained Barbie-doll veneers, girls can, for a few hours, bare their type-A souls.
If some sports are a ticket out of poverty, equine sports are more of a way into it.
There are no Ivy League scholarships awaiting the victors, no fat six-figure prize-money checks, no cushy endorsement contracts. And traditionally, for lovers of quarter horses, not even Olympic glory.
"I just don't think they're accepted [in Olympic circles]," says Nancy Cahill, a quarter horse trainer based in Madisonville, a small burg outside Houston. "They like those big old [European] warmbloods, and you just get used to what's been generally used and won on."
This may soon change. The U.S. Equestrian Team, the organization that oversees Olympic equine sports in America, recently voted to make reining, a Western event in which horses execute a complex series of athletic maneuvers, an Olympic sport beginning with the 2004 or 2008 Games.
Until then, there's the AQHA. And lots of consolation prizes: Immense satisfaction. A chance to see the country. All-important bragging rights. Those schmaltzy values sport is supposed to confer: poise, confidence, family togetherness, and the pure thrill of competition.
"There are a lot worse addictions," says Bekki Beverly. And in a world where parents sometimes seem to view their tennis-star spawn and pre-pubescent gymnasts as miniature profit centers, horse showing offers a refreshing example of the old-fashioned sports syllogism: The parents love their kids. The kids love their horses. Therefore, the parents pony up.
Meghann is proud of the tradeoffs she's made. "Most kids ask for a car for sweet 16," she says. "I asked to go to the Sun Circuit." The Sun Circuit is a group of quarter horse shows held each January in Tucson, Arizona--a chance to get a jump on the competition in the show standings, as each January 1 wipes the slate clean and begins the endless cycle of horse shows anew. Serious competitors load up their $50,000 living-quarter-equipped horse trailers and their RVs and crisscross the country in pursuit of show points. (The AQHA awards one "point" for every five horses a contestant beats in an AQHA-approved show--and a show is held somewhere every weekend throughout the year.) Each year, hundreds of kids contend to rack up points and become the high-point exhibitor in one or more events.
Yet it's one thing to win at weekend shows with 20 to 40 horses in a class. To win consistently at the biggest shows, like the Congress, where every class features hundreds of the world's best entrants, is another. Meghann is trying to take it to this next level, to learn how to win world championship titles and sweep the most prestigious shows. She'll have to, if she is to realize her goal.
"If I could have anything, I'd have a really big live-in trailer," says Meghann, slipping into her own special fantasyland. "And trainers that would go with me everywhere. And I'd like to do the home schooling and have the cell phones and computers, and my mom and my little sister would come along, over the country. That would be really neat."
That, she knows, is beyond her family's reach. So she's pursuing a fallback dream. "The World Cup 2000 is in Rome [Italy]," she notes. The Quarter Horse Youth World Cup, a sort of Olympics for young quarter horse riders from around the world, is held every two years. It features team competition, with each country around the world sending a single team.
"What we want is the all-around rider," explains Nancy Cahill, who has coached the U.S. Youth World Cup team for 10 years. "Because the person who rides one horse in two events is gonna have a real hard time getting on a horse they've never been on. In general, it's not gonna be the quality kind of horse you've been on." At the Youth World Cup, she explains, the riders mount donated horses assigned randomly, which they train for four days and then show in eight events.
"This year, four of [the team members] were from Texas. All of 'em world champions," Cahill says. "They were like the dream team." Dream team or no, they were also an example of one problem plaguing the AQHA: the increasing marginalization of common horse folk. All five team members enjoyed certain advantages--chiefly wealthy parents or, in case of Nancy Cahill's daughter, Quincy, a parent who was a professional horse trainer.
Nevertheless, Meghann is determined to get there. In the meantime, though, the clock is ticking--and winning a class or two this weekend would certainly help the cause.
The American Quarter Horse Association was founded by wealthy ranchers, men with surnames like Clegg and Kleberg (founders of the King Ranch) and Burnett (founder of the Triangle ranch), who in the spring of 1939 met to talk about opening a studbook in order to preserve the bloodlines of the legendary cowponies and sprinters bred on their ranches.
Over the years the breed has been crossed extensively with Thoroughbreds, producing a much larger horse but one still marked by its musculature, refinement, intelligence, and versatility. The shows themselves, however, remain remarkably true to their original purpose: a civilized way for wealthy, opinionated ranchers to argue over blooded stock.
In 1960, the AQHA launched a youth division, and in the intervening 38 years, the youth outreach program has become arguably its biggest success. Today, quarter horse shows offer youngsters as many as 25 separate classes in which to show their mares and geldings (stallions are shown only in adult classes). In 1997, there were more than 210,000 youth entries in AQHA-approved shows, and at many, youth contestants outnumbered adults.
Yet if at lower levels of competition these are 4-H and FFA kids, the top level of competition is far different. While rich folk are but a small percentage of today's quarter horse owners, they occupy disproportionate space in the sport's imagery, as well as in the upper ranks of competitors. They are supplemented by middle-class families who disdain urban life and idealize the rural past. According to an AQHA marketing study, 86 percent of quarter horse owners "consider themselves [to be] living a Western lifestyle through their clothing and music." Thirty percent live in urban or on the edge of urban areas; 69 percent live in rural areas.
Meghann is a fine example of how it all begins. As a toddler she rode anything in sight: cows, hobby horses, couch arms, Daddy's knee, the family dog. "She was always the one [saying], 'Please, Mama, can I have a horse? Please, Mama, can I have a horse?'" Bekki Beverly recalls. "She called them 'opies' when she was little. She couldn't say 'horse,' so they were 'opies.'"
Bekki understood. Growing up on a small farm in the Panhandle, she had dreamed her own cowgirl dreams. ("When I was a girl, every little girl wanted to be a trick rider," Bekki recalls.) As a child she had horses, among them a quarter horse mare named Lisa, which she showed at small local gatherings called playdays and 4-H shows in and around Amarillo. Still, Bekki resisted until Meghann was 9, when disaster granted the little girl's wish.
"The Corps of Engineers let the Red River flood, and my daddy lost 700 acres of wheat," recalls Bekki. "The horses had been out in the pasture, and he called and said, 'Either you take them or they're going to the sale barn.' So we went from zero to seven." A move to the country quickly followed.
Among the horses Meghann inherited was her mom's old 4-H horse, Lisa, by then 24 years old. When Lisa died a few months later, Bekki bought Meghann another quarter horse mare named Peaches. Meghann began showing Peaches in small-town weekend playdays and 4-H and FFA shows. "My first show was a midnight playday, at the McKinney Pinto Club," she recalls. "Peaches bucked me off."
She went through Peaches and another quarter horse before Bekki teamed her with her current partner, True C Bar, a 17-year-old black quarter horse gelding with a stoic attitude, bad feet, and a built-in radar for peppermint. Nicknamed "Shamu" after the killer whale, he is a big, stout, old-fashioned New Mexico-bred quarter horse, and the family's favorite pet. He was a top amateur trail horse for his previous owner.
As mom and dad pick up their daughter at Port Columbus International Airport, Bekki gives Meghann the horse report. For Meghann's parents, it's been a long night and day. To cut down on days taken off work, Bekki and Stephen drove the entire way after they got home the night before, tackling the 20-hour trip in shifts. To defray the cost of gas and Meghann's plane fare, Bekki hauled two yearlings that will be sold in the Congress' annual auction. "It paid for Meghann's ticket, and then some," she notes.
Bekki is not the only one who moonlights for the cause; Dad makes and sells faux horsetails. (Shamu is the photo-model.) The show-ring fashion of the moment calls for long, thick, Rapunzel-style tails that extend nearly to the ground, a look most exhibitors obtain by using fake tail extensions, which are woven into the horse's own tail near the end of its tailbone.
By the time Meghann reaches the show barn it's 10 p.m. The 20-acre show ground is humming, all neon lights and golf carts whizzing past dogs and horses and announcements over the PA system. Inside the main show arena, youth reining has just gotten under way; outside the arena, from a row of more than 20 fast-food booths, vendors hawk cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, pizza, sausages. The whole place is electric, alive with people and smells--chiefly fried food, with strong notes of leather and manure. It resembles nothing so much as a small state fair devoted to the worship of a single breed of horse and, perhaps more importantly, to a way of life.
It will continue this way well into the early morning, when the two main indoor show arenas will clear for a few hours. Even then, the activity will not end; at two and three in the morning each of the 10 or so practice rings will have half a dozen competitors moving in endless circles and figure eights. The Congress never sleeps.
Back at the barn, John Briggs, Meghann's trainer, is waiting for a last-minute practice session with his pupil. Twenty-five years ago, it was the rare youth competitor who had the luxury of a trainer--much less one who followed them around to shows. Today, it is a practical necessity. As in grand slam tennis or golf or any other highly competitive sport, champions are made not only from hard work but from hours of sustained, nitpicky criticism and attention to detail. Such help doesn't come cheaply; Meghann's parents pay $600 a month to board Shamu with the Briggs, an arrangement that carries limitless lessons and tune-ups for horse and rider alike. (They pay additional charges for the Briggses to attend shows.) They're lucky; it's relatively cheap. Like Meghann, John and Jill Briggs are looking to make their mark. At 29, John is a multiple world champion who worked for a number of top trainers before striking out on his own. His wife and partner, Jill, 24, is a former youth world champion.
Meghann is not the only youth competitor in the Briggses' barn. Across from Shamu's stall, 16-year-old Nicole Story is standing on an overturned can, carefully banding the mane of her big sorrel horse, Zircon Zipper, "ZZ" for short. A pretty, blonde junior at Granbury High, Nicole has the tough-as-nails mien that popular teenage girls sometimes develop, and palpable ambition. Though Nicole has been showing horses for nearly as long as Meghann, until recently it's been mostly in 4-H and local shows; this is her first Congress. The same goes for Sibyl Parsons, a precocious 12-year-old from Combine, Texas, located near Seagoville. Like Meghann, both Nicole and Sibyl are the daughters of middle-class parents, trying to compete in a sport that is ruthlessly up-or-out.
Meghann takes Shamu out of his stall, only to discover a crisis: a weepy, swollen eye. It's a potential disaster. Her first class, at 8 a.m., is Showmanship at Halter, one in which appearances are critical, and the competition is fierce; in Meghann's age group alone, there are 240 entrants.
Normally, it is one of Meghann's best events. With limited showing, she's ranked 12th in the national standings. But when you're showing against a few hundred of the world's best horses, the tiniest thing--a puffed-up, mattery eye--may earn you poor marks.
Bekki trots off in search of a vet, while Meghann and John head for the practice ring to brush up on fine points of Meghann's body placement and Shamu's pivots. Like Bekki and Steve, Shamu looks exhausted; even the good eye is at half-mast.
After 45 minutes, they treat the bad eye, put Shamu to bed, grab something to eat, and turn in for a few hours' sleep, fingers crossed. It works; the next morning, Shamu's eye is fine. Bekki is up at 6 a.m., primping Shamu. His faux tail in place, his feet polished with black hoof dye, his muzzle carefully slicked with baby oil, he looks ready for the winner's circle. Meghann throws a light sheet on him and heads off for one of three indoor arenas that hold a full day of competitions.
What a show is unfolding inside.
The interesting part isn't what goes on in the ring; watching a seven-hour Showmanship at Halter class is only slightly more interesting than five hours of sitting at a golf hole, watching endless rounds of contestants take their best shot. The fascination is primarily cultural. Though today's quarter horse owners are located all over the globe, though some of the biggest shows are held in the Midwest, the sport retains the cultural trappings of the wealthy Texans who started it all. Gear and the exhibitors alike display all the taste and subtlety of the Cattle Baron's Ball, Dallas' premier over-the-top society event. (Indeed, more than a few Dallas debs and socialites are women who, as teenagers, regularly graced the pages of the Quarter Horse Journal.)
"It's a major fashion show," Meghann says of the sea of shiny-coated horses in silver- and gold-mounted halters, led by pretty young women in stage makeup and wildly flamboyant western outfits. There are rhinestones, Rolexes, suede, silver and gold lame, faux fur, real fur, Austrian crystals. ("The big thing now," explains Meghann. "They shine more.") Many of the girls sport gold-and-diamond jewelry that would make an NFL running back blush. But for the dirt and manure, the scene would qualify as camp.
"The Barbie factor," Meghann calls it. And, outfitted in black moire silk trimmed in royal blue and rhinestones, she's no Raggedy Ann herself. Like those of most contestants, Meghann's show clothes are specially whipped up by a seamstress. As with ice-skaters' costumes, there is a cottage industry of needlewomen across the country who specialize in the designs. The Chanel of the moment is Paula from Arizona, whose number is handed around like a secret code.
"There's Joetta," says Bekki Beverly, looking up for a moment from her endless horse-polishing duties.
In a pen outside of the arena where showmanship is being held, 16-year-old Joetta Meredith is putting a small dun gelding through his paces. A wisp of a girl, so tiny and thin she could easily pass as a gymnast or ice skater, Joetta, who lives in a hamlet outside Houston, is the current big dog, the competitor to beat. According to the latest Quarter Horse Journal, she is ranked in the top five in two events. She's won multiple world titles at the youth world show, the by-invitation-only Super Bowl of youth horse showing.
"Family money," Bekki explains.
But it would be deceptive to write Joetta off as a rich kid whose parents bought success. In fact, she has the perfect combination of wealth and fire-in-the-belly determination that makes kids practice dozens of hours a week and forgo normal teenage lives.
"Joetta's been working on it for a long time," says Nancy Cahill, the Youth World Cup coach, whose teams have included Joetta. "She was kinda plopped on at the gate for a long time. But she finally said, 'I want to ride every event. I want to stay here all day long. I want to do it all.' And that's when her folks finally bought her that dun horse...
"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.
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.
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.
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."
In the meantime, the Beverlys shrug it off with the mantra every contestant mouths, but no one really believes: "It's just another horse show," says Bekki.
Postscript: Meghann flew back to Dallas the next day, as did Nicole, whose horse was still too sore to ride. Four days later, Bekki Beverly and a well-rested Shamu won the Amateur Open Trail class at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress.