“Okay, you all get ready to go; harness ponies are getting ready to come out!” the announcer bellowed over the loudspeaker. I waited with Abraxus in the small warm up ring at the top of the ramp to Freedom Hall. Abraxus was nervous; I continually had to slowly circle him as stopping and standing are not exactly his cup of tea. Twenty-two other competitors circled around me. We all did our final touches – drop the tail, wipe his mouth, comb the mane, fix my coat – preparing to take that once-in-a-lifetime trot down the infamous World Championship ramp into a blissfully cold paradise.
Louisville 2015 was an incredible experience. I was able to take my self-made three gaited show pleasure gelding Abraxus and show him on the ‘big stage.’ My class was scheduled for Monday morning and I shipped my gelding up Saturday afternoon. Being from Lexington it was just a hop and a skip to Louisville. This allowed him time to settle in and time for me to get him acclimated to the ring. Freedom Hall is a unique show venue in that it is air-conditioned, has green footing, and one must enter by a long declining ramp. Abraxus had never shown at the World Championships before and I had only shown him at one indoor show before (which was not a great experience). Although I have shown at the World Championships twice before (once in Juvenile Five Gaited and once in Country Pleasure), I did not know what to expect with him. I longlined him on Saturday afternoon in the back covered arena. There were quite a few other horses and trainers working at the same time. He entered the bullpen and immediately threw his tail over his back and snorted at his surroundings. Another trainer had an assistant with a noisemaker standing outside of the bullpen. Abraxus is quite sensitive to noise makers. As I began to longline him, the assistant fired off the noisemaker which also produced white smoke and Abraxus leapt across the bullpen directly towards me. I think he thought that I would protect him. After I reassured him that it wasn’t a fire breathing dragon, he continued to work – strutting off his stuff like I’ve never seen him do at home.
Luckily a good friend of mine had offered to let me stable with his barn so that I would not be an ‘odd man out’ at the show. It was extremely generous. Abraxus and I had a corner stall overlooking the main road into the fairgrounds – I called it his “corner condo.” After making sure he was settled in from his Saturday morning commute and workout, I went to the hotel to get ready for the evening horse show. One of the best parts about bringing my horse to the show was I was able to wear my very own “Trainer” armband – no longer was I a groom or just a member of the audience – I had a distinct purpose to be there.
The main ring would not be open for working until after the Saturday evening session. I decided to get up very early on Sunday morning and get Abraxus in the ring before the hustle and bustle of the day took over. The Saturday evening session proved to be an exciting night filled with the County Fair Championships. After I watched the show, I returned to my hotel to dream about World Championship rides and rest up for the next day.
My alarm went off at 4:15 am. I rolled out of the bed and headed for the barn. I didn’t have the heart to tell Abraxus about his early morning work. Since I typically work him at home after my own job in the evenings, he rarely has to get moving before 4 pm. As I walked up to his stall still under the moonlight, he was sleeping peacefully against the right wall. I whispered his name and one of his big golf-ball sized eyes slid open. He flicked an ear in my direction and closed his eye again. It wasn’t until I started rattling around in his feed bag did he stir from his slumber and come to life.
After breakfast, I prepared him to work. I was so excited to get ride him in Freedom Hall. I knew this practice ride might even be more special than showing him the next day – I would have the ring to myself and as much time as I wanted to prance around the green shavings.
Once mounted on Abraxus, we headed towards Stopher Walk. My friend had offered to come with me in case I needed any help and thankfully he did. At 5:00 am it was still pitch black, and when Abraxus got sight of the pink and purple carnival-lit concession stand parked next to Stopher Walk where we often got breakfast – he quickly spun around and said “no thank you!” It took some convincing (and even my friend’s offer to lead him) to get him trotting down Stopher Walk. I had to use my voice and my leg to keep him marching but once he got going, he aired up and was excited.
Abraxus trotted right through the warm up and down the ramp. Afraid if he stopped that I would not be able to get him forward again on my own, I continued to push him until we made it all the way down into the ring. Immediately I felt the rush of cold air-conditioned air hit my face and the intense shavings smell, and I couldn’t help but tear up as I felt the emotion of riding my very-own horse around the Saddlebred world’s biggest stage.
Abraxus worked like a champ and I felt confident that he would be prepared for the next day. The rest of Sunday was spent resting up and watching the horse show. I made sure my tack was clean, suit together, number pinned, and also that Abraxus was feeling tip-top. I took him for a walk around the fairgrounds and stood for a while by the back work ring to admire the other horses working.
Monday rolled around and my mother showed up to help me prepare Abraxus. With the help of a friend, I had already blacked his feet and trimmed his whiskers early that morning. I braided the beautiful satin red ribbons into his mane and forelock. I periodically rubbed him with liniment and fluffed out his tail throughout the morning.
When the time came, we stripped Abraxus and polished every hair until it shined. His beautiful caramel dapples popped out on his rump. His tail was combed and oiled to perfection. I changed into my suit and obsessed over every detail. After buckling the cavesson and hooking the curb chain on Abraxus’s bridle, he was led out and I mounted up.
I joined the other competitors headed to the ring and it wasn’t until I hit Stopher Walk that my nerves began to flare. I trotted Abraxus as he was feeling nervous too. He trotted past dozens of other people and horses all preparing for their trip around Freedom Hall. I worked his bridle, made sure he was supple, and allowed him to stretch through all three gaits. As the announcer called the status of the class before us, I walked Abraxus around and made our final preparations. Finally, it was time to go!
The rush of trotting into the ring, surrounded by 22 other horses and riders all looking for a title was exhilarating. Abraxus did not appear to be fazed by the other horses and I was able to get great spots in the ring. I could put him wherever I wanted and with a class that size, I made sure to get seen with each pass. Abraxus cantered both leads and even flat walked. He did give me a bobble transitioning from the first walk to the canter – but knowing his personality – he wouldn’t be him if he didn’t give me some resistance even at the highest level. Finally we lined up and waited for the results. I was so proud of him as we waited for the numbers to be called. I cried both in the lineup and as we retired to the end. It is a very intense wave of emotions that rush over you when you accomplish something with a horse you have brought along yourself. I have felt those same emotions out galloping cross country on my self-made Thoroughbred and making my victory passes in Arabian Native Costume. No matter what discipline I do or what breed of horse I ride, the feeling of connection I get with a horse when we have accomplished something beyond my dreams is overwhelming.
We did not earn a ribbon at this year’s World Championship Horse Show; it didn’t matter and never will. What I earned was an accomplishment of taking a tough horse, which fell into my lap sight unseen, and working him up into a beautiful specimen that I was able to compete at the highest level.
It has been a few weeks since the show and Abraxus is fat and happy – the cool September air has hit and his coat has already began to fluff out for the winter. He is enjoying his daily turnout and I am enjoying him as “just a horse.” I will give him some down time through the winter months to recover from a long spring and summer of showing. I don’t know what the plans are for the future and I don’t know if we will make that trip again to Louisville in 2016. If he is fit, sound, and happy next summer, I would love to get that chance again. Showing at Louisville is like a high you just can’t get enough of.
I would like to encourage every Saddlebred lover to come to Louisville 2016, whether it is on the back of a horse or sitting in a blue seat. It is an incredible experience you can only understand by being there!
Brooke has worked many years in veterinary medicine at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Equine Medicine and Surgery, and Red River Equine Hospital.She has a Masters in Communication Disorders and currently works in the Mercer County School System in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Brooke also portrays her knowledge and love of horses through her artwork and business Keepsake Equine Custom Art.
Latest posts by Brooke Schafer (see all)
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