HorseyPrincessYou will know how Princess Ambulance was crowned with that moniker towards the end of the story. I do not know her. I can’t even recall her real name. All I know is that she is a local teenager who attempts to ride and show horses. Whether or not she is successful at either of those endeavors is a mystery to me. She certainly failed at both on the day that I encountered her.  I can’t know if she ever picked  herself up, dusted herself off and truly became a competitive rider because I stopped helping out at horse shows. And she would be the reason why.

As mentioned, I have stopped volunteering my time to help out at the local charity horse shows. The charity I refer to is a handicapped riding facility (see link at end of post) that operates out of the stable where I used to ride.  My good friend and riding instructor, Stephanie,  teaches from that barn and I was happy to announce for the horse shows she manages. These riding competitions benefit the therapeutic riding program so I was glad to oblige.

Of all the shows , the hunter/jumper competitions were by far the most popular and well attended.  I arrived at the stable early in the morning to watch sleek horses unloaded from their trailers. These horses were followed by a plethora of teen princesses I could only identify by their assigned show numbers.  These little English riding girls seemed to take on a certain sameness.  Not just because they all wear the exact same jacket, helmet and breeches as the competitor before them,  but also because of their demeanor and attitude.  A certain set of their mouths, length of hair and sense of entitlement.

And speaking of assigned show numbers let’s go there.  It became a problem. First thing in the morning I sat at the entry table with the show administrator and helped distribute the number placards the riders were to wear during the competition.  Apparently we did not do such a great job because problems arose almost immediately.

A few of the young ladies were unhappy with their numerical assignments.  “But I always get number 36!” whined one girl who looked to be about 16.   The administrator informed Wendy Whiner that the number 36 had already been assigned to another rider.  Wendy raised both her volume and pitch and repeated her mantra anew. “BUT I ALWAYS GET NUMBER 36!!!”  A line was beginning to form behind her.  I repeated what the administrator had already told her. She stomped her foot and whipped out her cellphone. “MOM!” she bellowed into the phone. “Get over here! They won’t let me have number 36!”

Moments later Mom appeared. “What can we do about this?” Mom demanded. “She has to have 36. It’s her lucky number. She NEEDS it.” Several more minutes of discussion led to the overly accommodating administrator finding the rider who had previously gotten the number 36 placard and negotiating a trade.  Unfortunately Whiny Number 36 was not the exception to the rule. Quite  a few teenage girls demanded “their” special lucky numbers.  One girl who actually had the good luck to receive her requested number curtly told me not to expect the placard back as she was taking it home to place in her scrapbook.  Informed by the administrator that there would be a fine for the unreturned number the young rider snapped “Well, don’t tell me! Duh. Tell my mom.”

That show, along with the following hunter/jumper shows proved to be very long , trying days for me. I wondered if perhaps it was because I had been primarily a western rider and was accustomed to a friendlier, albeit no less competitive atmosphere. This blog is certainly not at all about English vs. western riding and I am making every effort so that it does not appear so biased. Not every girl who rode in the hunter/jumper shows behaved badly. There were some gracious and lovely young horsewomen in training and it was a great privilege to watch them effortlessly ride a jump course (something I could only do when my instructor shouted out constant commands to me) and display their excellent equitation.

I also admit to some extra sensitivity to the difficult events at these shows because I was often remembering my own struggle riding and showing as a teenager. I was also peripherally aware that I was coming to the end of my own days as a rider and it stung.

As it was those hunter shows were long days of being rudely treated by these spoiled young girls and their indulgent mothers.  I was mystified and slightly heartsick that these riders could not even summon one iota of gratitude for the tremendous privilege of having a life journey that was blessed with the great good fortune of owning and riding horses.

Yet I kept plugging away. I felt their ingratitude stab into my heart. I remembered the difficulty achieving my own young horse dreams.  I tried to keep telling myself that the show was not about them. That I was doing it for the disabled riders who struggled mightily for that half hour of therapeutic riding time.  Then “Princess Ambulance” swept in to take over one memorable hunter jumper competition.

This particular show featured the usual teenage girl tantrums,  hissies and general poor behavior.  I endeavored to take the rudeness in stride. Even laughed at the three girls who rolled their eyes and swore at me when I informed each one that she was to be the next rider in the jumping arena.

Princess Ambulance arrived with her dowdy mother.  Her thin frame and blond hair contrasted greatly with her overweight mother’s short brown hair and glasses.  Although Princess Ambulance was not mean to me personally she did bark orders to her harried mom.  Much to my surprise her mom actually marched to these orders.  I looked at this mother and recognized a cowed woman.  I saw it in her eyes and in the way she carried herself.  I beheld a woman who would walk on shards of fiery broken glass if she thought it would make her princess happy.  She was definitely one of those women who always left the decision making to someone else. Unquestioningly carrying out the demands of others.  I felt both sympathy and contempt for her.

I did not watch as Princess rode out her turn on the jump course but I was asked to announce her disqualification. I pressed the button on the walkie – talkie and asked the judge to repeat her request. The judge responded that Princess had gone around the course in the wrong direction! “Yeah, that’s an immediate disqualification.” said the administrator.  I made my announcement and we got back to tallying the previous class scores.

The sound of a throat clearing made us look up from our scoresheets.  Mother Ambulance stood somewhat nervously before us.  Looking as though she would rather be anywhere else she took a deep breath.  “My daughter needs another go – round.” she said. “She has to have another chance.”  The administrator and I both gaped for a moment but it was the administrator who spoke first.  “Um, your daughter rode the course backwards.” she said.  Mother Ambulance told us it was not her princess’ fault.  I then responded by saying that the course is visibly posted for all competitors to review before and during the show.  I tactfully held back the fact that it was your usual easy to follow jump course that is standard in every novice hunter/jumper schooling show from here to Mesopotamia.

“She’s very upset.” Mother told us. “It’s not her fault.”  Administrator and I both stared silently to wait for the explanation to this gem of information.  Mother cleared her throat again and attempted to become more assertive. “That’s how she was told to ride it.” she finally informed us.  Once again the administrator and I exchanged astonished looks.  “By whom?!” administrator asked.  Mother pointed at Stephanie and our looks of bewilderment grew.  I did not trust myself to speak further and ask why Stephanie, the show manager and COURSE DESIGNER, not to mention experienced rider, teacher and trainer (Heck, Steph taught me, a western rider who had never jumped so much as a log, how to jump sidesaddle!) would tell a rider to jump the course BACKWARDS! Sheesh.

Luckily the administrator is a more tolerant and accommodating soul than myself and she said we could ask the judge. She told Mom that it would be unlikely that the judge would concede to a second ride for the pouting princess but we would ask anyway.  Of course that meant that I was to make this ridiculous request of the judge via walkie – talkie.

As tactfully as possible I sent out this pleading petition to the judge. There was a pause. Even over walkie – talkie airwaves I could read the subtext of that pause.  In that brief moment of silence I definitely  heard “Did I just hear that?! What, are you fucking kidding me?!” Then the familiar crackle and the judge’s voice came through with kind but firm negative response.

The mother stared at us for a few seconds then sighed heavily and went to break the distressing news to her little princess.  I then knew the reason for the heavy sigh as I watched Princess’ reaction to said bad news.  Honestly , if I hadn’t known what just transpired I would have guessed that Mother was telling the girl that the rest of their family had been brutally murdered.  At first an incredulous open mouthed gawk.  Then a crimson face with a look of disbelief.  Then the tears. Oh Lord, the tears.  A burst of tears. Followed by ANOTHER burst of tears. A toddler’s tantrum in a teenage body.  Mom attempted to say more but Princess cried harder and led her horse away.  She planted herself conspicuously in the connecting aisle that brought the competitors into the showring.  My guess is that she wanted to be seen by as many people as possible. An emotional reaction to such a grave injustice deserves a wide audience.

Princess leaned up against the connector wall and began her sobs anew.  I swear that her  horse seemed embarrassed.  I think I even saw him manage a horsey eye roll. I felt for him.  I really wanted to feel ashamed for her. Truly I did. My attempt to muster any sympathy for her failed.  I ended up feeling worse for her poor horse who had to stand there and maintain some sort of dignity while his rider bawled her eyes out in front of everyone.

It made me flash back to a time when I was her age (mid to late teens) and felt like crying at a horse show. I had been terribly nervous just knew in my heart that I was going to have a lousy ride.  My own mother, herself a childhood horse show veteran , was not as sympathetic as Mother Ambulance. “Look.” My mom told me impatiently. “This is supposed to be FUN. Do you understand? If you are not having FUN then unsaddle the damn horse and we will leave right now.”

Unfortunately for Princess Ambulance her day at the horse show was only going to get worse. Her misfortune was my good luck as I enjoy a true instant karmic bitchslap as much as anyone.  It also indulged my fondness for dark comedy with a measure of appropriate slapstick. That may sound awfully cruel in light of the events I am about to describe, but please bear with me…nobody was hurt during the couse of Princess’  hapless accident.

With tremendous will the Princess of LamentationLand brought her tears under control to enter the equitation class.  No jumps in this class but I silently prayed that she would follow another competitor into the ring so as not to start riding around in the wrong direction.  Ever get that feeling that a disaster is about to happen? I watched the equitation class. No riders stood out as being exceptionally good or bad but It did concern me that Princess was leaning up and out of her saddle almost constantly.  Once again I mentally lauded her horse. Not only did he have to put up with her emotional maelstroms he also had to stay balanced while she maintained an absurd position halfway out and forward of her saddle.  The class was going well until the judge asked for the canter.

A few beats into the canter and down came Princess’ horse.  He stumbled. Fell down to his knees and Princess flew off of him and landed with a thud. Her horse righted himself almost instantly but Princess remained prostrate on the ground. I made an announcement to clear the arena.  Several people including Princess’ mom and Stephanie flew to her side.  I overheard parts of the conversation.  Mom asked if she wanted an ambulance. In true dramatic Camille From Her Deathbed fashion Princess eked out a “Yes!”.  Stephanie called an ambulance while Princess waited on the ground surrounded by an entourage of sympathy givers.

I could almost sense the paramedic’s annoyance as the arena doors opened and the ambulance backed up inside.  Several minutes passed. The medics asked all the pertinent questions.  Princess vocally expressed her desire to be taken to the hospital but the medic’s exam negated this request.  Finally the senior paramedic stood up and put an end to Princess’ wailing by saying “Why don’t you just chalk it up to a bad day at the horse show okay? Just a bad day at the horse show.” The other medic also stood up and they walked back to the ambulance. I saw them both shake their heads.  Gosh I hope nobody had a heart attack while they were ministering to that girl.

I turned away in disgust from the rest of the action but was later told that Princess got up and walked out of the arena of her own volition.  Completely uninjured. I’m sure there were plenty of tears but I was not about to watch anymore.  I finished out the day but never returned to volunteer at the stable again.

I don’t know who you are Princess Ambulance, but I sincerely hope that you have grown up since your “bad day at the horse show”.  Maybe you learned a little bit about how unfair life can be. I certainly had that lesson driven into me for about the millionth time by YOU at that very same competition.  Some people do not deserve horses.  Yet they get them anyway because they have wealthy indulgent parents.  Horseback riding,  horse ownership and competing in horse shows are all great privileges.

Let me tell you something about horse shows, Princess.  Sometimes you do not get the blue ribbon (or any ribbon for that matter) even when you know you have ridden well and deserve it more than your fellow competitors.  And sometimes you get an undeserved ribbon when you know you have been outridden. That happened to me once. Got a first place in a jumping class where I knew I totally sucked. Even the person handing me the blue ribbon grimaced and shook their head.  I rode horribly and wondered if the judge was even watching me.

And sometimes we mess up and that is why we get disqualified and ruin our own chances to be in the ribbons.  I rode a barrel racing course backwards one time.  MY fault.  There is no way my mother would have begged the judges for me to have another go.  In fact she laughed! Thought it was funny and admonished me to pay attention next time.

Yes, we all fall. It’s scary. It must be dreadfully humiliating to fall at a show. But that humiliation does not give you the right to disrupt the show because of your own great need for attention.  I was briefly unconscious after one of my scariest falls and you know what my mother did? If you are guessing that she called an ambulance you would be incorrect.  No. She waited until I remembered where I was and what happened then told me that I should probably get back on the horse.  I did.

My grandfather used to have a saying. “Don’t make a monkey out of that horse.” he would tell his young charges before they entered the horse show ring.  It used to be just a silly thing he always said but as I grew, and especially as I watched competitive riders, it meant more.  The great privilege of being an equine caretaker means many things.  Yes of course the typical things. Make sure they are well fed, happy and healthy. But it also meant to remember their dignity and respect them as  the noble creatures that they are.

I hope that your horse taught you that lesson, Princess Ambulance. He really showed you up didn’t he? You need to become as dignified and gracious as your mount. Enjoy the process. The ribbons mean nothing. In the end it really is all about the enjoyment of these magnificent creatures, isn’t it? Be grateful that they let us be their companions and caretakers.  Do you think your horse gives a crap about showing? He does it for you, Princess.   I also hope that you will someday look AT instead of THROUGH your mother. She tries hard and means well.  Do not see her as the lackey that helps you get into equestrian competitions. See her as the reason you are able to ride a horse at all. It’s an expensive hobby. One that thousands of little girls only dream about.  Think about those girls and realize how fortunate you are.  My greatest hope for you, Princess, is that you will lose the entitled attitude, sharpen your riding skills and become worthy of your horse.  Until then, SUCK IT.

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