Jul 07, 2020

Earning her spurs

You’ve seen us before.

We’re the ones who wear jeans in 105-degree weather.

The ones who sneak into the back of class because we smell less than pleasant after a hard day’s stall-mucking.

The ones whose spurs you can hear jingling a mile away.

For five years, I, like so many other student-athletes, have labored for my team. In those years, I’ve been asked if “EE-qwest-EAR-EE-an” was a swimming and diving sport, if we rope cows and if we take our horses on planes with us when we travel.

Like cheerleading, equestrian is often not considered a sport. “The horse does all the work!” is a common jab.

People who say that have usually never ridden a horse. I suppose they think we control the thousand-pound animals with our minds alone.

That doesn’t even factor in how much more labor-intensive showing horses is than most other sports.

For instance, soccer players don’t have to mow and stripe their own fields, but we have to drag our own arena and set and tear down our own jump standards.

Football players wear protective gear, but it doesn’t restrict their movement and even breathing. A pair of Western chaps is too large if the rider can bend at the knees. English boots should require several accoutrements and/or people to assist in their removal.

Baseball players take good care of their bats and gloves, but I doubt they stay on the diamond until midnight to do that. Before a big show, people get very little sleep braiding and banding manes, clipping horses’ whiskers and scrubbing at any stubborn dirt spots.

Golfers are probably the only athletes whose competitions are close to the length of a horse show. I can’t even count the blustery February mornings I was up before dawn to get to a show. More than once, competitors surrounded the arena with their cars to provide light for the judges to see by at night.

That’s not meant to put down other sports. It’s merely a contrast. I have been proud to be called a student-athlete and to stand for Fresno State and a standard of excellence that many don’t associate with our university.

But now, that part of my life is ending and I must pass the collegiate torch to those coming in behind me. It is a very surreal feeling. I remember when I first came onto the team, an 18-year-old whose childhood dream of riding was fed by episodes of Zorro and scenes of Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels galloping into the sunset.

It seems like a lifetime ago and a moment ago.

At the end of every riding lesson, equestrian team head coach Becky Malmo points at each rider and says, “You’re done, and you’re done, and you can be done.”

She said that at the end of my last lesson on a sunny April Friday. I sat there on the worn suede seat and thought about her words.

I can be done.

I closed my eyes and felt the sun and smelled the dust of the arena and listened to the saddle creak to Sparky’s movement. I opened them and surveyed the barn’s grounds and remembered the first time I ever saw them from the back of a horse — the first time I saw the world from the back of a horse.

The horses I rode then are gone. The girls I rode with are gone. The kinds of shows I rode in are gone.

I’m the last one of the IHSA girls; the last one who remembers bus trips through California to compete on half-wild horses driven from the mountainsides of Cal Poly in galloping herds.

The last one who can tell stories about having to ride those wild horses cold turkey, praying to maintain control of the animal through some divine whim.

The last one who remembers four people to a Motel 6 room and shopping cart races in Wal-Mart parking lots while on the road.

And as these thoughts went through my mind, I looked at the silver medallion in the saddlehorn I’d grabbed so many times before and I rubbed it as if for good luck and I swung my leg off that horse for the last time. I stuck my foot under the gate to take pressure off the latch like I have so many times, and I left five years of sweat and tears behind me.

I came on to the team not knowing how to put a saddle on a horse. I left it with a national title and a lifelong passion. I reached my unreachable star.

Like so many other seniors, it’s now time for me to focus on my next impossible dream.

I wish my equestrian family blue-ribbon luck.

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