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all words and photos: Shauna Alexander

Twenty-two years ago my Father made the unfortunate decision of taking me to go for a pony ride to pass the time while my Mother was at work. What he did not know was that this would spur an addiction that later sent me traveling all over Europe to complete against some of the world’s best. And every year when the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) comes to town, I get a little nostalgic for my previous life in the saddle. So thanks to BYT (and my trainer for the access) I was able to go relive my dream of ponies and saddles and blue ribbons… oh my!

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I arrived to the Verizon Center on Wednesday to a mediocre-sized but totally devout crowd of horse enthusiasts. Britches, Jodhpurs, and tall boots were the lay of the land (which everyone from Ralph Lauren to Betty Draper have made fashionable outside the stable these days) as I scoped out the vendors and booths that all held equestrian related trinkets, goodies and equipment. I’ve got to say, there’s nothing like the smell of leather (and Dunkin Donuts?) to make a girl get all excited for the events to come.

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The night’s event was the $2,500 Amateur/Owner Jumper class, which in lay-men’s terms means riders over the age of 18 who do not make a living from horseback riding. To be clear, the type of riding held at the WIHS is called hunt seat, which is mostly derived from the notion of forward seat riding which used both on the flat (walk/trot/canter) and while jumping over fences. In Jumper classes, the rider do just that – they navigate their horses over a predetermined course of fences in the quickest and cleanest ride possible. For every rail knocked down the rider incurs 4 faults (kind of like penalties) and for every refusal (to which the horse stops in front of the jump or refuses to jump, faults and time (7 seconds) are added to their overall score). Jumper classes involve two rounds, in which all riders compete once to see if anyone makes it clear (no faults) over the 1.37 meter fences (4.5 feet). This is no easy feat, let me tell you! While all of these riders and horses are highly trained, anything can happen. Horses can be spooked easily and the flash of a camera or jumping from the wrong distance can have serious side effects to how well a ride goes. So it was of no surprise to me that by the last rider, only two had made it through the course clear.

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Any riders who have made it clear through the first round then compete in a jump-off. This is by far the most thrilling round to watch at the fences get higher and wider (1.45 meters or 4.75 feet), the turns get tighter and speed increases. Once again the object is to go as fast and as clean as possible. In this final round of competition both riders ended up with faults, but it was the dapple gray that came home with the ribbon and monetary prize!

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The thing with riding is this – the horse isn’t just an animal, they’re you’re teammate. It takes years to cultivate the kind of talent and bond with your horse to make it to the professional level. It’s spectacular to watch just how much this partnership pays off, even if you aren’t familiar with the terms and rules of riding. Who knows, you just may see 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist McClain Ward or Bruce Springsteen (who’s daughter is one of the shows best competitors and whom is frequently spotted at the show) wandering around the place.

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