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December 16, 2016

COTH Horse Show Dad: Return To The Walnut Ring

Audrey and the Dark Lord of Show Jumping conquering their Walnut Ring fears. Photo courtesy of Chad Oldfather

When we last spoke, I introduced you to Alex—known to his friends and admirers as the Dark Lord of Show Jumping.  He’s my daughter Audrey’s horse, and most of the time he goes by the less colorful “Alex” or, more formally, “Legado.” 

He’s an off-the-track Thoroughbred, a jumper through and through, and a horse who firmly believes that the solution to any problem involves going faster.  With the indispensable guidance of our patient and talented trainer Serah Vogus, he and Audrey are forming a deep bond. One of their adventures together took us to the Kentucky National Horse show in September.

For us, a trip to the Kentucky Horse Park is kind of a big deal. It’s the place Ada and Audrey have shown where the largest number of the cool kids are likely to be, where you’re most likely to hear a name casually announced and think to yourself “hey, I’ve read about that person.” 

Alex also seems to think of the Horse Park as kind of a big deal. He has a bit of a history of, as we say, “going Dark Lord” there. And so, even though he had been much more gentlemanly than not in the shows leading up to this one, this was his first trip to the Horse Park with Audrey and we weren’t quite sure how things were going to go.

And let me see if I can take it up a notch further from there. It wasn’t just a return to the Horse Park, but a return to the Walnut Ring. For Audrey, then, it was a return to the ring where she realized her Pony Finals dream. For Alex, in contrast, the Walnut Ring has been the stuff of nightmares.

Some background: The Walnut Ring is distinctive in a couple respects. It’s large and irregularly shaped, and only partially bordered by a low fence. It sits well above the warm-up ring. Horses have to walk perhaps 50 yards up a relatively narrow fenced ramp to get to it. Looking up from the bottom it’s hard to know where that ramp leads.

The particulars are lost to history, but somewhere along the line Alex concluded that all is definitely not cool with the Walnut Ring.

The last time he had been there he was showing with Emma Alhalel, his prior owner, and things started to go poorly in the warm-up ring. But of course it couldn’t be typical schooling ring misbehavior. Not with Alex. 

As Emma tells it, “We were having trouble, and I mean a lot of trouble. We stopped going straight and forward and we were leaping and going sideways. And then a group of Amish people visiting the Horse Park came down to watch and they were pointing and laughing and clapping because I’m pretty sure they think I’m doing ‘cool tricks.’ ” 

As you might imagine, the trip up the ramp from there was an adventure. Alex ran forward and then he ran backward. He spun in circles and reared. They stopped everything, cleared the ramp, and finally, after a drawn-out struggle, he went in.

Our trainer Serah Vogus rode Alex the first two days of the show. It was, shall we say, not so easy to get him in the ring, and for a moment or two it looked like jumping the rail into the ring would be easier than walking through the gate. But things went well inside the ring. 

He’d have been champion in the Take 2 Thoroughbred Jumper division if they had awarded it (there were only two classes). His other trips were solid. There was reason for hope.

And then it was Audrey’s turn. Their first class was in the Claiborne Ring. If it went well, they could move up to the 1.10-meter jumpers in the Walnut Ring. Alex, as the accompanying video shows, was a perfect gentleman.

Of course, showing in the Walnut Ring required getting into the Walnut Ring. That required some coordination. The plan called for a signal from the in-gate when the horse before him entered the ring. Then there would be a clearing of the ramp, followed by clucking and chasing and possibly some waving of arms and shaking of blankets. All done in the most dignified fashion, naturally.

It didn’t quite work to perfection. The second part of the plan was to get Alex to the area just to the right of the canopy covering the bleachers and the gate person. There, maybe, he’d regain his composure before the scary trek through the in-gate. But, just as Audrey and Alex approached the gap in the rail that leads to that area, a passerby with the best of intentions held her arms out to block his path. There was only one place to go, and that was into the ring. 

It was what they call a dramatic entrance. Audrey’s greatest disappointment for the whole show was that I didn’t get it on video. 

All would have been fine, except for the fact that the horse two ahead was still on course. Which meant that now there were three horses in the ring. Leaving was not an option, because leaving would require getting back in.

With the permission of the judge they lingered along the edge of the ring as the horse before completed its trip (which was, fortunately, clean). Suffice it to say that the trip that followed had some hiccups.

Fast forward to the end of the day. It was clear that Alex had not left his alter ego at home.  And so, because a dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do, and because I flatter myself with the idea that Alex and I have a certain rapport, I felt it was time for an intervention. That evening, while the other members of the Millcreek Farm contingent were either watching the Maclay regional or off at dinner, I slipped into Alex’s stall.

He was in a talkative mood: “I mean, look, I’m the Dark Lord of Show Jumping, right?  That’s a big role, man—those are some Budweiser Clydesdale-sized shoes I’ve got to fill. People expect things. I sort of feel like I’ve got no choice but to enter that ring like I’ve been shot out of a cannon. Make an entrance, you know? Let the people know for sure that I’m not some made warmblood with European manners just there to prep for the Maclay or whatever.”

He paused, looked to make sure no other horses happened to be walking past, then leaned in a little closer and lowered his voice: “Plus I’ll let you in on a little something—and maybe don’t spread this around too widely, if you don’t mind. It’s scary up there by the entrance to that ring. Not, like, obviously scary. I don’t think too many humans would even pick up on it. 

And to be honest, I didn’t pick up on it right away either. But then one time they walked me up there and they wanted me to just stand there. So I had a moment to look around and take it all in. And once I had done that I was like, ‘Dude, you have got to get outta here.’ ”’ 

He drank some water and continued: “I don’t want this to seem like I’m high-strung or something. I’ll run through that gate, since I’ve got a job to do and everything. But understand, it’s not like we’re talking about just another rectangle with a fence around it.  I’m not even sure there’s a word for the shape of the Walnut Ring. Not in English. Maybe you could ask one of the imports. Anyway, you cannot expect me to just walk into that ring or, you know, stand there quietly waiting my turn. Nope. Not the Walnut Ring. I’ve seen too much in this life. Ain’t happening.”

We spoke for a while longer. I tried to convince him that it wasn’t really as bad as all that. I reminded him how good Audrey has been to him, that this was her first trip to Kentucky with him, that it was kind of a big deal. He listened for a bit, said he would think about it, then turned toward the back of the stall.

I’d love to tell you that I got through to him, that what followed was a blizzard of double-clear rounds, blue ribbons, and so much prize money that they wrote a check to me. But that’s not how it went.

Audrey and Alex became a little bit famous as a result of his antics. “That was you?!,” asked an amazed young woman who overheard Audrey telling the story. And the show was a success in that Alex was great in the Claiborne Ring, and each trip into the Walnut Ring was a little bit calmer than the last. 

Their second entrance involved a gallop from the bottom of the ramp all the way into the ring. That gallop soon turned into a trot, which, on their last trip, turned into a spirited walk. I’m not saying for sure, but I think I might’ve gotten through to him. (Of course, it’s also possible that Serah knows a thing or two about horses.)

Inside the ring he and Audrey faced the biggest, most difficult courses they have yet seen.  And they learned. They studied the pieces of the puzzle, examined their shape, and felt their contours. Soon enough they will put them all together.

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He's the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he's going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he's a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, "My Soul For An Equitation Horse" to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad's blogs for the Chronicle.

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