The big day finally came in February of 1944. It was summertime in New Zealand and my very first horse show. My grey pony, Monty had been scrubbed with a blueing wash and I‘d put too much of the whitener in the bucket, so he had a bit of a blue tinge and required yet another bath.
Monty had been trimmed to the nines to hide some of his massive draft-horse genes and my tack had been cleaned, my bridle first soaking all night in a tub of water. Mother made me eat breakfast before I hacked five miles to the showgrounds for our province’s annual two-day show. Unlike today, there were only four shows a year that my sister and I could attend in those days. And with it being wartime, there was no fuel for trucks to transport us. We hacked to the second show, 11 miles away, and our ponies traveled on a steam train to the other two competitions.
Did I win anything? No! Not even a third-prize yellow ribbon in the Consolation Class, eligible for all of the day’s non-winners.
I had a meltdown!
Mother was furious with my lack of sportsmanship. She made me congratulate the riders who had beaten me.
Little did I know that 68 years later, I’d have moved to the United States, still be showing and have learned that it’s not all about the ribbons.
Century Club Here We Come
On July 15, I rode Minty, a horse I’d bred, raised and evented for many years, to join the Dressage Foundation Century Club. This elite club—now 125 riders strong—recognizes riders and horses whose ages added together equal 100 and who complete a test at any level in front of a judge.
The build-up for this ride started with the Dressage Foundation accepting my application. I asked that if you added my 78 years, 9 months and 2 days to Minty’s 21 years 3 months and 9 days we equaled the 100 years on July 11. May we do our ride at a show on July 15? I submitted a copy of my passport’s official page and my veterinarian certified Minty’s birth date.
We were accepted.
I’d watched Minty’s birth on April 9, 1991. As his nose first appeared, I waited for tons of white markings like on his mother and grandmother. Nothing. The foal was still in the sack so I opened the door to cut it. Minty threw out a foreleg, the sack split and my huge colt sat up. I knew he would be a cocky horse after his first self-assured whinny sounded as if saying, “I’ve arrived!”
I was still riding in hunter classes at the time and Minty was a ¾ Thoroughbred and ¼ Hanoverian. My jumping trainer was upset when I bred Minty’s mother to Werner Wettstreit, a warmblood imported from Germany. But I was just shy of senior citizenship and figured a bit of solid non-Thoroughbred blood in my horse would be to my advantage.
Minty’s life started in the hunter world but by the time he was 7, we were both bored stiff with the way the hunter courses had changed to eight fences in a fairly predictable pattern and all in a ring. Gone were the outside courses and the thrill of galloping up and down hills that often incorporated natural jumps. So it was eventing, here we come.
I’d had a taste of the horse trials on Minty’s grandmother and the full-blown urge surfaced again. Oh those heady eight years, in which Minty and I competed, only somewhat handicapped by the dressage test! I bred Minty to jump and being long and low is not what dressage enthusiasts look for. And I am short with round shoulders—another dressage handicap.
Minty’s and my eventing days started badly. We set off for King Oak Horse Trials and the rotten forecast turned out to be accurate. I rode my dressage test in a torrential rainstorm. At least it was a warm downpour but Minty did the entire test stargazing. He always hated rain; from his birth, the first drops always had him tearing into the run-in shelter in his field. The deluge stopped the minute we halted at X and on the way out of the arena Minty felt so cocky he did his first and last brilliant passage. I’ll never forget the judge looking up from her writing and gasping in admiration. But he still got a 3 for every movement! And cross-country was canceled.
From there, things got better, and Minty and I had marvelous days of eventing adventures. Of course occasionally we still had our share of bad days. We were lying second in a novice division at GMHA Horse Trials in Vermont and cross-country was scheduled after stadium. Minty was faultless and I smiled as I handed in my piney after what I thought was a faultless ride.
“You’re eliminated, Liz,” said the lady.
I’d been in such a hurry to make the time I had galloped through a required hedge gap, across a stream and headed for the jump right in front of us. Not only was it the wrong jump it was an enormous preliminary-level jump. I remember thinking I was soaring in the air for one heck of a long time.
As we improved, we moved up to training level where the jumps were now much more demanding. I will never forget the three drops near the end of the course at the Stoneleigh Burnham Horse Trials. It was like plunging off cliffs with one stride between each one. I was unnerved but willed my body to react correctly and shut my eyes. Flawless! I think the number of times we had faults on either the cross-county or stadium totaled around five.
Not long after, about six years ago, I fell off while jumping and experienced my first real moment of apprehension. The jump was a pretty big oxer at my trainer’s farm and Minty was spot-on. It was at the end of the course and somehow I lost my balance and crashed into a muddy puddle.
Enter dressage, full-time. I loved the challenge and looked to trainers Bill Warren and Kathy Eidam for help. My thanks go to Kathy for all her patience and expertise and especially dealing with both Minty’s and my old-age problems. And thanks to Dave, my long-suffering and tolerant husband who has put up with my riding obsession since the day we met in 1956.
Since 2006, when we started showing in dressage, we’d slowed down a bit. So to have old Minty feeling first class for our Century Club ride, my veterinarian and I worked out a program for the fortnight before my ride. Joint injections, acupuncture, a massage and some anti-inflammatories joined Minty’s routine Legend and Adequan shots. I had my blacksmith put on new lightweight aluminum shoes with pads and a material underneath to help lessen concussion. Finally, Minty got a shot of vitamin B12 to pick up his energy level. I could hear everybody’s reaction when they heard of all the preparations, “My word is she overdoing it!” But Minty’s aging body had jumped and galloped so many times over the years and every bit of help was a positive.
July 15th arrived. I arose at 4:30 a.m. and my energy level felt pretty respectable. I was not at all nervous about riding the test, but I worried the truck wouldn’t start as it was nine years old and recently mice had chewed through some engine wires. And I hated to see the mess if Minty had rubbed his braids to pieces. As it turned out all worry was a waste of time.
By the time I reached the show grounds at 8 a.m., the place was already packed. It turned out the club was thoughtfully making a big deal of my ride with a biography and awful photo they must have found on the internet was stapled to the program. I looked like a worn-out great grandmother.
I mounted Minty with half an hour to go before our ride time and hoped he was sound. I asked for a trot and let me tell you, vitamin B 12 shots have the most remarkable effect on a horse. He moved off with the titanic strides of his youth and he was so forward and loose I felt I was on a strange horse. I glanced at my trainer, Kathy, and laughed that he wouldn’t need any encouragement to wake him up when I prepared to enter the arena.
As I warmed up I saw my great old jumping trainer and his wife. And then three of the vets from the equine clinic arrived and two of their employees. My blacksmith and his wife appeared, and a host of other loyal friends along with Dave and our children. It’s odd that I didn’t feel the slightest bit nervous. I felt confident we could muddle through the test okay.
The public announcement system went on and on about the Century Ride and how I was the 114th person to join the club since it began in the mid-90s. And we were off to the arena. It turned out that the whole competition came to a stop for half an hour to watch us. People crowded near us, but old Minty was unfazed. A bell went and we entered at the letter A and tracked in a dead-straight line to halt halfway up the arena at X. Minty stopped obediently so I knew we were ‘on’. I acknowledged the judge in the booth and we started through the different exercises. It was desperately hot and though we’d been excused from wearing jackets and our stock-ties, by my last canter Minty and I were wilting. But he had a marvelous surge when we did the required medium trot diagonally down the long arena. He got a score of 8 for that movement and another 8 for our final halt at X.
The spectators were so generous in their cheers and clapping that Minty had this mammoth first-ever spook. He leapt forwards for 10 feet and I was flung backwards! The onlookers loved it and it was a first for Minty. I think of the many times we have halted at X and there was possibly one loyal friend clapping. The old horse certainly knows the routine of his life.
Out we walked and Minty had the Century Club ribbon pinned to his bridle and I was given great gifts along with an enormous box of horse treats. Speeches followed, and how about champagne at 10 in the morning?
That evening Dave and I gave a party at a superb restaurant. We told stories and screeched with laughter. We didn’t go home for three hours. I was dead-beat but couldn’t sleep. So many people helped make this fun day and Dave and I were so thankful.
But my greatest thanks and love go to Minty. He has carried me so safely over so many challenging fences and glorious countryside and as we grew older he has worked very hard to harness his old body into some semblance of the many dressage movements. He has never bolted, bucked, reared or ever given me a single moment of apprehension. Here’s to my very special solid citizen!