Julia’s first few shows were disasters. In the practice ring, before her very first round, she was about to jump Kalin when another horse got too close to him and he shied, throwing her into the jump. She got back on him just as her number was called. She knocked over three bars. For her second round she did a bit better, only hitting two bars. On her second show she managed to get him around with just one bar, and so it went. She couldn’t seem to get him around with no faults. For my husband, the reason was clear. The jumps were too low, and Kalin was bored. But despite the mediocre results, Julia managed to qualify by sheer number of top quarter finishes. She was going to the nationals, but she knew she didn’t stand a chance. She was just happy to have gotten qualified, and to be able to go with the club to the horse show.
Now came another hard part – getting him fit for the championship. He needed to build up his muscles and strengthen his back. Julia worked him daily. If I had any doubts about her commitment or ability to take care of a horse, it was banished by her devotion to Kalin. She lunged him, asked her uncle about the best way to get a horse fit, trotted and cantered him, and groomed him until he gleamed like burnished ebony.
When July came around, Kalin was in splendid condition, but he still hadn’t learned to jump ‘round’. He got into the ring and wanted to rush around as fast as possible, as if he were on a cross country course instead of in a show jumping ring. But just being at the show was fabulous, and Julia was determined to enjoy herself.
The French National Club Championship at Lamotte Beuvron.
The French National Championships is the biggest horse show in the world. Just a few statistics, it’s: 20 days of shows, 30 riding rings in 300 hectares of land, 4,000 stalls, 300 judges, 1500 clubs represented, including clubs from overseas, 15,000 horses and ponies and as many riders, 20,000 visitors a day, 500,000 spectators in all, and over 200,000 vehicles.
Many different disciplines take place – show jumping and eventing, of course, but also dressage, barrel racing, endurance, trekking, pony games, voltige, hunter, driving, western riding and more. Some clubs lease nearby fields and camp out with the horses, some camp out in areas set aside for that near the stalls, and other clubs rent houses or stay in bed and breakfast inns. For the month of July, the region is saturated, with hotels and restaurants bursting at the seams.
The first year Julia qualified, (with a lovely French trotter mare called Maeva), the club set up a big tent in a camping area, not too far from the horse’s stalls. Everything was organized in meetings at the club – the menu for the week, who would cook, clean, where everyone would sleep, renting the stalls for the horses, and transportation. The children were expected to look after their horses – hay and straw was sold onsite, but the club had to bring its own grain, water bucket, and equipment such as wheelbarrows and bikes. The bikes were necessary to get around the enormous show grounds. It was stressful for everyone – everyone wanted to win, or at least do very well, and the mixture of nervous parents, stressed instructors, and nearly hysterical children made the horses nervy as well. They were in a strange place with more noise and bustle than they were used to, and everywhere was dust, dogs, bikes, kids, and people waving flags and taking photos. When it rained, everything turned to churned mud, when it was dry, it was scorching July-hot, and the air glittered with yellow dust.
The next year, we went with Kalin. Julia was thrilled to be going to the biggest horse show in the world with her own horse. Kalin took everything in stride. He’d been to big shows all his life, so he wasn’t affected by the hullabaloo. And Julia didn’t stress him by being nervous. She knew she had no chance to win, so she was determined to just have fun – and she did. Kalin was so gorgeous, people even offered to buy him, and he finished about the middle of his class – 50th out of 130. He knocked over three bars the first day, putting himself out of the running. The second day he knocked over two bars, and Julia jokingly insisted he was making progress.
Kalin earned a well-deserved break, and spent the month of August in a pasture at the club, eating, sleeping in the sun, and resting. But in the autumn, he was worryingly thin. Instead of getting fat off the grass, he’d lost weight. I wondered if he might be sick, so I asked for a blood test. Kalin was found to have a protein deficiency, and for the next few months he had a special diet. Julia wanted to qualify him again for the championships, but this year, since he was a club horse, he had another rider. An adult, Patrick, shared him with Julia. So now, for each horse show, he had two rounds. One with Julia, and one with Patrick.
Looking back, I wonder if it was a good idea. But his tendons were fine – never even warm, and I could tell Kalin was fond of Patrick. It helped that Patrick spoiled him by bringing bags of carrots and apples for him to eat. Soon Kalin was looking forward to going to shows – we could tell by the bounce in his gait and the sparkle in his eye. He was, at last, a happy horse. When Julia went to get him, he’d trot to her in the field, nickering happily. He was no longer skittish, and it had been ages since he’d broken a lead or halter.
He started jumping better, and this next year saw Julia on the podium several times. By Christmas, she was qualified for the finals, and Julia could concentrate on keeping him fit and warm. It was bitter cold that year, and we put two blankets on him and drove to the stables every day to give him extra rations of hay and grain.