Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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Archive for the category “showjumping”

Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

No Witnesses

Far be it from me to ignore a challenge.  Well, okay.  I do occasionally ignore challenges … only so many hours in the day, and I’m edging towards an advanced state of decrepitude, after all, and I’m way behind on blog posts about the Toronto Pan Am Games already, and besides, you think all these excuses just spring from the firmament fully formed?  This kind of carefully crafted obfuscation takes time and effort, people.

mbc-blog-hop-badge2But my good friend (and far, far more consistent blogger than I), Katherine Walcott, over at Rodney’s Saga, tossed out a request to describe the best class I ever had at a horse show.  So I’m going to reach a bit into the pre-Cambrian era (or, at least, pre-Spike) and tell you what I remember, rose-tinted though it may be.  Cuz apparently, it’s a thing to do if you blog.  Creates traffic and all that.

So. Once upon a time.  I had a big lanky chestnut Thoroughbred gelding who was an obstreperous bastard and my horse of a lifetime.  That his show name was Sweeney Todd ought to tell you a little about him … he went through life with his ears permanently pinned, but OMFG, he had more run and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with.  Transforming him from a malcontent racehorse into an event horse took every ounce of persuasive ability I could muster, a willful ignorance of the peril he semi-regularly put me in, and the approximate weight of a Buick Skylark in bulk-food-store Scotch mints, but we did forge a productive partnership eventually — and he was a nice enough horse that several Big Name Riders noticed him.  (And went out of their way to tell me I was wasting a talented animal and ought to pass him over to someone who could do him justice, but whatever.)

Please can I have just a little peril?

Toddy had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and that “fifth leg” (no innuendo intended) that a really intelligent and athletic horse has; I trusted him implicitly on cross-country, and he got me around some Preliminary-sized courses I probably had no business getting around.  He remains the only horse I’ve ever had who probably could have gone Advanced — had I had more money, more time, and the talent to match his.  But as it was, with a limited supply of all of the above, we did reasonably well at the Preliminary level in Ontario in the early 1990s.  And then I took a job managing a riding school in Bermuda for a year, and leased Toddy out at the height of his eventing career.  (Looking back, not sure that was the smartest thing to do …)

So.  The job turned out to be a bit of a trainwreck, and I returned to Ontario pretty much penniless and had to regroup for a while.  The resumption of Toddy’s career took more time than I would have liked.  He was 15 before I managed to get backtoddy in a position to show again.  I’d realized by then that an upgrade to Intermediate was probably not in the cards, but I did have another bucket list item on the agenda:  doing a full-on three-day event.  We’d never managed to fit one in prior to my semi-tropical hiatus, and I knew if I dithered too much longer, it wasn’t gonna happen.

This was shortly before the “long format” three-day event became extinct, and the Ontario Horse Trials Association used to make a point of offering a Training level three-day event each year as a sort of gentle introduction to dealing with a real three-day (as opposed to the simpler, one-day horse trials format that most amateurs are accustomed to).  “Real” three-days began at the Preliminary level and were FEI-sanctioned, so the Training level three-days were run as clinics, with BNRs talking you through the extra steps:  the two veterinary inspections, the various Phases of cross-country day (does anyone still remember Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase?), the dreaded 10-minute vet box, dressage done wrongthe demands of caring for and cooling out your horse after that sort of intensity.

So Toddy did his first — and only, as it turned out — three-day event at the age of 16, passing the jog despite his super-fancy track jewellery, and delivering a mediocre dressage test in the rain the next day.  (He often delivered mediocre dressage tests, not because he couldn’t do the flatwork, but because he held it in disdain and far preferred to embarrass me than to wow the judges. He was the old-fashioned type of event horse who wanted to get on with the running and jumping as soon as possible, please.)

That’s not the “best class” part.  That came the next day, when Toddy trotted around Phase A — the first Roads Toddy training3day steeplechase20001and Tracks section — and then came out of the start box on Phase B (steeplechase) monumentally confused.  Ordinarily, one gets a few warm-up cross-country fences before one goes out on course, but at a long-format three-day, you book it straight down to the (substantial) brush fences on steeplechase with no heads-up for your poor beast.  Toddy, three-day virgin that he was, launched himself about five feet in the air over that first 3’3″ brush, with his eyes out on stalks. (Please note my bravery in providing you with photographic evidence of this:  I was not exactly at my slimmest at the time, and between his helicopter effort and my thunder thighs, it ain’t a pretty picture!)  We landed in a bit of a heap, and (with my heart in my throat) I chirped to him to gallop on … and suddenly there were tears streaming from my eyes as the pretty-good-allowance-turf-horse inside my teenaged beast asserted himself, and he realized that pelting like a bat Toddy training3day steeplechase0001outta hell at big brush fences was just about.  The BEST. Thing. Ever. EV.  ER.

To this day I don’t think my heart-rate has ever gotten higher; I’m lucky I didn’t stroke out, but I suspect that Toddy would have continued to pack me around even if I had been as limp as a bag of hammers at that point.  I had galloped plenty of racehorses in my youth, but nothing ever felt faster or more terrifying or more fantastic than that two minutes and change on steeplechase, on the most athletic damn horse I ever sat on.  The finish flags were a blur, and it took me one helluva long time to pull him up, but eventually we completed the second Roads and Tracks section and came into the 10-minute box on time and unscathed.  (Good thing they weren’t checking my heartrate in there — it was still pounding like a bunch of demented Kodo drummers, but my shiny metallic chestnut dude was good to go despite the heat.)

The actual cross-country, Phase D, was almost anti-climactic after steeplechase, considering it was a Training level course and thus not all that challenging for Toddy, who’d been running Prelim for years.  My brain stalled out at one point and I wasted a good 20 seconds circling in a field before I remembered where my next jump was, so we ended up with time faults, but I really didn’t give a rat’s ass.  We were clean, Toddy had come through all of it beautifully (especially for an old warrior with osselets and a minor heart murmur), and his legs were cold and as tight as they ever were the next day.  He hadn’t even managed to pull a shoe, which for Toddy, was saying something.

We capped the whole experience the next day with possibly the most perfect stadium round I have ever jumped.  I freely high_diveconfess to being a bit of a ‘seat of the pants’ rider.  My eye for a distance is not the greatest, and I’ll routinely flub at least one fence by second-guessing my horse — but on that day, we absolutely nailed it.  I remember cantering down to the final vertical on the course thinking, okay, I’ve managed to get a perfect spot to every fence so far, which never, ever happens … surely I’m going to come down to this last one and fuck it all up.  Instead, I saw the distance, and the distance was good.  It felt amazing.  And I — and maybe the stadium judge, maybe not — was the only one who saw that round.  Because the rain was coming down in absolute sheets, and pretty much everyone else had abandoned ship and was huddled in the indoor arena, some distance away.

To say I was proud of my Grinch that day is a huge, huge understatement.  On top of all of his other little successes that weekend, he was normally a horse who loathed having to compete in the rain.  He’d flatten his ears to his skull and grind his teeth and make it clear that I deserved to burn in hell…. but that day, he put away the ‘tude and pulled out the stops for me.  Never mind that it wasn’t a ‘real’ three-day and it didn’t count for anything of any significance, and never mind that I don’t even remember where we placed.  (Eighth or ninth, I think, thanks to that dressage score and the time faults on Phase D.) It still sticks in my mind as the most awesome show we ever had.

But you’re really going to have to take my word for it.

Focus on Brainbuckets: International Helmet Awareness Day

This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.  I’m exceedingly fond of my thus-far-intact skull, and as an eventer and a coach, I’m something of a helmet Nazi.  So I’m happy to spread this message to my stalwart, happy handful of readers.  Though I know I’m preaching to the choir, cuz you’re all smart like that, right?

RIDERS4HELMETS ANNOUNCES INTERNATIONAL HELMET AWARENESS DAY 2012

Helmet Manufacturers to offer discounts globally through participating retailers

Lexington, KY — Riders4Helmets.com has teamed up with leading helmet manufacturers to host International Helmet Awareness Day 2012 on Saturday June 9th.

Building on the success of National Helmet Awareness Day 2010 (USA) and International Helmet Awareness Day 2011, participating retailers all over the world will be offering discounts on helmets to equestrians on this day.

We are delighted to be in our third year of hosting and organizing International Helmet Awareness Day,” said Lyndsey White, Riders4Helmets. “The campaign was founded two years ago as a direct result of Olympian Courtney King-Dye’s accident with the aim of educating equestrians on the benefits of wearing a properly fitting, secured and certified helmet. We are proud to dedicate this years’ event to Courtney.”

International Helmet Awareness Day is not just an opportunity for equestrians to purchase a helmet at a special one-time discount, more importantly it is an opportunity for equestrians to be educated. “Riders4Helmets will therefore be live-streaming ‘Get Educated’ webinars via Riders4Helmets.com on Saturday June 9th, in which equestrians will be able to ask a variety of experts real-time” questions.

The webinars will feature experts in fields such as:  traumatic brain injury and concussion; psychology (why equestrians choose not to wear a helmet); neurophysiotherapy; helmet manufacturers; traumatic brain injury survivors; leading equestrians (including Olympians); and helmet testing agencies. Riders4Helmets will announce the confirmed line-up of participants at Riders4Helmets.com prior to June 9th.

The educational aspect of International Helmet Awareness Day will be supported by participating retailers, many of whom have already made plans to offer educational events in their stores on June 9th.

Helmet brands that have committed involvement in International Helmet Awareness Day 2012 to date include: Samshield, Troxel, Charles Owen, GPA, Aegis (Devon-Aire), Pegasus, Tipperary, Ovation, IRH, One K and KEP Italia in the USA & Canada. In the UK, Charles Owen, Champion Hats, Gatehouse and LAS have all signed up.

“We are grateful to the helmet manufacturers for their continued support of this important event,” said Chad Mendell, Riders4Helmets. “The Riders4Helmets campaign has continued to grow on a global level, as we hope will International Helmet Awareness Day.”

Retailers who wish to participate in the event may register by visiting www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/retailer-information/. Retailers are encouraged to register prior to May 28th, 2012 in order to ensure that they receive educational materials in time for the event. Late registrations will however, still be accepted through June 8th.

Equestrians may visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ to learn more about International Helmet Awareness Day and to search for participating retailers by name or geographic location. Equestrians are encouraged to visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ the morning of June 9th, 2012, to view the most current update, as participating retailers continue to be added.

Individuals or organizations wishing to hold an event to recognize International Helmet Awareness Day may email admin@riders4helmets.com for helmet awareness graphics and educational brochures. “You can participate and show your support just by wearing a helmet on June 9th, no matter whether you are trail riding, showing or competing” said White.

For more information on the Riders4Helmets campaign, visit www.riders4helmets.com. You can also follow the campaign at www.facebook.com/riders4helmets and http://twitter.com/riders4helmets.

Riders4Helmets was founded in early 2010 after Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye was seriously injured in a riding accident. King Dye, who remained in a coma for a month following her accident, was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, and is still undergoing rehabilitation.

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Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem

I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows.  Rarely sublime, often ridiculous.  Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi.  (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)

But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.

There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland.  (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four.  There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass.  A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)

Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit.  And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself.  After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”

Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …

The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better.  While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar.  Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own.  We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.

Not only was there no press tent, there was no food.  The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture.  (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches.  Sheesh.  Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)

By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.

Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.  And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too.  I still have the hat somewhere.

At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary.  I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime.  Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts.  Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.

I’m gonna say it again.  Cutlery.  Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.

For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.

And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion:  a fed journalist is a happy journalist.

It’s true.  We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment.  Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted.  Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.

Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***.  It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.

So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta.  I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”

Well.

Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last.  By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece.  (And they were egg salad.  Yecch.  If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it.  It’s just revolting.)

By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money.  The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one.  Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.

I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.

Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food.  (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.)  We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so.   My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy.  And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations.   Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries.  I get that.

Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there.  I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores.  Incorrectly.  Par-tay.

I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”

Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas.  With plumbing and all.  Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.

Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out.  But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying.  (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.)  Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us.  (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.)  We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.

I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.

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Please Don’t Ask Me to Write About …

I haven’t been raining negativity, bitterness and bile down on my gentle readers lately.  And apparently, that has to stop.

It has been suggested to me by a devotee of WFTRSOTS (okay, ‘devotee’ might be phrasing it rather strongly, but there is forensic evidence that she pops by on occasion) that I should share with you some of the topics I’d just as soon never, ever, ever write about ever, ever again.

Is that the sort of thing you’d like to read?  No?  It’s just her?

Never mind, I’m going to forge ahead anyway.  Woe betide me should I disappoint her.  You can be the next one to suggest a topic.  (No, really.  Go ahead.  Let’s see if I can riff on anything a la the late, great George Carlin.  My guess is no.)

By the way, I should probably mention that I have made some headway recently in my ongoing crusade to demonstrate that I can, in fact, write entire paragraphs of published text without mentioning hooved quadrupeds of any kind.  This seems necessary because there are a head-spinning number of editors out there who don’t seem to be able to extrapolate from one of my articles about a veterinary issue, that I can write about medical issues, and who can’t read a piece about a riding vacation and take the great leap to believing I could craft a piece about a boating or skiing vacation.

Between my snowmobiling jaunt in Quebec, back in January, and some agricultural pieces ranging from celebrating the Goat Farmer of the Year to rather more sober discussions of how fully farmers are adopting mobile technology, I have now collected …. ohhhhh, about a dozen clips, I guess …. which avoid horses like the plague.  (Okay, yes, the goats are quadrupeds and have cloven hooves, but the article really discusses the award-winning goat farmer rather than his charges.  Mostly.)

I consider this a minor triumph, but then, I have to take my triumphs where I find ’em these days.

I was also charged with writing my very first infographic a few months ago.  It wasn’t easy, let me assure you.  But the artist quite skilfully made a silk purse out of a (proverbial) sow’s ear …

I would happily write about goats some more.  Or pigs.  Or soybeans.  I’m learning quite a lot about all three.

But please don’t ask me to write another infographic.  It made my head hurt.

Of course, it’s still true that the vast majority of my portfolio — and the archive currently stands at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000 published articles — does feature, or at least discuss, equines of one sort or another.  You’d be surprised how much variety there is within that niche:  personality profiles, hard science, event reports and recaps, PR for future events, how-to’s, training tips, health and veterinary advances, a few fluff pieces, even some controversy on occasion.  Maybe I’m not a flak-jacket journalist, but that doesn’t it’s all meaningless trivia (she said self-righteously).

There are few truly new topics under the sun, however.  And there are some old chestnuts that editors seem to trot out every year without fail … depending on we starving freelancers to invent a new spin, lest we all simultaneously slip into vegetative states from the sheer, desperate redundancy of it all.

Some of these subjects, I don’t mind, honestly.  I don’t object to writing about internal parasites, for example.  There’s usually a bit of new science to discuss every few years, which keeps it fresh and interesting for me … and also, although I am easily grossed out by, say, eye diseases (I cannot look at the photos — ick), I apparently have a high tolerance for pondering the life cycles of slimy blood-sucking phylla who inhabit eyeballs and intestinal folds.

But please shoot me, I beg of you, if I ever have to write about the following again:

1. Fencing for horses.  Coma-inducing?  Oh, gawd, yes.  New stuff to discuss?  Pretty much never.  The most exciting thing to come down the pike in recent decades has been an electric fencing product which has two-way current or something and doesn’t need to be grounded, which I guess is great because I don’t really understand the whole grounding thing and thus find it difficult to describe in articles.  But ‘great’, in this case, is very much a relative term.  If I have to put together one more bloody chart comparing oak board fencing to pipe corrals to high-tensile wire to synthetics, I may in fact garrote myself on the next electric fence I see, regardless of its grounding or lack thereof.

2. Thorny regulatory issues.  Especially when they’re American.  I write for a lot of American magazines, some of which, in their peculiarly Ameri-centric way, insist on ONLY American sources being quoted.  This, to me, is short-sighted as hell … seriously, if you had a chance to hear from a showjumping expert like Beat Mandli (Switzerland) or a dressage guru like Edward Gal (the Netherlands), wouldn’t that be every bit as interesting to a reader from the United States, as someone home-grown?  I don’t see how the US can continue to teach its citizens that nothing of any note happens beyond its borders, but I digress.  What really makes me crazy is trying to figure out which government agency I have to phone, when I am commissioned to write an article about some issue which concerns or involves American government agencies (ie. drug regulations, feed and supplement labels, or the slaughter industry).  The whole regulatory situation in the US, with so many things under state jurisdiction rather than national — and thus wildly different from state to state — makes me absolutely postal.

I’m nearly as unenthused about doing pieces about Canadian regulatory issues, but at least I can usually identify a ministry or organization as a likely starting place.  Fuggeddaboutit in the US of A.

3. Fly Control.  Again, this is a topic that makes the rounds at the beginning of every summer, and it is just mind-numbingly stupifying to write about.  And to read about too.  I can tell you all about the relative toxicities of various pyrethroid compounds, and discuss the efficacy of supposedly natural alternatives like apple cider vinegar and (I kid you not) Avon Skin-So-Soft, but really, I’d rather not.

4. Trailering.  By this I mean, the methods and mechanics of moving horses from one place to another over asphalt.  I have discussed health issues.  Regulatory (ugh) issues.  How to inspect your trailer for safety.  How to select the right towing vehicle.  Just run me over with a diesel dually next time instead of making me rehash it all again.

Et vous, gentle reader?  If you are the type who peruses horse magazines, which topics do you find irretrievably old and tired and would rather not see again in your lifetime?  I promise I’ll stop writing about them immediately.

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Recipe for an Instant Bestseller

Apparently, it is this:  take one downtrodden horse, preferably from humble and/or cruel beginnings.  Tell how he came to be a superstar a) racehorse b) showjumper c) cavalry mount d) ooh, has anyone done a reining horse?

Evoke lots of emoting, dig up a few hysterical (er, sorry, historical — family joke) photos, rake in the cash, pack for the book tour, and wait for the movie rights to be optioned.

This recipe has been working since the days of Anna Sewell, but in recent eons true stories (or, at least, those “based on a true story”, such as Hidalgo, which in actual fact was NOT based on a true story … Google is your friend) have been all the rage.

Even people who don’t ‘get’ horses seem to flock to movies like ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘Phar Lap’, and ‘Secretariat’.  Now, for the record, Secretariat had anything but humble origins, despite the movie’s attempts to play up Penny Chenery’s supposedly desperate state of affairs.  Still, he was pretty damn impressive and it’s a good tale.  I remember getting quite a thrill out of seeing Secretariat win his final start at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, when I was 10.  I certainly don’t begrudge anyone retelling his life, however many goofy liberties might have been taken.  From my selfish perspective, anything that encourages interest in racing might indirectly score me another gig or two.

And Seabiscuit … loved the book, loved the movie.  Bear in mind that I usually loathe horse movies, because the researchers can’t seem to get the most basic details correct.  I mean, it’s not like this stuff is all that obscure, people … horses may not be daily transportation in most parts of the world anymore, but riding and driving are still practised by literally millions and millions of yobs worldwide, so you wouldn’t think it would be all that impossible for the writers to find someone with whom to consult, who knows what the parts of a saddle are called, or can tell a bay from a chestnut or a stallion from a mare.  (Sheesh.  Lassie may well have been played by boy collies, but most horses don’t have quite that much hair camouflaging their naughty bits.)  I mean, it’s just cringeworthy.

Did anyone see that movie supposedly about the sport of endurance racing from a couple of years ago?  I could only stomach about three minutes of it on The Movie Network, so can’t remember what it was called, but it featured endurance riders in tweed caps and elbow patches clumsily tally-ho’ing through the woods (because of course they had cast people who couldn’t ride their way out of a wet paper bag) on Quarter Horses with picture-perfect Western pleasure headsets.  (Is peanut-rolling the ideal way to navigate Cougar Rock, I wonder?)

And then there was ‘Sylvester’, which suggested that getting around a Preliminary cross-country course could catapult one onto the United States Equestrian Team (though there was some lovely footage of Kim Walnes and The Grey Goose to make up for that ridiculous conceit) … and maybe worst of all, ‘International Velvet’, that celluloid gem of 1978 which springboarded off the theory that The Pie, of the original National Velvet fame, had produced offspring, when anyone who has ever read the original children’s book (everyone has, right?) knows that The Pie was clearly described as a gelding.  (And, ahem, a spotted one, hence the name, The PIEbald — Hollywood got that one wrong, too, while they were busy casting Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney.)

Sorry.  I digress.  Loved Seabiscuit.  The movie was (for the most part) well done, to my shock, and Laura Hillenbrand researched her book meticulously, which gave it a depth and colour any number of other horse books have lacked.  Still, once upon a time Laura and I were contemporaries, of a sort … both freelance writers who churned out copy for Equus magazine, though I sincerely doubt I was ever on her radar.   It was simultaneously heartening and disheartening (if you know what I mean, Laura?) to see her career launched into the stratosphere with that book.  You know?  90% ‘Bravo’, but with 10% ‘Wow, I hate you just a little for that’ in the mix.

So now I am reading “The Eighty Dollar Champion”, which is the story of Snowman, a draft cross gelding who was rescued from a knacker’s van and went on to be a top US showjumper in the late 1950s — or as the cover says, “SNOWMAN, the Horse That Inspired a Nation”.  (Well!)

I’m a little too young to have witnessed Snowman’s story, but I knew the basics of the yarn, and it’s one of those things that I am now kicking myself for not having seized on as the basis for an Instant Bestseller.  Elizabeth Letts beat me to it, dammit.  90% ‘Bravo’, Elizabeth.  (I hope I have made up for the other 10% with the link to your website!)

I am only 31 pages in on The Eighty Dollar Champion (hey, I just got it for Xmas, and it’s been a little busy, okay?) so this will not be a book review.  Plenty of other people doing that, I’m sure … heck, to plummet down another tangent, I seem to be the only horsey blogger who hasn’t done a movie review of ‘War Horse’, either, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it yet.  Though maybe this week I’ll accomplish that, wadded tissues in hand.

If I were to quibble, and yes, I will, I do have to remark that I’ve already come across a couple of eensy weensy things that rankle about the text I’ve perused so far — considering that The Eighty Dollar Champion comes from the Very Considerable Publishing House of Ballantine Books.  Before I was 20 pages in, I spotted the first typo — “story” describing a multi-level building.  Yeek.  (Oh, please, if you don’t know what it’s supposed to be, see earlier in this post.  Here’s a link for chrissakes if you’re really that helpless.)

Soon after, there was another one — draft horse breeds described as Belgian, Percheron, or shire (lower case).  Visions of hobbitom immediately danced in my head, but a capital S surely is required to describe the towering breed of horse with the lovely but high-maintenance feathering on its legs?

And there have been some other little bits of phrasing that don’t quite sit right.  Page 25:  “… and the United States brought home the team silver medal in dressage, the demanding equestrian sport sometimes called “horse dancing”, which was normally ruled by the Europeans.”

Horse dancing?  In what universe?   At best, it might sometimes be compared thusly (see the semi-viral video of  Blue Hors Matine remixed with L’il Kim — bringing dressage to the masses!).  But I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard the phrase “horse dancing” in general usage.  Small mercies.

Yes, I am being an extraordinarily nitpicky wench, but I am always a copyeditor, and always a horseperson.  None of this, my readers will be swift to note, I blame on Elizabeth, who I do not know but am sure is an extremely accomplished writer to have landed a publishing agreement with Ballantine.  I can just imagine her wincing and reluctantly acquiescing as her non-horsey editors took their vicious red pens to her copy, trying to keep her eyes on the larger prize — a prize which after all, includes bringing the aged Harry de Leyer, long known as the Galloping Grandfather, back into the limelight for a bit, and that’s just fun, isn’t it.

Yes, you have to have a bloody thick skin when you’re a writer.  Gawd knows I’ve had more than my share of editors have their weird and inexplicable ways with my copy as well, and I’ve learned that the important thing is them spelling my name correctly when the invoice goes to Accounting.  So I do not fault Elizabeth for the errors I’ve encountered in this first 31 pages  … I just wonder how many others made it into print in the remaining 298, and have to ponder whether the standards haven’t slipped just a smidge in the non-fiction division at Ballantine.  In which case, you’re up to 95%, girlfriend, purely in empathy.  And I’m still going to really enjoy the rest of the book.

I think my skin is tough enough to survive the Bestseller Experience.  I just have to come up with a heretofore-unexploited Downtrodden Horse with a Heart of Gold.  Preferably, one whom we can insert into an interesting epoch with quaint historical costumes, to add depth to the tale… but not one so ancient that there are no historical records available to dig through (sorry, Bucephalus).  One that Hollywood can have its merry way with as long as they spell my name correctly on the cheque.

One that, post my editorial critique, will no doubt NOT be published by Ballantine.

Suggestions, as always, welcome.  I’ll get straight on it.

I was going to call this, “It was the Worst of Times, it was the Worst of Times” but I thought that would be too much of a downer …

Just when I was starting to feel just a smidge optimistic, someone sent me this link, which doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it’s depressing seeing it in print (again):  Journalists Don’t Make Money.

That said, I thought I’d post something positive about my profession:  I did not loathe the Royal Winter Fair this year.

Maybe that had to do with the parking passes my friend Michelle magically came up with for me — it’s amazing how not having to cough up $15 per night lightens the mood when you’re always worrying about where the Ramen noodles are coming from.  Also must’ve chosen more humane shoes this year, because while my feet were sore each night by the time I hobbled back to my underground truck, I escaped without actual blisters and the band-aid collection in my purse remained undisturbed.

I even managed (knock wood, in case it’s still lurking in my alveoli) to escape the Royal Flu, which is the usual consequence of spending 10 days under the same roof with 30,000 infectious people.  My immune system has been kind this year.

And I accomplished most of what I planned to accomplish while I was there.  Including buying lovely goat cheese with cranberry port sauce at a discount price, which is an annual objective.  (It’ll make a nice change from the Ramen.)

Though filing one’s stories on the same night for an on-line publication is kind of a grind (I remember back in the good old days, we used to actually party a bit at the Royal, at the end of the night …. those days are long gone!), there’s something satisfying about seeing your report in (virtual) print the next morning.  And about knowing the deadline’s been taken care of and isn’t looming over your head anymore (though the next one is, of course!).

In the midst of my daily Royal coverage, I was also trying to juggle a number of harness racing assignments and some agricultural ones (some Royal-related, some not).  That I have any hair left is a minor miracle … not that I’m ever going to complain about having too much work.  It’s vastly preferable to not having enough.  It would just be nice if the powers that be could spread it out a little.  But I got it all done, more or less — including one major article that I literally pulled OUT of my ASS in the course of one day, little does my editor know — and that also gives me a tiny little sense of accomplishment.

So long story short, I restrained myself from going postal on anyone this year, scraped together enough money each day not to starve, and got a new pair of riding gloves and a cheap halter for my gelding, Spike, in the trade fair.  (Yes, I went nuts.)  I got to hang out with Mark Todd (We Are Not Worthy), saw a few friends and did not really have to suffer much of the company of the few colleagues I’m not that fond of, didn’t freeze my velvet-clad tush in the warm-up ring for a change, and indulged in an apple dumpling and a cinnamon bun (ahem, not on the same night), both of which are Things Emblematic of the Royal and Must Be Consumed Regardless of the Heart-Stopping Calorie Counts.

Exhausting.  But relatively good.

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