Our second horse show, Mulligan walked flat footed into the arena for his flat class. Honestly, I could have called it a day right there. I was busting the buttons off my riding coat and I tried to act nonchalant and cool. He stood in his lineup like a statue. Mr. Canon documented the experience and played it back for us a hundred times.
Mulligan was relaxing. He cantered his cross rails in the jumping class like a hunter. When he did his first immaculate lead change in the arena, Dana from the rail was so happy that Mr. Canon trembled. Mulligan handled the flowers, the fences, and the announcer with aplomb. Mulligan appropriately won second place.
To hear our celebration and the applause, the praise and the carrots, you would have thought Mulligan just won a USHJA Hunter Derby.
A trainer would have arrived on the grounds on schooling day, stabled the horse for two days, and had him ready for us and his amateur rider by Sunday. But we would have missed Mulligan’s transition from pawing at the trailer to standing quietly, from nervous wheeling around, to eating hay and drinking water. No one would have told us when his frantic neigh for help became a nicker of hello. I would not have experienced the moment his heart pounding between my legs turned to a sigh of acceptance.
Dana and I watched Mulligan process and learn. We rode every fence right there with him (from the rail and on his back), calmed him through his nervousness, prepped him, fed him, groomed him, schooled him, posted him and showed him. Mulligan made us proud and Mr. Canon was right there with us every minute.
Anyone that has had any experience bringing along a young horse, riding any horse for that matter, accomplishing any endeavor of worthiness, knows that it is rarely an uphill progression. There are pitfalls, disappointments, setbacks. Handsome (he’s Mulligan at the shows but Handsome at home) had pulled a shoe and bruised his sole so he got some time off the next weeks. We soaked him in Epsom salts, poulticed, cold hosed, massaged his muscles, pine-tarred his soft feet and let him mow the edge of the arena. When we started him back, Handsome received his first lunge lesson.
A training barn’s groom would have done all that. Would he have told me how Handsome loves the attention? I would have missed how Handsome stoically stood for poulticing, and the dexterity with which he pulls carrots out of my back pocket while I painted his hooves.
It is a joy to be Handsome’s teacher, his part-time nurse and his friend. Hearing his whinny lifts my spirits. Handsome is getting more confident at the same time he is building mine.
Once Handsome/Mulligan is healed, and if the stars collide, schedules coincide and we feel he is ready, he will be added to the show calendar amidst the other horses’ schedules. Our adrenalin will get us through our regular work days, evening rides and a tireless summer. We trust our program but remain flexible for the unexpected. Plan B is right around the corner with C waiting in the wings. Mulligans don’t care about plans.
In a world where two country “dumb asses” win the Kentucky Derby, I bet they would say that the deepest rewards come not despite their background but because of it. The “wins” are embedded in the process. Few horses become champions but taking a mulligan can bring out the champion in all of us.