School of Thought

By: Barbara Aitken Jenkins

I see your break of gait and will raise you an OP. 

As I reflect on my third horse show in a month, I am acutely aware of one thing. As an amateur, no trainer has ever given me a lesson on the “how-to” of preparing for a World Show.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the stands awaiting the Ranch Riding and Reining at a local cowboy church ranch show. I felt confident in the fact I had planned four schooling shows to prepare for the AQHA World Championship Show. However, the longer I sat in the stands, the more my heart raced. I knew I was there to school Miss Shiney, but what should that “schooling” entail?

A talk with my dad helped ease my rising panic. We decided I would go slow that day. I would raise the bar the following weekend. On the third show, I would put my hand down and ask for greatness (just like I plan to do in OKC.) On the fourth and final show, I would ask Miss Shiney to go slow once again, all the while working on correctness, soft maneuvers, and attentiveness throughout the patterns.

Simple, right?

That “greatness” ride—well, easier said than done.

Ranch Riding pattern five is one of my favorites. I warmed up Miss Shiney like I plan to do in a few weeks. She was soft, subtle, and ready to rock and roll. I felt like we were prepared to take on the World. Literally.

We walked into the pen and the longer we rode the more I was convinced I was riding a future World Champion.

That was until she broke gait in the lead change. BOOM. Three-point penalty.

My mind raced five million miles an hour. “What just happened? I cued her right, right? Is she sore? Is she hurt? Did she not feel my leg? Why did that happen? Was that a one-point or a three-point? Did the judge see it? Of course, the judge saw it.”

The conversation ran rampant in my head.

I finished my pattern in haste. I felt every movement, acutely aware of every stride, every head turn. I just needed it to be over so I could talk to my husband and my parents, who were watching in the stands.

I stopped. I backed. I spun each direction. Finally, it was over.

After discussing (at length) and reviewing the video (multiple times), we all concluded that I didn’t correctly ask Miss Shiney to change leads. I rode too far into the corner, and I should have asked for more hind end impulsion before asking for the change. 

No worries. I can fix that.

Later that evening, my husband Cody and I decided to check scoresheets. I mentally prepared for the horror of seeing penalty three written across the sheet but wanted to count up all the plusses from my other maneuvers. I was excited to see my score. That was until I saw a blaring OP (Off Pattern) written across the top of my last maneuver.

WHAT?! Of course, I walked. What does the judge mean? Why would that be there? I hastily pulled out my phone to re-watch the video, determined to prove that OP wrong. And there it was — a blatant omission of a maneuver. In my mind blown state, I had forgotten to walk.

As I stared at the scoresheet in disbelief that I would omit a maneuver two weeks before the biggest show of my life, the words of my junior high basketball coach rang through my mind. 

“Finish strong. If you’re winning, don’t pay attention to the scoreboard. Don’t get happy. If you’re losing, don’t lose focus. Finish strong.”

At that moment, I realized the “schooling” hadn’t been for Miss Shiney. It had been for me.

I thought I was focused, but reality proved me wrong. The first half of my ride had been full of pride, and when the ball dropped in the lead change, I mentally took myself out of the game, which was verified by that OP.

It was a harsh but vital lesson I needed to experience. In the end, the schooling proved to be more crucial for me than it was for Miss Shiney.

So as I move forward into these two weeks before I show at the biggest show of my life, I strive to be focused and present in each moment of the ride. I will study pattern placement, hone in on cueing precision, and never waste a second of this incredible journey.

*published exclusively with Barbwire Productions and the American Quarter Horse Association

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