Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why I'll always love indoors.

It's October.  To many of my friends, this means marathon time.  To others, the focus is on Halloween.  But while I enjoy a good Halloween party as much as the next person, and I'll be cheering at the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday morning (after running the associated 10K), to me this time of year has always meant one thing.

Indoors.  AKA "the fall indoor horse show circuit."  A series of year end horse shows held in indoor facilities on the east coast during October and November, where the best horse/rider combinations from the past year come to compete.  It's hard to describe to a non-horsey runner.  The best analogy I can make is to imagine a fall series of three track meets, each a week long, for the 15-20 best in the country in each age group for each distance.  It's special because of the level of competition, and the chance to reconnect with those from other parts of the country, whom you may not have seen since last year.  It's also special because of the spectacle and the excitement.

It's utterly insane, in all the ways you'd expect a sport normally held in rural locations to be when relocated to urban sports arenas.  Madison Square Garden was never designed for horse shows, and yet for many years we were there, and at the Capital Centre just outside of DC, and at the State Farm Arena in Harrisburg, PA.  We lived in campers in arena parking lots, and rode horses up and down concrete ramps.

The horse show starts at 7 or 7:30 am each morning, and goes until 9-10 pm at night.  But that doesn't mean that you start at 7 and are done at night. There's no fields for the horses to be turned out in, and so they need to be exercised, and also to have a chance to look over the ring.  So, they "school" (i.e. are ridden) in the ring at the times the horse show isn't running -- generally between 11:00 pm and 6:30 am.  If you're showing in multiple divisions, you run on 3-4 hours of sleep each night for the whole week.  Even if you're only showing one or two, the excitement and the electricity keeps you up anyway, and you spend the day and night in a ringside seat instead of dozing in the camper.

You should be resting.  But instead you're watching others from the other side of the country, or shopping at one of the many vendors, or polishing your boots for the 10th time.  Or gawking at past Olympians as they wash their hands in the sink next to yours.  Or watching the rest of the "show" -- Jack Russell terrier racing, people doing back flips off off galloping horses, bull-riding.
terrier racing at the Washington International Horse Show

I first went to indoors as a little girl in 1983.  My parents knew that I liked horses, and had just started riding lessons.   So the whole family made a night of it, driving the hour long trip around the beltway to Landover so that I could meet Cass-Ole -- the horse that had just starred in the recently released Black Stallion Returns.  I wore my brand new jodphur pants to have my picture taken with the Black Stallion, then happily watched the horse show for the rest of the night while gorging myself on gourmet fudge, show program held tightly in hand.
 the night in 1983 that the Puissance indoor world record was set 
was NOT the night my parents took me to the horse show

Every year after, I went back, collecting a program, watching horse show, and eating gourmet fudge for dinner.  By the time I was 13, I was begging others to drive me to the Capital Centre for each night of the week-long Washington International Horse Show.  While other kids spent Halloween trick-or-treating, I was sitting in the stands.  There, I'd plan how I was eventually going to get my chance to ride in an arena normally dedicated to basketball games, and to see the highlights (or flaws) of my performance replayed on the huge
overhead screen.

Eventually I made it, qualifying in the Junior Jumper division in both 1991 and 1992.  1991 was a fantastic year.  I was by no means a top contender in my division, and so I'm pretty proud of the 8th place I earned in the "Junior Jumper National Championships" that year.

1992?  Well, we'll just say that going off to college for 2 months and riding placid intercollegiate horses around simple 3 foot courses is in no way proper preparation for riding a slightly neurotic mare around a highly technical course of 4'3"-4'9" jumps in a 'small ring.  It's like running a hilly half-marathon off of two months of exclusively pool-running and cycling.  You'll most likely survive, but it will be not be pretty, competitive, or fun.

1992 - a bit of a tougher year

Even after I "aged out" of my division, I returned to indoors year after year to watch, buying a program as a souvenir.  As the years have gone by, things have changed.   They no longer hold the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.  The Capital Centre was demolished 10 years ago, with the Washington International Horse Show being relocated to the Verizon Center in downtown DC, where it's struggled some (it's a great location for spectators, but very difficult for the horses, with the result that some top barns decline to show there).  The shows used to regularly sell out of spectator seats, but now they're half empty even for Puissance night (essentially a high jump competition that's pretty popular with the non-riding population).

And I've changed too.  My riding boots are a painful fit over my muscled runner's calves. I get a backache when I look at my old saddle and a headache when I think about cleaning it.  I've subbed a team sportsbra for a team saddlepad, and I'm content with that trade. The happiest and saddest thing about my riding career is that I know I went as far in the sport as I could with the talent I had.  I like to think that I haven't yet hit my limit runningwise.

I don't eat fudge any more, and when I sit in the stands with my patient boyfriend, I'm not dreaming about riding down there.  I'm content to map out how I would ride the posted course, rattling nonstop to poor Brian how it's much smarter to bend the line between those two jumps, so that you add an extra stride but have a much better chance at making the inside turn.... Like most people, I'm a much better rider in the stands then on a horse.   And Brian indulges me and eats fudge on my behalf as I read to him from the program that will be added to my collection when we get home.

After all the nearly 30 years I've been going as either a spectator or a participant, indoors is still magic to me.  If you need to find me this week, this is where I'll be.


  1. There's this whole other side to you!!! Enjoy the Indoors! (I had never heard of it. . . )

  2. Awesome! Have fun, what a fun tradition!

  3. I really like this post :-)

    The happiest and saddest thing about being one in the same? I can relate to that.

    Tracy (from LJ runners)

  4. Wait - I was supposed to be snacking on fudge? Drat. I've failed again.

  5. Cool! Thanks for telling me about a whole new world I've never know about. Enjoy the show and at LEAST a bite of fudge ...