When an equitation rider on an American Saddlebred trots to the rail for pattern work, the show ring goes soundless. No organ music. No applause. No cheers from horse show moms. No whispers from the spectators in the red bunting-hung stands. No tap-tap-tap of the trainer’s whip on her thigh. It’s so quiet, the other riders, left to wait their turn or—God forbid—not get called to the rail at all, can hear their horses breathe. Or themselves breathe. It’s hard to tell the difference. Focused, they feel every crease in their gloves, see every hair on their horses’ necks, and smell their own sweat.
Horse shows have the agricultural ambiance of any barn, but with a party twist. There’s the tang of livestock urine soaked into sawdust, but on top of it, the Aqua Net used on both horse and human manes and the grease of hot dogs rotating endlessly behind the concession stand. The ring, which might also take turns being a basketball stadium or ice-skating rink, is footed with dirt and tanbark instead of ice or floorboards, but potted ferns and chrysanthemums brighten the judges’ stand in the center. Mulched paths lead from the stables to the ring, and horses mince along them, keyed-up and snorting, their hides satiny, their riders dressed in three-piece suits and derbies or top hats.
At the 1996 All American Horse Classic in the Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the age 10-and-under equitation pattern seemed easy. Using the rail to your right, trot on the right diagonal to the arena’s ¾ point and continue to trot ½ circle. Halt. Complete a figure eight at the trot. Halt. Pivot to the left. On the left diagonal, trot the rail to the lineup. Throughout the entire class—trotting into the arena with six other girls, smoothing down to a walk, reversing for the second-direction trot, then walk, then the call to the line-up—the pattern instructions turned circles in my head, which had started to hurt. My mom always bobby-pinned my wispy brown hair tight enough to give me a headache. If she didn’t feel scalp scrape as she drove the pins in, she wasn’t doing her job. I resisted the temptation to hold the reins in one hand and reach for my bun to loosen it. Silently, I asked my horse for patience, but I needed it more than he did. Just a few more minutes, Glamour Boy. Almost there.
With heads held high, American Saddlebreds don’t walk. They promenade. Their canter isn’t a lope. It’s a seesaw. Their trot isn’t a daisy-cutter shuffle. It’s a pumped-up march. And their rack, the unique four-beat gait they’re famous for, is no amble. It’s a ride in a Corvette. Powerful and high-stepping, American Saddlebreds are the peacocks of the show ring. Some horses jump. Some race. Some herd. Some piaffe and passage. Saddlebreds show. They always have, even in their origins on colonial farms.
In 19th-century rural America, farmers would gather in the town square on “court days,” the designated days of the month when the circuit judge would be in town. Land could be bought or sold, farms expanded, deeds granted. Court days were male affairs, so wives and children stayed home while husbands took care of business. These boys’ clubs developed into the social highlight of the month, complete with contests and games, the antecedent to today’s county fair, minus the Gravitron and deep-fried Snickers. With a courthouse clock tower as backdrop, farmers would dismount from their horses or step out of their buggies, tie up to a fence or nearby sugar maple, and enjoy the only hours of socializing they might get that month. Socializing turned into bragging—whose saddle horse could rack faster, whose buggy horse could trot bigger—and bragging turned into a spontaneous horse show.
Down to the derbies and top hats on exhibitors’ heads, these antecedents to Saddle Seat horse shows look like what now unfolds at southern and midwestern fairgrounds all summer long—except for the overwhelming presence of women. Where court days were all-male, now women make up eighty percent of the American Saddlebred amateur division and have for decades. Plenty are in the professional league, too, working as trainers or instructors.
At shows today, women of all ages don wool suits and snug our collars with tie bars. We pull our hair into buns, or, if our tresses are too short, we pin fake buns to the napes of our necks. Our knee-length coats are tropical-bright: teal, rose, periwinkle, emerald. We throw their arms around our horses whether they make it in the ribbons or not, letting sweat from wet necks darken our coat sleeves. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. The performance matters, the thrill of dancing with a 1,000-pound animal, presenting him to a crowd that yips and whoops at the sight of him, his eyes wide and focused, muscles popping from his chest as he rallies down the rail.
After the class, coats shed, we walk our mounts until they’re cool, murmuring tiny phrases. Good boy; Here you go; Nice work; Pretty boy; The words mean nothing compared to everything we’ve already said with our bodies.
In the 1960s, while everyone else learned the Twist, my mom mastered every equitation pattern in the American Horse Shows Association rulebook. She became a star on the junior exhibitor Saddle Seat show circuit in the southeast, riding serpentines in hushed arenas while spectators held their applause and their breath until she finished. Dozens of other horsewomen I know learned their love of all things equine through their maternal line. There’s a lineage here, an ancestry.
A horse’s bloodlines list daddy above dam. Sultan’s Santana, by Supreme Sultan, out of Grand View’s Majorette. Supreme Sultan, by Valley View Supreme, out of Melody O’Lee. “By” the sire and “out of” the dam, as if the stallion did all the work and the mare just served as container. If I wrote it out, my pedigree would follow the damline. That lineage includes a well-off grandmother who helped pay for the horses and kept me in show suits for my entire junior exhibitor career. We called her Dearie.
One summer, Dearie bought me lessons at a barn forty minutes away from her North Dallas ranch. She drove me there herself, sailing to the farm in her leather-seated Lincoln, my mom up front with her, me in the backseat reading Stormy, Misty’s Foal for the fifth time. The barn looked and smelled like every barn I’ve been in since. Rows of metal-barred wooden box stalls filled with horses. A sawdust aisleway. Green, fenced pastures beyond. A tack room hung with saddles, bridles, and harnesses. Barn cats snaking around my legs. Permeating all of it, the earthiness of manure, the rich scent of leather, and, most of all, the musk of horse.
It took no more than one trot around the arena for me to plummet into love with Westmoreland, the gentlemanly gelding I rode in a sunny outdoor arena shaded by old-growth oaks. Some horses jumped at shadows, but Westmoreland trotted along the sunstrobed ground without a bobble. He was big but gentle, an aged chestnut with a white stripe down his face, who, even after more than a decade of showing, could still high-step like the Saddlebred he was. At my last lesson, I lingered at his stall, unwilling to say goodbye.
Candee, the shag-haired trainer, must have turned to my mom with an idea. “The two of them would make a great show team. She’s eight, right? She’d be a knockout in the eight-and-under at the Texas State Fair.”
Then, Dearie would have sealed the deal. “And when is that, exactly?”
In the weeks between my last lesson in Texas and the 1994 fair, Mom and Dearie outfitted me in a tiny three-piece navy-blue suit and derby. Not many girls fly into their first horse show, but Mom and I boarded a plane back to Dallas, a magenta Caboodle packed with hairspray and cast-off Clinique samples nestled in our checked luggage. Even in the eight-and-under division, girls were expected to wear makeup, tastefully applied, not more than a dab of mascara and a brush of blush. Mom may have been a whole-wheat-and-carob-chip-cookie-making hippie, but she understood performance and costume. A decade as a soloist in companies like the National Ballet of Iran and Rotterdam’s Scapino Ballet taught her the meaning of audience and artistry, and horsewomanship on a Saddlebred was as much spectacle as Swan Lake.
The state fair was a blur. A cowboy statue bigger than a house, his arm waving an unending “Howdy.” A midway sizzling on black Dallas asphalt. An enormous indoor arena with too many rows of seats to count, the ringside boxes full of families, teenagers, and grandparents. My mom, probably wearing loose-cut cotton shorts, a square linen top, and Jackie-O style sunglasses, would have marched me past the noisy roller coasters but paused to buy me a lemon shake-up and elephant ear—nothing for her. She still maintained a dancer’s diet, her only indulgence an afternoon snack of Diet Coke with a package of orange crackers. Dearie, in her slacks and blouse, would have headed straight for the arena to find a seat near the rail so she could whisper “Good job” as I rode past.
I won that class, making my first-ever victory pass, but the ribbon isn’t important. I’d trotted into the ring, heard the organ music, smiled at the judge, and posed in the lineup. Westmoreland’s muscles had worked in time with mine, his body responding to the signals Candee had barely taught my own body to use. I’d felt the lofty trot of a Saddlebred in a show ring, and it hooked me. From then on, no other type of horse could compare.
An hour before my class at the All American Horse Classic, Mom and I circled the arena, walking the pattern I’d have to do. Once. Twice. Three times. Dodging around the competition, who were all doing the same thing. My mom made sure my suit pants were rolled up so they wouldn’t get smudged, but she didn’t seem to notice the dirt sifting in over the top of her Danskos.
“Once more, Em?”
“No, Mom. I’ve got it. Can we go now?” I hated patterns like I hated fractions.
“Why don’t you do it once without me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Fine.” I turned around and stomped through the lines and circles but pivoted the wrong way after the figure-eight. “Don’t help me!” I called to Mom. “I’ll do it.”
I kept my gaze down as I walked, circled, and pivoted. Without her guidance, and without my horse underneath me, the pivot tricked me again.
“Em, Glamour Boy can’t do this without you.” He and I made a good-looking pair, him brushed to a high shine, me in a dove-grey suit, white vest, and pink tie. As long as I pointed Glamour Boy in the right direction, I could just think the word. Trot. But no matter how well he listened, to telegraph the pattern to him, I would have to understand it myself.
“Let’s try again together. We’ve got time. But first, close your eyes and picture it. Hands up, like you’re holding reins. Pretend you’re in the saddle.”
One hundred years before my mom and I walked my pattern at the All American Horse Classic, one teenage girl made history on her American Saddlebred and paved the way for the tens of thousands of us who followed. Loula Long died long before I was born, but, because she showed well into her 80’s, it’s possible that she and my mom could have crossed paths.
With a newly cobbled road, the 1896 Fancy Horse Show in Kansas City’s Fairmount Park was slated to be better than the first. On Saturday, September 15, five elephants led the parade of nearly 600 entries into the 3,500-seat arena set among the park’s green lawns, white paths, and lakeside boardwalk. It was the largest horse show of the year. An audience of women in puffy-sleeved shirtwaists, their heads topped with flower-decked hats, stood side-by-side with their husbands. The ladies class was coming up, and these women weren’t about to miss the chance to see some of their own compete for a blue ribbon.
This would be fifteen-year-old Loula’s first horse show. The daughter of a lumber baron, she had always preferred horsework to housework—not that a girl of Loula’s status did much housework. Loula, a brunette girl with deep-set eyes and full lips, ducked into the stable to button herself into her black long-skirted riding habit. She mounted Redbuck, her father’s handsome chestnut Saddlebred, a horse known for his good looks and good manners and checked out the competition. Her stomach somersaulted. Every other entry was a full-grown woman—no surprise, since girls didn’t really show in those days, but unsettling to Loula.
At the judge’s command, the teams moved through their gaits. Redbuck picked up his feet and flexed his neck, nostrils flared. His red coat darkened with sweat in the afternoon heat, but he wasn’t tired. When the judge called for the rack, he picked up speed and flew around the other contestants. Loula’s nervousness had disappeared. Now, she was having fun, and the crowd loved it. I like to think the women were out-applauding the men, clapping hard enough to make the roses on their hats quiver.
Loula shouldn’t have been surprised when the ringmaster pinned the blue ribbon to Redbuck’s bridle, but she was—so surprised she almost forgot to take her victory pass. Redbuck knew what a blue ribbon meant, so he jigged forward to remind her. The pair hustled onto the rail to sally around the ring one final time, every step as proud as they could make it.
In her autobiography, Loula likens the excitement of her first horse show to the excitement most women feel at their wedding. For her, horses always came first. Years later, after her horse tried to bite a potential suitor, she turned down his marriage proposal. If her horse didn’t like him, how could she be expected to live with him for the rest of her life?
I sympathize with Loula. My husband knows better than to book summer vacations without consulting me first. He knows summer is horse show season, and I’m gone one weekend a month from March through October. Ben is mostly a good sport about it. He understands that horses are my key to joy, so he doesn’t interfere. Author Jane Smiley writes, “Boyfriends, husbands, children, careers—that’s what the horses are a substitute for, according to adult theorists. But what truly horsey girls discover in the end is that boyfriends, husbands, children, and careers are the substitute—for horses.” Had Loula lived to read Smiley’s A Year at the Races, she would have dog-eared that page.
For another sixty-five years after her show ring debut, Loula won both riding and driving classes in the US and England. In 1955, at age 75, she conquered the competition at the International Livestock Exposition Horse Show in Chicago and took eleven blue ribbons home to Longview Farm, winning more firsts than anyone else at that show. By then, fifteen-year-old girls were a common sight in a horse show lineup. In a 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated, Alice Higgins wrote, “For some unknown reason, perhaps better coordination, more teen-age girls ride Saddle Horses than do boys of the same age (even though most professional riders are men) and seem, generally, to do a better job of it.”
Without women like Loula, little girls like me might never have had the chance to perform with our horses. In her day, she was an anomaly. Today, the classes devoted to junior exhibitors—the under-eighteen crowd—are the largest and most competitive at every show, and they’re dominated by girls.
As the first rider exited the lineup, the announcer’s voice rang. “Number 313, you’re on deck.” That was me. We were in the running. I inched my fingers forward on the reins and rebalanced my feet in my stirrups. I squeezed my thighs in, just barely, and Glamour Boy trotted out.
The reins felt electric in my hands, which needed to stay quiet, soft enough to hold an eggshell, yet able to contact Glamour Boy’s mouth. Half circle, halt, figure-eight, halt. Now the pivot—landed it!—and the trot all the way back to the lineup.
Without dropping my hands, I scratched Glamour Boy’s neck with an index finger while we waited for the rest of the girls to finish their pattern. The judges could always be watching, so my body held its equitation position. Even after the patterns, during the deliberation period, while the organist picked out a syrup-slow “Georgia On My Mind,” my hands stayed together and my heels down, calves flared out. Even when a fly landed on my face and crawled his own figure eights around my freckles, I kept still. Even as the announcer called out first place, while my gut rose and then sunk, then second (more sinking), I didn’t move. Then, finally (pleasepleaseplease), my name for third.
My mom met me at the gate and I handed her my ribbon as she placed a hand on Glamour Boy’s bridle. She patted him on the shoulder and beamed. “You did it! I knew you could.”
We hadn’t won, but Glamour Boy and I had performed, and we’d performed well. We’d entered in a tradition more than a century old, entertaining a crowd with a show of horse-human partnership and a test of skill. At the time, I didn’t feel the weight of all that history, but it pulsed around me and through me, the power of the damline that brought Glamour Boy to me and me to Glamour Boy.
The perfectionism of performance could be grueling, but the real meaning of all that sparkle and sweat stood in the partnership between ten-year-old girl and thousand-pound creature. My mom and grandmother funded more than entry fees and tailored suits, and this privilege is something I don’t take for granted. They invested in my confidence, grit, humility, and ability to win or lose with grace. With Glamour Boy, I learned more than leg positioning. I learned to take care of a being much larger than me and love a soul who couldn’t speak in words. My experience isn’t unique. My mom, Loula, Jane Smiley, or any woman rider would say the same.
At ten, I didn’t think about any of that. The deep impact of the horse-human bond didn’t require reflection. It existed in the moment, surrounding me like air, as ever-present yet unconscious as a heartbeat.
With Mom at Glamour Boy’s head, I dropped the reins, leaned over, and hugged my horse, absorbing his warmth.
Emma Hudelson is a PhD candidate in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She lives with one dog, three cats, and one husband in a house on Indiana’s White River, but she's usually at the barn with her American Saddlebred mare. BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, the Rumpus, and other publications have printed her essays. Her work has been a finalist in the 2017 International Literary Awards, Creative Nonfiction's Spring 2018 Contest, and the Split Lip Press 2020 Hybrid Chapbook Contest.