Cooky McClung’s column was always the first thing I read in the Chronicle of the Horse when I was a teen. Her columns still make me laugh out loud — I have her books and pull them out when I need a chuckle.
So I was delighted to find this column in the current issue Country Line Online: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Devon Mother Tall tales of the energy and spirit behind the scenes, told by a former Devon Mother. Make sure you click through the link to see the darling photos by Alix Coleman.
What’s pink and green and bursts forth each May with more color than azalea blossoms and higher velocity than a spring hurricane?
She’s the Devon Horse Show Mother, of course, prime protector of ponies and progeny.
She is the sweetheart of the Tea Cart, the prickle of judges and the soul mate of shop owners.
She is beloved by pizza stands, dodged by stable management and endured by show officials.
Capable of writing a $200 check without looking down, she is able to test the stress limit of show secretaries within minutes, changing classes, riders, pony’s names, and, if she considers them unlucky, back identification numbers, before her child mounts up.
Rising well before dawn on show day, she kicks in gear faster than a speeding bullet, tearing frantically between barn and show ring in-gate. She’s single-handedly able to wash, groom, braid and tack up one small and two medium ponies, a junior hunter and an equitation horse, while simultaneously tying stock ties, fastening chin-straps, straightening hardhats and wiping noses.
A Horse Show Mother of any quality comes up through the ranks, beginning with Lead Line classes, progressing to Small, Medium and Large Pony competitions, moving on to Equitation, Junior Hunter and Junior Jumper divisions. She is universally considered unseasoned without having spent a decade chasing competitive points throughout the East Coast. And, perhaps, Arizona and California. And Hawaii, too.
But it all begins with the time-honored launch of a Horse Show Mother’s “career” in the Lead Line classes, recognized as the training ground for those new to the sport, who, heretofore, may have viewed their child’s entry into show biz as “fun to do on the occasional weekend.” Little did she know it would consume the sum total of her spare time and alter life as she once knew it.
Leading child and pony around the arena for inspection by the judge and scrutiny by other contestants in the pageant know as the Lead Line, the savvy Devon Horse Show Mother learns early on that Armani and Manolo Blahniks are impractical if worn into the ring.
Experiencing a trip ‘round the Dixon Oval more than once, the less stylish but wiser Horse Show Mother is easily recognized by her floppy straw hat, L.L. Bean boots and Nose-Kote, striding purposefully with a saddlepad over her shoulder and a lead shank around her wrist. Her skirts are embroidered with horse’s behinds; her blouses sport Thelwell ponies, and gold foxes with ruby eyes adorn her ears, neck and hands. She frequently suffers from terminal monogramming.
Her patchwork suntan stops at elbows, knees and ankles, cultivated from weeks propped up against the ringside fence. Though woefully lacking as fashion statements, a fetching pair of knee-high yellow rubber boots and a floor-length mackintosh have, so far, prevented rain rot from setting in.
Barely recognizable during the indoor winter circuit (shows held anywhere north of South Carolina after September) genuine Horse Show Mothers throw high fashion to the wind, in a manner of speaking. In winter they appear at ringside clad in long johns, insulated ski pants, three scarves, earmuffs, tundra gloves and a puffy down jacket envied by the Michelin Man.
When feeling wronged, Horse Show Mothers can make Little League Mothers look like Campfire Girls, categorizing judges as marvelous and discerning or dreadful and nearsighted, depending on where her child’s number ends up on the scorecard.
While she’ll rarely overtly attack the errant official who overlooks her youngster’s stunning performance, a malevolent glare from her steely eyes has been known to melt the sunglasses off a judge’s nose.
The stance of a Horse Show Mother (adopted by General George Patton in 1917), offers a clear signal that officials are in for a haystack of trouble. While appearing to be a “good sport” on the outside, on the inside she may seethe with unsportsmanlike and, on occasion, even homicidal thoughts.
If, when expecting a blue ribbon, her munchkin receives a 5th place pink rosette, she will genteelly murmur a gracious “thank you” while silently shouting, “What could you possibly be thinking? Only an incompetent nincompoop would pick two lame ponies and one that moves like a Mixmaster over mine!”
She is strictly forbidden to carry a whip or curb chain, for when tempers flare her aim can be deadly. A recent addition, cotton ropes were also banned after a Wellington, Florida judge was discovered tied to the announcer’s stand and spray-painted with hoof dressing.
In order to survive the Every-Weekend-and-Most-of-the-Summer Circuit, a truly authentic Horse Show Mother must be capable of standing at ringside, issuing instructions to her child without moving her lips. When her young rider’s pony completes seven perfect fences and refuses the last, tossing the tyke into the dirt, she must resist the temptation to pick the errant animal up by the fetlocks and shake his brains out of his ears.
A full-fledged Horse Show Mother must be equally adept at changing a trailer tire in the rain on the expressway at midnight, sneaking three children, eight suitcases, a hot-plate and two quarreling Jack Russells into one hotel room, and fitting 20 peanut butter sandwiches, a case of root beer, a pound of M&Ms, and a quart of scotch into a single picnic cooler.
She cannot succumb to frostbite, rain rot or heat stroke, and must be able not only to survive, but to sparkle, on a maximum of three hours sleep. In addition, she must be adept at refereeing arguments between crabby siblings, mending torn britches with baling twine, scraping cotton candy off saddles and disguising dog throw-up on her only clean skirt.
Most importantly, she must be able to remain calm when the pony she took a second mortgage on the house to pay for colics and her youngest wakes up on Lead Line Day with chicken pox.
And, above all, when her star munchkin blows the coveted championship in the final class by going off course, she must be able to say, “It doesn’t matter, sugar, I love you anyway . . .” and really mean it.
(Certified truisms from a former Horse Show Mother of three; current grand-Horse Show Mother of two.) -CL-