Throwback Thursday: College Essay

Who remembers fax machines? They were like paper email in that you got a print-out copy of whatever the other person was sending in real time, all via the phone line. Which came in handy when you needed a document (or wanted to share a joke) right away and couldn’t wait for the regular mail. In 1993 not everybody had access to the internet. I don’t think I even knew what it was.

That summer I was in Virginia and scheduled to start college in the fall, only I decided I wanted to stay up there and go to school instead of coming back to Tennessee. My dad faxed me the college essay I’d written as part of a English class assignment two years before so I could submit my applications. In those days fax machines took a special kind of paper, so I still had to re-type the whole thing and print it out on real paper from a friend’s computer (an Apple Powerbook, if anyone is curious), and I’d honestly forgotten all about this faxed copy.

Until the other day when I found it in a box of clutter, all folded up and faded. But I can still see the time stamp (May 14th at 13:31) and where it was sent from. And the words are perfectly legible. I didn’t think I’d ever see it again, since the only known copy I have resides on a 3.5″ floppy disk that doesn’t work on anything and probably has long lost any data anyway. I was almost afraid to read it. Back then I fluffed up everything I wrote, in true self-absorbed teenager fashion, usually to make up the word count or increase the BS factor. And trust me, I cringed more than once while reading it.

But that’s not what’s important. The central message of my essay is what matters. Just please understand that I was in high school and really naive when I wrote this, yet I was trying to sound all grown-up and mature. You know, ready for college. [I tried to keep the snarky comments to a minimum, and in brackets.]

This was the North Georgia Three-Day in 1990, and the sport has changed a lot since then, including its name because I don’t hear anyone refer to eventing as combined training anymore. But 24 years ago it was my life. I haven’t competed at an event since Radnor in the fall of 1995, so I don’t know if the same sort of culture exists at horse trials these days, but I hope so.

Combined Realizations [I know, crappy title and bad play on words]

Last fall at the North Georgia Three-Day Event I was lucky enough to be recruited as a volunteer. I had been planning all year to compete there in the Young Riders Championship, but late that summer my horse [that would be Skipper] injured a tendon, requiring months off. Despite missing out on being able to compete, I had one of the best experiences of my life.

When we arrived late Friday afternoon, the dismal weather was taking its toll not only on the dressage phase, but on the entire competition as well. Thanks to extensive rain and storms, the Saturday endurance phases–which require the most work [not just for the competitors but also volunteer manpower]–were moved to Sunday, which created a drastic shortage of volunteers. I agreed to be a cross-country jump judge, and what an adventure that was…

Sunday morning was cloudy and very cold. Since the bigger divisions weren’t going until later in the day, and since I had competed a lot and knew about what was going on, I got teamed up with two guys, one from Belgium and one from Denmark, who were new to the sport. I guess it didn’t hold much interest for Mr. Belgium, since he fell asleep under a tree. [Or perhaps he didn’t get much sleep the night before.]

I was supposed to show them what to do during the smaller divisions so that by the time more volunteers were needed they’d know what to do and could be left on their own to do it. Having to acquaint them with the sport reminded me not only of its significance, but also of its importance in my life because I realized that most people are totally unaffected by the wonderful sport of combined training. [barf]

For the Intermediate divisions I was stationed at a fence up on a hill, so I was in a position to witness most of the excitement. [Win!] A good number of my friends began preparing for their rides later in the day, and I watched them as they walked the course together. Of course, I couldn’t leave my post, so as they came my way in their different groups they’d stop and chat for a while. [See how I try to  make myself sound all popular.]

There is a definite comraderie [Uh yeah, I think I meant camaraderie. No spell check in those days either!] established between event riders. We don’t become so caught up with the competition that we hate each other, and walking the cross-country course with a group of close friends exemplifies that special friendship. While walking together riders discuss not only their personal strategy and apprehensions, we also seek advice from fellow competitors, gossip, joke around, and have fun (which helps to ease the nervousness).

Before my experience as a jump judge, I had always been on the inside, a part of that circle of friends out walking. Last fall I was on the outside, watching them do it and wishing I was with them, but also seeing for the first time the whole thing objectively. That’s when I realized how special our relationships are and how lucky we are as event riders to have such incredible friendships.

Once the Young Riders Championship division started, the excitement really got underway! A jump judge’s responsibilities include both recording whether or not the horse and rider jump clear, i.e. no refusals or falls [You could fall off back then, but it was 60 penalties], and reporting to the announcer via walkie-talkie what’s happening so he can broadcast it all over the showgrounds.

Because I was positioned on top of a hill I had the best radio reception. Therefore, when a horse got caught up on fence #12, a big corner that was just downhill from my post, I was the one who had to radio in for a construction crew. Also, since my fence was very close to that corner, I had to hold the next rider on course while the jump crew dismantled the corner, freed the horse, and had the jump reassembled within 10 minutes.

Luckily, both horse and rider were okay, but after that incident one of the course builders stayed nearby. [Corners can cause trouble that way.] By talking to him I began to understand the amount of teamwork and cooperation that goes into running a Three-Day Event. This was another aspect of the sport I never before realized as a competitor. I felt important. I was part of the team and an essential element in running the show, not a competitor too wrapped up in everything to see the dedication and collaboration that went into the event’s production. I was beginning to understand the awesome work force behind eventing.

Later in the day, several of the big time professionals came up on the hill to watch the Young Riders. At first I couldn’t believe how down to earth and friendly they were. I mean, I really didn’t expect the highest placed U.S. Three-Day rider in the 1988 Olympics [that would be Phyllis Dawson] to just strike up a conversation. However, I then realized that no matter how great they are now, at some point they were all just learning. Almost everyone I’ve met in this sport has that same friendly attitude. No one acts as if he or she is better than anyone else. Event riders seem to have a certain empathy with one another, probably because we are experiencing the same things and can all relate to each other on that level.

At the end of cross-country, there was an awards ceremony. The neatest thing was that that two sisters had been placed first and second all weekend. Unfortunately, one of the sisters had a stop on cross-country, but the other sister ended up winning. Instead of being jealous of her sister, she was excited for her! In most cases I would have thought this would cause a major family disturbance [I’m an only child, so what would I know?] but this showed me how strongly they support each other. Watching the awards presentation really demonstrated how event riders in general support each other. Riders cheer for their friends even when their friends beat them, and riders in the lower placings–as well as those who didn’t place at all–cheer and congratulate the winner.

Although I was really depressed at first because I wasn’t able to ride, looking back now I think that my experience more than compensated for not being able to compete. If I had ridden in that Three-Day, I wouldn’t have been able to be a jump judge, and therefore I would have missed out on this opportunity to see the sport of combined training from a new perspective [and have college essay fodder]. Now I understand why so many non-riders love the sport and are willing to volunteer regularly. I also realized why I love it so much. I no longer see the the beauty of the sport only through the eyes of a competitor, now I have realized the true spirit of eventing.

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