You'd think you're in England here at the High Prairie Horse Show in Parker, Colorado. I mean, the raincoats, mud-splattered boots and low hanging slate-grey skies look awfully British to me.
But the accents here are all-American, the horses like listening to Country-Western radio in the barns and the friendliness is homespun. Big-time horse shows like this are wonderful and weird, a world of their own.
Equine competition hones intense etiquette with a diamond edge. The kids participating in the competition learn abundantly from their horses, trainers, co-participants and judges as well as the parents, grooms and support staff. Manners are taught at every encounter. "Sir & ma'am," "please & thank you," and "yes, I can" are expected, required and rewarded.
The respect goes all around and has ancient precedent. Before attending to their own comfort, the knights of old cared for their tired horses at the end of the day. Today's young equestrians are trained the same way.
In time-honored tradition, riders are responsible for their mounts' health, comfort and wellbeing. In return, they expect the animals to move safely and attend to directions. There is a symbiotic relationship between horses and humans, and it works. It's also fabulous training for life: after all, responsibility and collaboration are key ingredients of success.
Here at High Prairie, success too, is measured on many levels. Sure, there's only one blue ribbon and everyone else queues up for the other spots. But within each class, every rider has the possibility of winning, of bettering their performance, or coming back after a fall.
Sometimes the judges see things that allude to other observers and someone places 6th who was thought to have earned a 3rd. But isn't life is like that after all? And don't things go easier when we learn that there are times when the only good option is to manage disappointment and accept the inexplicable.
This is a place of extreme concentration and detailed awareness. The horses and riders, their trainers and the judges know how to focus. You can't benefit from the experience if you don't pay attention. And it's not enough to focus; you have to know how to pick what you focus on, and then switch your mind away from all the distractions.
Today it's cold, muddy and wet. There are noises, smells and rain. The horses are nervous, and so are the horse people, riders (and parents). It's all too easy to slip and fall, and when you mix in the speed, height and power of the horses, the risks loom large for everyone. There is risk in the ring, just as there is in the world at large. And in the ring, as out in world, it's up to us to work together and make our way.
One last observation: there is mindfulness in the ring, a hushed awareness of the present moment and laser-like attention to each increment of experience. It's a mental, physical, emotional and for many, spiritual, thing. And despite the exclusivity of the horse world (and it is expensive, no doubt about it), there is a sense of community in the moment which embraces everyone here.
Many things in life are expensive, and but out here on the plains of Colorado, the price for love between horse and rider isn't outrageous. If you're lucky enough to be here, even as a kid from an average family income, you are one of the crowd and welcome.
Horses and humans share a history that spans many thousands of years. We are familiars and dependents, and among us there are leaders at every level. It seems clear here, at the Colorado Horse Park, that humans like horses, are herd animals. We warm each other, even as we compete to win or if simply join together and watch the show.