Margaret Fletcher Gallop Girl: A Fall From Grace at Forty Miles an Hour, page 1
~ Margaret on the loose ~
Poise, class, confidence, fantastic thighs and an even better ass. The spoils of an equestrian lifestyle, ladies. Yes, it’s glamorous. No, it’s not easy. You WILL fall in the dirt. Your breeches WILL get dusty. But at the end of the day, there is nothing more beautiful than the picture of a graceful equestrienne atop her trusty steed. Effortless, elegant and always striking the perfect pose. But behind the scenes, her fancy custom boots don’t always hold their shine. It takes consistently applied elbow grease to maintain the glow. As I look out at this crowd, I see a lot of dull, shapeless “horseback riders”. It’s going to take a strong elbow to shine up each and every one of you. So if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then I, Margaret Fletcher, am ready to apply the grease.
I understand some of you here are new to the world of horse showing. Personally, I don’t understand how one can retain a position on an intercollegiate equestrian team without any practical experience. But our dean has informed me that the Edmonton College “riding club” is about having fun and making new friends, not competition. Well, I say, “Riding a horse is NOT a gentle hobby, to be picked up and put down like a game of Solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and, once it has done so, he will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa a really long time ago.
I, Margaret Fletcher, am here to tell you that being a member of my intercollegiate equestrian team is NOT a gentle hobby. As captain in charge, I will seize you whole and, just like Emerson, I will not let go until every last one of you is radically changed. Change can be painful and some of you look pretty terrified right now. But believe me when I say that the day will come when you will look back on this moment and be just as horrified as I am by your decision to dress in a spaghetti strap tank top and “riding tights.”
Moving on! In my experience, nine out of ten people will claim they know how to ride a horse. Most of these so-called equestrians have ridden once, perhaps twice in their lives. Five years ago, some gentle, half-blind rental animal nursing a hangover from a mild cocktail of tranquilizers carted some woman’s butt around a trail and now the poor rube considers herself an expert. I have been told that description also fits the competence level of at least three quarters of this Edmonton College Equestrian Team. Despite that dismal statistic, the dean expects that each and every one of you be given a chance to compete over the course of the semester.
There are three VERY DIFFERENT jumping disciplines. I want you all to listen closely to my descriptions of each, and then select which one you feel your “skills” — or whatever you call them — are best suited for. Take this part seriously, girls. Nothing defines a young equestrian’s character better than what ring she competes in. And due to budget constraints, you only get to pick one discipline to specialize in this semester. I know this is terribly unfair. Believe me, I begged the dean to siphon off money from the football team or Physics Department or whatever to make up for the shortfall. I explained to him that real equestrians are supposed to compete in all three jumping disciplines at once. But I suppose nobody here is really a real equestrian anyway. So just pick one discipline and let’s get this show on the road.
The “Jumper” jumps brightly-colored obstacles as fast and accurately as she can with little regard for personal appearance or equitation style. Her polo shirt may be tucked into her breeches, but you can’t always count on her to put her hair up in a hairnet. And if you point out that her sloppy appearance is disrespectful to her horse, the judge and the sport itself, she’ll probably go on a rant about how a well-coiffed “do” won’t help her keep the jumps in the cup. Not all jumper riders are this difficult. But one can find enough of these ruffians to make the jumper ring unappealing to those of us with finer tastes.
The “Hunter” jumps beautifully-decorated obstacles (think elaborate flower boxes and charming wooden fences). She is dressed in well-coordinated outfits because simply “getting over the jump” is not sufficient. The challenge here is to present a pleasing picture of a well-tuned horse and rider jumping confidently in the countryside. The essence of equestrian elegance. That is why they call those of us who participate Hunter Princesses. I’m sure some people (such as free-wheeling, hair-flying-all-over-the-place jumper riders) use the term in a derogatory fashion. But I, Margaret Fletcher, am proud to say that I wear the esteemed crown on top of my well-contained locks proudly.
THE EQUITATION RIDER
Our hearts are in the Hunters, we prove ourselves with the Jumpers, but the glamour is in the Equitation ring. Here, the rounds are judged on the performance of the rider, not the horse. This is where the country’s top juniors ride their hearts out and deplete their parents’ retirement funds, all with an eye on one prize: the McClay National Equitation Finals.
Of course, none of you have a shot at anything like that. But you should know that, in the equestrian world, winning the McClay is like marrying the Queen. No matter how rich or well-known you were before, you were never Royalty. Now, overnight you are.
For the three or four real equestrians here that might be serious competitors, let me assure you I have what it takes to bring out the best in each one of you. I may only be a freshman, but I grew up riding with some of the best trainers on the Eastern seaboard. Yes, they sometimes sounded like drill sergeants. Arguably, their criticisms bordered on abusive. No, that rumor about Gordon Schroder throwing horse feces into the mouth of a yawning girl is NOT true. Well, mostly not true.
I may have lied to my father, ridiculed my mother and ignored my teachers. But I ALWAYS listened to my trainers. And I expect nothing less from all of you, even the scruffy ones who don’t really belong here.
So be prompt, pay attention and never be the idiot trying to give me “tude”. Screw up a distance to a fence in front of a judge? Be prepared to have your stirrups taken away for a week. Forget your hairnet at home? Well, you can forget about your lesson, too. Skip a lesson before a big show? Don’t expect your horse to make it on the trailer.
In conclusion, I would like to say that the stereotype of the spoiled equestrian strutting around the barn, acting like a conservatively-dressed twit is not totally unfounded. But while these girls exist, they haven’t earned their Hunter Princess stripes. At least not in my book. A real Hunter Princess doesn’t treat her groom like the dirt he brushes off her horse’s butt. After all, he is the first person to see your steed in the morning and the last one to tuck him in at night. You can scrub your horse all day, but he will never look as good as he does after your groom gives him a bath.
Bottom line: he polishes your boots before you trot into the arena. Earn your groom’s respect and he might even scrub your soles.
The same goes for your fellow competitors. Snide comments meant to shake a pudgy girl’s confidence only make you look worse than she does. Aren’t we all just competing against ourselves in this sport? The Holy Grail isn’t an eighty-cent blue ribbon. It’s seeing that perfect distance to every fence on course. It’s knowing when to open our horse’s stride and when to take back. It’s riding each and every one of our animals to his or her potential and making the whole thing look effortless. So go out there, grab your lesson pony and let’s do this thing!
EDMONTON COLLEGE. MARGARET FLETCHER, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? I only studied there because of its proximity to The Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida. Besides, it was the only “college” willing to let me tak
I didn’t make friends on the team, least of all with my Co-Assistant to the Captain, Erica Lewis. Imagine trying to present a united front with someone who insists on changing the barn colors every other week. One week, it’s navy blue with grey and burgundy accents. Then, out of the blue, Mommy Dearest Lewis can’t stand the sight of burgundy. Two weeks later, everything is hunter green. Hunter green monogramming on hunter green wool? How is anyone supposed to be able to read that?
Fortunately for the team, I was focused on more important things and under my tutelage, they thrived. By the end of my junior year, we had three blue ribbon Championships. That’s right, I can ride! From the moment I zip up my field boots, I’m all business. Do I crack under pressure? NEVER! Do I cry after a bad spill? NO WAY! Do I make my competition sweat? ABSOLUTELY!
So there I was, living in my ivory tower of self-confidence, when out of the blue, my parents announce that they’re broke. The details of my father’s risky investments gone bad didn’t interest me. What’s a mortgage-backed security anyway? I certainly haven’t got a clue.
But the impact on my life was painfully clear. No more ponies. My Hunter. My Jumper. My Equitation horse. All sold before you can say the word “bankruptcy”.
One would think that the top rider at a crappy college like Edmonton would have no problem grabbing a catch ride here and there. This is where making a friend or two would have helped. It’s not my fault that nobody at this school could live up to my standards. I’m not inflexible. But stained breeches, halter tops and poop-splattered paddock boots are not OK! You may not be able to afford two thousand dollar custom boots, but all it takes is some good old-fashioned elbow grease to put a spit shine on whatever you find off the rack. Hairnets are cheap; belts are required; and brightly colored saddle pads are NOT appreciated. Wood shavings in your pony’s tail? Not in my arena. Synthetic tack? That can’t be comfortable. Is requiring matching tack trunk covers really that big a deal?
I wasn’t exactly surprised when the entire Edmonton Equestrian Team shunned me after my family lost their fortune. But did they have to kick me off the team?! Most of my “teammates” couldn’t even afford custom boots, let alone ride a horse properly. So I don’t understand why I had to go.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was busy inspecting bridles in the tack room, trying to forget the look on Mother’s face as the I.R.S hauled away her entire collection of rare Mediterranean skin creams. Before I had a chance to yell at Lisa Washington for ONCE AGAIN neglecting to polish her bit properly, Erica Lewis barged in, bellowing, “FLETCHER, you’ve got five minutes to dust your butt with that anti-chafing powder crap you like so much before I BOOT your ASS out the door!”
I should have put up a fight. But Erica had a team of cronies by her side, backing her up. It seems turning a blind-eye when a sloppy teammate wants to wear full-seat breeches in the Hunter ring is an effective way to buy the loyalty of the easily corrupted.
So no, I wasn’t surprised when the team gave me the boot. But I’ll admit that I was a little rattled when Jeff, the Edmonton Equestrian Team’s one and only heterosexual hottie (a rarity on the Circuit), dumped me for Erica Lewis. Jeff and I had been together since freshman year. I really thought we were in love. But I was just young, naive, and willing to let a cute guy in tight breeches take advantage of my good nature. I still cringe when I think of all the times I stroked his ego with my insincere praise. The guy really had no idea what he was doing on a horse. But time and time again, I made excuses for his sloppy equitation and let him ride my priceless ponies anyway.
When confronted with the fact that Jeff only wanted me for my horseflesh, I lost it. I’m talking bigger temper tantrum than the time I dumped an entire bottle of Show Sheen on my mother after she suggested that my new horse made me look fat. Margaret Fletcher has never been one to raise her voice in public. So you can imagine the shockwave that ripped through the Edmonton Riders’ Lounge when I caught Jeff seductively applying MY “Monkey Butt” anti-chafing powder to Erica’s pointy little derriere. Decorum be damned. I screamed at the top of my lungs for everyone to hear, “GO AHEAD, ERICA! HE’S ALL YOURS! MY JUNIOR JUMPER PONY IS TWICE THE MAN THAT JEFF SLOANE WILL EVER BE ANYWAY!”
Erica didn’t even have the decency to pull up her pants. She just smirked and reminded me, “I know, sweetie. That’s why I bought him, your junior hunter, your equitation horse and everything else in your barn that I could get my hands on. Isn’t that right, Jeff?” Jeff just looked at me like the slow, dumb animal he has always been. Margaret Fletcher is out and Erica Lewis is in. And there is nothing that my broke, chafed and scratchy ass can do about that now.
After Erica humiliated me in front of the very minds I was in charge of molding, I had no choice but to retreat from the team in shame. Erica celebrated my departure with brand new pink and chocolate brown wool coolers. Pink and chocolate brown? What is this? Barbie’s Malibu Dream House?
HAVE YOU EVER DEFINED YOURSELF ENTIRELY BY ONE THING, only to have it suddenly yanked away? Graduating with a C average from a school nobody has ever heard of doesn’t give one a whole lot of options in life. All it took was one look at Edmonton College’s lackluster Alumni Association to know that I was screwed.
I never imagined I’d work for minimum wage. I was supposed to be on my way to glory. Instead, here I am, answering phones and greeting “patients” at a large animal clinic just outside of town. I live in a tiny one-room apartment just big enough to fit me and all my riding equipment from the old days. I don’t have any friends, except for Sam, a cranky trainer’s assistant from the two-bit thoroughbred farm down the road. Sam stops by every Tuesday morning to pick up meds for his Boss’s horses. The process should only take about five minutes. But he always manages to sneak in at least one long-winded story about his good old days galloping for hire. My boss says that Sam suffered one too many concussions. Just ignore him. The old guy probably won’t even notice.
It’s advice I wish I had taken last Tuesday when Sam spent twenty minutes waxing nostalgic about the health benefits of a long afternoon spent sweating in some gross DIY sauna. “Just find the biggest pile of manure on the farm, dig a hole and climb on in. Those fancy European saunas can’t touch the kinda heat a good mountain of fermenting horse shit can generate.” He can’t be serious. But the strong odor filling reception suggests otherwise.
Every once in a while, though, Sam comes up with a gem and I’m grateful that I have nothing better to do all day than sit and listen. “I was a jockey by the time I turned eighteen and a cripple by twenty one. And I’ll tell you something, kid, I don’t regret a thing. I spent three magnificent years on the backs of thoroughbreds and they taught me every life lesson worth learning. Number one: speak softly, but carry a big stick. Number two: a champion needs to have a heart bigger than the size of his brain. Number three: horses don’t know what you paid for them. A horse only knows whether or not he’s got what it takes. Believe me, kid, the ones that got it? They know. If you look real deep into their eyes, they’ll tell you themselves. I got my best one that way. He ran like crap his first year on the track and was one bad race away from being sold as dog chow. But when I looked at him, I could hear him say, “Boss, I’m a champion. I’ve got it in my veins and it’s beating in my heart. You’ve just got to let me run the way I want to run.” So I got out of that colt’s way and took him all the way to The Breeders’ Cup. I never had to go to my crop once. He was an amazing creature. Not because of how fast he could run: because he did something no man or woman on God’s great earth could do. He taught a young, cocky kid to shut up and listen. I thank him and every thoroughbred I ever sat on for ma
I usually don’t pay too close attention to Sam’s stories. But I did this time. His words resonated like a thunderbolt. I AM capable of a lot more than answering phones and booking appointments. A girl with my kind of organizational skills and joie de vivre should be running this place! I’ve got it in my veins; it’s beating in my heart. I’ve got to make my boss understand that I have to run this place the way I want to run this place.
Not an easy task. He’s a real control freak. You know the kind that insists everything be done his way and ONLY his way, so help you God. I suppose that would be all right if his way wasn’t so sloppy and wasteful. Take a look at our file cabinets. Nothing inside them is from this decade. They’re totally overgrown with yellowed fax paper circa 1995 and handwritten notes that should be donated to the poor penmanship Hall of Shame. And what’s up with the unsightly books and pamphlets cluttering the reception area? I KNOW our clients would much rather peruse a fine coffee table book featuring photographs of fantasy farms from around the world than slog through Ten Signs Your Horse Has Laminites by Dr. Boring WhoCarezzzes.
If Margaret Fletcher is anything, she is a woman of action. I have the blood of a Captain running through my veins, even if it’s the blood of a disgraced former Co-Captain.
So, I formulate a plan. I’ll need the office all to myself for at least three days. (Thank you, North Eastern Large Animal Vet Conference. Have a great time, everyone. Don’t worry about a thing. You can count on me to hold down the fort.)
I’ve got the dumpster parked out back in less than an hour and the whole place cleaned out before you can say, “Wow, that’s some ugly furniture, Margaret.” It’s a lot of hard work. I recommend thinking twice before attempting to hoist ten metal filing cabinets filled with twenty-five years of paperwork into a dumpster. But it’s worth it. The place looks clean and classy. I especially like the way my old Championship wool coolers hang behind the receptionist desk like plush, custom-made symbols of success. Dr. Boring WhoCarezzzes might be a little taken aback at first. But when the dusts settles, I think he’ll realize that he’s finally got an office that any girl would be proud to bring her six-figure horse to for medical care.