Boxing up the Blues

While going through her old ribbons, a rider reflects on the memories of past horse shows.
Flat bridle work and floral chokers were in vogue when Carol Woodruff showed her first horse, Pumpkin Eater, in 1967. | Courtesy, Carol Susan Woodruff

Less is more. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that my tack-room closet conceals floor-to-ceiling stuff, keeping me from installing clothes rods and shelves to turn the space into a functional storage area. More important, this stash keeps me from laying my hands on a particular box. For years, I’ve debated what to do with its contents, and now I’ve hatched a plan. 

Like geologic eras, my horse equipment forms layers representing old friends, phases and fashions. An upholstered saddle rack, a gift from my late best friend, tops an immense pile of long-unused saddle pads and polo wraps. Below, I suspect, are a homemade bootjack, paddock boots of various vintages and certified helmets now certifiably unfashionable. “Deanna!” I call out to a close friend visiting for the weekend. “Do you use polos?”“Yep!” she replies from the guest room. 

Soon her pile of hand-me-downs is waist high. My closet is by no means empty, but at least I finally have an unobstructed view of my buried treasure: a Vogel boot box harboring 117 horse-show ribbons. Spanning nearly 50 years, they aren’t so much trophies as touchstones. They remind me of my three special horses. They also remind me of my teens, when I felt only joy when showing; my 30s and 40s, when show nerves set in and my ego became overly tied to the number and color of my ribbons; and my 60th year, when I returned to the show ring after a 20-year hiatus, vowing to relax and focus only on my bond with my horse. That was the plan, anyway.

My husband has periodically suggested I do something with my ribbons. Steve should be careful what he wishes for. I’ve found the perfect solution: having them made, for $600, into a quilt. 

Only my first ribbon is missing. At 10, I won it at a rundown riding camp in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. At summer’s end, the owners held a low-key competition to show parents what their children had learned—or not. When asked to trot, I felt Bridget, the palomino mare I loved that summer, break into a canter. To my chagrin, we placed fifth.

Now I’d cherish that pink ribbon. In hindsight, a ribbon’s color is far less important than the who, what, why, where, when and how.

As I dust my remaining ribbons, I travel back in time. Aha! Here’s my first ribbon on my first horse. The faded blue rosette dates to 1967 and commemorates my winning a large pleasure class in rural Maryland with my Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred mare. I’d never before put Pumpkin Eater through her paces for an instructor, much less a judge. The victory reduced me to tears of joy. 

Next I pull from the pile my first ribbon on my second horse. Running my fingers over the rumpled red material, I flash back to 1988, to a crowded flat class in Tacoma, Washington. This placing also was a pleasant surprise; my new Thoroughbred gelding, Cadger, had, after all, kicked another horse at the canter. 

Three blues transport me to the following summer, to Kalispell, Montana, where Cadger first showed in Training Level dressage. The peaceful setting comforted him. The only uncomfortable things were the temperature—100 degrees—and my instructor’s displeasure at having her imported Trakehner trounced by my racetrack refugee.

A still-vibrant red ribbon carries me back to the 1991 show in Missoula, Montana, where Cadger and I scaled new heights in hunters—literally. He jumped so effortlessly at 3 feet, our schooling height, that I spontaneously moved him up to heights we’d never even tried at home: 3-foot-3 and 3-foot-6. Unconventional? I’d say so.

I owe my more recent ribbons to Bindigo, a handsome Dutch Warmblood who almost certainly will be my last horse. A ribbon I especially value is blue, won in 2014 in a hunter-under-saddle class at our first show, at Kalispell’s Rebecca Farm. What pleased me most wasn’t its color but what it symbolized: my late-in-life return to showing.

Neatly, I add his ribbons to the others in a new cardboard box and tape it shut. As I write the quilter’s address on it, I feel a little sad saying goodbye to my intact ribbons. Mostly, I’m excited about the heirloom they’ll become. I have my eye on a spot to display the quilt. The wall, now covered with stuff, is overdue for decluttering.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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