Thursday, May 2, 2013

Horses and nostalgia

As many of you know, T and I started a photography (and other artsy things) business in February.  We've done a lot of baby and kid photos, as well as family sessions.  Directly following the start-up and the Facebook page launch, I contacted a local saddle club that always hosts an annual state-wide gymkhana to see if they had a show photographer lined up yet.  They didn't, and were thrilled that someone wanted to come and do it.  

A gymkhana, for horses and their riders, is a competition typically comprised of 4-5 events designed to test the speed, agility, and teamwork of the horse and rider pair.  They are all timed speed events and vary in their design and pattern to be run.

This gymkhana that we signed on to photograph is one of the biggest gymkhanas in the state.  It's a 2-day competition and its winners are the very best of the best in Arizona.

In high school, I competed in gymkhanas regularly and worked hard at it.  I ran at this state gymkhana for 3 years and loved it every single time.  I looked forward to it for months; my horse and I and trained and prepared.  The last time I ran in this gymkhana was almost 10 years ago.

Rocky and A, all decked out for a drill team performance - 2003

I very much was looking forward to getting to photograph this gymkhana!  That being said, I also knew that it had the potential to be brutal on us.  Taking photos of every single rider, every event - it takes over the whole day.  The weather was forecast to be be clear and warm with a breeze.  Ninety four degrees isn't all that hot for southern Arizona, but it is pretty warm to be out in the sun from 7am to 7pm, holding perfectly still while taking pictures.  On top of that, we of course have a baby with us.  We'd hoped to both be photographing certain events, so we needed to make arrangements for E.  Saturday, we brought the teenaged daughter of a friend of ours to hang out with her and Sunday my parents and sister came to be with her.  It mostly worked pretty well, considering that she's only eight months old as of today.  E spent the whole time in the shade and slathered in sunscreen, so she really just got bored.  And kind of warm at times.

I arrived early Saturday morning by myself to start setting up our table and canopy.  There is simply nothing like the crisp dawn air, the smell of fresh hay and desert springtime, warm dirt and horsehair.  The younger riders were being boosted onto the backs of their horses and ponies by their parents.  Many of the teens had hopped onto their horses bareback and were walking from their overnight stall spaces to their trailers, where their tack was stored.  The adults scrambled around with last-minute preparations, final instructions to their kids, organizing coolers and tents and trying to slap some sunscreen on the toddlers running around before going to retrieve their own horses.

I don't think there is actually any way to describe to you how I felt that morning, but I'll try.

My heart beat a little faster.  My lungs swelled in my chest, trying to take in all the scents of my teenage years.  Scents that have been missing from my life for awhile.  A smile stretched my lips as I watched little girls trot past on their carefully color-coordinated horses, giggling at some inside joke between them.  Pink reins and pink saddle pads matched the pink boots their horses wore.  Others chose lime green, turquoise, purple, blue.  Horses were bathed and groomed for the occasion, saddles had been cleaned and oiled.

Reminded me of the evening prior to the gymkhana, when a 16 year old me would spend two hours lovingly going over every inch of her saddle and tack, making sure it shone richly in the amber lamplight after the rest of her friends had all left the barn.  I'd wash my saddle pad and my horse's support boots in the washer in my house, and my mom would remind me to wipe out all the clumps of horsehair after I was finished.  I would go to Michael's and buy blank tshirts and iron-on letters and decals.  I made myself a custom shirt for each day of the competition, different ones every year.

April 2002

Friday, my whole family would pack up and we'd go pick up the trailer and my horse and head the 2 hours south to the fairgrounds.  I'd settle my horse into his stall, we'd park the trailer, and then we would go check into our hotel.  I always meant for Friday night to be an early night, but with entry to the gymkhana came entry into the county fair, so we'd ride rides and eat fair food before heading back to the hotel, where I was usually too excited to sleep very well.

Competition day started early, as the horses needed to eat before we could get going.  I loved rising with the sun (just on gymkhana days!) and greeting my horse, Rocky, as he woke.  I'd give him a good, thorough grooming as he munched his breakfast.

Gymkhana days were filled with anticipation, anxiety, adrenaline.  I loved them; I worried about doing poorly.  The state gymkhana... all the emotions ran hotter than usual.

Watching all the riders direct their leaping and jigging horses through the gate gave me fond memories of Rocky, dancing sideways along the fenceline, waiting for me to give him the go-ahead.

A and Rocky in 2002

I saw the horses charge, hooves cleaving dirt, nostrils flared, and I remembered when that was me.  Men and women alike calling out commands and encouragement to their mounts as they rounded barrels or darted between poles.

It might seem like they're running along the surface of the earth, but that's just a trick our minds play.

In truth, these horses fly.  And in riding them, we borrow wings.

If I could go back, I would remind myself every day, every competition, to savor every bit of it I could.  To just be present as much as possible.  At 16 years old though, I don't know that I would have known what that actually meant.

I know that one day, my family will be a gymkhana family again.  I don't know when that'll be, or what it'll look like, but there is no doubt in my mind that we'll have horses.  But I do know that it won't be what it was before.  And it's not supposed to be - I've lived that part of my life already, it would be stupid to want to live it again.  I look forward to seeing what horses are in my family's future.

But for now, I'll take photos of other people's horses, with their rippling muscles and gleaming coats.  And I'll wish I could go up to every single one of their riders and whisper quietly, "Don't let today get away.  You don't know where tomorrow is going to take you.  And buy some damned photos, because we're really good and I wish I had more photos of me and my horses."

A professional photo of me and Rocky that my parents bought in 2003

A photo T took at the state gymkhana - April 27, 2013
A photo T took at the state gymkhana - April 27, 2013

*a special note: Horses have been one of the most enriching parts of my life, 
and there isn't any way I would have gotten to participate if it weren't for my 
amazing, loving, encouraging, supportive family.  Mom and Dad, thanks for 
giving me an incredible, irreplaceable gift.  I am eternally grateful for it, and you.


  1. Through eyes blurred with tears I share your recommendation of lovng and cherishing every moment. I too wish I had done that more. Every child deserves to be able to follow their heart and do what they love, and I cherish all the memories of being your mom, even now. We' ve had some pretty spectacular moments and many more are ahead because now we're also friends. I'm so grateful for this life with you!

  2. I loved reading this little post! My daughter rides and I see how much joy it brings out in her! Great pictures by the way!! :)