Destiny’s Gift: Blue-Ribbon Memories

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller September 15, 2010 12:21

Patty and her talented jumper, Destiny

I opened the garage door — and swore.

A storm had just dumped three inches of rain within a couple of hours. Much of it had seeped into my new home’s garage, where furniture and packed-up stuff was still piled.

The water had somehow reached and saturated just one box, one I hadn’t opened in decades but had steadfastly kept through many college, career and family moves. I sighed. Of all the boxes … I dragged it to a dry spot, sat down on the cement and tore open the soggy cardboard.

Inside were more than 100 horse show ribbons I had won as a teenager and in my early 20s.

I’m betting many of us of a certain age have such stuff – be it old concert stubs, faded photos, musty love letters, dried-up corsages, tarnished trophies, crumpled ribbons –  that we just can’t part with despite the elapsed time since they first became keepsakes, their questionable worth or the paths our lives have since taken.

My paths amount to a curious road map, sometimes on course, sometimes way off, sometimes confusing, sometimes silly. Still, that pile of ribbons keeps me connected to my horse-show days, a path that remains one of the best I’ve ever taken.

I grew up in the suburbs. My parents didn’t know anything about horses. Truth be told, they would have probably been overjoyed had I taken up their favorite sport, golf. But when I was 10, they sent my brother and me to a summer camp that offered swimming, the requisite crafts and other activities – including horseback riding.

From the wet clump of ribbons, I pulled out a short green strip with “Special Award” in gold letters.

I had won it on the final day of camp. No matter that I was in a beginner riding class that involved ancient swaybacks walking in small circles the whole time, and that every kid enrolled was ultimately deemed “special.” Camp left me horse-crazed.

Then I found my first blue ribbon, won aboard my first horse.

Smokey had a huge head, a short neck, bony frame and ears that were often flat back. None of these are desirable equine traits, believe me. But when I first saw him, all I saw was his tall, 16-2-hand height and dappled gray coat. To me, then a high school freshman with a few more riding lessons behind me, he was unquestionably gorgeous.

My view of the silvery steed tarnished the day after he became mine and arrived at a boarding stable several miles from home. Saddled up and with me aboard, he quickly found he could crow-hop (sort of a half buck) just enough to make me tumble off. He would then stand quietly and look at me sitting in the arena dirt.

Scared at first, I stayed off. The next day, helmet firmly in place, I got on him again, got dumped, got back on, got dumped again. This went on for some time, but my daily after-school bicycle trips to the barn continued. Then, almost as quickly as his rodeo romps began, Smokey started behaving. As if in our own little version of “Survivor,” I had won the stubbornness challenge and we started to get along. A few months later, I entered a small show and came home with that blue ribbon.

In high school I rode in shows as often as possible. I passed on proms. Rather than investing in the wear-once, lace-and-calico formal dresses so popular then, I saved every cent for lessons, show fees and riding clothes. As for boys, well, I was having too much fun with Smokey and my barn friends to worry much about boys.

The ribbons began to multiply. I marked the back of each with the show date and sometimes a snippet about the class: “Third out of 43 riders in novice jumpers!” one proclaimed.

I untangled a big red ribbon with a huge rosette and long streamers.

Patty with her mom, Mary

This came a few years later, when I was now fortunate enough to have a trainer. I also had Destiny, a stout but athletic mare my parents bought for $900 after I outgrew Smokey. I often found myself competing against young riders aboard $30,000 horses. Yet in one show class that involved jumping a circuitous course of fairly high obstacles while demonstrating equitation skills, my $900 horse and I rode to second place over dozens of silver-spoon riders. I still remember my huge smile and my trainer’s cheers. Up in the grandstands, my constant fan – my mom – teared up.

Soon after, my horse activities were replaced by college and then a career writing for newspapers and other publications. I’ve been married, become a mom, divorced, traveled to several continents, and met all sorts of amazing people. Each life chapter has affected me.

But all that I experienced long ago through horses made its mark, too. I’ve owned several horses in more recent years and still ride whenever I can. And other horse lovers I’ve been lucky enough to meet through the years are among my dearest and wisest friends.

One of them, Sonora rancher Gail Bonavia, likes to say that we horse nuts suffer from a genetic flaw. Yep, think of all the safer, cheaper and cleaner interests we could have pursued, we agreed one day while she wrapped a horse’s injured leg and I shoveled up what my gelding had just plopped down. But not nearly as fun, exhilarating or educational.

Patty's maternal grandmother, Elaine Shields Craig, aboard Flossie, early 1900s

Horses taught me the value of physical and mental strength, perseverance, confidence, patience, and how to overcome adversity. When life threw me an emotional punch, trips to the barn were sure cures. Still are. Horses, I’ve learned, can be damned good therapists.

My parents are now in their mid-80s and I’m in my 50s. I still thank them for all they did and spent almost 40 years ago just so I could ride.

My mother and I occasionally laugh about crabby Smokey, reminisce about the talented, earnest Destiny and all the horse shows we headed to in the predawn hours. We recall the time I was on a big thoroughbred that abruptly stopped in front of a high jump, catapulting me over it; the day I came home with seven blue ribbons; the awful fast-food job I held just long enough to pay for my custom-made show boots.

Those boots were also in the garage when it flooded, but they weren’t damaged. As for the blob of wet and ruined ribbons, after sorting through them for an hour or so, I balled them up and put them in the trash. No use keeping them now, I figured.

Then, the next morning as garbage men were about to make their weekly visit, I pulled the rag-tag ribbons out and put them in a new box that’s in a safer place. What possesses me to keep them still? It must be that genetic flaw.

Patty Fuller was a newspaper reporter and editor in Sonora, California for 25 years. She now works as a freelance writer for area publications, businesses and nonprofits.

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller September 15, 2010 12:21
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