I’m Just Saying: Stalking my dressage riding idol, part deux

Published 8:00 am Friday, September 21, 2018

As Florence approached the western part of the state, it appeared certain events at The World Equestrian Games would be canceled, as no one knew quite how waterlogged the show grounds might become.

The horses evacuated from the coast were safely housed in temporary stalls, warm and dry, and it was heartening to see locals volunteering to tramp out through the rain and muck to help clean stalls, or simply hand graze the animals so they could snatch a bit of grass.

Despite the uncertainty of events, my quest to meet my dressage hero, Carl Hester, felt within reach. As a member of Great Britain’s team, unless he and his fellow members all happened to fall off in the middle of their performances, they would likely be somewhere on the podium, meaning they would be present at the press conference scheduled for 7 p.m.

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Indeed, they claimed bronze, and, after watching each footfall of everyone’s ridden test, I leapt into my truck and hightailed it home in order to feed and water my own horses before returning. Smug in my efficiency, I tooled into the designated parking area in time to jog up to the media building just before 7 p.m.

Except in my absence, the press conference had been moved up from 7 to 6 p.m.

I’d missed it! I’d missed my chance to lob a question to Carl or the reigning Olympic gold medalist, his longtime student, Charlotte Dujardin.

It was all I could do not to wail like Linus after learning he’d missed The Great Pumpkin. Driving dejectedly home, I consoled myself that at least I had another two opportunities to watch the world’s best compete the following couple of days.

On Friday, all those who had scored high enough in the team competition were now gunning for individual medals in the Grand Prix Special. During an hour’s break in the action for both spectators and judges’ bums, I thought I might do a bit of window-shopping amid the endless rows of white vendor tents that stretched in tidy rows throughout the parking lot.

This was nirvana for equestrians: saddles, boots, tractors — everything well beyond my budget, but lovely to ogle. Spying a tent for a horse magazine, I ambled closer and my eyes swept across the small sandwich board erected in front that read, “Today! Book Signing with Carl Hester 1:30 to 2:00”

Are you freaking kidding me?

I glanced inside and yes, there he was, smiling amiably at one of two women who had just purchased his book. I looked at my phone. It was 2 p.m.

Of course. Of course it was.

As I stepped towards the counter, I heard the cashier say to the woman directly in front of me, “Last one, you’re the last one. Carl needs to get back to the stable to get ready to ride.”

He posed obligingly with the woman who had been ahead of me (I hate her) before beating a hasty retreat, and, pulling his ball cap over his head, sprinted away back across the show grounds.

Reminding myself that the word “fan” is derived from “fanatic,” I hung back and consoled myself with a $5 Snickers ice cream bar (I hated that, too) and made my way back to the stadium.

My friend, Mary Phelps, who has photographed virtually every international horse show around the world, had nabbed a terrific spot right next to the in-gate and beckoned me over. Sitting here is tantamount to watching the Chicago Bears burst onto the field from the tunnel — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and so I perched on the bleacher a couple of rows above Mary and watched the remaining rides, all jaw dropping in their ability and brilliance.

Because I am so appreciative of Carl’s approach to training and his lightness as a rider, I watched his performance in rapt admiration, nearly forgetting to applaud at the end. He didn’t medal — he hadn’t expected to as the horse he was riding is still quite green at this level — but it was a glorious and accurate test.

Then suddenly, my idol appeared on foot, only a handful of feet away from where I sat, being interviewed by the European press. Swooning, I made a face at Mary and laughing, she snapped a photograph on her smartphone.

Not quite the selfie, but it’ll do. It’ll do just fine.