EN Blogger Contest Finalist Sydney Steverson: The Terror and Hope of Cross Country Day

The 2022 EN Blogger Contest finalists were asked to write a piece telling the story of a local event as one option for their Round 2 submissions. The following piece is published unedited. Your feedback will help us select our final winner! Use the rating poll below to give this post a thumbs up. Votes will be factored into our final decision.

About Sydney:

Born in 1993 Sydney’s parents had dreams of her becoming a doctor. Or the president. However, much to their chagrin, she fell in love with horses and has made it everyone’s problem since then. Re-entering the competitive scene in 2019 to extremely mixed results she still makes it her goal in her dream journal to become a professional. Some would say Sydney Steverson is “a bit off…mentally and emotionally” but those people are doctors and not horse people so they don’t actually know anything. Currently the proud owner of two OTTBs, both of whom can be described as “so so so very weird” and one Swedish Warmblood who is best known as “a literal angel from heaven who has done nothing wrong in her entire life.” Sydney will be great one day! Even if it kills her!

[Share your feedback on Sydney’s entries]

The smell that comes from your local show’s port a potty on Cross Country day is not entirely describable in any human language. It’s fear poop mostly mixed with caffeine and whatever fried food the show venue thought was appropriate for seventy-five 8 to 78 year olds. Surviving the port a potty itself deserves a ribbon all its own. There’s only so much the port a potty man can do; he’s only human.

Day Two, Cross Country day, at Barrington is palpably different from the gaiety and laughs of the previous day. Patrons that had just joked that their new gelding spun a full 720 during dressage have now turned a shade of green typically reserved for mint ice cream. The horse that was a little sticky off the ground in Stadium is given a full and very stern lecture.

Keep in mind, Stadium at Barrington is on hilly grass. It’s a glorified derby course but something about the fact that the jumps could, and can, move makes it less terrifying.

The trailers, typically parked quite neatly, are thrown together like fallen jenga bricks. When one is fighting the urge to cry you cannot physically park a gooseneck. The parking volunteer shows mercy to all these woebegotten souls by quietly leaving and grabbing a muffin from the snack stand. They deserve a little treat.

I wander through the temporary stalls mostly looking for one face to reassure me that today will not be the day that I die and the best I get is the maniacal laughter of a 56 year old woman who can’t get a stud screwed in. Her husband, like all the other husbands, including my own, are hiding in the forests surrounding the riding center. Both nursing a hangover from the free beer handed out last night and praying they won’t be asked to handle a wrench. Mosquitoes be damned, it’s every man for himself.

The children, predictably, seem at ease. Perhaps it is because their parents are handling every aspect of their horse’s care, as every horse parent does. (A quick aside: I hear you complaining, they are 1000 lbs and the kid is 8 years old, let’s be fair here. Just because your mother let you put studs in your half-draft mutt when you were a kid doesn’t mean it was right. They also used to prescribe cocaine to treat migraines so let’s put down the rose-tinted glasses). Likely it is because they do not have a proper grasp of the concept of death. I try not to be envious of their laugher and calm demeanor but I do confess to wanting to shake an 11 year old on this day demanding to know her secret to being able to eat a big mac at 9 AM with such blase acceptance of the day ahead.

For the rest of us it is chaos. A sort of never ceasing panic that sets in around 4 o’clock in the morning. It is a sort of exquisite torture that only comes with waiting for the coming events.

Speaking of the coming events, it’s Cross Country day in Barrington, so it’s going to rain. This, like death and taxes, is an inevitability with Barrington. There hasn’t been rain in weeks but wouldn’t you know it. It looks like midnight out here and the first spittings of rain slap everyone with a violence typically not seen in millimeter sized raindrops. “The ground needs it!” We all say to each other, nodding a little too vigorously while reaching towards larger and larger studs as the skies continue to darken. We keep checking the radar. Comparing weather with one another. “Mine says it’ll be done by 11:30!” “Oh perfect I don’t run until 12!”

The volunteers, to their credit, are attempting the Lord’s work. They are navigating the dark skies while attempting to keep the mood light. They quickly hustle to their spots as jump judges while ring stewards hand out compliments like free tissues to anyone who will listen. “Oh he is so handsome isn’t he!” “Wow he’s filled out so much from last year!” “Is that a new saddle pad for her? Do you like that brand?”

But no one is really listening. Underneath every helmet is just the whooshing sound typically associated with the inside of a conch shell. There are no thoughts here. Only fear.

Allegedly, Cross Country is our favorite part of the sport. And it is. Around jump 7. But in the warm up it is actually the last thing anyone in the world wants to do, except the kids, of course.

This may seem like this ruins the competition. If everyone’s miserable isn’t this no longer fun?

No, it is the misery of sitting in the mud feeling the first drops of what is guaranteed to be a monsoon that binds everyone together as one team. It’s the crying as you can’t find your whip and eight people offer theirs to you because they also want to cry but helping makes them feel just a little less nauseous.

Day One at Barrington is cordial. It is polite. But it is also competitive. Polite claps follow a good Dressage round or a clean Stadium but no one’s back is really into it. It’s only fair. You want to win.

But the guttural screams of joy that follow the first person back from Cross Country? Those screams are genuine excitement! Genuine relief! Genuine camaraderie. If one person can make it back alive from the coop-ridden roller coaster we’ve all signed up for then maybe we all can survive. They are surrounded like an astronaut coming back from the moon. “How was the footing?” “The combination! How did it ride?” With a deftness usually only afforded to media trained athletes they manage this amateur press conference. “Footing is great!” “Combination pushes the horse to the right at the first element so just have your leg ready”
The first person back from Cross Country is our own personal Show God and we treat them as such.

The rain begins to pick up but luckily the Barrington Park District takes excellent care of the grass galloping paths so at this point, survival is still possible despite the rain.

Cross Country day isn’t about winning at these local events. It’s about surviving.

By 11 o’clock the upper divisions have finished but the rain sure hasn’t. “Well thankfully the prelim and training didn’t get soaked!” The volunteers begin to give each other sidelong glances when the first rumbles of thunder roll through the grounds. Then. The dreaded flash of lightning. I feel it physically hit us all in our anxious cores.

A hold is placed. Volunteers quickly rush to golf carts, splitting time between on trailer parking and stabling, keeping everyone as updated as possible. Everyone is as upset as is possible to be in polite company. At this point you’d think we all have majors in meteorology with the weather predictions we’re attempting to make. As a group we decide it will be done in thirty-nine minutes. There is no science behind this.

But wouldn’t you know it? Twenty-seven minutes later (we carried the one wrong, it’s fine) the downpour begins to let up. The thunder fades away. The hold is lifted. The volunteer that announces this to the group is treated like they discovered the cure for cancer.

Like little forest gnomes slowly the husbands return from their self imposed exile. Grumbling to each other and readying various recording devices. Instantly they are bombarded with demands. Where to stand. Where to film. When to film. How to film. With a level of tenderness that I personally haven’t witnessed since the end of Titanic they say goodbye to one another. “Wife wants me at jump 10.” “Ah, mine wants me at the water” “Cool, it’s, uh, been good seeing you man good luck to your lady!” “You too man see you next time.” There might be tears in their eyes as they shake hands. What a beautiful moment. What a weird sport.

After the seemingly endless delay, I finally enter the warm-up. I try to make it a point to compliment as many people as possible. Not out of any altruism if I’m being honest. I just want good karma. Every bit helps.

By the time Starter division is warming up everyone is exhausted. The volunteers want to go home. The trainers have forgotten what their home even looks like or what not having a sore throat feels like. But, and this is crucial, everyone is still so supportive. It’s basically midnight at this point, Starter runs so late, but everyone is still all smiles. Encouraging words. Helpful anecdotes. Perhaps at the higher level shows it’s the same but I guess I’d expect that from a bigger event. It warms my heart more though to see people so excited for a Starter warm-up. To hustle to their jump spots so that the first Starter (it’s me mercifully. If I wait any longer the acid in my stomach will burn through my flesh and ruin my saddle) can get on course.

There is no monetary or prestigious reason to be nice to starters. But everyone is because they’re good people. They care. Genuinely. That is worth any 4-star show. Every rider is a 4-star rider in their own right and they deserve for their time to be special. I’m glad the volunteers, trainers, vets and course designers remember that.

And within the hour after I set out it’s all done. It goes well. I think it goes well for all of us starters. I can’t be sure though I’m on a post Cross Country high.

If the US government knew about the sheer power of the post Cross Country high they would bottle it and put it in the water supply to pacify the masses. Everyone is on a different plane of existence. People actually look physically lighter after xc. Like they shed years and pounds. They float. Their horses float. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced anywhere else. It’s the relief of crying and the ecstasy of a perfect moment. It’s everything. It’s what keeps us coming back.
Of course there is disappointment and tears but the reassurance that comes from all around, to me, makes the disappointment livable. Tight bear hugs. Tissues. Offers to untack horses. Offers to get food.

To me, this is what local shows are about. The camaraderie. The team work. Riding the highs and lows together. The uncertainty of a new horse and the relief that the same old packer is back out with his 17th Beginner Novice kid. Everyone is here because they really just love it. There’s no sponsors. Plenty of cameras but no media. No prestige on the line. Just love. It’s what makes a Subaru and it’s also what makes a local event so special. So remember that next time you’re having the bathroom adventure of a lifetime before your next Cross Country run. Remember that next time your local show needs some volunteers. It’s about love. It’s about teamwork.