This past weekend was the annual Steepleview Horse Trials at Walter and Jean Kunz’s lovely Steepleview Farm in Delano, MN. The cross country course is fabulous, the show is run efficiently by a dedicated group of volunteers, and the weather gods obviously loved us enough to divert the storms for 48 hours so we could get our groove on.
But the best part about Steepleview’s Horse Trials? The TEAM CHALLENGE! Every year, a few weeks before the event, emails go flying and Facebook posts appear as competitors form teams at each level (teams can cross division lines, so Junior and Senior riders can all be on the same team, so long as they are riding the same level, ie – Novice). Once there are four members on the team, the naming game begins. Are you the Flying Monkees? Will-Ride-For-Wine? Feisty Fliers? Jumping Jalepeños?
As usual, I did not know all my team members this year (which makes the Team Challenge a great opportunity to make new friends!), but it turns out we all ride with Ralph Hill.
In case you don’t know the indomitable Ralph, he is ‘The Man’. Ralph has competed in everything up to and including Rolex, and in the alternate Olympics in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. But what Ralph is really known for is getting inside a horse’s head and seeing the world through equine eyes.
The hamster is always on the wheel in Ralph’s brain, rolling out exercises to get the spooky horse feeling confident, the squirmy horse ‘flying straight’, and the bold know-it-all horse to come back and listen to the rider. In his course walks he differentiates how the ride would be on a horse new to the level versus a horse that will be moving up the next time out. In training he is quick to change an exercise that isn’t working for a particular horse, and is always dreaming up things to get us riders to feel what he wants us to execute.
Ralph also has a lot of catch phrases that come out when he’s excited or frustrated. Everyone who rides with him live to hear the words ‘Hot Dang!’ after a fence or mini-course – time for a fist-pump from the ‘jockey’ and from Ralph himself. So when our team needed a name, ‘Hot Dang!’ seemed only too appropriate.
Once we established the name, I got all excited like an elementary school kid and spent some arts-and-crafts time with puffy paints and t-shirts, staking out the dining room table for a week while my creations dried. Ralph pulled his shirt over his head Friday evening, posed for pics in the start box with the team, and didn’t take the shirt off until the last rider had gone stadium on Sunday afternoon.
I may have passed out team shirts, but Ralph brought us all ‘inspirational’ pics of him riding at Rolex ‘back in the day’ to hang on our stalls, walked all the courses with ‘his’ team, and even pulled us all out Saturday night for a ‘team jog’.
I had a fair number of competitors ask why we were all running our horses up and down in front of the barns, Ralph shouting instructions on the proper way to get your horse jogging next to you for inspection. I think he’s trying to groom the next generation of Rolex riders. I think sometimes he makes us do things for his own amusement. I think he was thrilled to have a whole team of ‘Ralph-ettes’ to supervise and mentor for the weekend.
Go Eventing! Hot Dang!