As I look at my two first-place metal plaques from the 1992 Hampton Classic Horse Show, I think longingly about my riding and competing days. The medals have the familiar gold Hampton Classic logo in the middle on a red background, blue border, and the words “The Hampton Classic” on the top and “1st Place 1992” on the bottom. They’re designed to be put on a tack trunk, but I keep mine in a position of honor on my Welsh dresser next to my blue and white china plates.
They are good riding memories. But never again will I go flying over three-foot jumps by the seat of my pants, balanced in a two-point jumping position on Gratis, my chestnut horse with white socks. A Hanoverian, a special warmblood breed, he had an “H” imprinted on his backside. He was a Mercedes of a horse and taught me all I knew. He would prick up his ears and question me, “This jump, or that one?” I could do a sitting trot on him with no stirrups and feel like I was sitting on a comfortable sofa. He’s dead now and buried in the field at Swan Creek Farm in Bridgehampton where I rode with Patsy and Alvin Topping. I planted a rhododendron bush to mark his grave to honor him. My friend painted his portrait from a photo, and it is a very faithful likeness. It reminds me how much I loved that horse.
When I stopped competing, Gratis and I would go on trail rides through Bridgehampton, admiring the scenery and taking in the fresh air. I called it the hoof-and-garden tour. We enjoyed our time together, and he loved to be out and about.
Now I am too old for jumping over fences, cantering down the lines — inside, outside, inside, outside, maintaining an even hunter pace, counting the strides to the next fence and making sure I’m on the correct lead after a jump.
I rode and competed all over Long Island and even in Saratoga and Old Salem. In 1992, I was champion in the Adult Amateur Hunter division at the Hampton Classic on Local Day. I wore tight beige stretch britches, a navy and pinstripe English riding jacket, blue and white striped shirt with my initials on the front of the round collar, and high, black, polished boots with spurs. And of course the black velvet hard hat with the chinstrap required of all riders. My hair was in a neat knot at the base of my skull, and a blond hairnet kept it all in place.
I remember that morning well. The fear, the risk, and the possible victory were palpable. I had a queasy stomach before the first jump class. I wondered if all my training and preparation would pay off.
I rode in two over fence classes and after winning first place in both, we got a second-place red ribbon in the flat class, consisting of walk, trot, and canter. Before being pinned the riders had to line up with our backs facing the judge so he could see the numbers on our backs. After I was proclaimed champion, Gratis and I trotted over to the judge, who sat in a high chair on the sidelines, to thank him. With tears streaming down my face, I left the ring triumphantly with my championship ribbon blowing in the breeze.
Today I miss the smells of the stable — the fresh hay, the manure, and the heat generated by the horses in winter when they grow in their fluffy cold-weather coats. I still go to the barn in the spring to collect horse manure to fertilize my raspberry plants, and as I walk past the horses in their stalls, giving carrots all around, I remember my horse Gratis and my glory days of riding in competition.
I still have my championship ribbons, my two first-place metal badges, and my photos and video. And my memories. No one can take them away from me. I plan to show my grandkids the video of my winning trips. It will be a chance to relive my glory days that will never happen again.
Thank you, Gratis, for making me a Hampton Classic winner.
Joanne Pateman, a former advertising art director who lives in Southampton, has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Southampton College. She contributes regularly to The Star.