Hampton Dreams of A California Horsegirl

Written By: Renee  Vaughn

“This is a backyard pony show compared to the Hampton Classic.” Katie said to me as we rode into the warm-up arena at the Santa Barbara County Fairgrounds for the 1981 P.C.H.A. Equitation Championships. My hairpins were already giving me a headache under my helmet and I had unknowingly gotten a big green smear on the back of my blue hunt coat when I let my horse, Thomas, nuzzle me. Katie glowed spotless and golden on her pure white pony. Everything about her said “Champion”. She’d spent that summer on the East Coast training with the demi-gods of equestriana while I had spent my days sitting on a tack trunk reading books as Thomas ate his hay.

In 1981, the only thing greater to a California horse girl than a rider from the East Coast was one from Great Britain. The Hampton Classic held mythic overtones to us Podunk horse-folk of the west coast. So much so that I’d always thought it was an English event held at the Hampton Court Castle. Just the idea of endless green fields upon which to ride, let alone proximity to romantic gallops on the beach, was enough to make our mouths drop in envious awe as we plodded around in our dusty arenas and grazed our horses on drought brown grass.

In spite of what Katie said, I was nervous and overwhelmed by the quality of horses, the size of the fairground, the smell of wealth and excellence and the composure of the riders against whom I was to compete. If this was a dumpy show compared to the Hampton Classic then surely the Classic must be as grand as the Olympics themselves! I decided then and there that I would one day ride at the Hampton Classic. I lost myself in glorious dreams right up until the moment when Thomas spooked at the crowds in the stands. I spent the next few minutes flying around the arena trying to get him back under control and the rest of the class sitting in the middle of the ring, excused from the class.

Katie won.

Fast forward through the years: Renee and Thomas growing older but never advancing further than the three-foot division; whiz and there’s Renee going to college and Thomas giving lessons to other young girls. Click, a moment in time. Renee returns to a grey-faced Thomas bringing a hot red four year old Thoroughbred mare named Zephyr to keep him company. Mare and girl struggle through foot problems, money problems, and depression. Massage school, therapy, failed businesses, a cross-country trip and finally Renee and Zephyr land on a hundred green acres in the Hudson Valley.

Though the sky is nowhere near as big as the California horizon and the ocean is on the wrong side of the sunset, it’ll do.

Life has a way of filling-in the space between childhood dreams and adult fantasies with stuff. Things come between us and what we set out to be when we first catch a whiff of the glory we’d be willing to pursue. For me it was a farm with cows, sheep, pigs, poultry, hay and a place where I and my seven horses could just be happy. No rings, bits, yelling trainers, expectations or painful hairpins. I could be covered in sloppy green horse kisses and ride bareback in cutoffs. I was free.

But Katie’s words had a way of sneaking back into my consciousness and making me heart sore whenever I went to watch a friend ride at a local horse show. I’d hear people at H.I.T.S. Saugerties casually mention that they were off to the Hampton Classic the following week. I’d see pictures of the demi-gods and their glorious mounts jumping rainbow fences on grass as green as Emerald City. Everything there looked… right. And everything at home looked wrong.

Injured knees, money, marital issues, old fencing, broken equipment, livestock, hay season… always there was something that made it impossible for me to get back to training my horses as I’d always hoped I would. Stuff didn’t just get in the way- it buried me. “Welcome to your forties.” My older friends would say when I’d complained about life. “Just accept things as they are.”

Hampton dreams and all they represented faded into black. I stopped going to horseshows; cancelled my riding magazine subscriptions and pretended there was nothing more in this life I wanted but the happiness a horse on grass gives a horse owner.

For my 48th birthday I was given a blessed day away from the farm. It had been nineteen years since I’d moved from Berkeley, California and I’d not been to the beach once. So we packed the car and headed for the Atlantic and Ponquogue Beach on the Island. I was not impressed by the Atlantic and found the beaches tame compared to my home state’s rocky, cold and dangerous isolated shores. Houses pushed the edges of the sand and roads were full of cars. Boats buzzed on the horizon and seagulls looked worn out. But it was the ocean and that was more than enough.

It was warm.

It was soft.

It was caressing.

It was like a mother’s hand on a feverish night.

Walking into the waves was like waking from a nightmare.

I sat, reborn, on the tightly packed sand and watched the waves nibble away at a child’s sand castle. Undaunted, the little girl who was building it kept packing her plastic bucket full of sand and dumping it on top of the crumbling mound. She pushed her hair back and licked the salt off her lips before standing back and looking at her masterpiece. Satisfied by her work, I watched her run to her father and take his hand as they walked up the coast. The ocean washed their footprints away behind them. I stayed until the sand castle melted back into the sand.

When I was a girl, the sunset told us when it was time to flee the tides. But here on the Island, the sunrise moves the day along. I realized that I had perhaps been living my dreams backwards: seeing their ending without comprehending how they began. I’d never visualized my getting to the Hampton Classic–only imagined my victory lap. But of what else would a child dream but where they were headed? What does a child know of the journey, the hardships and obstacles, the pain and sorrows that make the dream real?

How does a middle-aged woman with bad knees, untrained horses, no money, no time and only forgotten skills to ride by dream?

The Atlantic whispered in my ears as stars rose on the Eastern sky. One by one, eternally, the waves washed up the beach and receded back. Incoming sea met outgoing tide with a kiss or a struggle forcing waves to foam and rise before crashing against sand and smoothing into a mirror of black sky. This ocean, so gentle and loving, had ripped this coast raw just the year before and yet, it had been rebuilt. It would be pounded down again one day in the future. And again, it would be rebuilt.

The waves crashed and hissed tickling my feet as they sunk further into the wet sand. “This is what it is like to grow old.” I thought as I pushed back my hair and tasted the salt on my lips. “This is what it is to dream a dream that will come true.”

The next day, I went down to my ramshackle farm and my shabby ponies and considered my failures and successes. My knees creaked and my back was sore from the long car ride home. The cows had broken through the fence that morning, as they always do when a farmer takes a vacation, and the pile of bills still sat on the desk unpaid. Nothing had changed while I was away. It was tempting to think it had all been a dream until a southerly wind picked up and played with the leaves of my woods. They hissed and rustled like the ocean playing with pebbles.

Smiling, I led my Connemara stallion, Ripleigh, to the mounting block and swung my leg over his bare back. His ears perked happily as we walked through the unmown field where the brown grass rippled in the wind like waves over the Atlantic.

“My Hampton Classic dreams may have crashed and burned, but” I told Ripleigh as we picked up a trot. “We will rebuild!”