An Exhibitor's Perspective From the Arizona Sun Circuit

AQHA amateur Elizabeth Borders Combs shares photos and updates from the 2016 Arizona Sun Circuit.

For The American Quarter Horse Journal

It had almost been a year of looking for a new horse and still, nothing. With two days left at the NSBA World Show last August, AQHA Professional Horseman Kelly McDowall sent me a photo message of a sweaty horse standing sleepily in the aisle with the words “FOUND IT.”

A few phone calls and one plane ticket later, I arrived in Tulsa to meet this little roan gem. And Kelly was right, he was the one.

"Mr Chips," as my hubby and I lovingly call him, is now a 4-year-old. VS Costar is by Blazing Hot and out of Vital Signs Are Good by Zippos Mr Good Bar.

Originally, he was to be Joe Moran’s (Mr. Chips' breeder and owner at the time) all-around prospect, but as Joe’s focus began to hone in on a reining career, "Chip" was in need of a new owner. I am beyond thankful for everyone at High Point Performance Horses and all of their support, especially a very enthusiastic Mr. Moran, who was so pleased to entrust his horse to us.

Over the past few months, I’ve had opportunities to grow in my understanding of both the demand and patience it takes to progress a young horse. Literally, you have to forcefully set all expectations aside, acknowledge their level of unpredictability and celebrate each tiny success as a GREAT DAY.

It’s quite humbling not having all the answers. Each time I’m out at the barn, I’m amazed at all the groundwork that Kelly has covered with Chip. Meanwhile, as I’m riding, I’m usually being debriefed on how to mimic the tools that Kelly is quickly developing with him.

Chip is one smart cookie, with the laid-back personality of his dam, Vital Signs Are Good, whom most people in the industry know as "Lucy." So we always try to teach him how to do it right the first time, because that’s exactly what he’ll do from there on out.

And so begins a new year with our roan who was never expected to be all that tall, but is already marking more than 16 hands.

We’re kicking off the year at the Arizona Sun Circuit hoping to make a horsemanship debut and to continue progressing in the trail as well.

The only guarantee I have is that each day will be different. I’ve never had the challenge of showing a young one, so I’m anxious to learn and grow in a new season. No matter what happens, I have the great privilege of riding horses alongside some of my favorite people for an entire week to kick off a new year.

Here’s to wishing everyone good luck & great joy this week.

January 14

I arrived at Sun Circuit to a snoozing Chip, laid flat out and snoring like a freight train. You'd think he had an exhausting first day, but it turns out, he was full of energy. I was excited to ride my mellow fellow, but he had other plans that involved being a bit of a wild man. I was thankful for the rain delay, as it took him not one, but two days to relinquish his energy and return to his laid-back self.

I was hesitant to kick off the show with horsemanship after he decided to act like a big baby when he first arrived, but in just enough time, he was ready to rock. Mr. Chips has already been subjected to gallops, roll backs, lead changes and turns galore via his very first two horsemanship patterns.

And how did he respond? Like an absolute trouper!

I never expected him to champion maneuvers in the way he's already beginning to, fresh out of the gate. Immediately after the pattern, he walked out of the arena and sighed heavily, as if he’d just set a new Olympic record.

His trail progress is pretty entertaining, too. His first day in the junior, as he was trotting up to the gate, for a split second, he thought he should trot through the gate standards, instead of stopping next to them. But alas, Kelly guided him through those awkward little moments. For some reason, trots and lopes are easy as can be for him, but in the slow pieces, he wants to multitask by looking around constantly. And as he’s catching glimpses of his environment, he completely loses track of where his feet are, which is not the scenario you want when you’re surrounded by trail poles.

Piece by piece, it’s coming together.

We're all beside ourselves, especially after Chip's first two warm-up days before the show started. The only thing I’m holding my breath over still is whether or not Houdini Chip will appear. While still at Highpoint, he escaped at the NSBA World and was found in the parking lot one morning. Fast forward to a few weeks later at the Denver Futurity - Chip was once again, discovered at dawn, standing in the parking lot, watching the trains go by. So far, he has not escaped in the night here in Arizona, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

January 19

During some of our horsemanship placings this week, the Level 2 exhibitors exited immediately after their placings, leaving just a handful of Level 3 exhibitors in the arena to wait for the remainder of the placings. Lauren Love and I were contemplating slipping out, since everyone was headed to the barn after our class, but then I registered how coveted a judge’s placings were for Chip and I. Turns out, seventh place has never felt so good.

I’ve never put words to it, but it’s worth admitting that there are some new pressures to deal with after acquiring a world championship. Expectations exist that weren’t there even just a few months ago - whether or not they’re forefront in one’s mind, they’re affecting. I battled these pressures quite often as I began my amateur career, and the ever-increasing expectations caused me to take a much-needed break from showing and simply get back to my fundamental joy of horses. And now, I’ve realized that there’s a specific beauty to uncharted territory. I’m convinced there’s no better way to offset those pressures than with a green horse. I’ve needed that change of pace.

My support crew has been such a joy to share this week’s new accomplishments with. One of my dear friends introduced me this week as a “multiple world champion.” It’s quite silly to me, because the person usually identifying me with such a title is due that same recognition. It takes a village to make a champion. This isn’t just a solo thing, and our trainers, families and (practically family) friends are what make great opportunities not just possible, but attainable.

No matter what horse I’m working with, I’m guaranteed to hit a wall here or there. A few times throughout the Sun Circuit, I interpreted Chip’s actions as misbehavior when it was actually just confusion and miscoordination. Thankfully, it’s not up to me to figure it out all on my own. With Kelly’s expert instruction and the encouragement of my sweet friends and family, my patience was realigned and I gained a greater understanding of Mr. Chips.

And so here I am, in familiar territories with unfamiliar circumstances. Between showing a horse that belonged to my mom last year and showing my 4-year-old this year, the stakes are constantly shifting - I hardly ever know what to expect. With a little bit of persistence, and a whole lot of love, things are paying off in great ways. Success has a number of definitions, friends. Stay encouraged in whatever season you’re at, chase after your goals, and love those horses.

Check out the slideshow above for more photos from the Arizona Sun Circuit.