Touch n GO Farm

Whitesburg Georgia

Gigi and the Monkey PDF Print E-mail

by Gigi Nutter (with alittle help from her husband, Scott)

prose_105_1.jpgThe poet Ogden Nash once wrote, "The most exciting happiness is the happiness generated by forces beyond your control." The last few days leading up to the 2002 Alabama Horse Fair certainly left me feeling at the mercy of forces beyond my control. In the end my happiness was "most exciting."

I received a phone call from Rhonda Bowles in October of 2001. She asked if I would be interested in participating in the 2002 Alabama Horse Fair. These events are frequently the primary fundraiser for Horse Councils and I support such organizations efforts. Having worked many similar events over the years, I told her that I would be glad to help. As I hung up the phone I couldn't help but feel a twinge of apprehension since my vivid memories of the last two horse fairs were filled with Wendel's reactions to the Georgia fairgrounds.

Wendel is my 11-year-old, Hanoverian, gelding that started competing at Grand Prix last year. He is as sweet as they come but has issues with certain horse fair participants. Draft horses are near the top of the list. When a horse drawn wagon rumbles by, he spins in his stall a few times and then stares at them with wide-eyed panic. He seems to be sending them a frantic, telepathic message, "run faster guys! That box with wheels is right behind you!"

Then there are the gaited horses. It takes all kinds to make a world and, lord knows, a lot of people like Paso Finos, Walking Horses, Saddlebreds and Mangalarga Marchadors. Wendel just can't figure out what's wrong with their legs. The topline seems okay but lower half moves like nothing he's familiar with. Just the sound of one trotting sends him snorting since such a sound couldn't possibly be made by another horse.

His last horse fair demon is the flag. Nationality, organization, color or shape doesn't matter. Just the sight of a flag wafting in the breeze is cause for alarm. For Wendel, a horse fair is flag hell. Every drill team, mounted police regiment, Civil War reenactment club and Cub Scout troop has to "take up the colors." Their flags don't waft either. They flap and snap furiously, just like the cape of the Grim Reaper as he descends upon you!

prose_105_2.jpgI tried to shrug off these worries since I knew that, in the end, Wendel had come through each year with a good performance. Maybe he would do so again. Besides, the event was several months away. Not to worry.

Fast-forward three months to Tuesday, January 15th, 2002. I hadn't heard from the Alabama Horse Council folks in quite a while. When I took a look at the AHC web site I discovered a tentative schedule of events. My name was listed six times! I quickly called every contact listed for the AHC in an attempt to find out what they expected. In the past I had done one dressage demonstration each day. This looked to be far more.

The event producer, Janet Bryant, returned my call. She calmly explained that I had lessons, a lecture and a dressage demonstration scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. When I mentioned that this was more then I usually donate to a fair, she said, "Several of your students have signed up for lessons and we've had a great response to your listing in our advertisements. We simply tried to accommodate those who called." Flattered but less then enthused at the workload, I told Janet that I would accept the schedule. It was true. I have several wonderfully dedicated students in Montgomery and Birmingham. Those riders were the main reason I agreed to do the AHC Horse Fair in the first place. They drive to Whitesburg almost weekly. The least I could do was trailer over to their neck of the woods for a good cause.

"One more thing....," Janet offered just before she hung up. "We have you listed as one of the headliners in the Saturday Night Horse Spectacular. You can do some sort of dressage to music thing can't you? Five to ten minutes will be fine. We're running TV advertisements all over Alabama for this event. There should be a couple thousand people there."

After a long pause my heart started beating again. Then it tried to pump its way out of my chest. "I have done kurs in the past but I don't have anything put together for this horse. I wasn't going to do that until March. I don't know if I can do it." With each sentence my voice rose a bit more. Janet was undeterred. Besides, the advertisements were already out and I was listed on the show bill. The show would go on.....and I was in it.

Of course I had a clinic in Birmingham scheduled for the 19th and 20th. That left two days to get started, a weekend away from home and four more days when I got back. My husband Scott came home to a basket case that wanted some music NOW! Knowing how long choreography and editing can take, I really didn't think we could pull it off.

prose_105_3.jpgIn the end, it was my daughter who inspired the song selection. As the parent of a six-year-old, I get to see all of the latest children's movies. For the most part they tend to be overly silly or inane. One exception was the recent film Shrek. Scott and I enjoyed that movie every bit as much as Cassidy. I always thought it would be cute to do a kur to children's music as a sentimental favor to my daughter. Now it was Cassidy suggesting that we do a performance to "Shrek music." What a great idea.

Wednesday afternoon (the 16th) Scott spliced together a rough cut of six songs from Shrek and the Rugrats in Paris soundtrack. Thursday (the 17th) I attempted to ride to the choppy tape but couldn't make anything work. In desperation I dredged up my ten-year-old kurs and managed to put together a backup performance before Wendel was too tired to walk. I really didn't want to use the old kurs since they were designed for competition, not entertaining an audience. Friday (eight days to go) I spent the entire drive to Birmingham telling my husband that this was going to be a disaster. He bought me a bottle of Crown Royal and told me to relax.

Monday (five days and counting) we managed to trim the music down to four songs and Scott burned an audio CD for me to practice with. By now I wasn't sleeping and Wendel thought I had lost my mind. All he was able to comprehend was music is bad....very bad! Horses have that preservation instinct that allows them to sense tension and fear. Well, the rider on his back was positively vibrating with those emotions and he knew it. If the music problem and choreography weren't bad enough, the weather in Georgia shifted dramatically. Mother Nature had decided to make up for the three-year drought in the 72 hours I had remaining to put together a musical performance. I don't have a covered arena so for three days Scott sat there in the rain while Wendel and I splashed along to Aaron Carter, Smashmouth and the Baha Men.

By Thursday (48 hours to go) I had managed to design a routine that flowed but no two rides were exactly alike. Even as I found cues for transitions at home, I knew that the Garrett coliseum was a different size. Smaller...larger....I had no idea. The only way I would know when to make a transition, and improvise if necessary, would be to have the music memorized perfectly. Every waking moment was spent listening to the kur CD. My family, the dogs and cats were all sick of the music. Friday afternoon we loaded Wendel in the trailer and headed for Montgomery. Of course I tortured Scott and Cassidy with the music during the drive.

Entering the parking lot of the Montgomery Coliseum did nothing to allay my fears. The main building was huge and the rest of the venue was very spread out. Gaited horses, buggies and flags could be seen darting between the arenas and stables. I felt certain that Wendel would take one look and refuse to get out of the trailer.

If my sweet, but slightly cowardly, gelding left Whitesburg thinking he was going to a show, he realized his mistake as we walked to the stall. You could actually see him go into sensory overload as the commotion raged outside his 12 by 12 haven. Looking at my buddy I felt complete empathy. As his quivering lips took sugar cubes from my hand, I searched for an answer to the question, "Why am I putting us both through this?" The same, old answer returned, "Because dressage is my passion and I enjoy sharing it with people who love horses." It also dawned on me that these kind people might not see dressage this weekend. They might simply witness a Hanoverian bronco buck off a frazzled rider in a top hat.

prose_105_4.jpgRelying on the familiar, I tacked up Wendel and took him for a tour of the grounds. Just like our Friday horse show ritual. The outdoor arena had three, little Paso Finos skittering around in semi-controlled circles. My 16.3 hand warmblood full-passed away from each one that came by. He did eventually settle down and try to pay attention to my aids. After that encouraging warm up we walked about a half-mile to the coliseum. That was the longest half-mile of my life since everything scary to Wendel circulated around us. The passing Clydesdale team almost misseated me. When a drill team unfurled its banners, I could feel his heart beating through the saddle.

Fortunately, the coliseum was empty and we headed in to some welcome peace and quiet. Scott talked the announcer in to "checking the CD" and I got a chance to ride a few portions of the kur as other horses filed in. Wendel managed to keep his cool and I kept the workout light. One of my students, Liz Hunter, rode in on her Russian Warmblood. Wendel recognized a friend and relaxed just a bit as Liz and I walked and chatted.

The rehearsal for performers in the Horse Spectacular was scheduled for 7 pm. We were told that each act would get one run-through in the order listed in the program. The producer said everyone needed to be at the staging area at 6:45. I tacked up again and headed for the great unknown.

The staging area was a small parking lot with only one way in and out. I found a corner where Wendel could keep his back to a wall and watch the activity. He would break out in spontaneous piaffe as another wagon or flag went by. The order of go was a perfect nightmare. The Flying R Drill Team opened the rehearsal with a patriotic salute including, you guessed it, flags. Then Willard Powell came flying by riding Roman style (standing on two horses backs) with an American flag large enough to sit on top of a stadium. Wendel continued to piaffe and I chain-smoked.

Next in line was the tribute to the official horse of the State of Alabama. What could that be you ask? Why it's the Racking Horse! Wendel did a nice pirouette in piaffe as six motionless riders went by with legs and hooves flailing away beneath them. The reining act did not show up for rehearsal so they scheduled a stand-in. Since this was the act to precede me, I decided to talk with the cowboy about our performances. That's when I realized that I had forgotten my spurs. Looking back down "the longest mile" I saw the group that would follow my routine approaching the area. Honestly, it was the Draft Horses in Review! Knowing there was no way in Hades that I could get passed them, I frantically asked Scott to go get my spurs. He scowled, stole a golf cart and sped away growling something about *#@$ horses.

When I finally got my spurs on, I had a chance to peek inside the coliseum as the Reiner entered. His music was cued, the lights went down and spotlights hit the cowboy and his Quarter Horse squarely in the face. That resulted in an immediate, un-commanded spin. Once the rider regained control he managed to go through a few reining patterns without any more outbursts. "I sure am glad I don't have to go in there tomorrow night," chuckled the stand-in as he left the arena.

prose_105_5.jpgWith help from above, I coaxed Wendel into the entrance gate and waited for my music to start. The slow melody began and the spotlights hit the two of us. Much to my surprise, Wendel kept cantering. It was impossible not to feel his fear but as we went through our routine, he listened to my aids through his emotions. Seven minutes later the music ended and I was still mounted. Victory! I let out a long sigh of relief, slid off of Wendel and fed him treats all the way back to the barn. Maybe I would survive after all.

Saturday (the big day) morning I found a very tired but anxious horse in his stall. It was obvious from the bedding that Wendel didn't lie down all night. No sooner had I set my coffee down than a team of Clydesdales came clopping by. As they passed I could see the chest buckles on Wendel's blanket shaking. That started my anxiety engine and I knew it would be a long twelve hours to show time. Thankfully, I had four lessons to teach, a lecture to give and a demonstration. Maybe staying busy would keep my mind occupied.

Scott walked Wendel around a grassy area while I went about my scheduled tasks. As the day wore on I started to see a slight change in Wendel's attitude. When the buggies rolled by or a flag flapped, he didn't spin in his stall anymore. He was still nervous but his eyes would follow the scary thing until it faded from sight. He had begun to adapt to his surroundings and started to realize that he just might live through this. We were slated to give a dressage demonstration at 4:30. While I always try to do a professional job at these demos, my ulterior motive was clear. I wanted Wendel to see the coliseum one more time.

The horse fair had been pretty straightforward up to this point. I, like most instructors, can teach lessons without much preparation and the talk about dressage was directed at beginners. So the morning was easy enough. The mounted, instructional dressage demonstration had me more concerned. Nothing about taking Wendel back into the coliseum would be routine, especially in this environment. I headed straight for the one-and-only warm up ring to let him loosen up. Thankfully, it was empty and we entered through the small end gate. As we reached the far side of the ring I looked back towards the entrance to see the PASOtively Gaited Paso Fino Drill Team marching in! Trying to work Wendel in the same warm-up as the little horses with Speedy Gonzales feet was a joke. As the old adage recommends, I couldn't lead or follow, so I got out of the way.

Despite a few sound system glitches, the demonstration went well. It took twenty minutes to get Wendel to relax, but he eventually loosed up enough to show the crowd all of the Grand Prix movements. As people left the arena, a few hollered a good natured "see you tonight!" Through a tired smile I responded, "I hope I live through it!" Collapsing in a chair back at the stables, I thought it interesting how nothing calms the nerves like exhaustion. I was pooped. From the look in his eye, so was Wendel.

After a fast food burger for dinner, I put my show clothes on and sweet talked Wendel as I fed him sugar. While I tacked him up I recalled how crazy the last ten days had been. Ever since that fateful phone call I had worried, slept lousy, been short tempered and stressed out. Not due to fear of going in a stadium full of people, but because I wanted to do a good job and wasn't sure I could. I genuinely enjoy showing the horse loving public the wonders of dressage. My concern was that with so little preparation, I would let everyone down. I didn't want to disappoint my family, friends or myself.

prose_105_6.jpgThe sound of a crowd gathering was easily heard as Wendel and I walked towards the staging area. From a distance I could see that all of the acts were in full costume. Girls wearing red, white and blue sequined shirts and horses in colorful, ornate tack. One decorated draft horse wagon even had Christmas lights flashing all over it! At 7:00 pm sharp the voice of Wayne Williams, the announcer, came booming out of the doorway. My horse was still nervous but there was a noticeable difference. Wendel didn't dance and jig around as much as before. Actually, he seemed more alert than scared. When the drill team went in followed by the Roman rider with the flag, he watched but did not react wildly.-- The Racking horses started their routine and I mounted up. Adrenalin began to flow and I realized that the show was progressing much faster than rehearsal. Wendel seemed to sense the electricity in the air. I think he knew our time was near.

Up to this point, the show had a strong patriotic theme. As the Reiner went in, I heard Amazing Grace begin to play. Wendel and I inched a little closer to watch. The scheduled Reiner, Doug Millholland, had opted not to use the spotlights. Obviously, he was smarter than I was. His routine was beautiful and he exited the arena to loud applause. The cowboy at the entrance gate found Wendel and I, "Your up. Good luck."

Mr. Williams read my short introduction, the arena lights faded and three spotlights hit the center of the arena. As my music started, the spotlights found Wendel and I at the coliseum entrance. We walked into the ring and I heard someone yell "Gigi!" That friendly holler broke the tension and I felt welcome. The symphonic music began a dramatic build and I picked up a canter on a large circle. When Wendel and I reached the center of the arena a loud record scratch ripped from the speakers....then my voice, "Jeeze Wendel, this music is boring. It's Saturday night and we need to party!" Immediately the thumping start of "Life is a Party" came through the sound system and Wendel started to piaffe.

The crowd went nuts. When the applause exploded I didn't know what Wendel would do. To my amazement, he just funneled that energy into expressive movements. His passage had more suspension, he pushed hard in the lengthening and his piaffe was wonderful. Only once did he look out the end gate. The performance continued and the audience clapped at every change of music. When they saw a movement for the first time, I could hear cheers and shouts. About two minutes in to the routine I realized that if we made a mistake now, no one would mind. The suppressed actress in me began to emerge as I smiled at the crowd and bobbed my head with the music. I wanted everyone to know we were dancing!

The performance ends with the Eddie Murphy version of "I'm a believer." I can't help but picture that donkey in Shrek singing and dancing when I hear that song. As Eddie shouted "I believe, I believe, I believe..." I put down the longest set of one-tempis the arena would allow. Turning the corner for the finish down centerline, he keeps singing "I believe, I believe, I believe..." and Wendel gave me the biggest, uphill one-time-changes ever. The building shook with applause and I realized that Scott, Cassidy and I had pulled it off. We had achieved all we set out to do. That Saturday night we showed everyone in attendance that dressage does not have to be boring!

Full of excitement, no feet or hooves touched the pavement as we walked back to the barn. As soon as I got Wendel in his stall, friends started running up with outstretched arms. Between hugs I kept repeating, "I can't believe it went so well!" My students were as thrilled as I was. For a few who do not compete, this was the first time they had seen me ride. When I finally sat down, a sense of elation swept over me. The thrown-together routine flowed better than I ever hoped and Wendel was a solid partner. After giving him enough sugar to cause diabetes, I told him all his past sins were forgiven.

prose_105_7.jpgThe Paso Finos followed my act and the draft horses were after them. The last performance before intermission was Whiplash, the Cowboy Monkey. For those unfamiliar, Whiplash is Tommy Lucia's small monkey who rides on the back of a Boarder Collie. He certainly looks the part dressed in a cowboy hat, shirt, vest and chaps with the Justin logo on them. The act starts when six goats are released in the arena. Tommy then gives the collie various herding commands. Every time the dog darts in response to the command, Whiplash hangs on for dear life. It doesn't take long to realize that the monkey is aptly named. The crowd loves it.

Scott and I made it back to the coliseum in time for the second half of the show. As we found a seat, people offered congratulations and kind words if they recognized me. Willard Powell gave a super exhibition of Roman riding dressed as the Lone Indian Chief. Watching him jump three ponies through a ring of fire as he road them standing on their backs was amazing. The trick riders gave a good performance and Tommy Lucia returned to close the show. He does a comedy routine with the most sway-backed horse I have ever seen. The finale is a touching commentary on human nature. Tommy explains that even though his horse "Glory" was born with a handicap, he also possessed great intelligence. As a tribute those who have been judged on appearance instead of character, he stands Glory on his hind legs and they walk out of the arena together with the audience cheering through tears.

The night ended with a visit with my daughter before she headed off for a sleepover with friends. When I asked her what she thought of the show, her immediate comment was, "Mommy, did you see the monkey?" When I told her I missed Whiplash, she gave me a blow-by-blow rundown of the act. After she finished, I asked Cassidy if she saw her mother in the show. In typical, barn brat fashion she said, "yes Mommy, I saw you and Wendel. At least he didn't spook!" She was thoroughly unimpressed.

Sunday's workload was a bit lighter; two lessons, a short talk and a dressage demonstration. After his performance, Wendel earned a day off so I had a student do the demonstration riding while I provided commentary. Throughout the day people came up and introduced themselves so they could tell me how much they enjoyed our musical act. It did my heart good to know Wendel and I had made so many people happy. How can anyone hold back a smile when a cowboy in a wide-brimmed hat and big belt buckle tells you in a thick Alabama drawl, "that dancin' you did with your horse was reeeal purdy." Dressage can be a rough sport to compete in. Even your best efforts are critiqued down the finest detail. It was nice to hear hard work complemented for a change.

Judging by the comments I received Sunday, the Horse Spectacular was a hit. The production company that video taped the show had an unedited tape running at their vendor booth. The footage was good and they kept playing the film on a loop so passers by could enjoy the different prose_105_8.jpgacts. I stopped by and watched my ride for the first time. I could tell that Wendel and I were tired but overall, it was a good routine. The person at the booth said that she got several requests to see the "Shrek ride" and, of course, Whiplash, the Cowboy Monkey!

The smile never left my face on the drive way home. Once we unpacked I collapsed in bed and slept soundly for the first time in ten days. A student of mine recorded the performance while sitting with other riders who train with me. The sound of their hopeful cheers and enthusiastic applause warms my heart every time I watch the tape. In the days since the Alabama Horse Fair Scott has talked with several people who watched the Saturday Night Horse Spectacular. When I asked him what they had to say about the show, he said everyone makes the same comment, "I'll always remember Gigi and the monkey!"

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