Niles: The payoff is worth it

Jacque Niles

Forty-three riders, 25 volunteers, a dozen horses, 42 golds, 30 silvers, 34 bronzes, eight fourths and four fifths.

Those are the countable, measurable, tangible numbers from SPURS Therapeutic Riding Center’s two-day stay at the recent State Equestrian Special Olympics competition in Huron.

And because this is sports in America, those things matter.

Until they don’t.

Because the real takeaway from those two days in Huron last week is the smiles.

Look, those two days are hard days, and I don’t mean for the horses and the volunteers, though that’s also true. Those are hard days for the athletes, because for 10 weeks, they have worked and practiced and memorized and overcome — perhaps more than you and I can even fathom. Hours of preparation have gone into a few moments in the ring.

It’s hard, gut-wrenching work. It’s routinely hot in mid-July (the temperature reached well into the 90s July 15, with heat indexes touching 110 or better). The arena is only as clean as a dirt floor will allow. The helmets are sticky, and sometimes hair gets in the way. Nerves are on edge, and some woke in the early morning hours, either to travel or from excitement or nervousness. The horses are being asked to do a familiar job in an unfamiliar place, and that can be hard, too. And the volunteer on the end of the lead line may be someone they’ve never seen before, and athletes are being asked to trust a stranger with their safety. There are numbers, and safety pins and a whole lot of hurry-up-and-wait.

It takes a lot of guts and grit for athletes to enter that show ring, with dozens of people watching, and remember everything they ever knew about riding and posture and patterns and smiling.

And let’s be honest here. Those days aren’t exactly the height of comfort for the volunteers, either. I still bear the bruises of a hurried tack change, and my feet are still recovering from my absent-minded decision to wear the wrong boots. And did I mention it was hot? The only breeze of the day was found in that strange space in doorways, where you’re neither in nor out, just profoundly in the way.

But the payoff, the smile that takes over an athlete’s face when they know they nailed it, that makes every hot, sticky, sweaty, grimy minute of one of my favorite days of the entire year more than worth it.

Athletes and volunteers from SPURS Therapeutic Riding Center gather just after opening ceremonies at the recent South Dakota State Equestrian Special Olympics competition at the state fairgrounds in Huron. Courtesy photo by Ken Bryan