In 2019, Canadian show jumper Sean Jobin was awarded the coveted “Wild Card” entry into the international division at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, ON. This is his story.
When the alarm clock goes off at 4:30 am it’s practically electric.
You’ve already laid out your show clothes next to the bed in anticipation from the night before, so the morning routine is surprisingly efficient. Before you know it, you’re in the car on the way to The Royal.
Toronto in November is usually quite cold, especially at that time in the morning, so the blast of heat and energy that hits you when you walk into the Horse Palace is a welcome feeling. Even more welcoming is Darius, wide awake and looking for treats already as his trusty sidekick does her best to groom him and keep him from nibbling on us at the same time. Darius is a fairly small horse, pushing 16.1 hands on his tallest days, but he’s a big personality.
If I’m being completely honest, he wasn’t my first choice for The Royal. Darius is a firecracker horse, he gets easily caught up in the freneticism and energy of jumping and can lose his focus on the course. In a small indoor stadium like the Coca-Cola Coliseum, the last thing you want is to lose focus for a second.
My other equine partner Banco has a much more laid-back attitude, perfect for this environment. But concerns about his lack of experience meant Darius was getting the shot instead. In 15 minutes, Darius is brushed and tacked up with his gear, and we are making the walk down the Palace ramp into the Coliseum for our 5:30 am warmup session.
The Coliseum is a different beast in the morning, completely devoid of spectators and the energy they bring. It’s surprisingly packed in the morning with other riders schooling their horses, and navigating between 50 odd horses in a cramped indoor ring is a challenge in of itself.
Darius is relaxed and lackadaisical as we work on some warm up routines—he knows as well as anyone this is not the big event. He’s comfortable and manageable in his work out, and the aim is to keep him that way. I like doing about 30 minutes in the morning with him. It’s a ritual at this point and I don’t like to disturb routine. We leave the arena around 6:30 am, throw a cooler on his back to keep him warm and go to finish up the morning chores.
Around the time Darius is eating his breakfast and you realize how hungry you are, it sets in that there’s still about 14 hours to kill until the 9:00 pm Grand Prix start time.
Killing that much time is easy at the Royal. But sooner or later the energy and emotions start to creep in. I’m back at the hotel at around 6:00 pm when the anticipation of the evening really starts to kick in. The show jacket is ready and hanging, the luckiest boot socks have been picked out, but nothing really signals a special event like putting on your white breeches and tie. It’s the catalyst jump starting the chemical reaction in your brain, finally a year’s worth of training and strategy is about to be tested in front of thousands of people.
After checking on Darius, the first task at the show is to head to the warm up ring and check out the start order and course. No matter what, the course always looks deceptively simple and innocuous on paper. I know the statistics show going later in a class gives you a distinct advantage, but it’s never really bothered me where I go in the order.
As the clock ticks closer to the start time, the warm up ring really starts to come alive with riders, trainers, owners, and spectators. The moment the doors open to the ring and the gate announces “clear to walk” is when it all hits a crescendo.
Walking into the Coliseum for the first time at night with a sellout crowd can only be described as surreal. The lights brighten the ring like a casino. The crowd is restless. The composite footing packs beneath your feet. You have to do your best to just compartmentalize all the hundred different feelings that are flooding your head as you make the walk to the first jump on course.
I like to walk the course twice—once to just get a feeling for what the course is like and the second time to plan out where I have options and where I need to execute perfectly. As the walk progresses, your focus tends to sharpen up and vision tunnels. By the time you are putting your helmet on and leaving the ring, there’s no more space for thinking about all the sights and feelings of the night. The only thing that matters is the plan for the ride.
Back at the stalls, I find Darius practically shining with a fully braided mane. I actually don’t like it when my guys have their manes braided, but everyone else on the team loves it and Darius seems pretty proud of his fancy style, so I don’t put up any fight. We leave the usual warmup ring and head into the secondary ring. The footing is less consistent there but it’s quieter and gives him a better chance to relax before his class.
Darius is beaming, his energy is palpable. We have his warm-up routine down to a science and rarely deviate from it—ten minutes on the flat, short walk break, then three verticals, flag change, one square oxer, two ramped oxers, a square 1.40m oxer, followed by a one and half minute walk break and flag change, end on a 1.55m vertical. Every fence he jumps I feel him focus in on the job more and more. By the time we are jumping our last vertical, we are unofficially sharing one mind.
A lot of people ask if I get nervous. I think being on deck at the ingate can be stifling, having all that energy and momentum behind you and you have to just sit there and wait your turn. But still, it’s not nervousness as much as it is impatience. It’s not the last ten minutes or hour or even day that has been pushing you to this moment. It’s years of work, training, research, testing, sacrifice, failure, injuries, and dreaming that’s all being put on hold while you wait your turn.
And the second that gate opens and you walk in the ring, it’s a relief. I was beaming on the inside the minute I walked into the ring.
The funny thing about having thousands of people be quiet in a small arena is the silence is deafening. All of the sudden there might as well not be a single soul in there. The sound of my partner’s hoofs striking the ground with each stride is thunderous, each breath he takes is piercing.
As we round our corner to the first jump on course, his ears spark forward and he tenses up. There is this split-second moment as you are about to take off that you feel your horse shift his weight back onto his haunches, the moment you know you are about to take flight. Everything that comes after this moment is dreamlike. You are weightless. Planning and training kick in. Decision making is mechanical.
When you finally break the timers and that deathly quiet crowd erupts, it’s just like the alarm clock that woke you up at 4:30 am.
I think Darius gained 20 pounds in treats every night at the Royal, we were all so proud of him. I know what the results were and I’m happy with how we finished, even if the competitive side of me always wants more. But putting the whole experience into words, I really just wanted to reflect the gratitude I felt. The mentors, teammates, sponsors, friends, family and, of course, horse who all make the dream happen, to them all I can’t even begin to pay back.
Sean Jobin (CAN) is an internationally recognized Grand Prix rider based in Ocala, Florida where he runs Double Clear LLC and rides for sponsors. Learn more about Sean at doubleclearllc.com.