My Year in the Show Ring

By John Killacky


Editor’s Note: Having danced with Chicago Moving Company, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, and Theatre of the Open Eye in New York, John R. Killacky has played several roles in the Bay Area dance community for over 10 years. He has previously written about overcoming paralysis and philanthropic trends for In Dance, and now shares another one of his passions.

My father sold cattle at the Chicago Stock Yards and, as a young boy, I often tagged along on with him on weekends to meet with farmers. Gay boys and their daddies often have complicated relationships, and we did. However, farm visits became a common safe ground. One rainy day in 1962 in Milledgeville, Illinois, a Shetland pony mare gave birth to Raindrop, a beautiful roan filly. I had never seen anything so miraculous. I was smitten.

For years afterward, I ran with Raindrop in the fields, groomed her in the barn, and rooted for her at county fairs. She became the best friend I never had and my escape from unpleasant realities. In the city, I earned animal husbandry Boy Scout badges, became a member of the American Shetland Pony Club, and devoured every page of its monthly journal.

In high school, however, life was taken up with other activities. Any connection to ponies became increasingly distant as college, my career as a professional dancer and arts administrator, and unending busyness prevailed. But throughout, I kept photos of Raindrop as iconic memories of unmitigated joy.

Two years ago, my pony love was reignited. Google’s search engine led me to Moss Landing, California where Pat and Mimi at Fog Ranch welcomed me into their classic Shetland world. After a few farm visits, and cheering them on at shows, I began learning how to harness and drive a pony in a cart with the very patient trainer Julie. Acquiring these new skills was not without its complications. Thirteen years ago I became paraplegic from complications from spinal surgery, losing much function in my legs.

I soon entered my first competition with Fog Ranch’s Candy, a big-boned mare measuring just under 46 inches. Beginner’s luck and a clever pony won us six blue ribbons in Pleasure Driving. I was hooked. Once more, Shetlands became instruments of salvation, this time allowing me to run and dance again in the world—exhilarating for this middle-aged balding guy who ambulates with a cane.

Training intensified for subsequent shows in Vacaville, Santa Rosa, and Aptos. Candy always knew what to do, whether in driving or obstacle classes, despite the fact I often give her wrong signals. Letting go of frustration to stay fully present and one with her in the ring is essential, but not always possible for this newbie.

Being a novice at mid-life is both gratifying and humbling. The ex-dancer in me loves diving into what Buddhists call “a state of unknowing.” Beginner’s mind is so open. Acquiring new skills rejuvenating. Laughter, rather than embarrassment, at failure and learning from mistakes catapulted improvement. Thrilled that I have done my best, whether I placed first or fifth, is freeing. My competitive self is now satisfied with a job well done.

The outfits are fun too. In Pleasure Driving, competitors wear formal outfits. After one class, as Candy and I were picking up our ribbons, a judge asked if I minded some advice. “Anything, I am here to learn,” I replied. “Next time, make sure you wear a fedora,” I was told with a smile.

Throughout, pony people have been inviting, gracious, and encouraging to this city interloper, and there is nothing better than pony breath and velvet nose nudges—apple wafer treats buy a lot of affection. My husband too has been a patient soccer mom, spending weekends at lessons, encouraging me on with “good job!” shouts, and occasionally mucking out stalls.

Last season’s show circuit concluded at the Santa Cruz County Fair in Watsonville where Candy and I won a first in Multi-color, second in Obstacle Driving, and two-thirds in Country Pleasure Driving. She is now out to pasture for a few months, being a pony, and my weekends are freer again—with only monthly lessons on other ponies to hone new skills sets.

This season, my newfound skills might be applied to more low-key cross-country jaunts rather than competition. Show precepts taught me a lot, but they ultimately changed my relationship to the ponies. I would rather love them than be their master. For the time being, I just look forward to field visits with Candy, apple treats in hand.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of In Dance.

John R. Killacky is the Program Officer for Arts and Culture at The San Francisco Foundation.