It's nine o'clock on the day before the last day of Diane Wilson’s horse-showing career. Outside her window, the pointy hills of Escondido are wet from the rain. Inside, it’s warm because she has just slid her lucky cake into the oven. A rider from Diane’s barn won a ribbon after eating a piece of this cake last year, and it’s chocolate with chocolate frosting — lucky no matter what.
In four hours, Diane will pack the lucky cake, a slow-roasted brisket, her black Stetson, suede chaps, and the silver buckle she won last year on a horse named Lovey and drive 90 miles to Pomona. At the muddy, freezing Pomona Fairplex, where 325 Arabian horses lean their heads over stall doors or stand at the wash racks or canter on the end of longe lines, she’ll have a lesson on her horse. Then she’ll help her trainer, Darlene Hopkins, who is also her best friend, prepare for a bad night and four tense days competing against national champions at the Whittier Host Lions Club Fortieth Annual Purebred Arabian Horse Show. They’ll share a not-bad room at the Red Roof Inn to save money. After dinner at a greasy spoon, Darlene will turn off the lights and go to bed, and Diane will read magazines — not a book, she couldn’t concentrate on a book — in the bathroom.
Rain clouds float over the Red Roof Inn, dark arenas, hissing freeways, the white peak of Mount Baldy. At 4:00 a.m., it’s time to get dressed, to feed, brush, saddle, and walk horses, to buy a Sausage McMuffin Darlene won’t eat for four hours, to apply, before a cracked mirror in a steel-walled room at the Fairplex, the hair goo, bobby pins, hair nets, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. Stetsons, black chaps, spurs. Prize silver buckles the size of saucers to show they’re not greenhorns. Then coats because it’s ice-cold freezing in, of all places, Los Angeles.
By 7:30, the sky is blue between shifting clouds. Palm trees shiver below Mount Baldy. Horses are everywhere: horse hooves, hoofprints, horse tails, horse dung, the great smooth bottoms of horses and their regal, bobbing heads. The practice arena is full of horses trotting in $3000 tooled-leather saddles. The tooled leather is tipped with silver. The silver is engraved. The engraved silver is tipped with brass flowers. In each flower rests a gem. Bridles and bits — silver chased and silver tipped — glint in the cold, dark shade of the arena although the program specifically warns that the trail horse will be judged on “performance, way of going, manners, appointments, and neatness (silver not to count).” The breath of the horses is steam. Men in ballcaps and women in chaps ride them stiff-lipped and unsmiling around and around.
Diane carries halters and coffee and bridles and chaps. She looks like someone waiting to hear if her family has survived a plane crash. She looks as if she expects they have not. She’s 43 and she’s ridden in shows off and on since she was 13 years old. She hates this and she loves it. She hates it.
Then it’s time, at last, to put her foot in the stirrup and sit down on Sami’s back, to feel, in that motion, the restoration of the world. The announcer will call 372, the number of the horse she’s been training for eight long years, and at Diane’s cue Sami will step forward into the known and the unknown, over striped poles and around barrels, first trotting, then walking, then loping through the artificial, maddening, gorgeous, life-preserving, life-threatening world of horse shows.
Diane Wilson grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, the daughter of a veterinarian. When she spotted her first pony at the county fair, she approached it ecstatically from behind. The horse kicked her.
“I just consider that ‘welcome to the world of horses,’ ” she says, “because I was still in love with them from that time.”
On family trips, Diane would roll down the window and neigh at the horses they passed, certain they understood her. In second and third grades, when other girls were playing hopscotch and jacks and double Dutch, Diane would coax a friend to hold one end of a jump rope while Diane, holding the other end of the rope in her teeth, would trot, canter, neigh, and gallop.
For years she asked for horses and got horse figurines: 79 of them, which she keeps in a lovely old Victorian bookcase fronted with sliding glass doors. The horse books are there too — My Friend Flicka and Misty of Chincoteague and Black Beauty and Charlotte and the White Horse, the book that started it all for Diane when she was six. They tell the story of all good horse books, a version of “Beauty and the Beast” where the beast doesn’t have to turn into a prince; he’s a prince just the way he is.
When she was 10 or 11, Diane’s parents got her riding lessons. “My mom would drive me out to the country every Saturday morning, and I would spend an hour in heaven. I lived for that hour.”
She cut a lock of horse hair and attached it to her bulletin board so she could smell it. When her parents asked her, in sixth grade, how she wanted her room in their new house, Diane said, “I want a half-door looking into my room, and I want the stall built right there.” She couldn’t understand why they laughed.
She began to take lessons from Lee and Florence Caldwell, well-known Arabian trainers who had just moved to Illinois, and these trainers, whose own kids were in college, more or less adopted Diane. Instead of just riding once a week, Diane could hang out and watch the whole operation. With the Caldwells, she rode in her first show (“I have real dorky pictures of that”), and her father at last bought her a $700 gelding named Chalet Valley Zantai.