Jaelyn Taylor’s hat is too big.
He pushes his black cowboy hat up by the brim. It fits snugly, but the brim sticks out too far, the top arches too high on his just-turned-five-year-old head.
Jaelyn wears a blue and black plaid shirt tucked neatly into jeans held up by a thick-banded leather belt and an oversized silver buckle. He stands quietly, clutching the leather lead for his horse, Deja, in one hand. With his mouth quirking easily into a smile, he strikes the image of a three-foot-tall cowboy.
Today is exciting for Jaelyn. It’s the Wisconsin Appaloosa Horse Club Show, his first of the year. Jaelyn competed a little last year, but today is a big one.
How is it going so far? The two trophies he clutches in his hands answer it all.
He won the two halter classes he entered today, qualifying himself for a third class — a grand and reserve round — in which he will compete against the winners of the other halter events. These are adults. Jaelyn barely comes up beyond their knees without his hat on; with it, he reaches mid-thigh.
“Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a ribbon this time, okay?” says his mother, Sarah Pritzl. “Just do your best.”
Pritzl offers to take the lead from him. Her mother, Donna Birringer, stands behind her, echoing her words of encouragement. He’s too shy to talk to anyone except his mother and grandmother, but with them every other word is punctuated with a grin, a laugh. And when Jaelyn laughs, everyone around can’t help but laugh with him.
Today, these three are taking part in a love story that has been playing out for years — a love of horses, of competition, of family. For these three, horse shows are more than a weekend event. They’re a family affair.
“He was born into it,” Pritzl says. “We just threw him out there and he took to it. He’s a natural.”
This all started — the hats, the shows, the love of riding and finding a home in the saddle — years ago, with a gift from a mother to a daughter.
“I wanted to keep her out of trouble,” Birringer said of Pritzl. So to keep her out of trouble, Birringer gave her daughter a 3-year-old unbroken horse named Melody who Pritzl almost immediately fell in love with.
She began riding and then showing. Soon, competing with her horse was Pritzl’s favorite thing to do. So when she had Jaelyn, she was confident that this love would find a way into her son as well.
She was right. Jaelyn was born in May, and by winter of that year he was sitting atop his first horse, bundled up and shivering in the family’s barn. And he loved it.
He was riding several years later, barely fitting in the saddle as he was slowly led around on the horse. It didn’t take long before he wanted to compete too, curious of his mother as he watched her neatly lead horses from the bleachers of arenas around Wisconsin. And it didn’t take long for him to start winning, just like his mother.
The first time Jaelyn competed, his mother and grandmother felt a mix of excitement and fear. It was understandable — at four-years-old, he was even smaller than he is today, and could easily be stepped on during the show. But moments later, that fear turned into pure pride for the family. Jaelyn had won his first competition.
“It’s big, it’s a big feeling,” Birringer says. “It makes you swell up, and then all of a sudden it’s all coming out your eyes.”
That’s the thing about showing — everything can change in a moment.
Horse shows are an agonizing combination of length and brevity, day-long affairs which are decided by minutes. In a halter show, the competitor leads their horse out to the judge, then trots the horse to a set spot in the arena, where it must hold a position — head up, shoulders back, feet squared up to one another — while the judge paces and examines each animal.
In the end, it takes two or three minutes. A few pencil marks on a piece of paper later, and the scores are called and the winners are ushered off to accept ribbons and trophies. Two or three months of effort and preparation, culminated into two or three minutes of judging. If a horse is temperamental or a position held improperly, all that time is erased in a handful of seconds.
But if there’s one thing Jaelyn can count on, it’s that Deja will never let him down.
“He never gets nervous,” Birringer says, watching Jaelyn with Deja. “When he’s out there, he just smiles. And that horse, she loves him, she really does.”
He leans on the horse’s lead, sticking one foot in the air. He blows gently on her snout, laughing as she tosses her head. At times, Deja drops her head and wraps her neck around Jaelyn, dragging him close to her body as if she’s hugging him.
The two have been together for years. Deja was the first horse Jaelyn learned to ride on. Every day, Jaelyn runs outside to greet her. He clambers onto the fence, leaning over to pet her snout and feed her treats. He cleans her stable, brings her hay and keeps his horse groomed and well-fed.
The work isn’t a big deal to the boy. He’s not in this just to win trophies. He loves his horse. He loves riding his horse. All he wants is to take care of her, to have fun and to get better along the way.
There’s a future in this for Jaelyn, just as there is a rich past, a history of a family’s love for this sport and this lifestyle. His grandmother hopes he’ll get into bigger competitions, make a name for himself, to “go far” as she says. His mother simply hopes he’ll continue to be this happy, to stay out of trouble.
Jaelyn? He wants to notch up his speed.
“He likes to ride fast,” Pritzl remarks. “All he wants to do is ride fast. It’s kind of scary, you know, but whatever he decides… That’s what we’ll stand behind.”
In the end, Jaelyn loses the grand and reserve competition.
It wasn’t much surprise. Pritzl had joked with one of the competitors, a friend of hers who took first, that Jaelyn didn’t stand a chance. But the boy doesn’t seem to mind. He takes off his hat, revealing mussed hair, and hugs his mother. Together, they walk Deja outside, back towards their trailer.
As they step into the warm Sunday morning breeze, Jaelyn takes off, running through the grass. He glances behind him, flashing a grin at Pritzl, and she can’t help but laugh.
It doesn’t matter that he didn’t win. For Jaelyn, this is just the start.