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At Coast Winter Classic, riders balance real life, show life

On a Sunday at the Harrison County Fairgrounds, Mary Haley Hamm walked her black and white-splotched horse, nicknamed Oreo, to a wash rack to hose and clean his legs.

Hamm and the flashy, 8-year-old horse had just won their 1.15 meter jumpers class.

She put some ice boots on Oreo and the horse's eyes drifted closed.

"He's a big napper," she said affectionately. "He sleeps a lot."

For all the glory the professional Grand Prix riders get at the Winter Classic, the show is full of people like Hamm: Amateur riders who have jobs and families, who live outside the show scene but somehow finagle the financing and time management to compete at a six-week-long show.

Neither Hamm, 32, of Memphis, nor Oreo were destined to be show jumpers. Hamm had competed as a show hunter -- a similar category that also involves jumping -- since she started riding more than 20 years ago. She bought Oreo "accidentally" as what she called "an average hunter."

"I didn't need a second horse. I didn't want a second horse. I jokingly said one day that I wanted a Pinto. The next day, my trainer said 'I found you a Pinto,'" Hamm said. "And, darn it, I liked him."

And the switch to jumpers?

"I stumbled into jumpers as much as I stumbled into him," Hamm said. "We've been training together. It's been fun."

Hamm is an economist, with a side photography business. She said she was lucky to have a schedule that allowed her to be on the Coast for six weeks, as well as attend other shows throughout the year.

She works remotely from the show. Others drive or fly weekly so they can work.

And her time isn't entirely spent at the show. Think it as a work-day, Hamm said. Afterwards, they run errands, get messages, go grocery shopping, go clothes shopping and go out to eat -- just as they would at home.Across the Fairgrounds, Rebecca Patterson, 15, was one of those who flew back and forth.

She was showing two horses at the Winter Classic but she was also a high school sophomore in Pennsylvania. She'd used a tutor for a while but this year was flying to South Mississippi each Thursday after school, competing, and flying back on Sunday night to attend school. A lot of homework got done on the plane, she said.

Patterson has been riding since she was just three years old and was preparing to show in a junior class over fences that were 3 feet, 6 inches for the first time. One of her horses, Vinny, was at his first away show but behaving well.

"Having a connection with your horse, it's not like any other sport," she said. "It's unique. It's a connection without words. It's really cool."

On one of the last Sunday's of the show, she rode one of the barn's horses over a few fences. Then, still in her breeches and tall boots she settled down at a table with a laptop and a textbook to study. She had a geometry test on Monday.

Her mother, Megan Patterson, was at the show with her and also showing two horses.

Megan Patterson said she began riding after her children were born as a way to get out of the house and have something to call her own.

She wanted to be a barrel racer but then got hooked on jumping.

"I've played every sport and this is the hardest," she said. "I'm a very determined person."

That Sunday she had shown in two classes -- with a hiccup in the first.

She and Alliance had a great first half of the course, with Amanda Forte, her trainer, mumbling approval from the fence line. But then the horse took off awkwardly at the jump and practically landed on all fours at once. Megan Patterson was knocked loose and for an agonizing moment looked like she would catch her balance. Instead, she swung to the ground, landing on her feet.

Her next round went better. With Shammy, also known as KT Charmeun, she knocked only one jump and came out of the ring breathing hard but happy with the performance.Later that day, just before the Grand Prix was set to start, May Haywood led her three-year-old granddaughter, Charleigh, atop a horse named Bella, into the same large turf arena used by the Grand Prix jumpers. The immense fences were already set up around them.

Charleigh is from Texas but May Haywood lives on the coast and Bella is owned by Bienvenue Acres in Gulfport.

The announcer welcomed "the future riders in our Grand Prix."

May Haywood led Charleigh and Bella in a loop on the grass. Charleigh, whose feet barely reached the end of the saddle and who was participating in her first show, was the only participant.

They walked out with a brightly colored winners ribbon.

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