Jamey Prettyman was grateful for the soft rain falling in Columbia. Staying calm was crucial, and the rain would help.
"Rain is Mother Nature's tranquilizer for horses," he said.
Prettyman, of Sykesville, and his bay mare, Imajica, were about to compete in their first grand prix, the 18th Annual Columbia Classic Grand Prix, an equestrian jumping competition held on the Howard Community College campus.
Grand prix is the highest level of equestrian show-jumping. Horses and riders leap over head-high fences and walls as they canter around a course about the size of a soccer field. Scoring is based on speed and whether the jumps are left intact.
This year's classic, with a purse of $50,000, attracted some of the best riders in the world, including U.S. Olympic gold medalist Joe Fargis, along with about 4,500 people undaunted by Saturday's overcast skies and light sprinkles.
Actress Jane Seymour, who most recently appeared in the film comedy The Wedding Crashers, was the event's honorary chairwoman. Donations from individual and corporate sponsors, including proceeds from a raffle for a Mercedes-Benz, went to a college scholarship fund.
The Columbia Classic is unusual in that spectators can get so close to the course that they are hit by dirt and grass thrown up by the horses' hooves and can feel the ground thump when the hooves land.
That sense of being in the action has kept Meredith Lundergan of Ellicott City coming back for years. This year, she brought her children, Gemma, 5, and Ryan, 7. Although pony rides and face painting were available, Lundergan said her children's favorite part of the day was by far the grand prix.
"They like the big jumps," she said. "They love watching the horses sail."
The job of making sure the horses had the right equipment fell to Stephen Fulton, the event's blacksmith and owner of a stable in Finksburg.
He said grand prix horses' shoes often have metal cleats screwed into them to give the animals extra traction when jumping. When those cleats popped off, he helped put them back on.
Many riders also wrap their horses' lower legs to protect tendons from the stress of hard landings.
"It's very, very strenuous," Fulton said, pointing to the course. "That's big stuff."
Prettyman agreed. The jumps and the audience were the biggest that he or Imajica had encountered in competition. He worried particularly about the last jump, which was almost as tall as he is and is next to the crowded sponsor's tent, a potential distraction for Imajica.
"She's been good; she's been in the ribbons," he said. "Hopefully, she won't be upset by the crowd."
After the amateurs and junior jumping division finished, a woman gave a demonstration of dressage, an equestrian discipline during which the rider guides the horse through complex footwork. Then a bugle sounded and a pack of tan-and-white foxhounds flooded onto the field, herded by red-jacketed riders.
In front of the temporary barn provided for the horses, Imajica was saddled for the grand prix, and Prettyman had donned his riding jacket, tie and helmet.
"I have to stay calm so the horse will, too," he said, pulling at his shirt collar. "I'm just trying not to choke on my tie."
Prettyman and Imajica were 12th to jump in the 32-horse lineup. Several riders before them knocked one or two poles off the jumps. A couple of horses refused jumps entirely, costing their riders valuable time. The 10th rider, however, left all the jumps intact.
When it was their turn, Prettyman and Imajica entered the ring and cantered toward the first jump. As they floated through the air one of the horse's hooves clipped the log on the top of the jump, knocking it off.
The audience exhaled a collective sigh of disappointment.
Without pause, Prettyman and Imajica careened through the rest of the course. When they were done, four logs were on the ground - too many to make the finals.
Prettyman patted Imajica on the neck as they left the ring.
Several horses tied for first place in the early rounds, and the Grand Prix came down to a jump-off. In the end, a rider from Bedford, N.Y., won the $12,000 blue-ribbon purse on a horse named Lavaletta.
Prettyman watched the final from the sponsor's tent. He said it was "a bummer" that Imajica hit the first pole, but he was happy with the performance. She had not refused any of the jumps, and they cleared the last one easily.
Standing on the sidelines, Prettyman studied video a friend took of him and Imajica jumping.
"We just need some practice," he said. "We're not in the ribbons ... but we made it."