When my daughter Jacquelyn turned 9, she and I started taking riding lessons together for some quality mother-daughter time. I had hoped to share my love for horses with her so we gave it a try. A few years of lessons led to a deeper commitment - horsemanship - and Jackie showed the fortitude for the hard gritty work required. It didn’t take long for Jackie to catch the horse bug and then we found our match, Abby. She came to the farm to be a lesson horse. We found an instant affinity for Abby, a 16 hand draft cross mare with pinto markings. She felt like a trusting safe mount for two beginner riders. The depth of the learning curve is daunting when buying a horse for the first time. Our home farm, Hunter’s Haven Farm in Groveland, Massachusetts, helped us have a focus and Jackie and Abby began competing with the farm’s show team.
After a few seasons of schooling shows, Jackie wrote a goal of wanting to be able to compete at a USEA recognized event. Abby needed a lot of training, conditioning, and practice to be a capable partner and Jackie had much to learn to get there. It takes a village of people to have a rider and horse ready to move up in this sport. Hunters Haven Farm has been there for us the whole way and believed this duo could rise, and Jackie would have to work to help finance the way.
Four years ago, neither Jackie nor Abby had any clue about eventing. You could say it was the blind leading the blind. This pair is not comprised of an experienced rider showing a green horse ‘the ropes’ or a beginner rider taking a push-button schoolmaster horse to a show. We started fresh and had no idea what was in store but just focused on having fun and learning horsemanship.
Abby continues to surprise us with her growth as a sport horse. She isn’t bred to be one and doesn’t really have the genetic predisposition to do so. She’s been called a pasture mistake. She stands out with her pinto markings, another quality that doesn't fit the mold of a sport horse’s standard norms. And she’s a she. Even in the world of horses, we learned that geldings are preferred. We got her with zero jumping or dressage experience. What has made Abby not really fit into the eventing mold, also has proven to be some of her best strengths for eventing. She has solid cannon bones and draft size hooves and she’s barefoot. In my opinion, those qualities have helped stave off injury. She’s got the perfect mix of go and whoa. She has been known to charge through the bridle, but never to a point where you feel unsafe and lose your wits - trust prevails. She’s the perfect first horse, even if she isn’t push-button, because she makes Jackie learn and earn. Then she gives us her mare loyalty that mares do. And through her actions, we discovered she really likes to show, loves the cross-country phase and literally puts up with dressage with a few groans. Abby and Jackie are figuring it out together. They trust each other, sometimes get frustrated with one another, like two sisters, but love and loyalty always win out.
Four years of schooling shows earned them the opportunity to be ready to go bigger. A recognized event is only the beginning of ‘getting on the map’ of the world of eventing. This sport has a level of high risk, so there is an unwritten expectation that one has to 100 percent prove without a doubt that one is capable of each element of heightened difficulty for parents and trainers to allow a loved child and horse to go out and just participate. We’ve been inspired by preceding teammates who also started off fresh in this sport and proved it is possible to go to nationals on a shoestring budget with a starter horse. You've just got to believe you can do it as long as you’re willing to work hard. You accept the sacrifices it takes to get there and you don't lose the desire along the way.
Jackie, now 16, and Abby 14, were ready for a sanctioned event and went to the University of New Hampshire horse trials fall of 2019. They exceeded any expectations, as Jackie had come down with the flu but was still determined to go just for the experience. Their dressage score of 34.3 put them in second place in their Junior Beginner Novice division. The next phase was the show jumping round; a course of 9 jumps at 2’7” to be completed in 1 minute 39 seconds. Team Abby got through the show jumping course knocking one rail with no time penalties costing them a four-point penalty to add to their dressage score. This may have cost them second place standing, but with the competition still underway and other riders' performances do impact the final tally, you just don’t know how the cards will fall. Then it’s onto the last phase of competition, cross-country: a paced gallop through a course of 14 2’7” jump obstacles to clear in under 5 minutes and 34 seconds. Abby and Jackie rode clear with no refusals and they completed the course in 5 minutes 5 seconds.
Just with all sports, anything can happen throughout the competition to change the trajectory of events. The key is to keep your head in the game and keep your focus despite how the events unfold. We saw some bad falls in the show jumping, with kids exiting by ambulance. No parent or trainer or fellow competitor wants to see anybody end their day that way, because it reminds us all of the risks. At one point after cross-country, before the numbers were crunched we had thought Team Abby had made it to first place. To see her fellow riders, who came to support Jackie get through the day, thrilled for their teammate and share in her accomplishment, made me fill with tears. They know more than anyone knows how big this day was as they are busting their butts while on their own journey to soar with their horses. It was awesome, a moment I never want to forget. Once the official scores were in, we learned that Team Abby earned second place, behind first place by 0.3 of a point.
Abby is the bargain green pinto draft cross mare who gives us her all. Our horse may not fit the eventing specifications that have all the rap, but her heart and loyalty and unconditional love she gives to her aspiring rider made the journey so much sweeter. Every time she exceeds expectations and breaks barriers when up against the five-figured, bred, and trained sport horse, we are affirmed that we found the perfect horse to overcome metaphoric and physical obstacles.
Team Abby has the potential to ride in more recognized events, onto bigger pastures! We have lots to learn about qualifying for USEA nationals and hope to go to the USEA American Eventing Championships! The horizon looks promising! September 28, 2019 will go down in the books for one of Team Abby’s best days. Looking back, we have already come further than we ever imagined. If there’s one piece of advice for other inspiring event wannabes, it would be, if there’s a will there’s a way, so GO FOR IT, you’ll have a blast! Don’t let the privilege barriers intimidate you, this sport is about your connection to the horse no matter what cash you have to throw into the sport, no matter how fancy your mount is, find that special horse to make you feel like you won the Kentucky Three-Day Event when you achieve your own goals! There are so many Abbys out there waiting for their little girl to take them for a ride and see where it leads! Have fun, make a special bond - there’s no losing in that.
The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Jessica Duffy at [email protected] to be featured.
On this episode of the Equiratings Eventing Podcast, show host Nicole Brown talks to Pan American Games gold medalist and U.S. team stalwart Boyd Martin about his career to date, highs and lows, and coming back from injury.
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Our sport is going to present you with many amazing opportunities, and some equally amazing challenges. While you’re sure to enjoy the opportunities, it sometimes takes a little more effort to enjoy the challenges. Contrary to the common misconception (from non-equestrians) that our sport is easy, it’s actually one of the hardest and most demanding sports of all!