My story may not be all that special to everyone, but it sure is special to me. I’m constantly amazed how God seems to put people and horses in our lives just at the right time, when we least expect or deserve it.
My story goes back to 1988 when my first event horse, Mad Mardigan, was born on my parents' farm. I was a student at the University of Georgia and part of the UGA Equestrian Team coached by Cindy Thaxton. We were an intramural team at the time - not the sponsored athletic program they have today. We slept 10 girls in one room of an EconoLodge Hotel for on of our out-of-town shows, but lots of fun was had by all. We even won a couple of championships ourselves!
Mad Mardigan, or “Mardi,” came to live with me at UGA in 1989, then travelled with me to Virginia when I moved for work, and saw me through marriage, two children, and a career. He evented until he was 14 years old and made it up to the Preliminary level. Those who knew Mardi knew he was always up to something, but never in a bad way. He took good care of me and I took good care of him. He was buried at my farm, Going for Broke, at the age of 26. He was my first "redhead" and my first event horse.
2004 was a year of great turmoil for me. I had bought an off-the-track Thoroughbred who wasn’t suited for much of anything except running. He ‘accidentally’ caused me to tear my ACL while at a Ralph Hill Clinic in Ocala, then he proceeded to ‘accidentally’ fracture his leg while in my neighbor's pasture. 2004 was also the year my homebred filly, Royal Attitude, decided she was a Royal Pain and cow kicked me, fracturing the same leg as the ACL.
I was done. Done with horses and done with riding. I bought a 2004 Ford Mustang (of course, it is red), but then my good friend Lela Wulf mentioned a few CANTER horses for sale in Pennsylvania. Her brother was working at the track and would be happy to take a look if I was interested. I wasn’t.
But of course, I looked anyway. The first ad was for a 17.2 hand 7-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred with Warmblood bones - safe for anyone. Darn it all, I was hooked again, not six months after I said I was "done."
When Time to Flare, also known as “Buddy,” was shipped to me, he collapsed upon arrival in front of Ian Stark and his entire clinic at Pine Top Farm in Augusta, Georgia. I thought, “I’ve done it, I’ve gone a bought a broken down racehorse, just my luck.” Everyone wanted to help, but I just remember saying, “Stay away from the horse.” Lucky for me, they didn’t. We called the vet and after some banamine and fluids Buddy was standing tall, all 17.2 hands of him! Wow, I was in love. Fortunately, he just had a bad case of dehydration and he recovered just fine.
Buddy and I quickly moved up the levels to Preliminary. He is not the most conventional jumper, but he is the safest horse I’ve ever owned. He could take a monkey and go clean cross-county! He took good care of me, and I’m taking good care of him. He is now 22 years old and still wants to event! He’s my second redhead.
In 2012, I found myself looking for a project. Cindy Thaxton (yes, my old college coach) introduced me to Gossip Time, owned by Dana Helton of WaterOaks Warmbloods. Dana wanted to have Gossip put into work, shown, and sold. I felt like we were a good match, so I took on the project and competed Gossip for about a year. Unfortunately, the economy wasn’t the best for selling horses, so instead of selling, Dana decided to breed Gossip again and offered me her 2-year-old offspring, Don Gato - my third redhead.
With Dana’s approval, I changed Don Gato’s name to Third Times The Charm. I realize a name can really make or break a horse (remember my luck with Royal Attitude?) and I believed that “Trey” was going to be the redhead to get me to Intermediate. I just knew it. . . even as a unbroken 2-year-old.
In 2015, Trey started his career at Southern Eighths Farm Heart of the Carolinas Beginner Novice Three-Day Event. Trey was a little exuberant during the jog, kicking up his heels as he passed by the ground jury on the way out, narrowly missing Dr. Debbie Williamson’s face. Yikes! But, we heard “accepted” over the shocked murmurs of the crowd. He was in first place going into cross-country, and the very first jump scared the absolute pee-doodle out of him, but he jumped it! We came to the second fence and he said, “I don’t think so.” We circled and I reminded him that we had a job to do, and he jumped the fence and has never looked back. What a rush, what a confidence builder, what a horse!
The next year, Trey and I went back to Heart of the Carolinas, this time at the Novice level. We jogged by Dr. Debbie again, passed the inspection, but a bruised foot ultimately kept us from competing after dressage. We stayed for the event and even received the inaugural Jim Baker Horsemanship Award - a great reminder of the fine horsemen all over this world - an award I'm very grateful to have received.
I was determined that 2018 would be our year. Third times the charm...right? I decided, let's go back to Heart of the Carolinas and win this thing. We were competing at Training Level by that time, so we entered the Training Three-Day. Dr. Williamson didn’t come back for 2017, but Trey was almost bored with the jog by now anyways - always ready to hear those magic words: “accepted.”
After a great dressage test, it was time for endurance day. Phase A, check. Phase B, double check. Phase C, check. Vet Box, cleared. Cross-country, here we come! First set of fences was all good, we made it over the trakehner and through the water, but then someone was stopping us. What? Why? We jumped the wrong fence 3? No way. We walked off the course and I left Trey in caring hands, while I walked to fence 3 - a line of tables with multiple flags for Training, Modified, and Preliminary. Yep, we accidentally jumped the Preliminary table.
So, it was time to set new goals. I thought, how about USEA Training Horse of The Year? Looking at past winners, it would take close to 80 points to make that happen, and we'd just missed out on triple points for the three-day event. Instead, we decided to aim for the Hagyard Midsouth Three-Day Event in October. Along the way to Kentucky, we won at Chattahoochee Hills at the end of June and the Area III Championships right after that. We even went to River Glen and competed in a Preliminary/Training division, also taking home the win!
There were 29 entries in the Training Three-Day at Midsouth, but Trey knew his job. He lost a shoe on Phase A, and I found it coming back on Phase C and the farrier put it back on in the 10-minute box. Cross-country was a blast - we came in double clean, holding onto second place. That meant we had to show jump with first place on the line. I was convinced I was going to choke and would surely cause Trey to pull a rail. He didn’t, but neither did the first place horse, so we finished in second place! What an awesome weekend. Both my horse's confidence and mine were at a record high.
We finished off the year at our absolute favorite venue and show, the Pine Top Thanksgiving Horse Trials. We took home the win in the Preliminary/Training division, securing the last few points we needed to take home the 2018 USEA Training Horse of the Year award.
Wow, what a year. What a life. Watch out Preliminary, we are coming for you this year. Then . . . could it be, will it happen? Intermediate? Stay tuned!
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 to be featured.
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