May 12, 2009 at 2:17 a.m., I peeked over the stall with great anticipation as my long-awaited foal was finally making her debut into my life. Foxy, who was the dam, was a very talented lesson horse with no extraordinary bloodlines but 3/4 Connemara and 1/4 Thoroughbred and she had a love for jumping. Before she was too old, I decided to breed her with a nice Thoroughbred/Oldenburg stud (Counterclaim from Flying Colors Farm in Florida) that happened to be homozygous with the pinto color gene. I love horses with color and was ecstatic to see what the foal would look like.
Well, she was one month overdue and decided to come exactly one year from when her dam was bred. I should have known at that moment she was going to be a girl that had to come around on her own timing, but she was worth waiting for! It was a filly, which delighted me greatly, and was a sorrel and white. I was a bit surprised since her dam was a dark bay and sire was black and white but she was perfect! I had no idea what her future would hold but I decided her show name would be Claim The Lead and her barn name was Aimslee.
After years of groundwork and taking it slow, at age 5 it was finally time to start training under saddle. She had been used to the saddle and bridle since age 3, but her brain and body needed extra time to mature and I was happy to wait until she told me she was ready. Aimslee was my best buddy. Being able to sit on her for the first time was a moment I had waited a long time for. It was everything I dreamed of, such trust and athletic ability. Wow, I couldn’t wait to get started! I hoped that she would love eventing as much as I did but only time would tell.
After a short time of working under saddle and making much progress, a move from New York to Texas put everything on hold. Once I was settled I was so thankful that Aimslee was finally home with me in Texas. She gave me the largest nicker when she arrived and my heart melted. Back to training and our journey together could continue!
After several setbacks in training due to moving from New York to Texas, life/jobs, and a few injuries, we finally were on our way to being ready for our first schooling horse trial. Yes, she was already at age 8, but better late than never. Fall of 2017 we finally signed up for the 12” division. Sure enough, coming up to the first cross-country jump I was caught off guard as Aimslee decided the pumpkin in front of the tiny log was incredibly scary and she spun around faster than I could hang on. Oops. Not a good way to start our eventing career. But we theoretically could only improve from that.
I wasn’t sure if Aimslee was going to come around but I decided if I wanted her to become better and more fit I needed to do the same. Over the next year, we worked on basics again and getting in shape. I lost over 84 pounds and she became more confident and brave, and we became an even better team together. We were finally actually ready to attempt eventing again.
Fall of 2018 we did our first recognized horse trial at Beginner Novice. The timing wasn’t great as I had a minor back surgery and my doctor said, “Just don’t fall off, or you will pop the stitches.” Obviously I never try and fall off. My goal tends to always be to stay on the horse. But I reassured her I would be as safe as possible but was not scratching out of the horse trial.
What a difference this horse trial experience was. Aimslee was much more confident and relaxed. Dressage was pretty good, although there are always things to improve on but I was pleased. We took it slow on cross-country to make sure she had a great first experience and sure enough, she made it through. Unfortunately, we had a couple of rails in stadium but I was super thrilled with the way her first real horse trials went!
I started to think we might have a chance to qualify for the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) in 2019. I might just have a horse that loves eventing as much as I do!
After a rough winter with some more setbacks and trips to the vet, I wasn’t sure if our eventing career was going to be over before it started. But praise the Lord, Aimslee was finally back to her normal self and stronger than ever just in time for our first competition in March. I had no expectations for this horse trial since she hadn’t competed in almost six months, but she seemed to be really happy to be back at a show. Dressage was alright again but not as good as I would have liked. Then stadium we finally had a clear round, phew! During warm-up for cross-country, Aimslee gets a bit hyped up and silly with some fun acrobatics. But once on cross-country by herself she usually settles in quickly. Sure enough, it was finally time to start the course and she was a machine. She only looked at a few things but focused really well and we went double clear again. To my incredible surprise, with the two clear rounds Aimslee and I lived up to her name and took the lead to get our qualifying placing for the AEC. Words couldn’t express how thankful I was. Our next competitions gave us our final qualifying cross-country round and we were officially qualified for Novice at the AEC.
Then a week before the AEC entries opened Aimslee came in from the pasture with a hot, swollen, and slightly bowed tendon. My heart sank. I needed an ultrasound to figure out if there was a tear and if our journey to the AEC had already come to an end. The vet checked her out and due to the large amount of swelling we would recheck in one week. So on stall rest she went along with lots of cold hosing, PEMF treatments, and poultice. I wanted to give her the best chance at a good outcome. The recheck appointment finally came and I was beyond thrilled that the vet told me I had the go-ahead to slowly start resuming her training in the next week or two. A bit of a set back to our training with only five weeks before the AEC, and of course we wanted to be on our “A” game going to the championships.
The day had finally arrived and after a long drive from Texas to Kentucky we pulled up to the Kentucky Horse Park. Reality was finally sinking in - it was time to do what we had been preparing for. We made our way to the stabling and it was surreal to find that we were across from the Rolex Stadium. It made things even more exciting. Aimslee settled in quickly, which was a relief.
Dressage day was Thursday for us and we were the very first to ride in our Novice Rider division. Aimslee had a wonderful warm-up ad huge thanks to Lellie Ward with Paradise Farm for the amazing coaching. When our turn came, she was calm, quiet, and focused and I was just trying to keep breathing and treat it like every other competition we had been to. Overall the test went just as I’d hoped. We did have a few mistakes such as breaking into the canter for a moment and our square halts which we normally nail was off. But I still was proud of the effort and now I just had to hope that it would be good enough to put us in a good spot, even though I knew it wasn’t our absolute perfect test we could have done.
Sitting in 16th place after dressage it was now time for cross-country. Cross-country has been our strongest phase but I knew I would have to ride her perfectly or else we could have difficulty. She isn’t a huge fan of water still and with two water complexes it could be a bit interesting. "Three, two, one, have a great ride!" - my favorite words to hear as we leave the start box. Aimslee was more hesitant than usual coming up to the first fence, she gave me the indication that this course was going to be a challenge. Coming up to the third jump, the lovely blue roll top, Aimslee hesitated for a split second and slid into the base, still somehow managing to scramble over the jump, and in my mind I thought we could definitely be in trouble, but I’m just going to hang on and see what happens. We made it to the other side thankfully and off she went. Now she was settling into her normal rhythm as we came around a turn to a maxed-out table going downhill. This time however once again she slipped, and I knew we wouldn’t be able to pull ourselves together in time to get over it. It was a heart-wrenching moment to turn away from the jump to represent knowing there goes your chance of placing. But no time to think, we had a course to finish, and I wanted the rest to end on a good note. We did make it through, even though it was by far not our best cross-country run, but seeing as this was only her fourth time doing Novice, I was still pleased with her, as I always am.
It was bittersweet going in to do stadium, and having it be a double clear and beautiful round, even though it didn’t matter at all except to me wanting to end the best we could even if we never had a shot at placing any more. Handling disappoint is all a part of the eventing world, and even though I would have much rather a different outcome for our first AEC it was still an honor to be a part of it with my favorite horse. And I had a spectacular support crew that came to cheer us on which made it much more special. It is a memory I will cherish forever.
Now its time to get back to training and try to requalify for next year. We both want a chance at redemption and will hope to get that shot!
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.
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