Nov 19, 2022

Now On Course: How One Pony Gave Maya Burke Wings

Photo courtesy of Alicia Swinton

“Is that Fergie?!" As I stand on the sidelines coaching, it's without fail, I get this question at every show.

With 12-year-old Maya Burke in the irons, the pair get recognized everywhere they go. It’s equal parts an adorable, light-colored palomino pony with a killer jump, and a long-legged, young, talented, rider of color. And as a pair, they are easy to spot and hard to forget.

For some time now, I have wanted to share my experience with the world on what it’s been like getting to know and coach this remarkable young rider, and what her inspirational story has to offer to our sport and others.

Maya was adopted by two adoring mothers at 4 months old, and according to one of her mothers, Jodi, she has always had a passion for horses. It started as a toddler, begging to do the pony rides at Funderland. At age 8.5, after persistence and begging, she convinced her parents to buy her riding lessons. That’s where we met, 3.5 years ago. Maya showed up for her first lesson with me. She had the longest legs I have ever seen on an 8-year-old, and a drive to be a true horsewoman. Quickly into her first lesson, Jodi, took me aside and shared her concerns over some medical issues Maya has regarding her spine. Things that Maya was born with, that should have kept her from riding, but her passion for riding took precedence. She shared with me the concern of her falling, and how it could be life-changing for Maya if she damaged her spine any further. So, I continued the lesson the same as any other introductory lesson, and behind the scenes, helped Jodi find the right safety gear to protect Maya the best we could. We outfitted her in a Charles Owen body protector vest and put her on our safest, most reliable lesson horse, Sunny. Maya and Sunny grew as a team, and Maya flourished, under the watchful eye of myself and the irreplaceable care that a seasoned lesson horse like Sunny could offer.

Fast forward two years later, it became quite clear that Maya was outgrowing Sunny, but I was hesitant to put her on another horse, for fear of injury. I had recently acquired another lesson pony named Fergie. A sassy, 12-hand, Welsh posh pony that I picked up from pasture, looking everything like a feral, overweight project. While loading her to bring to our barn, she reared and struck at me in the trailer. I shrugged it off, thought to myself, "this should be fun," and took her home. I was positive we would turn this pony’s attitude around in just a matter of time. As it turns out the pony is a gem. She has her moments (who doesn’t?) and even had some medical issues we had to diagnose and address, but she is a great pony! I knew Maya and Fergie could be great together, and I loved Fergie’s height in the case where Maya did fall, which we all know is inevitable, it wouldn’t be very far to fall. My hardest task was getting Maya on board. It wasn’t love at first sight, and I had to talk Maya into giving her a chance, because the thought of letting go of Sunny, was not a decision Maya wanted to come to terms with, but she knew, as did I, she had outgrown her, and she had to move on to continue to advance.

We continued to let Maya ride Sunny here and there, as she committed to a new partnership with Fergie. Within a few rides, these two clicked. They both have sass, talent, drive, and, not to mention, possess the adorable factor together. Fergie loves Maya, and Maya loves Fergie. Fergie gives Maya wings over fences, which Sunny couldn’t do. And now, a year later they have completed several rated events, local hunter jumper shows, and more. They have placed top 10 at venues such as Ram Tap horse trials and Woodland Stallion Station horse trials, becoming local celebrities in the process within our equestrian community.

It goes without saying, everywhere we go, Maya and Fergie get noticed. In this sport, it takes a village to accomplish your dreams, and without the endless support of her parents, teammates, and fellow competitors, all her success would not be possible. It is a dangerous sport, that is lacking in diversity, and these harsh realities are something that her parents thoroughly contemplated when looking for a trainer for Maya. That being said, I think the honor is all mine. I take so much pride in having a student like Maya, who, without words, can inspire so many with just her presence. Maya embodies the need in our sport for more diversity and inclusion, as passion can defy limitation.

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Now On Course: A 20-Year-Old OTTB Helps an Adult Amateur Find Eventing

I first met Moose (JC: Plain Brown Wrap) when he was an 18-year-old lesson horse in April 2020 in Texas. I was a 40-year-old mom of four young girls who had stopped riding before my 20s but had somehow convinced my husband to buy a pony for our girls two years earlier. But once COVID hit, to get some “me” time, I started taking jump lessons at the eventing barn where we boarded our pony.

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