In My Feelings aka Drake was hanging out in a friend's field in Aiken and needed a new home. At around 14 hands, his owner Samantha Burks was too tall to ride him and with limited information about his past, she reached out to my mom, the DC of Hilltoppers Pony Club, in 2018. Initially, we tried mounted games and took him to Pony Club summer camp and let several kids try him out. It didn't take long to discover he had many gears and was way too fancy for games, though he was a rockstar at that too!
We joined the Dressage4Kids Team program with Lendon Gray and gave a try at the FEI Children's test and also did some cross-country schooling with our USPC instructor Ann Haller. He was great at both! At the time we thought his age was around 14. We were surprised to find out he was somewhere over 20 when we ran into people who knew him at a Stable View show. We later discovered he is 24!
Mom (my trainer) asked me to focus on his dressage talents, get him fit, and put eventing on hold due to his age. Sound and happy, we kept moving on in dressage and tried qualifiers for the FEI Children's National Championships. Still unsure if we would finish in the top 12 to go to the Lamplight Festival of Champions, I started asking my mom to event him and try for the AEC. I used the argument he will only be older and I will be taller if we wait for next year! Mom checked in with my jumping instructor Stella Sunstein and she agreed he could go for it. Since Stella had just moved away she turned us over to her coach Kristin Schmolze for the shows.
So off we went to our first event at Full Gallop. Mom made me a deal. If we finished with a qualifying ride for AEC she would let me go on to another. We finished in second in our first Beginner Novice and moved on to Chattahoochee Hills and Stable View to qualify! After almost a year of mainly dressage training, we needed to work on our show jumping but cross-country is his groove!
Still not out of the running for the dressage championships, I took a lesson with dressage judge Sandy Osborn and was offered a grooming job in exchange for lessons. Sandy helped us perfect our dressage for both my eventing qualifiers and the FEI Children's tests. The cross-training helped him get fit and strong! We got our first 10 on one of our eventing tests and in late July received our official USEF invitation to the FEI Children's National Dressage Championships!
With two huge events and a lot of travel, I started working to earn the money needed. Atlanta has a lot of movies filmed there so I picked up work as an extra, cleaned stalls, did some farm sitting and had a lemonade stand at a show. Local friends helped so much! Allison Creek Farm Services offered trailer services to get us there safely and A Leg Up PEMF helped Drake stay comfortable with treatments before he traveled.
The trip was long but we opened a box stall in the trailer and set up a misting fan. Drake arrived in great shape! The first show at Lamplight was beautiful and I got to work with the USEF Youth Coach George Williams. Drake earned his highest scores so far, placing third and seventh for a sixth place overall in the U.S. at Festival of Champions in Children's FEI. We loved the trails through the show grounds and kept hacking and conditioning for AEC.
The next week we met Kristin Schmolze at the Kentucky Horse Park. I had just been awarded the GDCTA youth training grant to work with Kristin. She helped me get my jumping going again and we rested the first part of the week and started showing again on Friday. Drake put in a super test to land us in first place after dressage.
Cross-country day was perfect weather and footing. The jumps were inviting and the course seemed just right for us. The only problem we had was at the water. The footing was in the shade and after a lot of riders, it was a bit slick on the entry side. Drake had a little stumble and actually slipped and slid through the flags into the water! I dropped my reins and sat back and let him figure it out and he found his footing and cruised on.
Show jumping was a lot of pressure sitting in first place at our first big event. My friend Tessa Geven was in second so we knew one of us had to get it done! Tessa went clean and I had one rail. I think Drake was a little tired and I was trying to be so careful! We finished in ninth place and I was so proud of him! He didn't seem tired at all in the victory gallop. He was proud of himself too!
While we were out on the road showing, I got the news Ann Haller passed away. Ann taught me on every horse I have ridden and gave me the basics of all my cross-country riding. There were special moments at the AEC party in the big barn and they had bracelets with her name on them at the competitor's party too. We brought home some for our Hilltoppers Pony Club family. I know when I had to think fast at the water Ann was right there in my heart and mind. #RideforAnn
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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