I’ve been asked countless times in my life what it is about horses that keeps me owning them and competing, that brings me to the barn in all kinds of weather from hot, humid, sticky days to cold windy winter days. Why put up with the bugs and the frozen buckets, much less the dirt and sunburn and freezing toes and fingers. Why horses? I rarely have concrete answers for those questions besides the standard: I love them and always have. But, one weekend last month at the Blue Ridge Mountain Horse Trials gave me the incentive to try to express myself better.
Eight years ago I took in a boarder to my small backyard barn. A friend's daughter was heading off to college and didn’t want to sell her pony and I’d recently become pregnant with my third child and needed barn help. Amanda, the mom, Jennifer, the daughter, and I worked out a deal and that summer they moved Jennifer’s Paint pony, Made Ya Look aka "Julie," to my barn. Little did any of us know where the road would take us.
What I discovered almost immediately was that Julie was one of those accident-prone horses. A week into living at our barn we turned her and my mare out together. Of course, they'd already sniffed noses across the fences. They seemed amenable. But looks are deceiving. Within five minutes the two got into a kicking match. When they finally separated, Julie was bleeding profusely from a leg wound. A call to the vet and countless stitches later, Julie was sanctioned to stall rest and Jennifer had to put on hold any summer shows she planned. This became a pattern not easily broken. Jennifer went off to school and Amanda took over helping me at the barn as well as doctoring the numerous scrapes that Julie got into. It was during that time that I started taking lessons with Amanda, who was not only a horse person but an experienced eventer and trainer.
By the next summer, things were looking up for Jennifer and Julie. They managed one horse trials before Julie came in lame one afternoon. Another call to the vet and the grim diagnosis of a pulled suspensory. Julie was put back on stall rest. Just when the summer was waning and Julie was almost healed, she started limping again. Another call to the vet and the heartbreaking diagnosis that she had reinjured her suspensory. The decision was made to turn Julie out for a year and see what time could do. I’d added another horse to my menagerie by this time and Jennifer started riding him in the meantime. A year and a half later, Julie didn’t look half bad. Tentatively, Jennifer put her back into work, building her up slowly. But tragedy struck again. Unbeknownst to any of us, a neighbor set off fireworks on Memorial Day weekend. I was gone for most of that night and the horses turned out. By the morning when I walked out to say hi to Amanda and Jennifer the worst was confirmed. Petrified by the fireworks, Julie had tried to climb out of the pasture by way of the five-foot cinder block wall. In the process she’d ripped open both her front legs and now stood in pain and shock, her legs swollen to three times their normal size. The vet advised that their best option was to go to one of the university hospitals. Somberly, they loaded Julie and set off, not knowing if she’d survive the trip.
At Virginia Tech, they were presented with a potential vet bill of upwards of $10,000 and gut-wrenchingly contemplated putting Julie down. But a kindly older vet pared down the bill and gave them the option of doing most of the care themselves. They left Julie for two days and then returned and brought her home with three pages of instructions and baskets full of supplies. They stationed a huge exhaust fan in front of Julie’s stall and doctored her legs, especially the left one, which had been ripped open right down to the bone. With infinite patience, hard work, and luck, Julie survived that hot summer and into the next year. By springtime, she was actually sound. Working slowly, Jennifer brought her back into shape. Later that summer they competed for the first time in years, bringing home a third-place ribbon in the Maiden division of the War Horse Event Series at the Carolina Horse Park in Southern Pines.
For the next two years, Julie stayed sound, and Jennifer and I competed at local schooling horse trials. Last year we went to Tryon to watch the cross-country day of the Blue Ridge Mountain Horse Trials. It was an awesome event and an idea was born. In January, Jennifer decided she wanted to try to compete there on Julie. At 21 years old, Julie still seemed spry and able, but Jennifer knew Julie’s competing days were winding down due to her countless leg injuries and a recent diagnosis of low-level COPD. With dedication and patience, Jennifer began preparing Julie. Jennifer knew she couldn't push her too hard, but also had to make sure she was conditioned enough to tackle the challenging course. Jennifer reiterated more than once to me, “I don’t care if we place. I just want to go and compete and be a part of it.” I agreed with her. All summer we held our breath as Jennifer prepared Julie. Would she stay sound, was her breathing okay, would she injure herself days before and force them to withdraw. In the end, everything fell into place and on Friday, September 11, we loaded Julie up and headed to Tryon. I knew it would be a weekend to remember, but that was an understatement.
Julie took the size and hustle of Tryon in stride, setting into her stall Friday and going for a relaxing hack with Jennifer, never once acting nervous or silly. Saturday dawned with gray skies and on and off drizzle. After feeding Julie breakfast, we walked to the cross-country course along the hacking path, which winds through the woods and along the creek. The course itself was impressive. The jumps at Beginner Novice were the biggest and widest I had ever seen and the course, though beautiful, was hilly. If Jennifer was daunted by it, she didn’t show it. She and Amanda discussed tracks to jumps and places to let Julie gallop. At 14.2 hands, Julie has to move to make the time on cross-country. After a quick breakfast, we returned to the barn to get Julie ready for dressage. Julie and Jennifer warmed up in the covered ring next to the big-moving Warmbloods and supple Thoroughbreds and then went in and laid down one of the best tests of their career. Due to her stocky Paint body's build and short legs, which earned Julie the nickname "Chubs," she would never float, but when the scores were posted they sat 11th out of 16. Jennifer was thrilled at how their ride went and the scores they received, as well as the fact that they got to ride in the big stadium next to the stands.
During lunch the skies opened up and poured. I was nervous for Jennifer as it rained, thinking of what the footing might be on cross-country. At 5:00 p.m., Beginner Novice started and Jennifer hopped onto Julie to make the long trek to the course. Amanda and I got in the car and drove there to meet her, fingers crossed the whole time that the purple clouds in the sky didn't bring thunderstorms. With butterflies in my stomach, the announcer began the countdown. Julie cantered out of the start box, winged her way down to the first jump, and ate up the course. When we met them at the finish line, Julie was barely blowing and Jennifer was smiling through her tears, regaling us with how brave her pony is and how one of the jump judges called out to her as she galloped by, “Go pony go!” And go she did. When the dust settled at the end of the day, Jennifer and Julie had moved up to sixth place.
Sunday dawned with more gray and rainy skies. Julie came out stiff, which any middle-aged woman will tell you is par for the course, much less if you've run the equivalent of a marathon the day before. Jennifer gave her plenty of time to warm up and loosen up. But when she pulled a rail in the warm-up ring, unusual for Julie, we all worried. Jennifer reached down and patted Jule’s neck and said to us, “If I go in and she can’t do it, I’ll retire. She doesn't have to prove anything.” But in true Julie form, when it was their turn she jumped like a Grand Prix jumper and Jennifer rode like a professional. It was the epitome of teamwork and relationship. They each gave their all to the other and when it was over Jennifer placed fifth out of 16 riders. It was the most memorable weekend, filled with lots of smiles and lots of tears of joy. Standing on the sidelines I am thankful to have witnessed it. To see the culmination of years of hard work, sweat, tears, and love realized was inspiring and that culmination wasn’t the ribbon, but rather the outward expression of an inward emotional connection and partnership. The ribbon was just the whipped cream on top.
People wonder why we love horses, why we put up with lots of daily work and early mornings, lameness and dirt and bugs. I can't speak for everyone, but witnessing Jennifer and Julie’s accomplishments it was obvious they have a partnership. They both trust each other and try their hardest for each other. It’s an incredible thing to find that with another being, the ability to trust, to communicate without words, to ask for and be given love and trust in return.
Horses are my sanctuary. I find peace in the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay, the quiet munching of a horse eating grain, in the soft nuzzle of a muzzle, the briefest nicker, the liquid brown eyes that give love and acceptance without asking for much in return. Horses are large animals that do not have to carry us on their backs, but they do. And sometimes, when all the pieces fall together, when all the years of work and trust and love coalesce, they bestow on us the ultimate gift: the ability to fly without wings. I believe that “flying” is personal to each horse lover, to some that flight might be a trail ride through fall foliage, a dance down the centerline, a rush around barrels, a gallop through water. It is what makes our hearts soar and our worries disappear, and a connection to a thousand-pound animal tangible. If we figure out what we need to fly and we ask this powerful and elegant animal for it, if they can, they will grant it. And how lucky are we to receive a gift like that.
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