2020 continues to be a challenging year. The year of an astonishing pandemic, of economic strain, of social injustice, and of a political divide that it often seems may never be bridged. But amidst the tumult and uncertainty of the world, a pickup truck shutters to life in the early morning hours of show day. Grain tumbles into a feed bucket, water gushes into a trough, and a dandy brush combs through the coat of an expectant mount. All leading up to that moment when the rider’s boot hits the iron as he swings homeward into the saddle.
Because despite it all, we equestrians carry on in the best way we know how. Not because we are indifferent to world events, but because we embrace our passion for eventing in response, in the possibility that something beautiful may yet be created during a period that appears bleak. Early in 2020, even as the world hurtled toward a point of critical mass, I felt time and again that somehow 2020 would be an incredible turning point for me and my Ernie. I could feel it deep in my bones, in that place where everything strong and sure and true comes from. Our long-awaited moment in the sun was coming. The moment when my Ernie would finally bloom. And so I knew it was my duty to press onward in the face of obstacles great and small, even amidst a world on fire.
But it was not so very long ago that my mindset was entirely different. June 2017 found me watching my Thoroughbred, Jasper, battle aggressive lymphangitis until I made the difficult decision to have him euthanized. I told myself it was the last kind thing I could do for him. The decision to let Jasper go, along with the grief of years past, shattered something inside me. As I drove an empty horse trailer home from the hospital for the second time in five years, I thought that maybe losing two horses was loss enough. The world just kept telling me no. So maybe it was time to stop. Maybe it was time to stop riding for good.
People who know me well will tell you I hit rock bottom after losing Jasper. The truck and trailer were sold. Jasper’s equipment was put into storage. For the next six months, I tried to reinvent a life without horses, without eventing. But I was at a loss. What was the point of going through life without my greatest passion? Living without a horse just wasn’t possible for me, so with a broken heart, and a depleted savings account, I began my search.
In December 2017, hope came in the form of My Son Ernie, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred listed through CANTERPA. At 16.3 hands, he was big and leggy and had the “look of eagles.” He was also completely used up. With 55 starts through his 6-year-old year, Ernie had worked his way to the bottom of the racing circuit and had the injuries as proof. In his sale video, he was lame in the right front. So, naturally, I bought a new truck, got a trailer, and drove to see him. I took one look at Ernie limping along in his racing saddle and saw myself in him. Someone with a wounded heart who was waiting on a reason to keep fighting. $750 later, Ernie was mine. I took him home and had the farrier pull his shoes. Days later, Ernie blew an enormous abscess in the right front. So that solved that mystery!
A post-purchase exam revealed Ernie had numerous old injuries and general wear and tear which contributed to an uncertain prognosis. With a low body score and winter coming fast, one vet suggested I had just bought a horse that should be euthanized. I thanked the vet and bundled Ernie up in Jasper’s old blankets and turned him out to pasture with a large round bale and a cheeky mare who would teach him how to embrace his herd instincts.
In February 2018, I rode Ernie for the first time and we began a long road to rehabilitation. FEI dressage judge and trainer Heidi Berry agreed to help and we set to work teaching Ernie dressage as a form of physiotherapy. We incorporated chiropractic and acupuncture treatments into Ernie’s program to help support his recovery. In the ensuing months, Ernie grew stronger and revealed himself to be a good mover with an impeccable work ethic. Curious to see if he had any jumping ability, but mindful of his lingering body issues, I decided to start Ernie in the jump chute. I had heard good things about Martin Douzant and his approach to green horses. So in the fall of 2018, I signed Ernie up for one of his jump chute clinics. I will never forget how kind and professional Martin was, handling my beat-up warhorse alongside so many young quality prospects. Eventually, I asked Martin if we could begin jumping lessons. Martin said he would help us in any way he could and, well, the rest is history.
Over the next year and a half, Ernie and I continued to build our partnership one experience at a time. Some days I wondered if our efforts would ever amount to anything. But on most days, I simply marveled at the happy, healthy horse that some had said might not live. So far the 2020 season has seen us win a Beginner Novice, qualify for the 2021 USEA American Eventing Championships, successfully move up to Novice, and set our sights on an Area Championships and possibly a USEA Classic Series Three-Day Event. Nearly three years of work has culminated in so many moments of achievement and 2020 is not even over.
In the quiet moments when I am with my Ernie, I know that no matter what has happened that day or what I have seen on the news, it is important now more than ever to stay the course. To aspire, to strive, and to persevere. To hope and to love. Because in the end, it is dreams that sustain us and the love of a mighty heart that brings us through life’s storms.
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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