2020 has been a long year and for many eventers, not the year they had hoped for. Events across the country have been canceled and eventers have had to pivot their goals for the year. Susan De Jong, who lives in Arizona, typically makes the trip to Flagstaff to compete at the Coconino Horse Trials in July, but with the venue closed due to COVID-19 this year, she had to come up with another plan.
De Jong grew up in Southern California and got her first pony when she was 7 years old. She would show sheep and goats at the Del Mar Fair each year, and while she was there she would go to watch the Grand Prix show jumping events. “I always wanted to jump, but never had a lesson,” De Jong said.
De Jong grew up, got married, had six children, and when her youngest was 12 years old and her oldest was 23, she thought to herself, “Well, I survived that!” She still wanted to learn to jump, so she set out to find an instructor. “The internet was brand new then, and I looked up jumping and Alice Sarno’s adult camp in Flagstaff popped up.”
So, De Jong loaded up her horses, her dogs, and her youngest child, and headed for Flagstaff to attend Sarno’s summer camp. “I didn’t know what eventing was and I’d never jumped or ridden dressage, but I had a horse,” she said. “I went up there for a week of camp, and after that I was hooked!” That was in 2004. A year later, De Jong made it to her first event. “Of course, I was eliminated,” she laughed. “But I stuck to it!”
De Jong’s current partner in crime, Canelo, has been with her for three years now. She bought him from Auburn Excell Brady, who is based in San Juan Capistrano, California, in 2017. “I wasn’t looking forward to getting a new horse as a grandma, but when my old horse got hurt, I started shopping around,” she said. “I’m a dairy farmer and it’s 55 miles to my closest trainer and 85 miles to most of them, so I don’t go for a lot of lessons. My horse has to be able to ride out alone, he can’t be scared, he has to be able to open gates.” Canelo, who De Jong describes as an “off-the-track Thoroughbred cow horse,” has been a perfect fit.
De Jong’s plan this year was to head to Coconino in July for the back-to-back horse trials held there each summer. But, when COVID-19 hit in March, that plan began to look uncertain. “I waited around all summer for Alice to be able to run her shows and she kept having to postpone,” De Jong explained. “That’s usually what we do in the summer because it’s only two-and-a-half hours from me.” Unable to attend events at Coconino, De Jong decided to pack up her horse and make the trek to Southern California to attend the Adult Rider Camp at Copper Meadows instead.
“That was super-fun – Taren [Hoffos] did an amazing job,” De Jong said. “I love the adult camps, they’re great. I was feeling tuned up, because you get to do everything there – dressage, cross-country, and show jumping – and so I said to my husband, ‘Do I have to come home?’ and he said no! So I went from Ramona to Rancho Santa Fe at Hap Hansen’s barn – he’s a big-time Grand Prix jumper. I took weekly lessons from him. I just wanted to get myself to the point where I could go into that show jumping arena and not completely freeze.”
After seven weeks in California, De Jong thought it might be time to head home. But then she saw that Woodside would be running its August horse trials and thought she might give it a go. “I entered, and I drove up to Woodside. You were allowed to have one person with you, so my husband came out to join me. As we were driving up to Woodside, I saw that Auburn Excell was going to be there and I thought she might be too busy to coach me but I asked her anyway, and she said yes!”
All De Jong’s hard work over the summer paid off, and she and Canelo led their Beginner Novice division from wire to wire on their dressage score of 29.3, even conquering their show jumping demons with a double-clear round. “I’m sure it went way better because I had some coaching,” De Jong laughed. “Auburn gave me a dressage lesson the day before and she said, ‘You should easily get a 29 on this horse, Sue,’ and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, sure!’ I went into the arena, and I thought the test was okay and that I’d be disappointed if it scored higher than a 32, and it was a 29.3!”
The next day was show jumping, and De Jong said she just kept telling herself, “You practiced all summer long – you’ve got this! Sure enough, he went in and he went clean, and I was so excited. The next day on cross-country – my favorite, of course – I got really nervous because I hadn’t been in the lead going into cross-country in a while. He was a little behind my leg but he stayed clear and kept going!”
De Jong said it was so nice to see how well the team at Woodside was working to keep everyone safe and healthy. “They safety officers that would ask you if you were with the person standing next to you and move you apart six feet if you weren’t – everyone was following the rules, wearing their masks and the wristbands you got every day and getting your temperature taken every day. Under the circumstances, I think they did an amazing job. It’s great that, even in the days of COVID-19, you can still do this!”
“We finished on our dressage score, which is always my goal,” De Jong concluded. “I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Wow, that was so worth the trip,’ because that is a LONG trip from Arizona! What a terrific way to spend a summer!”
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