Going into the 2020 show season, I had never completed an event higher than Starter. Like so many amateurs, I struggle with fear when riding – the kind of overwhelming, all-consuming fear that makes your heart race and your stomach churn. Although I did the pony hunters and pre-adult hunters as a teen and young adult, my confidence over fences waned after college. Some instinctual, reptilian part of my brain convinced me that something bad was going to happen if I jumped bigger jumps, so I spent years stuck in my comfort zone of 2’-2’3”.
After retiring my pony in 2015, I was fortunate enough to lease several different horses – everything from draft crosses to ponies, mares and geldings, greenies, and horses with a USEA record a mile long. Each of these was wonderful teachers in their own way, but I still found myself frequently overcome with fear in the saddle. I became so paralyzed by anxiety that completing an event started to seem impossible. The fear of jumping became so overwhelming that I once excused myself from a schooling show at home because I panicked when I got on course. Another career highlight included retiring from a maiden (2’3”) horse trial on a former one-star horse because I was too nervous to make it around.
I started to wonder why I was still trying to be an eventer. As I was contemplating a change to straight dressage, my trainers Jammie Thompson and Morgan Hiller of Blue Line Farm in Reidsville, N.C. offered to let me try their horse Silly Wabbitt. “Rocky,” an OTTB (JC: Mr Tweals Up), had run through Intermediate with Morgan. After retiring from the upper levels, he spent a few years bringing riders up the levels through Training. I started riding Rocky in February of 2020, right before the COVID-19 lockdowns. None of us were sure whether a Thoroughbred with a big, forward stride would be a fit for me since my comfort zone was firmly in the “kick ride” territory. But at that point, I had no ambitions of doing anything more than learning to enjoy the sport and not be constantly held back by fear, so we gave it a try.
Throughout the spring of 2020, Jammie, Morgan, and Rocky brought me patiently along at home. We worked our way from single verticals to small courses, to full courses that included skinnies, chevrons, liverpools, and more. Fear was still my constant companion. It would bubble up without warning and convince me that, for any reason or no reason, I couldn’t do this. Some days I came out for my jump lesson and couldn’t find the courage to jump at all – even if we had been jumping “big” jumps the week before. But as constant as the fear was, Rocky was even more constant. He took many, many jokes as I learned the ropes at 2’6” and eventually 3’. No matter how many errors I made, he never held a grudge. He was always the same – happy to go to work, ears forward, looking for the next jump. He never quit, even when the fear turned my brain into white noise and I didn’t give him the best ride into a jump. Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, Rocky showed me that the fear didn’t matter to him - he would still take care of me. For the first time, I felt the potential to leave the start box with faith instead of fear.
I had given up on ever being able to compete at a USEA recognized level, but in May of 2020, Rocky packed me around my first unrecognized Beginner Novice at the Carolina Horse Park (CHP). It felt easy. In September 2020, I ran my first recognized Beginner Novice at the Blue Ridge Horse Trials at Tryon International Equestrian Center. Rocky skipped easily around a maxed-out BN, and we finished in third place, earning our first qualifying ride towards the AEC. Our next recognized event was Southern Pines H.T. in March of 2021 at CHP. Rocky was stellar and earned our second and final qualifying ride towards the AEC. Qualifying rides in our first two recognized events! The AEC was never on my radar, but it was suddenly a real – and exciting – possibility.
We rounded out the spring with runs at Windridge, the Fork, and Virginia, earning our gold medal in Beginner Novice along the way for finishing on a score under 35 at 3 different venues. (He also finished third in the Training at the Carolina International with Morgan this year!) Rocky rewrote all my goals and we made our unrecognized novice debut in June at Carolina Horse Park’s War Horse Event Series, finishing on our dressage score. It’s hard to believe that our next stop is Kentucky for the AEC!
Perhaps the most amazing part of all of this is that Rocky does it all with one eye. In 2017, he lost his left eye in an accident. He never missed a beat, returning to running Training the month after his eye was removed, and has since brought several riders up the levels. In spite of my fear and his limited vision, Rocky and I have had a blast eventing all over Area II. In the last 18 months, Rocky has carried me over my first ditch and wall, through my first coffin combination, and around my first 3’ course. The fear is still with me, in the back of my mind, waiting to rear its head. But the fear can never match the feeling I get when the starter says “have a great ride” and Rocky gallops out of the start box.
I am so grateful to be one of the lucky riders who has learned from Rocky, and eternally grateful that Morgan and Jammie have shared this special horse with me. Thank you, Rocky, Jammie, and Morgan for making this journey to the AEC possible.
About the USEA American Eventing Championships
The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds is the pinnacle of the sport for the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of horses and riders from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2019 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and took place with 925 starters, now standing as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2021 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held August 31 – September 5 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.
The USEA would like to thank presenting sponsor Nutrena Feeds, Advanced Final Title sponsor, Adequan, Platinum level sponsor Bates Saddles and Vetoquinol, Gold level sponsors Parker Equine Insurance, SmartPak, Standlee Hay, Silver level sponsors Auburn Laboratories, Mountain Horse, Park Equine, The Jockey Club, and Saratoga Horseworks. The USEA would like to thank all other sponsors supporting the 2021 AEC as well.
The 2021 USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) Championships will take place at three different regional competitions. The first of the three to kick off the FEH Championship season is the FEH East Coast Championships which will start on Saturday, September 25, and run through Sunday, September 26 at Loch Moy Farm in Adamstown, Maryland. The 2021 USEA FEH Central and West Coast Championships will take place in October.
What a week in Aachen! Nicole is joined by Erik Duvander and Jenni Autry to relive a brilliant week for U.S. riders in Aachen in this special bonus episode.
When Daniel Stickney met his future wife Kathy in college, he had zero involvement in the horse world. Kathy had ridden as a teen and after marrying in graduate school, the couple was invited on a trail ride by an acquaintance who owned a boarding and lesson barn. That trail ride sparked Kathy’s fire for riding again and she began working at the barn to help offset costs of lessons and boarding for her first horse, Kismet. Suddenly Daniel found himself in the saddle as well. The two have been riding together for over 30 years now.
Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.