Madeline Backus, the inaugural recipient of the Wilton Fair Grant, is spending the 2018 season working with Irish international rider Austin O’Connor at Attington Stud in Thame, Oxfordshire and is sharing her experiences with us.
There is no such thing as a fairytale in the horse world. Many journeys to the top levels have their magical moments, but reality will quickly kick in. My story with my heart horse, P.S. Arianna (Ari), is pretty darn close to a fantasy though. Even if it may seem all unicorns and rainbows, I can assure you there have been many evils and villains along the way. I’m facing the toughest one now, and I’m learning to grow a thicker skin and ride the waves as they come in.
I’ve been in the UK, based with Austin O’Connor at Attington Stud since March. Last year, I wouldn’t have ever dreamed I’d be able to be in England, let alone with not one, but two horses. This amazing feat is possible in massive thanks to the Wilton Fair Grant and the Rebecca Broussard National Developing Rider Grant. In four months I’ve already learned so much, and that is not by any means because everything has gone smoothly. I’ve made friends and connections that I will never forget, made many mistakes, and have had many days of laughter and success, as well as days of homesickness and stress (shoutout to my wonderful family for their endless support through my many panicked phone calls).
Ari, Grace Simpson, Madeline's best friend and groom, with Madeline and Ari. Photo courtesy of Madeline Backus.
In my mind, I had pictured nothing less than an amazing season. Completing another one, possibly two four-star events with Ari, and bringing along my second horse, P.S. On Top of the World (Vinnie) to the Intermediate/two-star level. The start of the season was super. I completed two Advanced horse trials with Ari in the crazy England spring mud as my preparation for Badminton. I learned the British entry system and what eventing is like over here.
Before I knew it, it was Badminton week. The saying goes it takes a village, and it really does on the good days. On the not so good days, it takes even more, and I’m grateful for everyone’s support through a disappointing weekend and my best friend and groom, Grace Simpson, for coming out to be there for Ari and me. It was still a magical experience, but having a fall at fence 10 jerked me back to reality. Luckily it was only a small tumble and we were both fine. Plan B quickly came into effect. Since Ari had only run to fence ten before I messed it up, I gave her a week off and then geared up for the CCI3* at Bramham International.
Ari (P.S. Arianna) and Madeline at Belton. Photo courtesy of Madeline Backus.
In the two weeks leading up to it, everything seemed to go awry. To start, Vinnie was rushed in for colic surgery. I had just entered him in his first UK event after he was cleared from a minor injury he had last fall. He was really improving in the program here and felt great, so it was really scary and gutting to watch him go through a complicated colic. To top off my week, Ari began not to feel herself. I chose to withdraw from Bramham and not risk anything. I still went and helped Austin with his three horses and cheered on the American riders. It’s a beautiful venue and an amazing competition, but it’s never fun going to an event you were supposed to be competing in.
With both my horses out, I found myself questioning everything. Ari is 17 this year, and it’s my responsibility to listen to her and not push her past her love of the sport just for my sake after all she has given me. And Vinnie is making a good but slow comeback. In these times it’s difficult to stay positive about things and easy to imagine the worst-case scenarios. Being so far away from home doesn’t make it easier, even with all the wonderful people here who have been so kind and helped me through this situation. I am so grateful to the O’Connors, my British family, and everyone here who graciously got me back and forth from the vet clinic to visit Vinnie and let me borrow a lorry to transport him—I now know I can successfully drive over here! For now, I’ll be taking a step back to regroup, and will be competing other horses here and still making the most of this trip - the learning never stops, and I’m not about to let this setback define this amazing adventure.
Austin O'Connor and Lucky Contender wait their turn at the trot-up. Photo courtesy of Madeline Backus.
I’m not writing this to make people sad for what’s happened because I know I am still extremely lucky to be living this life, rather I think it’s important to put out there all the challenges we face as horse people. Social media is filled with superficial perfection (which I am a culprit of as well). It is nice to see, but you also rarely see the behind the scene struggles and the trials and tribulations it takes to get to those flawless days. So post all your success stories and show off the perfect pictures so you can remember them, but on the bad days, don’t forget that everyone has been there too. It’s a tough sport and we all need to cheer each other on, and be grateful we can share our lives with our incredible horses. The bad days only make the good days that much better. And we are SO lucky to be doing what we love, even if on some days that love makes you feel a little manic. After all, we don’t continue this sport day after day just because. It’s a fiery passion that drives us to team up with our equine partners and be ruthless in chasing our dreams together. Whenever I feel myself wavering from that, I think back to when I was five years old and fantasizing about being among the top riders in the world as I played my equestrian computer games or rode on my stick horse, imagining I was riding around Kentucky, Badminton, and Burghley. Well, here I am, and I plan to do my best to keep calm and kick on.
Administered by USEA Foundation, the Wilton Fair Grant has been made possible through the generosity of David and Cheryl Lenaburg. The Rebecca Broussard National Developing Rider Grant has been in place since 2011 through the kindness of the family of the late Rebecca Broussard.
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