I walked off of the cross country course in tears yesterday. Sweat poured off of my face, and the tears caught into the black mane and glistening neck of my thoroughbred. I patted him on the neck as they ran from my eyes, not even sure how to process what had just happened. The tears were so reminiscent of what had happened so many times over a decade ago with another thoroughbred. But then I looked up and saw a herd of my friends running towards me, fists pumping into the air and huge smiles on their face. For once these tears were not of frustration and sadness, but instead the surreal feeling of accomplishing a goal you honestly never thought was possible. It was May Daze HT 2015, and I had finally gone Training level.
To so many young riders, professionals, or even the amazing adult amateurs, this seems like such a puny goal. Training level is only 3’3, it’s not considered an “upper level”, and for mosts it isn’t daunting. But for a sixteen year old girl who’s dreams of making it to the upper levels and completing the high ratings of Pony Club depended on successful outings at Training level; outtings that never went successfully, this was a milestone. Training level was the reason I dropped out of Pony Club. Training level was the reason I spent the majority of my teenage years in a fight with my parents. And training level was the reason I quit competing horses over 10 years ago.
12 years ago I walked off of the Training level course on another bay thoroughbred, tears streaming down my face, adrenaline pouring out of my body, and made the realization that eventing wasn’t fun anymore. There would be no C-3, nonetheless A in Pony Club as my DC demanded that I complete a Training level event in order to rate up. There would be no Young Riders, as I couldn’t even kick around a Training level course, nonetheless a 1*, and my parents weren’t the type to just buy/lease me another horse to attempt the move up. And there would be no eventing. Plain and simple. It just wasn’t fun. Not only wasn’t it fun, but it was turning me into a horrible person. I would come back to the barn and scream at my mom, telling her that none of this was my fault, and that she put too much pressure on me to be the champion rider that she had been. I would scream at my trainer and tell her that I wasn’t scared of the damn water, but Levi was. I would ostracize myself from my barn friends and fear and sadness filtered through my veins and was projected as just plain bitchiness. I didn’t like who I was becoming. So I quit. For eight years.
But then four years ago I attended this same event, May Daze HT 2011, to watch a friend compete at Beginner Novice. I hadn’t been to an event besides Rolex since my “retirement” at the age of 17, but as we walked the XC course, the adrenaline began pumping back into my veins and my eyes grew wider. For the first time in years, I actually felt like I WANTED this. The rush of jumping massive walls in tandem with your best friend, the wind rushing past your ears on a good gallop set, and the feeling of accomplishment when you crossed the finish flags. I turned to her and said that I wanted out of my self inflicted retirement. I wanted to event.
Flash forward 6 months laters and she was the one asking me to event. She had her pintaloosa pony Miles and needed him sold. It was a win/win for both of us, as I would get to gallop around those beginner novice courses I had been dreaming of, and she would get someone to put a record on her pony in order to sell him for a decent price. We shook on it, loaded him onto the trailer, hauled him to my farm, and began on this journey back into the world of eventing. For months, Miles and I just bonded as I tried to remember how to ride. Simple things like asking for a shoulder in, keeping my leg down, or even just braiding seemed to have vanished from my brain. But by the time that May Daze HT 2012 rolled by, I felt ready – and it was off to my first event in over 8 years. We galloped around the Beginner Novice course like it was nothing, and I remember galloping through the finish flags and thinking “Oh ya. THIS. This is why I used to love doing this.” There is absolutely no better feeling than that. That camaraderie, teamwork, and partnership. The trust that goes from your hands, seat, and leg, and somehow transmits to your horses side and head – willing him forward over obstacles that he doesn’t even know the other side of. There is nothing else like it.
But as is with sales horses, Miles was sold in October of 2012, and again, I was without a horse and without eventing. This didn’t last for long though, and I soon received an offer from a great friend to come ride one of her horses, Mak. He was a 4 year old thoroughbred off of the track that she had been working with as a project, and wanted to see if I liked him. I drove to her barn, gave her a hug, and she opened the stall door to this beast of hers. I stared up at him and thought “wow, he looks like Levi.” Just like the horse that had taken me through my childhood, he was over 16 hands high, he was a rich dark bay, with a large star squarely between the kindest of eyes. She left me alone in his stall while she went to tack up her other horse, and I quickly tacked him up and led him out to the ring. I swung up and looked around, noticing that a crowd had started to arise around the arena. I kicked Mak forward into a long and lazy trot, and then a lopey canter, and finally a walk on a loose rein. With each stride, the smile on my face grew. I could just tell this horse was COOL. He wasn’t the most athletic horse, he didn’t ripple with muscle and energy, and lord knows he wasn’t built like the cliche Rolex horse, but what he lacked in these, he made up for in willingness. His attitude was that of “oh, ok. sure. whatever.” I affectionately called him a little stoner, as he did not act like your cliche young thoroughbred who had recently raced. I giggled as we loped over little flower boxes, beamed when he finally picked up his left lead, and just felt my heart growing bigger with each step. At the end of the ride, I stopped and patted him on the neck, turned to my friend and just said “Chels – you’ve got a good one here. He’s really cool.”
I went home that night and told my boyfriend about this awesome horse I had ridden. Tears began to well in my eyes when I realized that everyone else had a nice horse, and with this eventing bug still so recently reinfected in my life, I was horseless. I knew that Mak was a horse that I could work with, our personalities just meshed so well, but I also knew that I had just started graduate school, was essentially broke, and wasn’t sure if I’d even have the time, nonetheless the money, for my own horse. I called my mom and told her about him. I explained that he was looked so much like Levi, reminded me so much of Natty (another horse that I had recently ridden), and that I was just in love. I waited for her to respond with a normal motherly response – one of “oh, that’s nice, too bad” and instead she said “Go get him Carleigh. You have been more happy in the last 6 months than you have in the past 6 years. Get him.”
A day later, Mak became mine.
For two and a half years now, Mak and I have come together to form a great partnership. I tried to take the mistakes I had made with Levi and learn from them, attempting with every fiber of my being not to redo them with Mak. For his 4 year old year, we did almost nothing but hack on a loose rein. We walked through ditches, we swam through creeks, we galloped through fields, and we learned to love to discover new things. I took away the trust I had learned from my time working as a wrangler in Wyoming and gave that trust to him, and in return, Mak offered no naughtiness. He was so simple. He was happiest with no contact on his mouth, out on a trail, sniffing out new adventures. I had finally found a horse who shared the same bravery and adventurous soul as myself…I was so happy.
We began jumping smaller jumps, and it became quite obvious that Mak had a knack for it. He did not care what was in or on the jump, he just spent as little amount of energy to clear it, and then proceeded on in his ambling lope. So in the spring of his 5 year old year I entered him in his first Beginner Novice, which he completed with his eyes closed. And then I entered him in his first Novice, and again, he galloped around without a hitch. But after Novice, I was done. I didn’t know how to do Training – many people and one horse had made that pretty apparent in my life. I finally had “the horse” that was fully capable, but I wasn’t capable of getting him there. I pondered on this for a few nights and then made the realization that while I might not have the skills to capably get him around, I knew quite a few people who did. When funds allowed it, I would call and train with fantastic people – Sharon Vander Ziel in dressage, and Allie Knowles in jumping. And when funds didn’t allow, I would call numerous friends who themselves were competing at the upper levels to come school with me. I didn’t care who offered the criticism or critique, I just wanted feedback. I was adamant – this mental, emotional, and possibly physical block of training level HAD to get out of my life. I entered into the Training Level Rider division at the same event that 4 years ago drew me back in to this amazing, heartbreaking, fabulous, unnerving, and uncertain game that we all love. I was officially entered at Training level at May Daze HT 2015.
Flash forward to yesterday afternoon, and I was walking off of the cross country course with tears streaming down my face. Only for the first time in my life, they weren’t tears of sadness or frustration. They were tears of happiness, or maybe even disbelief. I had finally done it. I had gone Training level. And not just gone Training level, I had CONQUERED Training level – going cleanly around the 20 obstacles without even a hesitation. And I had done it on a horse I had brought up myself. I had taken away the mistakes I had made as a teenager, and revamped my training process. I had taken away the bravery I had gained during my cowgirling years in Wyoming and applied them to eventing. And I had taken away my pride and asked for help from outstanding professionals that I trusted with every fiber of my being. I looked up and blinked away the tears to see my boyfriend and my friends striding towards me with smiles on their faces. They knew how important this was to me, and they knew that the tears were deserved. I got hugs, hand shakes, and fist bumps, instead of the frowns and sideways glances I was used to after a Training level event.
And I know. It might not be Young Riders, it might not be Rolex, and lord knows it isn’t the Olympics, but it is my own championship. I didn’t even get a ribbon, finishing in 14th. But in my mind, May Daze HT 2015 is a milestone. And Mak and me? Well, we’re champions.