By Juliyana Straley

Like most kids, I started my riding journey at a local 4h barn.  Love and laughter constantly filled the barn; there was nothing I enjoyed more than going to my weekly lessons.  Not surprisingly, as a young kid and teenager, dressage was low on my list of priorities.  All I wanted to do was jump; hay bales, chairs, barrels it didn’t matter.  Jumping horses was what I wanted to do with my life.  Dressage was boring and I had little interest in it.

That was until I began to ride at Southview Farm in Mt. Morris, Michigan. While the horse I boarded there was stall-rested due to constant abscesses and other injuries, I got the opportunity to take lessons on a gorgeous, 16.2 hand Hanoverian gelding named Donnerstolz, or DR.

Interesting is one way to describe my first lesson– as a novice dressage rider on an established dressage horse. My first lesson was frustrating and to be honest, I did not want to ride him again.  I could barely get him to trot (due to my own faults) and when I could, it was only for a 20 meter circle, if that.  My pride suffered; I was a good 4h rider and not yet a good dressage rider.

I kept taking lessons on DR to gain experience and with my skills and interest in dressage expanding, my parents and I decided to lease DR. After a few weeks I could easily trot but the canter was another story.  Even after a month of riding this horse, I could get about three strides of canter before flailing into the trot.  I’m not kidding, it was that bad.  I could barely do a  20 meter circle on this horse.  And a shoulder in? That was a good joke.

The first show of the season was coming up and I wanted to go to it more than anything. A few days before, we decided to stay home; saving our money was the best option because I didn’t stand a chance anyway.  My frustration fueled my riding and I rode as much as possible, took multiple lessons per week, and we eventually entered our first show a couple weeks later at Training level and the results were more than I could have ever hoped for. We easily qualified for regional championships with scores in the mid to high 60s, and we came home training level champion.  I will never forget the feeling of riding down centerline for the first time and being able to put the most beautiful tri colored ribbon on my horse’s halter.  My hard work had paid off and it continued to do so the rest of the summer.  We got our record high score of a 76.6% and qualified for the regional championships at first level.

From then on we were a dream team, winning almost every class we entered.  The next summer we progressed to second level and our future seemed brighter than ever.  I left for college in the fall and our fitness level dropped dramatically.  I was only riding about twice a week because of my academic class load and the commute to the barn.  I transferred to the University of Findlay for my second semester and decided to leave DR in training back at home.  After this heart-breaking decision, I began to appreciate my horse more than anything.  Going five weeks at a time without seeing him was hard, but he was improving and it turned out to be the best decision for us.  Then May came.

I got home from school and participated in a Lauren Sprieser clinic (who is amazing and if you ever get an opportunity to ride with her I highly suggest to do so) and DR was just not right.  He has always been a sensitive, drama-queen type horse but he was rearing, backing up into walls, and spooking left and right.  I have never been the most confident rider in the world so this scared me, bad.  Though Lauren got us through, it became evident that we were not the same team.  The Sunday after the clinic, I refused to get on my horse.  I was downright terrified, there is no other way to put it.  He was rearing, backing up, spinning, and running around like a maniac.  My mom had to come out and force me to get back on him.  My foot shook as I put it in the stirrup and my body trembled with every step.  It’s not easy to admit being afraid, but fear overtook my body.  Every fiber in my being told me not to get back on and walk away, but I didn’t.  It took many confidence building lessons and a couple months of intense training but we got our groove back.

We became our unstoppable team yet again and all of a sudden I had my sights set on my bronze medal.  My trainer and I drilled on increased collection, impulsion, and strengthening my position.  Training was going great and even though my trainer was on the fence if I should show 3rd level, I signed up.  Excited and nervous, I could not wait to attempt to get my bronze.  My dreams seemed to crash as I injured my knee a week before the show.  The pain was rather excruciating and I could hardly walk for about three days.  With a heavy heart I saw my hard work dwindle, how could I ride if I couldn’t walk?  The pain began to ease after days of icing and heavy doses of Motrin and I left for the show, unsure if I could ride.

It hurt.   Every big, powerful stride sent a shock of pain through my right knee, but DR took care of me.  He tried his absolute best and we received a 60% our first ride and a 65% our second, coming home reserve champion and bronze medal recipients.  I can’t explain how full my heart was after our final salute, it didn’t matter if we got our 60%+ score or not, we conquered the test.  Despite hardships throughout the years and some bad luck, we as a team came together.  He may not be an FEI horse (at the moment) and we may never go to NAJRYC.  He may not be easy to train–God knows I’m not either– but I wouldn’t trade him for the world.  Our partnership is special and our future, bright.  Every story has a moral, here is mine: Don’t give up.  Quitting never makes you feel better nor fills that empty space.  Keep on keeping on.  Push yourself to your limits and don’t let your fears and doubts stand in the way of your dreams.

Silver medal, here we come!