Catch up on Danielle and her mare’s journey to get to the Morgan Grand Nationals competition, click here..

Monday

By Monday morning, The Mare was 120% over being in a stall.  I spent the day alternating between taking her for walks, brushing her off, scrubbing tack, polishing boots, and just letting her hang out.  She was happy to just chill out in front of our stall while I worked on other stuff, she just did not want to be in her stall anymore.  The lunging arena cleared out a few times during the day, so we trekked up the barn shed row and took some laps up there as well, but given most of the venue was on concrete, I was trying to balance the concussion on the hard ground with finding a solution for my stir-crazy horse.  As the weather allowed (still raining), we went to hand-graze.

I went up to the show office and got my packet with all my courses for the week and sat down to start memorizing the first class, and once the jumps were set up for the evening, Trainer and I took a peek to solidify the course in my head.

Per usual horse show ‘hurry-up-and-wait’, everything happened very quickly once the evening session started.  The announcer started saying something about schooling rounds (which neither Trainer nor I knew what was going on with those, but we thought we needed to be at the arena pronto) so we threw tack on, booked it over the sport horse arena, only to find out that the schooling rounds were for an additional fee, and most everyone who was schooling was there for the hunter classes. Whoops.

So now we had a lot of time to kill. But not knowing how long all the hunter classes would take, I wasn’t keen on taking her back to the stalls and untacking. So we waited. And waited. And warmed up a little. And waited. And by ‘wait’, I mean walked, because The Mare was NOT standing still.

When we were nearing the end of the hunter classes at nearly 9 p.m., we popped over a few warm-up fences and waited for the hunters to clear out and the jump crew to put up the timers and adjust fences.

I would be first in, in our first Grand Nationals class. Trying not to panic, trying to listen to what Trainer was reminding me, “just let her be – don’t pick at her too much”, trying not to think too hard about everyone who was at home watching the live stream… I thought about one of my friends from undergrad who always *wanted* to be first in the ring for her over fences classes so she could set the bar and then watch everyone else. I told myself to emulate her.

Photo by Howard Schatzberg Photography

I went in the ring, heard them announce my name alongside my Mare’s and we went to it.  Chalk it up to nerves, but we were very conservative in both our first round and subsequent jump-off; but we left the fences up and our first class was under our belt – regardless of the outcome.

My biggest competition for the week – a lovely rider from the New England area and her beautiful liver chestnut mare – had an unfortunate rail at the last fence, and The Mare and I ended up being the only clear round.

I cannot explain the feeling of standing in the winner’s circle, or the pride of seeing a neck ribbon be placed on your horse – it was surreal.

We headed back the stalls, untacked and packed it in for the night as quickly as humanly possible and I set about answering the onslaught of texts and Facebook notifications I had from friends and family who had seen our first win of the week.

Tuesday

Tuesday we would have another jumper class in the afternoon, but would start the morning off with the newly-added Sport Horse Under Saddle division.  I was hoping that having 2 classes would help The Mare and her restlessness, which was only getting worse the longer we were in Oklahoma.

One of the biggest lessons I learned while in OKC: The Mare does not like flat classes.

In a large field of 19 for the inaugural class for this division, The Mare was just NOT having it.  Too many horses, too much going on, and then right before we headed down the ramp to one of the ‘fancier’ arenas where the class would be held, Trainer and I had to navigate a snafu in our attire and tack.  We went in, both of us practically frothing at the mouth (The Mare because, wow, there was a lot going on; me because I was trying not to lose my composure after fighting a vague tack and attire appointment rule to even enter the ring). I used all the skills from IHSA of going in circles with large volumes of people, realizing only then that The Mare had likely never done something like this in her life. I was holding together a firecracker – I could tell she was really trying for me, but she really just wanted to leave that arena as soon as possible.

I told myself I just wanted to make it through the class as best we could, and I was not expecting much – at this point I was just trying to not make it a god-awful experience for The Mare. As we stood in the lineup (and by ‘stood’ I mean circled every 0.5 seconds), I was pleasantly surprised to hear our name – we finished 8th out of 19.

For a horse that didn’t have a true 3-beat canter on both leads until very recently, I was pretty excited that she could hold her own in a flat class. And given that success, I promised her that I’d never make her do a flat class again.

As we geared up for the next jumper class, Trainer urged me, “you HAVE to be faster”.  My competition, had she not had the rail, would have definitely left us in the dust.  Her mare – just a little bigger than mine, had a much bigger step and we could both tell that her mare had another gear hiding.

I have been doing so much training on balance and collection, working on the quality of the gaits, the quality of the jumps – speed wasn’t ever something we worked on.  And even in undergrad, my trainer there always told us – work on the jumps and the path first, the speed will come after.

I still jumped before my competition, so I knew I’d have to set the bar and try to keep the pressure on her.  Still a little amped from the flat class earlier in the day, The Mare was more than happy to answer my request for a fiery pace, and we shaved almost 15 seconds off our round from the previous day. We left the fences up in both the first round and the jump-off, and Trainer was pleased (albeit a little surprised I think, too) at the pace we had around the arena.

My competition went clear her first round, and this time, we saw that hidden gear from her mare. Was I fast enough? As she finished up her jump-off, the second-to-last fence tipped out of the cups.  But, we heard the announcer, “folks you aren’t going to believe this”.  Our jump-off time was the exact same, down to the .01 of a second. Had she not had the unlucky rail, we would’ve been headed into a second jump-off. I put the pressure on, but she was right behind us, reminding us that we would have to bring it all for the next day.

What was really cool, was that between the flat class and the jumper classes to this point, we had talked with this girl and her trainer a fair amount, and they were all just so incredibly kind.  My biggest competition was wishing me luck as I headed in the ring and complimenting my mare when we walked out.  We spent the time waiting for the arena joking and talking about our horses and it was just a totally different competition atmosphere that I am used to.

For the second time in 2 days, my Mare was present with a big blue medallion, and I heard my horse announced a Grand National Champion once again.

Photo by Kim Neumeyer

Before we headed back to the stalls, our new friends pointed out that my win had secured my World Champion high point title as well; Wednesday’s class – whatever the result – would be icing on the cake.

Wednesday

The last class of the week was in the morning, so I got to pretty much feed the ever-growing impatient Mare and then get ready for our class. As the week had gone on, I’d gotten more comfortable, and I was ready to end the week having fun, especially seeing as the pressure was less with the bigger title secured.

We went in, tackled the course and this time, came back out for the remaining riders to do their courses before the jump-off.  As we headed back in for the final jump-off, I told myself that I was just going to go for it, leave it all here in the ring in our final class.  The Mare was raring to go, and I felt I could push her a little for a blazing jump-off round.  I picked up a very forward canter and we booked it to the first fence.  Turning around the far end to the second fence, we were both locked on and then suddenly I felt The Mare slip out underneath herself in the deep footing, and she fell.

I hit the ground a fraction of a second before she did, my leg between her and the ground; luckily the footing was soft and deep (also the reason I think she fell to begin with), and as her body weight came on top of me, the footing gave way.  The Mare slid, but made a conscious effort to not keep sliding on top of me. She scrambled to her feet, and I popped up right after she did.

She looked fine, and other than my white breeches being rust-colored, so was I. The ring steward we’d made friends with over the course of the week came running into the arena towards us, but Trainer and I ran the stirrups up on my saddle and we walked out of the ring unscathed. Luckily, we had had one of the only clear first rounds, and so our new friend from New England went in for a lackadaisical jump-off (she hadn’t even wanted to go in since she was the only other rider in the jump-off, but since I had cleared the first jump, she had to.  I thought that was super sweet of her) claimed the Grand National champion title, and The Mare and I were Reserve.

They presented the World Champion titles immediately concluding the last jumper class, and luckily we fell on our right side so the white breeches and saddle pad were pristine as we accepted our GIANT tricolor, cooler, plaque, halter and rosettes. It might have been the adrenaline, but I was on Cloud 9.

Going back over the video from our fall and talking to Trainer, I cannot say there is anything I would have changed about how I rode the jump-off. It wasn’t a super sharp turn, she was balanced, I wasn’t creeping up her neck. We had a lot of momentum, and when she lost her footing, she just fell.  A year ago, that error would have bothered me to the point of consumption.  Now, I was able to look at it through a clearer lens.  Did the timing of it all suck? Yes. But it wasn’t the end of the world; my horse and I were both fine, and these things happen sometimes.

We went back to the stall to pick all the arena sand out of my tack before the awards ceremony.

That afternoon, in what is probably one of the coolest moments of my equestrian career, I trotted down the ramp with the neon ‘Gateway of Champions’ blaring above The Mare’s ears, with rosettes, neck medallions, Grand National champion, reserve champion and top 10 ribbons and her massive World Champion tricolor hanging off her breastplate. We went into the main coliseum, and I am not sure who was more proud – me or The Mare.

And just like that, it was done.  We took pictures of all The Mare’s spoils, and began the tear-down so we could leave first thing Thursday morning.  The Mare practically loaded herself, and just as calmly as she traveled out to OKC, she handled the ride home just the same.

We met a BUNCH of really, really cool people – the hunters down the aisle from us, the group of dressage exhibitors all around us, and of course, our East Coast jumper friends; and the sport horse Morgan people we met while in OKC definitely made the show as enjoyable as it was.

Breed shows are a totally different beast, and I can’t say that I would go back given

Photo by Howard Schatzberg Photography

some of the experiences that we had; but I don’t regret going. We finished MGN in the finest style I could’ve asked for.  We came, we saw, we conquered; and a $600 rescue mare, trained nearly exclusively by an amateur (with a MASSIVE support system), left OKC a World Champion.

And just as a quick plug, there are so many people to thank for our success – my family for supporting me adopting a scraggly mare that I felt some kind of Hollywood horse movie connection with, and putting up with me monopolizing the car to be with her every day.  To the trainer who helped me put the miles on her the first year and a half I had her and guided me through not only training a horse, but also how to navigate horse ownership. To the trainers at my undergrad who believed as much as I did that The Mare could jump things (and then when she proved us right, for continuing to foster our education together), to everyone who ever believed in our journey and encouraged this crazy plan.

And to my current Trainer, who flipped my style of riding on its end and have made The Mare and I infinitely better than I could have imagined in just a year and a half; who has given us a barn family once again; who have given me the sanctuary and escape of a barn I can be myself in; who continues to demand improvement from us but also reminds us what we do is supposed to be fun; who gives me opportunities I didn’t think I’d have once I was in vet school; and who facilitated this dream coming true. It wouldn’t have happened without her, and our success belongs largely on her shoulders.

So over a year of planning, saving, blogging (and many more years of dreaming and hoping and wishing) is at its close – and I couldn’t have asked for more of a fairy tale ending.