I’ve written quite a few “horse show recap” posts since creating the blog, but hands down, this has to be the most special one yet. You see, I feel as if every blog I’ve written about our competition experiences have been small stepping-stones to this particular entry.
Special thanks to everyone who voted towards a post dedicated to this topic. Your positive responses were astounding!
Leading up to the Finals, training commenced as it usually does when we’re in the heat of show season. Short and powerful was the approach I took, and it seemed to be suiting Leah well. Each day, we touched on the pirouettes and the tempi changes - these two movements are still "hit or miss" for us in the show ring, something we've worked diligently to improve since beginning our FEI career together. I wouldn’t say we did anything specific, other than more days were centered around the actual movements as opposed to training for the movement. Looking back, there isn’t much I would add now. I feel as if we prepared to the best of our ability for a competition on such a large scale, especially being first timers. I wish I had a secret or tip to share that I used to mentally prepare, but honestly, if you've never competed in a venue so grandiose, the only way to overcome any fretfulness is to just get out there and do it.
Fast forward to our arrival at the Kentucky Horse Park. Driving into Lexington's beauty had already blown me away – hello horse girl heaven – but I found myself totally speechless once I laid eyes on the Alltech Arena. We had barely walked five steps away from our car before a sea of intimidation swallowed me hole. My first thought? How in the hell would Leah handle this atmosphere?! She's been on a trailer for two days, we've never, EVER, competed in a place like this, it's cold, Lord help me.
Needless to say, my thoughts were running rampant.
Just a cute 'lil slideshow of some snapshots I snagged throughout the week!
Taking a deep breath and regaining my composure, I channeled my concentration into readying Leah’s stall before my trainers greeted us outside of the heated barn. (By the way, the heated barn is a must and a serious lifesaver. I 10/10 recommend.) Leah settled into her surroundings almost immediately, munching on fresh coastal while observing her "hotel room" with subtle curiosity. Once our belongings were neatly unpacked from the trailer, Eva and I made our plan for the morning, said our goodnights, and proceeded to fill our stomachs with some of Kentucky’s best fare...
Carson's, you're delicious and we need you in Texas, please.
The next morning, schooling day in the Alltech Arena went off without a hitch. As I said in my Instagram post, Leah embraced the massive stadium with a willingly brave mindset. I couldn’t have been more proud of her as she confidently marched around the bustling arena without flicking a single ear. In fact, as we were walking around the perimeter of the white competition walls, a vendor from above dropped what sounded like an arm full of metal pipe. Leah continued without a wince. She was more relaxed than I was; I swear, if she could verbally tell her mother to calm down and breathe, she would.
Her poise continued to radiate through the following mornings of work. Schooling time in the Alltech was scheduled from 6:00AM – 7:30AM; both Thursday and Friday, and we were riding tempi changes by sunrise.
Despite tired eyes, I thoroughly enjoyed practicing at such wee hours. Shoutout to the coffee trailer parked conveniently outside of our stalls and entrance to the Alltech. You were a gem.
Due to my relaxed schedule during the weekdays, we were able to truly enjoy the competition, as well as some of Kentucky’s most spectacular sights. The caliber of horses (there were almost 400 entries!!) is something I can’t begin to put into words. From Warmbloods to Arabians to paints to quarter horses to a mule (yes, a dressage mule,) this competition embraced the underlying fact: dressage is for every horse. Watching the professionals compete in the FEI Divisions was a high point – you see all the bigger names in the press or on USEF Network, but it’s completely different watching them perform in person. Truly inspirational stuff.
On my Instagram, I spoke a lot about our rides leading up to Saturday, but I didn’t go much into detail about the day of my championship ride. Good thing I'm able to ramble on and on via the blog, huh?
Saturday morning, I woke up in tears. My throat was burning-sore, I couldn’t breathe out of my nose, and I felt achy all over. Allergies had struck, but I'm convinced they were combined with sheer tiredness. Barrett, the love of my life, promptly drove to the nearest drug store and brought me back a handful of cold and allergy medications… and a yummy bagel breakfast sandwich (is he good or is he good?) – shoutout to Great Bagel in downtown Lexington. My mom, the best mother a daughter could ever dream of having, offered her consolation and advice, explaining to me that if I wanted to scratch my championship class, I could. She, of course, was just proud I had made it to the Finals. I, however, knew that we did not drive all the way to Kentucky for severe allergies to rob me of my biggest goal.
I wiped the mist from my eyes, pulled on my white breeches, and told myself that the only way I was scratching my class was if I didn’t have a pulse. My puny feeling manifested itself through nerves, and not the "normal" nerves. I’m talking full fledge, pit in my stomach, nausea-inducing nerves. Lovely, right? And while we're on the topic of honesty, the only mental image flashing in my mind was Leah bolting, me falling off and landing smack-dab in the middle of all the USEF Network cameras.
Fun fact, and nobody judge me, but my mom sensed my bundle of anxiety and promptly led me to the bar near vendor row. There's not much of anything that a few sips of whiskey on the rocks can't cure. My nerves were one of them. Yes, I took a glorified shot of whiskey before tacking Leah up. Sue me, it worked!!! Don't knock it until you try it - but make sure you're legal drinking age and appreciate it responsibly, kay.
ANY WHO, back to tacking up.
While I slipped on my stock tie and shadbelly, Eva graciously groomed Leah to a perfect shine. A good trainer can pick up on when her student it nervous. A great trainer takes matters into their own hands, completing simple tasks like tacking up while her student can get "in the zone." Thank you, Eva, for always knowing when I need a little hand holding. Before I knew it, we were making our way into the warm-up arena.
Typically, I plan our warm-up for 40 minutes, 10 of which are dedicated to walking at the beginning. Our Finals warm-up routine was no different. Maintaining the short and powerful mojo, we fired Leah up to the right amount of spice until she remained forward and in front of my leg without so much effort needed on my end. I drew last to go in the Intermediate I Freestyle Championship, a position I pray to be in at every single regional championship. In my opinion, you always want to go last. It gives the judges a memorable impression and you don’t have to wait nearly as long to find out your placing.
While in the warm-up, I desperately tried to channel the commotion of my surroundings out of my realm. It is SO easy to become distracted (or even discouraged) when you hear scores such as 75% going up on the leader board before you’ve even set foot in front of the judges. You have to focus on yourself and your partner, regardless of the quality of the horse that's trotting past you. Interrupting my train of thought was the gatekeeper. He called my name, followed by “you’re on deck." Walking down the tunnel to the in-gate was an outer body experience. Eva offered final advice that I filed into my Rolodex, but if you asked me today what she said to me in that moment, I simply don’t remember.
The rider’s score before me flashed upon the big screen, which translated into my cue to enter the adult amateur's biggest stage on United States turf. One of my followers named the Alltech “the gauntlet,” and this my friends is an accurate description once you’re in there all by yourself. Leah radiated metaphorical electric waves underneath my seat, gawking at every possible thing she could find. She was a completely different animal than days prior to this point. My riding dramatically shifted into making sure she was confident, calm, and first and foremost, listening to her human.
Let's not even talk about the fact that my legs had turned to Jell-O by this point. It's fine.
Major photo credit to Barrett, who captured the week from behind the camera.
Just like that, the bell rang and I was signaling for my music to begin. Overall, I was pleased with my test. We had mistakes in the 3’s, our pirouettes should have been SO much better (rider error, for sure), and Leah's tension was blatantly obvious. However, she stayed forward, happily parading through the maneuvers without sucking behind the aids. A huge improvement for us as a team. I smiled continuously during my performance – how could I not? Riding in this venue, at this competition, has been a dream we have worked towards for almost two years, especially with making the cut last year and declining the invitation. We might've been green beans, total newbies, rookies, but we held our own up against seasoned competitors.
After our final salute, I cried as I praised Leah. I frantically tried to catch my breath through sickly, muted sobs. I'm sure the bit-checker believed I was having a heart attack (hyperventilating when you have a cold is glorious), but she sweetly made light of my emotions by asking me if my tears were happy or sad. Happy, of course.
What a thrill, what a rush. Nothing will ever compare to riding down that centerline.
I lingered in the warm-up arena awaiting to hear my score announced through the speakers. Barrett covered Leah's hindquarters with our cooler like clockwork while I shared a special moment of more happy tears with my mom; we are so thankful for them. A 60.8% in bright lights, one point away from a 10th place ribbon. We had finished a respectable 12th place. Allow me to reiterate that this competition was NOT about the ribbons. It was all about the experience. However, my inner perfectionist, OCD, over-achiever really wanted that dang baby blue neck sash! Next year is our year to proudly sport one, I've decided.
Overall, to be at the US Dressage Finals was nothing short of a long awaited dream turned into fruition. A show like this forces you to ride outside of your comfort zone, something I learned that Leah and I needed. We needed to find a new spark; we needed a fire lit underneath us. It challenges you to be better versions of your partnership; it pushes you to ride at your very best. This is the motivation I was so fiercely searching for as repeatedly showing in venues you’ve known for so long can make one feel a bit complacent. At the Finals, you become a small fish in a big pond as opposed to the other way around.
I want to say a huge thank you to so many people. My incredible support team – my mom, my stepdad and dad, my boyfriend, my trainers, and lastly, my friends who were present along the way to my journey to Kentucky – you all keep me going, and I am blessed to have each of you. The folks who make the Finals happen – USDF, USEF, Adequan, Great American Insurance Group, SmartPak, and other great sponsors; the volunteers, officials, judges, scribes, Kentucky Horse Park staff – everyone!! You all hit it out of the park. The facilities were fantastic, and the show couldn’t have run any smoother than it did.
My mom and my trainer.
Also, THANK YOU to Eric and his gorgeous wife, Amy, of Hound & Hare for carrying the Mare Mantra and Mare Person shirts at their booth during the show. This was a dream come true in itself – seeing my shirts paired with such a marvelous family of brands. Eric and Amy could not have been sweeter, and I’m already excited to (hopefully) see them at next year’s Finals!
Alyssa from Blue Ribbon Braiding, and Black Fox Farm, thank you both for gifting me with stunning braids. Leah looked so marvelous and so beautiful, if I do say so myself.
To my Instagram family, you all are simply wonderful. The amount of support each of you provided touched my heart in ways I cannot describe. I love sharing my journey with you, as you’ve become a huge factor in my path with Leah. When I’m feeling discouraged, you’re there. When I have exciting news to share, you’re there. When I need help, you’re there. Seriously, how lucky am I to have you all on my side? Bearing the privilege of meeting a few of you in Kentucky was a true highlight of my trip. I so look forward to sharing our upcoming adventures in 2019, and I cannot wait to follow your journeys as well.
Lastly, the biggest thank you goes to my once in a lifetime mare. Leah, you are extraordinary… you are my heart horse, my rock, my best friend, my confidant, my partner, my blessing. You bring me such joy on a daily basis and I’m humbled you selected me as your person. We have made leaps and bounds on our path together. You’ve taught me things about life, about myself, and about how important trust, love, and respect is when it comes to any amount of success. You have carried me to achievements I thought I would never obtain, showing me that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. It hasn’t been easy, and you never give anything away, but you’ve taught me to how to ride, how to finesse, and how to ask with grace and patience.
I love you more than you’ll ever know. I can’t wait for what’s next in store for us.