I desperately wish I had an organized idea of how I wanted to kick off this particular post. Usually, I can nail down an opening paragraph bold enough to hang with the best of bloggers. But, let’s face it. There is no optimal way to sugarcoat the following statement – I’m retiring my heart horse, once-in-lifetime mare from competition.
Six years ago, this day seemed so very far ahead in the distant future. Leah was 12 years old; I was 20 and struggling with severe confidence issues combined with oppressive fear. Her patience, poise, confidence and sensibility eased my tensions. Leah picked me to be her human just as I had equally chosen her to be my partner. Our goal list began with the most basic yet monumental of tasks such as finding bravery once again, and ended with dreams of earning medals combined with riding down FEI centerlines. What I didn’t necessarily know back then and what I’ve come to realize over the last 2,190-ish days? Maybe, just maybe, the bright bay Dutch Warmblood mare with the astoundingly symmetrical blaze needed my presence just as much as I unknowingly yearned for hers.
And now, we are here. Tale as old as time, all good things must come to an end. However, like my title above depicts: this isn’t the end, just our new beginning. I’ve repeated those words many, many times. They’ve served as a guiding beacon of hope whilst keeping my priorities straight, putting my own desires and outside opinions aside in order to do right by Leah. I am her advocate, her voice, and for all intents and purposes, her power of attorney. I’ve continually prided myself on prioritizing her overall wellness above most aspects in my life, including my own needs more times than I can estimate. When you’re a devoted horse person, this is just what you do. It comes naturally. Or at least, it does for my family and me.
Leah is the superb illustration of a mare that will show you her heart… once your respect has been signed, sealed, and delivered. I’ve made no bones about this, nor have I ever whitewashed the physicality required in order to bring out her true potential. In 2016, I could barely ride Leah through her back, on the bit, or round. My strength, finesse, and tact had not yet developed to where it is today. I often wondered if our partnership simulated the blind leading the blind through the training scale. You see, Leah might’ve known the tricks, but it’s not about the type of horse you have, it’s about how you grow as a rider in order to do their abilities justice. After a three-year hiatus from the show arena, we kicked off our competitive career at Third Level. Our scores were less than mediocre – low 60’s to mid 50’s set the foundation, and lit the spark, to the commitment of diligent training.
Three hundred sixty five days passed and under the guidance of my trainer, Eva Oldenbroek, Leah and I entered our first Prix St. Georges test. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and signing up for our FEI debut during a CDI competition weekend probably wasn’t my brightest decision, even if we were just in the open show… oops, oh well. We weren’t afraid of the challenge. Our calculated risk paid off in the long run as we earned our USDF Silver Medal that weekend before the eyes of international caliber judges. Following the summer of 2017, we signed up for the Intermediate-I on a whim. The work was clean, okay, clean enough, at home and we followed suit by making yet another “let’s fly by the seat of our pants!!!” decision. I felt the burning lump in my throat form as I saw a 68% flash upon the screen of my iPhone minutes after exiting the arena.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget this moment.
Three weeks later, we competed at the 2017 regional championships where Leah and I took home the Southwest Dressage Championships I-I AA Gold Medal, as well as the Great American Insurance Group/Region 9 I-I AA Championship, which earned us an invitation to US Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky.
Last year was rough. Last year was emotional. Last year was a cluster-mess of highs and lows. We began to discover holes within our training; unfortunately they reared their ugly head inside the white, plastic show walls. While working tirelessly to overcome connection hurtles, reactiveness problems, and consistency matters behind the scenes, Leah and I still came away with ticking off bucket list boxes. We showed our I-I Freestyle, sent entries into our first CDI competition against the professionals, clinced with Allison Brock, and most notably, earned an invitation and competed at the 2018 US Dressage Finals for our freestyle division. Our trip to Kentucky will harbor as my most beloved, “pinch me moment” competition memory.
During the start of this year, I knew in my soul that the following 12 months would unfold the final times in which we’d salute the judges from X. I accepted our new reality as it was, and not how I wished it to be. With Leah hitting eighteen in July, I could gratefully conclude that she had not only surpassed every single expectation I subconsciously set, but we were able to achieve most everything on my goal list as a dressage rider. Honest to goodness, it does not get much better than that, especially at age twenty-six. There are no words to ever describe just how thankful or how blessed I feel to have shared so many experiences with one hell of a teammate. Our bond is a special type of connection that I doubt I’ll ever be able to recreate with another horse.
Eva noted just the other day that we were gracefully exiting the competition world with a bang. Regionals 2019 proved to cumulate our years and years of fruitful labor. We finally found our groove around May, or Leah grasped her second youth, really. Each day, she came to work with a new ethic – more willing, more energetic, and more eager to try harder for me than ever before. Anything I asked, she responded with “you want it, you’ve got it mom.” There is nothing more gratifying than the pure feeling of sincerely working with your horse together as a team. Countless hours of hairsplitting training led us to this moment. I wouldn’t take back any of the heartache, struggles, disappointments or frustrations that fell into our lap along the way. They helped mold us into the unit we are right now.
What I didn’t talk about on Instagram is how I found myself entirely overcome with emotion post my final salute after Saturday’s Prix St. Georges test at regionals. Walking back to the stalls with my momma by our side, I could not contain my feelings any longer. I brought Leah to a halt and proceeded to sob uncontrollably into her braids. She stood patiently, probably wondering “what the hell, mom! Get your life together, I’m not dead. Geez almighty, all I want are my peppermints already.”
I was a beyond-proud horse mom. My first thought as I dried my tears and regained my composure? Leah has given me 150% absolutely, wholeheartedly, undoubtedly everything. It’s time for my girl to come home.
Ending our 2019 season with a new personal best for our most challenging test, along with a third place regional finish in the Intermediate-I and a triple consecutive invitation to the US Dressage Finals is the cherry on top of a decadent sundae. I simply cannot ask Leah for anything more. As we like to say around here, she’s earned her keep.
For those of you who might be thinking the following questions, “you say she feels incredible, so why are you stopping now? Don’t you want to keep competing with her?” allow me to elaborate.
Sure, I would truthfully love to keep training and showing. I live for the structured routine that was our daily schooling and the grind of show atmosphere is intoxicating. I too feel as if I’m finally breaking through old insecurities and coming into my own while in the saddle. But here’s the thing… I would never forgive myself if my greed of wanting to ride an Intermediate II, or just repeating the small tour, led to an injury, or even worse, an injury that would end Leah’s riding career as a whole. At age eighteen, she’s not confirmed past the I-I. Pushing, pushing, pushing the training in order to perchance squeeze anything higher out of her, like an I-2 or Grand Prix, is wrong. I won’t do it, despite what anyone thinks. Leah more than deserves to retire from competition healthy, happy, and fully sound to continue basic exercise under saddle with me.
Showing is merely a chapter that has come to an end, but a brand new page looms as we both enter this new phase in our life as Leah and Maddie.
Leading up to regionals, I thought about this day a lot. Hell, I cried a lot. I couldn’t even talk about it without having to change the subject or apologize for the shake in my voice. But now… now it isn’t quite as difficult because I know in my soul, mind and heart that I am doing the right thing for my mare. She’s ready to just be a horse after fifteen years of meticulous programs. I want to be the one to give this rightful opportunity to her, as Leah will be with my family and me forever.
So, what does the future entail for Team Locomotive? Well, for starters, I can walk outside each evening with my cocktail in hand and greet her at the fence with cookies. That’s a win in itself. Her paddock and “house” should hopefully be finished come middle of November as we intend to have her home by Thanksgiving. Barrett and I plan on fully moving to the ranch upon its completion. I have a feeling she will adjust nicely to 24-hour turnout and snooze in the South Texas breeze underneath the massive oak trees. I’ll keep her in daily work alongside Barrett and Blue; I’ll pray she’ll learn to tolerate the neighboring cattle. The ranch will become our arena with its sandy ground and varying gradients perfect for muscle conditioning. While we won’t be training for any centerline goals, our focus shifts to solely having fun. This isn’t to say that I won’t get a wild hair and apply for a local clinic just to keep us sharp – who knows! But that is the beauty of this brand new beginning; I don’t have to know what the plan or next step and stride contains. All that matters to me is the chance to spend every single day with Leah even when I’m not riding.
I am thrilled to unfold this new and exciting phase of our life with you all. Not much will change around The Blonde & The Bay aside from competition photos or recaps. You’ll see more daily happenings around the ranch with our Houser Herd. The adjustment in pace will be a welcomed sight for all of us and I’ll no longer feel as if I live life out of my car.
Looking back, this journey has been the most fulfilling adventure I could have only dreamt about until I met Leah. Through the last six years, we have legitimately worked so incredibly hard to achieve our goals and develop into a strong horse and rider combination. Truth be told, I'd never thought we'd accomplish half the things we did considering the point from where we started. I am so vastly humbled just to type that sentence. I credit our growth not only to raw ambition, but to the people we chose to surround ourselves with on the daily. Our trainers, Eva and Joshua Tabor, believed in our talents and invested their time, energy, and emotions into our evolution. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for their fierce knowledge. They have become more like family as opposed to teachers. I wouldn’t be the equestrian I am today without their influence, nor would Leah be in the shape she is without their guidance. Thank you, Eva and Josh! I love you both dearly.
In the moments in which I didn’t carry an ounce of faith within myself, my mom never stopped believing in my capabilities. She’s been my biggest supporter and cheerleader for my entire life, alongside my uncle and stepdad. Leah and I couldn’t have succeeded without their encouragement. The countless early morning alarms, the road-trips, the financial impacts that competition (and horses in general) bears, the emotions, the highlights, the failures – my family has been by our side through the thick and the thin. Every goal I set out to reach, they've fostered. What a cherished blessing to have not only these individuals, but my fiancé who has provided nothing short of unyielding reassurance as we’ve navigated the peaks and pits of performance dressage. It takes a village.
Leah, you mean the entire world to me. Through your undeniable trust in me, I have fully learned to trust myself. You have taught me the importance of confidence and strength, and the emphasis on never apologizing for the woman I am. We have grown together in times of weakness, mourned together in times of grief, relied on each other in times of uncertainty, and celebrated together in times of triumph. Our centerline memories will last an eternity, although I’ll endlessly wish we had just one more salute at our favorite venues. You are a priceless partner, calming my anxieties, nuzzling away my fears and restoring my confidence one patient stride at a time. Each day I have spent alongside you, I have learned something about your soul, our relationship, or myself. You have changed my life for the better. Thank you for allowing me to be your human. Thank you for keeping me safe. Thank you for being my rock. Thank you for being the companion of my lifetime. There are no words to ever characterize just how much I earnestly love you. I promise to always do you justice in every single way I possibly can. You, my girl, are one in a million.
Cheers to the scores, the ribbons, the judges, the award ceremonies, the spooks (ha), the trailer hauls, the white polo wraps, the braids, the hand walks, the schooling rides, the warm-ups and the cool downs – but most importantly, cheers to our partnership, our bond, and the fact that we never lost sight of either.
Here's to us, Leah.