Inspiration doesn’t always come from the places that you would expect, sometimes it comes from people who you have never met and barely know. It can begin with subtle things, then words, then actions but when you find someone who inspires you, I think you should learn from them as much as you can.
Months ago I read a message on Instagram that I thought was really meaningful. It spoke to me and I sent a request to follow this person. Again and again I found myself struck by her posts and I started commenting on them. She uplifted me and inspired me. Then I learned about some personal struggles she was going through from her inspiring posts. I continued to follow her and look forward to her photos and messages. She is interesting, inspiring, beautiful, brave and someone I’d like to get to know more and I think you will find also brings meaning in your life. Her name is Mika McKinney and she is a student Mt. Holyoke College.
My name is Ella Doerr, I’m one of your many followers.
Mika, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I love your unique name. Will you please tell me about it?
My name is pronounced Mee-ka. My parents chose Mika because my mother was friends with the folk music family, the Seegers. Mika Seeger encouraged my parents to adopt a child from China so they named me after her.
This is great, I love your name and where it came from.
How old are you and where are you from?
I am 22 years old and live in a small town called Belfast which is located on the coast of Maine.
I’ve never been to Maine but I really want to go. Especially during the summer.
What drew you to Mt. Holyoke College in MA? I’ve started looking at schools with riding teams. What do you like about their riding team?
Maine, especially in the summer is great!
I was looking for a relatively small Liberal Arts school somewhat close to home. I wanted to attend a school that had a strong science program because going into school my dream job was becoming a pediatrician. Throughout my time at Mount Holyoke I changed my major twice I think, I am now graduating with a major in Psychology and a minor in Biology. The other huge draw for me, to MHC (Mount Holyoke College) was the equestrian teams and riding availability.
Since being at Mount Holyoke I have been fortunate to ride on both the Varsity IHSA Hunt Seat team as well as ride and be the Captain of the IDA Dressage team. The Equestrian Facility is located on campus which is convenient and allows you to be involved/ at the barn way more frequently! I love everything about being on a collegiate riding team, it combines my passion for horses and riding with a social aspect that riding usually does not come with. Joining the IHSA team gave me the space, coaching and horses to try out jumping! Before I came to school I had hardly jumped, so it was a learning process but it was one of the best decision I ever made was to join that team. There is a huge sense of community and support on the teams- between peers as well as between riders and coaches. Collegiate teams allow some riders, me included, to compete at an affordable cost, attend National shows that one might not otherwise get the chance to ride at and it creates friends for life. I would highly recommend checking out Mount Holyoke and their riding program, it is top notch and a place I call home.
Those points about the relationships between teammates, the barn on campus and the affordability of riding make a lot of sense. I will check out MHC.
I’ve only ridden hunters but I want to take some dressage lessons soon.
When did you start riding and what lit your fire for the sport?
I started riding when I was seven. I began more dressage focused riding lessons when I was nine and competed in my first show when I was eleven. I have always been horse -obsessed. I was the kid that would run around on the playground like a horse, sleep on horse sheets, make my dad be a stand in horse so that I could groom and lounge him...
I caught the competition bug at my first schooling dressage show, I won both of my classes and I thought I was unstoppable. Of course my next show I placed third and fifth maybe, but ever since my first show I have loved to compete!
There are so many beautiful pictures of you with horses on Instagram. Who takes all of these great pictures and do you do professional modeling?
Thank you so much! I have a variety of people that have photographed me, some professional some not. Recently I have been working with my friend Ashley Littlefield who is experimenting with photography! Some of the other photographers on my page are: family members, Emily Tarantini, Meg McGuire, myself as well as some horse show photographers!
I do not currently do professional modeling. I would love to incorporate my new body image with modeling opportunities as well as working with clothing companies to alter and promote their products!
I think you certainly should pursue modeling and working with a clothing company.
You said "I would love to incorporate my new body image with modeling". Will you tell me more about that? Why is that important to you and what impact do you think it might have for others?
I think that it is important to show especially young females that whatever your body confirmation, you’re beautiful. It sounds cliche because so many people preach that everyone is beautiful in their own way... but through this journey I have found peace with my new and changing body.
Of course loosing hair and loosing my leg to cancer has been hard, some days more than others. I look in the mirror and ask the question of why me, why was I the person to have to go through this challenge- but after reflection I find myself wanting to turn my misfortune into inspiration and awareness.
Before my diagnosis I sometimes felt obligated to dress and look a certain way. Society definitely plays a large role in what many people see as beautiful, so loosing components of that was hard! When you don’t fit the cookie cutter, desired model figure you find yourself upset in many cases, but what I have found is that your physical appearance means so little. It doesn’t define you nor should it be a construct.
I hope to inspire and encourage other women and men as well, to find beauty in themselves despite the possible differences they might have!
I love that about you and that you live it and show it on social media for other young girls! Your really awesome.
I’ve been reading about osteosarcoma. When and how did you discover it?
I was officially diagnosed with osteosarcoma last year in March (2017). I was having pain and trouble working out as well as riding for about 12 months prior. I never fully recovered after falling off of a horse last holiday season while I was home, I worked with my athletic trainer to try and treat my symptoms but nothing ever improved. I then was sent to get scans and shortly after I had a biopsy that revealed that I had bone cancer. Of course it was a huge shock and scary news but it was good that we found it then rather than later. I had actually been misdiagnosed with something called compartment syndrome for 14 or so months before any of this occurred. I had pain, swelling and some tingling in my toes after I ran and worked out.
Wow, so in a long way it was the fall that led to the discovery? It sounds like you didn’t have symptoms that were noticeable before that. I guess the lesson you can teach us, is to get yourself checked out if something doesn’t feel right. Especially after a fall. I can’t imagine what it felt like to get the diagnosis of bone cancer. You are such a fit athlete. Aches and pains from hard workouts seem normal. Especially with riding horses, we riders take falls and try to get right back on. I think it’s especially important to get checked out because equestrians get used to those aches in a way.
Your diagnosis must have been very scary. Your posts on Instagram show a brave fighter. Have you felt that way from the beginning? What has given you that inner strength? What did you find helpful as you started treatment?
The fall kind finalized that I needed more imaging. I had pain before that while running and working out but after the fall I was not able to walk without pain or a limp. Yes, I would highly encourage people to get checked out, if something isn't feeling right make sure you check in with your body as well as healthcare.
Thank you so, so much! I of course have some days of feeling scared and alone, but those are all mental blocks that I make up in my head. I am blessed to have a huge and amazing support system, and have been throughout my entire diagnosis. I was actually siting right next to one of my very best friends, Camille when I was told the news. It is so important in my mind to have true friends that are built on bonds that can withstand news and a lifestyle change.
I think my support group as well as the power of horses has given me inner strength. Having a constant goal to get back into the saddle and continue to keep striving to be the best and most competitive self I can be has helped a ton. I dream of horses night and day, I search for them on ad pages, sketch them, look at dressage tests and reminisce on old photos- anything horse related rejuvenates and excites me.
I found it so helpful to lean on my friends, both close and far. When people say they care, they truly do. They want to help and even if they are not around sending cards or flowers is a gesture of love and support. Learning to accept what is and not think of reasons why, was another important factor as well. I was and still am... The Mount Holyoke Equestrian community went above and beyond to help me!! My coach from home, Barton has also been a great support allowing me to ride when I can.
Good friends and the bond with horses are definitely my go to places for support. Are you in pain?
I was in a lot of pain before my surgeries. I was unable to get comfortable in the evening so sleeping was challenging because of the calcification my knee had gone through, it was not possible to straighten it. My nerves were also quite possibly pinched and I had neuropathy in my left foot so the pain was sometimes unbearable.
What is most difficult right now?
Honestly, what is most difficult right now is wanting to do a lot more than my body will allow. I see these beautiful large moving horses and want to hop on them, but at this stage in my recovery and learning I am not able to. Accepting the fact that I have to relearn a lot of how to ride as well as walk is the challenge.
What is your treatment like?
Right now I am working with a physical therapist and my prosthetist to strengthen my body and begin walking more "normally". I am also possibly going to rehab, and I am riding at Carlisle Academy which works with adaptive riding, and therapy!
You mentioned the Parsolympics in a post. Tell me about the Paraolympics?
Paralympics offer riders in both driving and dressage a chance to compete against others that have physical and or visual impairments.
It must be really hard doing physical therapy which looks so hard and feeling that you can’t be doing what you love as much as you heart desires. You are so strong and incredibly motivated, I believe that you will be back up there more than ever and in record time.
I know you’re in school and you do a lot of physical therapy right now. What do you do for fun? What did you do to pass the time at the hospital and between treatments?
Aw, thank you so much!
I enjoy spending time with friends, day dreaming about horses and future plans as well as focusing a lot of time and energy into my academics. I am a foodie so eating is high on my list as well as visiting the horses.
While I was in the hospital I facetimed my friends and watch a lot of horse videos including FEI TV!
I’m a foodie too! I saw your new video of you riding. Actually, cantering and you two looked amazing. Your balance and your seat looked incredible. How did it feel and how is it going?
I had the amazing opportunity to come to Wellington for a bit so that I could escape the cold and be able to ride. It was amazing cantering for the first time since surgery- I was on my old horse and it was great, almost as if nothing had changed.
Horses and riding are really special in that way. No matter your differences, you’re accepted and supported in the riding community.
Riding in Wellington this season has definitely been a highlight. I was able to lesson with my trainer and Kathy Connelly which is super special, I got to ride an FEI horse, hack, and spend quality time with the horses and people that I love.
Mika, thank you so much for talking with me. I am excited to keep following you and see what the future holds. You are an awesome athlete and an inspiring woman!
In 2017, Kathryn Lily Spokesmodel Ella Doerr was one of the three annual USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant recipients to attend the USEF Pony Finals - embodying the spokesmodel characteristics of leadership, horsemanship, and sportsmanship, all whilst having some serious fun! As the time to apply for the grant is upon us, Ella has a few things to tell eligible riders about the program:
Every year the USHJA Foundation awards three junior riders the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant to go to USEF Pony Finals. Applications open in January each year and all current USHJA junior members are welcome to apply. In 2015 I talked myself out of applying because I thought I wasn’t what the USHJA Foundation was looking for. A year later, I decided that I would apply and take my chances. I started writing my essays months before the applications opened.
I have wanted to go to the USEF Pony Finals for years. I’ve watched YouTube videos of riders and ponies going around that big, beautiful ring, and I wanted to get to do the same. I wanted the chance to spend a week at the mecca of ponies - the center of all the best pony hunters, jumpers, and equitation. I’ve seen pictures of riders participating in the clinics and wished that those of us back home could learn too. The opportunities to learn at Pony Finals sounded endless so I knew that I just needed to get there. When I heard I was one of the three chosen by the USHJA Foundation, I was blown away. Even though Pony Finals was still two months away, I was anxious to get to know the other 2017 recipients and the riders from previous years. I figured they would have great advice on how to get the most out of our experience and that they too shared a hunger to learn. So I started an online chat group to get ot know each other. Here are our profiles that we shared to start the conversation that has led to our friendships.
If you, or someone you know, are interested in applying for the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant, please visit the Foundation’s website at ushjafoundation.org for all of the details, or consider donating to support the USHJA Foundation’s many great causes. My advice is: APPLY! Don’t let doubt get in your way.
(This expert was originally written for an published in the August 2017 Paisley Magazine)
Before going to USEF Pony Finals Last year, Ella hoped to not only get to experience showing, but first and foremost learn through listening, watching, and participating in everything that Pony Finals has to offer.
To hear more about what Ella learned from her time at Pony Finals, check our her blog entitled, “Pony Finals Notebook: Top Tips for Model Success.”
An Interview with Jill Gaffney By Kathryn Lily Spokes Model Gianna Milo & Edited by Elise Rizzi.
Jill Gaffney and Carlton Cafe, AIG Million Dollar Grand Prix at HITS Coachella 2017, Photo Credit: Jana Kay Carter.
I wanted to interview Jill because I watched the $40,000 Equine Insurance Grand Prix at Sonoma Horse Park and Carlton Cafe is the closest thing that I have ever seen to a real life unicorn - she can really fly! Jill rode her beautifully and they seemed to be a very trusting team. ~ Gianna
Special thanks to Jill for allowing us to interview her for the blog.
Gianna- Tell me about the day that you found Carlton Cafe, did you know right away that he was the one?
Jill- My husband, Trevor Gaffney, found "Misty" in Ireland and recognized her bloodlines. She is by Carlton Clover, an Irish Sport Horse stallion from Sligo, Ireland. The Irish horses are known for their good minds and big hearts. Trevor purchased her and believed in her ability to jump the Grand Prix level from the beginning. It took me a little longer to believe in her ability, because Misty and I didn't always see eye to eye in training at the start. But once I learned to trust her, everything changed and the two of us finally clicked together.
Gianna- What is your most memorable win on Carlton Cafe, and why was it so special?
Jill- My most memorable win with Misty was actually not a win at all, but when we jumped the World Cup pre-Qualifier at Las Vegas National Horse Show in 2016 for a clear round over the fences and just one time fault. It was the biggest course of our career in an indoor arena and she was amazing. I realized I can trust her to jump anything we face together. But if I had to pick a win, it would be the $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix at SHP in 2016 because my mother and grandmother were there to watch it.
Gianna- How do you and Carlton Cafe work both as individual athletes, as well as a team to prepare for Grand Prix classes?
Jill- As an individual athlete, Misty is on a very specific regimen of physical exercise, fitness and stamina work, diet, as well as body work and care. It is a program that involves myself, our grooms, her trainer Trevor, and our veterinarians. My regimen as an individual athlete involves physical exercise (I ride 8-10 other horses a day) as well as body work like chiropractic and massage. Together, we do not jump a lot in between Grand Prix classes, but instead work on flatwork, gymnastics, poles, and cavaletti to keep up our fitness as a team.
Gianna- Do you have a specific regime to prepare yourself the day of the Grand Prix? Any lucky items or apparel?
Jill- I am a little superstitious about Grand Prix day! I have a "lucky" coat and belt that I wear every Saturday. The coat was a gift from my friend Lauren Morlock, of Sarm Hippique riding apparel, that is dark blue with a light blue collar, like the colors of our farm, Freestyling Farms. I also wear a needlepoint belt I made about 15 years ago that is black with a colorful dragon all the way around it. On Grand Prix day, I am usually very busy with other clients and horses but I try to give myself a little quiet time before the class. If I can take a quick nap, that's my favorite! When I walk the course, I like to walk by myself and I tend to walk the course twice - once to get an initial feel for the course, and a second time to finalize in my mind what the strides are and where the turns are going to be. In the warm up ring I don't talk much, except to say good luck to or ask a question of other riders.
Gianna- You seemed very relaxed when I watched you ride, do you get nervous? Can you share some tricks with how to handle nerves?
Jill- A lot of people tell me I look so relaxed when I ride, but to be honest I'm always nervous! I am a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. But I have some things that work for me if the nerves start to get to me. I always tell myself to trust Misty no matter what. She has always been there for me, even at my worst, and I can trust her absolutely. When a rider can trust their horse completely and a horse can trust their rider, that is the greatest gift of this sport. I also tell myself that my most important job every time I step into the ring, even more important than winning, is to give my horse the most confident, encouraging ride that I can so she will always want to try her hardest for me, especially on days where I am not at my best. When I tell myself these two things and really believe them, I ride my best rounds.
Gianna- Tell me something that most people don't know about Carlton Cafe.
Jill- She is very grumpy about getting her blankets on or adjusted. She makes a really mean face and pins her ears. She also falls asleep when getting body clipped.
One of the many reasons why I wanted to go to Pony Finals was the chance to participate in the free clinics. Every year, I wished the clinics would be recorded and posted online for everyone. This year, I was fortunate enough to go to Pony Finals on the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family grant and it was a life changing experience. In an effort to pay it forward to the numerous riders back home who are also interested in learning, I took notes and want to share them!
The model clinic is a well known perk for those that attend Pony Finals. The model is an critical part of the pony hunter division, so those competing at Pony Finals have probably modeled many times. However, there is plenty to learn from these helpful notes whether you have been to Pony Finals multiple times, or aspire to compete in the pony hunter division and maybe even someday Pony Finals.
I had the opportunity to attend the model clinic twice - first with my pony and the second time to audit. I learned a lot both times and would recommend going at least once with your pony if you can. Remember to sign up in advance at the welcome dinner as early slots fill up fast.
Before you attend a clinic, I recommend you start by practicing at home; you can ask your trainer or a friend to help you. Personally, I practice my jog 3 times a week on the way to my trailer to load (which also serves to check soundness before hauling all the way to a lesson), and I now make it a habit to practice modeling during free times.
Here are my notes from both model clinics, feel free to message me (Ella Doerr) if you have any questions.
Derby Winner: An Inside View -Kathryn Lily SpokesModel Gianna Milo Interviews Jessica Allan after her win on Fanciful in the $25k USHJA International Hunter Derby. By Gianna Milo edited by Elise Rizzi
Kathryn Lily Spokesmodel Gianna Milo had the opportunity to interview Jessica Allan after her win on Fanciful in the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, sponsored by Barn Style at Sonoma. It was a great class with beautiful jumps and horses - our own Kathryn Lily Spokesmodel, Sami Milo, finished second on Lulavani! Special thanks to Jessica for allowing us to interview her about her ride.
Photo by: Alden Corrigan Media
What was your favorite moment/highlight on course?
My favorite moment on course was landing off the last jump in the handy round and realizing I had given my horse a good enough ride that he had a chance at winning.
How did you plan to approach the course when you walked it? Were there certain plans you made to complement your horses' talents?
When I walked the course I had it pretty much set in my mind that I would do all the low options as long as the scores coming in before me weren't huge. I just wanted to put in a smooth first trip and put myself in a good position for the second round. The first round course was very complimentary for my horse because it was flowing with limited related distances. He jumps the best from a long approach where I can really show off his jump.
If there was one part of the course you could re-do or improve upon, where would that be and how would you ride it differently?
I would for sure like a re-ride on the last jump in the handy round. It was a hand gallop jump and I didn't really push it as much as I would have liked. I protected the pace a little bit too much because I was worried about getting too flat to the big high option and I think it cost me some handy points.
What are your future goals for Fanciful?
This year Fancy will continue to do the big derbies with me and the 3'3" junior hunters and small derbies with his owner, Jayme Jenkins. Next year Jayme will move up to the 3'6" juniors and I'd love to take him to derby finals in Kentucky next summer.
What's one quirky/fun fact about Fanciful? (favorite food, place to be scratched, stuffed animal, etc.)
Fancy's favorite things are eating, sleeping, and snuggling (in that order). He often enjoys "breakfast in bed" and will eat his morning hay while lying down. He also LOVES snuggles and will take any opportunity to give kisses.
How do you balance the importance of such a high-stakes class with the true meaning of horsemanship and enjoying the ride?
I am very committed to horsemanship. I believe the care of the horse takes priority over everything else. We make sure to balance Fancy's workload carefully when he has a big class. I also have to remind myself that this is all supposed to be fun! Every time I show Fancy I think of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to compete on such an amazing horse. He really is incredible and I'm grateful to have him in our barn.
With exhaustion I sit on our damp front steps and flick the grainy dirt off my boots as I unbuckle the spur straps and peel off my chaps. Greet my hungry kitty at the door... she must be starving, I've had another 12 hour day. Tossing the day's mail on the counter, I grab a can of food to turn off the constant crying at my feet. As I open the trash can, I catch a glimpse of the Emory University magazine mixed in the pile of junk mail and white envelopes. I pause and start to think of my Ivy league education ...along with all the Ivy league dollars..that earned that booklet to sit in the middle of my kitchen and a little ball of guilt starts to form in my belly. Are my parents disappointed that there is no DR before or PHD or ESQ after the name on all those letters on my counter? All the hours my mother worked overtime, all the hours I studied overtime... two majors, one minor... The smell of grass and sweat start to overpower my reminiscing and I trip over the cat on my way to the shower.
I start to smile as the bubbles run down my back. Her grin was from ear to ear as she high-five'd me after her jump today. She shrugged and giggled and brushed her pony for an hour after her lesson. I rubbed my shoulder and cracked my neck, that young horse really caught me off guard passing the gate earlier today. I exhale and then relax thinking about the jump combination that felt like an effortless dance with my newest partner in the barn.
I passed the five loads of laundry who are waiting for my return, and made my way to kitchen to draw my favorite tea. There sits the Emory magazine again, filled with alumni and their studies and achievements... I'm sure its residents are engaging in political conversations across long table tops and discussing the most recent medical studies they are working on. I grab some shirts and start folding, checking the sizes and carefully placing them in crisp plastic bags. I rub my thumb over the embroidery on the back of the next shirt. My first name is stitched with care and I think again about my Ivy league education....and decide it was worth every penny and every long working hour. I stack the shirts in a box and taste the cinnamon spice chai again.
My office isn't in a large hospital or on the 20th floor of a downtown sky scrapper. I come home with horse hair and dirt and work overtime at a cluttered kitchen table...but I get to fly and taste freedom everyday. I get to swim in the smiles and joy from innocence and I get to share a passion and hang it in a stranger's closet until I join them on a trip of their own freedom ride.
No, I don't use my degree to ride professionally...and I didn't need it to start a company with my best friend. But my Ivy league education took me on a journey to meet that best friend, and brought me to the city where I met my heart horse who led me to the barn where I work. My Ivy league education taught me dedication, how to set goals, and how to keep raising the bar. Thank you Mom and Dad for the overtime, for the phone calls of encouragement, and for sitting for hours waiting for me to walk on that hot Atlanta May day. The embroidered logo on all my "work clothes" feels really good. REALLY GOOD... and so does the taste of freedom to do what I love everyday.
Although this is a blog and personal pronouns are okay, my inner grammar nazi says that this blog needs proper introduction. However, despite the fact that this story's been told a thousand times, I could never find the right words to start us off. How does one summarize half a decade of pure love, aspirations, gruesome battling, achievement, discovering, and uncovering your soulmate in one sentence? I’ve never been one to be found at a loss for words, but there's one soul in particular that can simply take the breath out of me, and maybe even put it in too.
This is the story of a little pony who saved my life.
About 5 years ago, I went through the typical teenage struggles. I was having a really hard time, in and out of school, finding myself. I wasn’t the best runner on the cross country team, I rode any horses I could get my hands on, I didn’t have many friends in school, and I found myself creating a deep insecurity for little things like this. I absolutely hated myself and wished I could be more. I wanted to be like the pretty riders at the barn and the Varsity runners on the team, and the popular girls in school.
One cold January night, my trainer had me lesson on one of the new rescue ponies at the barn. This pony was a black and white pinto mare previously named #393 at the Camelot Horse Auction and now named As It Fits, aka Puzzle. Puzzle was a scrawny, typical mare with a huge attitude and a whole lot of sass. At first, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with her and as a few lessons went on with Puzz, other people started feeling the same. After she had scared off a few people, I had decided that having something of my own was pretty cool and I didn’t care what it was- it was mine.
With that, I decided to take Puzzle on. We spent a year butting heads and learning all about each other. In this year, I had started to find myself. A lot of the depressing nights and insecurities had disappeared when Puzz entered my life. She showed me the light that I had failed to see for quite some time. I took Puzzle in and completely loved her like one of our own. We had gone to some local show but we were rarely in the ribbons. We spent that entire year trying to make her into the hunter pony we had wanted.
After about a year of trying, we decided that it wasn’t her calling so for laughs and giggles, we threw her in the jumper ring at a local show and she took 6th out of 26! We decided that she was happier in the jumper ring so we switched gears and worked at the 2’9 puddle jumpers. We ended up Reserve Champion for the year through NHHJA in the Puddle Jumpers. Around this time, I had heard of the USEF Pony Jumper Finals and instantly fell in love with the idea of taking Puzz. I approached the idea with a few friends and my trainer, but the goal wasn’t as ideal to them as it was in my eyes. As far of a long shot as it was, I pushed and pushed and pushed to have a chance, so we spent the winter working our way up from the 2’9 jumpers to the 1.10m pony jumpers.
As spring approached, we attempted our first USEF show with the Pony Jumpers and left with a thousand things to work on. It was a difficult journey to have a trainer who had never really worked with USEF or Pony Jumpers, a kid who had never competed through USEF, and a pony in the same boat; it was an inexperienced team taking on the national circuit. We received a ton of hate, doubt, and negative feedback along the way and before Puzz, I would have instantly returned to my old, insecure habits, but having her allowed me confide in myself and to look past everything thrown my way. It was almost like tunnel vision from the world; it had to be one of the most powerful and decisive feelings I've ever felt in my life.
We had a bit of a set back at the 2nd show of the year. Puzzle flipped over after an oxer and lost all of her confidence. We were both so shaken up. I felt embarrassed, aghast, upset, and humiliated. I can still picture her on the ground and I can still feel the exact horror I felt in that instant, watching her helplessly in disbelief. The next day, we tried again and this one day of 17 years alive, still stands out like no other. I couldn’t even get her around 2’9 fences- she would just crash through them. She got to the point where she wouldn’t even go near the jumps and in that very moment, I’ve never felt pain in such a great amount. I felt like everything I had put into this pony for the past three years, was all ripped out over one bad distance to a big oxer. Everything I had worked for was gone. She didn’t trust me to guide her, she didn’t trust herself to do it, and I have never felt so empty. We made the heart breaking decision to let Pony Finals go for the year and to just decided to work on finding my pony again.
Turns out, taking that year off was the best decision we’ve ever been encouraged to do. I won several year end awards with NHHJA that year and took 7th place in Zone One for USHJA and USEF. I found my pony that year and our bond was stronger than ever. I’ve never had the pleasure to work with an animal so devoted to my happiness. Puzzle reminded me every single ride why I had started in the first place; she engraved a permanent mark of happiness in my heart that I truly believe I will hold until the day I die.
We started the next year taking champion at all 3 shows we did and Reserve at the 4th. We had shows almost every weekend trying to qualify and she took champion or reserve at every single one of them for the 2014 PJ calendar. That spring I had hinted around at the idea of applying to go to Devon so my mom secretly sent in an application. About 4 weeks later, I wound up in the hospital with a broken foot from running. As we sat in the waiting room, my mom got the confirmation that we were heading to Devon 2014! However, I needed to be able to continue to train so I begged the doctor for an air cast and nothing permanent (to avoid scratching my saddle!) and went on my way. Arriving at Devon weeks later, I was amazed by all the top riders and horses. We had a great first day that left me leaving the ring in tears of joy from just making it around! The second day, a man came down to us as we were warming up and wished me luck. He told me that he just had a strong feeling that he was looking at the winners. I hope he played the lottery that day because after 22 long rounds, Puzzle had won and I- well I was higher than cloud 9. We took home Reserve Champion from the week and did a few more shows before Pony Finals.
After 4 years of intense training and so many hurdles, my dream came true- I set out for Pony Finals with my best friend, my pony, and my entire team behind me. We had an incredibly successful week staying in the top 3 all week and making it into the championship round as one of only 7 rounds that went clean after day 2. We had 2 cheap rails on the last day, landing us in 7th but I couldn’t be happier. Although all of my dreams came true that week, I now had a big decision ahead of me and just as I had finally gotten everything I had ever wanted, I knew it was time to say goodbye. It was time for me to move up and for Puzzle to teach her next kid the ropes. To this day, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing with Puzzle ever came free or easy. I worked for every ounce of accomplishment I had with that pony and what an honor it was! She changed my life entirely and made me who I am today. Just short of 5 years, I had fallen madly and deeply in love with the pony who had changed my life forever. I took every lesson she taught me and applied it every single day but more importantly, she remained to be the first and last thing on my mind before bed.
Although many look at our story and think that it was I, who rescued her- it was her who rescued me. She pulled me out of my dark and quiet hole and created a name for me. She helped me find a love for myself and an absolute passion to make this the most successful and positive life possible. It still blows my mind that she was garbage in someone's eyes, so much so that she was heading for a meat shop. However, I believe everything happens for a reason and it was no coincidence that she landed in my arms. As Marilyn Monroe said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Puzz taught me this each day and as I sent her on her way, I could only pray that she would be loved even half as much by her new kids as I loved her. I'd found my one in a million and set out in search of my next one however there wasn't a day in all of my new journeys where I haven't looked back on the one in whom I owe all of my new successes too; I will never forget the little pinto mare that changed my life forever. #teamAsItFits