A Love Letter To The Underdog

Long before Joyful Dressage, Two Red Mares, or even Misfit Farms existed, there was a sturdy, moody, and excruciatingly hard-working young girl with two parents who had their different roles in my riding life. As I sit writing this, I’m staring into the area of my parents’ front yard where two horses once lived. Despite the many years that preceded a boarding situation gone awry, it feels, to this day, that this acre of land is where my future rooted before it bloomed. 

I’m one of those who girls fortunate enough to be able to ride their whole life. Not because my family is horsey, not because of our financial position, and not because of circumstance. As a toddler, around 2 years old, my grandmother bought me a horse breed book. I can still remember the smell of the book at my mom or dad read me descriptions of breeds and colors before bed until I had practically memorized all the book had to offer. For my third birthday, I was gifted a pony ride. A young father of (then) one hoisted his firstborn into the stirrups of a trusty trail pony and took me for a walk around the property. No helmet, in saddles, and proudly wearing a dress. 22 years later, not much has changed, minus the helmet – thank goodness.

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 Through my formative saddle years, I don’t think there was anything particularly special about my riding talent. The barn happened to be a few miles away, letting me take weekly lessons. I attended pony camp during the summers. During the school year, my homeschooling allowed a flexible schedule where we could spend extended period times at the barn – me learning about the chores horses require, and my momma getting some peace to read with my little brother.

What was special was my determination. Without sounding self-aggrandizing, I know for a fact that I am a hard worker, and I always have been. And hard work began to differentiate me from girls my age and older. Cue a little spotted lesson pony. Apple, now my partner of 19 years, proved himself to be the biggest challenge and the most intense love of my life. We experimented in every discipline as we grew, and we failed at all of them. I know now that he was not the IDEAL child’s pony, but then, I thought being bucked off every ride was par for the course. Bruises, scratches, and frustration were just signs of experience, I reassured my little self. I knew each time I successfully navigated the waters of Apple’s alter ego, Crapple, I grew stronger, and each time I was able to have the foresight to ride proactively, I knew to my core I was getting better. I did not, and still, do not, have time for fear.

 I “worked” (what are child labor laws?) at the stable where my trainer lived. I cleaned stalls, I taught lead-line lessons that progressed to full-fledged lessons. I tacked up/cooled down/un-tacked anywhere between two to six horses a day. I cleaned the tack room until it glimmered. I was entrusted with working on my own with the “client” horses, aka any horse my trainer was 1) too scared to ride, or 2) didn’t have time to ride. I babysat my trainer’s daughter, as did my mom. All of this work paid for Apple’s half-lease as well as his eventual full lease. My emotional attachment to Apple wasn’t something I had control over. I was possessive, jealous, and always concerned if he was being treated well by other girls. I cried in bed at the thought of my full lease ending, and no longer being able to call Apple “mine.”

To my surprise, my parents scrimped and saved to purchase Apple as a Christmas present. Now over 15 years ago, I’m forever humbled by the investment and belief they had in a precocious young girl, determined to keep her universe revolving around an appy pony. At no point did a world exist where Apple was not mine, no matter how tall I grew and no matter where I wanted to go with my equestrian career. It was him or nothing. It still is.

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While this all sounds great and lovely and idealistic, things went on behind the scenes I am only now, at 25 years old, to truly process and explain to those around me.

 To me, my trainer could do no wrong. She became a maternal figure, despite me not needing another mom. We went to the mall together, she let me stay at the barn overnight, she educated me from the ground up on breeding, dressage, Trakehners, and even helped (poorly) with boy problems. I was part of her home with her husband and young daughter. As I became a young teenager, she assured me she wanted to provide me with the riding career she had not had and that my family wasn’t in a position to financial facilitate. We all believed her. Who was to say we shouldn’t? Were we supposed to know better? My responsibilities at the stables grew, and I began to lease another horse that would take me from bare bone’s intro to schooling most of third level. We traveled to breed shows as she began to campaign her first homebred, she introduced me to who I truly consider my mentor now, and I thought of her mood swings as part of our relationship. Little did I know at that age her mood swings were typically alcohol-related.

I didn't tell my parents about a lot of things that happened. Some because I didn’t know they were wrong, like the lashing out and verbal abuse or her encouraging me to be a more aggressive rider than I should have been, and others because I knew they were wrong, like trusting her to be sober enough to take the wheel after competitors parties or allowing sexual comments to be made towards me by men three times my age. But… I was getting more riding opportunities than ever. While I never lacked confidence in the saddle, I was able to ask more pointed philosophical training questions and my capability began to shine. I was working my hands to the bones each day, up by 7am to ride my bike to the barn to feed, fix fences, fill waters, move horses, work horses, drag the arena, clean, ride, schedule and manage feed/vet visits, and make grain orders. On the good days, I rode a high that couldn’t be touched, lauded loudly by my trainer, the clinicians I took lessons with, and my peers. On the other days, I stifled my tears during rides or shows where I was belittled and broken down to pieces, told I wasn’t dedicating enough of my time or energy into my own growth. As if my trainer’s time had been wasted on me. I was growing in the saddle, becoming a real young rider, but behind closed doors, I was wracked with questions of self-worth, as her favoritism would swing back and forth to people with more money but less work ethic.

The shine wore off. I realized she was never going to be able to fulfill any of my aspirations because she was uncomfortable with anything past second level. I gritted my teeth and began to branch out, taking two exercise rider positions through connections I had made from her. I needed these opportunities. I had been the person she had trusted enough to care for the last foal she bred. A perfect, bold, electric chestnut Trakehner filly we agreed to name Joy. After a summer’s worth of work (for her and a part-time job), and saving every penny possible, I was able to purchase Joy for the price of the stud fee. A cost my trainer would later try to hold over my head as an adult that she did me a favor, knowing I could never afford “a horse of that quality without a little charity.” Ultimately, it was her loss. Joy turned out to be the best horse of her bloodline. Not because of her breeding, but because of how she was produced.

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Through these various exercise positions where my only payment was the knowledge gained, I realized I was aggressive, and I needed to get a handle on that. I learned to love mares. I ran young horses in hand, rode 1000 new horses, and quickly made mistakes when backing young stock. As Joy reached three, I knew in my heart of hearts I couldn’t let my trainer start her. Joy has always been special and particular, and I had seen my trainer’s multi-facetted ugly sides with horses. I knew I couldn’t let her lay a hand on Joy. Ultimately, that led to the ugly “break up,” a physical altercation, a broken bitter heart, and the horses living in my front yard. I was unceremoniously given hours notice to leave the ground I had grown up on.

 At 17, I found myself alone, with the help my parents could provide, in charge of educating a three-year-old and maintaining an aging pony on my own. I was lost and felt like my soul had broken. Dreams I had as a young rider blew into the wind as my peers continued their upward trajectory, fueled by unwavering faith in a trainer and their parents' checkbooks. I couldn't imagine trusting someone so much with something as precious as Apple or Joy. I wanted to be able to say no, ask questions, and disagree. But, until I was back on my feet, this meant utilizing all my resources to give Joy the education she deserved. I paid a lady three miles away to use her facilities, where I would hand walk Joy over, get on and school, then get off and walk back until Joy was trustworthy enough to ride over. We hacked around my horse-friendly neighborhood. My little town opened a Frisbee golf course, and I would sneak down when I didn’t have the cash to pay for facilities just so I could school on flat grass. I audited every clinic I could get to, began to scribe, and tirelessly studied any material I could get my hands on. I had begun college, and I would ride before commuting, or long into the night after classes.

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Joy and I began to enter local dressage shows. And we began to do well. I reached out to my mentor, someone I had been an exercise rider for who would let me trailer to visit him for the occasional lessons. He kept me on the right path, respected my ethics, and allowed me to move at the pace I deemed necessary. I felt at home on this little chestnut mare, no matter what the girls in my region were doing on their massive schoolmasters and the shameful, misguided pressure they placed on my own journey. They didn't understand my aspiration of simply and slowly building Joy to be the best SHE could be, instead of buying schoolmasters I couldn't handle and had to be in full training programs. They were nervous before every test on horses they were having flings with, using them to achieve their personal goals before trading them out for something new. That's the cycle as a young dressage rider if you want to be a pro or get to NAJYR. Meanwhile, I was gleeful before each test the few times a year I got to show because of all of the hurdles we overcame to be there. And I got to be there with her! This spooky, sensitive, sometimes ticking time bomb was all mine! No matter what happened, I was building a relationship that I hoped would last a lifetime, and that meant win, lose, or excused, I made each trip down centerline a positive learning experience for us both, remembering there's always another chance to do our best. 

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Our scores began to get higher. We attended rated shows, and we qualified for our first regional championships, where we placed with high scores in massive classes and did our first parade laps. For the longest time, I thought Joy would talent cap at second level, and I was okay with that. It would be disappointing, but a horse like Joy is once in a lifetime. You don't just throw them away when you can't get where you want. However, in usual Joy fashion, she reminded me to let myself dream a bit bigger, as we came home with a 69% in our second level debut. She told me she was ready to step up, and I worked to provide her the adequate preparation. I set my sights on earning our USDF bronze medal - a goal many girls had long achieved and left in the dust - before I aged out of the JR/YR classes. And we did it. An undereducated 21-year-old girl and a backwoods produced, disfavored, and underestimated six-year-old mare. Two years later, not long after beginning my first semester of law school and planning Joy's downtime hobby (hint, bun in the oven), I couldn't believe I was writing my silly filly's name, Fair Joy *Pb*, down to enter an FEI test, and I weeped when I tried on my shadbelly for the first time. We completed a short season at Pre St. George, earning our silver medal along the way. That moment of our final centerline before taking a hiatus from showing for Joy to spend time in the broodmare shed was the most overwhelming flood of emotions unlike anything I had ever felt. We had achieved something beyond my wildest childhood dreams, and we had done it with minimal guidance. I hoped I proved to her that her faith in me had never been misguided, and in return, I cried into her neck with reckless abandon, telling her "thank you."

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It's hard to completely understand how capable you can be on your own until you have to be. My parents, these towering figures of support in my everyday life, knew at some point, I would spearhead my riding career. I would be calling the shots. It just came younger than anticipated. They helped along the way, knowing that these two horses, Apple and Joy, were more than just mounts. They watched us grow up together, learn, develop, question authority, make mistakes, say no to clinicians/trainers, and keep trying, no matter the adversity. But it did come down to forging my own way, wiping away tears (sometimes blood), struggling to budget time and money, an incredible amount of sacrifice, and trusting that I had my horses' best interests at heart. I think I've succeeded.

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No one person's riding journey is the same, and that's one of the things I wish I could tell my teenage self. Non-traditional does not mean lacking success. It's been 22 years since that first pony ride and seven years since I made a life changing decision about my horses' welfare and my ultimate trajectory. I think back to teenage Bailey more often than not. I wish I could go back and give her a big hug, hold her tight, reassuring her she won't always make the right calls, but that any decision made in the furtherance of personally developed principals to serve your horse is worth the uncertainty. I wish I could tell her that it's okay to feel lost, to feel stunted, and even jilted at times. It's hard to stride out on your own with zero guidance but your heart and the trust of a young horse who doesn't know any better. I really wish I could tell her that in the future, her non-traditional journey will not be the punchline to a joke between peers but, instead, the beginning of a story that serves a purpose even more than horsemanship or scores or ribbons for any young girl in the same situation: with a horse they believe in, and not much else.

Consider this the love letter to bravely doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is, to the never-ending education of dressage, and to the underdogs.

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