By McKayla Hohmann

I’ll raise my hand to let you know that I am the rider that came in last in our team test the very first day. I am okay with that…disappointed, but okay with it. I wasn’t the rider Coogan needed me to be in those minutes and we made costly mistakes we generally never make – like missing our changes. But while I was disappointed in my performance at the 2018 Adequan®/FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC) presented by Gotham North, I was still amazed at the fact that I was there and the experience is an important stepping stone. The journey wasn’t easy, and was one that started well before I signed the declaration of intent.

Just four years ago, I was on a little rescue pony taking my first steps into the ring at Training Level. My dream of NAYC started that very summer. I was competing at Pony Club Nationals, which were held at the Kentucky Horse Park.  At the same time, the park was also hosting NAYC (NAJYRC as it was called then). My friends and I vowed that, the next time, we would be competing on ‘that side of the park’. Just four and a half years after my first dressage lesson, there I was, competing at NAYC.  I didn’t get here on my own, and every time I think about our journey I am completely humbled by the generosity others have shown, and grateful for every opportunity I have been given. Every one of those opportunities came first disguised as a whole lot of hard work. One of the biggest reasons I was able to get here was because of Pony Club – not because of my riding, not because I had the ability to buy a fancy horse, but because of the intense expectations of horsemanship and barn management that it instills upon its members.  It was that base of knowledge and high level of expectations, combined with my willingness to work, that gave me something to trade in exchange for my education in the saddle.

 I was thirteen years old and suddenly felt like I had years of catch up. I petitioned my parents to let me homeschool so I could arrange a working student position with Jenny Foss, at Ivory Hills Stable. I could live onsite with her and work in exchange for daily lessons. For some crazy reason, my parents let me. Jenny took a chance on me, opening her home and her barn to me for the next two years. I was blessed to have her as my mentor. She coached me to many championships during our time together and helped to develop me into the rider I am today. Living onsite allowed me to learn how to manage a barn from sun up to sun down, in a professional manner, and how to interact with many clients. Under her instruction, I was able to ride many different types of horses, from starting babies under saddle to schoolmasters.  I was able to gain experience showing and traveled to many of the larger venues, with more competitions.

In order to offset my show costs, I was the kid in the tent. I literally lived in a tent in the parking areas at the shows because the cost of a hotel was just too much to add in for my family.  Since I was staying on site anyway, I decided to put my nighttimes to work and started a night check business at the shows. Every two hours, on those that signed up, I go around topping water and throwing hay in the middle of the night, then feeding and watering again at 5am. Then, I would start my braiding list before getting ready for my own showing.  In addition to being a fulltime working student with Ivory Hills, I also worked weekly at Bronken Creek Performance Horse Retirement in Colfax, WI, a job I begged for when I turned twelve and kept until I moved just last year, at sixteen. Any other free days I had, I volunteered and rode the horses at our local equine rescue, Pony Tales Refuge & Rehab, so they could hopefully find new partners.

When Jenny focused more on breeding and raising young horses, I was at a point where I wanted to continue to move up the levels. I had goals, but I had no clue how to get from A to Z.  So, I reached out to Lendon Gray, after learning about the Dressage4Kids program and specifically Lendon’s WIT program.  The sheer joy and fear that I felt, the moment I learned Lendon had accepted me to the WIT program, I will never forget.  WIT is an intense, three-month training program, both in and out of the saddle, held in Wellington, FL, during the winter season.  With financial generosity arranged through Lendon Gray, Renee Isler, and our local horse community, led by Sharlyn Fellenz, I was able to attend.  For the first time, I moved away from the place I called home to live with a host family I had never met. The Roda family graciously took me in and supplied me with more than a room and food. They became a part of my family and we will always remain close. I was fifteen, and suddenly my eyes were opened to all these amazing possibilities I never knew were available. In three months at WIT, I took in what is equivalent to years in any other program. Without programs like the Grass Root clinics, D4K, and WIT, extremely talented youth, with the intense desire to learn, might otherwise never be ‘found’ and never have the chance to be developed. Without Lendon and WIT, I know I would not have attended NAYC this year because those contacts are what allowed me to venture out further.  At the end of WIT, I was hungry and I needed more. I needed to continue.

 I returned home to Wisconsin, but it felt bleak. I had lost my planned show mount, due to ongoing lameness issues, and was spending the season taking babies down centerline for their first show experiences. It was fine, but I was interested in continuing to move up the levels, which is hard to do when you are horseless. I also didn’t want to just sit and wait for the next opportunity to present itself. Again, I reached out to Lendon and let her know I was interested in a working student position with a bigger trainer, who would help me continue to grow and learn with upper level horses available. Lendon told me I should contact a trainer by the name of Liz Austin, of Liz Austin Dressage, in Vermont. I think my first call went something like this:

“Hi Liz. Uumm… my name is McKayla, and I am interested in your working student position.  I just turned sixteen, and I would be moving across the country on my own, so I would need housing.  And I don’t have my license yet. But I’ll do anything you need.”

 For some crazy reason, she said yes to that. My parents supported my decision to pack up and move across the country, yet again, to live with someone I had never met. I was terrified and yet so excited, so I knew I was doing the right thing.

This past year, my first year with Liz, has been amazing. It was never in the plan to try to qualify for NAYC. However, Maureen Sullivan, owner of Coogan and a client of Liz’s, had unfortunately broken her leg. She very graciously contacted Liz and offered to send him to me, in Wellington, during the winter season to ride. He arrived just six months before NAYC and needed to be conditioned up after having a summer of leisure.  I didn’t know much about Coogan, but I have learned to always take the ride offered – every horse I have been on has taught me something. Always take the opportunity as it presents itself. 

We were in Wellington, and had earned our bronze medal competing in only two shows at the end of the season, and Liz and Maureen had this crazy idea- why not try for NAYC? Since we got along so well, I declared and penciled in my three qualifiers (there were four but we had to drop one) and I called my mom.  My family and local community rallied together allowing me to have the finances to attend NAYC. While Liz and I worked hard in the ring, my mom hosted  a sell- everything garage sale, with items donated from our rural community, a Facebook auction with used horse tack donations, and put in overtime to get me here financially. We got there, and that in itself is still a bit surreal to me.  Four and a half years ago, I was taking my first dressage lesson, and here I was with the top one percent of Junior/Young Riders in North America, with plans to make everyone who worked so hard to get me here proud.

Unfortunately, my plans did not go according to plan. Instead, the first day we were dead last, but it’s okay because at the end of the day, that ride doesn’t define me as a rider. It doesn’t define Coogan and his amazing abilities. It is not predictive for where I am going. Even some Olympians didn’t place well at NAYC. Our next ride was absolutely great, for where Coogan and I are in our partnership right now. One thing my mom always tells me before a competition is, “Just remember it’s an equal opportunity crapshoot” and that’s the truth. Regardless of how any of us got here, anything can happen to anyone of us, at any moment, and we are just being scored by what occurs in those few minutes.

Being at NAYC is more than just placings. It’s the amazingly close friendships and relationships built with your regional team. I am hoping to continue those friendships and visit them in the coming future. At the end of it all, I am lucky and privileged because I am returning home to Liz Austin Dressage. I am leaving NAYC more driven and inspired then when I left, and I am returning with a happy and sound horse.  I am thinking of all those little girls back home, and around the country, riding perhaps a 20-year-old Morgan, wearing a boys Easter suit coat off the clearance rack, and mitten clips to hold their jodpurs down over Walmart look alike English boots. Those girls who perhaps come from non-horse backgrounds or lack money or access to trainers, who are cantering around their local circuit, with no clue if they are on the correct lead, but have dreams of going to the Olympics.  I want to tell those girls to never stop believing. Don’t ever stop working for it. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. Take every ride offered and every opportunity that comes up. Your journey might look different, there might be more curves and bumps in the road, but your journey will also be amazing.

 I am now looking forward to working on my silver medal this coming season, a return to NAYC, and I will continue to trust in hard work and have faith that my ride will come.

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