By Carol Alonso
Last April, to celebrate the 24th birthday of my PRE gelding, El Gavilan (“Julio”), I choreographed a “Happy Birthday” freestyle. After all, we’d been together for 22 years. We scored well at a local show, and went on to qualify for the California and Great American/USDF Region 7 Championships. In September, we competed in both championships in Sacramento; and to my amazement, we were the top scoring Adult Amateur pair. This earned us an invitation to compete in the US Dressage Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park.
To me, a 73-year-old rider, this was the chance of a lifetime. I decided to make it happen. Logistics were challenging. We felt it would be too hard on a 24-year-old horse to travel in a van for four days. So, I emptied my piggy bank and flew Julio to Kentucky on a Boeing 727 called Air Horse One, whose sole mission is to transport horses around the USA.
Julio hadn’t a clue he was so far from home. Four hours after leaving Ontario, CA, he landed in Lexington, KY, and was vanned straight to the park, where we awaited his arrival. He looked at me nonchalantly, as if to say, “Oh, hi mom.” We had a stall in an older barn with a concrete floor, but I was able to rent rubber mats. Close to our barn was the supplier of bedding and feed. Julio flew with his own tack box and muck bucket, both laden with his tack, winter blankets, grain bags, and my show boots and helmet. I flew with a suitcase laden with show clothes and various other horse items.
My California trainers had lined up an excellent groom, who works near the park. Karen was a huge help in taking care of Julio, which was a good thing because I came down with a head cold from standing in the cold rain all day, at Keeneland, prior to Julio’s arrival. Karen fed and hand walked Julio in the morning, helped me groom and tack up for my daily rides, and blanketed him and put him to bed every night. Karen was able to provide things, like manure rakes, that we couldn’t bring on the airplanes.
Despite my cold, I rode Julio every day in a different arena, preparing for our Sunday freestyle to music. I was immensely helped by Team Julio, which consisted of my husband, groom Karen, and on the last day, coach Jolie, who flew out from California. Julio behaved impeccably throughout the whole week. He was the second oldest horse among 400 competitors, but he acted like a young dude. I totally enjoyed riding around the Kentucky Horse Park among some awesome dressage riders, and the show staff were all very nice and friendly.
Julio was wonderful during our competition ride, but alas I never heard the bell, and the ring steward was distracted elsewhere. The judges did not eliminate me, bless them, but I was penalized. As a result, we missed being in the ribbons by one place. The top ten got ribbon sashes and a victory lap around the Alltech Arena…but, at least we weren’t last.
The whole week was a wonderful experience. I totally enjoyed my ride on my beautiful Spanish horse. Just being there was awesome to me. When I came out, a USEF reporter interviewed me while I sat on Julio, another new experience. They seemed amazed to find a 73-year-old rider on a 24-year-old horse competing at the finals!
At 4:00am the next morning, we put Julio on a van to Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport. He flew home to California, and a van brought him north to Kismet Farm. Julio arrived home, happy as a clam and proud as punch. He’s been bragging to his friends ever since!
All in all, this was a totally positive experience. It expanded my horizons considerably. I would have liked to be in the ribbons, but just being there was a miracle – truly the chance of a lifetime.