By Tillie Jones
I remember being in awe of those girls that seemed to win all the awards. They were much older. Sophisticated. Refined. They seemed to be able to effortlessly get their horses to do amazing things. It was my seventh birthday, that day when my parents removed the blindfold from my eyes and a horse (yes a horse!) stood before me, ready to carry me through my one-lesson birthday present. I remember listening to those girls excitedly discussing some magical, mysterious event they wanted to attend: the North American Junior/ Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC). I didn’t really know what they were talking about, but I knew if they wanted to go, then I wanted to go too. Perhaps it started as just a little girl’s dream, but it soon turned into my goal: to compete at NAJYRC and make it to the podium. This is the story of my journey to the podium, and why making it was the most exhilarating and cathartic experience of my life.
That one-lesson birthday present was, as my dad is fond of saying, the gift that kept on giving. One lesson turned into five, and the lesson horse was replaced by a leased pony, and I began competing in schooling shows. Before long I was the owner of a very special Connemara pony, Darby, who took me through Third Level and enabled me to earn my bronze medal, when I was only twelve. I worked hard, but things seemed to come easily those days. Then, enter Boegley’s Mauricio, also known as Mo.
An 18-year-old Danish Warmblood, Mo was a Ferrari without brakes. He had “buttons” I didn’t even know existed. On Mo, I quickly learned how much I didn’t know about dressage. The transition from pony to a large horse was hard. He was, undoubtedly, the most difficult horse I’ve ridden. But, with Mo, I began to learn what it’s like when horse and rider develop that indescribable, unbreakable bond, through countless hours of training and the quiet time just being together.
When Mo and I became partners, we began showing Third Level and schooled Fourth Level. Although we showed reasonably well, our first year was challenging. As we were just starting to develop our connection, I nearly lost Mo in a tragic fire. It destroyed the barn where I was training and he was boarded, and that opened my eyes to the harsh reality that any ride may be the last.
That same year, I also said goodbye to my beloved trainer and life-mentor, Felice Rose, who was a second mom to me. After decades of training, she was slowing down at a time when my pace was speeding up. I don’t know if it was through fate, destiny, or just dumb luck, but Jami Kment, a trainer in Palmya, NE, agreed to help me. Jami, the owner of Providence Farm, helped me understand Mo’s quirks and how to manage his many idiosyncrasies.
In our second year together (2015), I finally accomplished a part of my long-time goal of competing at NAJYRC, where we placed 8th in the individual test and 7th in the freestyle. Realizing that a girl from Nebraska and her schoolmaster horse might actually be able to compete with the best horses and riders in the country, through the winter in 2015-2016, Mo and I trained like never before. I aimed to compete again at NAJYRC, but this time I wanted to make the podium. I knew in my heart that we were poised to realize that dream.
Two weeks before our first qualifying show, Mo and I had one of our best training sessions. The music and freestyle pattern my mom and I selected were perfect for Mo. We were ready. But after the ride, I noticed that Mo was acting out of character. He was pacing, rolling, and wouldn’t eat, even his favorite snacks. The local veterinarian urged us to take him to the Kansas State University Equine Medical Center (KSUEMC), so my dad drove us there overnight. The prognosis was guarded but optimistic, so dad and I returned home. Mo was on fluids and underwent multiple tests, but the veterinarians couldn’t decide a diagnosis.
By the next weekend, I was anxious and excited for the return trip to visit Mo. What I didn’t know was that, on Friday morning, the veterinarians discovered that 25 feet of Mo’s small intestine was dead. The prognosis was poor, and the veterinarians recommended letting him go peacefully. When I got home from school expecting to get ready for the trip to see my boy, I was met with my dad’s open arms, tears welling in his eyes, and I knew. I didn’t need my dad to say the words and I cried like I’ve never cried before. I never got to say goodbye to my best friend and tell him how much I truly loved him.
The grief was intense. My partner with whom I’d worked so hard, and been through so much, was now just a memory. I couldn’t do the one thing I loved more than anything- ride Mo. I was lost, and didn’t know how to fill the painful hole in my heart. I didn’t want to go to the barn. I couldn’t bear to see Mo’s empty stall.
I learned months later, while my dad was driving back to pick up our trailer, Mo’s shoes, and remnants of his mane, he called my trainer and told her that no matter how many hours he had to work to save up, my trainer was to find me another horse. After some time, through Providence, Jami found Apachi, a recently imported horse from Netherlands. Jami saw his great potential, and though my heart was aching for my beloved Mo, I saw his great personality. My dad nicknamed him “Patch”, as he was a patch to my broken heart.
Apachi and I spent the summer of 2016 getting to know each other. While I was happy for my Region 4 teammates and the other riders who made it to NAJYRC, it was hard to watch, knowing how I desperately wanted to be there. So Apachi and I rode, trained, and bonded. By the one-year anniversary of Mo’s death, the hard work was beginning to pay off. The potential we had seen was coming to fruition. We qualified for NAJYRC after only three shows. The one remaining question was, what freestyle would Apachi and I ride? We considered numerous options, but nothing felt quite right…except one. The music to which Mo was going to ride, which had arrived days before his death, was perfect. I was ready, again.
Two weeks before NAJYRC, I was out of town with my dad when we got the call from my mom that Apachi was showing the same symptoms Mo had shown. She was on her way back to KSUEMC. I felt physically sick, and once again back my dad’s arms, in tears. This could not be happening, not again. Dad drove us the seven hours there in a rush, and the whole ride I relived losing Mo. I had to see Apachi.
When we arrived at the hospital, walked down the same hallways, and unbelievably, found Apachi in the exact same area where I last saw Mo. I don’t know how long I just stood there hugging him, yet terrified about what we’d hear from the veterinarians. This time, what I heard sent my spirits soaring- Apachi was going to be okay! Three days later we left with my boy, healthy and cleared to compete!
At NAJYRC, we picked up 3rd place finishes in both the team and individual tests. Unbelievably, we made the podium not once, but twice. My dream of making the podium no longer seemed so important. The fact that Apachi was healthy and we could compete was enough.
When it came time to ride in the freestyle, I had watched the top riders score in the low 70’s. But instead of the usual butterflies I feel before a big ride, I felt a sense of calm and confidence. Mo’s music began, and Apachi and I were not alone. It was as if my boy Mo was there with me, telling me to ride my heart out and win the gold for him. When the last rider’s score was announced, I was back in my dad’s arms, tears flowing, but this time from uncontrolled joy. Gold.
Little girls’ dreams do sometimes come true. I know, because mine did.