The Road to the AECs – Part 2

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At the Kentucky Horse Park in 2020

This article won the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award for first person experience for GMOs with 75-174 members. It first appeared in the June 25, 2020 issue of The Bleep, the Southern Eventing & Dressage Association Newsletter.

By Aryelle Stafford-Collins, recipient of the Mysing-Williams Eventing Scholarship

KENTUCKY. I’M GOING TO RIDE IN KENTUCKY HORSE PARK. THIS IS REAL LIFE.

(Repeat that loudly about 100 times and that pretty much sums up what I did on day one. )

Chaston and I flew in on a Monday and Reef was set to arrive the next day. Our show days were Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If you read Part 1 of our 2019 journey, you’ll notice that Reef has a habit of pulling shoes before/at a show. Not only was Kentucky no exception to this rule, he did it in style.

We were staying at an Air BnB that was a horse farm, so when the horses arrived, we were able to turn them out and use one of the stalls on the farm for a night. Reef unloaded just fine, all four shoes were on and secure. We turned him out, he ran, rolled, trotted like he ate extended trots for breakfast, and then BAM. He sprung a shoe, stepped on it, stepped harder on it, and got the clip stuck into his hoof wall. 

I’m not kidding when I say this was five minutes after his arrival.  

We had to pull the shoe off, wrap it, and immediately call the farrier. Story of my life. 

When the farrier came in the next day, he wasn’t able to put the shoe on, but he made a wrap that would soak Reef’s hoof for 24 hours because “It’s VERY likely he will develop an abscess. It will be touch and go every single day.” Once that wrap was done, I had to bring Reef to the farrier at the show ground to put the shoe back on since we were hauling there anyways. If he was able to tack it on, I had to make sure to wrap the hoof every single second I’m wasn’t riding him. That is – if I was even going to be able to ride him that week. 

If he were any other horse, I would have panicked. Because yes, he is a weenie when it comes to any pain he’s feeling, but I’m honestly used to things like this happening at shows. Even to this level of ridiculousness. 

It wasn’t until the day before our dressage test that I was able to ride him. Somehow, he was totally sound, but stiff from being stuck in a stall for so long (maybe if you didn’t pull a shoe you would have had turn out time like everyone else!).

Over the course of the show, our routine was to ride, untack, hose and clean the foot thoroughly, pack it, wrap it, unwrap it before we leave for the night, then wrap it again with a fresh packing and bandage. I bought more hoof care stuff that weekend than I have in the past year, but it worked!

Our dressage was lovely. I tensed up because of how excited I was to be riding on that turf, but we scored well with a 31.4, placing us 7th (not that I knew it at the time – see part 1 regarding Greta’s score-hiding ninja skills). 

Cross country was the best day of my entire life – even on my wedding day, I told Chaston that I was almost just as happy as the day I rode that course in Kentucky, and he knew that was a high compliment! When we crossed that finish line, I thought I was going to be able to hold it together, but as soon as I saw my mom running towards me with tears in her eyes, I totally lost it and blubbered like a baby. She knew how much hard work, dedication, and support it took for me to get to that moment.

The next day for stadium, Reef felt a bit off. Not lame, more so tired. He wasn’t jumping like he did the day before, and his usual pep in the warmup wasn’t there. We even pulled rails in warmup – something we rarely do. We were in 5th place and I knew it thanks to the giant order-of-go board and the announcer who wouldn’t stop repeating it loudly the day before (Greta was very mad at him). But I didn’t care. I was about to ride in THE Rolex arena. I got to cross that big white PVC gate I’ve seen on TV so many times. I got to ride on the same turf that so many top riders have been in before. It was surreal. 

In the end, we pulled two rails. Reef rarely pulls rails, but I could tell that he was doing the best he could. Hell, I was just happy he was sound that week! Our placing went from 5th (would have been 3rd if not for the rails) to 23rd

Was I disappointed? Absolutely. Did I let myself cry later that day? 100%. I felt as if I let everyone down – even Reef. He is a total champ and I know I’m not a perfect rider by any means. I’m sure a better rider could have helped him over those fences more than I did. I also felt like I didn’t honor Greta like I wanted to. She has worked so hard with us through the years, and I know even getting in the top 10 would have made her proud. She has given us every tool to get there, but I failed.

And then there was Melissa. She was the reason I was able to go to so many shows to qualify for AECs. She was the reason I was able to ride on Kentucky turf, and I wanted to represent the scholarship well. She believed in us from the start, and she saw all the ups and downs of the season. I just kept hoping she didn’t regret picking us as one of the Mysing and Williams scholarship recipients. 

But at the end of the day, when we were back at the Air BnB winding down from an eventful week, Melissa told me how happy she was that she picked me. She loved watching Reef and I go around and thought we were a talented pair, but more importantly, she saw the horsemanship. The countless pulled shoes, the out-of-the-blue injuries Reef had right before a show, the support I gave to barn mates even when my own rides didn’t go well, the happiness she saw this sport gives me, and the dedication I have to my horse. The Mysing and Williams scholarship isn’t about funding top riders who only get 1st place. It’s about supporting everyday eventers and their goals of becoming better riders and horsemen. It’s about giving local riders a chance they normally wouldn’t have. 

The Mysing and Williams scholarship is one of the best things to ever happen to me. Thank you for believing in me, Melissa. Thank you for reminding me that this sport is so much more than your score or how you place. Because of you, my 23rd place ribbon at AECs feels like a 1st

Now that the COVID show cancelations have been lifted, I can’t wait to spend 2020 cheering Isabella Rodwig on as the new Mysing and Williams award recipient! 

Read Part 1.

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