Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When Dreams Come True

Rather than growing out of my horse-crazy phase I have been in all my life, I built upon it. I formed aspirations attached to the horse industry, hoping that one day they would reach fruition. Having been around horses my entire life, it became apparent to me that dreams do not come true in the blink of an eye – especially not with horses. In order for them to become reality, patience, hard work, and dedication are necessities.

I have grown up showing horses. I started out competing in playdays and 4-H shows, showing my fair share of horses throughout my childhood. I was fortunate enough to have a handful of trustworthy horses, but I also owned and showed several bad apples: a pony that left my five-year-old (or near that age) self in the dirt at a playday, an unruly Quarter Horse gelding who also thought I looked better on the ground, a temperamental Quarter Horse mare that refused to do anything other than in-hand classes, and a skittish Quarter Horse mare who never even made it to the show ring. (I loved all of them despite these unfortunate qualities).

I collected many ribbons and belt buckles during this time, but it was not until I began showing Appaloosas at breed shows that I began to raise my goals as the level of my competition heightened. However, despite some success, my streak of bad luck continued. Although my first Appaloosa – Colby – was talented, he was green and sometimes difficult to handle. During my first year at the Appaloosa National Show and the Appaloosa Youth World Championship Show, I cheered my friends on as they achieved National and World Championships. Meanwhile, I never even made the finals.

My second Appaloosa – Byron – found a place in my heart no other horse has ever encompassed, but he, too, was green. We found greater success than I had with Colby, but his inexperience kept us from winning any titles. Nonetheless, I was happy and loved what I was doing.

Riding Byron, November 2014
Photo by Terri Cage

Along with my passion for showing, I have been a devoted fan of horse racing since I was eight years old. That equine-related infatuation has had its fair share of ups and downs, as well. I have fallen in love with countless racehorses over the years, rooting them to victory and experiencing disappointment at their losses. Beginning with Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid in 2004, I have dreamt of a Triple Crown winner. Year after year, I watched as the drought continued.

My passion for both showing and racing endured the disappointments I faced, as my love for horses and these sports overcame any frustrations I encountered. I yearned for a Triple Crown winner like I worked for greater success in the show ring, hoping that someday these dreams would materialize.

This year, everything came together.

This spring marked the end of my first year of college. Throughout the school year, I had not managed to keep up with horse racing on the same level I have in previous years, but my excitement for the Triple Crown did not waiver. When American Pharoah captured both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, my hopes – along with those of the remainder of the racing world – soared at his chances to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

My two “horse worlds” collided in late May, when I made a detour on my return from a horse show in New Jersey, stopping in central Kentucky. Visits to some of the most prestigious Thoroughbred farms in the world, as well as several mornings spent with two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan (one of my all-time personal favorites) would have been more than enough. But an unforgettable opportunity arose while I was in the Bluegrass: the chance to see American Pharoah make his final preparations at Churchill Downs for the Belmont Stakes.

I was able to see the Triple Crown hopeful on three occasions during the week I spent in Kentucky, two of which were mornings during which he breezed beneath the twin spires. Once I saw the colt in person, my confidence in his ability to end the Triple Crown drought only skyrocketed. I relished the opportunity to see American Pharoah firsthand, almost convinced it was not real life each time he galloped past me, each time he stopped to pose, each time his regal eyes looked directly at me.

American Pharoah breezing, May 26, 2015
Photo by Mary Cage
American Pharoah, May 30, 2015
Photo by Mary Cage
It seemed as if my Triple Crown dream was finally coming true, but as the Belmont neared, my showing dreams looked to be doing the opposite. My beloved Byron came up with an injury that would prevent him from competing at Nationals, which was less than three weeks away. My main worry centered upon Byron but once I knew he would be just fine, I was overwhelmed with a sickening feeling that I would not be able to compete at Nationals. Along with the Appaloosa World Championship Show, the Appaloosa National Show is one of my biggest stages on which I compete. I was disappointed to say the least.

But horse racing stepped in to save the day. I woke up on Belmont Stakes Day like it was Christmas morning, headed to the barn to ride a few horses, and then returned home, where I would be glued to the television, watching racing coverage all day long. As post time for the final jewel of the Triple Crown grew closer, my nerves ascended, but a strange sense of confidence in American Pharoah remained.

In a moment defined by sheer joy, I watched the television screen as American Pharoah accomplished what no horse in my lifetime ever had. There were ecstatic tears, shouts, and smiles galore. I had dreamed of this moment before, but my past imagining could not equate with this extraordinary reality.

While still on cloud nine from American Pharoah’s triumph, my showing situation began to improve. Into my life entered Pinky, a multiple World and National Champion Appaloosa gelding that I had known for several years. With the help of some amazing people, including my parents, Pinky became mine.

However, Pinky and I had only two weeks before Nationals to begin becoming accustomed to one another. The white-faced sorrel gelding had a reputation for being selective in terms of riders he gets along with, but the two of us quickly formed an understanding and bond.

It was not long before we arrived in nearby Fort Worth, Texas to compete with the best of the best Appaloosa horses and equestrians the nation has to offer. It was my third year at this particular horse show, but my first year competing at Nationals as a non-pro – as I was now too old to be competing at the youth level. Oddly enough, as I entered the ring for my first riding class of the show (Novice Non-Pro Hunt Seat Equitation) a familiar feeling consumed me – the same calm nerves I had felt prior to the Belmont.

Pinky and I entered the ring, where I rode the best pattern of my life. I received an abundance of compliments on my ride, which boosted my confidence, but the decision was still up to the judges. After rail work, I – along with my competitors – lined our horses up along the rail as we awaited the placings under all four judges.

It felt surreal when my number was announced first under three of the judges, and second under the other – securing me with my first National Championship. I felt as if I was watching from the stands as someone I knew won the class rather than riding Pinky to the center of the arena to accept my trophy. I attempted to take in the moment, but it was truly a blur. For the remainder of the day, I received congratulations from an overwhelming amount of people. I could feel myself glowing with happiness. It felt like my birthday.

Pinky and I on pattern during Hunt Seat Equitation
Photo by Larry Williams Photography
Hunt Seat Equitation win photo
Photo by Larry Williams Photography

Winning that National Championship would have been more than enough, but just a few days later, I walked out of the arena with Pinky carrying my second National Championship trophy after winning the Novice Non-Pro Showmanship. Considering my first championship still had not sunk in, this one felt unreal as well. With top finishes in the remainder of my classes, I was able to receive the Reserve High-Point award in the Novice Non-Pro division. It was the show of a lifetime.

Showmanship win photo
Photo by Larry Williams Photography
Reserve High-Point win photo
Photo by Larry Williams Photography
This summer has certainly been the best I have ever had, all thanks to these amazing animals. Horses have the ability to give me happiness like few other things can, and the life-changing moments of this summer proved this. Thank you, American Pharoah, for making the Triple Crown dream that I and other racing fans have so long desired. And thank you, Pinky, for allowing what I thought was a pipe dream not only come true, but exceed any aspirations I ever had.


  1. Congratulations on your showing achievements and thanks for sharing your fun with American Pharoah! How awesome that had to be!!