I didn’t know it at the time, but April 27, 2007 would mark one of the most important days of my life. It was the day that one of the greatest horses I have and will ever know was born. Meet Petite Belle!
My first time down centerline was in 2007, the year Belle was born. Our first time down centerline together was in 2010, Dressage at Waterloo. We competed in Intro A and received a 62%. That year, I struggled to get above a 65% at training level with belle, even though i was winning all her classes on her 2 half sisters, but I knew she was special. She was athletic with a heart of gold to match.
The following year, I decided to go for the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships. I’m sure the experienced people around me thought I was nuts and some couldn’t wait to watch me fall flat on my face, but we qualified to compete at Lamplight Equestrian Center against the top 15 four year olds in the nation. I was stoked to qualify, and even more excited when I placed 4th in the warm up against some of the countries top riders.
In the championship class, I was told by the judges that I had not properly developed my horse. If I’m being honest, I flew by the seat of my pants, on Belle’s coattail to get there. I REALLY didn’t know what I was doing. These classes are meant for horses with FEI potential. I had never ridden above third level, and I didn’t have even 2 year’s worth experience showing dressage, but I was still crushed. While I should have been thankful for the opportunity, I was embarrassed to have tried. (Imagine that… embarrassed for trying.)
Still, I was determined to learn. We spent the following winter in Wellington, Florida competing at first level with scores ranging from 68-70%. However, my dreams were crushed once again. This time, by a vet, who told me she had changes in one of her hocks that were probably too severe for her to continue.
“You can try resting her for a year, but I’ve worked on some of the top horses in her sport, and she’s just not strong enough.” He told me.
Something told me he was off his rocker, but we gave her a year off anyway. That fall, I moved to Florida while she stayed in Michigan and I prayed for a recovery. When the year was over, I sent a different vet to diagnose her. By this time, we had met many experienced Dressage trainers during various clinics and such, and every one of them absolutely loved her. I wasn’t giving up because some vet decided it would be a waste of time and money to recover her. My new vet gave her a clean diagnoses and told my mother we could send her to Florida!
That night she colicked and was sent to Michigan State for surgery.
Her recovery was full of ups and downs and we were not sure she would make it. For SEVEN MONTHS we struggled to keep hope. She finally bounced back and I personally drove up to Michigan to bring her down to Florida in October of 2013. We decided that the changes in temperature and rich grass in Michigan was too much for her to handle and she would be easier to maintain in Florida.
We returned to the show ring that winter for one show at First Level before I was shot down again. This time, a torn collateral ligament in the hock. She spent the winter resting, and rehabbing with injections and shock therapy and by spring made another full recovery.
With the help of Sue Jaccoma’s lovely riding and out of the box thinking, we strengthened her hind end and Sue taught her her changes and filled in the cracks of my inexperience. She taught me how to REALLY engage her hind end, how to properly ride the half pass and most importantly, how to ride my sensitive horse with harmony. Season of 2015 was upon us and we were ready for Third Level.
Just as season was about to start, I received a call from Kim Jackson, the owner of May Faire Oaks, where Belle lives that she had been pawing in her stall and was very uncomfortable. I rushed to the farm, but by the time I arrived, she didn’t even want to stand. I didn’t want to waste time waiting for a vet, so we loaded her in Kim’s trailer and rushed her to Palm Beach Equine.
She practically took the trailer down on the 25 minute drive there where they had a stall already set up for her. All I could do was hope that we wouldn’t be faced with the decision of surgery or worse.
My mother and I had talked about if this had happened again and after such a difficult recovery the first time around, we didn’t want to put her through that again.
But it was clear when she immediately laid down in the stall with her head pressed against the wall, too weak to move into a more comfortable position, groaning with every breath that we had to decide if we were going to say goodbye, or take a risk and spend thousands of dollars to save our sweet beauty.
If you’ve ever met Belle, you can understand why goodbye was not an option. She is playful in the field, yet serious and focused under saddle. I have never sat on a horse that will do nothing but try, no matter what the situation, the way she does. Snuggles are her favorite thing. I could put a baby on her and she would make sure it’s safe and then take her galloping full force around the loop of White Fences. She is athletic and talented and if you touch her, you fall in love. We have all been blessed to have a little bit of ‘Miss Priss’ in our lives.
That night, I waited for the surgeon to arrive. I waited while they prepared her table. I watched as they lifted her, belly up and sliced open the already drawn line on her belly from her first surgery. I watched them remove all her intestines, purple from lack of oxygen and untwisted her colon. I stayed while they carefully pieced her together and placed her in the padded recovery room to wake up. I waited until she woke and helped them take her to her stall. At 3:30am, I kissed her nose and said “See you in the morning.”
I came everyday, 4 times a day to check on her. When I snuggled her, she rested her head in my chest and took deep breaths, just as she always had. We walked and she grazed and sometimes, she got a little bit of carrot, because, well, those are her favorite.
Her recovery was smooth and the only worry she gave us was the hernia that developed on her belly from the incision. Two years later, she still has that hernia. It’s our everyday reminder of what we’ve been through, and what we’ve overcome. I’ve grown to like it.
Last year we started competition at Third Level and quickly moved to Fourth where we torchered each other at 5 shows. (If you’ve competed fourth level, you know what I’m talking about.) Every ride, I walked out of the show ring, unsure if I would receive a score above 60%, and sometimes I did not. But I learned a lot. Mostly, how to let go, both in the saddle And in my mind. This was the struggle I had to face in order to ride an FEI test. I can’t say I ever mastered a Fourth Level test, but my riding improved exponentially.
Finally, during a lesson last month, Sue says to me, “I’m almost tempted to say enter Prix St. George at Adam’s! (White Fences Equestrian Center)”
WHERE DO I SIGN UP????!!!!!
So this weekend, I did it. I rode down centerline and completed my first FEI test. Not on Belle’s coattails, but in someone else’s because the coat I ordered wouldn’t be finished before the show. But that’s ok, because I earned those tails!
My class was filled with 18 of the top riders in Wellington, including Lars Peterson and Jaun Matute. I received a 64.7% placing me 14th. Years ago, I would not have been satisfied with this score, or this placing and there is no way I would share the video for fear of being judge by some armchair equestrians. Through my struggle, I am no longer entitled to great scores and top placings. I’m working my way through the seaweed like Nemo looking for Dora in a sea full of sharks. I am grateful for the chance to have this experience and I appreciate my failures.
Needless to say, Belle gets the VIP treatment these days. From special diets, to acupuncture, magnetic blankets and every Back On Track product made. She will be with us for the rest of her life.
I’m almost afraid to publish this, so I’ll just knock on wood real loud before I hit the big blue button, and if you’re still reading this, maybe you should knock on wood too.
I almost choked on my own pride watching this video, so, without further ado….