Our Journey to Prix St. George

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!

Belle and Mommy
Petite Belle and her beautiful mother, Farer Belle Nurse, an ex racehorse.

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….

ENJOY!

The Best Dog Ever

I had many dogs growing up.  Mutts, a Brittany Spanial, an American Eskimo, German Shepard, a Husky, a Keeshond, and a Norwegian Elkhound.  But I always had an idea of what the perfect dog for me was.  I wanted a dog that was loyal, who I could leave off the leash and know that he would never leave me.  I wanted a dog who loved to go on adventures and rides in the car.  Who wanted to go swimming, play fetch, catch a frisbee.  I wanted a best friend to take with me everywhere.

While all the dogs that I had as a child brought me great pleasure, none of them shared all the qualities I wanted.  This was partly my fault as I didn’t commit to their training as an immature adolescent.  When I was younger, I could hardly take care of myself, let alone another living being.  To be perfectly honest, I can say those poor animals were neglected.  They had food and shelter and the bare necessities, but in order for a dog to be at it’s best, it needs discipline and and commitment.  Something I knew nothing about.

When I rescued Jagger as an 8 week old pup, my son was 5 years old.  If my son survived that long and wasn’t a total spaz, I could handle a dog.  When I rescued Jagger, I committed to not making the same mistakes that I had made with all my other pups.  I was going to exercise  him daily, socialize him, train him, and he was going to go everywhere with me, instead of staying at home, locked in a crate for hours.  Since I had just started my professional career as an equestrian, it would be easy to take him to the barn with me.  I bought a portable crate which was like the doggie version of a pack and play, and if I was on a horse, he would stay there with a chew toy filled with peanut butter to keep him busy until I could let him out to socialize with people, horses, cats and other dogs.

At the time, Chaise was in kindergarten and his school was just a few blocks from our house.  So everyday, we would walk to school and Jagger got to play with the kids before the bell rang.  I taught him that he had to sit and wait patiently before anyone was allowed to touch him.  After the kids went to their classrooms, Jagger would play with the other dogs who also came to school.

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Jagger and Chaise – 4 months

When I rescued jagger, he was infested with worms and other parasites, so he wasn’t full of energy.  It took a few weeks before he could make the entire 4 block trek to Baker Elementary and I would have to carry him the rest of the way.  When he got stronger, we would walk around the block before returning home.  Eventually, we spent an hour walking around the neighborhood in the morning before our trip to the barn.  Needless to say, after all our daily adventures, Jagger had no problem passing out when the day was done.

Jagger’s favorite toy was a jolly ball.  I made the mistake of teaching him to bark at me when he wanted me to throw it.  Did I mention Jagger is part Lab?  If you’ve ever had a Lab, or a Lab mix, you know that they will play fetch until their legs fall off.  So imagine this clumsy, 65 pound puppy running at you with a ball that is bigger than his head, dropping it at your feet and demanding that you throw it so he can repeat the process again… and again……… and again……………. and again………………………. and again……… You get the point.

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Jagger and his favorite toy – Jolly Ball

When Jagger was about 6 months old we bought the farm- 54 acres with a trail that surrounded the property.  By this time, He was pretty athletic, so I would run him along side the John Deer Gator until he was pooped.  True to Lab form, this also became an obsession of his.  If the gator went anywhere, he was either in it, or running beside it, directing the driver where to go.

While Jagger is true to his Lab side, there is also no denying the Doberman in him.  He is loyal and protective and his main priority has always been me.  You can’t blame him.  When he was 8 weeks old and split from his litter, I was his soft place to fall.  Since he didn’t want to sleep alone, and I wan’t losing a minute of sleep listening to him cry, he spent his nights snuggled in my bed next to me – which made him real easy to potty train as he was too small to jump off the bed and there was no way in hell I would allow my slumberdome to be spoiled by urine.  Let’s just say we had a great line of communication from the beginning.

None of this even begins to explain the power that Jagger has over not only people, but animals.  He’s like a Jedi.  New boarders would come to the farm, and when Jagger came to greet their horse, they would warn how their horse does not like dogs and to watch out because they might bite him.  Before this newbie could finish explaining their horses distain for dogs, we would turn and see Jagger being groomed by said horse.  If a dog or cat didn’t like Jagger, he wouldn’t pressure them.  He would wait until curiosity got the best of them and they would be forced to inspect him, only to be met with the true definition of a gentleman.

But Jagger is not perfect.  Like all of us, he has his vices and his vice is food.  I don’t think there is enough space on the internet for me to share all the hilarious stories about Jagger’s quest to fill his belly.  In fact, if you asked him, his stomach has more room than the internet.  My favorite story?  Some friends of mine came over and we were going to grill some ribeye.  I seasoned 3 succulent 8 ounce steaks and I left them waiting on the counter as we went to the porch to start the grill.  As I walked out the door, I stopped and asked “Wait, where is Jagger?”  Before I could turn back to the kitchen to check on our dinner, he had already swallowed one whole and was working on the second.  He was a stealth.  He knew how to wait until no one was watching and swallow as much as possible before he was caught.

I think it goes without saying that this dog has brought me nothing but joy in the years that I have owned him.  From snuggling in bed after a long day at the barn, to days at the beach and hours at the barn.  But he is 10 now and has undergone 3 knee surgeries.  His days of fetching and running and demanding someone join in on his fun are over.  He’s on joint supplements and pain meds and now requires a wheelchair to relive himself.

jaggerwheelchair

Jaggers muscles have atrophied from his hind end up his spine and my heart is heavy with the knowledge that our time is limited.  I know that I will never find another best friend like him and I’m troubled by the fact that I know I will eventually have to make the impossible decision to say goodbye.  I contemplate daily if I am holding on too long.  As you can see from the picture above, even when he’s stuck, he has not lost his positive attitude about life.

No matter what Jagger is dealt with, he faces it with a happy heart and positive spirit.  No matter what, I will always remember this and try to take a page from his book.  Jagger was dumped at the pound before he was even weaned from his mother, and lucky for him, this is the only real struggle he has ever known.  I can take solace in the fact that I gave a creature of this earth the best life he could possibly have, but no one will ever be able to fill his shoes and the thought of waking up without his face greeting me first thing leaves me feeling empty.

I fear that he will always greet me with a smile, so how will I know when it is time?  My instinct tells me that when he no longer has the desire to eat, I will have to face my difficult choice.  However, I know that he has a degenreative joint disease that will eventually spread to his front limbs and as long as his tummy says ‘FEED ME SEYMORE’ he will want to feast.  I’ve never had to make a choice like this, so how do I know when to say goodbye??

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My best friend forever and always