Winning at Prix St. Georges at Majestic View I and II was just the icing on the cake after a long, hard road.
“Every time I finish a test on him, I am 50 percent smiling and 50 percent wanting to cry. I just can’t believe he’s come back and that I’m riding him,” Darcy Gaines said of Ornament.
Gaines has beat the odds of limited funds and a serious injury to bring Ornament back to winning form. At the Majestic View I and II, June 12-14 in Batavia, Ohio, they topped one Prix St. Georges class (66.05%) and were second in another (60.26%).
“I think every day what a blessing it is to have that horse and to sit on his back and ride him one more day, because in my heart I’d lost him. I’m so thrilled,” said Gaines.
Two years ago, Gaines had achieved a lifelong goal—she was showing Prix St. Georges on a horse she’d waited 13 years to own. But one day she walked into the barn to find Ornament three-legged lame.
“The veterinarian told me that he was basically done, that it was a career-ending injury and to put him out to pasture. He had a torn meniscus,” she recalled.
“I was devastated. All I could think was, ‘This is it? I don’t have the funds for another horse. My riding career is over.’ Luckily, there was a small neighborhood barn where I could put him. I wanted to retire him where I could take care of him and watch over him.
“He went from a beautiful full-service barn to a place with tennis courts on one side and soccer fields on the other,” she added. “It was a bit of culture shock, but he adjusted well. I took care of him and he just hung out there. I didn’t ride for a long time, about eight months. I got a part-time job as a personal trainer, and I saved every penny I could to not give up on riding. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Gaines found an unbroken 3-year-old for the right price and bought Amigo as a new project. She still took meticulous care of Ornament, but she started to wonder about him.
“There were a couple of times along the way when he would spook at something and passage around the field and I’d think to myself, ‘Gosh, he looks awfully sound,’ ” she said.
In the spring of 2008, Gaines’ husband retired from the military and they bought 5 acres in Versailles, Ky., and moved there from Maryland.
“A friend of mine took care of Ornament while we were moving, and she said, ‘You know Darcy, I’ve been watching Ornament trot around in the pasture and gosh, he looks good,’ ” Gaines said.
“When we got to Kentucky, I decided to start getting on him a little bit, half to see how he was and half to keep my confidence and seat because I’d bought a very green 3-year-old.
“I started riding him 10 minutes every day,” she continued. “I’d do two big trot circles to the left, then two trot circles to the right. Then, I added some canter. He felt funny because he was so out of shape. But he felt sound. I had him re-examined and the tear was still there, but the vet said, ‘If he’s sound, go for it.’ ”
By June of 2008, Gaines had Ornament back in a program.“Every day I would do just a little bit more and a little bit more. It was all about patience. I wasn’t focused on getting him back to Prix St. Georges. I wasn’t focused on doing the tricks. I just concentrated on getting him stronger and keeping him through. I had no expectations—I had no idea what the future held, and I did think that every day could be our last ride. It was a completely different mindset,” she said.
Eventually, Gaines started adding flying changes and shoulder-in. She avoided half-passes, though, because she knew that could stress his stifle area.
When she first moved to Kentucky, Gaines didn’t have a ring at her farm, so she rode Ornament out in the rolling grass fields, incorporating hillwork into their routine. As he developed, she also took him for sessions on an aqua treadmill, which helped his fitness and strength even more.
“It helped to apply the information and strategies about training people that I learned as a personal trainer to training horses. It’s very black and white—rehab is rehab. I believe that slow and steady wins the race when you’re trying to get fit again,” she said.
Gaines decided to put her hard work to the test in May and entered Ornament in the Spring Fling I show at Majestic Farm.
“I had no idea if I was delusional or if he was doing as well as I thought he was doing,” she said.
They scored a 65 percent at fourth level, test 3, confirming Gaines’ belief that Ornament was back in action.
“The next show I did Prix St. Georges, and we struggled a little bit. I think because there’s a little more pressure mentally and things happen quicker, but he still did well. So, I knew what to work on,” she said.
And it all came together at the June Majestic Farm show with the Prix St. Georges win.
“I still pinch myself. It gives me goosebumps,” she said. “This is a horse that I had written off. I took all four shoes off and let go of all my dreams for him.
“In some ways, I think I’m lucky that it happened that way. I think that if someone had said to me, ‘Give him six months and then bring him back,’ I would have been testing him and pushing him before he was ready. I also wouldn’t have bought a second horse. I wouldn’t have had that drive to earn money to be able to do that. But now I’m sitting pretty comfortably, and when Ornament does retire, I have something to ride.”
Gaines’ young horse, Amigo, got ribbons at Majestic View with scores in the 60s at training level.
The Long Road To FEI
Darcy Gaines started out the way many riders do—as a horse-crazy child.
“It never came easily for me; I wasn’t from a horsey family. As a child, I had no problem walking up to someone’s house I didn’t know, knocking on their door, and asking if I could pet their horses. I would beg, borrow, steal to ride,” she said.
Gaines rode English in her youth, and had heard of dressage, but it wasn’t until she got married to a military man that she started to explore showing in earnest.
“I thought, ‘I might as well take advantage of being a military wife and check out the base stable.’ It was pretty rickety, but I could ride!” she said.
Gaines started off showing an off-the-track Thoroughbred at training level. From there, she worked her way up the levels with various investment mounts.
“I bought and sold and bought and sold, making a little bit of money with each,” she said.
Being a military wife made things even tougher, though.
“We moved a lot, but I did a few working student stints wherever we were, like for Sharon and Grant Schniedmann when we were in Colorado,” said Gaines. “My lifestyle was not conducive to showing dressage. I pieced things together to make it happen. I persevered, and it makes me so appreciate for everything I have now. I can remember, when my daughter was 2, I waited tables to pay my board bill. I did whatever I had to do to get it done.”
Thirteen years after she’d bought that first Thoroughbred, Gaines had enough money saved to travel to the Netherlands and find Ornament. At the time, he was schooling third and fourth levels, but he didn’t have many show miles.
“He was very unpredictable. Axel Steiner laughed at me once when he judged us. He said, ‘That was an entertaining test. Thank you for letting me use every number on the scale.’
“He’d have a brilliant extension but then have a meltdown. He just panicked. I had to really develop his confidence. I think that’s part of why we get along so well now. It was a struggle,” she said.
Now, Gaines described Ornament as a lovely mover and a sensitive and intelligent horse who’s easy to ride.
“We did train a bit with Scott Hassler, and he was amazing. He taught me so much about how to ride this horse. He taught me how to take what I had with him and build and build to get things bigger and better. He helped me take my canter pirouettes from 3s to 7s. It was all about building on confidence and quality work one step at a time. Having had the opportunity to learn under his style helped me also with the rehab. It was all quiet perseverance and patience that you have to have. It still sticks in my head.”
Gaines and Ornament started out at third and fourth levels in 2006, winning the USDF Region 3 Championships at third level and the BLM Championships at fourth level.
In 2007, Gaines achieved a major goal, moving Ornament up to Prix St. Georges and showing at the FEI levels for the first time before his injury later that year.
“We’ve definitely grown together,” she said.