Being an amateur rider, by its very nature, means spending time longingly sitting in bleachers or by a laptop, watching the professionals (or very well-funded amateurs) work their magic. How many of us see them ride into the big arenas, wistfully thinking, “If I only had the money/time/horse/skills?”
Best friends Jody Dewan and Melissa “Missy” Thompson have had a long-standing tradition of taking a girls’ trip from their homes near Ottawa, Ontario, to Toronto for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which is Canada’s equivalent of the national indoor championships for hunter/jumpers. Both lifelong hunter riders themselves, they would show up for the hunter days and watch the country’s top horses and riders give it their best.
Dewan started taking lessons at 10 and has ridden a succession of project horses in provincial-level competition, while Thompson keeps a small hobby farm where she breeds and raises a few horses each year.
In November 2017, Dewan was preparing to sell her latest project, a feisty mare better suited for the jumpers, and she was looking at the prospect of being horseless. Thompson had been putting miles on the 10-year-old Canadian Sport Horse she had raised, but she thought the time had come for the mare to graduate to a show barn.
She had a world-class problem. The mare, Tapestry or “Kenzie,” was a talented mover with a brilliant jump and kind personality—basically, as Dewan puts it, a unicorn. Thompson had foaled her, raised her, backed her and done her early training. Kenzie, who is by Xavier K, had been to a few shows as a 6-year-old, but Thompson didn’t have the time or resources to campaign her on the top show circuit.
Kenzie has been part of both friends’ lives for her whole life. Around the time she was born, Dewan was going through a divorce and would find herself at Thompson’s house on Friday evenings, making dinner and watching movies.
“[Kenzie] would sip red wine out of my hand while Missy did night check,” Dewan remembered. “My idea of helping was standing there feeding the foal red wine while she did all the work.”
Then, as they plotted their trip to the 2017 Royal, Thompson had a crazy thought.
“She proposed that we partner up on Kenzie and take our shot at getting to the 2018 Royal together, but all on our own, backyardigans-style,” said Dewan. “No fancy barn, no professional trainer, no grooms, no help, just us doing our own thing, based out of her own backyard. She pointed out that between the two of us, we have over 60 years of experience in the saddle, and we should probably be able to figure out by now how to survive a couple of hunter patterns without a coach in the chute.
“By pooling our money, resources and areas of expertise—she’s the Kenzie expert; I’m the horse showing expert—we could split the still-nonetheless-considerable expenses and the work and try to get to the top horse show in Canada on a dime, relatively speaking, of course, while circumventing the terrifyingly, prohibitively expensive conventional way of doing things in a top-level stable. Like I said, it was completely nuts,” she continued.
It sounded just crazy enough to work.
They knew the scheme would require a lot of planning and discipline. Both Dewan and Thompson have jobs in different departments of the Canadian federal government and squeeze riding time in around family obligations.
Besides making the time for riding, Dewan also decided she needed to improve her own fitness program to keep up with Kenzie. In January, she joined a gym, started watching her calories and began drinking more water. By the time show season started, she was down 30 pounds. She enlisted the help of a personal trainer, lost another 10 pounds this fall, and got back into a tailcoat she hadn’t worn in 10 years.
Dewan and Thompson took turns practicing their flat in the snow, setting up poles when the ground thawed, and scrubbing the yellow out of Kenzie’s tail. Dewan had unicorn t-shirts made to commemorate “Jody and Melissa’s Excellent Horseventure 2018.” Two weeks before their first show, they each grabbed a pair of clippers and body-clipped Kenzie together.
The trio campaigned at the gold level in Quebec and Ontario beginning in May, with Dewan riding in the adult amateurs and Thompson in the amateur-owners. They hauled to shows Fridays, competed on the weekends, and spent late nights hauling back. They split hotel and hauling expenses and combined their talents: Dewan cramped her fingers to braid Kenzie, while Thompson kept the stall spotless. Dewan handled paperwork, and Thompson did the driving. They coached each other in warm-up and traded places in their roles as official treat dispenser for Kenzie in between rounds.
“I’ve campaigned basically every year since 1987, albeit at lower levels, and I have never been as tired or laughed as much in my entire life as I did this summer,” said Dewan. “It helps that we also did quite a bit of winning.”
Dewan credits Kenzie with their success. She and Thompson are very different riders; Thompson is quiet, exact and a “thinking rider,” while Dewan describes herself as “very much a kick to the middle type.” Kenzie handled the transition between the two, along with the learning curve of horse show life, as if she’d done it all before, turning in round after round with utter consistency.
Through it all, Dewan said the two friends remained as close as ever despite spending the better part of three days together each week.
“It was kind of risky, right? Should we live in each others’ pockets? But actually it worked out really well. We haven’t even had a fight,” said Dewan. “I would laugh because we would be together from like Thursday afternoon nonstop until late Sunday night, and then we’d go back to work on Monday morning, and we’d still be texting each other all day what we needed to do for the next week. I’d still end up in her driveway talking to her for like an hour before I’d go home at the end of the evening.”
Arriving at the Royal was a little different as a competitor than as a spectator. Dewan recalled Kenzie taking a sideways look at the elevated highway outside the arena to one side of her and a huge ramp into the building on the other, observing both with some skepticism but ultimately pretending like she’d been there before.
Years of watching classes had paid off, as both riders found the arena riding very much as it looked from the outside, with easy turns that weren’t too tight. Limited longeing space meant all three of them were up late in the evenings and up early in the mornings to get short exercises in. The riders each had three trips and a flat class between Friday and Sunday, but for Dewan, her best moments came at the beginning in the adult amateur, 36 and over, over fences.
“I loathe the warm-up area, and I loathe riding with everybody else. I get really tense, and I’m not a good practice rider, so we didn’t do much. We jumped two jumps and went to the chute,” she said. “I went in for my trip and had this very strange out of body experience where everything just came together completely perfectly. I couldn’t hear anything, and then every jump sort of appeared in front of me like it was spotlit. I laid down the best trip I’ve ever ridden in my entire life, scored a 90 and won the class.”
Thompson and Kenzie took home fifth and sixth-placed ribbons in competitive over fences divisions. Even days later, Dewan said she can hardly believe she won a class at the Royal. Upon returning to work the following week, she cleared all the season’s show ribbons out of her office and replaced them with her winning rosette from the most important weekend.
So after the big build-up, where do they go from here? Kenzie is for sale, as Thompson wants to give her the chance to use her considerable talent in the show ring.
“I’m sad. Melissa’s devastated, but we both know she’s way too special to go back to being in her pasture,” said Dewan. “We can’t do this again. We can’t afford it. The cost in terms of not just the money, but the time away from our families, it’s too much. We threw everything we had at it for one year, and we can’t keep doing it. So she needs to go some place where she’ll live the circuit life.”
As for Dewan, she’s got her eye on a new dream.
“I figure at some point I’m going to have to hang it in, and then I think I’m going to get my judge’s card,” she said. “I could sit and watch hunters all day long, so I might as well get paid for it at some point.”
After all these years at the Royal, she certainly has a jump on studying.
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