Devon and I, we go way back.
We go back to 2005, where I did win the Young Rider freestyle on a very, very big score, after nearly getting my rear end dumped in the ring at least once in the Team and Individual Tests. Then there was 2006, when Billy ran backwards almost all the way from X to the ingate at A (comment at the end of the test from Anne Gribbons: that I was “tactful, brave, and not influential.” Love it.)
In 2009, Ella completely froze and shut down in a fourth level test, earning a whopping 48 percent, and Cleo bit her lip panicking in her stall when I took Ella out to show her and I scratched. And in 2010, Fender’s stall flooded to the point of standing in fetlock-deep water, and the footing was so horrendous due to weather that I took him home without ever even riding.
So Devon and I have not always been friends.
Maybe that was a bit in my head as I rode Ella down centerline at Grand Prix. Maybe not. My Grand Prix test was foot perfect, light and energetic, and I felt like I’ve never ridden her that well at a CDI. And sure enough, a career best for us, though I was a little disappointed, as it had felt so incredible, and as I’ve said so often, feel lies. The reality was a delightful, accurate test that needed more oomph.
So oomph I sought in my warm-up for Saturday night’s Grand Prix Special. I’d entered Ella in the Special, as opposed to the freestyle, because traditionally the Special is held Sunday morning, in the light of day.
Ella is not a spooky horse in her nature, but she doesn’t love changes of light and shadow—exhibit A, her reaction to the light board at eye level in Omaha—and as such I’d wanted to hedge my bets for having the most positive experience at Devon and strive for a ride with less ambiance. For whatever reason, this year, they moved the Special to Saturday night, with all of Devon’s Big Saturday Night Gravitas to contend with.
I knew it was going to be a big night. I didn’t have any idea how big.
Ella ripped around that arena like her hair was on fire. I grew up riding jerkheads, so athletic and a little naughty doesn’t really scare me, but man, Ella is not that girl. She’s normally the one I’m trying to inspire. Not that night. It was completely, utterly, impossibly unlike her.
And it was completely, utterly, impossibly magical.
There were the not-good things, for sure. The most obvious was the transition from extended walk to collected walk to piaffe, facing a row of people with umbrellas, and Ella just melted down. I think that Ella has stood on her hind legs maybe four times in her life, and every single time has been in at a horse show, out of complete, abject terror.
I got her back on track but couldn’t ride the rest of the piaffe-passage tour as I wanted it, and so I picked up the wrong canter lead from the passage, and had a wonky change in between my canter half-passes, and earlier in the test had the most incredible extended trot of my life that got away from me a bit and had a loss of rhythm at the end.
But the rest, guys? The rest? The ride of my life.
Photo by Lindsay Berreth
That last centerline was incredible. My changes, always Ella’s strong suit, were phenomenal. The numbers at the bottom of that test were mighty big, because to have 0-2 on three boxes and still pull off almost 62 is a pretty wild thing.
Mostly, it opened a whole new door for me. I thought I knew what it was going to feel like when it was Right. I thought I knew what the limit was. I thought I knew how high we could go.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The limit is a scary thing to push, no doubt. And I don’t yet know how to create that level of Wowza without hiring a few thousand of my closest friends and turning on the lights.
But I’ve opened a new door, one I didn’t even know existed. That has been Ella’s greatest gift to me (out of so, so many): the constantly growing level of appreciation for what it takes to Do This Well.
We did not win anything. We came home with a white and pink ribbon, no trophies, no accolades. But I had the time of my life, and now I’m hungry for what the future holds.
So Devon, you’re forgiven. And I can’t wait to get back in that ring. That’s where the magic is.
(Well, that’s mostly where the magic is. A quick footnote: to cap an incredible night, as I was walking around the grandstands on my way to grab some dinner after my ride, I walked past the maintenance garage door to hear, “Excuse me, ma’am? Can you help me?” I pop under the half-closed garage door to find myself surrounded by big, burly men, several smoking cigars, and all dressed as Disney Princesses: the arena drag crew that, naturally, performs their duties on Saturday night in…drag. One had four small pillows he was attempting to wrestle into a bra.
“You know most women only have two of these, right?” I asked him. Oh, the look I received.
Nevertheless, I helped the fellow (gentleman, when it comes to the arranging of boobies, remember: lift and separate), on the condition that we take a photo. My night was mostly made already, but this capped it. Thanks for the memories, boys.)