From Dairy Queen To The Dressage Ring: Nothing Will Stop Tillie Jones’ Journey To The Top

Jan 2, 2018 - 3:42 PM

Wellington, Fla.—Jan. 2   

Each rider in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic writes a short biography to be printed on a flyer for the event, and Tillie Jones’ stood out from the crowd. While the 16-year-old listed the standard fare all of the riders included—riding experience, her horse’s background, competition highlights—Jones also jotted down her work experience: a part-time job at her local Dairy Queen in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I don’t even really like ice cream,” Jones laughed. “But I think that it was really important to work hard for what you have. I worked hard at Dairy Queen and saved my money to have a lesson with Debbie McDonald when she came to Nebraska so that my parents don’t have to pay for everything. Hard work is key—it makes you appreciate it a whole lot more.”

“She works there all summer long for three years now,” Tish Jones, Tillie’s mother, said. “It’s very important to us—we’re fortunate enough that we could afford to pay her way, but I think she’s got to have skin in the game. She has to understand how expensive things are and put forward some hard work for it.”

Tillie Jones and Apachi in a lesson with Debbie McDonald. Photo by Ann Glavan.

Neither of Tillie’s parents are horse people, but it was apparent early on that Tillie had caught the equine bug.

“She always loved My Little Pony; she wouldn’t play with Barbies or babies,” Tish said. “And then the movie Spirit came out, and we wore out the VHS tape.”

For Tillie’s seventh birthday, Tish arranged for her to have a riding lesson with a friend of the family who happened to be a dressage trainer.

“They blindfolded me on the road, and then I felt the gravel road and said, ‘Well we’re out in the country, so that has to mean horses,’ ” Tillie recalled. “I just loved the lesson, and everyone was so nice there, and I wanted to come back.”

Tillie became a regular lesson student at the barn and started going to dressage shows on a leased pony when she was 8.

“Her trainer told me she has a natural ability, she understands, she senses the horse, and I said, ‘OK, we’ll take more lessons; we’ll get a horse,’ ” Tish said with a laugh.

Tish Jones (right) video tapes her daughter Tillie Jones in her lesson with Debbie McDonald. Photo by Ann Glavan.

The family bought their first horse, an older schoolmaster, Boegely’s Mauricio, and Tillie began moving up the levels. She started training with Jamie Kment and set her sights on the ultimate goal for young dressage riders: North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. In 2015 she made her first appearance at the championships with “Mo,” placing seventh individually. Tillie’s goal was to medal, but before she and Mo got the chance to try again disaster struck.

“Her dream was to get the top three, and he coliced and passed away two weeks before her first qualifying show,” Tish said. “She was distraught. We thought heck, can we throw a horse together? But there just isn’t time, and you have to develop a relationship with that horse to go at that level.”

So Tillie took a year off from competing at that top junior level and the family found another younger horse, her current mount, Apachi. They built a rapport together at third level before going back to NAJYRC in 2017 to ride in the junior division, where their Region 4 team placed third and Tillie took the individual gold medal in the freestyle test.

Tillie Jones works on her trot work with Debbie McDonald. Photo by Ann Glavan.

“We had bought her music for Mo, and it arrived the day he passed away,” Tish said. It was to Mo’s music that Tillie and Apachi danced their way to the gold medal, an emotional win for everyone involved.

This year Tillie hopes to move up to the young rider tests at NAJYRC with Apachi. She’s spending the next week in Wellington, Florida, for the Robert Dover Horsemastership clinic before heading back to Nebraska (while many riders at her level do online classes, Tillie attends a traditional brick-and-mortar public high school, where she also competes in cheer and swing choir).

“I think the clinic is awesome. I love all the trainers and coaches that come in, and it’s so great getting so many great people in one destination and learning so much in one week,” Tillie said.

Tillie isn’t ruling out the possibility of becoming a professional rider entirely, but she’s realistic about the lifestyle involved with the trade.

“I love the sport, and earning my gold medal and getting up to grand prix are definitely my goals, maybe as a professional or as an amateur,” Tillie said.

Also check out 10 Takeaways From The Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic. The Chronicle will be on the ground at the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic all week, so check back for more coverage!


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