Last week we got to know Maddie Bricken, how she came to riding, what she loves about the sport of dressage and much more. This week is all about Leah the other half of The Blonde & The Bay.
Tell us about how Leah came into your life?
I’ll try to explain this heartfelt story without becoming an emotional sap… I guess you could say that I’ve “kissed a lot of toads” prior to finding Leah. In 2012, I was ready to make a big transition in my riding career. You know, the large step from competing Training/First level to setting goals like earning my USDF Bronze Medal and dabbling in the more difficult movements. Making the Region 9 Team for the 2013 North American Junior Young Rider Championships was also becoming a huge driving factor to advance. During the summer of ’12, I was able to find a very nice schoolmaster that would be my ticket to furthering my riding, or so I thought. The first time I rode him in Texas, I landed in the sand within 10 minutes. Naturally, I didn’t think much of the situation as this was horseback riding and we all know they’re unpredictable creatures. We continued on to an almost undefeated fall season, but I could never feel 100% comfortable while on his back.
During a competition in October of 2012, a strong cold front had blown through Saturday night, leaving Sunday full of spooking horses, blustery, 20mph winds, and a 40-degree temperature drop. Scratching my first class, I told myself I was going in for my Fourth Level Test 1 in order to obtain that second fourth level score towards my USDF Silver. In the warm up, I was trotting my horse long and low in hopes of warming his back slowly and properly. I didn’t make it a full time around the arena before he dramatically spooked, dropping his shoulder and bolting to the right. My weight shifted and I was able to reposition myself within the saddle, but before I could blink, all I remember was seeing his neck and head go to the ground – I was flying through the air in a crowded warm up arena. He bucked, violently. Hitting the ground hurt, badly. My hip made contact with the Otto-Sport footing first, followed by my head and neck (thank GOODNESS for my helmet!!!). I blacked out, and was brought back to my senses when I heard the shrill shout of “loose horse.”
Everything changed dramatically for me after this point. Whiplash, a concussion, and severe bruising – I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and couldn’t help but cry at my black and blue hips, shoulders, and neck. As I wiped the tears from my cheeks, a new feeling went piercing through my mind. Fear. I was scared, and my confidence was broken. For months after this accident, I tried to swallow my feelings and ride, but inevitably, the horse and I were not clicking in the ways I had hoped. The most defeating moment was when I was too terrified to be on my own, and my trainer or mother would have to lead me around like a pony ride. I had reached a point in my life where I was afraid of horses, and after my parents made the decision to sell the horse; I was convinced that my dressage career was over.
I was wrong, because who are we kidding? Even after they cause us bodily harm, we can never stay away from horses too long.
In August of 2013, I received an invitation from W Farms in Chino Hills, California, to spend a week of riding under the SoCal sun in hopes of finding my forever-equine partner. The owners and staff at W Farms have become like family over the years, and I’m eternally grateful for everything they’ve done for me. While still quite shaken and horridly timid, deep down, there was no way I could let my fear override my love for the horse. I was bound and determined to put my foot back in the stirrup, no matter how long the process would take.
The first day at W Farms, I walked down the barn isle only to see a bright, mahogany red horse with a symmetrical blaze standing patiently in the crossties. Instantly, I was drawn to her, and I asked if I could try her first. She studied me as much as I studied her, and when I went to stroke her neck, she sighed – that I will never forget.
Leah and I instantly clicked, and I wish I could formulate the feeling into words. Her surefootedness was uncanny, staying steady, calm, and most importantly, confident in herself throughout my rides that week in California. She allowed me to make mistakes without becoming flustered or annoyed, something she still does to this day. By the end of my stay in W Farms, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Texas without her. In September of 2013, I was unloading Leah onto our property, and the rest has been history.
[bctt tweet=”I was wrong, because who are we kidding? Even after they cause us bodily harm, we can never stay away from horses too long. ” username=”eqballerina”]
Over the last 14 months you and Leah have gone from competing at third level to Inter 1, and this was on the back of a period of time where you didn’t compete. Can you tell us a bit about this journey?
What a journey it has been, holy cow! As I mentioned before, Leah lived in the barn on our home property once arriving from California. Having her at the house for a little over a year allowed me to really become familiar with all of her quirks and personality traits. I always had it in my mind that I wouldn’t compete with her until I fully knew her, given my previous history, and I think that’s really played a heavy hand in our progression and successes over the last handful of months.
My first show was 3 years into owning her, and I won’t lie, I was very nervous. We debuted at third level in 2016, and we didn’t score particularly great, my nerves mostly to blame. Upon moving back to San Antonio from Corpus Christi, I reunited with my longtime friends and trainers, husband and wife team, Eva and Joshua Tabor. I moved Leah to their beautiful facility last fall, and that was the beginning of our development as a true partnership. I set my goal of earning my USDF Silver Medal and making the jump to the FEI levels in 2017, so we went to work.
Riding at the FEI level is a whole different ball game than competing at third or fourth level. Every single movement, heck, every single breath is being judged within those white plastic show ring walls, and the attention to detail is overwhelming. Throughout the journey, we spent the majority of our training sessions chipping away on having Leah connected through her back. I lost count how many transitions we schooled, and I get dizzy when I think about all the lateral exercises we pushed through in order to help quicken Leah’s hind leg. However, the one factor that was the hardest to grasp was maintaining steadiness in the bridle. This took months, literally, months to achieve! There were times when I thought I would never grasp the concept, but slowly and surely, her fussiness started to retreat. Having Eva and Joshua by my side to encourage, push, and help us has been the biggest blessing I could ever imagine. Over the last year, I’ve watched Leah transform into a true FEI horse, and while we still have our moments, she’s reached the point in her life where she is fun to ride. Most of the time, anyway, after all, she is an opinionated mare. The journey involved a lot, I mean a LOT of work, time, patience, dedication and determination, but the fruits of our labor have been worth the tired muscles and blistered fingers.
You’ve had an amazing 2017 seasons, what has been the highlight of 2017?
I am humbled when I think about what we accomplished this year. 2017 was hands down my most successful season to date; it was a truly incredible experience. There are so many highlights that I could list – number one would be earning my USDF Silver Medal during our PSG debut competition, which happened to be a CDI show with international judges sitting in the box, even with mistakes during our test! It’s also been a huge goal of mine to win a USDF Regional Championship, so when the show volunteer put that tri-colored champion ribbon around Leah’s neck for the Intermediate I AA class at Regionals this year, I cried.
Receiving our invite to compete at the US Dressage Finals was truly the cherry on the sundae… Just to be grouped in with the best horse/rider combinations in the country made up for the fact that we were not able to make the trip to compete. Having said all of this, the biggest highlight for me this year was finally reaching the point I had always dreamed about with Leah, and within my riding career. I feel as if we are closer than ever, and having this type of relationship with a horse is a pinch-me worthy experience. That mare is so much more than just a mare; so much more than just a horse. She has given me so much, but most importantly, she’s given me confidence and self-esteem in everyday life. So, not only has this been a highlight of 2017, it’s been the highlight for the last 4 years with her.
What are your goals with Leah? Where to from here?
Leah will be 17 years old this coming July, and I am well aware that she is reaching the latter part of her competitive career. With that on the brain, for 2018, I’ll go another season at Intermediate I with a Freestyle to showcase for the year. I’d like to qualify for the Regionals in both of these tests, as well as earn yet another invite to the US Dressage Finals – we will make the trip to Kentucky next year should we earn our designated score or placing! We’ve started to play around with the Grand Prix movements, although she is not confirmed in the one-time changes, piaffe or passage. Riding down the GP centerline would be a dream come true, but the reality of Leah actually being solid in all the movements is a long shot. I’ve started to mentally prepare myself that our FEI journey might come to a close within the next few years, and at that point, I’d love to hand her off to my mother. It would be so incredibly special to watch the two of them compete at the lower levels – who knows, maybe Leah could pilot my mom to her USDF Bronze Medal. How special would that be?
I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around what’s next in my life after my competitive streak with Leah comes to an end… and naturally, I haven’t wanted to. All I know is that it’s always been a huge goal of mine to develop a young horse from the beginning stages…