venters are often presented with different route options at the same jump complex on cross-country. For most, the direct route is the way to go. It’s a straighter line, takes up the least amount of time, and interferes less with the rhythm the horse has achieved. For some riders, the option, or the “long route,” often makes more sense. Does it take more time? Yes. Is it a more indirect route? Definitely! But does it set up a horse who is green or fatigued for better success in the future? Absolutely.
I like to compare this concept to the roundabout path that many riders take to find success at the top level of eventing. Not everyone makes it to the top quickly, and some don’t make it at all. But what I can tell you is this: if you want to achieve your goals, you have to want it more than anything in the world. That’s just one of the many lessons that my little bay mare, Galloway Sunrise (or “Sunny,” as we call her), has taught me.
I didn’t grow up with money, and I certainly didn’t grow up in a hub of equestrian sport. I am from Olean, a small town in western New York. Population: 13,000. Some might pass through on their way to Lake Erie or Allegany State Park, but most wouldn’t know our little town existed. My wonderful parents did all they could to support my riding habit. I grew up doing 4-H and got to try just about every horse sport there is before catching the eventing bug. My first horse was a rescue from the kill pen and he taught me so much. Eventually, though, I would need a horse who could do more. But we had no budget for my next horse.
It was a Craigslist ad that brought me to Sunny. At first, we were convinced that the ad might be a scam. It listed a “young warmblood” and her price was only $500. We were a bit suspicious, but we went to take a look. Sunny was basically feral when we first met her. She was just coming two years old, wasn’t yet halter broken, and when I first met her she bared her teeth and tried to kick me. Not exactly the most pleasant first meeting! But we decided to take a chance. We put her in a round pen at first because I knew if I turned her out in the big pasture I may never catch her again. I was only about 13 or 14 years old at the time and we were in way over our heads.
Thankfully, I had the help of a local trainer, Joe Backer, who had also helped me with my first horse. With a solid 30 days of training put into her, Sunny was better. She was still a fighter, so the task became teaching her not to fight against me and instead to fight with me for a common goal. It took us a few years to get on the same page, but I wouldn’t have traded those years for anything. We grew up together, and we learned together.
"...the task became teaching her not to fight against me and instead to fight with me."
Throughout our competitive career, we’ve always taken the approach of “We’ll see what happens.” I didn’t buy Sunny with the intention of competing at the Advanced level — I just wanted to have a horse I could grow with. So I tried to take my goals year by year, setting realistic but challenging benchmarks for myself and for Sunny. I was lucky to work as an assistant for Sally Lofting, who really helped push me out of my comfort zone and reach for even bigger goals. And Sunny just kept saying yes.
In 2016, I went to Sally with a few Preliminary events under my belt. By the end of the year, we kicked around the then-CCI2* at Fair Hill International. From that moment on, we knew we had a serious horse on our hands. Now, I still have to pinch myself that we’ve come as far as we have. Sunny has made my dreams come true, and we aren’t quite done yet.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments tinged with jealousy scattered throughout our long, winding road to get to where we are today. Sometimes it’s difficult to see someone your age on a much nicer, more experienced horse. But I never felt sorry for myself. I am grateful for my upbringing because it instilled a work ethic that I am proud of and a will to succeed no matter what the odds are. Growing up, I was just so grateful to have the opportunity to ride anything. My parents worked tirelessly to support me — my mother worked two jobs to help me ride. And even if they weren’t able to support my riding financially, I always had their emotional blessing to pursue my dreams.
I always felt that Sunny and I could be competitive as we kept progressing through the levels. Last year, we really started to break into the top 10 and the top five. We’ve always been leaderboard climbers, but her dressage has always been solid and has improved as she’s learned to relax. When I finished my final salute in the CCI4*-L at the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day, I knew my test would be competitive. From that point on, I was determined to grit my teeth and stay in it.
That weekend, winning on Mother’s Day as a tribute to my hardworking and supportive mother, showed me that we can do what we put our minds to. The fact that there is still so much room for improvement gives me hope that the best is yet to come with Sunny. As soon as I began riding, my mom and I began traveling to Kentucky the last weekend of each April. The Kentucky Three-Day has been a dream of mine since the start. Now, the dream of galloping around that course is getting to be more and more real.
It hasn’t been an easy road for us. Sunny and I have had to learn as we go. We’ve had to pick ourselves up after a hard weekend. There have been a lot of moments that make me wonder why I do this sport — and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Eventing is full of disappointment and heartbreak. A simple spook in the dressage can put you out of contention. An uncharacteristic rail can ruin your weekend. This sport knocks you down easily, and it rarely picks you back up.
So right now, we’ll celebrate. We’ll celebrate what was the culmination of years of hard work, of working seven or 10 different jobs, of taking every single opportunity I could to make this life I am lucky to call mine possible. You have to celebrate the highs in this sport — because those are what keep us going.
Photography by Alison Green.