Girl makes memories with special horses | TSLN.com

Girl makes memories with special horses

Otilla Jones

Otilla ‘Tillie’ Jones is a junior at Lincoln Southeast High School.

Foreward by Terri Licking:

Thedford – We here in cattle country admire a good horse and under a cowboy's or cowgirl's guidance, the amazing abilities they both show – poetry and fluidity in motion for sure, whether cutting, running the barrels, or working after their rider leaves the saddle after roping that steer. Even a good bucking horse gets us cheering.

The following essay I share with permission from a young lady and her family from Lincoln, with ties to Thedford. She is the granddaughter of Audrey Jones, niece to Jay Jones. Her Dad, Dallas as his siblings, graduated from Thedford. If you are friends with this young lady's mother, Tish on Facebook, you have seen another aspect of poetry in motion between a horse and rider.

Otilla 'Tillie' Jones is a junior at Lincoln Southeast High School and at last year's United States Dressage Federation awards banquet, one of the awards she won was the Best First-Person Essay. Tillie and her horse are rising in the ranks of dressage. Do not be surprised to see her make it as an Olympic Equestrian. Her story of getting there is worthy of printing for more to see and cheer her on to the next level of gold.

I remember being in awe of those girls. They seemed to win all the awards. They were much older. Sophisticated. Refined.

They seemed to be able to effortlessly get their horses to do amazing things. It was not long after my 7th birthday—that day when my parents removed the blindfold from my eyes and a horse, yes a horse!—stood before me, ready to carry me through my one-lesson birthday present, that I remember listening to those girls excitedly discussing some magical, mysterious event they wanted to attend–NAJYRC. I didn't really know what they were talking about, but I knew if they wanted to go, then I wanted to also. Perhaps it started as just a little girl's dream, but it soon turned into my goal—to compete at NAYJRC, and make it to the podium.

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That one-lesson birthday present was—as my dad is fond of saying—the gift that kept on giving. One lesson turned into 5, and the training horse was replaced by a leased pony, and I began competing in schooling shows. Before long I was the owner of a very special Connemara pony, Darby, who took me through third level and enabled me to earn my bronze medal when I was 12. I worked hard, but things seemed to come easily those days.

Then: Enter Boegley's Mauricio, a/k/a "Mo." An 18 year old Danish Warm Blood, Mo was a Ferrari without brakes. He had "buttons" I didn't even know existed. On Mo I quickly learned how much I didn't know about dressage. The transition from pony to a large horse was hard. He was, undoubtedly, the most difficult horse I've ridden. But with Mo I began to learn what it's like when horse and rider develop that indescribable, unbreakable bond, through countless hours of training and all the quiet time just being, together. And from Mo, I learned some painful, and beautiful, lessons of life.

When Mo and I became partners, we began showing 3rd level and schooled 4th level. Although we showed reasonably well, our first year was challenging. As we were just starting to develop our connection, I nearly lost Mo in a tragic fire that destroyed the barn where I was training and he was boarded. That opened my eyes to a harsh reality of life that any ride may be the last. But the experience also made me appreciate that every ride is special. While with Mo I also said goodbye to my beloved trainer and lifementor, Felice Rose, who was a second mom to me. After decades of training, she was slowing down at a time when my pace was speeding up.

I don't know if it was through fate, or destiny, or just dumb luck, but Jami Kment, a trainer in Palmya, Nebraska, agreed to help me. Jami, the owner of the aptly named Providence Farm, helped me understand Mo's quirks and how to manage his many idiosyncrasies. Mo and I developed a connection like never before, and in our second year, 2015, I finally realized a part of my long-time dream of competing at NAJYRC, where we placed 8th in the individual test and 7th in the freestyle. We entered the Festival of Champions ranked 2nd and placed 4th. Our incredible year continued where we placed 1st in the Junior team championship ride at Regionals and qualified for the open class 3rd level freestyle, where we finished 8th at Nationals against open class riders. That magical year ended by accepting an invitation to ride at the Robert Dover clinic in Wellington, Fla., where we had a simply amazing week. Realizing that a girl from Nebraska and her schoolmaster horse might actually be able to compete with the best horses and riders in the country, through the rest of the winter in 2016, Mo and I trained like never before. I intended to ride again at NAYJRC, but this time, reach the rest of my goal—making the podium. By spring 2016, Mo was moving better than he ever had. I have always had an incredibly close connection with my previous horses, but what Mo and I had was, simply put, special. I knew in my heart that we were poised to realize that dream I'd had since I was 8 years old, listening to those older girls talk about riding in that special event, NAYJRC.

The music and freestyle pattern my mom and I selected was perfect for Mo. Two weeks before our first qualifying show, Mo and I had one of our best training sessions. We were ready. But after the ride, I noticed that Mo was acting out of character. He was biting, pacing, rolling, lying down, and wouldn't eat, even his favorite snacks. The local veterinarian urged us to take him to Kansas State horse hospital, so my dad drove Mo and me through the night. The prognosis was unclear, but hopeful, so we returned home.

The following week Mo was on fluids and underwent multiple tests, but still, the veterinarians were not able to settle on a diagnosis. That Friday, my dad promised me that we could return Kansas State to see Mo the next morning. I remember the feeling of exhilaration the entire day, knowing I'd soon see my boy. What I didn't know was that that morning the veterinarians did surgery and learned that 25 feet of Mo's small intestine was dead. They told my parents that if they could save Mo, his quality of life would be poor, and recommended that they not bring him out from surgery. My parents agreed to let him go peacefully. When I got home from school expecting to get ready for the trip to see my boy, I was met with my dad's open arms, tears welling in his eyes. I knew what that meant. I didn't need my dad to say the words, but he did: "Sissy, Mo didn't make it." I cried like I've never cried before. I never got to say goodbye to my best friend and tell him how much I truly loved him.

The grief was intense. I became depressed. My best friend was gone. My partner with whom I'd worked so hard, and been through so much, was now just a memory. I couldn't do the one thing I loved more than anything— ride horses; ride Mo. And my goal of reaching the podium at NAYJRC was gone.

I'm not proud to admit that I started questioning why God would do that to Mo and me. I was lost, and didn't know how to fill the painful hole in my heart. I didn't want to go to the barn. I couldn't bear to see Mo's empty stall. Friends and family tried to console me by telling me that everything happens for a reason. I didn't believe them. What I didn't know until months later, was that the day after Mo died, while my dad was driving back to Kansas State to pick up our trailer and Mo's shoes and remnants of his mane, my dad called my trainer and told her that no matter how many hours my dad had to work to pay for another horse, my trainer was to find me another horse. My dad couldn't bear to see me suffering like I was. One week later I was in Florida with Jami. Through providence, we found Apachi. He'd recently been imported from the Netherlands and Caroline Roffman and Jami saw his great potential. Though my heart was aching for my beloved Mo, I saw his great personality. Each of us was right. My dad nicknamed him "Patch", as he was a patch to my broken heart.

Apachi and I spent the summer of 2016 getting to know each other. While I was happy for my Region 4 teammates and the other riders who made it to NAYJRC, it was hard to watch, knowing that that's where I desperately wanted to be. So Apachi and I rode. And we trained. And we bonded and we connected.

By the one-year anniversary of Mo's death, the hard work was beginning to pay off. The potential Jami and Caroline had seen was coming to fruition. The personality I had seen blossoming. We qualified after only tthree shows. We were on our way back to NAYJRC! The one remaining question was what freestyle would Apachi and I ride? My mom, Jami and I considered numerous options, and nothing ever felt quite right. No matter what style or genre, nothing seemed to fit. Nothing spoke to my heart—except one. The music to which Mo was going to ride, which had arrived days before his death, was perfect. I was ready; again. Two weeks we were to leave for NAJYRC, I was out of town with my brothers and my dad when we got the call from my mom. Apachi was showing the same symptoms Mo had shown a week before he died. At the recommendation of the veterinarian, my mom was on her way to Kansas State. I felt physically sick. Once again I was in my dad's arms, in tears. This could not be happening; again. Mom drove through the night to get Apachi to Kansas State. Dad drove through the night to get me home, then on to Kansas State. I had to see Apachi. During those 7 long hours I relived losing Mo. I imagined what I would do if I lost Apachi; what if I'd ridden him for the last time. When we arrived at the hospital, we entered the same door we entered 14 months earlier, walked down the same hallways, and incredibly, found Apachi in the exact same area where I last saw Mo. I don't know how long I just stood there hugging him, grateful to see him, but terrified what we'd hear from the veterinarians. But this time what I heard sent my spirits soaring. Apachi was going to be ok. Three days later we left Kansas State, not just with four shoes and some pieces of mane, but with my boy, healthy and cleared to compete!

My dream of making the podium no longer seemed so important.

That Apachi was healthy and we could compete was enough.

But compete he did. We anchored our team to a 3rd place finish, and to a 3rd place finish in the individual test. Unbelievably, we made the podium not once, but twice. But what happened next, was surreal. We were slotted to be the second-to-last ride in the freestyle. I watched the top riders score in the low 70's. But instead of the usual butterflies I feel before a big ride, I felt a sense of calm and confidence. Then Mo's music began. And Apachi and I were not alone. It was as if my boy Mo was there with me telling me to ride my heart out like he knew I could, and win the gold that I so desperately wanted to win with him. When the last rider's score was announced, my mind raced, and I was back in my dad's arms, tears flowing. But this time, from uncontrolled joy. Gold. Yes, things do happen for a reason. Life is sometimes really hard. But with perseverance, the hardships add an indescribable, cathartic sweetness to the victories. And they make clear that it's the journey that counts the most. Little girls' dreams do sometimes come true. I know. Mine did. F

–Reprinted with permission from the Nebraska Dressage Association