Underdog: From 2’6″ to Marshall & Sterling Finals in a Year

Photo by Rebecca Kaplan

BY DANA WHITE

“Go ahead, underestimate me. You won’t be the first. You won’t be the last. But you will be wrong.” – Steve Maraboli

Whatever happens, happens. These are the last words I utter to myself before entering the ring, still feeling the heat from the mid-afternoon sun. “Next we welcome into the ring entry number 1222, Dana White, from Madison, NJ.” Hearing the announcer’s loud, bold voice broadcast my entry fills my whole body with immeasurable joy. It is so cool to show at Marshall and Sterling Finals in the main ring and have my name announced in front of the crowd.

I am so proud.

The ring is huge with so many types of jumps – verticals, oxers, walls, and combinations – but I know my course. All twelve. Locked in my brain. Whatever happens, happens.

I walk into the ring and immediately pick up my canter. This is a good start. Right before I use my legs to squeeze my horse, Mack, I take a deep breath, let out a big sigh, and relax. The first couple jumps are close together and happen pretty quickly. Mack seems really content as he canters along, which makes me happy. As we approach and clear each jump, I feel calm. Between jumps, Mack and I canter at a steady, even pace. After the eighth jump, I have about twenty seconds before my next, so I take a deep breath and soak in this momentous event.

Months earlier at the barn, my friend looked at me with her head tilted when she heard my goal. “You just started jumping 2’6”, while everyone else in this division has been doing it for at least a year. It is impossible for you to make it to Marshall and Sterling Finals.” No one believed I could do it. Even my trainer never thought I would be able to advance fast enough to catch up to all the riders who have been in this division for much longer than me. No one believed, except me. Looking back, I think people underestimated my willingness to work hard, my desire to do well, and my love of riding.

Photo by Rebecca Kaplan

Squeeze. Mack and I go over another jump. This course is so smooth, and Mack and I are riding as one. I believe this is one of my best courses, but there is always that doubt in my mind because I never know what the judges will think. As we get near the end of the course, every time we get close to a jump I get excited, but I have to remain calm. Mack can read whatever I am feeling, and I need him to stay relaxed. I can see my last three jumps so this part of my journey is almost over.                 

Squeeze. Mack and I fly over two more jumps and I can see our last fence ahead. I add leg, and smile as I go over it. I land from the jump, canter for two quick seconds, and then walk. As I walk out of the ring with my back to the crowd and judges, I cannot contain the biggest smile spreading across my face. I am as happy as a clam in high tide. Just as a clam is filled with water and is most content in his familiar environment, this show atmosphere fills me with joy. My sense of accomplishment at this moment is overwhelming. I have just completed my first Marshall and Sterling Finals course and I am waiting for the announcer to broadcast my score.

“Dana White receives a score of 83.5.”

Photo by Rebecca Kaplan

I am in absolute shock, and tears fill my eyes. I just earned one of the highest scores, which means I advance to the next round. My dad sees me and asks why I am crying. “Tears of joy,” is all I can mumble. I reached my goal, and by doing so I proved to myself and others that I could do it. I am a good rider. My dad just smiles and the tears continue to roll down my cheeks.

Ten minutes later, it is time to go into the ring for my next course. I am a little nervous, but still composed. This course is much shorter than the last one. I take a deep breath and tell myself one thing. Whatever happens, happens. I walk into the ring and ask for the canter. I pick up the wrong lead, this is not a good start, but I fix it quickly and continue on with my course.

I worked hard to get here. I trained almost every day for a year leading up to the finals, and my work intensified from May to August when I started entering Marshall and Sterling events. I worked with my trainer on different skills, such as having my leg not move and keeping my hands in the correct position, and drills, like making circles and figure eights, and then practiced on my own. There were also lots of shows, which were long days of travel and time spent at the show itself. Looking back, I pushed myself to improve, but I think the negative and doubtful comments that people said about my riding and my aspirations only pushed me to work harder and train more. This goal was a challenge, but I was determined to give it my best shot.   

As my course goes on, I keep messing up on little things. I want to get frustrated, but I know it will only make things worse. It is not meant to be. This thought calms me down. As I approach my last fence, I give Mack a squeeze and we jump. Once we land, I canter for a couple seconds, and then I walk out of the ring. I know that was not my best course, but I have already accomplished so much.

“And in eleventh place is entry number 1222, Dana White.” I walk into the ring with my head held high and my ribbon around Mack’s neck. I look around the ring at the winners’ circle and at the crowd. The top twelve riders receive a ribbon and after our picture, we all canter a victory lap. The sun is lower now in the bright blue sky as our colorful ribbons blow in the wind. I wish this moment would never end.

Photo courtesy of Dana White

I am so proud.

I have just done more than anyone thought I could do. Only seventy-two riders qualified for the finals, and even though I was in the seventy-second position, I placed eleventh against top riders.

I could have agreed with the people who insisted that the obstacles in front of me were too high to hurdle, but that would have been the easy way out of a tough situation. Instead, I took the challenge, and my hard work makes succeeding even more rewarding.

Photo courtesy of Dana White

I was the underdog and I proved everyone wrong.