BY MACKENZIE JONES
Horseback riding is an unpredictable sport. Riders face challenges such as naughty horses, setbacks like injuries to ourselves or our horses, and failures like falling off and going off course. I have faced all of these difficulties, but I always found a way to move forward and learn.
However, on May 8th of 2019, I faced an obstacle that I pray no other rider ever has to face. Wendy Dean Johnson, my trainer, passed away extremely unexpectedly at the age of 55. I was texting pictures to her and editing her summer camp flyer at 9:15 the night before. Suddenly, the next morning she was gone.
Wendy was so much more than a trainer. All of her riders considered her a second mom. At horse shows, I loved staying with her in the RV on the show grounds. We spent some of the best weekends of my life together. As a former Spanish teacher, Wendy would help me with my Spanish homework so I could keep my grades up. I stayed at the barn after my lessons for her famous “Taco Tuesday” dinners. Our barn was a family. We painted jumps together, pitched in when extra chores needed to be done, and celebrated each other’s successes. Suddenly all of that fun, love, trust, and support was taken away from me in an instant.
Nothing felt real for the first few days after she had passed away. I felt like I was stuck in a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up. The only thing that brought me comfort was having Landis, my best barn friend, by my side. We spent three full days and nights at my house. We put together a slideshow for Wendy’s funeral. The photos helped us smile and reminisce over the good times.
We cried together through the pain. We were so scared about what was going to happen next. Who would we train with? What would it be like without Wendy? Will the pain ever go away? Those conversations came with a lot of tears. The only thing we knew for certain is that we wanted to stay together.
Everyone in the barn made both our horses and Wendy’s lesson horses a priority. All of them needed to be moved since Wendy owned her own property and there wasn’t an option to keep someone onsite to make sure the horses were safe and cared for. One of the difficult things I had to face was going back to Rancho Decano to pack my tack trunk and load my horses onto a trailer. The feeling of leaving the barn behind is indescribable.
Since the 5th grade, I had called Rancho Decano home. I bought my first pony and brought him back to Rancho Decano with Wendy. I went to my first ‘A’ show with Wendy, won my first division championship with Wendy, and even went to IEA Nationals with Wendy. Wendy was Rancho Decano, and suddenly I was saying goodbye to my second home and second mom at the same time.
I will not easily forget the moment when the trailer pulled away from the barn. I sat sobbing in the car following the trailer to a new barn, Kroff Stables. Again, I had Landis by my side. We held each other’s hands and kept telling each other that “We can do this.”, and “It’s going to be ok.” Landis and I had to remind ourselves and each other that Wendy would want us to move forward and achieve the goals that we set with her.
The first lesson at a new, unfamiliar barn was another big challenge. There was a pit in my stomach and a huge hole in my heart. In that first lesson, I rode with one goal in mind—to make Wendy proud. I wanted to show my new trainer, Allison, how well Wendy had taught me to ride. I fought back tears time and time again, but relied on my horses, and my best barn friend, Landis, to help me through. Over the next few weeks the feeling of strangeness began to fade and a sense of belonging at Kroff Stables emerged.
Exactly one month after Wendy passed away, I found myself at my first horse show with a new trainer and new barn. I had mailed in entries to this particular horse show months ago and picked the specific show with Wendy for the Whitethorne Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge.
It was going to be my first big equitation class. I wasn’t sure I was really ready without Wendy, but when I found out that Kroff Stables had planned the same two weeks in California, I took it as a sign to move one more step forward. I once again walked into an unfamiliar ring with the intention of making Wendy proud.
The Whitethorne Challenge was a large 2-day equitation expedition held on the Grand Prix field with over 90 competitors. I was extremely nervous just walking the grass field with an intimidating course and some tough jumps. Allison did her best to calm my nerves and help me prepare, but she barely knew me and this was her first time training me at a show.
Trying to make a good impression on her, I worked really hard to hide my fear. I kept repeating in my head the words Wendy spoke to me every single time I walked into the show ring, “Good luck, have fun!”
It is such a simple phrase but it has so much meaning, to me. All Wendy wanted me to do was walk into the ring with no expectation of winning, ride as well as I could possibly ride and above all else have fun doing it. Shaking a lot, I walked through the ingate with that phrase in mind.
I galloped around the field with confidence and laid down a far from perfect round but in my eyes very respectable. I walked out of the ring with tears beginning to build up, I was greeted by Landis and my mom with tears streaming down their faces. We all hugged.
My first words were “I did it, I made Wendy proud.”
I know for a fact that Wendy was watching me from above and smiling. She brought me good luck, and I had fun.
There are lessons I learned from the tragedy of losing my trainer. It taught me to move forward no matter how scary the uncertainty seems. I’ll never underestimate the importance of barn friendships. They are truly some of the best friendships. Finally, life can be way too short, carry these words with you, “Good luck, have fun!”
Mackenzie Jones is a high school senior who has been competing on the A circuit for five years. She currently competes in the Junior Hunters and National Derbies.