When the Long Road is the Only Road

The author at the Venice Equestrian Tour in 2022. Photo by Forever Photo Co.

By Rennie Dyball

As a kid in the early nineties, there was nothing I loved reading more than the free equestrian magazine stocked at my local tack shop. It was the only thing in there that I could always pick up outside of my birthday, holidays, and when I outgrew riding gear.  

Lying on my bedroom floor, I pored over those issues as if I were studying for a test, literally memorizing the names of my favorite ponies, horses, and riders. Riding for me didn’t look anything like it did in that magazine. I took lessons once or twice a week at most, and horse shows were the schooling variety. It was a big deal when they gave out rosettes instead of strip ribbons. 

Mostly, it was the jumping photos in the magazines that got me—a horse or pony’s perfect knees, the bascule through their body, the riders’ beautiful positions. That image of a partnership in action sent my heart and my imagination soaring. I couldn’t get enough of the the professional photos, fancy jumps, long ribbons, and silver plates. The silver plates put me over the top. 

But I stopped short of actually daydreaming that I’d get to show that way myself. Many of those photos celebrated accomplishments in Florida, where horse people in my area competed each winter. Somehow, on some level, I knew it was out of reach.

Now, a quick reality check: I may have been a scrappy lesson kid by equestrian standards, but relative to the rest of the country—and the world—I came from a wealthy family. My younger brother and I wanted for nothing growing up in an idyllic suburb of Washington, D.C. But the horse world is not representative of this country, nor the world at large. You have to be very fortunate to compete in this sport, particularly at a high level. Even at 12, that much was clear to me.  

As a teenager, and later a returning rider in my thirties, I watched my trainers and barn friends ship off to Florida every year. The older I got, that picture—oxers, palm trees, and fancy tricolors—seemed even less attainable. Instead, I dreamed of jumping perfect courses at home, or perhaps at a show within driving distance. I had no road to Florida. 

The change happened slowly. Over the first decade of my career as a writer, my salary supported a studio apartment in Manhattan and not much more. In my thirties, a move to Maryland made housing more affordable, but a large percentage of my income went to full-time childcare for my young daughter. I took lessons, and lucked into a school horse who could take me to a handful of “A” shows in the tri-state area.  

I kept writing. I kept hustling. I was finally able to start saving. And saving, and saving some more. Half-leasing. Then, finally, the stars aligned. With a supportive and forward-thinking trainer, I got the chance to lease Joey, the barn unicorn, once he wrapped up a year in the Children’s Hunters. 

Rarely in life does the impossible morph into something within reach, and dreams that you wouldn’t let yourself imagine actually come true. So, it didn’t really sink in when Joey and I first arrived in Florida for the Venice Equestrian Tour in February. An A-rated show circuit. Palm trees. Awards presentations. The pictures in those old magazines had come to life, even if it hadn’t hit me yet. 

Hacking Joey in the big grass field next to the Grand Prix ring, we cantered the long side as the ‘80s classic “Gloria” played on the speakers. Joey perked his ears when he heard it. I smiled so hard that my cheeks ached.

Day to day and week to week, Joey and I improved in the show ring. At 41 years old, I finally had a horse with the potential to do quite well, so long as I did my job as his pilot. The trips when I truly had fun and enjoyed the process were my biggest wins, no matter the ribbon color at the end. Fox Lea Farm in Venice has two hunter rings, and we mainly showed in the second ring, home to the smaller divisions.

Until my barn’s final weekend in Venice.

My Low Child/Adult Hunter division for week six of the circuit would be held in Hunter Ring 1, and the move felt huge to me. The jumps were still just 2’6,” but with all the beautiful fill from the morning’s derby, they looked bigger and wider to me, nearly frying my nervous adult amateur brain. My trainer offered me a warmup trip, but I didn’t want my sweet partner to jump an unnecessary round. He doesn’t need to see the jumps first—the warmup would be exclusively for me. I wanted to overcome my nerves, so I went straight in for our first trip. 

I made some mistakes on our first tour of the ring, but I came out feeling like the bravest, proudest version of myself for just going in and doing it. 

On our final Sunday in Venice, Joey and I brought in a second, fourth, and seventh from the day before. I didn’t give a single thought to tricolors. I’ve gotten to show more in the last year than in the entirety of my 15 years of riding, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I do best when I walk into the show ring with no expectations. If anyone knows how to manufacture that feeling, I’m all ears. I can’t reproduce it on command, but on the days that it shows up, it’s magic. 

Joey and I trotted in for our first trip, but my usual mantras (count your rhythm…sit chilly if you don’t see anything…relax and have fun) faded into the background. I asked Joey to step into his left lead and I couldn’t think of anything but how absolutely grateful I was to be here. I was 12 again, riding the greatest horse at the whole show. In all of Florida. My best friend cantered along and I smiled more than I’ve ever smiled in the show ring before. 

I was here. I’d made it.

Our first trip went well. I kept smiling through our second trip, small errors and all. The classic round was our best yet, ending with an eight-stride bending line. My last fence in Florida had stone wall-style standards and green fuzzy rails. We found a great jump in and I measured the eight…landing on cloud nine.

An hour later, after stuffing Joey with carrots and cleaning my tack for the long trip home, a friend asked if I wanted to walk back to Hunter 1 to see if they had results. The division was wrapping up when we got there and the announcer came on to pin the first class. She called Joey’s name first. My friend playfully hit my arm and I squeezed my eyes shut. To have so much fun in the “scary” main hunter ring and actually win on top of it was the sweetest icing on the cake.

It turned out we’d won the classic, too, and I spent my final minutes at the horse show before driving to the airport staging a shameless photo shoot in Joey’s stall with his long blue ribbon. 

At home the next day, I called my mom to tell her about how the horse show wrapped up. There were two surprises late Sunday, I told her. When I landed in Baltimore, I turned on my phone to find a text from my trainer: Joey and I were reserve champion in our division. And we even won a prize to go with that long classic ribbon. 

A silver plate. 

But this is not a story about ribbons or prizes. It’s about how so much of this sport can feel impossible. Dreams get put aside for years, or decades, or get shelved all together. That lesson kid never would have believed she could get here, even 30 years later.

Telling my mom how the show ended, I cried.

The little girl reading the free magazines cheered. 

*This story was originally published in the April 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

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