Maria is possibly my most complex horse. Let’s go back to the beginning, when I first met Maria in 2005. At that time, she was known around the barn as ‘Polo Mare’, partially because we didn’t really know her actual name and partly because, you guessed it, she’d come from a polo stable. We had just started looking for another horse for me because at some point there was some possibility that I was going to outgrow Houdini. My trainer had taken Maria on as a sale project, she knew the polo rider who was selling her, and we never thought of her as a potential match for me. My mom even took the sale pictures and helped put together the ad for Maria. Truthfully, I don’t remember what the impetus was for us to look into buying her for me to ride, but I took a few lessons on her to see how we got along, and I was hooked.
Maria is the complete opposite of Houdini in pretty much every way. He is just under 14.2hh and she is almost 16.2hh. He is a typical pony, he’s pretty round and puts on weight just by looking at food, Maria looks like a classic racehorse, sporty, sleek and muscular. Houdini is notoriously difficult in dressage, Maria is naturally soft in the mouth, supple and obedient. Houdini is a bit of a self-starter over fences, whatever you point him at, he will size up, figure out his own distance and go for it whether you are ready or not. Maria has plenty of scope but is a bit more unsure, specifically in show jumping and needs a lot more support to fences. Houdini can be quite emotional and Maria is very stoic. At the point that I started riding Maria, Houdini was the only horse that I had ridden seriously and consistently and the only horse that I had evented on. She completely changed me as a rider simply because I had to adjust my whole style to suit all of the ways that she was different from Houdini.
Maria is very talented but we were not immediately successful in our competitions. She excelled in dressage and her scores were consistently low, she was a machine on cross country when we could get on a big, open stride and really move up to the fences. We struggled in stadium for a long time. She can be lazy with her legs so she requires a lot of support and sometimes a pretty aggressive ride to the fences. Sometimes she would feel like a dream in the warm up, causing me to under-ride her to the first fence resulting in a stop, or at the very least a very sticky and confidence-eroding jump right at the beginning of the round. Sometimes the warm up would get her so riled that it was all I could do to keep her pointed at the right fence. Sometimes it felt like everything was coming together and I’d give her the best ride I could and she would just drop her knees or her toes. It took us a long time, many lessons and clinics, lots of local hunter/jumper shows and derbies, tons of very unsuccessful rounds, before we finally got our first clear round.
I actually remember it perfectly, the first clear round. I was sitting in 2nd place after dressage and cross country, I had just finished warming up for stadium and was waiting by the gate of the ring for the rider who was going ahead of me. My trainer came up to me and asked how I felt about hearing ‘gossip’ about the competition. She was joking, but she’d just found out that the rider who was ahead of me in 1st place had scratched for some reason or another. I knew who the rider was and noticed that she hadn’t been in the warm up area, so I assumed something along those lines, but I didn’t want to hear it out loud (did I mention that I can be pretty superstitious when it comes to competing?). I said I didn’t want to know until after I went. Of course, I did know, so I went into my round feeling the most pressure I can ever remember feeling in a stadium round. We had been successful in dressage and cross country for the most part, but still, I’d never come into the final phase of a show sitting in the lead. It was mine to lose. The actual round itself is mostly a blur, but I remember landing from the final fence, hearing my mom and my trainer (literally) scream with probably a mixture of relief and excitement and realizing that it had finally happened!
Of course, it wasn’t all exciting, photo finish moments. There were plenty of tears after stadium rounds as I tried to figure out what I could do to fix the issues we had. We also dealt with more than our fair share of injuries. Everything from superficial wounds to soft tissue injuries caused setbacks in our training and competing. Another thing about Maria is that she is basically a walking accident. If there is something that she can injure herself on, she will. We’ll get more into that later, but I bet if you can think of a strange injury, Maria has encountered it.
2018 was a really exciting year for Maria and I. We got back to showing after a hiatus of about four years! I am beyond proud to say that we completed a total of 6 horse trials this season, without finishing outside of the top 5! This included fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine to compete at the American Eventing Championships, which were held at the Colorado Horse Park this year. I have to say that the entire experience was a dream, from tying our personal best dressage score for the season and putting in a double clear cross country followed by a double clear show jumping round, to finishing in the top 3 (!) and having Bailey along as my support for all of it. It was the absolute best catalyst I could have had to get back out there, and I cannot wait to see what’s in store for our futures!