Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports. If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.
With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations. In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all. It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful. But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for. It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe. Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.
I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay. At the time, Holly was just 15 years old. She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC. Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching. It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them. But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc. Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.
And there is one other detail about Holly. She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).
Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah). Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east. You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia. But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.
One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.
Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).
Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.
I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments. Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”. They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.
Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse. She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show. But Holly had an additional weight to carry: “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”
Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?
Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish. Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal. Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle. But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC. And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal. I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship. I met amazing people. I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”
I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving. Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four. And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.
After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina. The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete. After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.
But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo. The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.
Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition. Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort. According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones. With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.
I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time. It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion. And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.
In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss. Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again. She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity. I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.
While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals. To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.
I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn. I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her. Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.