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 True Love has Four Legs

Layla Watkins

There are little girls that love horses, and then, there are little girls that LOVE horses. I was the latter. I was also one of the blessed few whose mother shared that love. My mother did not waste her money on Easy Bake ovens, Barbie Corvettes, or pink bicycles - instead, she wasted it on a Shetland pony whom I immediately named "Black Beauty."

Now, to say the money was wasted is not really a fair statement. In fact, Beauty taught me some valuable lessons. It was Beauty who taught me the "tuck and roll" method of involuntary dismount, as well as the art of getting 500 pounds of pony hoof off my foot. However, faced with the threat of child abuse charges, my mother decided Beauty had to go.

Enter Bobby. Bobby was the pony every child dreams of. He was fat, he was fuzzy, and he was mine. He was also the kindest, most tolerant pony that God ever created. Bobby and I were destined for the Olympics. Sadly, he was sold before we had a chance to qualify for the team.

After Bobby came Winterhawk, a leopard Appaloosa who proved that a good heart is more important than good looks. Winterhawk suffered from navicular disease but, in spite of his lameness, carried me tirelessly along the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park. He was also an accomplished broom polo mount who could outrun, outturn, and outplay the soundest of horses. Unfortunately, the time came when I had to say goodbye to yet another friend.

Then came puberty, followed by work, marriage, and the mundane existence known as adulthood. Until finally, then came Tia…

The day was innocent enough, or so it seemed at the time. Little did I (or my checkbook) suspect the enormity of what I was about to embark on. Although my life had become that of a "city girl," I still thought of myself as a horseperson and was looking forward to watching the 4-H show at the Frederick County Fair. But when I started critiquing those on the wrong diagonals or wrong leads, I knew something was amiss. I knew I had to ride again. I got home and announced, much to my husband's dismay, that I was buying a horse.

Never one to procrastinate, I bought the first horse I looked at. Fortunately, that horse was Tia. When I saw her, she was shaggy, wet, muddy, and scrawny - she was the most beautiful horse I'd ever seen.

Tia and I got off to a slow start. She was a green horse, I was a green rider - not typically the best combination, but she forgave my mistakes and I forgave hers. Our first few years were spent trail riding on Sugarloaf Mountain but before long, I got the itch. The itch that drains your bank account, the itch that makes you ride in ten degree weather…the itch to compete.

Our first endeavor was a 15-mile Competitive Trail Ride. The naysayers claimed that Tia, a Quarter Horse, couldn't compete against the Arabians so known for their endurance - they were wrong. We finished 3rd out of forty-odd horses. It was fun, but I still had the itch. So, we tried jousting. Tia was everything a jousting horse should be - straight, fast, and smooth. I, on the other hand, could not seem to master the art of hanging off the side of my galloping steed while wielding a giant spear aimed at a "Life Savor" sized ring. It was then that I decided to become a "real equestrian" and start showing her as a hunter. There was just one problem - we'd never jumped anything but small logs on the trail.

Teaching Tia to jump was like teaching a fish to swim. In no time, she was leading experienced horses over fallen trees that we'd once cut paths around. Tia loved to jump and it showed in the hunter ring. We finished our first show season as Reserve Champion for the year. It seemed we'd found our calling. At least, that is, until the second season got underway.

By the middle of our second season, I began to notice a change in her - she was just not as bright or energetic approaching fences. Tia was bored. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was, too. And that is when the fun really began. One word, three phases - Eventing.

Preparing for our first event was a true test of my love for riding. While Tia would jump the moon, she was not so fond of the new foofy stuff (translation: dressage). "What do you mean I'm supposed to stretch my head down while I walk - there's no grass in this ring!" "Make up your mind! Do you want me to stop or go? This leg / hand nonsense is getting on my nerves!" And so it went for the month preceding the event. I resigned myself to the fact that we would probably be last in dressage, but hoped to move up during the jumping phases. I was close - we were 10th out of 12 after dressage, but with clean cross-country and stadium rounds, finished our 1st event in 3rd place. I was hooked. As it turned out, so was Tia.

I have always said that Tia is the exception to the chestnut mare syndrome (aka dumb blond) stereotype. You see, all by herself, she figured out that all she had to do was put up with the foofy stuff and she'd get to do her two favorite things - run and jump, jump and run. All of a sudden, I had an event horse!

The next year we began training with Mike Hillman (after, of course, as our judge he gave us the worst dressage score we've gotten to this day!). The first order of business was to pick a show name worthy of a great event horse. The result, "Take It Away!" (get it …T - I - A). Before long, we were ready for our first recognized event at Redland Hunt. Having nearly fainted at the sight of some of the cross-country jumps, as we left the warm-up and headed for the start box, Mike offered these words of encouragement: "Trust yourself, trust your horse, and have fun." Words to live by - we went clean.

And so, Tia, this story is dedicated to you. For your enormous heart and endless courage, I admire you. For your friendship and devotion, I thank you. For all of these things, I love you. Other horses may come and go, but none will ever replace you. You are now, and always will be, number one in my heart.

Read other articles by Lalya Watkins