The Road to the AECs – Part 1

The Road to the AECs – Part 1

By Aryelle Stafford-Collins, recipient of the Mysing-Williams Eventing Scholarship

This story is a long one. I tried hard to condense it, but as we all know, there’s so much that goes into our sport. 

For starters, most of us are not professional riders with millions of dollars. Most of us have a day job. You know, the one that pays the mortgage, the horse expenses, and then the ramen noodles you’re forced to eat when that paycheck is spent by said horse. So, when the USEA announced that the American Eventing Championships would be held in Kentucky Horse Park in 2019, I started crunching some numbers.

Let’s see. I just got my first big girl job, moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge, board my horse in Madisonville, spend a lot of time and gas money to get to him during the week, am saving up for a wedding in 2020, and need to find some way to also save money to buy a house, like normal adults do. 

To qualify for AECs, all I needed was three clean cross country runs and a 1st or 2nd place ribbon or two 3rd place ribbons. 

As good as I am at budgeting, how am I supposed to add a minimum of three qualifying horse shows to my list of bills? And if I somehow only need those three to qualify me, how am I supposed to afford AECs? No joke, I had a conversation with my (now) husband that we might just have to elope. Kentucky Horse Park > wedding. 

Right as Chaston began to back away slowly and run, the Mysing and Williams scholarship opportunity came around, and I knew that was my ticket. When I was chosen as one of the 2019 recipients, I cried. A lot. In front of my new coworkers. 

I might as well tell you the ending: we made it to Kentucky Horse Park, and the Mysing and Williams scholarship is what made it possible. But the journey there was just as good as the fairy tale ending. So, if I were you, I’d keep reading. 

Let’s start at the beginning of our show season, shall we?

Show #1: Holly Hill Horse Trials 

This was the first time Melissa Mysing was going to see me and Reef compete. I’ve always been a nervous wreck at shows (thankfully Natty Lights and Greta Peterson know how to help with that), but now that the woman who chose me as a scholarship recipient was watching, I wanted to show her she picked right. 

Dressage was medium, we were one of the last riders to go and the ground was total slop from a hard rain the day before, so Reef tripped a bit and it just wasn’t our best. We still scored in the low 30s, so even our not-so-great test was competitive. 

Cross country was incredible. He was so excited to be out there, though I definitely had to ride my butt off for a few of those fences. I might have been out of breath and out of shape when we crossed the finish line, but we had a blast! And then he pulled a shoe…classic Reef. 

Once the shoe situation was resolved, we had stadium…my nemesis. I tried my best to shove my nerves down, but the last time we were in this arena, we were in first place – that is until I got dumped into fence #5. I’m sure Reef sensed my fake courage so by fence #2, we already had a run out. We finished the course, and honestly the rest was lovely, but I thought Melissa might be disappointed in choosing us and I was mortified – I even cried. Instead, she marveled at how well the rest of our course went and said “Job well done!” HUH?!

We ended up in 7th place with a clean cross country run.

Show #2: Texas Rose Horse Trials

One of my absolute favorite venues! But once again, pouring rain. The ground was complete slop for dressage, and there was a mix up in the warmup arena for when I was supposed to go in, so the test was rushed, nervous, and clumsy. We still made it in the low 30s (God bless his magical canter and his square halts), so we were still in the running for the ribbons we needed.  

Cross country was flawless. There is something about Texas Rose that he just loves. Usually, I’m exhausted at the end of a course because he spooks at a few jumps or tries to pull something, but in this case, I was exhausted because he was so forward and bold! In fact, he was so forward and bold that he lost another shoe…can we have ONE show without a trip to the farrier please?!

Stadium was a killer for most. The arena was TOTAL mush, and horses were getting bogged down and tired. For some reason, my usually lazy OTTB was unphased by this and made sure to be extra careful over every fence. A double clear where so many others had rails! 

We ended in 4th place with another clear cross country under our belt.

Show #3: Poplar Place Farm

No rain!! And no farrier needed! Yay! 

This time, our dressage was .3 points away from breaking into the 20s. Oh, the humanity! 

But, unlike our first two shows, cross country did not go so well. He’s never felt great on the Poplar cross country course, and this time I was working hard for every single stride. I was so exhausted by the end of the course I could barely enjoy a Natty after (I still did it, but it was tough). We had one run out that could have been avoided, but I was so tired and it was a tough question, so a run out was unfortunately part of our course. 

The next day, we had another run out in stadium. The gate steward let the next rider in when I was coming up to the second-to-last jump, and instead of entering and staying on the other end of the arena, the rider cantered right at us. I can’t say that I blame Reef for reacting to that, but he is an eventer after all, so I was hoping he could put his big boy pants on. But, we turned around and he went right over it the second time. This show was a wash for qualification thanks to the run out on cross country anyways. 

6th place but no clean cross country.

Show #4: Chattahoochee Hills – our last chance

Let me start out by saying that this is the show that Reef dumped me on cross country the year before. Hard. Like so hard that the jump judges heard my groans getting up and they thought I was an elderly woman. 

That being said, this is still one of my favorite venues. And I was determined to get my vengeance on that white boat jump that aged me 40 years. This was my last hope for AECs, I needed a clean cross country run AND place in the top 2. Chatt is notorious for stiff competition, so I was definitely nervous. Oh, and Reef pulled a shoe almost immediately. Shocker. 

Our dressage was gorgeous. Definitely our best test of the season. I didn’t know it at the time, but we finally broke into the 20s! 

Cross country was proving to be difficult for a lot of riders and horses. As I warmed up, I watched 5 horses get eliminated on fence #2. Thankfully, it wasn’t a white fence (Reef’s worst fear), but I rode extra hard to it anyways. That set the tone for the rest of the course, and when the dreaded white boat jump was ahead of us, I put my leg on, I sat back, I growled, I told him he could get a thousand carrots, and I simultaneously threatened to take away his “drink from the hose” time after his baths for a year. Not only did we make it over that fence, we crossed the finish line with a clear round under our belt!

All that was left between me and AECs was stadium. 

Here’s something you should know about me: when I’m at a show, I’m not allowed to know my scores. If I’m doing well, I put too much pressure on myself and I ride terribly. When I’m not doing so well, I forget how to ride because I’m mad at myself. When I’m in the middle, I do both of those things. But if I don’t know my score or placing, I have to ride each event separately to the best of my ability. Greta has managed to keep my scores a secret for many-a-show. She picks up my dressage tests (and probably sleeps with it under her pillow), she watches what everyone says like a hawk to make sure they don’t give anything away, and she keeps an excellent poker face on so I can never read into what place I’m in. This woman is like a ninja at hiding my scores from me – even up to the very last moment. 

So here’s the thing. I was in first place at Chatt after cross country and I had no idea. If I could get a clear stadium round, I would be heading to AECs. Of course, Greta couldn’t tell me that because I would inevitably throw up and fall off of Reef the second I entered the arena. However, we were in reverse order of go and my division was the last to run in the entire show. So horses and riders are dwindling in the warm up, and no new riders are coming into the arena. By the time there were 6 horses left and me, I asked Greta when I was supposed to go. “Soon,” she said. Ok…

We’re officially at 5 other horses…now 4…3…2…and then it’s just me and one other rider in the warmup. I look at Greta and say, “Do I go in next?” and she has the AUDACITY to walk over to the warmup board and FAKE CHECK to see if I’m next to go. As if she doesn’t know that I’m dead last because I’m in first place! 

When the other rider gets called in and I’m officially alone in warm up, I looked at Greta and said “GEE. I wonder what place I’m in!” Gotta give her credit, she holds out on my scores until it’s literally impossible. 

So this was it, this was my chance to get to Kentucky. Not only do I need a double clear, I’m doing it under the pressure of knowing my placing and with Melissa watching us via Facetime. But I wanted to make Greta proud, I wanted to show Melissa that she picked the right horse and rider, and I knew that both Reef and I deserved to ride on that bluegrass cross country course. 

So when we went double clear in stadium and had that first place locked in, all I could do is think about how lucky I am to have such an incredible horse, a dedicated trainer who treats me like family, and a supportive Eventer like Melissa who made my 2019 season possible.

On to Kentucky!!

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