Rebecca Hardman and her daughter Brianne Bielecki haven’t had the easiest go of things. But last year, when Brianne came home from the Palomino Horse Breeders Association Youth World Show with two championships, their struggles paid off in unexpected ways.
What does it mean to win? My 15 year old daughter has shown horses competitively for years. We’ve just returned from Tulsa, OK where they had the PHBA (Palomino Horse Breeders of America) Youth World Show last week. She came home with two individual world championships. It’s so much fun to relay the news back to family and friends who could not be there to see it. But in that telling, we don’t get to go deep, expressing what it actually means. I want to express that in my post today, because I feel it’s worthy of putting down in writing.
My daughter has never wanted for anything. She’s lived in nice homes, gone to good schools, had enough clothes to wear and food to eat. She’s traveled to far away places already. She’s been placed among other privileged kids her age and made friends. However, she’s had a couple of huge challenges. Her Dad decided to leave her life before she was three years old. He just completely disappeared. We don’t know where he is or if he is still alive. He sent a birthday card to her on her 3rd birthday, from a federal jail in Florida. That was the last she (or I) heard from him. It’s not that he didn’t love her. It’s a result of the evil grip of drug addiction, that her Dad just couldn’t overcome, which by the way, doesn’t make it any easier for her.
One other challenge worth noting is that she was diagnosed with ADHD when she was in third grade. It may not seem like much from the outside, but if you are a parent of a child with this problem, you will appreciate the struggle she’s faced, a ten year obstacle affecting her ability to socialize and perform to her best ability. Though a single Mom at the time, I was doing well enough financially to afford a comprehensive medical and psychological evaluation (that insurance wouldn’t cover) which identified her specific problem, and over time guided us both through behavioral and medical solutions. She has responded well to our continual adjustments in her approach to life, which has empowered her to defy her disability. Over the years, I’ve tried to teach her to accept that she has these obstacles, but never to use it as an excuse for not being able to achieve her dreams. I’ve continued to tell her that I will not accept the word “can’t” from her, and she shouldn’t accept it from herself either.
This past year she has shown me how she’s internalized these precepts. She has finished two years of an online, independent, home school program, with an A average. To do that requires self discipline and persistence that she has had to constantly fight for. The sport she competes in requires a type of resilience, and mental toughness that rivals the toughest individual sports, except this one is different: the individual teams up with an animal. This adds a layer of complexity and unpredictability to the sport. One can be as prepared as possible, but any issue related to the horse can throw it all out the window.
When I say that blood, sweat and tears have been poured into her sport, I am not kidding. We don’t have the bucks to afford the six digit (or even five digit) price of a world class horse, maintained at a show barn, to be hauled by someone else to shows, or to be trained by a professional. We bought a small, green, reiner bred horse for less than $8K five years ago, not knowing what we wanted or needed at the time. He has too big of a head and neck to really win any conformation class, and was deemed by a professional to be unable to make it as a successful reiner. Past trainers were negative, telling her she wouldn’t be able to succeed with this horse, that he was too small and not good enough. The things he did have going for him though, were his standout golden palomino color, his desire to try, and his relationship with my daughter. She’s endured the angry railings and neglect of a trainer (not affiliated with AQHA) who was just plain mean, doing way more damage than good. I was amazed at Brianne’s ability to believe in herself and her horse during that time, despite hearing such negative talk and being driven to tears so many times after a lesson.
Each day for years, I went to the barn where we initially bought and boarded him, after dropping her off from school, to spend time with him myself, to teach him how to do showmanship (of which he knew nothing), pivots, and getting his leads right. How to stand still and placing his feet a thousand times. And much more. At that point, the idea of even competing at a world championship show seemed impossible, but it always held a place in her dreams and imagination. That dream motivated her to keep trying and to never give up. (Note to adults: don’t give up your childhood dreams – they hold the key to your happiness)
At some point we reached a point where we knew we needed to move to a place where we could keep him ourselves, realizing she would never progress and improve keeping him where he was (in a very toxic environment). We moved her horse, and our family to a new home, and found a new professional trainer through AQHA’s website. Big leaps and bounds started coming. More hard work, more than ever before for her and the horse. The negativity and lack of support stopped. Real teaching, positiveness, hope and a “go for it” attitude came in it’s place.
Last year she started showing in AQHA shows, a big jump in difficulty. She went many months without winning anything. There were tears. After every show I asked her if she wanted to continue, telling her it was okay if she wanted to take a break or try other local shows again. After each disappointing outcome, she still said, yes, she wanted to continue, and no, she didn’t want to give up. I was amazed again at her belief in herself, her horse, and her refusal to give up. We attended two novice level (read easier) AQHA shows that year, which were to be a baseline comparison against her previous performance. She won just about everything, taking the high point award both times. This told us that yes, the horse had improved, so had she, and by big margins. Hope! Happiness! The motivation turned into strength to continue hard work.
In this sport, the quality and health of the horse contributes greatly to the success of the rider. Her horse developed an ulcer over the course of last year, as many performance horses do, and we had quite a few colic scares. Being nine years old and ridden very hard for five years, he developed soreness in his hocks and coffin joint, which required three injections since April. He responded well, but the worry and anxiety over his health is like a cloud always hanging around. Although she wanted badly to achieve her dream of winning a big show with him as her partner, she also wanted him to be okay above all things.
The start of this years show season resulted in many wins, top 3’s, and several high point awards. Things were now clicking. We decided to let her compete in AQHA’s southeast regional championship show in May. Her trainer was busy and even if he wasn’t, we couldn’t afford to pay for him to come for just us. Much, much sweat. But joy was abundant, as the hard work paid off in five individual regional AQHA championships, as well as overall high point awards in two divisions. I didn’t even dream of such a successful outcome, even though she’ll say she naturally believed it all the way. This outcome told us that she and her horse were probably ready to compete at the PHBA World Show, and we decided to go for it, while the horse was healthy and doing better than ever before. This was scary as again, we couldn’t afford to ask her trainers to go with us. I would have to haul him further than I have ever done before, in an old stock trailer, and we would have to navigate the ins and outs of a fairly complicated world show environment by ourselves, for the first time.
I thank God for my family. For He has provided me with a great one. My husband sent us off with his blessing (he had to work), and my Mother, Uncle, and Nephew decided we couldn’t go without them. Their presence was crucial; I know I couldn’t have made that drive safely without help and I was able to get the critical rest I needed to help my daughter in the long days of hard work that competing with a horse all day requires. We employed all of the things we have learned along the way from the many kind Quarter Horse people who took mercy on us as a naive Mom & Daughter team who keep their own horse – not the most frequent kind of competitor on the show circuit. Our horse stayed healthy, we attended to his sore foot in detail and it paid off in his movement. Each morning I watched for any signs of lameness. There were none last week.
At the highest level of competition in this sport, the performance, although it might last less than three minutes, must be picture perfect. The smallest of mistakes will be noticed by any one or more of the multiple judges, and any hope of a win will be lost. All the years of hard work by a competitor hangs in those three minutes. There is no do over. If the horse spooks in a strange arena, or does something unpredictable, there is nothing the competitor can do; the hope of a win is lost in that moment. Imagine the pressure. But the ones that perform their best at this level are the ones who are the most mentally tough. I knew by now that my daughter has what it takes mentally, through her control of ADHD, and the adversity she has faced leading up to this point. Now.. .yes, I’ve seen her lose focus and lose the class. This happened last week in some of the classes. But I also saw her refocus herself, and come right back with a picture perfect performance, and do it with the expression of someone who loves what she is doing, and is doing it effortlessly in beautiful harmony with her horse, who at the same time is giving back to her every last bit of try that he has in his giant heart.
Now we wait for the results. Having the performance I’ve told you about, we know she has a chance. No matter how the judges see it, we tell ourselves, she’s achieved her goal of a personal best performance at a top level show. Twenty four competitors stand waiting with their horses, all beautiful, all deserving by just being there. They call out the results, first finalists, then the top ten in reverse order. They start to leave the lineup as they are called. Brianne’s name is not called for 10th place, not 9th, not 8th, not 7th, not 6th…. now I’m thinking if she gets in the top five, her dreams have come true. Not 5th. Not 4th. Not 3rd. Our little family group, while watching, are thinking that she must have gotten the reserve champion! Because there is just no way she could have been so lucky to win the whole thing. We were thrilled and overjoyed at the thought of a reserve champion. That name was called… and it wasn’t her name. It took a few seconds to realize that she and Vista were the champions after all. A surprise package of a dream come true was just handed to her by four professionals with many years of experience, telling her that on this day, this year, she and her horse came to compete, and were indeed, World Champions at the sport.
I started laughing and crying. I didn’t want to look stupid by crying; it was just a win, just another horse show class, and it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But I couldn’t stop crying anyway. Because in that moment I remembered the little three year old girl being fascinated and in love with horses. The little four year old girl riding a horse for the first time, her tiny legs barely getting around it’s stomach. The young nine year old girl, begging me for a horse of her very own. The young eleven year old girl, riding her first horse, a palomino, for the first time with a huge smile and wonder on her face. The 15 year old young woman, loving her palomino, and getting devotion in return, with an exceptional bond, that she’s continued to have with her reiner reject turned pleasure horse. The hours and hours of lessons and practice. The blood from various injuries. The sweat – oh yeah, the sweat. And the tears over the years from disappointments, hurts and failures. But here they were, left standing alone, recognized as world champions.