Waiting to see how Caitlyn Shiels and Cassius stacked up against the field. Photo courtesy of Michelle Durpetti.

Two years ago, Caitlyn Shiels and I were in Traverse City, Michigan, chasing indoors points for the amateur-owner hunters. I so wanted to go, and at 6, Mo was trying his heart out to get me there.

We watched the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky) from our rented house and casually discussed getting there in 2017 with Cassius, who was then 7, and neither of us really knew what he could accomplish. With eight international derbies under his belt that year, he and Caitlyn qualified for and went to the championship. Last year was exciting, and scary as hell, because really—WHAT did we even think we were doing here?!

He learned so much though, and his heart shined through. It is actually the thing I treasure most about him. At the start of 2018, we set new goals with renewed purpose to return to Kentucky. And be a little wiser and a little more competitive. This would require more of that big heart from Cassius. And it would require more work from Caitlyn. And because we are slightly crazy, we also introduced him to the 3’3″ amateur-owners with me in the irons.

This past week, I have had the privilege, the pleasure and the honor of watching my horse give his all and my friend ride so beautifully and with all of herself. I have cheered on my friends and their horses. And I quietly hoped, and prayed, that my Cassius would reach down deep and pull through. My expectation was never to see them win but instead to feel proud of the effort that they left in the ring after competing.
We’ve been on the road 21 weeks this year. This was no easy thing. I balance multiple jobs, and Caitlyn and I have both experienced some health issues. We transitioned into a new phase with True North. And yet still, we sought out this big, fat, daunting goal. Because why the hell not, right?

With a 17th-placed finish overall and an eighth-placed finish in section B out of 83 horses, it is safe to say that Cassius dug deep. It is without a doubt that Caitlyn gave her all, and then more. And I was able to be a part of that.

Cassius’ impact on my life will far outweigh whatever I paid for him. It will even outweigh the ribbons he earned that night. And here is why—Cassius, his trust in Caitlyn and his heart proved to me for once and for all that voracious tenacity, steady faith and good, old-fashioned discipline are the secret to life.
These three key ingredients allowed me to sit outside of my camper in the Kentucky Horse Park campground and congratulate Caitlyn on some beautiful riding. It allowed me to thank Don Stewart earlier that day for helping us find him. It allowed me to thank Andre Dignelli for being with Caitlyn during derby championships. These are the kinds of moments dreams are made of. And I am living my dream as I type. I am profoundly grateful for the support, humbled that you gave your time, and endlessly inspired by all that each and every one of you are.
Congratulations to all of my friends who had horses in this championship and to everyone overall. It was such an honor to stand among you. What an incredible class, and what a way to remember everything I love about this sport and these magnificent animals.

Caitlyn—truly, there are just no words. What you have brought to my life is entirely similar to what you bring to Cass’ life: you make us reach farther, dig deeper and bring all of our heart. You are extraordinary. And I am just so incredibly proud. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

We are going to celebrate because we have earned it. We are going to exhale because we’ve earned that too. You sure as hell have; I can tell you that much. And then, we will take all of this, and we will have all new goals, because we are just getting started. And I cannot wait to see where this journey continues to take us.
Thank you, mom and dad. Thank you to my husband, who supports this sport more than any normal husband should. Thank you, True North teammates. Thank you, Alonso Gomez, Betsy Carvill, Heather Woodruff. You are all so valued. So appreciated. And AWESOME. Thank you everyone who prayed and sent encouragement. Thank you Nonno, for sending me that cardinal in the middle of August right outside my camper yesterday. I heard you. ❤️

And friends, if this long post teaches you nothing else, let it teach you this: No matter where you come from, or what your lot in life may be, dream. Stretch. Dig deep. Embrace those moments of discomfort and doubt. Grow from them. And live life with a passionate, endless hunger to be a part of something that sets your soul on fire. Because there is nothing quite like it.

I am just so proud. My heart is full. My head can’t really get it just yet. And my face cannot stop smiling. And crying like a total idiot. And I am so good with that as I sip my wine in front of my campfire.

I have just all the love.


(Originally appeared on the Chronicle of the Horse on August 23, 2018)


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