A tribute to Townie

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I remember when Townsend Hill was that runaway horse nobody at Foxtrack Training Center wanted to ride.

It started in summer 2009, when I was told to “give that fat horse some exercise.” Flatwork only. Jumps would make him crazy, Mel Wyatt told me.

At the time I was still eventing and foxhunting with another horse, so Townie was my number two. With school during the day, it was hard to ride him often.

But when I did, it was bliss. His big trot seldom failed to leave my legs feeling like jelly, but I could sense the magnitude of the movement underneath me — gorgeous, powerful.

You could tell Townie was in his element once he strutted down the centerline. The dressage arena always beckoned to him, like an old friend. He made perfectly round circles with the smallest use of my inside leg and outside hand. He dropped his poll and accepted contact without even a thought of stubbornness or resistance.

I’d never ridden a horse with so much upper-level training, so much talent. When I first started eventing I was content with finishing the competition, having a decent ride, leaving the ring with a smile on my face. Of course, that’s a goal that still remains.

But Townie was a horse people rode to win. And win he did — with six different riders in 17 years before I hopped aboard.

After several months of flatwork fun, Townie and I had built a solid rapport. No longer was I a hopeless passenger on his back with wild hands and uncertain balance. We had almost attained “team” status.

Still, I had always been a jumper. Riding over fences was the passion and drive behind my equestrian career, which had spanned a dozen years at the time. I was itching to take Townsend Hill over one little jump — nothing dramatic, nothing hell-bent-for-leather. Just that little crossrail sitting nonchalantly in the center of the ring.

How bad could it be? I thought.

But 10 yards out from the fence, I could feel that the horse underneath me was not the obedient, complacent Townie of 30 seconds earlier. His eyes grew wide, his ears pricked forward and he sped up with gusto, some inexplicable fervent need to rush at the speed bump jump manifested inside him.

He was high-strung and tense for the rest of the ride.

It wasn’t a good start. Thing is, I’m not a quitter. After the first few unsuccessful attempts, I was even more determined to figure this funny business out.

By December, Mel had decided that Townie was officially my “competition horse.”

Still, every time the two of us tried jumping, the rushing behavior ensued — weeks passed with no progress.

I had plenty of equestrian experience, both in years and innumerable falls off of green horses. There had been challenges, sure, but rarely a situation where I tried the exact same exercise tirelessly for dozens and dozens of lessons — in this case, trotting up to the smallest of fences while holding a reasonable pace — and only seemed to be taking steps back.

Mel told me, “You have to figure him out for yourself. There’s only so much I can tell you.” Every time I heard those words, my frustration swelled.

Nothing I did was working. I wanted to throw in the towel and never ride him again. I came back to the barn crying on more than a few occasions.

But one day, one private lesson with Mel, it clicked. Can’t really describe it more accurately than that. It happened like magic.

We trotted over that nemesis of a crossrail flawlessly. Cantered it. Then a vertical. Next, a bigger vertical. Then an oxer. Then a 3-foot 3-inch oxer.

I laughed out loud in relief. I’d done it. WE had done it.

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After the two of us cleared the impossible hurdle, the sky was literally the limit. Collected and extended trots, Training-level stadium courses, gallops down the fire lanes in the Walthour-Moss Foundation — we did it all. There were some reckless, daring bareback rides, too, that I’m confident I’ll look back on in 30 years and wonder, “How on earth did I have the nerve to do THAT?”

I’ve never trusted any four-legged partner as much as I trusted Townsend Hill.

We won our first competition together — a 27-horse beginner novice class at Long Leaf Pine Horse Trials at the Carolina Horse Park. Finished on our dressage score of 27.1. The paper detailing that we’d received three “9s” on our test looked like a foreign country to me.

Our whirlwind of a show season ended up qualifying us for the Area 2 USEA Championships at Novice level in October.

Unexpectedly sitting in first place after dressage and cross-country, my heart was in my throat. A sizeable audience at the Virginia Horse Center was watching every move I made. My hands were visibly shaking, and Townie’s muscles tensed, sensing the uncertainty.

My nerves led to a sloppy turn to the second-to-last fence, and Townie’s hind leg just brushed the top rail, which cost us the victory.

I had come in with no expectations; I’d never even competed outside the familiar confines of the Carolina Horse Park. But my meteoric rise to the top, shocking the more seasoned juniors in my wake, ended in dejection. The audible gasp from the crowd once the rail fell was something I’ll never forget.

I exited the ring with my head bowed low. I felt I deserved a good cry, and I tried to sob. But the tears wouldn’t come.

Townie swiveled his head around to look at me, a question in his big brown eyes, “You doing alright up there?”

I looked at that face, the one that had greeted me at the pasture almost every day for a year. His long forelock brushed aside to reveal the perfect white star on his forehead.

Suddenly, my mood changed, and a grin split my face. You couldn’t gaze at a horse like Townsend Hill for long without smiling.

A happiness filled me, both for the incredible weekend we’d had and for the mere opportunity, one I never took for granted, to ride such a special animal. I fished around in my show jacket pocket, closed my fingers on a Nicker Maker. I always loved the careful and delicate way Townie took treats from my hand. Made me a little less worried about losing fingers.

Even though I could only call him “mine” for less than two years, Townsend Hill was the horse of a lifetime for me.

I’ve said before in this essay that I’ve never trusted a horse more than I trusted Townie. I’d say it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll never trust another one as much.

Rest in peace, my beautiful, magnificent equine partner. Get fat and happy in heaven’s pastures for me. I love you and miss you.

But I know you’ll keep showing the world how it’s done, forever and always.

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