On July 23, 2017, Tillie Jones found herself on top of the podium at the Adequan®/FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships presented by Gotham North (NAJYRC) as the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Individual Freestyle Dressage Gold Medalist. However, it came with no shortage of hardships along the way. This week, Tillie will face stiffer competition when she competes in the AGCO/USEF Junior Rider Dressage National Championships in Wayne, Ill. It is her perseverance and self-proclaimed love for the sport, along with support from family, friends, and her trainer that taught her embracing setbacks is the key to overcoming challenges and achieving success.
Tillie developed a love for horses at a young age. While girls her age played with Barbie dolls, the Nebraska native acted out her equestrian dreams with “My Little Ponies.” For a special surprise on her seventh birthday, Tillie’s parents, Dallas and Tish, blindfolded her and took her to a local riding barn for her very first lesson. From there, Tillie began dressage lessons and stuck with it ever since.
Tillie had her mind set on the NAJYRC since she got her first pony Darby at 10 years old. She looked up to girls from Nebraska who competed at NAJYRC, hoping she would follow their example one day. “I really looked up to those girls because there weren’t a lot of girls that qualified from Nebraska, so when a girl qualified I would really look up to them,” recalled Tillie.
With that goal in mind, the Jones family purchased a schoolmaster named Boegley’s Mauricio, or “Mo,” in 2013 to help her achieve her dream. A few months later, one of every equestrian’s nightmares became reality as the barn she kept Darby and Mo in Hickman, Neb., caught fire and burned to the ground. Luckily, the horses got out unharmed but were emotionally distressed from the incident. The blaze destroyed every piece of equipment and tack. This forced the Jones family to sell Darby to pay for new tack and find a new barn to keep training at the same time. “This opened my eyes to a harsh reality of life that any ride may be the last,” said Tillie.
After a long search for a trainer, Tillie landed with Jami Kment at Providence Farm in Lincoln, Neb. With Kment’s guidance, Tillie and Mo competed at the 2015 NAJYRC, respectably finishing in seventh and eighth. The momentum picked up for the combination as they continued to show at notable events throughout the remainder of 2015 in preparation for the 2016 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC. In April 2016, the hard work came to a halt when, two weeks before the first 2016 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC qualifying show, Mo started showing signs of colic. The Jones family trailered him two-and-a-half hours to Kansas State University’s Veterinary Health Center in case he needed surgery.
After spending one week at the veterinary hospital without significant improvement and inconclusive tests, the doctors recommended surgery. Unfortunately, the veterinarians discovered that an entire section of Mo’s small intestine had died. On April 29, 2016, they euthanized Mo. The incident devastated the entire Jones family, leaving them in a state of shock. This especially upset Tillie, because she was on her way to see Mo the day the doctors euthanized him, the first opportunity she had to see him during the length of his stay.
“When I got home from school expecting to get ready for the trip to see my boy, I was met with my dad’s open arms, tears welling in his eyes. … I never got to say goodbye to my best friend and tell him how much I truly loved him,” Tillie said.
Mo’s death also took a toll on her father, Dallas. “He gets up at 5 a.m. and gets home at 8:30 p.m. It’s really hard [financially] to make this sport work for my family,” said Tillie. Not wanting to disappoint his daughter, Dallas reminded himself why he works such long hours. Tucked in his wallet, he kept a piece of paper that read, “Never forget your girl’s crushing pain. Always remember your agonizing sense of helplessness. Don’t ever forget that you also have two boys who rely on you. No matter how hard it is to keep going, never stop. Now get back to work.”
Dallas’ hard work came to fruition when the Jones family purchased Apachi, an 11-year-old KWPN gelding, in the summer of 2016. Her father nicknamed him “Patch,” as he served as a patch to her broken heart. Still grieving, Jones struggled to warm up to Apachi but, coincidently, found that bonding during this difficult time made their connection stronger. “I’m a lot closer with him because I could bond with him when I was really sad,” Tillie explained. “He just really made me love him, and he’s an awesome horse.”
Seeing her friends and teammates attend the 2016 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC in Colorado was a difficult, but important, experience for Tillie. She watched as Region 4 teammate Jenna Upchurch took home two individual gold medals and Region 4 won the team silver medal. Her barn family and Region 4 teammates not only encouraged her to keep going, but also inspired her to do better. “I think that made me work harder, seeing that if my friends could do it, then I could do it,” Tillie said. “I could make anything happen if I really tried.”
This gave her all the encouragement she needed to set the plan in motion. Tillie was determined to make it atop the podium in 2017 with Apachi and nothing was going to stop her from achieving this dream. The then full-time high school sophomore took a part-time job at Dairy Queen to help the family with expenses and to pay for a clinic with USEF Developing Dressage Coach and Olympian Debbie McDonald. Tillie felt getting the job was important because it gave her valuable perspective. “I don’t get everything handed to me; I have to work for it,” said Tillie.
The teenager and her horse spent the fall and winter training, preparing for their first qualifying show in April 2017. Tillie trained for three months on her own as her trainer made an annual trip to Florida from January to March. “I thought it was cool that I could train him for three or four months and he could still improve while he was in my hands,” Tillie said.
The pressure intensified, as they only had a few weeks of lessons before the first qualifying show. Qualifying for the NAJYRC in Region 4 is no easy feat, as there are only three qualifying shows to obtain scores, so “if you mess up on one test, you’re done,” said Tillie. “You just have to be on top of your game for every single show.”
Tillie and Apachi placed second in their first-ever Prix St. Georges test and eventually qualified for the 2017 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC. Then, two weeks before the 2017 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC, she received a phone call with devastating news. Apachi had colicked. Not wanting to take any chances, Tish Jones trailered Apachi to Kansas State University.
“It was déjà vu,” said Tilly, who spent the entire drive to the clinic in tears. Seven hours in a car took a toll on her, and negative thoughts raced through her head. “I imagined what I would do if I lost Apachi,” she recalled. “What if I’d ridden him for the last time?” The fear gripped her body and sad memories held her mind ransom as she walked through the same veterinary hospital doors she had 14 months earlier. She found Apachi a few stalls away from where they had kept Mo. All the fear and worry vanished when the veterinarians told her Apachi would be okay. Three days later, they left Kansas State “not just with four shoes and some pieces of mane but with my boy, healthy and cleared to compete,” said Tillie.
The combination only had two rides together before heading to Saugerties, N.Y., for the 2017 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC. “My dream of making the podium no longer seemed so important,” said Tillie. Having a healthy horse satisfied her enough. At the 2017 Adequan/FEI NAJYRC, Tillie competed in the junior division as an individual and on the Region 4 team with Apachi. On their first day of competition, Tillie and Apachi anchored Region 4 to an impressive bronze-medal finish. On the second day, the pair delivered a strong performance to earn an individual bronze medal. On the final day, she and Apachi performed their freestyle to the same music that Tillie had selected for Mo. “It’s super-emotional every time I ride that freestyle, because I know Mo is watching from above. … I really didn’t know if I was going to break down crying,” recalled Tillie.
The pair rode an incredible test, scoring over 70% from all five judges. After the announcer read the scores for the last rider, Tillie knew she had earned the freestyle gold medal. The tears, symbolizing an array of emotions, engulfed Jones as the reality of achieving her dream set in. Her dad was one of the first to embrace her. “[That moment] was cathartic for both of us, in a way,” Dallas said, “as the last time she was crying uncontrollably on my shoulder was after I told her that Mo had died. … This time, [she had] tears of utter elation. Catharsis complete.”
As a gesture of appreciation, Tillie let her dad lead Apachi into the ring for the medal ceremony. “It couldn’t have been anyone other than him,” Tillie said. “He worked the hardest to make this happen.”
Back in Nebraska, Tillie reflected on her victory and the journey that led her to the freestyle gold medal. “The hardships add an indescribable, cathartic sweetness to the victories,” she said. “It’s the journey that counts most; every ride is a good ride even if it’s a bad ride, because it’s a ride.”
Watch Tillie compete this week in the AGCO/USEF Junior Dressage National Championship this week at the USEF Dressage National Championships on USEF Network.
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