• Cara Van Leuven

Hits + Misses

This is the first present-tense post I’ve shared in quite some time. If anything was gained in the last three or four posts, I hope you can better understand how a horse show in Ocala plagued me for years. I was desperate to relive the tale of a Midwestern girl and her scrappy horse making a name in central Florida.

For the past month and a half I quietly busted my back, working a regular job, riding Penny in the evenings and weekends and painting whenever a free moment presented itself. I had an art show lined up in Leesburg which just happens to be an hour south of Ocala.

I spent thousands just to get this horse on a trailer - from memberships to microchips, boarding to bridles … and I was a brut. I couldn’t even be nice to the people I love most. I was so entirely overwhelmed personal emails were simply ignored. I could feel grey hairs battling professional dye from the stress of making my big dream work.

Somehow everything played out according to plan. Last Tuesday at 4:30am I walked outside and was greeted to Penny’s whinny. It was like she knew something big was happening. I slipped on her halter and walked her through the dark and water-logged yard to the trailer. I wrapped her legs while she stood still, ears pricked and body tense. This time the wrapping seemed like a culmination of every wrap leading up to this, including every re-wrap because the first and second and possibly third attempt weren’t good enough.


It was all going so well. Penny was housed under a tent in a temporary stall directly across from HITS Post Time Farm. I rode around the track, in complete awe of many horse and rider teams. We jogged around all the warm-up arenas - and there were A LOT. It felt like home, like a comfort blanket — it just felt right.

On Friday I had a lesson set up with Seth Clayton of GEM Stables with Erin Clayton. These are Indy people, my people. The lesson was better than I anticipated - philosophies discussed, every step evaluated. And I may have jinxed myself when I sent a text home saying “If I did nothing more than this lesson Ocala would have been worth it.”

While Penny cooled, Tom and I discussed whether to set for the art show that evening or the following morning. We were interrupted by a call he received from his brother. Their mother had a heart attack and was being airlifted to Barnes Jewish in St. Louis. There was no question about what to do next. Just like days earlier, I wrapped my mare’s legs and loaded her on the trailer - heading north instead of south this time.

Tom and I did so much to make this work - we slept in a very cold trailer with dogs battling us and each other for space and warmth. We showered at a truck stop. We joined a gym for a more convenient shower option. We went to three restaurants in an hour to find a place with both reliable wifi and outlets so I could work remotely. We gave up any extra space in the living quarters of our trailer to make room for artwork and supplies.

Ocala will be there next year. And here is the reality — this isn’t the place for a player on a budget. I was up against imported sport horses trained to the hilt costing upwards of $100K. Their amateur riders train six days a week on multiple horses under the watchful eyes of the best trainers. You can’t fault a person for pursuing the same passion as you who just happens to have more money.

The other tough realization is that the horse and I are both very green comparatively. Despite Penny being insanely athletic, any flaw a horse has in those arenas is amplified due to the level of competition. The same is true with me — I have some bad habits and I don’t get to show on the regular.

And as far as Tom’s mom … we are cruising north to check on her. There is room for improvement with the prognosis. Heading back was the right thing to do — I have no regrets, I am holding on to hope and I have a year to improve.