• Cara Van Leuven

A Little Cowboy Bob in Us All

It’s been over a year since dedicating any words to this blog. My last entry ended in tragedy, and unfortunately, this one begins with tragedy. But before we go there, I need to recap what has happened in the past year since it will add clarity to this post.

Being in Ocala was a bit of a wake-up call. It became apparent that my teenage Ocala dreams were not the same Ocala I was facing two decades later. There was no way I could keep up financially. The H/J world has become a game of funds; I live a pretty magical, laid back simple life and am just not interested in reshaping that to chase rated shows.

I needed to re-evaluate what I wanted in the horse world — something that was attainable and affordable. I thought about my resources, my horse and who I know. While I was trying to navigate my way through this puzzle, my friend and neighbor, Jessica Milam, informed me that Mari Jebens was coming out weekly to give lessons and would I like to join? ALL OVER IT.

As my riding and relationship with Penny improved under Mari’s instruction, I was also put in touch with Ellen Baehr, who further helped me at shows and reminded me blue ribbons are indeed my favorite color. Unfortunately, at some point last summer, it was discovered Penny’s body wouldn’t hold up for the big jumps and I really needed to be thoughtful about our future.

So I did was any insane horse person (that’s all of us) would do and bought a second horse. I had developed a vision for myself: to be the best horseman I could be. And with that I would be the first person to sit on my three-year-old warmblood’s back. I would know everything I was doing right or wrong. There would be nobody to blame for this young mare’s issues and I would know what to improve in the future.

I have been almost ferociously protective over Hazel’s (that’s the new warmblood baby) education. There are two people I whole-heartedly trust with her — my friend and mentor, Stacey Howlett, and of course, the mentor to us both, Bob Cunningham. Bob was there the first time I got on that mare’s back. There was no buck, no fear … it was everything I had dreamt of.


After a brutally wet winter and spring I had about given up moving forward with Hazel. Our training was so stop and start relying on the mercy of the weather. I was all set to send Hazel off for training, but wanted to get Bob’s opinion to see if he thought I could indeed handle it myself.

I also determined how to enjoy Penny if she wasn’t going to jump bigger than 3’ … we would give eventing a shot. It is what she was initially bred to do, she has lovely skills on the flat and we all know she’s a pony who loves to jump.

Last Tuesday I took Hazel to Bob’s for a lesson and also brought Penny along for a trail ride (what better way to prep for my first recognized event?). Bob was 100% confident I would make countless mistakes in Hazel’s training. We came up with a plan — I would board Hazel for a month at his place and take two lessons a week. Bob being Bob reminded me there was no way he would not be able to help when I wasn’t in a lesson but was screwing up. And so with that, I was back on track to train Hazel with my butt in the saddle.

After that lesson, Bob, his granddaughter and I saddled up for a trail ride, with me riding Penny this time. We crossed a creek and my little redhead showed no fear of the water. It was an honor to be with this grandfather/granddaughter duo. I was riding with my hero and a teenager whose knowledge of horses has already eclipsed mine.

Without going into much detail, on this magical trail ride is when a horrible accident happened.

Bob is receiving the best care in the region at the best hospital. He is improving and gaining strength. We are dealing with a man made of legendary cowboy tough. Send your prayers and love for him and his family. I also ask that you not reach out to ask me what happened unless it directly affects you - please understand I relive it 50 times/day and am not at a place where I feel comfortable discussing it.

A countless range of emotions plagued me throughout the week (denial, showers of tears, anger, sadness, guilt … the whole gamut), and I just wasn’t sure I could pull it together to ride Penny. When I talked to a family friend for an update and to check in, I explained my dilemma — to ride or not to ride. This friend reminded me that horses are Bob’s love and life. If Bob knew I was sitting at home worrying and not riding he would be nothing but pissed. “Ride for Bob and do it.”

Overall, I was delighted with our rides and we ended up finishing in 7th place. For the team of horse and rider who have no experience in eventing, that’s pretty dang good. My mare has faith in me, and I believe in her.

What impressed me the most was the sense of community I encountered. The support from my own competitors was simply awe-inspiring and I saw a bit of Cowboy Bob all around me in countless people. With one exception, anybody I snapped a pic of is gonna have Cowboy Bob-like character that is worth pointing out.

Mari Jebens (NOT PICTURED)

With calm persistence, Mari has helped create better harmony with me and Penny over the past year. Leading up to the weekend, she put absolutely no pressure on me deciding whether or not I would ride - she was going to be there either way on Saturday with other students. Mari was able to help me overcome my greatest weakness and that is being a spaz.

Jessica Milam

In the past I have witnessed Jessica leading the scoreboards in dressage and stadium only to scratch on cross country because the footing was questionable. She always puts the horse’s best interest first, and as insanely busy as she is (mom, work, horses), she takes time out for her friends. Today her time was swiftly approaching to start cross country, yet she helped me getting studs in Penny’s shoes.

Celia Ponsler

Celia picked up where Jessica had to take off when it came to those dang studs. We ended up scrapping the whole thing as Celia was concerned about my mind not being on the course. Celia has had years of experience and is a novel of knowledge, knowledge she is willing to share. She has been nothing but open and kind in the short time I’ve been lucky enough to know her.

Elisha Nevois, Helena and Kevin Akridge

Long-time friends, this trio spent the day with me on Saturday and brought the snacks and laughter big time. Helena was the perfect groom while Elisha kept me distracted from my woes. What is so amazing is that Elisha and Helena have been by my side — from my first schooling show with Julio at Cornerstone — to my first recognized event.

Julie Simmons

Despite the fact we were in the same division competing against one another, Julie wasn’t even phased. When I got lost walking the cross country course, she not only redirected me, she took the time to walk the rest of the course with me. She shared her strategies - from apps to tape on the arm, when to trot, etc. Well deserved win Julie, well deserved.

Lynette Scott

So there I was on Penny having no clue whether I could ride by the stadium ring or not. I turned to seek a stranger’s advice, only to see it was Lynette. She kindly explained what’s ok and and what’s not acceptable and you know what? She won her division too. Another well earned win.

Hannah Garlisch

Not sure how I was lucky enough to be stalled beside this woman, but this was her first event in over 12 years; she took off some time to focus on momhood and full-time work. We had great laughs over our lack of braiding skills. She shared advice and knowledge. We both had ehh moments and serious highlights we bonded over.

M Blue Sidebottom

Because of the mini event Blue hosted two weeks ago, I felt prepared enough to enter Queeny. When I saw Blue before entering the dressage ring, she shared such kind words with me that my confidence soared before the bell chimed.

Thomas York

If there is such a thing as a horse whisperer, Tom is a Cara whisperer. Since this man has been by my side, I have truly blossomed. Tom has been endlessly encouraging from my equine exhibitions to my artistic dreams. Here he is, at another horse event, by my side telling me in so many ways (even without words) that I can do it.

To help Bob Cunningham and his family, please visit this GoFundMe site coordinated by the family friend mentioned above:

#horse #eventing #cowboy #horsemanship