The lanky English cowboy was not a stranger. In my early teens, maybe even as a tween, Erin, my best friend, and I attended a show in Muncie, Indiana. It was the dead of winter - too cold to play outside - so we curled under a wool cooler in the hayloft unable to escape the yelling mad man. His students received no mercy for too tight a rein, a distance too far from a fence.
Erin and I were so upset we sobbed up in that hayloft. During dinner after our inaugural witness to a mean mean trainer we broke plastic knives in our mashed potatoes, a young child’s way of practicing voodoo.
In the barn aisle, he was all business. He shook my hand, introduced himself as Dave Dorner and asked what my goals were. I told him I really wanted to be a good hunter. I wasn’t even sure — were there other options? It was the first thing that came to mind and I was intimidated as hell.
Even though a driver’s license now adorned my wallet, I couldn’t help but to recall my fear of him as a tween. He directed me to work Patrick and after the first jump Dave declared (and with sheer joy), “This isn’t a hunter! That horse is a jumper!”
Every week Dave journeyed two-hours north to give lessons to the hungry kids. He had a beat-up Honda CRX and under his eye that horse and I began to flourish. In one exercise Dave set up a jump in the middle of the arena. He explained it was up to me to turn left or right. And voila! I was incapable of making a decision. I flew off Patrick since I left the horse no choice but to make the decision for me. I hit the wall so hard I left a dent in the metal.
My riding and the connection with my horse were changing dramatically. Dave saw it too, and as we got better and better, I became familiar with a sound I still cherish to this day; it's the sound of a pin being pulled from a metal jump cup as the jumps get bigger and bigger. Soon we were scanning calendars and planning our show season.
Over the course of a year and a half, Dave Dorner guided me through technical and tough jumper rounds throughout the Midwest all while tolerating few mistakes. He expected a great deal from me, and I delivered.
I had an impossible horse to ride that was simultaneously impossibly talented, Not Amsuing. We were doing well enough at the rated shows that the prize money covered my entry fees. I had a family that took me under their wing, making it all possible.
Here’s the other thing — this isn’t just about a young girl getting to ride in the big shows on relatively little to no budget with a scrappy Thoroughbred. This is also a story of a girl who grew up without a father. It’s a story about a trainer who not only believed in her, he was the first man in her life to do so. It’s like those real-life PSA: you don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good parent. Sometimes, you don’t even need to be a parent to make a huge impact.
Time was magical with Dave and Patrick during those arduous drives, long show weekends and lessons. And then Dave suggested I ask my mom about the possibility of graduating high school early so I could do the Ocala show circuit. I had no idea what it meant, but the idea of living in Florida for a winter just to show horses with my beloved Patrick didn’t exactly warrant a need for details.
That summer evening I rushed home to ask my mom. It was too much, I had taken it too far. Her bank account was exhausted, my future in college haunted her, and she instructed me that after my next show at Trader’s Point in Indianapolis the horse would be staying with Dave with a price tag dangling from his halter. It was to be my last show.
Patrick pranced into the ring in the fabled grass arena, oingo-boingo-ing in his classic style. When we headed down the last line and popped over the final oxer, I knew we had won the last Children’s Jumper class I would ever ride. While mid-air I took my bat, tapped that horse on the rump and yelled, “GIIIIIIIITTTTT!!!!”
I didn’t celebrate. I didn’t feel like it. Instead, that evening I headed to a rave in downtown Indianapolis, took a hit of acid and danced all night. Hours later, I got in my car and drove two hours north to start a life without horses.