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From square one - The full story of Finola
 By Polo the Weirdo   •   28th Mar 2010   •   18,769 views   •   31 comments
Horse JumpsIt all started toward the end of 2004, when I happened to be paging through a newspaper and came across a certain article: "Mares and foals for sale!" Typical of a young, horse crazy child, I ran to my mother and nagged my lungs out until the phone call was made. Thus it was decided: we were going to "See the cute little foals!”

We arrive, and the adults begin talking while I was off drooling over all the pretty foals. It turned out that the place was a sort of racing estate. I say a 'sort' because this one was certainly not as fancy as one would expect. The owner bred his own horses, trained his own horses and loved his own horses, but when he died suddenly, it seemed he had made no decision as to whom he might leave his horses. Thus, it fell to his brother to find homes for the entire herd. Day 1 I fell in love with a month old filly who later came to be called 'Choc Chip'. We left that day in the knowledge that she and her dam, Cappuccino, would be ours.

A few days later we returned to visit them and spend some time looking through papers. This was when my mother discovered that some of the horses had Elevation lines. Since Elevation had been her favourite racehorse when she was young, she was determined to see these horses! First came Dizzy, a 20-year-old mare with a matted tail that was easily explained by her extreme attitude problems and the deadly accuracy with which she lashed her heels. However, the lure of the elevation lines was apparently too much for my mother to bare, and she accepted the horse free of charge. Next, we progress to see Dizzy's daughter, Finola. Clearly, this mare had inherited both her dam's attitude and her racing ability, even if she did not resemble her in the slightest. Finola, it seemed, had just started winning races when she had suddenly refused to enter the starting gate. The problem got so bad that she had her starting gate certificate revoked and was banned from racing until such time as she would load smoothly again. That time never came. So the 6-year-old mare left the only discipline she had ever known to become my much beloved jumping mount.

Horse JumpingWe picked up a few more horses at the place. A lovely 4-year-old stallion, built like a tank, yet for some reason never named nor backed. This, of course, was my dear Bronze. Then there was Country and her colt as well. That made a total of 7 to add to the 2 we already had. Well, needless to say, it did not take us long to work out that horses are not all that cheap to feed. Many of them were sold or given away, but they were also given a chance, unlike many of their brethren. These horses were going so cheaply they were almost free, and the dealers took advantage of this, taking 30 or more at once. Any that were not sold within a week were put down shamelessly. How do I know this? The buyer admitted to it when we approached her with the horses that we needed to sell. To me, that is a cruel way to make a living.

Now, back to the story, because after all, Finola is the star. Yes, 6 year old Finola who knew nothing but mad galloping, paired with a young and inexperienced rider: Me. Well, my dear Polo had taught me enough about psychopathic horses at that stage for me to be able to handle Finola easily enough. I had been riding for a little over a year, but that fact did not stop me from grabbing the reins and beginning the retraining of my racehorse. It was hard work, but the horse was willing to learn and I had a great instructor who was always keeping me going, never letting me think of giving up. I owe a lot to her. So, slowly but surely, Finola learned to jump and I learned how to work with her. She made her debut in graded jumping in 2006.

At that time, my Polo horse had become a fierce competitor in the 90cm classes. The first time we ever placed in a graded show was when we showed up at a provincial championship and swept the board. Completely unknown underdogs, the both of us, we had made a name for ourselves. Now, at Finola's first graded show, poor Polo had a pole down in the jump-off. Our competitors had great fun giggling about that, for everybody knows that nobody likes being beaten by the underdog. There was an easy path to revenge for this, of course. Grab an even lesser known horse and kick butt. That was what we did. Finola flashed around that course like greased lightning and the smiles slid quickly off their faces when she pranced out of the ring with a red rosette flapping from her bridle. From there, things only got better.

Finola blazed her way through 90cm, moving on to 1m in no time. This was when she started making a name for herself. She came away from every show with at least one red rosette and never failed to place in a single class. Unknown horse, unknown rider, yet a combination to beat the best? That only happens in the movies... Unless you have a horse like my Nola. In early 2007, Finola was at the top of the list of all 80cm, 90cm, 1m and 1,10m horses in the province. Not only was she at the top, she was miles ahead. She held her place there for a long time, but then we moved to 1,10m. The jump from 1m to 1,10m was a big one and suddenly out lack of basic knowledge, experience and schooling took its toll. We were not 'bad' per say, but we were certainly mediocre. By the end of the year we had slipped to second place, just missing our victor ludorum prize.

That was when we found an experienced competitive instructor to teach us the basics. Suddenly a whole new world had opened up before us! "Martingale? What is that? Why do I need it? Strides? How does one count strides? Rhythm? I thought only musicians knew about that." Yes, my inexperience was obliterated completely and my horse's true schooling began. Before long we were winning in 1,10m just as we had been in 1m. Needless to say, we began to get bored after a while. Just after February 2008 we moved up to 1,20m. Now, let me tell you, 1,20m courses are no mean feat! They are tricky, they are technical, they are big and they are officially considered to be 'higher grade'. Of course, I speak the words of a South African, so I apologise if other countries around the world consider this height to be low. Out here, it is the second highest grade a junior can get to, and one of the two grades out of which provincial teams are chosen. Oh yes, 1,20m horses and riders were certainly considered to be fancy. Those horses were worth prices of R100 000 to R300 000. Then, of course, you got the R800 000 world cup qualifier horses that had been sold to a junior to compete at 1,20m and get into the team. Or there was "Daddy's old horse, once an international jumper." There were the gleaming coats, the flawless tack, and the expensive Warmblood bloodlines. I'm sure you can imagine the looks we got when a little tot perched on a skinny thoroughbred with its head in the air came in and beat the lot of them, beating them at their own game. A classic story about the victory of the underdog, for underdogs are certainly what we were. My horse was not clipped, my show jacket was too big, my horse was too small and my horse had cost me less than R2000. Clearly, we did not belong.

Well, whether or not we belonged didn’t bother us. We swept the board anyway. My wonderful horse leaped her way to victory again and again, letting nothing stand between her and the lap of honour she had come to love so much. Her speed was truly remarkable and if no poles fell, those Warmbloods did not stand a chance. Thankfully, my little mare had no complaints about turning on a sixpence to zoom towards a big 1,30m parallel in a jump-off and fly over it with her legs tucked up above the poles. She had no problem with hopping confidently through a triple combination, or stretching her long limbs over a water jump. She never thought of stopping or of running out, even if everything was done on turbo-charge. Sideways approaches, fly leaping, head flinging. These were all typical of Finola. No matter how big the jump, she seemed to determined to be able to jump it sideways, yet she always straightened at the last minute with a big fly leap to make up for the strides she had shortened with her sideways nonsense. What a horse. She truly was a legend.

Yet the blissful taste of victory was short lived. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Finola began bucking. I thought it was pure exuberance, as did everybody else I know, for the talented little mare was looking as happy as ever as she soared over her massive jumps. The bucking went on and got worse and worse, yet the horse was as happy as ever, still showing no signs of discomfort as she continued to win again and again. Finally, Finola refused a jump. That was when the warning sirens went off for real. We had been about to start jumping 1,30m. We had been about to represent our province at the national championships. Just before then, it all fell apart. Again, we fell into second place in the victor ludorum list, this time for the higher grades, as our closest competitor passed us while we lay idle, no longer competing for those last few all important shows of the year.

Show Jumping

We sent Finola to a friend's place to recover. A place where she had access to physiotherapy, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist and every other possible remedy anybody could think of. We had her scanned for ulcers, we got her a new saddle, and we gave her 6 months off work. The vet's final diagnosis was that he thought the horse had strained a ligament while compensating for a back injury that nobody could detect. All her injuries seemed to heal well and she finally came back into work. We entered her in 80cm and she won. Then we took her home. The first day back, she was attacked by Athena and got her hind legs twisted in a fence, re-injuring her back. A few more months of nothingness. Then we started again. The horse was sound, she was happy and she was flying. We quickly worked back to 1,10m and entered the 2009 World Cup Qualifier show at that height. We had a few low down places which was more than good enough at that stage, since we were preparing to make our second debut in 1,20m for the national junior championship a few weeks later. Finola went lame in both front legs. We had corrective shoes put on and the vet pronounced her sound to compete for the final 2 days of the championship. Finola refused. Perhaps she was sore, perhaps just ring green. Who knows? It didn't matter. All that mattered was that, once again, it was over. The was the last show of 2009, so thankfully the horse could be given a few months off.

Now, in 2010, we started again. Dropping right down to 90cm, we began rebuilding our foundations. Finola won her 90cm show with sickening ease, so the next show we entered was 1m. After the first class, I felt it might be time to throw in the towel once and for all. Finola had refused again. Finola was never supposed to refuse. My wonderful instructor, another new one since the last one had refused to keep teaching me after Finola broke down, he convinced me to jump the next class and to ride Finola like I always used to. We won that class and Finola went just like the great horse I remember so well! She's now looking and feeling amazing. She's perfectly sound and she is ready to start the long road to the top yet again. This weekend we are going 1,10m at one of the biggest local shows of the year. I've got my fingers crossed, but my hopes are high.

Lastly, there is one more thing I feel I must tell you about Finola. Finola was a scrawny horse since the first day I laid eyes on her. She was also prone to colic... The first time she had a blockage, I was too young to understand how close to death she had come. The next time, I understood perfectly well. I understood better than I'd have liked to the day that the phone call came. "Finola can't get up." My mother was in tears as she called the vet. I was too numb to cry. I remember standing outside the door, hearing my mother choke out the words, "We might need to put her down." I couldn't think. I couldn't feel.cIt was as though time had stopped. The first tears began to fall as I walked past my computer and saw Finola on the screen. I was certain that she was going to die. No horse could pull through after having come so close to death. No horse but Finola. She's been a fighter since the day she was born. Nothing beats that horse.

Now, before I leave you, let me say one last thing. We all know that it's only in fairytales that a broken down champion gets back to where it once was. Just like it's only in fairytales that the underdog can beat the champions. I think that Finola has proved enough times that she is a fairytale horse. She has courage worthy of legend and a determination that nobody can touch. She has heart. I think everybody in the world could learn something from this amazing horse. An amazing horse who never stopped fighting, even when all odds were against her.
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