When Emma McDonald and her pony Boo (Airborn) galloped across the cross-country finish line at the Lane’s End Horse Trials in early August, they were met with tears and cheers.
After a solid dressage test and clean stadium round, Emma, 8, and her 27-year-old pony Airborn (Boo) jumped clear cross-country to successfully complete their first horse trial. Emma’s mother, Canadian National Eventing Team member Diana Burnett, wept with joy; Sean McIntosh, a long-time student of Burnett’s and mentor to Emma, offered hearty praise.
“I knew Boo could do it …. I didn’t know I would be able to, but I did!” Emma said. Her efforts paid off with a third-place ribbon in the pre-entry division. She and Boo cut a colourful figure on course, sporting pink braids, shirt and saddle pad to support the Bobcaygeon horse trials ‘Ride for the Cure’ cancer fundraiser.
Growing up at Burnett’s Donogue Farm in Blackstock, Ontario, Emma was introduced to the saddle before she could walk. She tagged along for stable chores and to Burnett’s competitions and when she coached students. Not surprisingly, Emma developed a passion for horses.
“She has her riding pants on every morning ready to roll,” her mom said. “She wants to ride all the time and is in the barn literally all day, every day.”
Four years ago, Boo came into Emma’s life. The chestnut Welsh-Quarter Horse cross was McIntosh’s first event mount (he and the pony are the same age), that he got at age 10 and competed to training level. After McIntosh outgrew him, Boo went to a riding school McIntosh attended as a kid. When McIntosh heard the stable was being sold, he arranged for Boo to come to Burnett’s barn.
While Boo has a wealth of experience, he was a lot of pony for Emma initially. Thus Burnett added another former school pony, Cassidy, to the herd to build Emma’s confidence and skills until she was able to capably handle Boo.
“He has always been a firecracker and is as feisty as he ever was,” McIntosh said. “Emma has learned a lot from him. Every kid needs a naughty pony to learn on.”
Burnett insisted that Emma has to work for the right to ride and compete – thus her responsibilities at home include mucking out stalls, filling water buckets and helping with night check. She also offers riding tips to her four-year-old sister, Charlee, who rides Cassidy.
McIntosh, now an emergency room doctor at Ross Memorial Hospital in nearby Lindsay, comes to the farm six days a week to ride his own intermediate eventer, Alfredo Sauce, and he and Burnett both coach Emma.
“Sean and Emma had a bond even without the pony, but Boo solidified that,” says Diana.
Emma’s show experience had been limited to a walk-trot class or two, but as she got out schooling cross-country this year, Burnett figured she was ready to try a combined test. Emma did the walk-trot crossrail class at a combined test at Dreamcrest in July, then told her mother she wanted a bigger challenge.
At Lane’s End, as Emma and Boo entered the start box, “I was terrified!” Burnett admitted. “We were all nervous. We have a big support crew (Burnett’s family and students) but we were all nervous. I wasn’t scared of her getting hurt, but more that she might lose her confidence.”
Burnett’s husband Aaron McDonald (who doesn’t ride) kept his cool, though – he told Emma she had practiced and was ready.
McIntosh did the course walk with Emma. “I didn’t have to explain how eventing worked, as she’s been around us for so long, she understands it.”
“Sean told me Boo might slow down on gravel and might canter up steep hills,” says Emma. “Mom told me to lean back when I got close to the fences and to keep my shoulders back and heels down.”
Emma’s support team waited anxiously as the two set out on course.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking, but once they were going, I relaxed a bit,” said McIntosh. “She’s a great rider and Boo knows his job. She remembered what I told her and everything went to plan. She didn’t seem nervous. She was really excited. It was so cool to see things come full circle and Boo showing another kid the ropes.”
Technical delegate Peggy Hambly was very impressed by Emma’s determination and how she kept focussed without overthinking the ride. Hambly posted on Facebook: “I had tears in my eyes because she reminded me of how simple it can be. What a remarkable few moments in time. Thank you, Emma. You made my day.”
Boo was rewarded with plenty of his favourite treats and the family celebrated Emma’s results and Charlee’s fourth birthday, which fell on the same day.
“I want to do it again. I got to gallop on cross-country and I thought it was really fun,” said Emma, who has told her mother than she intends that Burnett’s preliminary horse, Whatisyourproblem (Speedy), will be her future event horse.
In the meantime, she’ll be competing with Boo in September at Glen Oro Horse Trials where, with blonde braids flying, she and her super pony will eat up the course – while Mom holds her breath.