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October 27, 2021

9/17/2021 12:53:00 PM
Rescued racehorse and lapsed equestrian find each other and win Kentucky eventing contest

Grit and horses. What could make a better story? Grit, the courage and resolve to push through all difficulties to achieve a goal, is certainly what it took for local rider, Cecilia Emilsson (Cissi) to negotiate all the phases of the American Eventing Championships contest, winning the Novice Division September 4 in Lexington, Kentucky. Emilsson did this top a former race horse, Blazing Angel.

 The qualifications for her to compete in this three-day event were rigorous. Horse and rider complete three Novice Level Horse Trials without any XC jumping penalties, and either place first or second in one show or third in two shows. The three phases/days include a dressage test to prove good control, a cross country test, to prove speed and obedience to negotiate water obstacles and unusual looking jumps, banks, and ditches. Stadium jumping concludes tests of jumping technique. This is one of the equestrian events  at the Olympics. (At the Novice level, the jumps are just under three feet high. The Olympic-level jumps are significantly higher and wider.)

For Emilsson, it all began in Sweden in 1989 when she got her first horse – a plastic one! Not long afterward, the toy one would no longer suffice, and she convinced Mom and Dad to help her get some real riding lessons. Soon Cecilia was taking odd jobs and saving for her horse expenses, ending up taking on four-foot jumps in competitions by the time she was in her teens.

 A desire for travel and a college education took Emilsson away from horses as she journeyed to Barcelona, Mexico, Australia, and finally the U.S., ultimately getting her Master’s degree in fashion management. Her marriage to a U.S. citizen, and the couple’s move to Minneapolis, that gave her the time to explore nearby stables where she could ride again.

 “Her call was a welcome one,” reminisced Julie Penshorn, of Sunborn Stables in Chisago City. “It’s always fun to get a new student with lots of background experience. Often it can be frustrating for them, however, because most of the time they have abundant bad habits.”

 ‘I couldn’t believe the way my first lesson went with Julie,” added Emilsson. “I was considered a good rider in Sweden, but when Julie taught me, I learned I couldn’t even pick up a hoof correctly! Groundwork basics and my position and seat were fundamentals I’d always taken for granted. Habits I had developed weren’t going to be O.K with Julie. She was a stickler, insisting I control my own body and find muscles I didn’t really have any awareness of. I was discouraged and surprised to find out how much I didn’t know and how disorganized I was. I started to think about my riding in a much different way. It was so difficult to go beyond kick and pull. ‘How could I be that bad?’ I wondered. But, I stuck it out because I saw what Julie did with other horses and appreciated the level of skill she was developing in me. I wanted to learn more.”

 “I liked how she insisted on respect from the horses whether I was on the ground or on their backs,” continued Emilsson. “But she also wanted me to be fair to them by learning to speak to them in ways they could most easily understand. She gave me so many tools and so much finesse.”

 Apparently, those lessons paid off, since Emilsson’s win began with a dressage test giving her a secure lead in the first phase of the event. There were 53 horses in her division. She also achieved the second best dressage score of the entire show, which included close to 1,000 riders, at all levels, from all over the country.

 “Julie focuses on basics and the continuity between dressage—which is the flat work, and jumping,” Emilsson said. “She makes sure I’m straight, sitting the saddle with my seat bones positioned just so, my back and gut muscles are able to best influence my horse. The tiniest of changes can make a world of difference.

 “Two years ago I didn’t know if I could ever stop my horse on cross-country, and my stadium jumping was a run-away. Just a week before the show, I was still frustrated with my ability to adjust my horse’s speed. It took Julie a long time to convince me to stop pulling and use my core and legs to get the control I wanted. She emphasizes, and my horse and I are a testament to the truth of this, that if I can’t control my own body, I can’t control and balance the horse. At this show, my horse felt great because we do so much massage, magna wave treatments and chiropractic on her. Julie believes it’s not fair to ask a horse to work when they are in pain.” Penshorn explained.

 “Often you can help a horse a great deal with a simple deep-muscle massage. The harder the horse works and the more crooked the horse and/or rider, the more the various therapies can become a necessity,” “Performance horses are athletes.”

 Emilsson shares, “It’s hard to fit the responsibilities into my busy work schedule, but consistency has made me successful. I am committed to becoming better, and that helps my horse develop trust that I will treat her fairly. Once she started to believe that I’d respect her objections and help her solve her physical issues, many of which were leftover from a few years of racing, we started to really make progress. There’s no doubt, she’s a very important part of my life. Every day I give thanks that Julie found her, and told me, ‘This is your next horse. Hop in the truck. we’re going to get her.’ I’ll never forget that day! It was raining, and they had no indoor arena or good footing to evaluate this leggy thoroughbred. I was worried! But Julie said, ‘Trot her toward the trailer and we’ll put her in if she looks four-legged.”

When we got her home it was pretty scary for a while as her sore feet, typical of a recent racehorse retiree, and her other maladies threatened to sideline us. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it has been so rewarding!”

Penshorn recently sold her business of 23 years, Sunborn Stables, in Chisago City, to long-time student Jennifer Thelen. Thelen has a full barn and lesson program right now.   

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