Walpole valedictorian is on the ride of her life
SHERBORN — Emily Martin lifted an English saddle onto her horse, Politically Correct, who was doing his best not to fall asleep on one recent gauzy summer evening at Long Run Farm.
Down the hill, nine-foot jumps, some of them less than a few inches apart, awaited the pair.
Martin, valedictorian of the 2017 graduating class at Walpole High and a four-year indoor/outdoor track athlete for the Rebels, is a three-day eventer in equestrian.
The last week of July, Martin, 18, was preparing for this weekend's Millbrook Horse Trials in the Hudson Valley. The trials will feature riders ranging from beginners to those at an Olympic status in the US Equestrian Association for three days of dressage, show jumping, and cross-country.
Martin will be competing at the junior training level, about halfway through the USEA ranks. Politically Correct, or Polson for short, is defying expectations to keep up with her.
Of the three events, dressage has been the hardest for Polson to master. A Quarter Horse-Trakehner crossbreed, Polson has none of the elegant long-leggedness that an average eventing horse, like a Warmblood or a Thoroughbred, is born with.
"One of Polson's challenges is you have to show extension in dressage," said Martin's mother, Marianne, a veterinarian with years of horseback experience.
"And Polson has short cannon bones."
When Emily met Polson four years ago, she was looking for a horse that could take her into competition seriously. What she saw was an underweight animal that had some training but was leagues away from being in eventing shape.
"I fell in love with him," Martin said.
Martin began working with Polson several times a week to build him up to form. That spring, she gave up lacrosse, and after her freshman season, soccer. But she became a distance runner for the indoor and outdoor track teams, with Polson often alongside in her training runs.
By the end of her senior year, the class valedictorian and her horse were working together six or seven days a week.
Two years into training, Martin hired a new instructor, Stephie Baer, a locally renowned trainer and an advanced rider in the USEA. At the time, Martin was only competing at the novice level.
"We're pushing the envelope with Polson at [the training] level," Baer said. "But he wouldn't do it for anyone else" other than Martin.
At an event in early July, the two experienced their biggest obstacle. The day before the Old Chatham (New York) Horse Trials , Polson colicked, a digestive disorder which can kill a horse if not kept on his feet. Martin stayed up half the night before competition walking him.
The next day, Polson seemed to have recovered, and Martin went ahead with her dressage event.
"He felt really good. It was one of his best tests ever," she said. "And then we went in to do our show-jumping round."
Polson refused three jumps. The two were eliminated .
"When we brought him back to the barn, we could see he still wasn't feeling himself," said Martin.
And yet, Polson had completed his hardest task for her.
Since Old Chatham, Martin has been worried about Polson's newfound fear of jumps. In the following event, the boldness that Martin had always equated with her horse and wired with his breed was missing.
In a penultimate practice before Millbrook, Martin pressed Polson onward over jump after jump . Even though the two wouldn't normally jump for so long in a lesson, with so little time to go before Millbrook, it was essential that Polson's confidence regenerated for this crucial day of eventing.
"I really think he's willing to try anything I ask of him," said Martin.
Turned three shades darker with sweat, Polson leaped over the last set — a triple jump, with milliseconds for his hooves to touch the ground before raising them again. He cleared them, invoking cheers from Baer and Marianne Martin, and neck pats from Emily.
"[Martin] has a natural feel and ability," said Baer. "I think she'd be further along if she had a different horse."
Millbrook will be the last trials of the summer for rider and horse.
At the end of the month, Martin will be a first-year student at Clemson University.
She wants to ship Polson to campus after a few weeks so that the pair can join the university's eventing team. But at the moment, plans have not been finalized.
"One of the biggest parts of this sport is being here every day, so that your horse can trust you and know you," said Martin. "I couldn't just come back and start competing again."
Martin doesn't expect a ribbon at Millbrook.
At training level, eventers and their horses are on the cusp of the upper levels — something that Polson and Martin, unless they defy odds even further, will likely never do together.
"He is my best friend and my teammate," said Martin.
"He gives his all into everything that I ask him to do."
Katherine Fominykh can be reached at email@example.com.