The Race to Le Lion: 'We're in France!'

The Race to Le Lion: 'We're in France!'

Authored By: Judith McSwain

Rory settled in her stall at Le Lion d'Angers. Photo courtesy of Judith McSwain.

When I was asked to write a blog for the USEA sharing my experience as an owner in Le Lion d’Angers, the FEI World Breeding Eventing Championship, my first thought was: How could I possibly translate into words what it feels like to have your horse go abroad and represent the USA against the best 7-year-olds in the world?  The answer came to me while on the back of a horse, equitrekking in the hills of Spain along the Catalonia Coast, through vineyards, Olive groves, 300-year-old old villages and foothills of the Pyrenees with a view of the Mediterranean. There, I found the courage to share the story of my road to Le Lion because, you see, the reason I was in Spain, was because of Fleeceworks Royal (a.k.a. Rory).  More about that later.  My thoughts here are to share a bit of who I am as well as Rory’s road, since there have been ups and downs along the path much like all of life and as we experienced on the most amazing Spanish riding holiday.

My name is Judith McSwain, a retired Navy Nurse practitioner. I am a former adult amateur eventer, who also rode some in the jumpers. I have loved horses for as long as I can remember, so when I sustained an injury that necessitated a change in riding, my passion channeled to ownership. Luckily I have a business that subsidizes some of the horse expenses. I was fortunate enough to know Tamie Smith, who was game to take on young horses, since that was the depth of my budget. 

Tamie came to me one evening and told me she felt the horse that I currently owned may be better suited on a different career path.  So, I ended up purchasing Rory. I guess that is really where the road to Le Lion began.

Rory participated in the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Series as a 4-year-old and ended up West Coast Reserve Champion. The thought was planted. Maybe France was actually a possibility? I secretly began saving my frequent flyer miles.  Rory continued to develop under Tamie’s careful and skillful guidance. Rory's 5-year-old year had a bit of a scare. A green moment at AEC caused her to fall in the water, resulting in a significant injury. Time healed the wound and she came back to win the West Coast YEH Championship that year, and thoughts of the Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse Le Lion d’Angers Grant surfaced. My stash of frequent flyer miles was growing. I talked to my dearest friend and said, "if Rory goes to France will you go?” Lynette agreed.  We felt incorporating a horse trek through the French wine country should be included in the adventure. We had the beginnings of a plan.

Rory's next year was a whirlwind.  She competed and won in the 6-year-old West Coast Young Jumper Championships. She was successful at the Preliminary and CCI1* level, finished as USEA Preliminary Horse of the Year and the American Holsteiner CIC Champion.  I was invited to privately tour the lovely Hilltop farm, home of her sire, Riverman, while in D.C. for the USEA Convention that December. My frequent flyer miles kept growing.

Rory winning the 6-year-old Jumpers. Amy McCool photo. 

The story now brings us to 2016, Rory's 7-year-old year. Tamie's training schedule maximized her development. The Jersey Fresh International CCI2* was included in the plan to provide terrain, variety and a test of her fitness.  My family lived close, so it was a perfect venue for me to fly out to support. I was excited to watch and of course, add to my frequent flyer miles. Sunday night of that weekend we were told Rory was the leading candidate for the Holekamp/Turner Grant for Le Lion. I sent out an email that night lightly asking, "how do you say bubble wrap in French?"  The weekend proved to be a challenge. Rory developed a corneal scratch and Dr. Kevin Keane suggested she stop by the New Bolton Center to get it checked out before heading back to California.

To say the next day rocked my world is an understatement. I met Rory at New Bolton, and the eye specialist concluded that Rory had a deep corneal abscess. They presented a few options, with surgery being one of them. I drove to my sister's place consumed with concern about Rory's recovery and acknowledged to myself that France may be at risk. After a few initial treatments, we elected to go forward with a corneal transplant. Two weeks later I flew out when they opened her eye. The results were amazing. The surgeon was pleased. Rory was released from rehab early and home within 10 days. Hoorah, France was back on the table and once again, I had added to my frequent flyer miles!

Once Rory returned to California, we started making plans for the trip to France. We settled on a riding vacation in Spain, before meeting up with Tamie and Rory in France. I cashed in my frequent flyer miles and realized that Le Lion was now a reality.

Rory spent her summer rehabbing and conditioning with Tamie and all the wonderful folks at Next Level Eventing. She emerged fighting fit in her first event, running around Preliminary with Heather Morris and two weeks later winning the Area VI Intermediate Championship with Tamie. She took an early flight to Europe to meet with Tamie and acclimate.

So, today, as I sit here in a darling French farmhouse in the charming small town of Le Lion d'Angers, I am overwhelmed with emotions.  The next part of my adventure is about to begin. I will always remember the wonderful trip visiting Barcelona, trekking along the Catalonia Coast in Spain and galloping up mountain trails, but now my focus is the competition.

Home for the weekend! Photo courtesy of Judith McSwain. 

My next few days will be a whirlwind as Tamie, super groom Shannon McCormick, Rory, as well as Team Fleeceworks get ready to rock. So, as I head to go over to the watch the jog, I wanted to share another accomplishment, that I am a single owner. Being a single owner is not without its challenges and sacrifices, yet it has given me fantastic opportunities that I could only have dared to dream. It has pushed me beyond my comfort zone. It has introduced me to amazing people and brought me to Europe. I am so very grateful to Dr. Tim and Cheryl Holekamp and Christine Turner for the vision and commitment to U.S. Eventing and U.S. breeding. They have provided Rory, Tamie, Shannon and I with the journey of a lifetime.

I hope you will come back to read the blog as I will continue to share and include you in our wonderful experience in Le Lion d'Angers.

Go Holekamp/Turner Grant, Go Fleeceworks Royal, Go U.S. bred and MOST of ALL GO USA! 

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  • Elizabeth Howell