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By Maggie Mah Johnson
It might sound like a movie plot: A girl who loves to ride more than anything else becomes the sole representative of her country at an international riding competition in a faraway land. But it really happened to 13-year-old Abby Jorgensen of Woodside, who recently was the only U.S. rider to qualify for the International Children's World Show Jumping Finals in Abu Dhabi.
Abby is tall and slender with a broad smile and wheat-blonde hair pulled back in a no-fuss knot. The gaping holes at the knees of both legs of her jeans are from romping around on all fours in the backyard.
She loves school and, in addition to riding six days a week, plays basketball and volleyball. This first impression wouldn't likely provide many clues but this eighth-grader at Woodside Elementary is a tough competitor.
Her recent experience at a prestigious international competition demonstrated that winning isn't just about walking away with the top prize.
She is polite and appears refreshingly unaffected by pop culture. When she talks about what it's like to compete, Abby's expression becomes serious, her gaze turning inward as she appears to focus on something deep inside.
"I just think about what I have to do and get into a 'zone,'" says Abby, who began riding as soon as she could walk. "Horses have taught me about dedication and committing to something that brings results."
Abby's mother, Sara Jorgensen, a top competitor for many years, added: "Abby is very competitive deep down but she has also become a great sportsman. In the classroom she is always encouraging the other kids."
From the time Abby was little, says her mother, she loved horses, and it wasn't just about riding them. "On rainy days, I would tell Abby that we wouldn't be able to ride and she would say, 'That's OK, we can brush them instead.'"
Abby trains with Butch, Lu and Guy Thomas, Maja Lindemann and Jeni Emmanuel of Willow Tree Farm at the Horse Park in Woodside.
In May 2009, Abby began competing in Children's Jumper events on Mandell, a Dutch warmblood mare owned by Signe Ostby of Woodside.
Last year she rode Mandell to win five Children's Jumper Classics at shows in Pebble Beach, Sacramento, Woodside and Menlo Park, and was the top Children's Jumper rider in Northern California.
Created as a way for talented young riders to experience high-level international competition, the International Children's World Show Jumping Finals are held annually in a different host country.
The event is conducted under the auspices of the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale, or in English, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports), the governing body of equestrian sports whose rules govern the Olympics and other competitions worldwide.
To qualify for the world show, hopeful 12- to 14-year-olds must qualify by winning preliminary competitions in their home countries. They are tested on both jumping ability and speed, riding four different courses in two days. The winning rider must complete each round without any faults and with the fastest speed in the second round.
The West Coast FEI qualifier was held in October 2009 in Del Mar in Southern California. While Sara Jorgensen remained at home to be near her critically ill father, Abby made the journey to Southern California escorted by Karl Cook, son of Signe Ostby and Scott Cook, and a world-class rider. "I was literally at my father's bedside and followed the whole thing while everyone texted me about what was going on," recalled Sara.
Riding Mandell, Abby won all four rounds and then waited in suspense for three weeks while the scores from all competing countries were tallied and ranked.
Only one rider from each participating country is eligible for the international phase of competition and only the top 16 scores outside the host country may advance to the finals.
"My mom called me at school," Abby said about how she got the news that she would be going to the finals. "I had never really even heard of Dubai." (They would fly into Dubai, and the competition was in Abu Dhabi.)
In a few weeks, she would be riding on the other side of the world.
After a 15-hour flight, Abby, Sara and trainer Guy Thomas landed in Dubai to be greeted by the worst storm to hit the area in many years. With thunder, lightning and enough rain to cover some of the roads in two feet of water, it was labeled a "100 Year" event.
Torrential rains also caused the collapse of a roof at a brand new hotel — the very one where our intrepid travelers were lodged. The weather was just one of several challenges they would face in the coming week.
Having made it through the first night, Sara opened the curtains to be greeted by the sight of a large camel right outside the window. "That's when I realized that we were very, very far away from home," she recalled.
A total of 30 young riders, boys and girls from 12 to 14 years old, came together for the week-long finals in Abu Dhabi last Dec. 11-18. Half the riders represented host countries: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Qatar. The other half were from other countries around the world, including Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia and the United States.
One might expect an international sporting event to be fraught with ego and politics, but according to Sara, it was quite the opposite: "The parents were awesome. Nobody caused problems or wanted special attention. There was no talk of politics or religion, and everyone got together at night. It was the nicest feeling."
Harmony also ruled with the kids, and although language was sometimes a problem, they made it work. "Everyone seemed innocent and sweet," says Sara. "They all connected and were just happy to get to ride."
Days leading up to the competition were divided between the horse-selection process and being entertained by the host countries.
Excursions to the Grand Mosque and Gold Souk in Dubai were on everyone's itinerary, as was the produce market, where they were introduced to Snake Fruit, a regional item with tough reptilian looking outer skin. A highlight was getting to see a World Cup soccer game between Argentina and North Korea.
As much as they enjoyed the activities, the cultural experiences left little time to work with the horses. Heavy rains the first three days had kept the horses inside, adding even more to the challenge.
Riders coming in for the competition were required to draw from a pool of horses supplied by the host country, most of which were thoroughbreds/warmblood crossbreds similar to those in the U.S.
Although she prepared — before heading for the Middle East — by riding as many different horses as she could, the "luck of the draw" was not about to be in Abby's favor.
Horse No. 1 was lame and was subsequently removed from the pool. Horse No. 2 seemed to have missed his true calling as a saddle bronc. After seeing Abby take two hard landings, Sara and Guy declared, "Enough!" and requested another draw. With Horse No. 3, things were starting to look up. The horse was sound and willing.
With only a brief time to practice, Abby rode Horse N0. 3 in the first round of competition. Though he was trying hard, the horse was having difficulty with the turns — a critical element in timed jumping competitions.
Seeing that blood was beginning to stream from the animal's mouth, Abby dismounted and removed the bridle. Back up inside along the outer edge of the molars, sharp "points" (protrusions normally filed down or "floated" as part of routine veterinary care) had lacerated the animal's cheek.
At Sara and Guy's insistence, a veterinarian was summoned. Treatment of the horse's teeth and wounds required sedation and meant that he would not be allowed to compete in the next event, then less than 24 hours away.
In order to remain in the competition, Abby had to draw for yet another horse. Unfortunately, Horse No. 4 turned out to be a lot like Horse NO. 2 and with no time left for schooling, they made the difficult decision to scratch from the remainder of the competition.
Any disappointment she might have felt evidently didn't show and according to Sara, Abby switched to helping other riders still in the competition. "She was just so happy to be there. She couldn't wait to go and support the other kids," said Sara.
In the end, riders from the host countries took the top four spots. Fifth and sixth places went to two German riders.
"They were all really good," Abby declared.
Because she has represented the U.S. in international competition, she is now entitled to wear the American flag or "shield" on her hunt coat for the rest of her career in competition.
But the best thing about going to Abu Dhabi? "Meeting a lot of kids from all over the world," Abby said. Through e-mails, Facebook and other high-tech means of communication, she is keeping in touch with new friends around the world.
As for Sara, the best part of the trip was seeing her child do so well.
"She was faced with so many challenges, yet she came out of it with a smile on her face and a belief in herself," Sara said. "Guy was thrilled at how well she handled the adversity.
"It was an adventure. I know she will dig even deeper because of this experience."
That would seem to be the case. Since January, Abby and Mandell have won two more championships and have competed in six qualifiers for another international competition at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada, later this year. Competing in the final round held in Sacramento a few weeks ago, Abby finished as the top-scoring rider for the NorCal qualifier division.
Abby is also an ambassador for JustWorld International, a charity devoted to providing education and other essentials in the developing world and whose programs are all funded by equestrian sports. She donates prize money as well as what she makes selling surplus eggs from the Jorgensen chickens.
Although she might have wished for a different outcome at the competition in Abu Dhabi, Abby Jorgensen is a winner by anybody's measure.
About the author: Maggie Mah Johnson lives and rides horses in Woodside. She is writing this as a member of WHOA! (Woodside Horse Owner's Association), whose mission is to promote and preserve the equestrian lifestyle. For more information on WHOA!, go to whoa94062.org or call 380-6408.