A healthy addiction


Kate Roudebush

Some choose to gamble, while others turn to drugs, but for Jr. Sydney Willard, it was horseback riding. A hobby Willard discovered at ten years old is now a passion, maybe an addiction, she hopes to continue for a lifetime. 

   “I ride because it makes me happy and I forget about everything else that’s going on,” Willard said. “If I could do it all the time I would. I never want to stop. It’s my favorite thing to do.”

   For the past six years, Willard has developed her love for horses and horseback riding into the focal point of her life. 

   In Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where Willard lived previously, her infatuation began at a barn near her home.

   “For fifth-grade graduation, my mom and dad surprised me with a week of horse camp over the summer,” Willard said. To this day, Willard fondly remembers Griffin, the first horse she rode.

   “Then, I became obsessed, so I emailed the barn manager and asked if I could volunteer just so I could be around the horses,” Willard said. From there, she began taking lessons and learning how to properly ride and care for horses. 

   After years of expanding her skills and gaining more knowledge as an equestrian, Willard’s grandparents gave her a horse of her own. “My favorite memory of riding is probably when I got surprised with my horse, Blue. I got Blue on June 28 of 2018,” said Willard.

   “The horse, obviously,” Willard said when sharing her favorite aspect of horseback riding. 

   “He’s an off the track thoroughbred. He’s an ex-racehorse, but I trained him to jump. He’s still a work in progress but he’s getting there,” Willard said.  “He is a very kind hearted horse with kind eyes. A lot of people refer to him as an old soul. He’s got some sass every once in a while and is very strong willed.”

   Since owning Blue, Willard’s obsession for horses has only grown. 

   One of Willard’s biggest strengths as an equestrian is the time she devotes toward the sport. Willard gives much of her time to Blue and her other barn responsibilities. “I ride five to six days a week and I’m there three to four hours,” Willard said. Although, she’d prefer to be with her horse every hour of every day. 

   “He (Blue) is the love of my life and I would do anything for him. I would give him the world if I could. I love him more than anything. He is a very sweet horse and he has a very loving personality,” Willard said. “When I go into the pasture to get him, he doesn’t bite me or kick me. He takes very good care of me.”

   Kari Donnelly, the manager of Willard’s current facility, has known Willard for almost two years. “Sydney is the type of owner you wish every horse could have,” Donnelly said. “She comes to the barn early and takes her time grooming Blue over every inch of his body. She takes notice to any new cuts or scrapes no matter how minor. She goes above and beyond to make sure he is cared for and has everything he needs.”

   Willard sees great potential in Blue. It’s obvious to everyone who sees Willard in action that her love for her horse consumes her in the best way possible.

   In her time at the barn, Willard is diligent in her care and training with Blue. “I walk, trot, and canter in both directions,” Willard said. 

   Dana Wille is a trainer Willard has briefly worked with and helped at a horse show. “With the short time I did spend with her, her hard work was driven by her love of horses, and in a pinch she was always willing to lend a hand or run back to the barn for something much needed,” Wille said. “She has a great feel and connection with her horses and the ones she rides in passing.”

   The moments in which Willard’s love is most evident is perhaps when she is displaying all of her hard work. 

   “Horse shows are crazy. Everything has to be perfect,” Willard said. “You have to memorize a course to jump and do it perfectly.” The stakes are high as she is often competing for award ribbons, money, and equestrian equipment. 

   Willard reflects on her feelings of stress and nervousness, but also happiness while she is showing her horse. “Horse shows are very high stress situations, but they are fun as well,” Willard said.

   “While you’re in the show ring, you forget about everything and focus on the task at hand.”

   With her mind focused on the jumps and proper timing, the dusty floor of the arena and the noise of the crowd fades out of her focus. As she rides, she keeps her thoughts on perfecting the jumps, the timing, and the look of both her and her horse. Showing is no easy task, but Willard’s diligence wouldn’t leave the impression that it was difficult in the slightest.

   In the end, every early morning and late night at the barn, every missed opportunity spent with Blue instead of friends or family, and every hour dedicated to her horse continues to pay off for Willard. She has ambition and potential in equestrianism, which she and all who know her recognize.

   Willard has competed in numerous horse shows throughout Michigan over the past six years and has been awarded ribbons for first through seventh place. Currently, Willard’s focusing her training to show Blue at Jumpers, a show without judges focused on the horse’s speed and jumping ability. “All of your riding is to train for shows, and in between each show you get better and fix your mistakes,” Willard said.

   Just one highlight of Willard’s riding career is when she beat her own trainer at a horse show. She remembers the pride and amazement she felt when she won, “I beat the person that had taught me how to ride. It was rewarding,” Willard said. 

   “I knew I had a good round. We had jumped all of the jumps nice and round, so this last jump was it. I couldn’t screw it up. I kept my eyes up, saw the distance, kept my pace, and ended with a beautiful round,” Willard said.

   It’s clear this incredible passion is Willard’s primary focus. Her dedication and hard work make it very evident that this sport is so much more than just a sport; to Willard, horseback riding is her life. 

   If you’re interested in seeing Willard’s passion in action, be sure to take a look at her horseback riding account @ottb_blue on Instagram. (https://instagram.com/ottb_blue?igshid=cye7l98j6wv8).