Special to The Pilot
CHANGE ISLANDS – The land has a rugged beauty underneath a sky that expands for eternity in the daylight hours and by contrast falls low in the night such that you feel you might reach out and touch its twinkling stars. The beaches rattle and roar with the ocean's rhythm and the seagulls harmonize as they swoop low over the cresting waves. It's a place where it's easy to find a dream but a little bit more difficult to realize one.
When young Jessica Porter dreamed of owning a pony, horseback riding and eventually participating in shows, she thought perhaps it might never happen to a young girl growing up on Change Islands where opportunities are sometimes limited for such ambitions.
But then the Change Islands Newfoundland Pony Sanctuary was created as a breeding program for the near-extinct breed that has been officially designated as the heritage pony of the province. And Jessica's love of horses and her dreams of them were able to come to fruition thanks to the support of her family, friends and the director of the pony sanctuary, Netta LeDrew, who counts Jessica among one of her helpers.
Jessica is a Grade 10 student at A.R. Scammell Academy on Change Islands. All of the kids there have exposure to the ponies and develop a love for them, but none seem to be quite as passionate about them as she is.
"I like the risk," Jessica Porter says, when asked what's so special about riding for her. "It's a bit exciting."
And she proves it with the words, "The first time I got on Betsy's back when I was breaking her she threw me off."
Jessica is 15. And on Oct. 12- 13 she will compete in her very first horse show. This is a remarkable feat considering the obstacles that she had to overcome to get to this point.
"I really loved the horses and my dad made a deal with me," she explained.
The requirements - that she get a 70 per cent or greater mark in every subject that school year - resulted in the then 13-year-old becoming the proud owner of a two-year-old Newfoundland pony named Betsy Spirit.
But the deal had strings. First of all she would have to take care of Betsy all alone. And board for her pony at the Sanctuary had to be covered as well. She made a deal with Ms. LeDrew to work in the barns in lieu of part of the cost of boarding, a deal that benefited both parties.
Riding is a necessary part of ownership and while they weren't bred for riding - Newfoundland ponies are workhorses like Clydesdales - they can be ridden. Betsy had to be three-years-old before her back was strong enough and after a year of just getting her used to the bridle, the saddle, just sitting on her and then eventually riding, her pony was ready. Betsy still has a mind of her own and she will go opposite from where she's directed and isn't exactly the easiest pony to control.
"But she's my pony," Jessica laughs.
She explains that there was something about Betsy that set her apart and made her different. They are made for each other. She rides her to school, tethering her in the garden near the school grounds or at the LeDrew place, and rides her home for dinner and back again. Betsy loves to be ridden in the ocean and so Jessica will take her riding through the salt water, something fun for them both, weather permitting.
But it's not all fun. There is a lot of work involved in caring for a pony and also preparing for a horse show. There's a huge sense of responsibility and a large amount of maturity is a must.
The show she is entering is called the Pink Ribbon Classic. She became aware of the show when she did lessons at the Clovelly Stables Community in Logy Bay last summer. Erin Gallant, executive director of the non-profit organization, says that often they will work with other non-profits to raise money for that group.
This is the fourth annual event in support of the Breast Cancer Foundation of Canada. After the costs of getting judges to the event from other provinces, is covered, the money in the past was raised through fees. But this year they changed that and now participants are expected to gather pledges and the fees have been lowered. The pledge money is donated to the cause.
The organization offers the opportunity to ride to anyone who wishes to learn regardless of ability. They have students from all walks of life including those with disabilities and at-risk youth.
Seeing a rural kid, from a community like Change Islands, compete at a horseshoe is very rare, Ms. Gallant says. She expects most of the competitors to be primarily from St. John's. There may be one or two from Corner Brook, Deer Lake or maybe Gander but a competitor from the smaller communities - the outports - is practically unheard of.
She loves the idea that Ms. Porter's love of horses was spurred along by her exposure to the heritage pony of the province.
Very supportive of the initiative set out by the pony sanctuary to preserve the breed, the stable once used to have a pony show but due to lack of interest it was forced to stop.
Ms. Gallant would love to see more of the ponies, and they do have some at their stables. She would love to see a time when they would perhaps have a day to come and learn about this special breed and to learn about handling them and particularly driving them, the job the ponies were bred to do.
"It's nice to see someone who sort of just showed up in the summer and wanted lessons to compete," Ms. Gallant says of Jessica. "I'm pleased to see it happening and would encourage others who know how to ride and live in small places to think of competing."
She describes it as friendly competition with fun being the main goal. She calls it a "big play date" with nice feedback from the judges. This makes it as much a learning experience as a competitive experience.
Ms. Gallant says that the camaraderie is the best part of the entire experience and considers it brave of Jessica to give it a try.
"Don't be afraid," she encourages anyone interested in coming to a show and trying it.
Ms. LeDrew, who runs the pony sanctuary on Change Islands, says that she herself is self-taught when it comes to riding. She is happy for Jessica. An eager student, the teen learned to ride from Ms. LeDrew, but in order to become competitive she had to look a bit further than Change Islands. It was just last summer she decided to take lessons, turning to the Clovelly Riding Stables in St. John's for help. Eager and committed she spent time learning how to handle the horse and the requirements for competition were a part of the training.
Other challenges for Ms. Porter are getting things together for the event. A big concern now is for the saddle to be sewn. She discovered a seam that needs fixing and is looking to see if someone can repair it before the show.
In addition there is working out the logistics of getting there plus she had to borrow a horse for the competition as Betsy isn't trained for that. Luckily, her friend, Stephanie Coates offered up Teddy, a quarter horse Miss Porter has never met. Then she had to find proper riding clothes, which were purchased from another friend, Kelesha Crewe from Twillingate. The most difficult was filling out the paper work and the associated fees that had to be raised. Friends have stepped up to help her with the costs and while she still needs some more money to pay for the board at the stables for Teddy, she's hopeful she will find a way to raise it over the course of the next month.
Because the event is a fundraiser she will also be seeking pledges in the upcoming weeks from friends and family who want to not only support her in the show but also support the cause of raising money for the Breast Cancer Foundation. All pledge money goes towards that cause and is another reason she wants to do the show.
Meanwhile Jessica gets more and more excited about the chance to be in the show.
She isn't nervous but she admits she is "kind of winging it."
For a girl who once rode her pony all the way up to the ferry wharf on Change Islands - some nine kilometers and had to lead the stubborn horse across the salt water bar where the highway goes over a cove because the she wouldn't cross it-she certainly has proven she's determined.
She's excited about the opportunity and is proud to be the first to represent her home town of Change Island in a sport that just a few years ago was something she couldn't have even learned. She'll have a little time to meet her horse Teddy and practice before the show and then she will give it her best shot.
Until that day she'll ride as often as she can along the shore that encourages dreams. She will continue to work in the barn which currently includes helping to break another pony at the sanctuary, Jigger, who was gelded last year and is ready to be trained for riding. Perhaps more children will start to learn to ride in small communities as the opportunities increase as the population of trained ponies goes up on Change Islands. For a girl like Jessica, the chance to compete will be the fulfilling of a dream that could never have been realized by a kid from Change Islands not so very long ago.