As children, we all have dreams we wish to come true. Rarely do we think of the ups and downs that may come with reaching for those dreams, but the journey to get there is where the most valuable growth happens. This was certainly the case for Abigail Van Kooten and her equine partner, Ichabod.

Abby and her mount, Absolutely on Heir (also known as “Ichabod”), have been no strangers to success in the show ring since they began competing together. In 2018, they achieved top ten in the UPHA walk/trot finals at the American Royal. In 2019, they garnered reserve in ALL THREE junior pleasure equitation national championships. Abby was also the recipient of the UPHA Junior Sportsmanship Award, which is voted upon by fellow competitors. 

The 2020 season started off as this team’s strongest one yet, despite the season being cut nearly in half due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One highlight was earning a third place finish at the World’s Championship Horse Show (with a first place vote). They headed to the pleasure equitation national finals in September with high hopes to achieve even more than they had already, and maybe even to come home with a national title win. 

The afternoon before the first national final, Ichabod started showing signs of founder. Any horse person knows that foundering is one of the worst things to happen to a horse and can be life-threatening. Renae rushed Ichabod to an equine podiatrist in Kentucky. After urgent care and treatment, Ichabod stabilized and they were able to head home. However, Ichabod’s life was still in the balance and his show season was over for the year, to say the least. Throughout all of this, Abby was more concerned about her horse’s welfare than the loss of competing at the national finals.

Even though Abby’s beloved mount was out of commission for the rest of 2020, the Kanis family graciously allowed her to compete on their horse, Moon, at St. Louis National Charity. Abby bravely pulled through and did a phenomenal job competing in the MHSA Medallion finals and the Saddle and Bridle Junior finals, making the top ten in both. 

Abby and Moon at St. Louis National Charity

Ichabod was on a long road to recovery, literally. Abby’s family made the extensive drive from Iowa to Kentucky to see the equine podiatrist twice more after Renae’s initial emergency visit. His healing journey also involved daily monitoring, hand-walking, and just a lot of faith and prayers. 

After 8 months of this, Ichabod still wasn’t well enough to compete in the first half of the 2021 season. An equitation rider’s 13 year old season is a pretty significant one, so The Van Kootens made the decision to search for another horse for Abby to compete with.

In June, Million Dollar Kiss (“Dinero”) was purchased as Abby’s new mount. At only 6 years old, this gelding showed strong potential to be a top equitation horse with his incredible headset and intelligence. That being said, the national finals were only a few months away. 

Abby and Dinero

Putting together a rider and equine team is always a thrilling challenge that most people take the winter off-season to accomplish. Doing this in a short stretch of time with the goal of competing for a national title with a young horse is quite the mountain to climb. Abby and Dinero had some extraordinary moments, but didn’t feel a huge amount of confidence going to the national championships.

Abby and Dinero at the Iowa State Fair

As a last-minute decision, good old Ichabod, who had spent most of his summer in the pasture, was put in the trailer alongside Dinero heading to the finals. Once at the show, Renae worked both horses and Ichabod surprisingly shined as a sound candidate. He didn’t even have his show shoes on yet, so a farrier put them on just a couple days before the competition. Abby took a spin on him the day before the first national final, and the decision became unquestionable. Brave Ichabod was to be Abby’s partner for the week. 

When Abby and Ichabod entered the ring for the first phase of the Junior Pleasure Equitation Olympics, they picked up right where they left off a year ago. Due to his condition, Ichabod hadn’t had consistent training for months, but he gave his all for his rider like the past year’s fight for his life had never happened. Abby was thrilled to be back with her old teammate, which allowed her to shine like everyone knew she could. This pair completed rail and pattern work with grace and precision.

Going into the first final’s awards ceremony, everyone involved was just ecstatic that Abby had the ride she did. Even just a week prior, that hadn’t seemed so sure (& who with). This competition awarded gold, silver and bronze medals in reverse order. As both bronze and silver awards were announced, everyone there and at home watching the livestream held their breath, daring to hope Abby had the gold. When her name was announced as the gold medalist, it seemed like the perfect culmination of a resilient team’s roller coaster ride of a journey. What a thrill, and one deserving rider and horse!

The next day was the second national final of the week, the UPHA Junior Pleasure Challenge Cup. Abby and Ichabod somehow managed to be even better than the day before – riding the wave of yesterday’s success. It’s one thing for a team to work well together, but another when they can just enjoy each other like this pair did that day. At the end of the second phase, Abby and Ichabod were once again announced as national champions. They were coming home with two national champion titles!

When Abby dreamt of achieving this goal, she likely didn’t imagine going through the trials she did. But when those who have been on this journey with her look at how much she’s grown and the extra significance of this achievement’s meaning, there is likely gratitude and joy that it happened this way. Life is full of ups and downs, but the tough times make the good ones even more worth it!

Abby with her triumphant grandma and parents