Silver lining


Camille Baker, features writer

When 8-year-old Vanessa Gonzalez dreamed of becoming a horseback rider, she said she did not realize how much of an impact it would have on her, from the emotional attachments to the lessons it would bring.

Before starting horseback riding, Gonzalez, sophomore, was enrolled in dance classes until she convinced her mom she did not belong in a tutu.

“I figured out that, quite honestly, she wasn’t that graceful on the ground,” Kari Green, Gonzalez’s mom, said. “But when you put her on a horse, it is magic.”

The two realized Gonzalez’s passion for horseback riding. Even as a little girl, it began to have a prominent influence on Gonzalez in various aspects.

“At a young age, horseback riding taught me sportsmanship,” Gonzalez said. “It is really competitive, and I had to learn that even though you don’t want to lose, you have to always be a good sport about it.”

After more than five years of riding, Gonzalez got her first horse, Silver, in February 2014. Silver was originally a racehorse, and Gonzalez worked to train him to be a competitive showhorse.

“Owning a horse taught me to commit time to take care of him and to deal with the stress of training a racehorse to be a jumper,” Gonzalez said. “When I first got Silver, I was terrified of him. We started training him, and we were not getting better, so we ended up moving barns, switching trainers and having to restart with the basics. It was hard seeing all my teammates progress when I wasn’t.”

After buying Silver, Green took notice of the struggles her daughter was facing. The duo continued to face their challenges at the barn.

“The week we bought Silver, we really second-guessed the decision,” Green said. “It was difficult. He would buck her 6 to 7 feet in the air. The first three or four months, there were a lot of tears, a lot of heartache and a lot of grueling hard work. I watched her struggle, I watched her fight. And then there was a turning point where there was a lot of love and laughter, and they persevered through their challenges.”

After working with Silver for over a year, Gonzalez said she and her horse began to improve with each show they attended. They continued to travel and win medals at horse shows, including a 1st place win at Kentucky Horse Park. Shortly after, Gonzalez and her mom discovered Silver had been born with a disease that damaged his back. Silver’s injuries made him unable to compete at a higher level, and a decision had to be made on what to do with him.

“When I first found out, it broke my heart to know that he couldn’t work like he used to,” Gonzalez said. “But he was my first horse. I couldn’t just get rid of him.”
Gonzalez and her mom made a decision to fully retire Silver after they heard the news. They put him in a retirement village for thoroughbred horses in Columbia, Missouri, and they visit him when possible.

Madison Herweck, sophomore, said she helped to support Gonzalez through her experiences with Silver. From driving an hour away with Gonzalez to the barn after school to attending weekend-long horse shows, Herweck committed her own time to being with the horse.

“It was hard for us when Silver went into retirement,” Herweck said. “When we put him in the trailer for the last time, I started bawling. Caring for a horse can be someone’s life, and I never understood that until I went to one of [Gonzalez’s] competitions.”

Though Gonzalez plans to get another horse, what she learned from Silver stays with her. Green said Silver also had a lasting impact on her.

“The horse world, in my mind, has changed our lives,” Green said. “It has given me a lot of joy watching Vanessa succeed at something she is so passionate about. It’s also given me a huge respect for animals and what they are capable of.”

Although the two went through ups and downs, Gonzalez said her journey with Silver influenced her mindset, giving her a more optimistic outlook. Through both good and bad experiences, Gonzalez learned to stay strong and maintain a positive attitude.

“Looking back on my experience with Silver and seeing how far [we came] is really rewarding,” Gonzalez said. “He taught me that it’s not all about the ribbons.”