What is “real”?

So maybe I’m just a little bit pre-irritated all the time with eventing at the moment, or maybe this year has been such a big lesson on how much words really matter, but… I saw something the other day that made me cringe and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It was a post on facebook, by a professional, saying that the horse in the photo was the person’s first “real event horse”. I stumbled over those words, and came to a screeching halt. “Real”? The assumption of course was that they meant first “upper level horse” and I went to the USEA records to confirm. Indeed, that’s what the person meant. Which… bothered me a lot, for a few reasons.

We’ve talked about level-shaming before. Sometimes it’s blatant and obvious, but most of the time it’s in little ways like this. Microagressions, if you will. I have no doubt that the person meant no actual harm by this comment, honestly I doubt they even realize they said it. I’ve probably said something similar plenty of times before and not realized it. But it signals an underlying mindset doesn’t it? One that is all too prevalent in all equestrian sports. Anyone reading gets the “ah, you aren’t a real eventer and/or you don’t have a real event horse until you’re at the upper levels” message, even if subconsciously. Intentional or not, this is what we’re telling people when we use words like that.

I have to admit that it especially bothers me when words like this come from a professional who’s entire business is built upon teaching people and training horses at the lower levels. People who are probably chained to their desks at least 40 hours a week, trying to juggle a life and a family and still enjoy the sport they love. Are they not “real” eventers? I would argue that perhaps they are the most real of all. The sport gives them nothing tangible, it doesn’t pay them or give them a career. They show up and they do the hard work day in and day out and they ride all the highs and lows even though it costs them a lot – mentally, physically, and financially. They don’t deserve to be swept under the rug or automatically dismissed. They do it solely for the love of the horse and the sport, even though the sport doesn’t love them back. That’s the most pure form of “real” that I can think of.

The same goes for horses – are they not “real” event horses until they reach a certain level? Is a horse who can be trusted to carry kid after kid around BN safely not worth it’s weight in gold? Is a horse that can throw down three solid phases at Training level at event after event after event for it’s amateur rider (even if/when said amateur rider makes mistakes) not a “real” event horse? Again, I would argue that perhaps these horses are the most real of them all.

Words matter. What we say is a direct representation of what we think. The fact that someone isn’t legit or doesn’t count or is seen as less committed or less important because they haven’t reached a certain level – that message is very prevalent. It’s natural to want to be taken seriously, and the prevailing message in our sport is that in order to get respect, you have to be “real”, and in order to be “real”, you have to be at the upper levels. Aside from being bullshit, I also think it’s a super dangerous message. It leads people to push themselves and/or their horses too quickly, or to levels they aren’t suited for, or to do things they don’t really want to do at all; something that has also come up many times this year in discussions about rider safety. On one hand, we want people to be aware of their abilities and not overface themselves or their horses. On the other hand, we’re also constantly sending signals that they don’t matter unless they’ve reached X level. At some point you have to admit that the culture we perpetuate, the words we use, are at least partly to blame for some of this. And that trickles down from the very top.

This mindset is so beaten into most of us from so early on that we even degrade ourselves without even thinking about it. How often do you see it? The amateur on facebook posting a show recap from the weekend but saying “it was just BN”? I’ve said it. You’ve probably said it. We say things like that all the time and never even think about it, because it’s so normal, so deeply ingrained. It’s like we’re apologizing in advance for being happy about something or succeeding at something, because it’s not actually considered “real” by anyone’s standards. It’s sad, because 99.9% of the time, the person has worked their ass off for that accomplishment. They shouldn’t feel belittled in advance. It’s not hard to imagine how this could slowly wear away at someone and eventually turn them away from the sport – I’ve seen it happen more times that I can count.

We also have to consider that the lower levels are the lifeblood of our sport. Lower level riders are what pay the vast majority of trainer’s bills, and those lower level horses are the most commonly needed and bought and sold. The membership and starter fees from those riders are what keeps USEA alive and running, which makes a lot of things possible for upper level riders that wouldn’t be happening otherwise. Those low-level entries are the ones making up the numbers, keeping the venues afloat, keeping horse shows available. They are what keep our sport alive. So again, I have to ask… what is “real”?

In a time where we’re being asked to examine the things we say and the impact those words have on other people, maybe we (myself absolutely included) should be applying the same concept in everything we do, including our little horse world as well. What if people felt more welcome, more relevant, less inclined to push themselves into potentially unsafe territory? Would that not be good for the sport as a whole? What do we have to lose? If nothing else, keeping a little more kindness and compassion in our words sure wouldn’t hurt.

Anyone with the balls to leave the start box is a real eventer in my book, whether it’s at Advanced or Intro. I see you, and I think you’re a badass.

34 thoughts on “What is “real”?

  1. Swap the word “eventer” for “endurance rider”, and we have the same issues for our sport.

    The hardest part of competing at any event is showing up, and it doesn’t matter what distance or level you’re doing, you’re further along then the person at home dreaming about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erin, YES!!! I did one LD AERC ride last summer, just to try it out. I do competitive trail so I understand how to do a 30-mile ride, but I’d never done any AERC. To the point that I didn’t even know what was considered “finished”. So I said, after my last vet check, “Wait, does that mean I’ve finished my first endurance ride?” The vet said, “Yes, good job”, but one of the volunteers there said, “Well, not really, it was only a 30 so it wasn’t really endurance.” I ignored him and walked away, but I wish I’d had the balls to reply, “Gee, thanks for dismissing my accomplishment, that’s a great way to ensure I’ll never try this again.”

      It doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t try again, because I’m not the type to be deterred by one comment, but there are many, many people who would be. I was a bit put off by it overall, and the only reason I don’t think that all AERC folks are like that is because I know MANY who are not, wouldn’t dream of making such a comment, and would applaud any distance of ride I started. But if that’s your first and only experience, it’s not a positive one.

      I’m actually glad for that experience because it made me really, really conscious of my own words to new riders in my sport. You’re not “only” riding the beginner division, you’re getting yourself and your horse out there and trying something new. I’ll applaud you for that!

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  2. As a junior rider who was terrified of anything over 2’ XC wise but allll my older friends at my boarding barn evented and I wanted to go to the same shows with them I feel this. My HJ brain had a hard time with the “jump no knock down” aspect of XC so I often would travel with my barn and just enter dressage and show jumping as separate entries. I really just wanted to go have fun with my friends and our horses. That’s what this is about for us non-pros anyway at the end of the day! I am so thankful for the wonderful memories those years brought me. And I don’t miss XC courses one bit! Anyone who has the guts to event deserves a gold medal in my book. At any level.

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  3. I feel this a lot, not as an eventer but as a dressage rider. I’ve ridden Intro tests and Training 1 so many times, so seeing people make comments like this, regardless of discipline, really grinds my gears and feels like my hundreds hours of riding and lessons aren’t worth it unless I have the money to invest in a fancy warmblood. I joke that I’m the queen of lower levels, but its mastering lower level work that makes the upper level work easy.

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  4. I see this across professionals and bloggers alike. Even here – where I admire and respect you so much – there have been times where I’ve felt like I’m lesser for some things (like going to a doctor right away rather than riding through injuries because the latter is more “legit”, or sometimes the jump height comments). I don’t begrudge you those comments because I’m sure I in turn make others feel similarly about other things, but it does give me pause whenever I read anyone say things that make me feel like I need to readjust what I do to be more “real”.

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    1. No, you’re totally right, I know I say things all the time that I don’t intend to come off a certain way but certainly CAN and DO. I’ve had to really start to adjust my own thinking, which then leads to me adjusting my own words. It’s a challenge though, for sure, when we’ve always been so deeply entrenched in a certain way of thinking. It takes effort, and even then it’s still easy to get it wrong. It definitely won’t happen over night. I think the more we’re aware of it, the better. I know that I for one don’t want to be part of perpetuating it, so I want to challenge myself to try to do better and be more thoughtful.

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  5. Unfortunately, the stereotype of a “real eventer” being someone who is striving for the upper levels on a horse capable of running FEI track is what keeps me out of clinics a lot of the time. I have found many of the upper level clinicians to be way more concerned in how to get the green BN horse to its first Prelim than helping the maybe, eventually Novice level horse perfect its skills at BN.

    Sometimes its tough because my goals are not what is rewarded in the sport. A foot perfect SJ rounds? #GOALS but won’t move me up in the placings over the wildly athletic horse who missed every distance. So it seems some trainers simply focus on the latter and either don’t have the skillset or don’t see the point in training for the former. No matter what it is, I think it is a huge disservice to the sport. H/J have figured out how to train and support the lifetime 2’6″er, and in a much more dangerous sport (statistically), we should be supporting the same demographic.

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    1. I had someone ask me one time what makes a “good” trail horse: they were assuming I would talk about breed, or a certain school of training thought, or something of the like. I said, “Lots and lots of miles on the trail.”

      I do a lot of technically challenging backcountry mountain trails. So anytime someone says “Oh, you’re just a trail rider” in a derogatory manner, I pull out a photo of a particularly technical trail and say, “Really. So you’re telling me that my horse doesn’t require any special skills or fitness to do that safely?” Most people shut up after that…..

      But even if your trail rides are short and flat, they’re valuable. Your horse still needs training, skills, fitness. And you’re right there with them. And you’re both awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. After 14 years I recently retired my BN “Real Event” horse and I agree with your assessment. I have also switched trainers for a more compassionate and encouraging atmosphere which has also allowed me to ride multiple horses and perfect my riding skills. Hopefully I will be able to purchase another horse in a year or two, and I know that I will be just fine at no bigger than BN, if I return to eventing. We need to acknowledge and celebrate our accomplishments and I intend to surround myself with people who do the same. Canter On! Ride ‘em like you stole ‘em!

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    1. Which makes me sad, because I think you’re one of the coolest dressage riders I know. You’ve taken horse after horse from “unconventional” dressage breeding and done really well with them, making them into better individuals. Mad respect from me for that, it’s something few can do. If that’s not “real” I don’t know what is.

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  7. This is so well said, and something we should all be aware of. I do the hunters, and I’ve been struggling with 2′ at shows due to major confidence issues. The day I can complete a couple consistent rounds at a show at 2′ I’m going to be so proud of myself for working through it and not giving up. But at the same time, it’s hard to convey to people how much of an accomplishment that’s going to feel like when it’s “only” 2′. I’m guilty of thinking the same sometimes.

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  8. Yesterday I read an article about a dressage trainer who stated she didn’t really like working with adult amateurs because she felt the majority weren’t as dedicated to the sport and driven as she is. There are too many professionals like her who are dismissive of people who don’t have the goals they think everyone should have.

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    1. That’s so sad. Like Amanda mentioned in the post, I think the adult amateurs are *more* dedicated. We’re not getting paid to do it; in fact, we’re spending a ton of money on it with no return. Riding isn’t our job; we (usually) have another job that we have to balance. It’s takes a lot of commitment to be an adult amateur. I wish more trainers would respect that.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. THIS. A THOUSAND TIMES THIS! The discipline does not matter (I’m not an eventer). I’m one of those people who’s chained to a desk 40 hours a week, plus 2 hours in the car each day, – more if I’m going to see my horse – responsibilities at home, etc. I work as hard as I can, I love to compete, and I want to do well – but at the end of the day, I love my horse no matter what.

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  10. The universe must be on the same wavelength today, as I just saw a post from Muddy Mayhem on FB this morning with a similar theme. I was one of those people that didn’t consider myself to be a “real” eventer until I had reached a certain level, or attended a certain number of recognized events, or qualified for a certain championship. I also started working with a trainer that had a lot more experienced “real eventer” students, and while she NEVER pushed me or said anything about the level I was riding at, I still felt the pressure to move up and prove myself worthy of her time. But since losing my older horse this year and having two young mares to ride, I’ve used them and their greenness as an excuse to take a step back and re-evaluate my goals. I don’t have to be in a hurry to get either of my horses to a certain level by a certain age. I don’t WANT either of them to be doing training level by 4. I just want to enjoy the process and have confident happy horses who I have a blast riding.

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  11. Thanks for this post! I’ve never evented but can totally related to the feeling of needing to move up and the endless comparison game. It got to the point I quit showing (H/J) because it wasn’t fun anymore. I almost sold my horse over it all.
    Now we are riding dressage and trail riding and having a ton of fun – which happens to my #1 goal. I want to have fun and learn to ride my horse as good as I can. I’ve accepted my limitations (budget and time) and my horses limitations as well. I’m thinking about showing again but with a much different mindset. It helps boarding at a small barn with no onsite trainer.
    I also think there is an issue between disciplines – I know so many who switch between them but yet there are so many stigmas that events are badass, that hunger lead changes can be laughed at, that dressage is for divas too scared to jump.
    I had a hard time admitting I didn’t want to jump anymore. I constantly told everyone ‘it’s not that I’m scared..’. I felt too young to be switching to dressage and that I was somehow less than.
    There is so much room for improvement! At the same time I do have respect for those who are more competitive than myself and do want to push themselves to more advanced levels. I think there is room for everyone.

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  12. I didn’t see the comment in question, but I have a slightly different take. “Real” event horses exist at every level. But not every event horse (even successful ones) are “real” event horses. If you’ve sat on the two types, you know. A “real” event horse has a heart and love of XC…he lives for it. Ears pricked, muscles churning, he hunts the flags and “takes” you to the fences. He loves his job and gives you confidence. Doesn’t matter if the jumps you do are 2ft or 4ft, you know what that enthusiasm feels like.

    Then there is the “not real” event horse. At any level. He isn’t green; he has experience. He jumps because you ask him to, but he isn’t always genuine. He won’t cover a mistake. He is a little apprehensive and relies purely on your confidence. Maybe he wins the dressage, show jumps great, and wins if the xc suits him. But he doesn’t always give you that “OMG WOW AMAZING!! I LOVE THIS!” feeling after xc. He does it because he is obedient, well trained and well ridden. That may be an event horse, even a “good” one on paper and pictures, but it is not a “real” event horse.

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    1. People may have different definitions of what a real event horse is to them, but my point is that real should not mean “upper level”, and to many people it does, and that it can actually be a damaging word when used that way. I think we both agree on that. I also think we all (like I said, myself included) should try to be mindful and thoughtful enough to use the words we really mean – like enthusiastic, or natural, or “hunting the flags”, or upper level, or trust-worthy, or genuine, or whatever. Connotation counts for a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I volunteered at the start box for an event a few weeks ago and feel like it should be required for everyone to do. The amateurs who are workin’ for the weekend outnumber the “real” (professionals/people trying to work their way up the levels) by orders of magnitude. Anyone who would denigrate them is the fakest eventer of all.

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  14. This is a very interesting topic and I’m so glad you brought it up. Yup, I think shaming and SELF-shaming takes place All. The. Time. in our sport. A lot of the time it’s not intentional because as you said, it seems to be ingrained in equestrian culture. We’re not “real” riders at all, unless we’re doing XYZ.

    Even though I try to tell myself that I’m doing enough, that I need to be proud for riding at all, much less showing, I still find myself defending my class choices to other equestrians. “Of course I can canter, I’ve been cantering since I was six years old, but right now I choose to show in just W/T classes.” I squirm internally lest anyone think I’m weak or lazy or scared. It IS because I’m weak – my fitness still isn’t at a point where I can keep my horse cantering two laps of a show ring – but I shouldn’t care what people think.

    Ironically, I tell others that all the time, and compliment them, too. “Hey Mary Ellen, you rocked that pattern. Good for you! Way to get in there and try something new. Who cares that you missed a diagonal, you did it.” I think we are way too hard on ourselves!

    I’m going to make more of an effort to watch what I say, about myself and others. We don’t know what people have been through to get where they are. It’s a whole lot kinder to simply be supportive, whether someone is winning every ribbon in sight or just sitting on their horse bareback in a pasture. We’re certainly all REAL horse-lovers!

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  15. Love this post – and I echo the sentiments of other posters that this isn’t just an eventer issue. It seems very common amongst the show circles, that if you do not ride in the upper levels, you don’t have a real __fill in the blank__ horse.

    For someone like me, who doesn’t really have a specific discipline to call home, I struggle to label myself and my horse. We mostly play in Dressage and Hunters – but at a local level… (non-recognized) what makes us real? What are we defined as? Are we any less “real” because we participate at a local, unrecognized level?

    It can be hard, especially because people are so eager to boast their horse has done x, y, z, but the same opportunities are not available to everyone. Here, to participate in a recognized show, you are looking at driving 8-10 hours away. It just isn’t financially feasible for everyone – I know it’s not an option for me. But does it make me any less of a horsewoman because of it? Does it make my horse less “worthy” of being called a first level Dressage horse?

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  16. I’ve been feeling this so much lately, and it combined with the entire Plantation Field controversy (especially the thread on the Chronicle forums that I can’t stop hate reading) has made me seriously consider quitting the sport. As an amateur whose day job is absurdly time consuming–I work in political campaigns–I haven’t even been cross country schooling in a year, and the lower level jumper shows that my barn has been going to so much more affordable than any of the events near me. To add to this, I moved cross country just a few weeks before the pandemic, and since I can’t afford board at any of the local eventing barns I feel super isolated. Am I even an eventer if I don’t event?

    I have the best horse of my life, with so much scope, but he’s so quirky that we have been jumping 2’3″ forever. Just getting to a BN event and *safely* jumping around has been a multi-year goal for us, and posts like those make me feel like I don’t deserve this horse. He could be doing so much more with someone better than me, someone with more time an more skill, but he’s got me. On my better days I remind myself that he doesn’t care what level we’re competing at, or even if we’re competing at all, and the he has just as much fun jumping around at home or going to hunter paces, but not every day is a better day, and the outside pressure sure doesn’t make it any easier.

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  17. Yes! It’s such a pervasive mindset: it exists in every discipline. I’ve never been able to do anything that would be considered ‘real.’ That’s not how life worked out for me. I’m just blessed to have owned some nice horses and got to do some things with them; I never thought that was going to be a possibility when I was a kid. it shouldn’t matter that the height I jump is not impressive to someone else. That the shows I go to aren’t rated. No one else knows my story, so why should I be judged by the standards of their stories?

    We are our own worst enemies, though. How many times have I heard ‘my horse doesn’t start jumping until 3 feet’ which when my brain translates it – means I’ve never jumped a horse in my life because I’ve never jumped 3 feet. And even typing that, I want to start explaining why that is because I feels like it threatens my legitimacy as a rider. Thankfully, I can usually brush stuff off but sometimes….

    We should celebrate people being good horseman, having fun and accomplishing THEIR goals with their horses. Not the height someone jumps.

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  18. I really dislike the use of “real” when it comes to horses. Aren’t we all in it for the love of horses? What does it matter what level we are at, as long as we are always willing to continue to keep learning and trying better ourselves FOR our horses?

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  19. I had this happen to me, too, when I competed IHSA in college! I wasn’t a “real” rider because I didn’t own a horse and was just learning. I was “too old” and “too fat” (at 30 years old and 140lbs, riding a percheron cross!) I posted a pic recently on reddit when someone asked, of me during the ride that got me my only blue ribbon, and some bint tried to do the same fat and age shaming, saying that IHSA isn’t a “real horse show” and that I was being “abusive” by sitting on the horse at all!

    While I was on the team, the team/club vice president was the worst of the lot, making fun of me for having a regular job. I asked that I have at least 2 weeks notice of any fundraisers or trips so I could get the time off. Instead, they tended to schedule things the night before, then threaten to throw me out of the club for missing the outings! Shows, they couldn’t do that with, and I made sue to work my butt off. Thankfully the coach is a VERY old friend. (We met in kindergarten.) She was the one who invited me to join and the reason I stayed.

    The VP was especially upset when I decided I liked driving, and started taking lessons with the coach’s mom and their minis. Driving was HER thing. I wasn’t allowed to do ANY photography, despite having a semi-professional setup and being good at it, because that was HER thing. >.< I still like riding, I just don't have the time or money at the moment. But there's always the nagging voice at the back of my mind that I'll never be a "real" rider. :/

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  20. This such a well timed and relevant post, thank you once again for putting into words what so many are feeling. More and more it feels like there is an “us and them” divide between lower level ammies and upper level pros. This is just one more wedge in that divide.

    Ps it must be resonating with many since I just saw it shared on my Area VI Adult Rider FB group!

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  21. Just recently read this on one of the bigger german equine influencer acct. She bought a 6 you jumping bred mare last year and just recrntly caught the eventing bug. She says herself she isn’t the most couragious rider and she was pretty nervous before her first entey level show. First one didn’t go well, the two after did and some people are crapping all over her joy, saying how stupid it is that she is “this proud” or that she’s “taking ribbons from the kids starting in the same division”.
    What about riders who aren’t comfortable with going higher than BN or N? Or whose horse isn’t capable of going higher and the horse is more important to them than going up through the classes? I guess some think they should just stop showing altogether…

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  22. I like to think that if we start by changing our language for others, we also in the end are able to change ourselves.

    To be more accepting of ourselves, to let ourselves actually revel and find joy in everything we do, to not put asterisks or caveats on everything just in case someone thinks we’re overinflating ourselves.

    By not letting ourselves make others feel like less, we’ll in turn end up feeling like more, too.

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  23. I probably will never own a ‘real’ event horse then. And that is okay. My horse right now as everyone knows is a fat older buckskin QH with foundation bloodlines. We are stuck in Intro/Starter level for years now. I still do it, i still love it. But I know my limits and his as well. But even saying I dont own a real event horse doesnt mean I am less an eventer. We have improved our dressage scores, we have finally started going clear in stadium, and we both love to go cross country (even I want to puke before we start). If REAL means higher level I dont want it. I am always looking at the horses that aren’t the norm as a replacement horse down the road, I dont want a boring bay (Sorry Henry you are not boring) or an imported warmblood (But sure would take a Connemara if it showed up). An appaloosa, a quarter horse, an arabian cross, a halfinger or some cross is always gonna catch my eye over a talented thru the wazoo “REAL” event horse that may be talented as hell but no way would I ride it. I compete against kids most events. I may even win ribbons over those kids (Or they beat the pants off me the next time). No matter I will continue to compete at intro and enjoy myself and enjoy my horse who grows a hand when he sees cross country courses. I have fun and I dont care what other people think. But i am an old grumpy woman so I dont really care what other people think 🙂 HA! I have ridden with some higher end eventers who love my horse JUST AS HE IS and giggle along with me. No one has looked down on me on what I ride and what level I ride. And if they do, I don’t care. So maybe I just am careful who I pick to ride with. Anyway, Remus and I will be the ones loping through the finish with a loop in our reins because we dont have a gallop!! Wait for us, we will catch up ….maybe!

    I do agree Amanda with the mindset. We are all badasses and we do what we do to make us happy!! That is ‘real’ enough for me 🙂

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