April Freeland’s show career was just beginning, but before she could get a true taste for competition it quickly came to an end. As she was going into the show pen at her second horse show, she felt something was off with her horse Gota Rolex On Mpulse and decided a visit from the vet would be necessary to see what was going on. The vet check went from bad to worse when it was decided they would need to do an MRI on “Benji.” That was when April was delivered the bad news and found out that her horse had navicular disease and would probably never make it back to the show pen again, leaving April without any idea how she would ever get to own or show another horse.
When April first heard the news of Benji, her heart sank. Her family’s budget was tight and being able to go out and buy another horse was out of the picture. She thought for sure that her only shot at the show pen had come and gone before she could even have a chance to truly know what it was like to compete.
“After I had been told I would never be able to ride him again I was devastated,” April said. “We had just bought Benji and that was such a stretch for us to even get him. I knew I couldn’t just turn around and say it’s OK, I’ll find something else to show. I really thought this was the end of my story.”
But her trainer, Wes Wetherell, had a different plan. The day after finding out the bad news, a horse Wes had trained for a short amount of time as a 3-year-old unexpectedly showed up at his barn. The owner had his papers in her hand and asked if Wes would be able to take him as she could no longer care for him.
As the horse backed out of the trailer, he was hairy, out of shape, gangly, and had a huge head, but for some reason Wes knew he had to take this horse in.
“Before the MRI even happened my gut feeling told me Benji’s results would be bad, and when this horse showed up on my property it almost felt like God was telling me I had to take him in,” Wes shared. “I just had this feeling that this was going to be April’s next horse.”
That day April showed up to the barn, still grieving over the prognosis of her horse, when Wes pulled a mysterious horse out of a stall and told her to saddle him up.
“I took one look at that horse and thought no way,” April laughed. “He was not very cute, he was huge but had no muscle tone, and looked like he’d been living in a pasture. When I was riding him, Wes told me to extend trot to see if the hunter under saddle would be a good event for us; I didn’t know how to post at the trot and knew nothing about the English and just immediately was like I hate this.”
Teri Freeland, April’s mom, also remembers seeing George for the first time.
“My first thought when seeing him was that’s the ugliest horse I’ve ever seen,” Teri said laughing. “He looked like a cross between a giraffe and a Clydesdale. He was skinny, out of shape, and certainly didn’t look like any of the show horses in the barn. But then I felt a tug at my heart and thought maybe he just needed a little love and a chance to prove himself.”
It wasn’t until the drive back from the barn when Teri told April Wes’ plan of giving her this horse.
“Once my mom shared the news with me, I sat silently in the car, wondering if it was the right call,” she said. “And then a George Strait song came on the radio and something hit me, and I knew I had to take the chance on this horse.”
Before April could even get home, she was on the phone with Wes telling him she would take him. But she had one stipulation: They needed to change his name. While April liked his registered name, Ben Lopin Slow, his barn name was Benny, which reminded April too much of Benji. She was instantly inspired by the George Strait song that came on the radio in the car and decided from now on his name would be George.
April and George’s venture into the show pen was by no means an easy one. George, who came to the barn out of shape and only working occasionally as a kids’ lesson horse, had never really been shown before, and April was a rookie in the arena herself.
“My first show was a disaster,” April laughed. “I had no steering in the hunter under saddle—I’m pretty sure I ran into multiple people in my first class—and then the icing on the cake was George sticking his head way up in the air. As I was walking to the lineup in that class, I was pretty certain I could never show my face at another horse show again.”
The rest of the year continued to be a struggle. Every time April seemed to fix a problem at home with George, another problem would arise as soon as they stepped foot in the show pen. It also became a mental struggle for April when she was constantly competing against riders who had years of experience and could afford the horses she could only dream of riding.
“I kept thinking to myself I can’t do this,” she shared. “I started riding and showing horses when I was in high school, which seemed like a super late start compared to the girls who literally grew up competing on the Quarter Horse circuit. And I would work so hard on something at home only to get to a horse show and have it all fall apart.”
It wasn’t until April started practicing showmanship at home that she found an event that she seemed to click with George in. Of course, that journey wasn’t an easy one, either. One of the first times April went into the showmanship pen, George dropped his shoulder on a square corner, tripping April, who immediately fell in the dirt.
“I got up and finished my pattern but once again was so embarrassed,” she shared. “I remember trying to avoid eye contact with everyone as I walked out the end gate and rushed back to the stalls.”
Practice Makes Perfect
It was a slow process, but after hours of practicing at the barn, and a few more bumps in the road at horse shows, things started to click. And as the team became more consistent in showmanship, April’s confidence began to blossom. She started to realize her gift horse might be able to help her have the show career she always dreamed of having.
“I remember the first time April and George earned AQHA points at a show,” Dana Wetherell said. “Her mom had always said that when they finally earned a point, she would get a charm on her Pandora bracelet to remember the day. At this point in April’s career she had been showing for about a year but hadn’t placed high enough at a show to earn any points. We went to a show in St. Louis and I think they earned five points between the showmanship and the hunter under saddle, so she got her charm to remember the day.”
That weekend was the first really good show April and George had, and while five points may not be a lot to some people, it meant so much more to April. It meant that she and George were finally coming together as a team. And as they grew as a team, they started to include new events to their lineup, like the horsemanship.
A few placings here and there turned into consistent top 10 placings, and April finally found herself at her first major horse show—The 2012 AQHA Level 1 Championships held at the Southpoint Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“This was our first huge horse show,” April explained. “At this point I still dealt with the internal struggle of comparing myself to the level of competition I was against and thinking I wouldn’t be able to make a callback. That’s when my mom reminded me I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to show at such a large horse show with my last horse, Benji. It made me realize how lucky I was to even compete.”
April and George ended up 8th in the youth showmanship and even made the hunter under saddle finals. A year later she would return to that show and make the finals in the horsemanship, a class she never even expected to compete in with George.
Competing Against Your Idols
After that first Level 1 Championship show, April noticed a change in George. The horse that used to constantly mess with her and pull stunts in the arena was now becoming a solid mount that she could trust in the show pen. She was also starting to become a confident and experienced showman. Around that same time, the duo went from not being able to get a single point to earning so many points in the showmanship, they could no longer compete in the novice division and had to head into the amateur division.
“I knew we had to step up in the amateur division. It was really intimidating at first. I had a taste of success in the novice youth division, but I was now competing against my idols,” she shared. “I wanted to win and decided I wasn’t going to let our limitations hold us back. I decided that we were going to do this, we were going to be competitive in this division.”
It was that moment April finally realized she and George belonged in the horse-show world.
“When April stepped up into the amateur division her mindset finally started to shift,” Dana shared. “She realized she had everything those other riders showing had, and she became really determined to not just compete against them but beat them. She started putting in even more hours at the barn and would just keep working on something until it was finally where she wanted it.”
The team’s hard work paid off, and April says one of the best moments of her show career didn’t happen in the arena, it happened right afterward.
“I had just finished my pattern and George was really good. We ended up doing really well in both the level 2 and level 3 divisions,” she said. “I was walking back to the stalls when my mom and Dana approached me and told me I qualified for the AQHA World Show.”
Nationally qualifying for such a prestigious event seemed so out of reach for April just a few short years prior, but she had finally made it and wasn’t going to take this opportunity for granted.
At the beginning of her riding career, April’s only goal was to get to a horse show. Even if it meant taking a kids’ lesson horse who knew nothing and putting in the hours to compete at a regional-level show. Now she was preparing to compete in one of the most prestigious events in the country.
Making Dreams a Reality
Something changed when April stepped foot on the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds for the 2017 World Show. She finally felt like she belonged there with the other riders competing. She was no longer looking at them like an outsider showing a horse who may have been passed up as a show horse by other people. She was looking at them as an equal. Without even realizing it, that mentality would set her up for success.
“I could feel that something was different at that show,” she explained. “Jenny [Jordan] had been helping me when we’d attend the same horse shows and she told me she could tell how hard I had been working and that it was night and day difference from when I first started. That meant a lot to me. Being recognized for something I’ve been working hard at for so many years was such a big deal.”
When it came time to step into the show pen, the pair managed to complete what might have been the best pattern of their career, leaving April with tears in her eyes.
“I remember there being an extended trot in the pattern, which is always a good thing for us. George has a really nice extended trot because he’s so big, and I’m pretty long legged so it’s easy to make that maneuver look really pretty,” she shared. “He was spot on with every element of that pattern and when I came out of the arena everyone greeted me at the exit gate and by the look on all of their faces, I knew it was as good as I thought it had been. We ended up 7th in the level 2 showmanship, which was a huge for us.”
The Gift That Keeps Giving
Looking back, it turns out that this gift horse would give April more than just the opportunity to show at events like the World Show; he also gave her the gift of knowledge.
“Our journey wasn’t easy, and there were a lot of days where I was really frustrated. But in the end, he taught me patience and how to never give up,” she shared, as tears filled her eyes. “He taught me to enjoy the little victories, because without them I wouldn’t have the big victories.”
Wes Wetherell agrees that while the beginning was bumpy, George taught April how to become a better rider.
“He never did more than he had to,” he laughed. “So that meant April had to learn timing and feel to make sure he did what he was supposed to do in the show pen. He taught her those things and now she’s able to get on any horse in the barn and not only get along with them, but really know how to ride them.”
Teri laughs that it wasn’t love at first sight for George and April. But over the years their partnership blossomed and the two became quite the team.
“George is a special boy. April and George needed each other, they just didn’t realize it at the beginning,” Teri shared. “But as time went on and trust was built on both sides, it became a beautiful partnership that I was blessed to witness. He taught her how to trust and become confident in her riding ability. Everyone teases me that George can do no wrong in my eyes and I guess that’s true. That imperfect guy has become perfect to me and I’m grateful for all the things he taught April.”
George has his forever home with April, but these days he spends less time in the show pen and more time enjoying retirement outside in the pasture. Something April says he deserves after his strange journey into the show pen.
“I think during that first year I kept asking myself how I ended up with such a difficult horse who knew nothing, but looking back, I wouldn’t trade him for the world,” she explained with a smile on her face. “He’s definitely earned his retirement.”
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