By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Tillie Jones has a lot on her plate, but she juggles her many endeavors with grace. The Nebraska Wesleyan University sophomore has been able to enjoy the traditional college experience as a proud member of her school cheerleading squad, a sister in the Delta Zeta sorority and a barista at a local coffeehouse. On top of all that, her passion for dressage has made her a rising star within the Emerging Athlete Program.
Tillie is used to a busy lifestyle; it’s all she’s ever known. “My family is very close. Growing up, most days were very busy, but we came together for a home-cooked meal made by my dad even if it was 9 p.m.,” Tillie said. As the daughter of two hardworking parents, she learned lessons in passion and patience early in her life.
“Lincoln, Nebraska, has been a great town to grow up in, although it’s not a town where many youth ride horses,” Tillie said. Though she was involved in other sports when she was younger, Tillie’s mind never wandered far from horses. “Instead of dolls, I played with My Little Pony and I wore out the VHS tapes of the movie ‘Spirit.’ I used to volunteer at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo to help clean stalls and lead the horses around. I just wanted to be near a horse any chance I got.”
For her 7th birthday, Tillie was surprised with a riding lesson, but that one lesson soon turned into many more. “The day I had my first lesson, the trainer said that I could really ‘feel’ the horse and had a definite connection. She said I had a special talent for dressage,” Tillie said. “She ignited a burning flame that day and inspired me to continue riding.”
Seven years after her first lesson, Tillie rode down centerline aboard Boegely’s Maurico at her first North American Youth Championships (NAYC) at the Kentucky Horse Park. She was just 14 years old — the youngest competitor at the show.
“We’d bought Boegely’s Maurico, or Mo, as an 18-year-old schoolmaster in California,” Tillie said. “He was very sensitive, but the bond between us was unbreakable. I was able to learn the fun upper-level movements while getting a taste of what the FEI levels were like.” Together, Tillie and Mo competed in the Junior division with their sights set on NAYC.
Tillie was thrilled to ride in the Rolex Arena where many Olympians had ridden, and she had a respectable performance, placing eighth individually and seventh in the freestyle. Despite her individual success, Tillie was centered on the NAYC’s team-oriented experience, which is what she enjoyed the most.
“NAYC is much more than just a competition,” Tillie said. “My first year, we got to meet other young riders in dressage but also in other disciplines such as endurance, eventing, show jumping, para-dressage and reining. It was a fantastic experience not only showing but meeting other young riders who also had a burning passion to ride.”
The social events of NAYC emphasized team bonding and having fun, different than any show Tillie had attended before. “Our region dressed up as superheroes for the golf cart parade. We wore capes and had a huge blow-up Batman on top of our golf cart! Many of the young riders I met at that competition — and not just in my region — have become my very good friends and we still talk to this day.”
Sportsmanship and Horsemanship
With one NAYC already under her belt, Tillie was excited for another season with Mo. Unfortunately, Tillie’s plans came to a heartbreaking halt.
“A week before my first NAYC qualifier, Mo showed symptoms of colic,” Tillie reflected. After Mo’s symptoms worsened, he was admitted to the Kansas State veterinary hospital for further observation. “After a week of his symptoms getting worse, they decided to perform laparoscopic surgery and found that multiple feet of his small intestine were dead and there was too much gone to be repaired.”
Tillie’s parents made the difficult decision to let Mo go to greener pastures. “After walking home from school on Friday thinking I was going to go see Mo that weekend, my dad met me at the door and told me the bad news. My best friend, Mo, had passed away. The heartbreak was unbearable,” Tillie said.
Knowing she couldn’t stay out of the saddle for long, Tillie went shopping in Florida to find her perfect match. She found it in Apachi. “My dad likes to say he ‘patched’ up my heart. Apachi did much more than that — he restored my happiness and was my pathway back into the sport,” Tillie said.
After a successful year in the Junior division with Apachi, including a gold medal in the NAYC freestyle, Tillie made the leap to the Young Rider division. “It wasn’t an easy switch going from Juniors to Young Riders, but from past experiences I’ve learned to take a chance and follow my dreams because you never know when you’ll be sidelined and unable to ride. I’m glad I took the chance to compete in the Young Rider division.”
As her first Young Rider division at NAYC became a reality, Tillie was tested once again. The pair was able to compete in the team test, but when Apachi contracted a fungal skin infection from the wet weather, Tillie made the decision to scratch the remaining competition.
Despite the hardship she’d faced losing Mo and the disappointment of having to scratch, Tillie put her feelings of uncertainty aside to cheer on her team. She was later rewarded as the USDF Youth Sportsman Nominee and won the Reserve Overall US Equestrian Youth Sportsman Award. “It was a great honor to be the recipient of those awards,” Tillie said. “I focused on what I had, instead of what I didn’t, and worked harder than I ever had before.”
Adventures in Florida
Tillie’s determination paid off, and she and Apachi were invited to the Emerging Athlete Program. “The Robert Dover Clinic opened my eyes to Wellington. I was amazed at what I saw: a little community made for horses,” Tillie said. She was inspired, and set her goal to compete in CDIs over the winter.
“I was a senior in high school and was involved with swing choir and student council. I didn’t want to miss out on my last semester of high school,” Tillie said. “Apachi stayed in Florida with my trainer for three months while I flew back and forth.”
The stress of flying every other week, dealing with snow delays and missing several school days was chaotic for Tillie. “Even though I got straight A’s, my parents still received a letter that I missed too much school!” she said. For 2020, Tillie decided to take a different path.
“I decided to come down for the whole season. It was my first year in college — I’d taken normal in-person classes in the fall and then took online classes in the spring,” she said. This time, she brought along her new mare, Qi Gong TF, better known as Kiki — Tillie’s prospective Grand Prix horse.
Together, Tillie and Kiki competed at the Global Dressage Festival at Prix St. Georges, qualifying for the 2020 Young Rider National Championship at the Festival of Champions. Along with showing, Tillie also became close with one of her housemates in Florida.
“I became friends with a guy who was caddying at a private golf course who had rented another room in the house. Now we’ve been dating for a year! It’s such a small world. He is from Iowa so it was ironic that I went to Florida and met this special guy who is also from the Midwest,” Tillie laughed.
Balance and Dreams Ahead
Deciding to stay home this season, Tillie is enjoying her sophomore year with a traditional college experience as a psychology major. “I think it’s important to have balance in my life so that I can experience more than horses,” she said. “Having faced many obstacles with horses, I’ve learned that it’s important to have interests outside of dressage.”
While dressage is a mostly individual sport, Tillie is a self-proclaimed “people-person,” which is why she loves being a cheerleader. “It allows me to make connections with ‘non-horse’ people and broaden my network,” she said. “My best friend that I met through college cheer actually came down to visit me in Florida while I was riding last season.”
Tillie has also made many friends within her Delta Zeta sorority. “I currently live in the sorority house along with 30 other girls. I decided to get involved in Greek life to meet more young women who share the same morals, work ethic and academic success,” Tillie said. “Greek life gives me balance and pushes me to have fun at social events like formals, socials, bid days and philanthropies.”
In nearby Palmyra, Nebraska, Tillie trains with her longtime dressage instructor, Jami Kment. “No matter what came our way, Jami kept pushing me to get back into the saddle. She’s taught me perseverance and to not let defeats get me down,” Tillie said. “She has helped me stay positive and to appreciate what I have in tough times. We’ve been through a lot together and she’s been a great mentor who has helped me through difficult situations.”
For 2021, Tillie hopes to qualify for the NAYC and Festival of Champions with Kiki, and get Apachi, who is currently rehabbing a suspensory injury, back into the show ring. In the long term, she hopes to compete in the U25 division and eventually compete internationally while pursuing a career in sports psychology.
Jami Kment believes this is all possible for Tillie. “She’s a joy to teach,” Jami said. “She’s very ambitious and always wanting to improve. She has her goals set very high and I’m confident she’ll achieve them. I started working with Tillie when she was 14, and it’s been very fun to watch her grow, improve and develop into the young lady she has become.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise