I awakened early on Saturday, July 30, eager to participate in a special event while visiting a friend on Shelter Island, an island at the eastern end of New York's Long Island. Their sweet and sassy 4-year-old daughter, Aliyah Temanesh, adopted from Ethiopia more than three years ago, was about to compete in her very first horse show. Her 13-year-old brother was already an accomplished equestrian and Ali was following in his footsteps.
I wanted to watch her get ready and to experience how she felt about her day. I've known this little girl long enough (since she arrived in New York at about 6 months of age) to know that she was serious about her riding and determined to excel in anything that she undertakes.
When I came downstairs, she was already dressed in her khaki jodhpurs, crisp white high collared blouse and her riding boots. The bows for her hair were being fastened by her mother with some uncertainty. Her riding jacket was tailored and fit her athletic physique. She was committed very early that morning to discipline and seriousness. She was giving some orders and appropriately bossy and invested in the ritual. It is my understanding that this sport is about ritual, tradition, and discipline and that she had signed on for all of this at her very young age. I wondered why, but we will get back to this question because it is important to the story.
I was proud of her the minute I saw her in the riding habit. She was focused and I knew that she was in that outfit for a good reason; it suited her intellectual and physical competence and it fit her desire to do her best. Even at 4 years old, Ali understood that this was not a fashion show, but rather a complex system of how to do something just right and that the goal had many steps to make it all happen. She wanted to do all those steps and enjoyed the elegance and fun of it all.
We got into the car and rode a few minutes to the local stable and I entered a world I don't really know, except for a few experiences with other friends' children who have loved horseback riding. The outfit and the setting were familiar, but the age of the student was unique and this regal child once lived in extreme poverty in Ethiopia.
Ali needed to register and be given her number (121); the kind and very knowledgeable director of the event, pointed out that the sleeves of the jacket were too long and that if Ali were to achieve perfect form and not lose points, she needed to have shortened sleeves leaving just the subtlest amount of white cuff to appear after the jacket sleeve ended. That discussion ended with agreement between Ali's mother and the expert that this would have to be done before the next show.
Then Ali was brought to the indoor ring and she mounted her horse, Chocolate Chip, from a step stool provided by her trainer. She knew the requirements and the steps because she had been attending camp for a few hours daily over the prior weeks; she appeared confident and completely attentive. We were just spectators now; friends and family were now in the background and Ali was led out of the ring after once around, to the show coral outside. The heat was unbearable actually. It was 8:30 am and the air was already suffocating and heavy with humidity. Ali was unperturbed by this even in a tightly fitting and layered uniform. I noted her complete comfort when her hair bows had fallen out during transit and I easily placed them back in her hair with complete cooperation from her.
Then she and four other little girls, all gussied up as well, were put through their paces with the assistance of a trainer leading each of them with a rope and a lot of kind and quiet words; the trainers became invisible as the girls rode. The judge announcing each event through a slightly defective microphone, was articulate and gentle, but very neutral in his comments as the events were announced and the girls completed their tasks.
Ali won two blue ribbons in a row (trotting, walking, etc... I am not sure of all of these steps, but you get the gist) and then a pink ribbon for the jump readiness position. Her jumping position looked especially sophisticated, but I guess I know nothing about this sport because she only received a pink ribbon for that activity. At the end, each girl was asked an academic question by a judge; the judge stood quietly next to each girl on horseback and then asked a question dispassionately and moved to the next girl. The spectators were out of earshot and had no idea about the questions or the answers.
We asked her about the question in the car on the way home. Ali's question was about what the stirrup was called. She answered perfectly, "stirrup irons"; some of us knew one word of the answer, but not the full answer that Ali gave. The complete and perfect answer was "stirrup irons"; and I was very impressed that she had absorbed the practical training, as well as the intellectual aspects of horsemanship.
She won the Blue ribbon for the entire competition; and we all celebrated her victory at the end by the coral. She was off her horse and there were many photos taken of her with her proud mother, father, and 7 year old brother.
She never gloated, by the way. We all gloated and told her how proud we were... not about the winning by the way, but mostly about her commitment and behavior and her attentiveness on a very, very hot day and at a very young age and finally for doing something that is very challenging. Ali stepped up to the challenge of being still on the horse with perfect posture and she never moved her head and her eyes from the task. She had composure and she was "one with the horse". At one moment I daydreamed and looked across the ring and saw her as a grown-up young woman.
And later when she was asked about the day, it wasn't about the blue ribbon, but more about how everyone came to see her ride -- Dr. Jane and Diana in addition to her mother, father, and brother. She was appreciative in the midst of a victory with ribbons. She was already a professional at 4 years of age... skilled, focused, and motivated, but clearly grateful for the support she had on this very big and important day.
I took some photographs with my iPhone 4 (which I will include with this blog) and I cried as I framed the shots. Why did I cry? Why was I so touched?
I've known this "baby" since she was just a few months old, when a few photos and some medical information were reviewed by me, the pediatrician, with her parents before she was adopted from Ethiopia. I know her story and the social circumstances of her Ethiopian family and I am aware of how startling and poignant this moment was for her and her "forever" family.
She has become a lovely, gracious and aware young girl who has a destiny to become the best that she can be; I want that for every child in the world. Ali's past and her current achievement inspires me to envision a better life for all the orphans and vulnerable children who live without parental guidance around the world... who live in extreme poverty and who lack the love, care, and stimulation that would propel them to competence, excellence and final independence in their own communities abroad.
I cried with joy for her and those like her who have a permanent family through adoption. And I cried with a deep longing and yearning, for those who have none of this and who deserve it. Ali inspires and drives me to work harder as the CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, to raise awareness and money to help make a home for all orphans in their own impoverished communities around the world. They all need to achieve and feel appreciation from those who love them. They all need to experience the metaphoric freedom and oneness with a horse, and not have any thoughts of hunger or loneliness. They need to be cherished by their governments, their local communities, and by the global community... us!