Walking into the week of the Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship in Lexington, Kentucky, I was immediately impressed with the energy. There was such excitement, a lot of nerves, and a lot of happiness. For Cassius, his owner, Michelle Durpetti, and myself, we made it to this point, and we were thinking that Derby Championship is the icing on the cake, and whatever happens, happens.
I felt really good about my preparation. The program I develop with each of the horses is something I take really seriously. The great thing about Cassius is that we’ve had three years to get to know each other and determine what works for us.
The week prior to arriving in Lexington, I worked only flatwork with Cassius and incorporated rails, cavaletti and exercises that would help us practice lengthening and shortening his stride. I tried to focus on things that I knew were weaknesses of ours together. Sometimes, when he gets a little nervous (which can happen when he attempts the higher options), he likes to hang a little bit in the air, so I practiced with wide oxers, knowing from last year that the oxers at Derby Championship are wider than what we normally see in a high performance class. Practicing these kinds of things at home helps to strengthen him, and it also just makes me feel that much more confident walking into the ring. If I feel good knowing that I have done my homework, I walk in with a clear head and the belief that the homework will (hopefully) pay off!
In fact, right before we left for Derby Championship, I set up an oxer-oxer in-and-out with a little bit of a long distance, thinking maybe we’d see that this year. And of course, when we looked at the first course, there was a massive two-stride oxer-oxer. I was like, “Yes! I practiced that!” so I felt really confident about that part.
Nothing To Lose
Cassius went beautifully on Friday, and making the top 20 in that round was extra icing on the cake and a big pat on the shoulder for us. I decided the best way to ride that classic round was to be cautious, strategic and trust my pace. I also thought he was excellent in the handy round on Saturday night. Walking in there, I absolutely had some nerves but thought to myself, “At this point, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m just going to go ride.”
He really jumped great. He jumped his heart out for me, and the connection that I have with Cass is a really special one. He trusts me, and I can feel that in the ring.
From the moment we got here, he definitely felt a little bit more mature and in tune with things. Walking into the ring I could feel his confidence, and that was such a great moment for me. I think he sensed I was a little bit nervous the first day, but he handled it really well. I felt comfortable taking some of the options I did because of that confidence.
There is so much more to being here than competing, although that is truly a privilege. To be there and watch all the top horses in the country is special. This show brings so many people to one place, so catching up with colleagues and friends that we don’t see all year is also something I really enjoy. Everybody shows up for that week, and to watch everybody apply their strategies and programs is so interesting. Watching what works for other people inspires new ideas, and one of the things I want to take away from it is all I get to learn. I’m a very visual learner, so watching how other people do things is a really useful tool and has always been a priority for me.
When the time for the class came on Friday, I couldn’t watch too many go. I went 80th in the order (out of 85), and I watched the first five or six go (I wanted to watch my friend Meagan Murray-Tenuta go and cheer her on!), and then I left, because if I watched more, I felt I would have overthought it a bit. I always like to walk my course, set my plan, and then ride according to that plan. Otherwise, I can get caught up in, “This person did this, and maybe I should too,” but in the end, I wanted ride what’s going to suit me and Cassius. It was a huge step forward from last year, to get to qualify for the section A handy, and that was so fulfilling.
It Was Electric
In the handy on Saturday, there was one option that had everyone talking; there was a bounce or one-stride or the short two-stride at the split rails. For me, the best thing was to pick the option that allowed my horse to excel there, so I chose the one stride.
As I was walking the course, I kept thinking, “This looks fun!” but there is this moment of, “Why did I decide to do this?!” Then of course, deep breath and back to the plan. I thought it would ride quite nicely, and that was where I kept myself mentally.
When I got on for the handy and began warming up, I could feel that he was a little bit nervous, probably sensing my own nerves. The Jumbotron was on; the video screen is so bright. The horses were seeing themselves up there, and that took their attention away a bit.
The energy in the warm-up ring is tough to describe. On the surface it is quiet, and of course everyone is professional and working in their own head. Some people are discussing strategy; others are jumping. It’s your typical warm-up ring in that sense. What is so different is the energy just beneath the surface. It’s essentially electric. There is such anticipation, excitement, hope and pressure on all of the riders, for a myriad of reasons. And it is palpable when you step into the ring.
But at the end of the day, I told myself this: I made it to the top 20; I made it to the night class; I moved up from where I was last year, and it’s a huge accomplishment. All I could do was go in and try my best. I knew he would go in and do his best. So that’s all we could do.
So Much Support
I have dealt with high pressure situations before as a junior riding in the equitation, and lucky for me, I had Andre Dignelli there for me for both rounds. I grew up riding with Andre, and he is a huge inspiration for me and a mentor. Hearing his voice while warming up brought me focus, and it also brought comfort.
The last three years have been a great journey with Cassius. When we bought him, he was quite green. I saw something in him right away, and after we’d done a few classes together, I said to Michelle, “You know, I think this horse could be something,” and she kind of looked at me sideways and was like, “Good luck with that!” Eventually, Cassius really started to show us who he was, and Michelle trusted my judgement. When I looked at her and said, “I think Cassius could do the big derbies,” her response was, “If you think that, I am behind you 100 percent.”
Much of my career has involved riding challenging horses, young horses, the underdog, so when I see something, I’m not the type who will give up on it if I truly believe there is something special there. I love a challenge I can sink my teeth into. In many ways, I’m my own worst nightmare when it comes to actually reaching the expectations that I set for myself. Admittedly, there are days when even winning does not feel like enough for me, but this is because I always want to do my best and more. That’s been a challenge ever since I was a kid.
Cassius has been instrumental in reminding me that sometimes progress does not move at the pace I would like it to, but that does not mean there is not progress. Horses in general are a constant reminder of that lesson. And although I need to remember that now and again, I am really appreciative to Cassius for always reminding me of it.
We have spent three years getting to this point. There have been a lot of sweat and tears and hard work with this horse, but it’s all been worth it. We’ve had so many highs and plenty of lows, but what makes it so fun is that each day is a new day, and Cassius has always shown up and tried to give his utmost. I think sometimes that if we went in and won every single class, it might get old, or I could take it for granted. I like the ebb and flow and how that keeps us grounded. It also drives me to try new things, whether it’s an exercise at home or a different class at the horse show. It pushes me to think outside the box and to be brave enough to change things up a little bit to keep the program fresh.
Riding The Wave
Michelle and I have been on this journey together from the start, and I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else. This year, I started a new business, and we took this leap together, and that’s been huge. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. She’s such a role model for me, a sister and a mentor. The financial backing and the opportunity to ride this horse is so important, but the really amazing thing is how she believes in me. Knowing someone cares for you and trusts you that much makes me feel so much better walking into a situation like that first day of Derby Championship.
She never impresses an expectation to win—there is never that pressure. Instead she worries that I will be disappointed and tells me that she always hopes for one thing, “that Cassius and I can leave our best effort out in the ring and feel really proud of that effort.”
I remember last year at Derby Championship, Michelle didn’t say much—we were both a little in shock that we were there! And she always worries about our safety and will often keep to herself while I’m preparing so that she doesn’t interrupt my process. This year, she just patted me on the back, gave Cassius a kiss on the nose and said, “I love you; be safe,” and sent me on my way.
I’ve done a lot in my career, and taking the step of going out on my own has felt like such an immense accomplishment. Being at Derby Championship this year with True North Stables and being able to walk in there and be in the top 20 is pretty kick-ass. Everyone keeps asking, “Well, how did it feel?” and I’m so happy with the way things are that it almost hasn’t sunk in yet. So much of this year hasn’t really settled in yet. It has been full of so many emotions!
We’ve just being riding the wave of it all, and it’s hard to believe that we’re already done with Derby Championship and thinking about Florida. The support I’ve gotten is overwhelming—phone calls, texts, Facebook messages. I can never fully express my gratitude towards my parents, my boyfriend Jeremy, my customers and all of my friends who have just been wonderful.
If there was one thing that I think could be different about Derby Championship, it is that the week gets a little bit crazy, and you run yourself a little bit thin showing the other horses in the horse show running concurrently. I’ve had conversations with a few people who expressed things like, “I wish they could just make this a championship week.” I didn’t have a second to go watch a green horse. It’s shame that these are the biggest championships of our year, and we can’t even go enjoy watching some of the young, up-and-coming stars. I had friends riding in those championships and wanted to support them but just did not have the time.
Some people say there’s no way to make that week just a championship week because then half the riders wouldn’t come, and that may be the case. Horse show logistics and planning are certainly not something I am well versed in; I prefer to ride and train! It is unfortunate that they can’t fix that, and I’m so excited for all of my friends who had great rides and good experiences earlier in the week!
As for what’s up next, we’re tentatively planning to go to the Pennsylvania National and Washington International (District of Columbia). I have one junior student who will do ASPCA Maclay Regionals in St. Louis, but we’ve decided that a quiet fall sounds delightful. We’ve shown quite a bit this year— close to 25 weeks. Admittedly, we’re tired, and the horses need a break, and as I progress through my 30s, I find it much easier to admit when I need to slow down and take a small breather. I think the horses are going to absolutely love it as well, so I’m really looking forward to that.
We’ll head home, regroup, recharge and allow everybody to have a little R and R and then come back fresh with renewed purpose for the next show season. Our goal is to do all of the Winter Equestrian Festival this year, and we are currently in the planning stages of that. If we get into the Pennsylvania National and the Washington International, we will be so thrilled, and we’ll decide what works best for us. It’s lot of travel, so if it’s something that’s in the cards for us, that’s great. We’ve loved every opportunity we’ve had to go to those shows; they are such fun!
But if not, we’ll just take a deep breath and get ready for next year. There’s always another horse show. It’s been a great year, so we have no complaints at all. Actually, as I finish writing this, I can say with complete honestly that not only are there no complaints. There is so much gratitude and best of all, happiness.
Born and raised in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of 8. In 2018, Shiels launched her own True North Stables, based in Illinois and Florida and dedicated to providing individualized training and opportunities that allow horse and rider to excel in the sport.