Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 7
The U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Finals award ceremonies are a familiar scene for Blueberry Hill, who earned the top tricolor in the small pony hunter division with Natalie Jayne aboard. While this is only Jayne's second time competing at Pony Finals, held Aug. 4-10, this marks "Whitney's" sixth time making the trip. Last year, Hannah Bernstein rode the mare to a fifth-placed finish in the same division.
Though Whitney, a 13-year-old Welsh pony, has shown many riders around the Walnut Ring at the Kentucky Horse Park, she and Jayne make a unique winning combination.
"She's special," said Jayne. "She doesn't go like other ponies; she has a huge stride, so it's easy to find distances on her. She's fun to ride and doesn't spook at anything."
Natalie and her mother, Lynn Jayne, bought Whitney two years ago with the help of Natalie's trainer, Patricia Griffith. They leased Whitney to Bernstein last year, but now the mare is back home at the Jayne's Our Day Farm in Elgin, Ill.
"We've been really fortunate to have this pony," said Lynn. "Natalie is doing a lot of winning on Whitney, but amazingly, [Natalie] hasn't done many big classes. Before she got in the ring I said, 'You just need to relax and do what you've been doing. It's no different from any other class.' "
While Natalie's nerves over the weight of the class didn't seem to play a part in her performance, Lynn, who has performed double duty as mom and trainer since Natalie was 1 year old, watched from the sidelines with white knuckles. She now shares her coaching responsibilities with Griffith as Natalie progresses in the hunters.
"I was really nervous!" said Lynn. "It wasn't a matter of confidence in [Natalie]; I knew she could do it. But I'm glad [Griffith] was training her today. Normally that's my job, but here at Pony Finals I was nervous and wanting the win for her, so I think that would've rubbed off on her."
After the model and under-saddle classes, the pair stood 15th in the rankings. But 10-year-old Natalie usually doesn't get too concerned with the competition aspect of the show. Instead, she tends to focus on having a good ride, hanging out with her friends and bonding with her pony.
So when she entered the ring for the over-fences class, she didn't expect to top the field of 100 and claim the championship.
"[Natalie] doesn't really know the format of Pony Finals that well, so she didn't really realize that if she had a great round she could still win the whole thing," said Lynn. "It wasn't like being on top where you're feeling a lot of pressure. She just went in and gave [Whitney] the best ride she could."
Lynn taught Natalie to ride as a toddler by putting her in the smallest helmet she could find and standing her up on the pommel of her saddle to walk around the ring after she had finished exercising her horses. Riding and showing have always been a mother-daughter bonding activity for the Jayne's, but Lynn never wanted Natalie to feel pressure to be involved with horses.
"I never really made her go to the barn and hang out and be a barn rat; we just kind of let her like it on her own," said Lynn. "I still feel that way; as long as she loves this sport, we'll keep pursuing it.
"We're doing this as a mother and daughter, and obviously there can be some differences of opinion and such, but she's just a really sweet, good kid," she continued. "I think she handled [the big venue and class] really well. She loves this sport and she's doing really well with it, which is all you could ever want as a parent, or trainer for that matter!"
The Yellow Nugget
Madeline Schaefer, of Westminster, Md., is one of the busiest riders at Pony Finals; after earning the reserve champion ribbon in the small green pony hunter division on Rollingwoods Tuxedo yesterday, she hopped on Armani to earn the same honor in the small pony hunters.
Armani entered the show hunter scene about three years ago after his days as a breeding stallion ended. Since then, the flashy 10-year-old Welsh Pony can't seem to stay out of the spotlight.
"I got asked to ride him from a friend of ours, and I rode him here for them as a green pony," said Schaefer. "He was quite green at that point, but he was still eventually a star."
The Schaefers purchased Armani as a Christmas present in 2012. "He's like a horse," said Schaefer. "He has the biggest stride; there's not really an issue with the stride! He's just really enjoyable to ride. He wants to win a lot of times, and he's got a little sass in him."
While he normally goes by "Armani" in the barn, sometimes Schaefer calls him "The Yellow Nugget." "He's a pony of many names," she said with a laugh.
They were second in the model class, poising them for a top finish heading into the over-fences portion. But a head shake after an oxer on Bobby Murphy's course was cause for concern. "I didn't know what the judges were going to do with that. The rest of the round was great," said Schaefer. The pair finished sixth over fences—good enough for the small pony reserve championship.
Armani's many career highlights include the grand pony hunter champion title at Capital Challenge (Md.) last fall.