For Leigh Hedrick, learning her way around the jumper ring was even more fun aboard a partner with a unique moniker.
A year ago, when Leigh Hedrick first heard the name of her new mount, she just started laughing.
“I didn’t even bother giving him a nickname because I loved his name so much,” she said.
It may have been a novelty for Hedrick, 15, but the 10-year-old Thoroughbred had been living as “Chalupa” since his racing days. Chalupa (Ponche—Lupus, Northern Wolf) made just as amusing a first impression in person. When Hedrick first laid eyes on him, he had been clipped—but only on his right side.
“They said the drugs [to sedate him for clipping] wore off before they had to ship him,” she said. “He was funny looking. His neck was skinny, he had a huge head, and he looked scrawny. He got muscle eventually, and his neck and stomach filled out, so then his head and legs looked really small. He wouldn’t win a conformation class, but he definitely had the athletic ability and could get the job done.”
Hedrick, of Barrington, Ill., spent one year leasing Chalupa and learning the ropes in the children’s division. In 2008, they finished second in the U.S. Equestrian Federation Zone 5 and third in the Illinois Hunter Jumper Association’s children’s jumper standings. The highlight of the year, said Hedrick, was finishing as the fastest four-faulter in the Marshall & Sterling Finals (N.Y.). She’s now moved on to a new, low junior/amateur-owner horse, but she picked up plenty of experience with the 16.3-hand gelding.
“He definitely taught me a lot about how you need to not go too slow to a fence, that you need energy,” she said. “Chalupa made me focus on balance and having enough pace.”
She worked with him to overcome his tendency to crabwalk, especially when he knew it was time to start a round.
“When he walked into the ring he’d be calm, but as soon as he heard the buzzer, he’d be dancing from side to side,” said Hedrick.
Hedrick moved from the hunters to the jumpers as soon as trainer Kris Yankula allowed her. “I wanted it to be me and my horse as a team together, that we would decide if we would win or lose, not a judge,” she said.
And with plenty of wins to their names in 2008, Hedrick and Chalupa had become quite a team. “He’s definitely one of my favorite [horses], because of how much fun we had while I was on him and how sweet he was,” she said. “He was feisty on the ground and tried to bite a lot, but if kids were running around the barn, he’d just stand there. He was good in chaos.
“He taught me that good horses don’t necessarily come in hunter form,” she added. “No matter what they look like or how they move, they can still teach you everything you need to know.”
Sometimes horse show announcers used Chalupa’s name to liven up their routine. “At St. Louis, they would say his name with a lot of flourish, and then just announce my name normally,” recalled Hedrick. “And one of the announcers felt the need to call him Burrito for all his rounds.”
At one of her wins in St. Louis, Hedrick received a fitting prize: a horse treat in the shape of a taco, which Chalupa especially enjoyed.
“Everyone asks me why I named him that, and I didn’t, but I can’t picture him being named anything else,” she said. “I wanted to try feeding him some Mexican food once, but it was suggested by my trainer and my mom that it was not a good idea.”
A freshman in high school, Hedrick makes time to ride five or six days a week, in addition to playing volleyball and badminton. She also won the IHJA and Zone 5 standings for children’s jumpers with a second mount, Dressed To Impress.
Since Chalupa had some previous injuries, Hedrick’s trainer convinced her that the best thing would be for her to continue her education with another horse and let Chalupa teach someone else how to jump at that level.
Even though it won’t be with Chalupa, Hedrick has big goals for 2009: “I want to try and place well, learn the lows and be able to do the highs and be champion in the circuit again,” she said.
But she’ll likely never drive through Taco Bell without thinking of a special horse.