Accurate riding by Abby O'Mara earns the veteran junior hunter his third consecutive Harrisburg tricolor.
When Don Stewart Jr. says he’s never seen Lyle go better than he did this year at the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg, Pa., he knows what he’s talking about.
After all, under Stewart’s decade-long tutelage the legendary gray has won nearly every accolade that can be bestowed upon a junior hunter, including two USEF Horse of the Year titles (2006 and ’07), The Chronicle of the Horse 2008 Show Hunter Horse of the Year and two victories in the USEF Junior Hunter Finals—East (2002 and 2007).
And under Abby O’Mara’s skillful riding, Lyle added a third consecutive Pennsylvania National junior hunter title to his name during Junior Weekend, Oct. 8-11.
Their spot-on hand gallop in the handy round became the talk of the show grounds for the weekend and earned them one of their two blue ribbons over fences. Coupled with another second place, they earned 26 points on the way to the small junior hunter, 16-17, championship, the high-point small junior hunter award and grand junior hunter title.
“When the first trip went well I knew we were in for a good weekend,” said O’Mara. “We were a point away from reserve at Capital Challenge [Md.], so to be champion here is really exciting.”
The pair just edged Old Oak Farm’s Red Rooster and Alex Arute, who took reserve honors in the small junior hunter, 16-17, division. But Red Rooster took blue in the junior hunter winners’ stakes as consolation, and Arute picked up the coveted best child rider on a horse award.
“Lyle’s been awesome—the two of them are a perfect match,” said Stewart. “He looks relaxed and confident. He lives on his owner, Stephanie Keen’s, farm, and she’s done a wonderful job with him. I can’t complain about anything she’s done, and I’m a pretty good complainer!”
When O’Mara took over riding duties on the 15.31⁄4-hand flea-bitten gray in Jacksonville, Fla., this year she knew she’d have a lot to live up to.
“I try not to think about it too much,” admitted the 17-year-old from Rumson, N.J. “He’s so famous! Some person I’d never met before came up and gave him a big hug the other day while I was on him, which was pretty funny. But it’s not too stressful. My trainer, Mary Babick, always says to me before I go in the ring, ‘Just go have fun.’ ”
Keen, Ocala, Fla., has enjoyed caring for her old partner on her Star Hill Farm and watching him compete in the hunters since she retired from the show ring to start a family. At eight months pregnant, Keen couldn’t make the trek to Harrisburg, but she couldn’t have been happier for O’Mara and Lyle.
“I’m so proud of both of them!” she said. “I still get so excited when he wins, but if the kid is happy that’s all that matters. I have always told whoever was riding him to have fun, because that’s what matters.”
Mitchell Makes It Work
Meg Mitchell doesn’t have as many opportunities to practice as most of her competitors in the $10,000 NAL Children’s Hunter Final. Since she’s started working with Ohio-based Jeff and Keeley Gogul, she usually only rides at shows since she and her mounts live in different states.
But that didn’t stop the Franklin, Tenn., native from riding her Oksana to blue in the two-round classic. She put in a solid first round to sit fourth with a score of 78. She then inched ahead of the rest in the second round when she returned to earn a mark of 83.
“She’s phenomenal, I just love her!” said Mitchell of her Dutch Warmblood (Junior STV—F. Katrina). “Over the past four years we’ve really bonded. I just have to sit there and look pretty.”
Oksana and Mitchell have maintained a long-distance relationship since they started working with the Goguls this spring. Oksana lives at their Flagship Ltd. in Gates Mills, Ohio, and they keep the bay mare show ready. Mitchell traveled to Ohio a few times to squeeze in some extra practice before her first trip to Harrisburg.
“It’s a new arrangement, but it works,” said Mitchell, 14. “I play volleyball, basketball and some other sports, so I don’t really ride at home. I just have to go off what I did at the last show.”
Mitchell campaigned Oksana throughout the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic to qualify for the NAL Final, earning tricolors at Ridgewood at Andrews I and II (Ohio) and Skidmore I and II (N.Y.).
Despite the fact that some of the folks at the barn jokingly call her “Oksana bin Laden,” Mitchell insisted that under her mareish exterior she’s one of the sweetest charges in the stable.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more from her,” said Mitchell. “If I do my job I know she’ll be right there for me.”
Northwind’s Opus Composes A Win
When Nicole Kehrli first started riding Northwind’s Opus 41⁄2 years ago, she dreamed of winning a big prize at the Pennsylvania National, but she didn’t think it would be in the jumper ring.
“We got him to be a hunter pony, but he was too crazy!” said Kehrli of the now 8-year-old.
But the frisky Welsh-cross proved a champion anyway, finding blue in this year’s NAL Pony Jumper Finals. They posted one of four clear trips in the first round, then outran Sydney Shulman and Set Sail to take the top check back to Glenmoore, Pa.
“In the jump-off I tried to focus on turns rather than running, because that’s the way to get it done,” said Kehrli, who trains with Linda Furches. “I just tried to ride it forward with enough leg to help him.”
Though she just started contesting rated shows this year aboard “Opy,” Kehrli has plenty of other equine activities filling her time. A C-3 Pony Clubber with Pickering Hunt (Pa.), Kerhli has evented through novice level aboard her mother’s horse and also excels at mounted games.
“It’s a great mix and a good variety so I never get bored,” she said. “The dressage from eventing really helps a lot with jumpers, and the games teaches them to be very reactive.”
Though there’s only one pony jumper class at Harrisburg, Northwind’s Opus wasn’t the only sub-14.2-hand jumper to take home a blue ribbon. Abbie Ross tacked up TNT again five days after the pony classic to compete against full-sized mounts in the $10,000 NAL Children’s Jumper Finals and proved that you don’t have to be big to win.
While Ross misjudged the time allowed earlier in the week during the pony competition, she rode perfectly against the horses. One of 13 clear first-round riders, Ross put together a smooth second round to stop the clock a full 4 seconds faster than Mio W and Kimberly Saul, while still maintaining plenty of control.
“I have so much confidence in her; I know I can trust her no matter what,” said Ross. “She can be feisty, but she’s very sweet. She has a smaller stride than the horses, but she’s still competitive.”
The experienced pony jumper has proven herself time and time again, having amassed plenty of wins in the pony and children’s rings, including a blue in last year’s NAL Pony Jumper Finals.
Ross picked up the ride after her sister Lillie grew too tall for the 14.13⁄8-hand mare. But 15-year-old Lillie still stays involved, co-training her sister along with their mother Allison. The pony stays an hour from the Ross’ home in Wheaton, Ill., but they still ride five days a week.
And though 13-year-old Abbie may one day follow in her sister’s footsteps and grow too tall for TNT, her younger brother waits in the wings for his turn to ride the family favorite.