When Jennifer McFall met High Times, he was 5 and had competed in one Young Event Horse class. McFall herself was specializing in training Morgans and hadn’t yet competed at the two-star level. So to say she was expecting that young horse to be her future Rolex Kentucky CCI**** mount? Not likely.
“I thought he was a really, really nice horse,” said McFall, “but I’m not sure I had any ideas of going that far—even in my own life, personally, not just with him. I bought ‘Billy’ as my hobby. I’ve always loved eventing because I grew up in Pony Club, but it was never my main focus.”
But McFall and Billy have risen up the ranks together, doing their first CCI** at Galway Downs (Calif.) in 2012. They bumped up to the three-star level together the next year, finishing ninth at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.). Then, earlier this year, they made the ultimate jump, completing the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. This weekend, they’re back on home turf to make a bid for the Galway Downs CCI*** title.
“There’s nothing else in my life that felt like the accomplishment of finishing Rolex,” said McFall. “It was life-changing. It makes you want to do it more and more. Once you’ve done it, you want to do it a million times. It’s a thrill, and I guess we’re all thrill seekers.”
Ditchy No More
McFall wasn’t in the market for a horse of any kind in 2009 when she first spotted Billy, a California-bred Holsteiner (Hunter—Gerda I, Tin Rocco). She was riding at her Dragonfire Farm in Wilton, Calif., training Morgans and horses for other clients with husband Earl McFall, also an advanced rider, and their daughter Taylor was just 6.
“He’s a beautiful mover and horse, and I think that’s why I fell in love with him,” Jennifer said. “I saw him and thought, ‘I love this horse.’ That’s really how it all started. As time went on, I got bitten by the bug to do more and more.”
The black gelding’s flatwork impressed Jennifer initially, but she realized he was a bit trickier than expected at their first event together.
“I thought, ‘Oh, let’s just go do the novice,’ ” said Jennifer. “I found out how ditchy he was there! Ditches were a big problem for a long time. We didn’t even necessarily get over that until the advanced level. We still had some stops at trakheners at intermediate.”
Earl built a small ditch on their property, and Jennifer jumped Billy over it every day. However, by the time that initial issue was solved, Billy’s flatwork wasn’t going quite as smoothly.
“He’s a beautiful mover and horse, and I think that’s why I fell in love with him, but his dressage sometimes can frustrate him,” she said. “I think after the two-star level, I really started pressuring him, and I don’t know if that was a mistake.
“The end of last year, I just backed off,” said Jennifer. “I really didn’t take dressage lessons, and I just made it no big deal. I feel like this year he’s been more rideable. He’s a super hard trier. I think he tries so hard he gets in his own way sometimes.”
After finishing 10th at this year’s Galway Downs CIC*** in the spring, McFall headed east with her coach Hawley Bennett for Rolex.
“It was a question just entering: Are we really ready?” said Jennifer, 40. “I’d only done one CCI***, and Billy is only 10. We’re both super green, but in the end we decided we were fit and sound. Sometimes if you wait another year, you won’t be. I had such a good support system with Hawley and Buck [Davidson] and my family. We just decided to go for it. As nervous as I was, I trust Billy. You listen to your cheerleaders, and then you go and do it.”
Though the pair’s scores in dressage and show jumping weren’t their best, and Billy picked up 20 jumping penalties with some time on cross-country day, Jennifer knew she returned home to the West Coast with a more educated mount and some new skills of her own.
“I had a run-out at the second water, at a drop in and turn to a skinny. He’s great to skinnies, but the crowd distracted him. He literally didn’t see the jump. For me, that was kind of an eye-opener,” she said. “Yeah, you have a plan, but you need to think on your feet and maybe change that plan. Luckily that course is so long, you have time between the complexes to think. I was like, ‘I know I’ve walked this one plan 10,000 times,’ but you need to be able to change the plan. I feel like I came back with a much more confident horse.”
Jennifer spent the summer doing fitness work and tackling the dressage in her low-pressure way, and she was rewarded with one of Billy’s lowest FEI dressage scores, a 49.8, at the Rebecca Farm CIC*** (Mont). She’s aiming for a strong dressage mark in the Galway three-star as well and good jumping phases after a tune-up clinic with Davidson.
As Jennifer has moved up the levels with Billy, her business with Earl has been shifting more towards eventing—though she still has some Morgans as well. Earl and Jennifer stand a Thoroughbred stallion, The Twain, and more of their charges from the Academy at Dragonfire now move into the eventing world.
“The younger kids see the older ones as eventers, and that’s what they want to be, too,” said Jennifer. “We’re so lucky to make a life doing what we love. I tend to really like doing the young horses, so Earl teaches more than I do. He’s really good with all types of riders, and I relate more to competition-driven people. I love the breeding side of it, so he leaves that up to me.”
Jennifer and Earl also have a young enthusiast in daughter Taylor, now 11. Taylor is competing at novice with leased pony Kilbarry Prince. She even launched her own fundraising campaign to buy “Prince,” selling “Taylor’s Pony Puffs,” truck and trailer washes at events, and her tack cleaning services. She’s already raised about $6,000.
“I’m more nervous for her competing than I am for me,” said Jennifer. “It’s not in a safety way, but I just really want her to do well. You want it to work out and be positive for her. I’m proud of her, and I’m proud that she wants to be a good horsewoman and not just a competitor. I’ve never gotten her pony ready for her, even when she had her first pony. She’s always done it all herself.”