When Michelle Parker trotted into the ring for the second round of the $25,000 HITS Grand Prix on March 13, she couldn’t ward off a feeling of déjà vu. Two weeks earlier she’d found herself in the same situation, following Bjorn Ikast and Brave Heart in a two-horse jump-off.
But while last time a rail relegated her to second in the victory gallop, this week Parker managed to find a quicker way around the course and leave all the jumps in the cups, scoring the top check aboard Reina during the final day of the HITS Arizona circuit.
That win in Tucson felt especially meaningful to Parker and owner Tula Pinnella, as the Holsteiner scored her first grand prix victory at the class last year. Parker also logged the fastest four-fault round on Clever to claim third behind Ikast and Brave Heart.
“Reina’s become much more seasoned and very straightforward,” said Parker, San Marcos, Calif.
“She has a good motor, and by now she really gets it. We didn’t get to practice last week because a flu bug went through my barn, but she stepped right in this week and felt great.”
Reina was the outcome of some bad luck. When Pinnella’s mare Lady got hurt 12 years ago, she decided to breed the Belgian Warmblood while she recuperated. And when Pinnella saw the precocious baby jump off a bank in her field, she suspected she might have another talented animal on her hands.
Reina, by Romiro, represented Pinnella’s first foray into the breeding world, and that niche fit nicely with her then-day job as a registered nurse.
“The night before she was born her mother looked antsy,” recalled Pinnella. “I’m looking at her, thinking that she’s ready, but when I called the vet he wouldn’t come out, because he’d just seen her and didn’t think she was ready. Sure enough, she had Reina the next day. The vet was so embarrassed, but I just said, ‘Girls know!’ ”
Pinnella, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., sold Reina to try a career in the hunter ring, but the new owner traded her back for some cash and a truck when it didn’t prove a perfect fit. Before coming to Parker, Reina also produced a foal of her own named Cameo, by Pinnella’s former grand prix jumper Central Park. Parker rode Cameo, now 7, to level 3 ribbons in Tucson for her owner—and Reina’s groom—Salvador Alvarado.
Under Parker’s guidance, Reina’s picked up grand prix ribbons across California, Texas and Colorado, and she topped the $24,900 SWFC Variable Grand Prix at Tucson Fall Preview (Ariz.) in October.
“I was extraordinarily lucky to breed such a great horse and have it end up at the upper levels, and of course there were a couple bumps in the road on the way,” said Pinnella. “But Michelle really made this happen. She’s such a well-educated, cool rider with a nice way around the horses.”
The Cream Of The Crop
Pinella wasn’t the only one continuing the legacy of a former mount in Tucson. Shine On Me, one of the circuit’s biggest hunter winners, has an especially long history with owner Nancy Gray.
Gray had to retire her favorite show horse Sweet Talk prematurely due to recurring soundness issues, so she opted to give her a new job as a broodmare. Her son, Shine On Me, has proven just as adept as his mother at picking up tricolors, winning the amateur-owner, 36 and over, and high performance hunter circuit titles at HITS Arizona. Shine On Me showed three weeks on his way to the titles.
Gray fell in love with Shine On Me’s sire, Shine, when she saw him compete with Christa Endicott on the Califor-nia circuit, and sure enough, his offspring have proved to be as good as she hoped.
“I’ve bred a few other horses, but he’s the cream of the crop,” she said. “As soon as he hit the ground I knew he’d be the special one. He’s athletic, quiet and takes no prep. He’s the kind of horse you can take straight out of his stall to the ring, and he doesn’t do anything wrong. Plus he’s a great mover and jumper.”
But it started out a little tougher. “Fonzie” was born on Gray’s Glendale, Ariz., farm but proved willful as a baby. So Gray sent him to an expert from the reining world to take over when it came time to back him. He came back to Gray for a bit, but her day job as an ultrasound technician for the Arizona Heart Institute relegated most riding to weekends. So these days Fonzie lives with trainer Gretchen Lof in Cave Creek, Ariz., 30 miles away. Lof rode Fonzie to the high performance series title.
Fonzie’s rideability and Lof’s talent make him a consistent performer in handy hunter classes and USHJA National Hunter Classics. The Oldenburg topped the $2,500 Devoucoux Hunter Prix during Week 5.
“Gretchen’s very patient with the young ones, and she’s done a great job with Fonzie,” said Gray. “When I brought him to her he’d never jumped a jump, and she brought him through to the 4′ division.”
Gray hopes to continue earning ribbons aboard her homebred in California this summer.
Welcome Is Well Received
Susie Straus had her hands full during the HITS Arizona circuit. As a Tucson native and a young professional with a busy lesson and show barn, she found herself constantly trekking back and forth between the Pima County Show-grounds and her Well Spring Farm to keep her farm running normally during the six-week circuit and her showing customers schooled for competition.
But somewhere in the middle she managed to find time to ride Welcome to the first year green circuit champ-
ionship for Ryann Thomas. Welcome, an 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Indoctro—Eleine), showed three weeks on his way to the circuit award. According to Straus, the horse stepped up to the rated divisions gracefully this season, thanks to his easygoing temperament.
“He’s one of those you can pull out of the stall and just get on,” said Straus, who started riding him a year ago when he was fresh out of the baby green division. “He’s become one of the most straightforward horses to ride: you just point him at the jump, and he’ll hunt right down. He may not be the greatest mover in the world, but he jumps a 10 every time.”
Welcome kept up that same form for his owner, Ryan Thomas, in the low amateur-owner ring, claiming the junior/amateur owner classic title during Week 6. Thomas graduated to the amateur ring after spending most of last season dominating the adult amateur divisions. He’s also taken to the derby format, placing in several USHJA National Hunter Classics last season and Devoucoux Hunter Prix during the circuit. Straus, 28, looks forward to continuing to hone his natural abilities in the handy classes as she promotes him this season.
The win rings especially meaningful for the young professional, who turned pro five years ago. She also felt validated in Well Spring Farm’s other accomplishments, including Betsy Checchia’s adult amateur jumper circuit title on Saderma and the Arenus tack room award for the farm’s display.
“The hardest thing at the start of my career was just figuring out what’s important,” she said. “As a young professional you feel like people are watching you and judging you, but you just have to worry about what’s best for you and figure out what you want your business to look like. When you start to have some success, you realize you’re on the right track. Now I’m so lucky that we have nice horses and wonderful, loyal customers. It just takes a little time and staying focused on doing things right.”
Primetime For Paris
Paris and Michelle Ebert weren’t the likeliest of circuit champions at the HITS Arizona circuit. Heading into the season the New Zealand Performance Horse developed shoeing issues that put her out of commission for a month and prevented her from jumping for two.
But with the hard work of farrier Tom Wright, Paris got back in the show ring just in time to earn the modified junior/amateur-owner circuit award.
“We’ve been a team since we started together,” said Ebert. “That horse wins 90 percent of the time. She’s fast, careful and hot, and we both like to go.”
Which isn’t to say that every moment at Tucson was perfect. Their first week of showing was, in Ebert’s words, “a disaster.” Before Week 2 Ebert upped her bit to a pelham, which made all the difference in her performance. The following week Paris earned the reserve title, and she clinched the championship during the last two shows in the circuit.
It was a pretty good way to end a rough year for Ebert. She suffered a freak accident at Costco, when a chair that had been improperly assembled collapsed as she sat in it, breaking her back and tearing her rotator cuff. Then her Monroe, Wash., home burned down. But none of it slowed Ebert down.
“I just kept on riding,” she said. “The horses keep you going because they depend on you. I didn’t take pain pills for my back or anything—the horses kept me getting up in the morning.”
That enthusiasm for the sport and indomitable spirit propelled Ebert, who rides as an amateur, to take up the reins later in life than many. But now she’s gone from riding two days a week to dedicating her life to the sport, keeping a barn full of horses at home. Those charges include several babies, which Ebert bred, broke and will bring up through the levels.
Ebert meets up with Bernie Traurig when she can for help at shows, but the rest of the time—like in Tucson—the amateur is on her own. That’s nothing new for her. She drives her own truck, recruits her husband David to set fences for her at shows and enlists her son Derek to help put in studs and groom.
“I never had horses when I was a kid, even though I always wanted to,” said Ebert. “It’s so awesome to be able to do all this now. It’s what I live for.”
Firenze And Funk Find Blue
Firenze’s partnership with Abby Funk has been years in the making. Her mother, Mary Ann Funk, mentally bookmarked the pony years earlier as a great first large pony, drawn in by his simplicity, big step and lovely jump. Eventually she bought the pony for a client, and when that rider grew too tall, Firenze found his way to Ashwood Farm on a trade. Now that Mary Ann has him, he’s turned out to be just what she needed.
“He’s the Rock of Gibraltar, the one I can count on no matter what,” she said. “He’ll always have a home with us.”
Firenze earned that praise for performances like the ones at the HITS Arizona Circuit, where he and Abby earned the large pony hunter series championship. Abby also picked up the medium pony circuit title aboard Always Happy for Whitney Snyder.
Firenze’s done more than serve as a great hunter for Abby and her sister Emily: he also helped Abby ease into the jumper ring. Not that colored rails and higher speeds were his forte, but Mary Ann knew he’d have the mind and talent to go around easily.
“He’s really fun to ride, and I think his job is really easy for him to do,” said Abby, 10. “He’s pretty lazy, but when I put on medium-sized spurs he listens pretty well. Plus he likes being around people and any kind of treat.”
Abby also used this trip to Tucson to make her debut in the junior hunter ring aboard Desiree and get some more jumper rounds under her belt. Accord-ing to the Manhattan, Kan., rider, this series gave her the perfect opportunity to do all that.
“It’s a good place for me to learn,” she said. “There aren’t 35 in every class, so it’s a good place for me to do things like the jumpers and the junior hunters for the first time. I’m still getting used to the 3’6″, but luckily Desiree really helps me out.”
Abby will continue in the hunter ring this year and hopes to rack up enough pony jumper points to earn an invitation to the USEF Pony Finals (Ky.), in addition to a repeat appearance in the hunter ring.