Rising To The (Developing Pro) Challenge

Oct 4, 2017 - 2:50 PM

When we set out to make a plan for this season, our primary goal and focus for 2017 was qualifying and competing Cassius, an 8-year-old Warmblood gelding owned by Michelle Durpetti, in the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships.

In August, it was both a pleasure and privilege to check that goal off of my list, and I blogged about the opportunity here, here, and here.

Admittedly, with Derby Finals as our main objective for Cassius’s year, qualifying for indoors in the high performance division was not even on our radar when Michelle and I mapped out a game plan. But the more we chatted throughout the year, the more we realized, maybe adding the indoor finals to Cassius’s agenda wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

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A quiet moment with Cassius at the show. Photo by Jump Media/Emily Riden

I secretly think that Michelle just wanted the riding company at indoors while she showed her amateur-owner hunter Lucca! But in addition to that, beginning in January, Cassius won’t just be my derby and high performance horse—he’ll be Michelle’s amateur-owner mount. I told Michelle that if she ends up wanting to qualify him for indoors next year, it would be great for him to have experienced it before—and if anything, by competing in the high performance together this year, the 3’6 will feel like a breeze for Cass next year!

So now, here we are at the Capital Challenge Horse Show (Md.) for the first leg of our indoor journey. As I’m writing this, I’ve competed Cassius in the high performance division.

Our first trip earned us an average score of 72.5. I think we both went into that round holding our breath a little bit. We just came off of the Kentucky National Horse Show where we were able to show in the Alltech Arena, which was good prep for this. But this venue is also half the size of the expansive Kentucky ring, so the first round here was a good reminder of how things come up very quickly off the turn.

The footing’s a little bit different; the venue itself is different. You school outside, and then you come inside. It’s all a bit of a change from what Cassius has done before, but by the end of the first trip, I exhaled a bit more and probably let Cassius exhale. So we had some minor mistakes in the first class, but it was something to build on.

In the second round, we both walked in much for confidently, and he was much more relaxed. It was a much smoother trip, and we were rewarded with a nicer score of 81.25. We didn’t jog, but I was happy with our round—have you seen the horses currently competing in the high performance hunters!? The talent of both the horses and the riders in that division is substantial, and just knowing that we qualified to compete with them and are in the pack is a great feeling.

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Cassius and I showing in the high performance division at Capital Challenge. Photo by Jump Media/Emily Riden

On Tuesday, we finished competing in the high performance division, and I felt so great about the experience overall. The handy was a challenging course. Cassius is a large horse with a huge stride, and I have always been most comfortable riding him with a little bit of pace. After discussing with Mary Foster and Mary Lisa Leffler (who are helping me here on the ground for which I am so grateful!), we decided that a more packaged, slower pace would be key to jumping some great jumps and having rideability in between the jumps as well. The jumps were big and the tracks were challenging, and I really enjoyed the experience with Cassius. He grew more confident with each round, and we ended up jogging in the top 10! That is such a nice feeling.

The last two days were again something to build on for what comes next, which for us is the World Championship Hunter Rider Developing Pro Challenge tonight.

Aiming for the Developing Pro Challenge was largely Michelle’s idea, as she’s always supportive of me going for those sorts of goals. She really enjoys competition as a way to test her knowledge level, and she always tries to make sure that I have those same opportunities. It is a great practice because it motivates us to keep pushing ourselves, and to keep working within our own respective goals and that is motivating in and of itself.

I did the class two years ago on a horse named Granted Wish, and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity again. I think it’s an awesome class for us up-and-coming professionals, and it gives us the chance to have a special, featured class during Capital Challenge’s WCHR Finals. It’s another class that gives us something to aim for and set as a goal to work toward.

Growing up I focused on the equitation, and always had a love for the jumpers. I never really jumped into the deep end of the hunters, so having the chance to do classes like the USHJA Derby Finals and the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge has been really exciting, and with each time in the ring, I can feel both Cassius’s and my confidence growing. Michelle jokes that she brings me over to the hunters (her first love), and I convince her to step foot into the jumper ring—again, working together to motivate each other and our horses. And, all joking aside, it truly creates such a well-rounded foundation of experiences for riders when we get to compete in various rings.

That growing confidence is something that Michelle and I talk about a lot. We all know that increasing confidence in a young horse’s abilities is something frequently worked on, and improving confidence is talked about for, say, the timid amateur moving up from the 3’3” to the 3’6”, but I find confidence building so important even for a professional like myself. And that’s how Michelle and I like to view each incredible opportunity that we’ve had this year—as a confidence-building experience.

When you walk into the ring at an indoor final or for a class like the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, there’s something comforting about knowing, “We qualified for Derby Finals and turned in solid rounds against the best derby horses in country,” and “We qualified to be here at Capital Challenge, and there’s no reason we can’t do well.” With each passing horse show, there’s something new to add to that confidence-bolstering list, which is a great feeling.

So, I’ll head into the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge with absolutely no expectations. Cassius is young, and we’re both here to continue to build confidence. But I can feel good knowing that we’re both ready to put our best efforts forward. We are happy to be here and enjoying the journey of indoors so far this year!


Born and raised in Sheffield, Mass., Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of 8. In 2013, Shiels joined the team at Canterbury Farm in Hampshire, Ill., as a trainer and rider, training hunter/jumper riders to compete on the local, regional and national level. Read all of her COTH blogs.

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