Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 8
Leon is one show pony of junior hunter star and popular catch-rider Madeline Schaefer's string that she calls her own and rides consistently, and that bond showed when they topped the medium green pony hunter division at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Finals, Aug. 4-10.
In addition to the champion title, Leon also sported the tricolor awarded to the highest scoring pony owned by his rider in the division of 70 competitors after moving up from their third-placed rank after the model and under-saddle classes.
Kate Conover, part of the Redfield Farm (Fla. and N.J.) team who frequently horse-hunts overseas for clients, had had her eye on Leon and gave the Schaefers a tip. "[Conover] was obsessed with him for, like, three years and we finally got him," said Maddie, who trains with her mother Stacy Schaefer and Patricia Griffith.
The Schaefers imported the 8-year-old Welsh Pony gelding from Belgium a year ago, and Maddie just started showing him this spring on the Florida circuit.
"He competes primarily in the medium pony division, just to work toward points for indoors, so it was kind of exciting to bring one here that maybe wasn't so green, and have a little fun with it," explained Samantha Schaefer, Maddie's older sister who often helps her at shows and to train her horses at their family's Shadow Ridge Farm base in Westminster, Md.
"He's very brave and he's never looked to misbehave," Samantha continued. "He's very straightforward, so we kind of knew what we had going into it."
Maddie, 13, added that Leon's independence sets him apart from her other mounts. "In the barn, he's very, very sweet, but he's not all over you," she said. "Some of my ponies will whinny, and he's kind of like, 'Oh, hi, Maddie.' "
While Maddie, who's in her seventh consecutive year competing at Pony Finals, says this is probably her last time, "everyone always says that!" the eighth grader at New Windsor Middle School (Md.) added with a laugh.
Only The Best For The Best
Like many of the older riders at the show, champion of the large green pony division, Kirklen Petersen, didn't expect to be coming back to compete at Pony Finals again this year.
"I thought I was done with Pony Finals after last year, but when the opportunity comes your way to go again, it's hard to pass up!" said Petersen.
That opportunity came last summer, when Betsee Parker saw Tori Colvin exercising a pony she had broke and trained herself: a gelding called For The Best. Parker knew immediately that "JuJu" would be the perfect pony for Petersen to compete.
"Tori Colvin had JuJu since he was a foal and she was the only person who ever rode him before [Petersen]," said Parker. "I saw [Colvin] riding him at Rivers Edge Farm [in Bedminster, N.J.], and right away I told Bridget Colvin, Tori's mother, that I wanted the pony to show with [Petersen] the next year. I was a little nervous that she wouldn't do ponies anymore because, you know, everyone wants to do the horses. [Petersen] responded back right away and said that she would be thrilled to do it.
"[Petersen has] been riding for [Stewart and I] since she was an 8-year-old kid, and we always loved her," Parker continued. "Sometimes we had a pony for her, but I always wanted something more for her because she was always so dedicated. She treated it as if the ponies were as important as the horses, which is rare with juniors who ride both."
The petite 18-year-old from Great Falls, Va., began competing JuJu at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival [Fla.] this year. Petersen immediately knew Parker had made the right call placing her and JuJu together when the pair was named circuit champion in the large green pony division.
"He's definitely my perfect ride," said Petersen. "He wants you to just leave him alone, pick up a canter and let him do what he does best. He doesn't act like a green pony at all. If you go around in the ring on him, you'd think he'd been doing this for 10 years. I knew he would go in there and just go around. He's great about that kind of thing, so I was very confident going into my round on him."
Petersen and JuJu stood in fifth place after the model and under-saddle classes, and while some green ponies were looking at waving flags and colorful jumps in the over-fences phase, JuJu, an 8-year-old Welsh Pony-Oldenburg, jumped around with the ease of a Pony Finals veteran.
And though the scenery was new to JuJu, Petersen is familiar with all things Pony Finals. In 2011, she and Magical Diamond rode to the medium green pony championship title. She then went on to earn the reserve championship aboard Footsteps last year.
Petersen trains with both Stewart and Kelley Farmer, who recently broke her collarbone after a fall in a hunter derby at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Ill. Despite needing surgery on Aug. 11 to repair her injury, Farmer could be seen at the Kentucky Horse Park yesterday, watching her student win the championship for the second time.
"[Farmer] came up to me before I went in, just to wish me good luck and give me a few pointers on how to ride the course," said Petersen. "I'm so happy she could come out and be there for me while she's going through all of this. It means a lot."
When Petersen isn't winning championships, she's hard at work attending public school and applying to colleges. As a rising high school senior, her sights are set on the University of Virginia as her top choice college.
"It's hard [competing on the circuit and going to school], but I think it's worth it," said Petersen. "I think last year I missed maybe 47 days; I'm never there! I go to school Monday through Wednesday or Thursday, then I go straight to the airport and I come back Sunday night. I have to get my work for the week done at the beginning of the week because I don't have a lot of time when I'm showing. But I really like it.
"I'm learning a lot, just in different ways than most kids. I still have a lot of friends at home and I still get to do everything I want to, so I don't feel like I'm really missing anything. My goal is to continue riding and competing through college and see where it takes me."