Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 6
Devin Seek may have only sat on Hudson for the first time a week ago, but after a slow start in the regular pony hunter division, they fell into a groove just in time to win the over-fences class and sport the championship ribbon at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Finals, Aug. 4-10.
"I showed him last weekend for the first time because I'd never ridden him before," said Seek, 14, who was fresh from showing at HITS-on-the-Hudson (N.Y.) before making her way to the Kentucky Horse Park. Her confidence in the saddle helped Hudson get used to the spotlight again; he hadn't shown since February, when Britney Jarman competed him in the large pony hunters on the Florida circuit.
Michael Newman first approached Seek about catch-riding at Pony Finals in 2009 on the small pony Blue Crush, and asked her to take a step up this year to show Hudson, an 8-year-old Welsh Pony-Holsteiner owned by Aubrey Hill Equestrian. And the adjustment was simple since Hudson shared some of the same traits as her normal mount, Dumbledore, owned by Mackenzie Alderman, who competed in the same division.
"[Hudson] has a really awesome rhythm, so it's easy to find the distances," said Seek, who trains with Bibby Farmer Hill. "So it was all just putting it together."
There were 99 entries that faced Bobby Murphy's flowing track, featuring several stand-alone singles that required a consistent, forward pace, which suited Hudson's big stride. "I don't ride him in a spur, but he's a little lazy," said Seek. "You have to get him going a little bit, but then he's huge-strided. He jumps really awesome. I had to mentally tell myself not to go too slow out of the turn, and then once the first jump came up, it all kind of fell together.
"I was confident that [Newman] trusted me enough to ride his pony. It's hard because there are so many people watching, and it's Pony Finals! Just saying 'Pony Finals' makes it have more pressure and nerves. I think it's fun to do all of the big stuff. It kind of brings you up a little bit, and it's just a fun place to be."
The reserve champion of the large pony hunters, Enjoy The Laughter, more often than not acts like he belongs in the green division. But his rider, Ali Tritschler, a 16-year-old Pony Finals veteran from Southport, Conn., knows just what to do to calm the pony's nerves and help him focus on the task at hand.
"Like any flesh-and-blood pony, he will let you down and he'll decide that he doesn't care all that much and rub a fence, or get an element wrong and just not hold everything together," said owner Betsee Parker. "But when he gets into his little problem mode, [Tritschler] doesn't even seem to notice. That type of riding really relaxes 'Maddox'; he forgets that he was worried and he goes on."
Although Tritschler has only competed Maddox three times before, the pair cantered around over fences as if they had been doing so for years.
"This was the best he's ever gone with me, though I haven't been riding him very long!" said Tritschler. "He's like a big horse, so it's good for me because I don't ride many ponies anymore, so it wasn't a giant change after riding horses. I also think that's why he's so pretty and why a lot of judges really like him; he goes around like a horse would."
Tritschler got the ride on Maddox when her trainer, Timmy Kees, told her that Scott Stewart was looking for someone to compete the 9-year-old gelding at Pony Finals this year. Tritschler had begun to focus her attention more on horses after last year's Pony Finals, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity to ride this quirky pony.
"Kirklen Peterson had been riding him in Wellington [Fla.], but couldn't ride him for Pony Finals, so [Stewart] gave me this great opportunity to compete Maddox on a trial basis to see if we fit together well enough to go to Finals. We do!" Tritschler said.
"It's funny because when kind of lets you down a little, it's because he's nervous and looking," she continued. "A lot of ponies usually speed up or jump high when they get nervous and looking. He actually relaxes too much over the jump and touches them a little. But as long as he knows you're not nervous on top of him, he takes a deep breath and focuses more."
Parker added, "We've seen this year, with both [Peterson and Tritschler] riding him, that he's really coming together much more than he ever has. He's making great progress forward, but we're not there yet. Some animals are a little bit slower to put everything together and some never do. He's kind of remedial, but he's slowly getting it."
One Last Hurrah
On their first and last trip to Pony Finals together, Sophia Calamari and Smitten went out with a bang. After claiming the top spot in the model class and besting the field of 46 competitors in the over-fences phase, they brought home the championship in the small green pony hunter division.
6-year-old "Smitty" and 12-year-old Calamari have been together for two years. When Calamari's family purchased Smitty, the then-4-year-old was largely unbroke and unruly.
Calamari helped train Smitty, along with her mother and trainer Gary Duffy at Little Brook Farm (N.Y.). But that's not all she does around the barn. She's responsible for four of her own ponies and a horse, who live on her family's farm in New Milford, Penn.
"She takes care of our own ponies, and when we're at Pony Finals she clips legs and ears and bathes and whatever else needs to be done," said Calamari's mother. "We don't have grooms so we do everything ourselves.
"It helps her in the long run because you know how to do everything, and you know how to care for the pony," she continued. "You know your ponies better because you're the one turning them out and bringing them in and feeding them and so on, so you know their personality."
"I definitely know his personality!" Calamari agreed. "I know what he likes and what will give him problems. I was nervous going into the in-and-out because we've been working on lead changes and he hasn't jumped many in-and-outs before. I was just nervous he would swap leads or spook a little bit, but he was great. I'm so proud of him."
It's her close attention to Smitty that makes it so hard for Calamari to say goodbye to her partner after two short years together. She ages out of the small pony division next year.
"I'll miss him terribly," she said. "He's part of my family."
Madeline Schaefer piloted the 6-year-old Welsh Pony Rollingwoods Tuxedo to the small green pony hunter reserve championship.
"I rode him in the greens at the second week of Vermont [Summer Festival Horse Shows], then they asked me to ride him again here," she said, referring to owner Ashley Watts and her team. "He met us here and stabled with us. The course was good for him, and I knew he was going to right around. He's a great pony and a really good jumper. He's a good boy."
Though he's a little bit "green in his brain—you've just got to be there to help him," the popular catch-rider and seven-year Pony Finals veteran, of Westminster, Md. continued. He took a second look at the flags blowing ringside, but with a little bit of leg he pressed onward.
"This is kind of my last year I think, but that's what everyone says, then they're back next year!" Schaefer said. "I really like this horse show; it's very thrilling and it's so nerve-wracking; you have to be able to handle it. I wasn't as successful as I could have been [in my first years]."