As she struck up a gallop to fence 1 on the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill CCI** cross-country course, Allie Blyskal-Sacksen watched the first jump get closer and closer through Sparrow’s Nio’s tightly perked, gray ears. She felt him lock onto the jump and smiled to herself. It was going to be a good day.
And a good day it was. With a clean cross-country round and the fastest two-star time, Blyskal-Sacksen and “Nio” moved up from eighth after dressage to second going into the show jumping. “I can tell at the first and second fences how he’s going to be, and he was right on. You can tell how happy he is because his ears are perked the entire course. You know he loves his job,” Blyskal-Sacksen said. “Usually, he just flies and locks on, so it’s a matter of getting him there on a good stride. Every fence he saw, he said, ‘OK, I got it.’ So it’s not that hard for me!
“He just cruised around, and I think that’s why I was up on the time. He’s so quick and catty through the combinations that it doesn’t take him long. He has a surprisingly big stride; he covers the ground very well, and he’s very light on his feet,” Blyskal-Sacksen continued.
Nio stands out in the Thoroughbred and warmblood crowds at the top of the standings—he’s a 15.3-hand Connemara-Thoroughbred cross. (Read all about Nio and another Grange Finn Sparrow offspring, Sparrow’s Owen, who is also competing at the intermediate level.)
Blyskal-Sacksen has brought Nio (Grange Finn Sparrow—J.B.), 10, up the levels from novice in 2010, running at the two-star and advanced levels. “I’m proud of the fact that Nio and I have come so far together,” she said.
Blyskal-Sacksen came to Fair Hill hoping to improve on their performance there last year, when they had a stop at the combination in the arena. “Last year he was really green, so I think coming into an arena and having to jump cross-country fences threw him off a little bit. This year I wanted to make sure I gave him a really good ride there,” she said.
“I watched some people go through, and unfortunately the people I watched just didn’t have a very good go, so I went back to the barn and said, ‘I know what I need to do.’ And we got it done. I had been going back and forth between four strides and five strides, and I don’t even know what I did get in there, but he was foot-perfect. I ride so much off feel, especially since he can be such a pony. If I have to add a stride, it’s not a problem. But I think I ended up doing the four [strides] to three. He can open up into a big stride. I ride him how he’s going underneath me.”
They started the weekend with a score of 47.8 in dressage. “When I came out of the ring, I thought I’d had a pretty good test. Then I saw the score, and I thought, ‘I did have a good test!’ He has days when he can go in the dressage and look like a pony, and days when he goes in and looks like a horse. If he’s tense and gets tight, he has short pony strides, but if he’s loose and relaxed, he has a nice big floating stride, and that’s how he felt in dressage,” she said.
“After having such a good test, I thought to myself, ‘We can to this.’ I knew we could be competitive on cross-country,” she continued.
In preparation for Fair Hill, Blyskal-Sacksen and Nio completed two advanced horse trials, placing second at the Morven Park Fall Horse Trials (Va.) on Oct. 4. “He’s kind of been tearing it up. He’s a little bit cocky,” she said. Her goal for the spring of 2014 is a CIC*** at Jersey Fresh (N.J.) in May.
Watch Nio and Blyskal-Sacksen’s first advanced cross-country—at Plantation Field Horse Trials (Pa.) in September….
Blyskal-Sacksen was surrounded by helpers at Fair Hill, but none of them were professional grooms. “I do it all myself. I train with Sara Kozumplik, and she came to walk the courses with me, but basically I do my own work. I’m just trying to make a name for myself,” she said.
Helping her were her parents, Jim and Stacey Blyskal, and her aunt Sydney Wilson, “who’s been my mentor and guiding light for my whole life. She’s the one who got me started on my pony at 4 years old,” Blyskal-Sacksen said.
Also on the crew was her husband since May, Sam Sacksen. Sacksen is a capable groom, having represented the United States in modern pentathalon at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. They met at an annual U.S. Pony Clubs meeting. “He’s not a fan of braiding, but he’s great at doing studs and building jumps. He’s a handy husband,” Blyskal-Sacksen said. The couple currently lives in Somerset, Pa., and Sacksen is starting veterinary school.
Blyskal-Sacksen has just two horses to ride a day—Nio and a family horse she’s getting fit. She works full time at a local resort. “I’m just paying the bills; it’s not really a career,” she said. She does plan to go professional next year and begin training and teaching for a living.
Read the Chronicle’s coverage of cross-country day at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** and CCI**.