Winner Of The Week: Age—and Size—Are Just Numbers For Kiss Me Kate

Jul 25, 2018 - 2:33 PM

One of the vendors at the National Dressage Pony Cup and Small Horse Championships carried T-shirts with “Height doesn’t measure heart” emblazoned across the front, and if you ask Daphne Bigelow, that phrase was the motto of the entire weekend.

The NDPC was founded about 10 years ago by Jenny Carol with the objective of giving ponies at all levels of the sport a dedicated place to shine, as well as opportunities to compete for year-end titles. Bigelow was intrigued by the idea when she first heard of it, as the competition would be on a more level playing field than at a traditional open show.

This year, she brought her 14.2-hand mare Kiss Me Kate to the competition held July 20-21 at the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois. They’ve been partners for three years, and in that time “Kate” has taken Bigelow from showing first level at schooling shows all the way to her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. But it’s only this season that their partnership has really come into its own, and Bigelow proved it by winning the third level young rider championship.

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Daphne Bigelow and the 22-year-old Kiss Me Kate had a successful first trip to the National Dressage Pony Cup and Small Horse Championships. Photo courtesy of Yellow Horse Marketing.

In addition to their dressage court success, the pair tried out a new arena at Lamplight—the in-hand ring. Proving that age is just a number, the 22-year-old Kate stunned them all, winning the pony mare championship, the mature horse championship and the overall grand championship despite the pouring rain on Sunday. It was a thrilling outcome for the rookies, who had had only a handful of practices on the triangle prior to the competition.

Bigelow’s parents encouraged her to focus on having fun and savoring every moment. “But I am still very competitive,” said Bigelow. “I wasn’t putting a ton of pressure on myself or on Kate. I really wanted to do well but also have fun.”

Fun was definitely on her mind when Bigelow signed up for Sunday’s breeding classes. “Kate is in great shape for being 22, and she has impeccable ground manners,” Bigelow said.

A barnmate had some experience with showing in-hand and gave the pair a few informal lessons. “Her main advice was to go run your heart out and have fun,” says Daphne. “I am so glad I did it. I wasn’t sure how it would go or what exactly the judge was looking for. I couldn’t believe that we kept getting called back in. It was such a great confidence booster.”

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Kiss Me Kate and Daphne Bigelow in the in hand classes. Photo courtesy of Yellow Horse Marketing.

Up until Kate, the 5’2″ Bigelow had mostly ridden larger horses. While she’s competed over fences, dressage is her real passion, and when it came time to look for a new horse, she and her mother Nancy Bigelow knew it was important that that mount loved that sport as much as she did.

Kate is a former event pony, but she had been trained in dressage up to third level. Daphne hadn’t even thought about looking for a pony as her next mount, never mind one that was already 18 years old. But Daphne’s former trainer thought Kate was worth going to see.

“When I got there, she was being ridden by a young lady, and they were doing a jump course,” says Daphne. “At the end of the course there were 4′ high oil barrels all lined up, the tall side up, and she just sailed over it. Then I rode her in my first dressage lesson, and she was sassy, a real Irish mare. I knew that Kate was going to be around for a long time.”

Kate, a Connemara-Thoroughbred cross (Tre Awain Irish Sweeps—Hillside Emily, Tre Awain DeValera) bred by Eileen Berkley, and Daphne, now 17, were a match right from the start.

“Kate is just the sweetest horse,” said Daphne. “She has helped me be a better rider in so many ways, from improving my seat to my thought processes. She is very smart, and I have to be one step ahead of her.”

This year, with the help of trainer Amy Lewis, Daphne introduced Kate to the double bridle, a choice which proved pivotal. “The overall quality of her ride improved tremendously,” said Daphne. “It improved her carriage and helped to strengthen her back and hindquarters. It just made her super muscular this past year.”

Until this year, though, Daphne didn’t feel that her dark bay mare was ready to make the journey to Kentucky, where the Pony Cup competition has traditionally been held. “She wasn’t as prepared or fit,” said Daphne. “We needed to work on perfecting what we already knew.”

Organizers initially announced that the competition would be canceled for this year, and Daphne panicked after hearing that her big goal for the season would be unattainable. “It was such a huge celebration when Lamplight picked it up,” said Daphne. “Everyone was super friendly, and the camaraderie among competitors was just incredible. People were so happy for you when you did well.”

This weekend’s show was just a touch bittersweet for Daphne, as it is her final outing with Kate before heading off to the University of Oklahoma to start her freshman year this fall. There, she will dual major in Italian and classical arts and letters, and she hopes to participate in the hunter/jumper club. Kate will stay in Illinois, boarded 10 minutes from home. But Daphne hopes to next year return to the National Pony Cup, perhaps to showcase a third level freestyle—yet another new challenge.

“I have always been involved with music and love to ride to music,” Daphne said. “When we have it on, Kate just lights up!”

More than any other lesson, what Kate’s partnership has taught Daphne is that a rider’s connection and bond with her horse is the single most important factor for success.

“If I ever get another horse or pony, I just want it to be the right one,” says Daphne. “Just because your horse isn’t a beautiful big mover doesn’t mean they aren’t a good partner, and your best friend.”

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