Winner Of The Week: Caelinn Leahy Won The $50,000 HITS Balmoral Grand Prix On Her Foxhunter

Jul 25, 2017 - 9:10 AM

When most grand prix show jumpers were spending their winter showing in the sun on winter circuits, Splendor was galloping across snowy fields, jumping coops out foxhunting in Illinois.

But on July 22, Splendor showed he hasn’t forgotten the show jumping game either, as he and Caelinn Leahy won the $50,000 HITS Grand Prix at HITS Balmoral (Ill.).

Leahy, 15, rode to a blazing jump-off round 2 seconds faster than the rest of a six-horse jump-off field to win on the 18-year-old gelding.

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Caelinn Leahy and Splendor on their way to the top of the $50,000 HITS Grand Prix at Balmoral. Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography

Splendor has an extensive resume in the jumper ring, having previously been campaigned by Charlie and Maggie Jayne and Kelsey and Maddy Thatcher in grand prix and amateur-owner jumper classes between 2013 and 2016. Steve Schaefer, Leahy’s stepfather and trainer, bought the Hanoverian gelding by Escudo last summer. He sent Splendor to Leahy’s father’s farm to have some time off.

Leahy’s father is Tony Leahy, jt-MFH and huntsman for the Massbach Hounds and Fox River Valley Hunt (Ill.) and current president of the Master of Foxhounds Association. Caelinn spent the season hunting Splendor. “My dad wants to make sure that I’m on a super safe horse out in the hunt. Splendor really likes hunting,” she said.

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Caelinn Leahy and Splendor on their way out for a morning of foxhunting. Photo courtesy of Caelinn Leahy

Then in May, Caelinn started to show Splendor, competing in some 1.30- and 1.35-meter classes at Balmoral. “He is really cool to ride, and really fast across the ground. I always have a smile on my face when I ride him,” she said.

For most of the early summer, Splendor was Caelinn’s second string. She was busy campaigning her horse Esquilino Bay, with whom she enjoyed success in the junior jumpers before moving up all the way to grand prix. They’d won Caelinn’s first grand prix in September, the $25,000 Showplace Fall Classic Grand Prix (Ill.)

But in June, the unthinkable happened. “I had just done a grand prix with him the previous weekend,” says Caelinn. “He was at the top of his game. But then we found him dead in his stall. It was totally unexpected.”

Leahy says that while the loss was shocking, “Texas” always wanted to be the best. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” says Leahy. “He wanted to always be on top, and so to end while he was still the best would have been what he wanted.”

The loss left Schaefer and Caelinn resetting their plans for her in terms of horses. Under Schaefer’s direction, Caelinn moved Splendor up and competed in two other grand prix classes with him before feeling all the pieces come together at HITS Balmoral. “I had made some mistakes [in the previous grand prix classes], because I was still figuring him out,” says Caelinn. “This is the first one where we really clicked.”

Caelinn said that the key has been to stop treating Splendor like a fragile, delicate horse. “At first, I wasn’t really putting him together and making him work,” she said. “Now I know he wants me to kick him forward into the bridle, and have him take me to the jump. He just lights up.”

Watch Caelinn and Splendor’s jump-off round:

Going fast might be Caelinn’s game now, but she hasn’t always felt that way.

“I used to ride a pony who was a dead runaway and it scared me so much to go fast,” said Caelinn with a laugh. “I was a really timid kid.”

Caelinn was born into a horsey family; she grew up foxhunting with her father, Tony, and her mom, Heidi Schaefer, is a former Pony Clubber and currently shows in the amateur divisions.

Caelinn practically grew up on the back of a horse, starting to jump at the tender age of 5, then foxhunting and later showing hunters on the B circuit. “My parents met through horses,” says Caelinn. “Horses have always been a huge part of our lives.”

At age 8, Caelinn began training with Schaefer of Bellis Show Jumping in Maple Park, Ill. Schaefer helped her get past her fear of riding fast by matching her with a pony that loved to do just that. “I learned that it can actually be fun when you get used to it,” said Caelinn. “Now I love to go fast, and I really credit Steve for helping me get over that fear.”

Caelinn said that having Schaefer as both her trainer and stepfather has been a great fit. “I think it’s like with a lot of kids who live in the [horse] business,” she said. “I can learn about the business model as well as the riding. Steve was my trainer before he was my stepdad. We are very professional when we are training, and he is always pushing me to do my best. But at the end of the day, we can turn it off and watch a TV show together and laugh.”

Caelinn describes herself as an analytical and logical person; the jumper ring appeals to her sense of order and reason. “I like that if you lose a class in the jumpers, you know what you did wrong,” she said. “I like the concreteness of it.”

Caelinn said that she’s enjoying figuring out Spendor in the grand prix ring and looks forward to the future; at the same time, she and Schaefer are taking things class by class and day by day. “I will probably compete him at the Equifest here in Illinois, but I am not sure what classes yet,” Caelinn said. “Hunting season is coming up, so he might be back in the field.”

Whichever direction they go, this perky young rider’s infectious enthusiasm for her horses and supportive extended family will be sure to keep her on the fast track to the winner’s circle.

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