An onlooker wouldn’t be able to tell you Chanel is the horse to beat in a jumper class, but her rider Sarah Meier could.
“I get a bunch of funny looks in the schooling area, because she goes in there with her head straight up in the air, snorting like crazy, and goes a million miles an hour,” Meier said. “You don’t look at her and think, ‘Whoa, she’s getting ready to go jump around quick and leave the jumps up,’ but then she does.”
Meier has only ridden Chanel since April, but her partnership with the former amateur-owner jumper has proven serendipitous.
Meier and Chanel have won in the 1.30- and 1.35-meter open jumper divisions in Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, totaling 10 wins in their nine months together.
They’ve won two welcome stakes, most recently winning the $5,000 Welcome Prix at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio, on Dec. 7, and they made their grand prix debut together this summer at the $25,000 Brownland Grand Prix in July. They’ve jumped in five grand prix classes together and placed seventh in the $30,000 Wilmington Summer Grand Prix (Ohio).
“I told Madison, her owner, that horse was the best thing that ever happened to me when it started winning a bunch of classes in the 1.35-meter in Kentucky, and later everyone kind of laughed about it because they weren’t sure I would like her ride at all,” said Meier, 40.
Madison Dehaven has owned the now-9-year-old Chanel since she was a weanling. She brought Chanel up the amateur-owner jumper ranks herself and knew the mare was not everyone’s ride. When Dehaven decided to go back to school to get her nursing degree, she didn’t want to sell Chanel, but she needed to find a new situation to keep the mare going.
“She’s a little quirky at times, so I knew she couldn’t go to just anyone,” Dehaven said.
Dehaven happens to be good friends with Meier’s assistant trainer, Alex Nelson, and Nelson suggested she send the horse to their Punchestown Stable in Lexington, Ky., for Meier to campaign.
“She’s my ride. I like those ones that drag you around,” Meier said. “And she’s funny—sometimes she just won’t pick up the right lead, like in the welcome in Atlanta. She hopped up and down, hopped up and down, so I just went right to the first jump on the left lead.
“You’re going to get there one way or another, but you can’t sit there and pick a fight with her,” Meier continued. “You have to roll with it.”
“Roll with it” is not a bad mantra for Meier’s life. Meier has adapted to play a number of roles in the horse industry before starting her own hunter/jumper show stable in Lexington. Meier grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., in a non-horse inclined family.
“My parents bought a house when we moved to Milwaukee, and the people who owned the house didn’t want to take the ponies with them and asked if they could leave them,” Meier said. “I was already taking some riding lessons then, so my friends and I used to go bomb around on those guys, and jump jumps way too big for what those things were and just gallop around the backyard bareback.”
Eventually Meier got more serious about competing and caught a lucky break finding a show-worthy mount at her local boarding barn.
“I got a really nice horse that someone gave me. The boarding stable I was taking lessons at it didn’t have a ton of turnout, and there was this older really, really nice hunter that had gotten ribbons at indoors, and they just wanted it to get turned out more,” Meier said. “So I kept him at my parent’s house and showed him in the children’s hunters for a couple years, and he probably lived there for another 10 or 15 years before he died.”
Meier’s parents were supportive of their daughter’s competitive ambitions and by the end of her junior career Meier was showing in the equitation division with trainer Steve Wall. When it came time to decide what Meier would do with her young adult life, horses were the only thing on her mind.
“I didn’t have any plans to do anything but the horses. I didn’t have anything else I could do; there was never going to be anything else,” Meier said.
Indeed, after high school Meier did enroll at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and completed three semesters before dropping out to get serious about making a living out of the horses. After working in Florida and Tennessee for different trainers Meier found herself back in Lexington teaching lessons at a few different barns in the area. One of Meier’s friends suggested she come get a job with her breaking Thoroughbred yearlings for the racetrack. Eventually Meier started going to the track to exercise the older horses.
“It was $10 a head cash, and I could ride maybe 15 in the morning easily, and you work from 5:30 to 10:30, and then you could go do something else all afternoon,” Meier said. “So I would ride some horses in the afternoon and teach some lessons.”
But Meier’s time at the track came to an abrupt end after a morning ride ended tragically.
“I had a couple horses break down, and I had one flip on me. I’m not really scared to get on anything, but after you do have one come down on top of you, you kind of take a second thought for a minute,” Meier said. “And not long after that I was breezing a horse at Keeneland, and it broke its leg, just snapped it in half at the bottom of the ankle.
“The horse and I went down up by the starting gate, and that was the last day I rode at the race track,” Meier continued. “I walked away after that. I was like, ‘You know what, this just isn’t for me.’ ”
Meier turned her full attention back to the hunter/jumper industry.
“I rented a farm in Versailles and taught lessons and had some cheap sales horses, the kind you pick up for $500 and hope you sell for $1,200,” Meier said. “Actually my one sales horse home run was this one I bought out of the newspaper for $1,500 dollars. He was an unraced Thoroughbred yearling, and I went out to look at him, and he was big and pretty and moved really good—now he’s doing the adult hunters in Chicago.”
Slowly but surely Meier started upping the quality and ability of the horses she was buying and selling, and eventually she purchased her current facility, Punchestown Stable. Meier’s assistant trainer Nelson joined Punchestown in 2011 to take over a lot of the lessons and stable management, freeing Meier up to focus more on training and competing. Meier bought a young horse to start bringing up the jumper divisions and had just started competing him in the 7-year-olds when Nelson suggested she try the ride on the Irish Sport Horse Chanel (Cradilo—Red Charisma, Ingot’s Ruler).
As their win streak together grew, Meier quickly discovered it wasn’t so much showing Chanel that was challenging—it was getting her to the horse show. The mare seems to have claustrophobia hauling in a normal trailer slot, and she dislikes being next to or near any other horses. After trying a number of different arrangements Meier finally broke down and just gave the mare her own trailer.
“I had four horses in Atlanta and a four-horse trailer, but that doesn’t work,” Meier said with a laugh. “She has to have her own ride. She must be the only grand prix horse who travels in a two-horse bumper pull.”
Luckily Dehaven was able to simply lend Meier the same two-horse trailer Chanel grew up getting hauled around in. Dehaven broke the mare herself and competed her up to the medium amateur-owner level, and through Meier, Dehaven got to vicariously accomplish a goal she’s had since purchasing Chanel as a weanling.
“My whole dream when I bought her was, ‘I want to do my first grand prix, and Chanel’s first grand prix together,’ but obviously time has changed things and life changes,” Dehaven said. “I had to look at what was best for my future, but Sarah told me that the grand prix they did this year was her first grand prix too, so at least they got to have a first together, that was pretty cool.
“I’m glad that her and Chanel have worked out so well together. It makes me feel much better that someone who appreciates her for who she is has her,” Dehaven continued.
Meier hopes to campaign Chanel in more grand prix classes in 2018, but her long-term plan as a rider is more of an attitude than a final end goal.
“Everybody always wants to get better, right? That’s always the goal,” Meier said. “I didn’t specifically have a ‘I want to do this grand prix or jump this specific height’ kind of a plan—it was always about I want to be better. I want to jump bigger, and I want to be better.”