As I was driving home to my hotel at midnight on Jan. 25, having just completed the USHJA International Hunter Derby at the Jacksonville horse show where I finished second aboard Finale Partners LLC’s Loxley and fourth aboard Susan Darragh’s Zidane, I was thinking how much I couldn’t wait to compete in another derby and eventually in the Derby Finals in Lexington, Ky., in August.
This is something I never thought you would hear me say after competing in my first hunter derby a few years ago. Thinking back on my path to derby success made me chuckle and I thought it was something my blog followers would like to hear.
I remember my first derby performance vividly! It was in 2010, the first year that they offered a USHJA derby at the HITS Ocala winter shows. My customers and I were so excited and I promptly entered three of the best hunters I had in the class. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
They set a beautiful and tricky derby course that night. It was cold and dark and windy and we were showing under the lights, which made a loud noise, and in front of a big crowd. The HITS crew went all out making some gorgeous jumps with big logs, Spanish moss-covered rails, and post-and-rail style jumps.
I trotted into the ring on my first horse ready to show everyone our stuff. Wasn’t I surprised when I got down close to the big log jump, urged my horse to canter, and he spooked, spun around, and I FELL OFF! I sheepishly walked him back to the in-gate having not even made it into the canter, never mind to the first jump.
It was OK though. I brushed it off and got myself ready for horse No. 2. This was a top amateur-owner hunter that had been champion at all of the major horse shows. This was going to be fun!
Hmmmmmm, well my horse had other ideas. The first jump was an oxer going away from the in-gate and jumping toward the exhibitors tent at the end of the ring. The tent was blowing and so was the Spanish moss that was decorating the rails of the first jump. I trotted in the ring, picked up my canter (so far so good), and turned to the first jump. My horse took one look at the blowing Spanish moss and said “No, thank you.”
I tried a second and third time but he made it clear he had no intention of being a derby horse on this day and he stopped further and further away from the jump each time.
Back to the in-gate I went. I tried to be strong but the tears started flowing and I really wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to try this again on horse No. 3. My boyfriend and barn manager, Tim Delovich, sensed my frustration. When he walked up to the ring with the third horse, he came with a beer for me in one hand and a can of sticky spray in the other. It turned out I would need both!
While the third horse turned out to be the best of the three—I did complete the course by the seat of my pants—it felt more like I was out on the hunt field than in the hunter ring. There was growling, spurring, a few taps with the whip on the shoulder, but I did make it to the finish and I think I scored a 61.
Needless to say I did not finish that class feeling very positive about the USHJA hunter derby program or about my own riding ability. In fact, I did not compete in another derby for a whole year!
I watched a lot of derby classes that year, and I always thought they looked like fun. I decided that I had picked all of the wrong horses the first time around and that I had prepared myself and my horses all wrong. I picked all of my fanciest, most careful horses—what I needed was to go for more experienced, scopey and brave horses.
So finally in January of 2011 I got up the courage to try it again. I had two really good high performance horses that year that had quite a lot of experience. So at the Jacksonville horse show I entered them both in the USHJA International Derby.
The first horse was a little more spooky and tentative than I expected, but he jumped around with no major mistakes and made it back to the handy round. The second horse went brilliantly in the first round and was called back at the head of the class.
Since the handy went in reverse order, I did the lower scoring of my two horses first. He had another nice but tentative round and got a ribbon. Then it was on to the horse that was leading the way.
My round started out great and I made a hard inside turn back to the second-to-last jump. I opted to do the high option of a post-and-rail vertical headed right into the VIP tent at the end of the ring. My horse got surprised and misjudged the jump and ended up stopping. I fell off AGAIN!
Just when I was starting to think I might be able to do this derby stuff I was dusting myself off and wiping the tears away again!
I did compete in a few more derby classes that year without any major disasters, but also without any major success. In May of 2013, my client and friend, Lisa Arena, decided that my shadbelly—which I had owned since 1990—was “all out of luck.” She and her father, Tony Arena, bought me a new shadbelly as a gift from them and their derby horse, Majestic.
Not to sound totally silly and supersticous but that shadbelly seemed to be the turning point—the luck I needed!
Slowly and surely I started to do better and better in derbies, earning a few low ribbons here and there. Then finally in May I won a USHJA International Derby at the Garden State Horse Show on the Arena’s horse Majestic. I went on to have some nice finishes that year on Susan Darragh’s horse Zidane and completed 2013 with a trip to the derby finals in Kentucky  aboard Zidane. I even made it into the final round and to a 16th place finish! Most of all I had a great time and left Kentucky with the derby bug.
So I went into the $25,000 USHJA derby last week in Jacksonville feeling a whole lot more confident about my ability to do these classes. However, I was very surprised when I walked the course—the high option jumps looked HUGE!
I did not know until then that the derby specs had changed this year and that now the high option jumps have to be a minimum of 4’3’’! Despite my surprise, I think this is a positive change. Especially since when you get to the finals, you need to be prepared to jump big.
I was lucky enough to be riding two 10-year-old, high performance hunters this time. Loxley and Zidane are both brave, scopey, experienced horses. With their help I was able to have four very solid rounds and ended up placing second and fourth. It was so much fun!
Now I can’t wait to do another derby and then hopefully get to return to Lexington to try the Finals again!
So for all of you out there that are nervous to try derby classes or who have tried it and had a rough start—don’t give up. It takes time and practice and the right horse, but when it all comes together it’s so worth it.
A trainer specializing in hunters, jumpers and equitation, Amanda Steege operates Ashmeadow Farm  out of Far Hills, N.J. Read more about her  and about her experience in her first WCHR Professional Finals .
Check out the Feb. 10 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse  for full coverage of the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby from Jacksonville as well as hunter derby action from Pensacola and Lake St. Louis.