There were plenty of tears on Aug. 1 after the U.S. Equestrian Federation called off this year’s edition of the USEF Pony Finals just days before its start thanks to several positive cases of COVID-19 at the Kentucky Horse Park. But one rider went home with a big smile on her face despite the cancellation after making the most out of her trip to Lexington, Kentucky.
Kaylee Baily and her mother, Sarah Baily, trailered Lakeview Laci 9 ½ hours from Willow Spring, North Carolina, for Kaylee’s first trip to the championship. They arrived at their layover barn, Wendy Brodhead’s Shylah Farm, Saturday afternoon, and after they got the mare settled in they headed out to dinner with their trainer Jennifer Bryant.
“I don’t think we got out of the driveway, and my phone started blowing up from two people saying they thought it might be canceled,” said Bryant, who runs Trademark Stables in Apex, North Carolina. “At that point it was just a rumor; nothing had been official. From the time we left the barn to the time we got there, the email [canceling the show] had come out.”
When they arrived at the restaurant Bryant pulled Sarah aside to give her the news, and the two decided to keep it from Kaylee until the next morning. But their plan went awry when Kaylee left the table with her phone to go the restroom.
“I was bummed because we worked so hard to get there, and it was two or three days before we were going to show for Pony Finals,” said Kaylee, 13. “I was thinking, ‘Why did they cancel so close to it when people are already there?’ It didn’t make any sense. I was so confused.”
Bryant didn’t waste any time coming up with an alternative plan for the weekend. She took Kaylee to the Kentucky Horse Park so she could snap a photo with the iconic sign at the entrance. They then toured her favorite restaurant and bakery and a few other spots. Brodhead took them on an evening ride around Shylah Farm to enjoy the sights under the stars. Bryant’s daughter, Kirsten Hannah, is a professional photographer and did a photo shoot with Kaylee and her pony. On Sunday Kaylee took a lesson, and that evening Bryant told her she had an idea for the next day.
“She said, ‘We’re going to get you dressed up so you can wear your new shadbelly and act like you’re going to go into Pony Finals mode. You can get [Lakeview Laci] all ready to show,’ ” said Kaylee. “I was like, ‘OK, it feels a little awkward, but if that’s what Jen wants to do I’ll do it, because I can’t say no to Jen!’ ”
So the next day Brodhead pulled out a bunch of jumps, and they set a course in and around the ring. Kaylee, decked out in her formal attire, jumped around while Hannah shot photos.
“It turned out really fun,” said Kaylee. “It was gorgeous, the view over the ring. I was jumping and looking ahead. You can see everything from there.”
It wasn’t the first time COVID-19 interfered with Kaylee’s show plans. At the show where she and “Pumpkin” qualified for Pony Finals, she almost didn’t get to finish the division. The Raleigh Indoor Spring Hunter Jumper Classic (North Carolina) was held the weekend that the pandemic really kicked into gear, and the governor of North Carolina ordered the show to shut down after classes ended on Saturday.
The pony hunters had already completed their first day of classes but still had one over fences and the under saddle to finish on Sunday. Without the under saddle, no championship would be awarded. Kaylee and Pumpkin had claimed first and third over fences, and they were in the running for the tricolor that would secure a ticket to Pony Finals. So Bryant got to work, rallying fellow pony trainers and convincing the show manager to hold the pony under saddle classes after the USHJA National Hunter Derby, which was a night class. At 9:30 p.m. the large ponies hacked, with Kaylee and Pumpkin taking fourth. They tied for the reserve championship, but their higher points from the over fences classes ultimately earned the title and an invitation to Kentucky.
Kaylee leases the 16-year-old Haflinger (Noblecreator PSH—Lottie Anniesareshot) from Lauren Newland. Pumpkin started out in the pony jumpers—Newland took her to Pony Finals one year in that division—before switching to hunter tack.
“Qualifying her at all was a tricky situation,” said Bryant. “She jumps great and has a great lead change, but the fancier the ponies are, the harder it is on her.
“If she gets out of shape at all she looks more Haflinger,” she continued. “In shape she looks less and less Haflinger. We have a student at the barn who’s been with me since she was little who worked hard on her mane and forelock, so her mane isn’t like a Haflinger mane, which is a miracle. She’s all dappled up; she looks gorgeous.”
Kaylee’s hoping to finish her season by doing well on the North Carolina Hunter Jumper Association circuit and participating in the NCHJA Pony Medal Finals. But she’s not bemoaning what didn’t happen in Kentucky.
“We could have turned around and gone home with our head down or done something about it, and it was amazing,” said Sarah. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Jen needs all the credit in the world.
“On the USEF Pony Finals [Facebook] page I [posted about my experience and] said, ‘We’re just finding the silver lining, making lemonade out of lemons, and for those over 21 adding a little something extra,’ ” she added.