Monday, May. 27, 2024

Best Friends Top USEF Pony Medal Final

Before Ailish Cunniffe and Madelyn Keck headed to the USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Ky., the two best friends had dreamed about being first and second in the USEF Pony Medal Final on Aug. 9.

So when the announcer called back only Cunniffe, South Salem, N.Y., and Keck, Allamuchy, N.J., to work off after two rounds over fences, they turned to each other with grins on their faces and agreed that they didn’t care who won, they were both just thrilled to be the top two.

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Before Ailish Cunniffe and Madelyn Keck headed to the USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Ky., the two best friends had dreamed about being first and second in the USEF Pony Medal Final on Aug. 9.

So when the announcer called back only Cunniffe, South Salem, N.Y., and Keck, Allamuchy, N.J., to work off after two rounds over fences, they turned to each other with grins on their faces and agreed that they didn’t care who won, they were both just thrilled to be the top two.

And when the judges moved up Cunniffe to the winning slot by the slimmest of margins, no one clapped louder than Keck.

Cunniffe hadn’t packed her trunk for Pony Finals expecting to finish on top. The 12-year-old daughter of trainers Frank and Bonnie Cunniffe had been attending the championship for years, but she’d never had a mount of her own. This year she borrowed medium pony equitation veteran Major League for the task.

“I don’t have many ponies of my own, but luckily I get to ride people’s ponies when the riders aren’t there,” she said. “I’d ridden Major some before, and he was perfect today. Getting to ride one like him made me feel very confident knowing that he’d done it so many times before.”

Course designer Richard Jeffery set a forward track for the competitors at the Kentucky Horse Park’s indoor arena, incorporating a halt between a pair of ferns and a trot fence into the first round. While there were no terribly spooky jumps or distracting decorations, a plain, natural oxer leading into an in-and-out proved the surprise bogey fence, which inexplicably caused most of the problems.

“I wanted to test basic riding skills,” said Jeffery. “It’s not the [USEF] Medal Finals, but it should be a lead-up to the Medal Finals. The idea was to test everything; there were roll backs and lines with some distances so they could do the numbers.”

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Judges Karen Healey and Tammy Provost invited the top 25 of the 217 riders back to test over a similar course.

“Before the second round we hadn’t decided if we would test for sure, but when the top two were both very close we decided to bring them back,” said Provost.

“They were both good riders with great style and great feel,” added Healey. “Ailish won the class when she made an inside turn and nailed it.”

Cunniffe trains at her parents’ Whipstick Farm and receives plenty of extra input from Peter Lutz and Cullen Latimer.

“I adore teaching her. She’s very attentive, and she works hard,” said Latimer. “She’s the kind of kid who’s always there to help out. She’s been here for years, always watching from the rail, and I’m so proud of her doing so well.”

But the weekend didn’t start out quite so smoothly. After Cunniffe missed a lead change on Major in the medium pony hunter over fences phase that she used as a warm-up, she made a deal with her mother: if she won the Medal Final the next day she could have a puppy she’d been asking for.

“Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be prouder of Ailish,” said Bonnie. “But now I have to explain to my husband why we’re bringing home a new Corgi when he’s been saying no for ages!”

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