When the U.S. Equestrian Federation canceled competitions this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Jen Barker, who runs The Carolinas Equestrian magazine and website, took the opportunity to launch a virtual horse show series called the “COVID Classic.” Riders submitted videos from actual competitions, and USEF “R” judge Kitty Barker judged the first week, which ran March 23-29.
“I have been organizing videos by class and emailing them to our judge, who then judges each video, pins the class and gives feedback for each rider,” said Barker. “The feedback is essentially like getting to look at the judge’s card.”
We caught up with a few of the winners from the COVID Classic I.
Teresa Lewis, Health Hero And Re-Rider
Teresa Lewis, 48, is working 12-hour days at the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Waxahachie, Texas, as a cardiac surgery nurse in the fight against COVID-19. When not at work, she finds an escape in family life and on the back of her 7-year-old Holsteiner gelding Illumination, whom she purchased last year. They won the COVID Classic I 2’-2’3 non-pro hunter class.
“I saw [the virtual horse show] on Facebook in the first week of this serious lockdown,” she said. “I thought, ‘That would be fun. I can’t go anywhere, can’t do anything.’ I love getting feedback on myself and how to improve, and on my horse.”
She sent a video from one of the first shows she did with Illumination last year—her first opportunity to compete in 13 years.
“In 2017, I was talking to my husband about how I really miss the hunters,” Lewis said. “It’s something that’s always been part of my life. That’s what I wanted to get back into. We started our search for a hunter horse, and here I am.
“The first horse I found was an ex-grand prix jumper, and he was great,” Lewis continued. “I needed something that would jump through fire and be as honest as the day is long. I also have a severe back injury from being bucked off in 2014, so I had to find the perfect match. This horse was awesome, and I bought him, but it turned out he was still too much of a jumper, so it was too hard on my back.”
In scouring the internet for another candidate, Lewis, who lives in Ennis, Texas, and her trainer Lauren Eisele stumbled upon Illumination, who was based in California with his breeder, Sommer Smith.
“He’s my dream horse,” said Lewis. “We would just go through so many videos on Facebook and YouTube trying to find the right thing. He had something about him that was, ‘WOW!’ and we had him shipped in without trying him, and he’s been everything we’ve expected him to be.”
Lewis and Illumination began their partnership in the long stirrup division before moving up to the modified adults.
“He’s a little sassy except for when he’s in the show ring; he just knows he’s a pretty horse,” Lewis said. “He gets in the show ring, and he knows he’s on, and he’s wonderful. He’s honest. He’s saved me several times. He’s everything that I ever could’ve wanted. If I could’ve just put something together from scratch, he would be it.”
Margaret Stell, Horsewoman In Training
Margaret Stell rides with gratitude each time she sits atop Clever, the 13-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Clarimo—Rapunzel IV) she began leasing from Kevin Eufemia in February of 2019.
They moved up to the 3’3” junior hunters at the end of last year, and the schoolmaster is the perfect show ring partner for Stell, 16, who admits she’s still prone to making mistakes. But he’s also giving her the tools she needs to bring along her next mount, Patriot, a 3-year-old Oldenburg gelding whom she’s had since he was 10 months old.
“I’ve had a lot of fun working with him and figuring it out,” said Stell, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She won the COVID Classic I 3’ Non-Pro Hunter class with Clever. “When you ride horses that have been broke, and they know how to do all this stuff, you never think, ‘Someone taught them how to trot. Someone taught them how to pick their feet up to get them picked out. Someone taught them how to get on a trailer.’ You never really think about it until you’re the one standing there doing it. It’s really annoying, honestly, because you’re like, ‘Why can’t you get this?’ and then you realize they don’t know. So, it’s really cool.”
Stell is currently teaching Patriot how to canter under saddle, and while she does most of the work herself, she receives tips and supervision from her mom, Jennifer Clauss, who owns Canterlane Farm and began producing her first horse when she was around Stell’s age.
“Patience isn’t really a strong suit of hers, so it’s been interesting and really fun for me to watch her develop as a horsewoman but as a person also,” said Clauss. “Sometimes she wants to lose patience, so it’s been a cool experience watching her navigate this learning.
“I stand on the ground. I don’t get on; I don’t fix it for her,” Clauss added. “I most importantly tell her when it’s time to get off like, ‘Let’s leave this for tomorrow.’ ”
With the hiatus from shows, Stell has more time to tend to her four horses—which live on Clauss’ property—and Clever, who is a stone’s throw away with her trainers Pat Dodson and Keith Hastings at Cloud’s Harbor in Clemmons, North Carolina. Stell’s day consists of online school in the morning and riding in the afternoon.
“I have been working a lot on bending with Clever and setting up a lot of fun pole grids just to canter over and messing around with his stride length along with bending,” said Stell. “He’s an awesome horse; he’s just not symmetrical, so he doesn’t really bend quite right. So, I’ve been really trying to work on figuring out how much leg I have to use to bend him, and all I have to do to work on that.
“He’s one of those horses that I can make mistakes on, and he doesn’t blame me for anything, which I love about him,” Stell added. “I love his personality. He’s never in a bad mood. He loves to show; he loves to work. He’s down to do anything.”
Ella Bragg, The Baker
Ella Bragg might not be able to ride or spend time with her horse Top Very Easy right now, but she’s found a way to keep him happy nonetheless.
“Ella’s been making gourmet pony treats, and we send them out to the barn for him,” said Alix Bragg, her mother. “She made a giant pizza that was a horse pizza.”
With the help of flour, honey, peanut butter, powdered sugar and milk, Ella’s gourmet horse pizza was a hit with “Top.”
“This is the first time that I’ve actually tried to decorate them and make them look fancy,” said Ella, 15.
Ella started leasing the 14-year-old warmblood gelding (Rio Duero Top One—Whyacinthe VDL) from Martin Videla when she wanted to move up from the pony divisions, and she showed Top in the pre-children’s division this year.
“When I first saw him, I thought he was huge; he was massive, but he’s really not even that big—he’s only 15.2,” said Ella, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She won the COVID Classic I 2’6″ non-pro hunter class with Top. “I thought he was huge from my medium pony, and it was just weird because everything is bigger: His steps are bigger; his feet are bigger; his face is bigger. It’s weird, but he was very sweet, and he’d just play with you while you’re standing next to him.”
Ella particularly liked that she received the judge’s feedback on the video she submitted for the COVID Classic. “I was really happy with what they commented, and it was really fun to see what they thought of Top and me,” she said. “It was really interesting just to get to see what the judges really say.”
Eleanor Rudnicki, The Working Student
Before Eleanor Rudnicki could take a working student position last year, she had to convince her parents to enroll her at Laurel Springs School, which conducts classes online.
Sonja Boorman and Mark Rudnicki had been in full support of Eleanor’s equestrian pursuits from the time she began riding at age 7, but they were skeptical of her ability to balance virtual school and working student responsibilities.
“At the time, my husband and I were very much against it, but she made a very compelling PowerPoint presentation for us,” said Boorman. “She made up bullet points about how she would achieve her academic and social goals and addressed the concerns we had raised about being in online school and being a working student. She lived up to all her end of the deal, so that’s been very good.”
Under Berry Porter, the head trainer at Brookside Pine Farms in Conroe, Texas, Eleanor has spent the past year sharpening her skills on the ground and under saddle. Six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., she’s setting feed, doing laundry, cleaning tack and riding a handful of horses.
It’s how she met Calou, Bertram Firestone’s 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Contendro—Cantida) whom she’s been showing in the small junior hunters. She rode Calou to the win in the 3’- 4’ open hunter class in the COVID Classic I. With the absence of shows, Eleanor is focusing on the basics.
“During the show season, it’s hard to get in a lot of good practice because it’s showing, and then giving them time off and then showing again,” said Eleanor. “When we have a break like this, it’s nice to get one-on-one time with my trainer. With all the horses back to the basics, it just calms their brains down after a long show season.”
While Eleanor’s community is on a stay-at-home order, agriculture and farm and animal husbandry are on the list of essential services.
“She gets a great deal of learning around—not just the little bit of extra riding that she gets to do—but also around her horse care and management,” said Boorman. “She’s learning a lot more about planning for and preparing for competitions in terms of the packing and logistics, but also thinking about the different strategies for different horses; she’s learned a lot about horse care and nutrition and maintenance and fitness. Berry is really so focused on his kids and giving Eleanor really good opportunities through letting her ride some nice horses like Calou.”
Lacey Powers, The Pony Kid
Lacey Powers was getting ready to start the 2020 winter circuit in Wellington, Florida, when her pony had an allergic reaction and was unable to compete. Her short-stirrup season was saved when she was able to lease Fools Gold, a 16-year-old Quarter Horse owned by Anthony Ruotolo.
“He’s a very sweet pony,” said Powers, 8, who won the COVID Classic I non-pro pony hunter class. “He doesn’t like to do anything wrong. He’s very snuggly. We just leased him not that long ago, so I only rode him for two weeks.”
Powers lives in Loxahatchee, Florida, with her family, and she keeps her pony just down the road in Wellington. Trained by her mom Kristi Powers, Lacey is currently working on the basics at home.
“It’s been wonderful because we’re not worried about showing, so we’re doing a lot more flatwork,” said Kristi. “She’s only 8, so she’s learning how to do lead changes, count numbers.
“She’s only been doing courses two years now,” Kristi added. “Now, we just got our own pony, and we’ve been able to do a lot more, mostly flatwork and gymnastics.”