Canadian Jessica DiGenova and her gray mare, Upolu, had cause for celebration at the inaugural Festival of the Horse at Ocala’s Florida Horse Park, decisively winning the Florida CCI**.
The victory provided a climactic conclusion to DiGenova’s months of training throughout the winter with 2004 Olympic veteran Darren Chiacchia.
“Darren has helped me so much. I wouldn’t have made it here without him–he’s brought me so far in the three months I’ve been with him,” said the 16-year-old from Norval, Ont.
Strictly a pleasure rider until she became enamored of eventing four years ago, DiGenova embarked on her competitive career with her mother’s former training level mount, bringing him out of a long retirement to contest the beginner novice and novice divisions for a year and a half. That’s when she purchased “Momma,” a Dutch Warmblood Thoroughbred, from Leahona Rowland of Ontario.
“The first time I tried her, I knew right away that I had to get her,” said DiGenova of the 16-year-old mare. “I started at training with her to build my confidence, and she’s built me up.”
Momma started her weekend strongly with a dressage test that was “the best I’d ever had. I was extremely pleased,” DiGenova said, adding that she had spent much of the winter refining her own presentation and showmanship. She said she’s discovered that “dressage is more than just sitting there having an obedient horse and doing the movements!”
Her work was rewarded as the pair, carrying a score of 43.5, tied for third place with Nathalie Pollard on Icarus.
In spite of her enviable position going into cross-country, DiGenova was somewhat apprehensive about facing Capt. Mark Phillips’ 4,537-meter course, as her mount tends to have “time issues” and ran out of steam at an earlier horse trial at The Fork (N.C.).
But Momma put DiGenova’s fears to rest, galloping to a double-clear and moving them up to first. “We’ve worked on a lot of conditioning, and she was great. She jumped everything perfectly!” DiGenova exalted.
Sunday morning found the mare still “perky and spooky, just the way I like her to be,” said DiGenova.
Nevertheless, DiGenova left nothing to chance, putting in an aggressive and accurate ride over Richard Jeffery’s stadium course to hold on to the top spot.
“Momma knows the ropes, but she still needs riding. She’s not an easy horse. You have to be on your toes with her all the time–she likes to do her own thing, and she thinks she knows what she’s doing all the time,” DiGenova said.
Stephanie Butts of Laytonsville, Md., had to thank her own human “Momma” for her success, taking second aboard her mother’s Zydeco.
“He’s been everywhere, seen it all, and done it all,” she said of the 14-year-old Canadian Sport Horse.
“Z” has completed the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** twice and contested the Burghley CCI**** (England) with Gretchen Butts, whose many commitments as an in-demand judge and technical delegate frequently keep her out of the saddle. So her 22-year-old daughter has been more than happy to take over the reins.
“He’s perfect. He’s got an amazing jump, and he’s a machine cross-country,” said Stephanie. Her next goal is the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) in October. Fifth after dressage, the pair’s faultless cross-country round moved them up to third. And one lowered rail in stadium resulted in a final score of 51.7.
Butts graduated from the University of Delaware last spring, and now she’s testing the waters as a professional.
Butts is also receiving a top-tier eques-trian education. She spent several months working with eventing judge Judy Bradwell in Lincolnshire, England, and she trains with Phillip Dutton and with David and Karen O’Connor.
“We’ll see how it goes–it’s not a very easy life!” she said.
A Good Deal
Karen O’Connor was close on her student’s heels with a score of 52.0 aboard Let’s Make A Deal, having secured the ride on the bay Thoroughbred by winning a high-stakes match of “paper, rock, scissors” against owner Teresa Loughlin of Purcellville, Va.
O’Connor credits Loughlin with “Dealer’s” success, saying, “She’s prepared him beautifully. Teresa is exceptional at finding horses and retraining them.”
Loughlin, a physical therapist, purchased the 10-year-old gelding sight unseen as an unraced 3-year-old on the advice of her longtime friend, Jeff Taylor of Cleveland, Ohio. “He follows the advice of [legendary Thoroughbred trainer] Woody Stevens: ‘He says to pick a horse with a face like a princess, an ass like a washerwoman, and a walk like a hooker,’ ” said Loughlin, with a laugh.
“Dealer is a special horse,” said O’Connor. “He’s wonderful to work with–he’s very smart, and personable and loving. He’s a great guy–you’d want to marry him if he were a person.”
If Loughlin can wrest the reins back from O’Connor, she’ll compete Dealer herself this summer.
But O’Connor certainly won’t be giving up the ride on Mandiba, the CCI* winner, any time soon.
Bought in Ireland as an unbroken 4-year-old, the striking bay gelding, is “poised to be very successful,” said O’Connor. “The sky’s the limit for him. I’m really excited to have such a talented horse so late in my career!”
“Dibber” took the lead from the beginning and stayed there, finishing on his dressage score of 41.4. “I was so thrilled–he did it so easily,” said O’Connor.
By Master Imp and out of a Chairlift mare, Dibber was bred by Irishman William Micklem, a provenance that bodes well for his future.
“William has been responsible for the purchase of all of our great Irish horses, including Biko, Custom Made, and Giltedge,” O’Connor said of her longtime friend.
Joan Goswell of Pennsylvania owns the 7-year-old gelding, who was the training level champion at the 2005 American Eventing Championships (N.C.). His name is derived from a tribal honorific for former South African president Nelson Mandela.
O’Connor applied her background in natural horsemanship techniques to Dibber’s training. “He learned how to jump online and in the round pen. He did all the cross-country jumps that we have on our schooling course online before he ever had a rider on him.”
In spite of his abundant talent, Dibber will stay at preliminary for several months.
“I’m a strong believer that you give them their education at the preliminary level. The beauty of the short format is that they can carry on [competing] without a long break,” said O’Connor.
Smiling In Second
Although Kirsten Selvig jokingly purported to be “really disappointed” with her second-placed finish at her first three-day event to Olympian O’Connor, her broad grin told the true tale.
On her Thoroughbred Ruse de Guerre, Selvig survived a dressage test that was slightly marred by the appearance of an insect invader. “He flipped out in one of the canter departs because a wasp flew into his face, but he came back really well,” said Selvig. Their performance was still sufficient to tie them
“Rocket” shot up the standings with no faults at all on cross-country and in show jumping.
“He was better than I could have expected–he jumped amazing!” said Selvig 18, from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
She brought Rocket up herself from the novice level. He’d spent five years on the track and had been laid off for a year with a back injury when she purchased him two years ago. Rocket readily took to eventing as he learned to jump.
“Once he figured out galloping and jumping, he fell in love with the cross-country,” said Selvig.
Selvig trains with Jonathan and Jen Holling of Ocala, Jen Fenessy of Delray, and Lisa Payne of Wellington. She hopes to make the Area III team for the North American Young Riders Championships this summer.
Teen On Track To The Top
At just 13, Callie Judy of Columbia, Mo., was the youngest rider to contest the Florida International CCI*.
The home-schooled eighth-grader quickly became a crowd favorite as she guided her own Kilkenny Castle to eighth place with a score of 56.9.
“It’s exciting–I’m moving pretty quickly. It’s a thrill to have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time,” said Judy.
“Kel,” a 17.3-hand Irish Sport Horse, is also 13. “He’s really good–he’s been a big help to me,” she said of her bright chestnut gelding.
Because the rules require riders to be at least 15 before attempting the intermediate level, Judy will have to remain at preliminary for the next two years.
Nevertheless, she intends to make the most of that time. She’s aiming Kel for more one-stars, with a clear goal in mind: “I’m going to try to win my first one-star sometime this year or next year,” Judy said. She’ll also be looking for another horse to help her break into the upper echelons of the sport.
“I’d like to move up to intermediate in two years, and then advanced when I’m 18, and I’d like to go to Rolex when I’m 19. I’d really like to go to the Olympics in 2012,” said Judy.
Judy has ridden with Darren Chiacchia for four months. She also trains with Liz Hotchkiss and Kim DeYoung of Missouri.