As the Adequan FEI North American Youth Championships get underway this week at Old Salem Farm in New York, it’s fun to look back on my own Young Riders memories.
In 2004 (at what was then the North American Young Rider Championships), my self-made project horse, Memphis, and I earned both team and individual young rider gold medals in what remains one of my favorite memories and an experience that I’ll never forget!
Looking back on my NAYRC experience now, I can reflect on not only what I learned that weekend itself but also on the road leading up to it, including these five favorite lessons:
Lesson #1: Don’t judge a book by its cover, because winning horses can come in all shapes, sizes and breeds.
As a junior, I competed extensively in the equitation as a working student for Andre Dignelli at Heritage Farm, but I’d never had a jumper. So, when I entered my amateur years, I decided that I really wanted to get a jumper, maybe an investment horse, and have a go at the jumper divisions.
Kate Stoffel-Oliver heard about a horse she thought had the potential to be a really good fit for me and that would fit within my budget. I couldn’t tell you the exact year, but I distinctly remember being at the Old Salem Farm Spring Horse Shows when I first saw Memphis.
Eddie Horowitz had just imported Memphis about two weeks prior to the horse show, and he really looked like nothing. At the time, the horse was a 6-year-old, and Jennifer Hannan was showing him in the high preliminary jumpers.
He was really a bag of bones; he had been pulled from a field in Europe, and he looked like a Thoroughbred-Arabian cross. We had no idea what he was breed-wise, but I almost guarantee part Arabian. He had these big white eyes when he would get nervous, and when we eventually first went to the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania), I remember him going into the Dixon Oval with his tail straight up in the air and trotting around like a Saddlebred!
He was somewhat unconventional, and, from the outside looking in, likely not the horse anyone would pick as the one to ultimately win double gold medals at NAYRC. But anything that perhaps he lacked in breeding, he made up for in heart, and he sure jumped his out for me!
Lesson #2: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
It would be great to say that after I purchased Memphis as a 6-year-old it was all smooth sailing and blue ribbons, but, as most people in the horse industry know, it doesn’t often work that way!
Memphis was young and quirky, and, especially early on, we were both doing a lot of learning together. In those early years, it’s tough to count the number of times I felt like maybe we didn’t pick the right horse, maybe it was a bad investment, maybe it just was not working out.
It took many years to get to being competitive and moving up in the ranks. When I first started out, at the time I was doing the low amateurs, and I couldn’t pull off a clear round to save my life for almost two years!
It was extremely frustrating, and I had my doubts about Memphis and my future. However, I just kept trying, and everyone around me and at Heritage Farm was so quick to support me and remind me that that’s the name of the game. Riding and training is not always going to be easy, and you’re going to have to work at it. So that’s what I did. I stayed positive and kept working really hard toward the goals that I envisioned at the time. Not to sound cliché, but it really did take years of blood, sweat and tears before we truly started to click, probably when Memphis was 11 or 12 years old.
I’ll never forget the first time that we finally showed in the high amateur-owners. We were in Wellington, Florida, back when there was still a grass field. I went in for the class, and Memphis spooked at something, and I wasn’t paying attention. He spun me off before the timers. That was something that Andre always told me—you always have to pay attention on the back of a horse.
Wouldn’t you know it though, I was allowed to get back on with a leg-up from the jump crew, and from about 45 entries, we won the class!
I remember going back to the barn to tell Andre that I’d won, and he said, “Well, good thing that you won because that was embarrassing!” We still joke about that time to this day, but it’s funny because from there on, things really started to go well. The years of hard work started to pay off, and we actually started to win.
Lesson #3: If your goals don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.
With my focus in my junior years on the equitation, Young Riders had never been something on my radar. Then, as Memphis and I started having success in the high amateur-owner jumpers, including winning the division championship at the 2004 Devon Horse Show, Young Riders suddenly really presented itself as an option and something worth targeting as a goal in the final year that I was eligible for the championships.
The thing is, leading up to NAYRC, I’d always heard everyone talking about how intense it was and how massive the jumps are, and they were right! Those were the biggest jumps that I had ever jumped in my life at that point!
Five years prior, if you had told me that Memphis and I would jump those courses and win two gold medals, I likely wouldn’t have believed you. However, following that weekend, I was reminded of the value of setting those big, lofty goals, believing you can achieve them and then going after them tenaciously even if they seem scary or impossible.
Lesson #4: Teamwork makes the dream work.
The 2004 NAYRC was my first time competing with a team, and that was so special. My teammates, Brianne Goutal, Leigh Healey and Katrina Woods, and I all created a great bond within our team. If I felt a little nervous, they were there to encourage me before I went in the ring. No matter what, they were there to give me a little extra confidence.
Today, I might not be riding on a team every day, but I try to create that same team atmosphere at True North Stables. While they might be competing individually, I want every rider at True North to feel like they’re part of a greater team, and, like I did at Young Riders, that they have someone at the in-gate ready to give them a bit of encouragement, a confidence boost or a push of motivation when they need it most.
Lesson #5: Pour love and effort into your horse, and they’ll pour it back ten-fold.
Looking back on my success with Memphis, I can’t help but think a lot of it had to do with the sheer amount of time that we spent together and the bond that we created. I groomed him and did a lot of his care; I could walk a mile away, and the horse would follow. He was like a puppy dog, and he knew I was his mom. I really think that his heart was just so big for me that he wanted to try his best for me.
That’s something that I try to engrain in my students and in kids today: If you have a bond with your horse, I’m telling you, they will jump out of their skin for you.
If you have the time to spend 10 extra minutes with them—bathing them, grooming them, loving them—do it. If you put in the effort and love for them, I almost guarantee they’ll give it back tenfold.
So, to the riders competing at the North American Youth Championships this week, best of luck, and I hope your experience is filled with as many fond memories and life lessons learned as mine was!
Born and raised in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of 8. In 2018, Shiels launched her own True North Stables, based in Illinois and Florida and dedicated to providing individualized training and opportunities that allow horse and rider to excel in the sport.