Jessica Phoenix remembers her very first event. She was 11, training with Kelly Plitz and Ian Roberts at the couple’s Dreamcrest Farm in Ontario. The Canadian Olympians had a successful training and breeding operation, and Phoenix remembers that she was riding a colored horse, aptly named Color Me Apache, for her first of what would be hundreds of equestrian competitions.
Now, almost three decades later, the jumps are bigger and the stakes higher, but there might be a certain sense of déjà vu as Phoenix is partnering with another colored horse, this one bred by Plitz and Roberts. Fluorescent Adolescent has a catchy show name (after a song by the Arctic Monkeys) and an eye-catching appearance (her brown and white coat has a lace-looking effect, hence her barn name of “Lacey”). And she seemingly has the talent to be yet another in Phoenix’s string of elite eventers.
“All of my horses are very different. They all have different body types and strengths. I believe they can come in all different shapes and sizes, as long as they have the aptitude and the heart for it,” said Phoenix, 39, a two-time Olympian and five-time Pan-American medalist for Canada. Lacey, a 15-year-old Canadian Sport Horse mare (Gaudi—Amelia II, Ali Baba), she said, definitely fits that description.
“She’s larger than life, true to her name,” said Phoenix, who most recently piloted the piebald mare to a third-place finish in the CCI4*-L at The Event at Rebecca Farm (Montana), July 19-23. “She’s such a character. You can obviously pick her out in a crowd, and she’s just got the sweetest personality. She loves performing, and she loves all three phases of eventing. She’s a horse that shows up for you, and she’s competitive, like me.”
The duo’s determination to excel was on display at Rebecca Farm, where they sat in sixth after dressage with a 35.7 and then ran clean and fast cross-country to finish with just 3.6 time faults. Adding two rails in show jumping, they finished with a 47.3 behind James Alliston and Karma, who won the division with a final score of 32.6, and Madison Temkin and MVP Madbum, who placed second with 42.4.
“Cross-country feels like her easiest phase,” said Phoenix, 39, Cannington, Ontario. “I think she loves the freedom of it and loves the ability to gallop across the ground.”
“Dressage is what she’s improved most at,” she added. “She’s really getting the strength and is understanding the movements.”
Phoenix took over the ride on Lacey in fall 2022 from Makayla Rydzik, who’d been training with Phoenix and had competed Lacey through the three-star level. Rydzik was school-bound but didn’t want to sell the horse. Instead, she opted to pass the reins over to Phoenix, and the duo quickly announced their presence with a third-place finish at the Virginia Horse Trials International CCI3*-L last autumn before moving up to the four-star level this spring.
Phoenix said the mare, who loves attention—“she sees a camera; her ears go forward”—handled the most atmosphere she’s seen yet with aplomb when they contested the Cosequin Lexington CCI4*-S at the Kentucky Horse Park in April.
“She was pure class all weekend [at Kentucky],” said Phoenix. “For her to step into that atmosphere and perform like she did was amazing.”
After their spring performances, Phoenix hopes she and Lacey will be selected to go to Santiago, Chile, as a member of the Canadian team at the Pan American Games, taking place Oct. 26-29. The roster should be announced soon, with Lacey qualifying for a possible berth thanks to her strong showing at Rebecca Farm.
Should Lacey qualify, Rydzik and her grandmother, Sharon Hall, already have their eyes on tickets to Chile. It was nearly seven years ago that Hall and her husband, Brian, purchased Lacey for the then-teenager.
Rydzik, who’s now enrolled in a veterinary assistant program at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario, had been searching for a new horse but wasn’t finding a good fit. She was working at Roberts’ farm, and he’d asked her to ride Lacey a few times. Unbeknownst to her, Roberts and her grandparents thought the duo might be the perfect partners.
“I had no idea. I thought I was just riding her to ride a horse,” Rydzik recalled. “I actually didn’t really like her. I mean, I liked her as a horse and thought she was beautiful, and I thought she’d be a great horse for someone, but she was too hot and had too much go compared to what I was used to.”
Rydzik’s previous horse, Spur Of The Moment, was a 15.3-hand Clydesdale cross “dreamboat,” but he topped out at training level, while Rydzik had higher aspirations. Moving to bigger, more forward Lacey was, she said, “a little bit of shock. She was the complete opposite of what I was looking for, but it was exactly what I [needed].”
Rydzik had to acclimate herself to Lacey’s big stride and powerful movements, and that meant getting stronger herself. She also had to adjust her attitude and cultivate a positive mindset to face the challenges of working with an “opinionated” mare. The pair started out at the training level and worked their way up to competing at 2021 Adequan/USEF Eventing Youth Team Challenge-East Coast (North Carolina).
“That was my first time in that massive of an atmosphere. I’d never been to such a big show,” Rydzik recalled. “We did amazing. We ended up in the middle of the pack, but I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Transitioning from rider to owner has helped Rydzik understand the impact the mare has had on her life, she said.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to win. Riding Lacey … really taught me that it’s not just about winning but about what you’ve achieved in a day,” Rydzik said. “It definitely changed my day-to-day thinking. Instead of thinking [negatively], I think, ‘This is what I achieved and what I didn’t achieve, and tomorrow, this is what I have to work for.’ She taught me that. Just to stay positive and work toward your goals.”