Last week, Daphne Glenn, 14, and two other riders from Kellenbrook Farms in Gig Harbor, Washington, headed out on a journey of more than 2,000 miles to compete at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in Wayne, Illinois.
It was the culmination of an even longer journey she’s taken with her pony, Squirtel. The 13.2-hand gelding arrived at Kellenbrook 13 years ago after being placed for sale on Craigslist. Trainer Kelly Irving-Burris picked him up at a truck stop as a green broke 4-year-old.
“We knew he was special, and when we find special horses we always say they don’t get to leave,” said Irving-Burris’ sister Brook Irving-Martz, who is Glenn’s primary trainer. “Daphne is now his third Kellenbrook owner.”
Glenn had only been riding a few years when she began leasing Squirtel, whose name is pronounced “Squirtle” but was mis-entered on a registration form. “It’s kind of a funny story, actually,” she said. “My first pony’s name was Squirt. And that’s not even a common name!”
Although she started out learning dressage and jumping, Glenn knew dressage would be her focus after watching the older riders at the barn. “I saw other girls doing the juniors, and that was all I wanted to do,” she said. “Squirtel was a dressage pony, and I had such a great connection with him.”
The Little Dog
Glenn was only 9 years old and riding introductory level movements when she partnered with Squirtel, but they clicked and steadily improved together. By 2018, they tried to qualify for the Festival of Champions but didn’t quite get the test they needed.
“Then last year, we had been training for it, and I actually had some time to prepare,” Glenn said. “The training was going really well, so we thought, ‘Sweet, let’s do it.’ ” They qualified and competed in the USEF Childrens championships and in the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals.
At the 2019 competition, Glenn was barely a teenager riding around the Lamplight Equestrian Center on a pony purchased off a website that typically advertises used cars, appliances and part-time jobs. Was she intimidated by the imported horses with lengthy pedigrees and big-name riders?
“I was the little dog there looking at all the fancy pants people,” she said, “but everyone was really nice to me. Some of my competitors, I’m friends with them over social media now. It was a great experience.”
At this year’s Festival, she’s reconnecting with some of her virtual friends who have also moved into the USEF Pony Rider championships. She and Squirtel will also contest the dressage seat medal class again.
Although he’d only competed through training level when Glenn bought him, Squirtel recently scored in the mid-60s at third level at their only show this year. “It was a little rough but not horrible!” Glenn said. “The ongoing struggle for us is collection. The movement we’ve improved the most is the walk pirouette. I used to get 4s and 5s on those, but now I get 7s and 8s. We just practiced. We did one or two of them in every lesson, and they just got easier and better.”
Irving-Martz says Glenn is a strong rider and an attentive learner. “He was not so easy to show in the beginning and spent many tests with a bolt or buck,” she said. “Daphne is a very gifted rider and a wonderful student, so she always tries and listens with an open mind. They have developed a great partnership.”
Because of COVID-19, they only had that one show to qualify for Festival.
“It was an all or nothing moment!” Irving-Martz said. “We had worked a ton on basics [while shows were canceled], and that really paid off. She got him more supple and sitting more this winter, so the added collection for the Pony test was easy when we finally put the test together.”
The Last Hurrah
Glenn’s goals for this week are straightforward—and a little bittersweet. “This is probably going to be my and Squirtel’s last show together because I just got a new horse, and we’re training for the juniors,” she said. “I just want to make it his last hurrah before he gets passed down to another little kid. So I’m just excited to do the last show and give it all we’ve got.”
She does her own braiding and, with her mother, Stephanie Glenn, handles most of Squirtel’s care at the shows. “My mom is the only groom I have!” Daphne said with a laugh. “Kellenbrook teaches more than just riding, it’s also horsemanship. Whenever they’re doing something [with a horse in the barn], they’ll start teaching me about it, and how to do it, like wrapping legs.”
Her new horse, Romanesque, is an 8-year-old Westphalian mare who had only been to one show when they bought her. “We went to Florida looking for a horse,” said Stephanie, “and then she was in our backyard. A lovely woman, who unfortunately had multiple sclerosis, couldn’t ride her anymore and was looking for just the right home.”
The pandemic restricted other activities this summer, so Daphne had extra time to bond with Romanesque and continue training with Squirtel. In September, she’ll enter ninth grade at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, where her mother teaches Japanese language.
The school expects to be fully online as the semester begins. Daphne says that “kind of stinks, but it’s OK,” and she hopes the schedule will allow her to continue riding five days a week.
She and Romanesque qualified for the GAIG/USDF Region 6 championships in Oregon, so Daphne, Stephanie and the Kellenbrook team are planning to compete there next month.
After five years with Squirtel, it will be an adjustment to go to a show without him. But Daphne knows he’ll still be at Kellenbrook, beginning a new partnership with a younger child. “He’s been passed down through the generations at the barn,” she said.
Irving-Burris has a daughter who is excited to get the ride on the 17-year-old gelding. “We are so lucky that my niece, who is 7, is going to be taking the reins over this fall!” said Irving-Martz. “Squirtel gets to bring his next kid along.”