Each spring, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association pores over heartfelt applications for the coveted USHJA Gochman Grant for USEF Pony Finals, which allows first-time hopefuls with limited financial resources to compete at the show as well as provide them access to qualified trainers and educational opportunities. Committees review rider videos, experience and essays, knowing they can only choose three junior applicants. They look for riders who demonstrate horsemanship, tenacity and good sportsmanship, who otherwise would not have the resources to attend USEF Pony Finals.
One of this year’s three recipients is Liam Hissong, 14, Limerick, Pennsylvania, who trains as a working student with Karen Raach of Rock Solid Stables in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Hissong sat down with 2017 recipient Ella Doerr to discuss what he is most looking forward to at USEF Pony Finals, coming up Aug. 8-13 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Congratulations, Liam. This experience is life changing. You and two others rose to the top of the applicant pool. Tell me a little bit about your life before the grant.
I began riding at Bryn Taran Farm and then two years ago went with my current trainer, Karen Raach, when I started a working student position. I’ve been riding a whole bunch of different horses and working with the babies in hand. Karen told me I should apply for the grant that allowed you to get the full ride to Pony Finals. I wanted to qualify a pony, but we just didn’t have the funds; it was disappointing.
Do you own or lease your own horse or pony?
No, I’ve never had one.
So as a working student for the past few years, you were able to learn and gain experience despite not having the resources for the sport. Were you able to get any showing experience?
I only showed two or three times in the summer, and that’s really all I did until I got the working student opportunity.
Now I get to show around twice a month. I’ve been showing two ponies, [doing] the jumpers or children’s hunters on Barbie Girl, and jumpers on So Sweet. The jumpers on So Sweet has been a really fun experience. My trainers show babies in-hand in hunter breeding. So I’ve gotten my own hand in that and learned the ways of showing in-hand and doing the amateur handler classes.
You showed yearling Harbor Square RWC in-hand in the junior/amateur handlers class at the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) and finished fifth. What did you like about handling?
I think it’s fun to do something different with horses, rather than just sit on them. You can have a relationship with them on the ground and know their ways, and with a baby you can have a relationship and see how they grow up throughout the three years we have them.
What’s one of your favorite handling tricks that you’ve learned?
I wouldn’t say trick, but it’s generally just learning how to hold the wild babies. When you’re at an adolescent barn, you experience the wild side of them. You learn to handle something with more energy and more “enthusiasm,” I guess you could say. It’s definitely something important to learn.
What’s one of your favorite handling stories with a baby?
At the Sallie B. Wheeler Hunter Breeding Championship (Virginia) in August last year, I was doing the amateur handler class with Requested RWC. We were about halfway through our jog when she did this large rear/buck combo. We got a super cool picture of her in the air, and it hangs in our tack room. We actually ended up winning that class! It was great. Everybody was looking up, all scared. And I was just holding her as she’s in the air, all four feet off the ground. It was cool.
The Raach family are some of the top pony handlers in the country. How did you meet them?
I was introduced to them. I’d go and groom for them at horse shows and help them out here and there. Eventually they offered me a working student position.
Tell me a little bit about a day in your life.
Normally five days to seven days a week, I’ll be at the barn. In the summer, I go around 8 a.m., and I’ll do any barn chores, bring the horses in or out, feed the horses. Then from there I’ll do any tasks that need to be done. If the trailers need packed for a horse show, I’ll do that, or I’ll get tack ready.
Every day is truly different with babies—curveballs will be thrown at you left and right. So it’s never really the same thing every day, other than the normal barn chores.
I always go, and I ride at least two to three. And then you’re just dealing with the different things babies will throw at you, different injuries and little cuts, and welcoming the new babies in the barn and saying goodbye to the old ones. And dealing with settling in babies and bathing them for the horse shows, getting ready, finding all their vitals and stuff. It’s something different every day, but it keeps you busy.
You are a straight-A, National Honors Society student, a working student at the barn and you fit in time to volunteer.
I rode at Bryn Taran Farm before becoming a working student, and I’ve continued to help out at their summer pony camps for the little kids. I get to go see all my friends and watch the kids have fun around the horses and grow up in the same camp that I learned to ride in. It’s a fun experience. I always help there every summer. I’ve volunteered at Ian’s Boots, which is a foundation that provides less fortunate people with proper footwear. That was fun to help the community and to help out people who don’t have as much as we do; you get a bigger perspective on everything. That was cool.
What are some challenges that have made riding challenging for you?
Mainly the financial burden. That’s why I only really showed two to three times in the summer, which I’m very grateful for. But in the past two years, the Barbie family, who own Barbie Girl and So Sweet, have allowed me to show the girls twice a month, which is really an awesome experience that I’ve learned so much from. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. And the Raach family, they’ve really helped me.
Are there any other things that make riding hard for you?
It’s hard to be teenager in a sport that’s considered a female sport in the public eye at school. It’s been hard because not a lot of guys do it, so you’re looked at differently, and you’re made fun of, and it sucks.
It’s really hard to just know that you’re different out there and that other people just won’t accept it. I have to change how I am in school and have a different personality. It’s a school thing. My whole family has always been supportive and helped me get through it. It’s just a few people at school who have caused issues. That’s only really where I see it. It’s definitely calmed down in the past few years, but it really just took a toll on everything and how I felt about riding. But I’m so glad I’ve stuck through it all these years because this is what’s come out of it, and it’s so worth it.
Have your barn friends been supportive?
They’ve always been there for me when I needed it, and they will always continue to be there. It’s really nice having a good support system behind you. I just wish people would be a little more open-minded and see what all it takes to get through this sport; [then] they realize that I’m just doing what I enjoy.
Do you feel like the equestrian community has been a positive influence on you?
Yeah, I do. I’ve been lucky to have really great trainers and farm friends, people that have always been very positive and uplifting whenever times are hard. It really makes it so much easier to get by whenever you have people that are so supportive and open around you. I work really hard to do this sport.
Is your family excited about this grant?
Yes. My whole family was so excited to hear I got it. My parents will be coming with me. It’s truly an amazing experience that we won’t ever forget. Even though they’re not super horsey and don’t understand what’s happening, they’re always there cheering on the sidelines.
What part of Pony Finals are you the most excited for?
Probably to show in a big Rolex ring and to be at the Kentucky Horse Park because I’ve never been. I’m probably most excited about that, or working with Robin Greenwood and Rob Jacobs. I can’t wait to be trained by them to get a different view on riding techniques. It’s always great to have a different perspective. That’s what I’m most excited about.
It will be a big adjustment. You will have a groom instead of you being the groom. Often the recipients have very little to no experience showing at A shows. They are often hard-working barn kids suddenly at a huge finals. Going in those big rings and only getting one shot over fences can be very intimidating for the kids with little experience. How do you feel about that sudden change?
I know this sounds dumb, but the long 14- to 15-stride bending lines make me nervous. I know I’m going to get lost at six strides in, so I’m just going to ride it off my eyes.
What’s something that you hope to learn while you’re there?
I’ve only done the small rated shows around us. I hope to learn what it takes to show at a big final like that, what kind of prep it takes to get ready for a big show like that, because I’ve never really shown at one. Showing in the big ring will probably be the most nerve-racking thing.
Do you have any good luck charms?
I wear a pair of socks that have dollar bills all over. I’ve always worn them at every single show I go to. It’s silly, but those are the socks I always wear.
I would like to ask you a USHJA Horsemanship quiz practice question. What is the minimum age that a pony can get their permanent measurement card?