Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2024

Grant Gives Junior Hunter Rider A Whirlwind Championship Experience

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The plan started with an email.

That email informed amateur rider Nicholas Fix that his horse Paint The Town had qualified for the Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter National Championships with a previous rider, so he reached out to his trainers Linda and Alyssa Stevens of Fox Hollow Stables in Wampum, Pennsylvania.

That got them thinking about a conversation Alyssa had with working student Karlie Dennis months earlier about her goals for her final junior year.

Dennis, 18, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, had come to Fox Hollow having only competed at unrated shows with her Thoroughbred, Jackson, at 2’9″/3′. She did her first USEF-rated competition in December, but her ultimate goal was to ride at junior hunter finals. That goal seemed far-fetched at the time, but the news that “Tater” was qualified started a conversation about whether it was doable.

Traveling to the show in Williamsburg, Michigan, would be a huge financial ask, but the Fox Hollow crew discovered the USEF/Debbie Smith Grant, which gives recipients $10,000 to use toward the expense of competing at the championship. The window was tight: by the time they got all the pieces in place, the application deadline was only two days away.

Karlie Dennis showed Nicholas Fix’s Paint The Town at the Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter National Championships—East (Mich.) thanks to the USEF/Debbie Smith Grant. Andrew Ryback Photography Photo

Two weeks before the East Coast championship, held June 25-30, they received word that Dennis had been selected for the grant to compete there at the 3’3″ height.

“I think [the grant is] amazing, and Karlie is so well deserving of it, honestly, with how hard she works,” said Linda.

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Thus began a scramble to make it all happen.

“It all actually came together pretty quickly,” said Linda. “It was unreal that we could just drop everything and change all the plans and hit the ground running with him. We had a plan in place in case she got the grant, but it was just implementing that plan once we got the final word that she got it. When we were all done, it was like, ‘Wow, look what we just did.’ It was really a whirlwind.”

Alyssa Stevens (left), Nicholas Fix and Karlie Dennis with Paint The Town at the Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter National Championships—East (Mich.). Photo Courtesy Of Fox Hollow Stables

Prior to their journey to junior hunter finals, Dennis had hacked the 18-year-old warmblood cross (Remarkable Fame—Twania) a few times but had never jumped him over more than a crossrail. She’d also never competed in the junior hunters.

The group then began an intense logistical chess match to make it all work. Dennis had also been accepted to a MZ Farms/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Regional Training Session, which took place in Long Valley, New Jersey, the week prior to the championship. While Linda took Dennis to that, Alyssa stayed in Pennsylvania to prepare Tater. They all then met up in Ohio at Brave Horse IV the weekend before junior hunter finals to give Dennis the opportunity to show in the 3’3″ juniors once before heading to Michigan.

“I really haven’t rode Tater that much, and definitely not at this level, and I’ve never really rode anything like him, so I wasn’t sure how this was going to go at all,” said Dennis. “But it was a really, really great experience.”

In Ohio, the pair found their groove and won their final over fences round of the show. For Dennis, showing an unfamiliar horse wasn’t a new challenge. She competes on an Interscholastic Equestrian Association team, where riders are assigned mounts randomly, but even in that arena she had more experience with the Thoroughbred-type ride.

“Going from a horse who completely has its own motor to Tater, who is like total kick ride, it took a second to adjust to, but I’m glad that we schooled as much as we did, because if I hadn’t done that, it probably would not have gone as well as it did,” she said.

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Dennis said arriving at the Traverse City Horse Shows showgrounds was a bit overwhelming as she found herself sharing the ring with some of the nations’ top junior hunters—a far cry from the informal schooling shows she’d grown up with. Though she’d spectated at some large shows, this was her first time there as a competitor.

“It was so different from what I’m used to seeing, so it was definitely really overwhelming at first, but you’ve just kind of got to look to your horse and remember you’re there for a reason,” she said. “It was such a cool experience. I’ve gone to a couple bigger shows just to see what it’s like, but I don’t have the money to show at those, so I just go and watch, but it’s nothing compared to actually showing and riding.”

While Dennis made a few mistakes in her classic round, Linda was proud of how her student made adjustments for her handy round.

“Whatever you tell her to do, she does to a ‘T,’ ” said Linda. “Whatever it is, she sticks to it. And even in the handy, that class was unreal because, you know, Tater used to be a jumper up until I think about 2 1/2 years ago. He had done jumpers his whole life, and so they opted for all of the inside turns. It was a pretty, pretty tough plan to achieve what she did, but she never wavered from what was discussed. She went in and she executed.”

Karlie Dennis (left) and Tater’s owner Nicholas Fix take a selfie at the championship. Photo Courtesy Of Fox Hollow Stables.

For Fix, who doesn’t get to ride often due to his job, getting to share the week with Dennis, who “took exceptional care of my horse,” was a point of pride.

“The coolest thing about Karlie is she’s so athletic, and she’s so talented and natural and just has the raw athleticism and guts to be able to step foot in that arena and successfully complete those trips,” he said. “I think that is huge.”

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