In my last blog, I introduced myself as an older-and-wider rider setting off on an adventure with my Haflinger mare and a group of intrepid horsewomen on an epic horse show trip. We’re traveling from southern California to the Haflinger National Show at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington this summer.
Now, it’s time to introduce our adventure club members and update you on what we’ve been doing to prepare for the show.
First, of course, is our horse, Aurelia of Genesis, aka “Lia.” She’s a 7-year-old, 14.2-hand registered Haflinger who will be showing in halter, western, English, driving, trail, western dressage and costume classes with six (!) different handlers throughout the four-day show. Yes, Haflingers do it all, reminding me of horses we had when we were kids that went to local shows and competed in just about every event offered.
Back in the day, we’d show all day long, with just a quick change of clothes and tack between divisions, having fun without breaking the bank. Our horses were fit, they didn’t need extensive prep, and they did their best for us because we didn’t know enough to pressure them to be perfect. There was always another class, another saddle club show or a trail ride on the horizon that took our mind off of our sometimes-steep competition learning curve. We showed from two-horse bumper pull trailers, we ate lunch from a cooler from home (which always included carrots), and we proudly hung all of our ribbons—not just the blue ones—on the windows of our trucks.
That’s what it feels like again with Lia. Our group, called #TeamLia now (when did horses get hashtags?), has taken our little golden mare to two local schooling shows in the San Diego area, and everyone’s had a chance to show her in a few classes. Lia is lovely to show and has a sensible soul older than her years. She seems to think going to a one-day show with her minions is as much fun as we all do. She doesn’t care if she trots or jogs, pulls a cart or steps over logs or stands square for a halter class. She takes about 15 minutes to warm up under saddle after playing on the longe line to get the kinks out, and she’s happy to stand tied to the trailer with her head in a hay bag whenever she’s not needed in the ring (although there was a funny incident with Lia begging for a hot dog).
We had no idea what to expect at the first schooling show, but it’s clear by now that Lia’s a showgirl. As she should be: Lia’s dad is Alfa of Genesis, one of the leading sires of the modern Haflinger breed in the U.S., and she’s been well-managed all her life with top-notch training and consistent care. When I bought Lia two years ago, she was green under saddle and in harness, but like a kid that’s had great teachers in elementary school, she knew her equine ABCs and was ready to go to high school.
Enter trainer Mikey Harchol. I met Mikey almost 10 years ago through my other horse business, and I always admired the way she and her clients interacted and performed. Mikey’s equine and human students were beautifully turned out, and they seemed prepared without the rush and chaos that’s endemic to some trainers. I wasn’t in the market for a horse trainer at that time, but I tucked away a little idea that someday I might find a reason to have Mikey help me with a horse.
When I began to hatch my plans for taking a green Haflinger halfway across the U.S. for a big show, Mikey was my first choice as an all-around trainer for the adventure. I wasn’t sure she’d even consider a Haflinger in her barn of Paints and Quarter Horses, but she was intrigued with the plan and agreed to try it. I knew Mikey showed in the classes Lia might enter, and after about three months of figuring out the Haflingerness of Lia, Mikey started to think my wild schemes might have merit.
A horse girl all her life, and a professional trainer for most of it, Mikey has shown everything from stock breeds to Morgans to Arabians over the years, but Lia was a new challenge. Although our mare is good-minded, she can be a bit lazy, and, like many Haflingers, she’s much happier trotting than cantering. Mikey put a ton (a ton!) of time into getting Lia fit and teaching her to carry herself more efficiently at the canter. Although Lia’s a work in process, we now have a Haflinger with three good gaits. Mikey’s horses also always look like a million bucks. Several people have asked Mikey what she does to get that shimmering golden coat on Lia, and her answer is one every horseman respects: “I brush her. A lot!”
The one event Mikey hadn’t shown in was driving, and it became an emotional journey for her to undertake. Mikey’s sister Debie was a well-known teamster, driving her draft horses to many championships in California shows, but sadly Debie passed away 2 ½ years ago from ALS. However, Mikey turned to one of Debie’s draft-driving friends, Sioux Munyon Swart, for help with Lia. Sioux in turn recruited two of her friends to help with #TeamLia, and both of those ladies are now Kentucky-bound. After showing Lia in her first driving class (which they won) Mikey said she felt as if her sister was driving with her, encouraging her to learn something new that had always been precious to Debie.
Mikey’s responsible for all Lia’s training, and she’s also in charge of the mountain of horse-related equipment we’re hauling to Kentucky. She’ll be showing Lia in the adult walk/trot/canter and green horse divisions.
The first of our new driving friends is Christy Bakke. Christy has owned and shown a variety of horses over the years and currently has her own Haflinger gelding, Aldorado MLF, who trail rides and shows in riding and driving classes. “Gator” does a bit of everything, like many Haflingers. He joined Lia at our two recent schooling shows to carry a little friend in leadline, but Gator’s also up for a gallop in the ocean or being a patient driver’s ed teacher in harness.
Owning a Haflinger herself, Christy was very interested in the national show in Lexington, so I invited her to come along. She’ll be showing Lia in several driving classes including reinsmanship, the driving equivalent of equitation where precision paces and tight turns are the goal. When Christy’s not horsing around, she’s a first-grade teacher.
Jo Ann Jackson is also part of Lia’s driving team and will be competing in the speed classes. Jo Ann and Christy have been friends for years, having met when they both drove professionally for a livery carriage company in downtown San Diego. Although she grew up doing all-around events with Morgans, Jo Ann has focused on driving for most of her adult life with various draft breeds, primarily Percherons.
“I thought this trip to Kentucky sounded like the chance of a lifetime,” Jo Ann told me. “I’m having fun with the energy of the team and looking forward to showing Lia and helping everyone else and seeing Kentucky too.” Both Jo Ann and Christy have dedicated much time to sharpening Lia’s driving skills and helping the other #TeamLia drivers with their reinsmanship. In real life, Jo Ann is a research scientist specializing in nucleic acid molecular diagnostics. I don’t know what that is either, but I can say she’s also a deft hand at refurbishing driving vehicles. Thanks for sprucing up our humble cart, Jo Ann!
Next on the team is McKenna Harchol. She’ll be showing Lia in the adult walk-trot division. Yes, she’s Mikey’s daughter and has shown a number of Paint horses to top placings but said she’s looking forward to trying something new. “I’ve shown a lot in Paint and pinto, but this is a chance for me to expand my breed knowledge.”
McKenna is a college student currently studying criminal justice, and she’s also working as an assistant to an equine vet. “I’m learning a ton,” she said. “It’s really hard work, but every day I come home with new ideas about how horses behave, how they see the world, and how I can communicate with them in new ways. And I’m learning a lot about people too!”
With a full slate of classes for youth riders at the Haflinger National Show, Mikey suggested we consider a young rider to add to our roster, and she had a great candidate in mind in her friend Delaney Van Horn. Delaney has had a terrific youth career in the Paint horse circuit in California and on the national scene and rides both English and western. As well, Delaney shows Miniature Horses and is a confident whip (driver), so we were thrilled when she said she’d join us in Kentucky as Lia’s youth exhibitor.
The Haflinger show will be a rite of passage for Delaney, as she’ll fly right after the show ends from Kentucky to Baylor University in Texas for orientation on the day she turns 18! Yes, Delaney’s going to college in pursuit of a career as an orthopedic surgeon, right after she shows our golden mare in everything from costume class to trail to driving.
“I love to show, and it’s been really fun learning about Lia,” she said. “She’s very different from the Paints, and it took me a little while to understand how she goes, but I’m glad for the chance to do something different.”
The last members of #TeamLia are my friend of 30+ years, Julie Farmer, and her dog Joey. “Jewels” has a Haflinger gelding as a current project, but she’s shown Appaloosas and Quarter Horses in California and at the national level for many years. When I told Julie about the trip to Kentucky, she volunteered to help me drive, and I took her up on that in a moment! Her only request was to bring her adorable Jack Russell Terrier Joey with us on the road, which of course I agreed to. And then I got to thinking: Isn’t there a carriage dog class at the show?
So now not only has Julie agreed to drive for six days back and forth to Kentucky with me (certain to be an epic road trip with a trailer full of enough tack and show clothes to outfit a university show team along with a cart and harness), she’s also been talked into actually competing in a driving class with darling Joey by her side. Joey’s practiced with Lia, and he’s also schooling every day by resting in his carriage basket as he watches TV.
Luckily, Julie is an experienced showgirl with world champion titles from the Appaloosa circuit, and she’s very intrepid. Now a successful realtor specializing in equestrian properties in Southern California, Jewels is a retired U.S. military veteran who has, among other things, refueled jets in midair at 400 mph. Driving to Kentucky with me should be a snap.
I had the good fortune to visit Lexington a few weeks ago for another horse-related meeting and took the opportunity to case the horse park and check out our stalls and confirm that the Airbnb house I rented actually exists. (It does.) The Haflinger show organizers have announced a stall decorating contest, so I measured walls and plotted our display and have since been frantically gathering the bits and bobs needed to (hopefully) dazzle the barn judges with our interpretation of” Golden Good Times.” That’s my job—decorating the stalls while everyone else shows the horse.
So, the team is ready. Airline tickets are purchased; Miss Lia is fit, trained and gorgeous. The #TeamLia T-shirts are at the printers, and we’re leaving for Lexington in a couple weeks. Lia will travel via a commercial hauler, and Julie and Joey and I will take the Costumemobile to meet Lia at the horse park with the rest of #TeamLia flying in shortly thereafter.
I didn’t start out to gather a team of terrific horsewomen to join me on my journey to Haflinger Nationals, but our group of friends and friends of friends has come together in a wonderful, spontaneous way. We haven’t even made it to the show yet, but it already feels like we’re indeed living up to the show theme of Golden Good Times with our little gold mare.
Next: The Really Big Show
Suzanne Vlietstra is an older-and-wider-rider who lives in southern California with her teenage son, dogs and horses. She is rich in friends and stories from her past charmed existence, with a large bucket list ahead still to pursue.