Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

Hannah Sue Burnett Has Joined The Four-Star Fold


It may be premature to call Keep The Faith the horse of Hannah Sue Burnett’s lifetime. After all, that lifetime has barely spanned 20 years. But any horse who takes a young rider from preliminary level to four-star within six years is likely to be remembered with a considerable degree of fondness.
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It may be premature to call Keep The Faith the horse of Hannah Sue Burnett’s lifetime. After all, that lifetime has barely spanned 20 years. But any horse who takes a young rider from preliminary level to four-star within six years is likely to be remembered with a considerable degree of fondness.

Growing up in Kentucky, Burnett was one of thousands of little girls across the country who dreamed of one day riding at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. But this April, she broke from the ranks of the dreamers and actually accomplished the goal aboard her 16-year-old, Thoroughbred gelding “Ben,” showcasing their impressive partnership on America’s brightest eventing stage.

“It’s been a really cool experience,” Burnett said of her first Rolex Kentucky. “I’ve been going since I was a little girl and have watched forever.”

But her first time competing was a whole different ballgame. Suddenly fans were turning up to cheer for her, asking for her autograph and attending her course walk.

“I saw people I hadn’t seen in forever. There were tons of Pony Clubbers there, and a lot of my family came into town. It was just a really good experience. I feel like I had a consistent run. I rode through those nerves and really enjoyed the whole experience.”

Clark Montgomery, who traveled to Kentucky to serve as Burnett’s coach, agreed. “She did great.”

Burnett began riding with him last summer at Jacqueline Mars’ Stonehall Farm in The Plains, Va., where he’s based with Karen and David O’Connor. “She was really nervous, but she’s a very focused rider and has good reactions and [her cross-country penalties were] just inexperience. That’s just what she has to gain now, is experience at the level.”

If not for a run-out at the third element of the first water complex, the pair would have finished even higher than their eventual 23rd. “I just kind of over-steered,” Burnett explained of the cross-country mishap, though they handled the remainder of the course like pros. “I didn’t realize he was as well-trained as he is!”

Unfortunately, Burnett said she’s lost contact with Ben’s former owner over the six years she’s had him, so she hasn’t been able to give her an update on his progress. “I don’t even know if she knows he’s done Rolex,” she said.

After the event, Burnett turned her horse out in a field for some much-deserved R&R, and he quickly began “getting extremely fat,” according to his rider.

“I guess he wasn’t that stressed out after Rolex!” she mused. “Usually after huge events like that they drop weight, but he was on barely any feed at all and he’s out all night and is happy as a clam.”

Moving Up, Moving On
“Hannah Sue Burnett” wasn’t exactly a household name on the entry list for Rolex this year, but the Bluegrass native had been competing from Michigan to Florida for several seasons in order to reach her ultimate goal: to make it back to the Kentucky Horse Park.

“I had to travel a lot when I started going advanced,” she explained of living in the Midwest.

Her road trips included, among other things, the tearing off of an axle from her 18-year-old trailer. “I would go for whole seasons out with the O’Connors, and my parents really sacrificed a lot. I’m one of five children, and none of my other siblings really ride.”

Burnett’s mother teaches lessons and trains at the family’s Finchville, Ky., farm, while her father is a general contractor for commercial buildings in Louisville. “Not that it’s easy for anyone,” she said, “but my whole family really had to work hard for me to get there.”

Burnett was actually one of four young riders who contested Rolex Kentucky this year—a record number. Californian Tiana Coudray, New Jersey native Emilee Libby and Idaho-based Sara Mittleider rounded out the group. Burnett said she’s proud to be a member of a generation of riders that’s doing so well so early in their careers, but she still feels a competitive edge.

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“I didn’t really have a ‘bond’ with the girls at Rolex, except for the fact that we were all young riders. I feel like it’s difficult when you don’t see each other except for at three-days and very serious events, where you need to be focused more on your job than becoming friends with your fellow competitors.

“I do have very good relationships and bonds with other young riders that I have spent more time with,” she continued. “It’s interesting to balance being good friends and competing against each other. Because we all know we want to individually win, or beat the other person, no matter how good of friends you are! If it were any other way, it wouldn’t be the competitive sport that it is.”

Burnett honed her competitive prowess while advancing through her ratings in Long Run Pony Club, which she joined at age 7. By her early teens, she’d ridden up to preliminary level with her pony mare and had transitioned from the tutelage of her mother to that of Susan Harris and Cathy Wieschhoff.

“She’s a hard worker,” said Wieschhoff. “I’ve had her work for me, kind of as a working student, and I’ve been impressed with her organization and attention to detail and her drive to take on the work needed to be a rider at the upper levels. I don’t see that in a lot of kids these days.”

By age 14, Burnett was ready to move on to better, and specifically bigger, things. While spectating at the USEF Pony Finals in Connecticut, she stopped in New York to look at a 16.3-hand, Thoroughbred gelding she’d seen advertised in the Chronicle and immediately fell head over heels in love, but the purchase seemed financially impos-sible at the time. Heading back to Kentucky with her pony in tow, she clung to the hope that this improbable new partnership was somehow meant to be.

Burnett didn’t have to wait long for the sign she’d been holding out for. A week after returning home, she rode her mare in the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show. “She won the pony jumper division, so we just told a couple people that she was for sale,” Burnett said, recalling how her plans fell perfectly into place. “And they bought her that same day.”

While selling her partner of five years was difficult, it facilitated her next step. So when it came to naming her new partner, Burnett opted for a faith-inspired Biblical reference, drawing from 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

“I wanted to have my faith stated somehow in my horse’s name,” Burnett explained, also noting that her family’s farm shares the same name. “ ‘Keep The Faith’ seems perfect because Ben always tries so hard for me, and the Lord is always there, even if things aren’t going as planned.”

The Perfect Partner

Ben’s former career was far less illustrious than his recent Rolex credentials. “He won $200 out of six races,” said Burnett. “But he still raced until he was 6, at the Pennsylvania track [Philadelphia Park] that Smarty Jones was from. That still didn’t make him a good race horse, though, thank goodness!”

By the time she bought the bay gelding, he’d done a handful of preliminary-level events with his former owner, but Burnett spent an autumn season campaigning him at training.

“I was young then, but it was an immediate partnership,” she said. “I was on a pony before, so it was a big jump. I didn’t really know how to ride him. We struggled a bit, but we still did well at training.”

The pair progressed through preliminary and intermediate, and after graduating from high school in 2004, Burnett studied at the University of Kentucky for one semester. But she quickly decided that her education could wait, and advancing an aging Ben up to the four-star level couldn’t.

“I remember calling my dad and asking him if I could not go back to school the next semester and instead go to Florida to train with Cathy Wieschhoff,” she said. “I was so relieved, and I know I made the right decision to keep riding Ben.”

The pair did their first two- and three-star CCIs in 2006. They placed 20th at last fall’s Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) and 10th at the Red Hills CIC***-W (Fla.) in March. Ben also helped Burnett earn her B Pony Club rating, and she hopes to achieve her H-A and A this year.

Although she still frequently makes the trek to Virginia to train with Montgomery and the O’Connors, she remains tied to her family’s farm in Kentucky.

“She’s doing the right thing now, where she’s back in Kentucky teaching some lessons and getting an income,” said Montgomery. “That’s all part of it too—it’s not all about getting to go to the Rolexes. You’ve got to get the business side of it too.”

Building a foundation for the future is something Burnett is definitely interested in.

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“I really enjoyed working with the O’Connors,” she said of her time as a working student. “I would clean stalls in the morning and tack and untack, take time for my own horse, and hack horses down to the ring for them.”

Hoping to one day run her own barn, Burnett said she enjoyed the insight into the O’Connor Team’s business structure as well.

“It’s also interesting to me what great relationships all of the successful top-level riders have with their fellow competitors,” she observed. “There’s a lot to be learned from them, aside from riding. Karen and David have a great system out there and it’s really fair.

“[But] it’s been difficult because I was seeking sponsorship in Kentucky, and I wasn’t there,” she admitted, referring to her time spent in Florida and Virginia.

Like many young riders, Burnett is still learning the ins and outs of soliciting financial support.

“It’s hard in Kentucky because everyone has horses in Kentucky,” said Wieschhoff, one of the few upper-level riders permanently based in the Bluegrass State. “The race horses make money, or at least have more potential to, so that’s kind of where the horse industry has a lot of its brain power. So to get sponsorship for an event rider is really difficult.”

But with the World Equestrian Games coming to Kentucky in 2010, Wieschhoff said she hopes there will be more exposure for eventers in the state.

“She has the talent to do well, and if she can keep good horses underneath her, she can really do well,” Wieschhoff assessed of Burnett’s future. “That’s always the million dollar question.”

Looking To The Future
Having attained her goal to compete at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, Hannah Sue Burnett is now formulating some new objectives.

She plans to return to college next spring, while still training and teaching lessons at her home in Finchville, Ky. But for the moment, she’s working toward one more four-star with Keep The Faith before his retirement—possibly the new Pau CCI**** (France) in October. But regardless of her plans with him, he’ll be a tough horse to replace.

“I think every one of us who has had a horse for that long and brought it up through the levels like she has knows it’s hard to find that again,” acknowledged Burnett’s coach, Clark Montgomery. “You spend your whole riding career trying to find those partnerships. I think it might have been a little bit of a harsh reality [after Rolex]. You work so hard to get to that four-star level and then all of the sudden the weekend’s over and it’s back to real life and it’s back to getting it all done again. But everyone else has done it, and she will too.”

Burnett is now looking for quality upper-level horses but said she’s also grateful for her many racing contacts, who help her to find great young prospects off the track. She particularly enjoys working with Thoroughbreds.

“I’m working five horses right now, [of which] I own one,” she said. “He’s a 4-year-old, and I need to sell him because I need the money, but I’m in love with him! He went to Florida with me for a month, but we’re taking it really slowly for him.”

In the meantime, Burnett will campaign her advanced partner until he decides it’s time for retirement. She’ll continue to ship back and forth to Virginia to train, where the young rider is always a welcome addition to the team.

“She’s extremely kind,” said Montgomery. “She’s focused on what she’s doing and is a real joy to have around in the barn every day.”

Kat Netzler

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