When Carly Williams isn’t schooling IHSA horses or showing goats, she can be found putting in the hard work that earned her a U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Gochman Grant for this year’s USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, held Aug. 8-13.
The 17-year-old from Elfland, North Carolina, trains with Cammie Fielding at Pleasant Hill Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Ella Doerr, a 2017 Gochman Grant recipient, caught up with Williams to learn more about the junior rider just a week before she heads to Kentucky for Pony Finals.
Congratulations! You’re about to embark on a life-changing experience. Tell me about your riding history?
I’ve been riding for six years. I took summer camp at Pleasant Hill Farm, fell in love with riding there and started taking lessons there shortly after. Then, about four months into riding, I started half-leasing one of the lesson horses in the barn. His name was Spot. He took me through all of the beginner levels, all the way up through jumping 2’.
Then, I had the privilege to offsite lease a quarter horse named Dude. I had him for two years. He took me through low childrens. After that we were looking for something that could bring me up through the upper level—through 3’ and whatnot. That’s when I fell in love with this horse at the Kentucky Horse Park named Bentley. We bought him and I rode him for about nine months. He brought me up to the 3’ children’s before he started to show some signs of lameness. He was one of the coolest horses I’ve ever ridden.
Tell me a little about Bentley.
When we were looking to buy a horse, I probably tried six before we found Bentley. Bentley was in his stall and I immediately fell in love with him because he was this cute chestnut with a cute marking on his face and all white on his legs, like the absolute most handsome boy ever. He was so sweet and just a big, old puppy dog.
I’m very, very serious when I ride, but when I sat on him and started trotting around, I had the biggest smile on my face, and that never happens. I got to show him that day, and we actually placed in both of the classes. I just was so in love with him and he was such a good boy.
He brought you up to the children’s and then he became lame?
We battled with his lameness for a year, had two MRIs done, so many vet visits, and spent so much money trying to figure out what was wrong with him. A couple of months ago, we had to put him down due to a degenerative disease, which was causing his cartilage to deteriorate, and he wasn’t able to be ridden anymore. He was in a lot of pain and was at risk of joint collapse. We had to do what was best for him to not let him be in pain anymore.
Did you keep riding?
Throughout that whole year of battling with all of his vet visits and whatnot, I didn’t show. I barely rode. I only had IEA basically keeping me in the program and still riding. But I’ve gotten a lot of great opportunities through that.
Tell me about an opportunity that came from IEA?
I did an open house at Averett University (Virginia) and after that, [the coach] saw me at [IEA National Finals in North Carolina] and gave me the opportunity to come ride their horses this summer. That was huge. I’m so grateful to ride all of their college horses this summer while I’ve been battling with all of this. That’s my riding history so far. It’s been quite the journey, but I’ve had many people stick with me through all of it and my parents have been so, so great to me.
What got you hooked on riding?
Well, I got super lucky when I started riding. I was 11 but they put me in more of an advanced lesson. These people were already cantering and stuff, so I was being pushed to catch up with everyone. Then having the opportunity to lease Spot helped me progress super fast, because I was able to ride on my own and practice things I was learning in lessons. Just being put in there challenged me, I think that helped me a lot, to figure things out on my own, but also figure out the technique faster and grow as a rider quicker, because some of the people had been riding for years. When I was so far behind everyone else, it made me a little bit nervous, but it ended up working out.
Tell me a little about your IEA experience?
Our [Pleasant Hill Farm] team has made it to zones almost every single year that I’ve been in the IEA, but this year was huge for us, because we qualified both our middle school and high school teams for Nationals. Going into it, we didn’t expect much. We were just so excited to have the opportunity to go to Nationals, and [our high school] actually finished tied for first place and finished as reserve champion. I was so grateful for the opportunity to ride in the flat open division for the team and to do that. It was just crazy being there and everyone working together so hard all season and seeing it all pay off. It was just awesome.
How has IEA informed your riding?
IEA helped me a lot with riding, because being able to ride so many different horses has helped me grow as a rider, having never sat on them before and to figure out how to work things out in the show ring.
Lots of people have show day superstitions and good luck charms. Do you?
I have this pair of socks that have an American flag on them. I always show in those. I have three pairs and I always make sure I have enough for the weekend. I also have this thing before we go to the show: If I have a bad lesson, that’s how I know I’m going to do good at the show. But if I have a really good lesson, I’m worried that the show’s not going to go well.
How often do you ride?
I [take lessons] twice a week. I’m sharing a horse with an adult at my barn, and I ride him probably two times other than my lessons. But during the school week, I go straight to the barn in the afternoon, even when I’m not riding, and just clean stuff.
How did you find out about the grant?
Through one of my friends who actually got the grant last year, Peyton Parks. She had made a post about encouraging people to apply. She and I used to compete against each other in the children’s hunters. Peyton encouraged me to apply for it, and I’m so glad that I did, because I never would’ve expected to have gotten accepted, but here we are.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to the experience with different trainers, because I love going to clinics and learning from other trainers. I’m really excited to train with Robin Greenwood and Rob Jacobs and just seeing all the new things. I did a clinic with Rob a few years ago, and he was awesome. I’m excited to see him again, and I’m excited to learn new things from Robin as well.
Are you nervous about Pony Finals?
I always get a little bit nervous when I show, and I’m very much a perfectionist. I’m going into this completely not knowing anything about the pony that I’m going to ride. I’m just nervous about trying to ride well.
What was it like getting the phone call that you got the grant?
It was crazy. I was at dinner with one of my friends, and I got a phone call. I really honestly thought it was a spam call. I picked it up and heard that it was Penny from the USHJA, I was like, “There’s no way.” Once she told me that I got the grant, I literally started crying, and all these people in the restaurant were just staring at me, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is kind of embarrassing,” but I was literally at a loss for words.
The timing was insane because Bentley had just been put down. It was just so surreal to get that phone call.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I learned how to braid in 4-H, because we learned how to braid our horses, and I got pretty good at it, pretty quick. I started going to some shows and braiding for other people and making money for shows that way. I’ve always braided my own horses since the 4-H shows; now I braid every show I go to. I also clip horses, pull manes for anyone who needs it, stuff like that. I’ve always done a lot of that for myself. Saves a lot of money and makes money which is nice.
What part of riding is challenging for you?
For me personally, letting go of the horses that I’ve had, even just moving off the lesson horse that we had in the barn was really difficult for me. Especially with letting go of Bentley, because he and I were such a good team. It was just so hard for me to let go of that and try to move on from it.
That’s just been really difficult with me because I get so attached to all the animals that I ride. Even when I show livestock, even the goats that I show, I get attached—and they’re just a goat! It’s just really difficult for me to move on from that. That’s what’s been hardest for me.
Forming a bond with our animals and caring about their well-being long term seems like a good quality to have. What is showing goats like? That sounds really cool.
We get the goats when they’re really young. They’re not halter broke or anything, so we have to get them used to us. We have to teach them how to brace, which is what we do to show their conformation. Then we take them to a show, we walk them around a pen, we set them up so the judge can look at them and then they do showmanship class, which is judged on us to see how good we are working with our goat and how serious we are about showing. Some people probably think it’s boring, but I think it’s great.
I heard you do photography at shows. Do you have other hobbies?
I started going on mission trips and that’s been really fun. I went to the Dominican Republic over spring break and that was just an eye-opening moment for me. Seeing how people can be living in such rough conditions, and yet can be so happy, has made me super grateful for everything that I have here.
Even though it seems to me like I have nothing now, with Bentley being gone, I really have everything I could possibly need. My parents are amazing, my trainers are amazing. It was just so eye-opening to go do that.
Thank you Carly. Before you go, I’d like to ask you a USHJA Horsemanship quiz question: What is caused by fluid build up in the hock due to inflammation?