This past month marked my third year competing at the U. S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Championship with Durpetti Equestrian LLC’s Cassius, and while our ribbons and results may not necessarily reflect it, in so many ways, I think it was Cassius’ best year yet.
Leading up to this year’s Derby Finals, we already had an edge. After three years together, I know Cassius like the back of my hand, and that’s allowed me to really create a program that allows him to perform his best.
So, when we arrived at Kentucky Horse Park, I felt more confident in our preparation and readiness than I ever have, and I felt that Cassius did too.
On Friday, Aug. 16, he walked into the Rolex Stadium like a solid veteran. He felt so confident and so with me the entire way, and I was so proud of him.
Previously, when Cassius would get nervous, I could feel him almost holding his breath or anxiously trotting a bit too fast. This year, there was none of that. I never questioned taking the high options that we had chosen, and Cassius never did either.
It felt like one of our best classic rounds together to date—until the final fence. We landed off of the high option with a split lead, which, in a competitive field of 75 entries, was plenty to knock us down to the middle of the pack in 34th place.
It would have been easy to be disappointed, as, based on the standings, things had not gone as well as they had the previous year. In 2018, we had made the top 25 to come back for the Section A handy round; this year, we would contest Section B.
In that moment though, it wasn’t the scoreboard result that mattered—it was the feeling of that ride and the difference in Cassius from the first time that he stepped into the Derby Final’s ring as a 7-year-old three years ago.
What mattered was feeling like I had a horse that trusted me wholeheartedly. What mattered was the privilege and accomplishment of competing at Derby Finals for the third year in row surrounded by a team of people I love, who support me every step of the way.
Saturday night, now under the lights, Cassius again walked back into the stadium fully confident and fully relaxed. I watched one horse go, and then I thought, “I don’t really need to watch anybody else go because I have my plan, and I’m going to stick to my plan. I know my horse the best.”
So that’s what I did. I went in and did what I knew Cassius could do and what was going to best suit him, and he was awesome. I went as handily as I possibly could, and it paid off.
We had the highest handy score of the horses jumping during the Section B handy and the highest overall score of the horses competing in the Section B handy round. Would it have been nice to finish with a better ribbon than we had last year? Sure, but Cassius’ owner, Michelle Durpetti, summed it up best:
“We ended up fifth in Section B, and somewhere in the 20s overall I believe—I don’t even know really. And can I be honest? I don’t even care, really. The in-gate did not even have our ribbon because they had accidentally given it away, so I have no photo this year for social media with proof of placing. And again, weirdly enough, I just don’t care. This year what I took away from the experience of Derby Finals was the beauty, laughter, commiserating and sharing of bonds I formed with people who I love and trust and who were a massive and beautiful support (and still are every day).
“I met new people and formed new bonds with them and am excited to have them as a part of our world now. I am in awe of my Caitlyn as she continues to grow her business, figure out what she wants in her life, live with lupus, and still wants to conquer the world. She always says that I am her rock, but I am pretty sure that she is mine. I walked away from finals with more love for my horses than I knew was possible. I sat in the campground after it was all over Saturday night with my dear friend Chris, grilling some brats, and I had this moment where I realized that I am just so profoundly grateful to still be here doing this and chasing these dreams that the rest is really all just ‘other stuff.’ ”
Those are the moments that matter. It’s not the ribbons, awards or accomplishments. It’s the personal bests, the memories and the peoples and horses that we get to enjoy them with. To me, win, lose, or draw, those are the moments that matter.
Born and raised in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of 8. In 2018, Shiels launched her own True North Stables, based in Illinois and Florida and dedicated to providing individualized training and opportunities that allow horse and rider to excel in the sport.