If there’s anyone who understands Janie Wilder’s excitement at being named one of three recipients of the coveted 2021 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Gochman Grant for USEF Pony Finals it’s Ella Doerr, who won the grant in 2017. Doerr and Wilder, of Clinton, Mississippi, chatted about 16-year-old Wilder’s road to Pony Finals, made possible by the Gochman grant and by her hard work with the trainers at Providence Hills Farm, Meagan Nusz and Amanda LeDoux.
Janie, I am so excited for you. The grant changed my life. Tell me a little about yourself before this experience.
I started riding western when I was 7 years old and then switched to English when I was 11. I rode lesson horses and showed whoever I could, and rode horses whenever people asked me to show for them.
What division do you usually show in?
Right now, I’m showing in the .95-meter jumpers, and I show in the children’s hunters. I show once every month or two.
I’ve heard that you do a lot of catch riding or riding show horses for people. Tell me about that.
Yes. I love it. Two months ago, I was at Amen Corner Farm in Folsom, Louisiana, at a horse show, and it was my first time doing the jumpers on someone else’s horse. The horse’s name was Delta, and we were going around just fine, and over one of the jumps, her shoe flies past my head. She just pulled it midair, and I saw it fly past my head. When I exited the ring, I was like, “What was that?” And they were like, “That was her shoe.” It was just so funny.
What is a challenge that makes riding hard for you?
Definitely my financial status is probably my biggest setback, and the stigma around not having enough money to be able to afford this sport. I’m grateful that I’m a working student, and people are willing to believe in me and give me opportunities and let me show their horses, giving me a horse to show regardless of money, but, I don’t know. … What’s the word? It’s a little discouraging seeing everyone else be able to achieve your dreams because they have the financial ability to do so.
When you go to a show for yourself, who are you riding?
I bring my horse, Blitzen, but I call him Blitz. I just got him, and he is my first ever. I’ve never leased or had one to be mine. My trainer Meagan Nusz gifted Blitz to me so that I would be able to have a horse to teach me and to show. It was extremely nice of her, and I am extremely grateful that she was able to do that for me. Together my family and I pay for his board and bills like shoes, etc., and I work to help cover his costs. He’s super cool. We just started doing the jumpers. He will do anything for you. He’s very chill. He loves his job, too. He’s just super fun to get on and ride. He’s a great teacher, too.
Tell me a time that you really bonded with a horse.
Last weekend I got on Blitz bareback just to walk around. We usually go on trail rides on Sunday, and it was pouring rain, so I just took him in the indoor arena bareback and just kind of walked around and did nothing. There was this bird, and it flew directly at us, and he spooked and jolted to the side. The first thing he did when I almost slid off of him was stop and turn around and look at me, and he nickered and I was like, “Oh, he just wanted to make sure I was OK.” I thought it was really cool that he wanted to check up on me.
How did you find out about the USHJA Gochman Grant?
Through Jane DaCosta from Metropolitan Equestrian Team. She was really pushing me to apply for it. At first, I wasn’t too sure. This was back in January, but she really was behind me the whole time. She encouraged me, and she really wanted me to do it, so I did.
Why were you hesitant to apply for the grant?
It’s more of a mental battle for me, personally. I struggle with being burnt-out. I’ve struggled my whole life with clinical depression and anxiety, and sometimes I feel discouraged. I’m really grateful for my mom who always encourages and supports me when I’m feeling down; she’s one of the main reasons I’m still doing what I’m doing. I feel like mental health is still so taboo to talk about, and there isn’t enough awareness around it, especially for athletes. A lot of people don’t realize how much of a mental battle this sport really is.
How did you feel when you found out you got the grant?
When Penny [Brooks, development director for the USHJA] called me, I had literally just woken up. I hadn’t been out of bed for like two seconds. I thought I was dreaming because I wasn’t really awake. And she asked me, “Did I wake you?” And I was like, “No, no, no, you didn’t wake me.” I was really excited, and it didn’t feel real, and the first thing I did when I hung up the phone was run outside and to tell my grandpa and my mom. They were like, “You’re lying.” I’m like, “I’m not lying.” We were all super excited.
Tell me a little bit about your application for the Gochman Grant. What was the hardest part?
I feel like the hardest part for me was knowing what to say [in the essays] just because it was hard to put what I was feeling down into words. I don’t really remember too much about what I wrote, but it was hard. I spent a good week revising it before it was due to make sure everything was perfect before I turned it in.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m a working student. During the summers, it’s really busy for me. I usually come out from Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I just do all the work they need me to. In the morning, I’ll turn out, and then I’ll ride and then make feed and clean and [put horses on the] walker and laundry and whatever they need me to do. It’s a lot of fun. A lot of people don’t think it’s fun, but I think it’s fun.
What has been your experience with ponies?
I grew up doing [Interscholastic Equestrian Association competitions], where you draw the random horse. I was always super short growing up, so I always draw the ponies. I never had an opportunity of my own to get a pony and show it, so doing IEA and drawing the ponies and getting to show and have a good time was always fun. I always have shown little girls’ ponies for them in classes. I’ve never had the opportunity to be able to go to Pony Finals myself, so this is a really great opportunity to be able to go and learn.
Do you have any good luck charms?
I do and everyone makes fun of me for it: I always wear two mismatched socks, different socks, every time I show. They can never be matching. A few years ago, I could not find the matching sock to save my life, and so I said to myself, “You know what? From now on, I’m going to wear mismatched socks.”
What part of Pony Finals are you the most excited for?
I am really excited to be able to show [and] get the show experience at the Pony Finals. It’s been my dream to go, ever since I was, I don’t even know, 7. Just being able to go and experience it in the show ring will be fun.
Name something else about Pony Finals that you’re super excited for.
I’m also really excited to be able to do the clinics and just learn as much as I can from a lot of people. I don’t get a lot of that opportunity for clinics now just because the riding community is so small. I’m really excited to just learn a lot and get to ride and just have fun. I’ve never modeled ever.
Robin Greenwood [the USHJA Pony Finals Gochman Grant trainer] and assistant trainer Rob Jacobs will help you get as much out of the experience as absolutely possible, all while supporting you. They are phenomenal.
I’m grateful, in a way, that I don’t have money exactly, because I’ve been able to learn so much over the years from all the work and struggles I’ve gone through, maybe more than someone who hasn’t been made to work in order to learn.
What’s one thing you’re nervous about for Pony Finals?
I definitely do get nervous first entering the ring and showing, especially at a really big show like that, that a lot of people are going to and with all those people watching. There’s a lot of competitors who really know what they’re doing, who’ve been doing ponies and showing their whole lives, and then there’s people like me who’ve jumped ponies, like, five times. That’s definitely a little nerve-racking. Once I get in there and get going, I’m having a great time. I’m super focused. But just getting into the ring is like, “Oh my God.”
Is there anything else you’d want to add?
I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be able to get the Gochman Grant and to USHJA. It really is super cool. I’m so excited to learn and to ride. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.
I’d like to ask you a USHJA Horsemanship Quiz practice question: True or false, a horse’s diet should rely primarily on roughage?
Ella Doerr, 18, from Avon, North Carolina, is a recipient of the USHJA Youth Leadership Award, the USHJA Youth Sportsmanship Award and the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant. Since she was 7 she’s bought and paid for her ponies with her own earnings while keeping them at home and performing all their care. She’s brought them along from just broke to zone championships and USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky). She’s the brand ambassador for multiple companies and chairs the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Youth Group. She volunteers for charities and has managed three horse shows to raise funds for terminally ill children. She’s heading to Goucher College (Maryland) this fall.