Harrisburg, Pa.—Oct. 11
“We have a horse you can use” were the words that Makyla Benajmin’s mother Jan never thought she’d hear.
Like many juniors aging out this year, Makayla has dreamed about competing in the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals, but when her mount, Lexus, slipped coming off the trailer when he arrived in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, Oct. 10, and came up three-legged lame, she thought her dreams were over.
Her trainer Gavin Moylan offered to bring another horse up from his Upperville, Va., farm, but since the equitation horses had to be on site at 9 a.m. on Friday, there wasn’t enough time to get another horse there.
Thus began the hunt for a horse for Makayla to ride on Sunday in the Medal Final. There were quite a few spare equitation horses on the grounds, since many top trainers bring an extra horse or two, but the price tag to lease one for the weekend was just too steep for the Benjamin family. That’s when Jan started talking with trainer Kama Godek who immediately offered either of the two jumpers she had on site, there to compete in the Randolp College/USEF Prix des States Junior Jumper Championships with their owners.
“I could identify because I was in the same situation,” Godek said. “I never had an equitation horse. When I was a kid, the most expensive horse my parents bought was a $6,500 off-the-track Thoroughbred.”
Familiar with the feeling of riding a nice horse that was sold or injured before a major competition, Godek wanted to help the dedicated junior as others had done for her. “[Hard work] doesn’t go unnoticed,” she said. “When kids are working hard, other trainers notice also.”
Makayla ended up choosing Sandra Zimmerli’s Apollo Mission as her equitation mount. Zimmerli, 15, imported the Westphalian gelding as a children’s jumper in May 2013, and moved up to the high juniors this year.
Zimmerli is familiar with the sinking feeling of watching your goal start to slip away. The night before the final show jumping competition at this year’s Adequan/FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (Ky.), she returned to the barn to check on “Apollo” only to find that he’d torn his eyelid and it required stitches with only a twitch due to FEI drug rules.
Apollo has only done a handful of equitation classes and the one’s he’s done are primarily the USET Show Jumping Talent Search. Despite his lack of experience, Godek felt that he would be a good choice because the bay gelding never says no and has solid flatwork.
Makayla watched Zimmerli and Apollo in the Randolph College/USEF Junior Jumper classes, where they finished in the top 20, before swinging her leg over his saddle for the first time in the pre-dawn hours Saturday morning for the Donna Richardson Equitation Session, the warm-up class for the Medal Final.
“I’m in college [Sweet Briar College (Va.)] now and I do IHSA where you don’t even get warm-up jumps,” she said. “I’ve got a little bit of practice at this, so this is a real test. I just had that mindset that today doesn’t matter, just get a feel and know what you have to do for tomorrow. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but we clicked right away.”
Makayla’s a working student for Moylan, so getting a chance to ride a multitude of horses has helped prepare her for riding an unfamiliar horse. That will come in handy because Apollo and Lexus are very different to ride.
“[Apollo’s] on the opposite end of the spectrum,” she said. “Lexus is 18-plus hands and big bodied and just like a draft horse. He’s sensitive off your leg but not off your hand.
“Apollo is very soft off your aids as well, but he’s very lazy, but not in a bad way,” she continued. “For a jumper, not a lot gets him hyped up. It’s the rider that gets him to go. If you stay relaxed, he keeps going. He’s very soft and educated off of all of your aids.”
It’s easy to tell how much Makayla appreciates what Zimmerli is doing for her. Though they knew each other before Harrisburg, they’ve grown closer over the last two days. Makayla has taken to the role of groom, tacking up and preparing Apollo so that Zimmerli can walk her course.
And how does Makayla feel about what Zimmerli’s done for her? “It feels great. I am so grateful for the opportunity they are giving me. It’s so nice to go into the ring and not have to worry. It’s nice that I can focus on me a little bit and get to finesse because I know he’s going to take care of his part of the job—that’s a nice feeling.”
To read more about the winners at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, check out the October 27 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse print magazine.