Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024

Melissa Hunsberger’s Rolex Will Be About Fun


After filling out her entry for her debut at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, Melissa Hunsberger did one more thing before putting it in an envelope, affixing a stamp, and sending it on its way.

“I took pictures of it like a big nerd. But I’m just happy to be qualified. That’s how I look at it—I’m honestly just enjoying every step of it. It’s amazing to be able to go,” she said.
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After filling out her entry for her debut at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, Melissa Hunsberger did one more thing before putting it in an envelope, affixing a stamp, and sending it on its way.

“I took pictures of it like a big nerd. But I’m just happy to be qualified. That’s how I look at it—I’m honestly just enjoying every step of it. It’s amazing to be able to go,” she said.

Hunsberger, 24, has a simple plan for Kentucky. “I think, from the time I arrive, to the time I leave, I want to enjoy every moment of it. And I think I really will be able to,” she said.

“I don’t have any pressure on myself. I want to ride the best that I’m capable of and get there with my horse prepared as well as he can be,” she continued.

Entering Kentucky aboard her own Just Fun Stuff culminates a dream Hunsberger hatched in 1999 at age 16, when she traveled to Kentucky as a spectator. “We took a farm trip, and it was the first time I had been on an airplane. We went to watch the four-star, and I just said, ‘I want to do that.’ I thought it would be easy. Silly me!” she said.

But getting to Kentucky hasn’t been effortless for Hunsberger. “Melissa has done it the old-fashioned way, through determination and hard work, and I really respect her for that,” said Phyllis Dawson, her trainer and employer. “She doesn’t have financial support. Her family is very supportive of her but not with money. She’s really had to work quite hard for what she’s done.”

If I Could Just…

That spring in 1999, when Hunsberger traveled from her Wyomissing, Pa., home to Kentucky to watch the four-star, she had big dreams. She wasn’t from a horsey family, but she “got a brochure in the mail about horse summer camp. I went and said, ‘This is a lot of fun!’ ” Hunsberger recalled.

She began riding at a local stable and got hooked on eventing. “I worked in exchange for lessons and then in exchange for board once I got a horse. The farm was off a fairly major road, so I would take the public transportation bus to the farm and walk down the driveway,” she said.

In June 2000, she arrived at Phyllis Dawson’s Windchase Farm in Purcellville, Va., to begin Dawson’s working student program.

“I had heard good things about her and her program. I didn’t want to go to college, and I knew I wanted to do something more with horses. I wanted to jump bigger and faster, and I wanted to know the best way to do that. Everyone told me I should look into being a working student, but I knew I needed to find a program that was financially feasible. Phyllis is great because her program is tailored to people who don’t have a lot of money,” Hunsberger said.

While Hunsberger had the urge to run and jump in spades, she also had a lot to learn. “I was 17 and had this big, crazy horse. I was so ignorant,” she said.

“When she came, she was very gutsy,” said Dawson. “She had done preliminary level on a half-crazy mare she had at the time. She had a lot of determination and desire, but she hadn’t had a lot of instruction and wasn’t too polished. She was fearless, though. She was the kind who would do a six-stride line in four strides and didn’t see anything wrong with it. She’s had a lot of experience here, and she’s worked very hard. She’s taken instruction well and developed into a good, strong, advanced-level rider.”

After Hunsberger’s stint as a working student, Dawson hired her, and she’s been an essential part of Windchase for the past seven years.

“A lot of horses come through the barn, so she has gotten to ride a lot of different types. That’s been very
valuable experience, but she’s gotten those chances because she’s so good at it,” said Dawson.

“She has a natural ability to get along with a horse. Horses want to jump for her,” Dawson added. “She’s very good with the young horses, knowing when to kick and when to check, as well as riding the advanced horses, and that’s not easy. Some people have the natural ability to get along with a lot of different horses and adjust their riding to do a good job on all of them, and she has that.”

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Hunsberger also teaches and helps manage the barn. In her early years at Windchase, she also juggled outside jobs such as house sitting, braiding and clipping to make ends meet.

“She’s come a long way in a relatively short time. I’m not sure that she would consider it a short time, though!” said Dawson. “When you’re 25, seven years sounds like forever.

“I remember when she first came here, she said, ‘If I could just do a one-star, then I’d be happy.’ So, she did a one-star, and then she started saying, ‘If I could just go intermediate, I’d be happy.’ And so on. She’s always felt like she was a little behind schedule. But her goals keep going up and up. Now, she’s aiming for her first four-star, and that’s exciting stuff,” said Dawson.

Just Fun

Throughout the years, Hunsberger had picked up various resale project horses from off the track. She also had Expedience, a chestnut mare she bought when she first arrived at Dawson’s as an off-the-track 3-year-old. But in 2003, a different kind of horse walked through the barn door.

Just Fun Stuff, a bay Thoroughbred, had run in owner-rider timber races and evented to the training level with Joanie Thompson. For Hunsberger, it was love at first sight.

“A lot of horses come through the farm, and I was really not in the position to buy a horse at all. But he’s beautiful. He’s definitely one of those classic Thoroughbred horses. He just loves to run and jump. I thought he had a lot of potential. He felt like he had a lot of power, and if I could develop that, I thought all the pieces would be there,” she said.

Hunsberger competed “Fun” in a few training and preliminary events for Dawson, and then she decided she had to have him. Hunsberger used all of her savings and borrowed money from anyone she could think of.

“I ran all over the place and asked all kinds of people for the bits and pieces of the money. I have really great people that were willing to lend me some money, and it all worked out,” she said.

“It’s very much not my personality to do something like that, because I didn’t have money,” she added. “It was very stressful, because it was a huge financial risk for me. If it didn’t end up working out, I’m in big
trouble. Everyone was nice and let me do what I could, even if it was just $100 a month. I just kept paying until I was done. For me, it was by far the most I’ve ever paid for a horse. I usually bought them for around $1,000 off the track.”

She became Fun’s owner in June 2003, and they completed the Morven Park CCI* (Va.) that fall. Then, they moved up to intermediate and completed the Radnor CCI** (Pa.) in the fall of 2004.

Hunsberger and Fun, 12, didn’t factor in the placings in the first few three-days they completed.

“He’s such a big, exuberant jumper that sometimes it’s hard to stick with him. A lot of the time, the 20 penalties we’ve had have been from steering problems because of that,” she said. “He’d leap into the water, and I’d sort of say, ‘Oh my, there goes the out.’ A few years ago, in pictures, he’d look like he was doing a cannonball into the water—he’d have his head between his knees. He’s gotten much more rideable that way. He doesn’t jump every fence like it’s a five-foot oxer—he’s calmed down.”

Moving On Up

In 2005, moving up was the next obvious step, and Hunsberger debuted Fun and Expedience at the advanced level at the Maui Jim Wayne Horse Trials (Ill.) in the summer.

“Doing advanced had always been my goal and my dream. I took both my horses [to Wayne, Ill.] for both of their first advanced, so that was kind of a little overwhelming for me. We had two run-outs at narrows, but [Fun] was good. I felt like he hadn’t established the idea of looking for the skinny fences. But he picked up on that really quickly, and now he really tries to look for the fences.”

Hunsberger qualified Fun for the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) that fall, and “it was kind of one of those things when both he and I were probably a bit under-prepared. He jumped really well but fell down around a turn after a fence, which got us eliminated,” she said.

Hunsberger regrouped and aimed for the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) in the spring of 2006. There, she experienced heavy and deep footing for the fist time.

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“We had one glance-off that was my fault, but he jumped really well even in that footing. It still didn’t feel 100 percent confident to me. He still seemed a little impressed,” she said.

“But at Fair Hill [in 2006], it felt easy to him. I came back after cross-country, and I was ecstatic. I gave Phyllis a hug. She said, ‘OK, now you’re ready for Rolex.’ ”

Hunsberger placed 15th on Fun at the 2006 Fair Hill CCI***, and 23rd on Expedience. And she began planning for Kentucky with Fun.

“Financially, it’s not feasible for me to go south and do the early events. Earlier in the year, I was really stressing about it, thinking I wouldn’t be ready. But Phyllis was very calm, and just said, ‘It’s easy. You just go and do Southern Pines [N.C.] advanced, and you go and do Morven, and then you go to Rolex.’

“I went to Southern Pines, and all I could think about was, ‘Will he remember how to do this? Will I remember?’ But he just felt spectacular. It was great to be back on cross-country, and he felt like he started out this year like he left off last year.”

Hunsberger ran a combined test with Fun at the Morven Park Spring Horse Trials (Va.) and then finished the advanced horse trials in 11th at The Fork (N.C.) on April 5-8.

In the spring, Hunsberger took Fun to Aiken, S.C., to participate in the U.S. Eventing Association’s Developing Rider program. “We got to school a little bit of cross-country, and it was awesome to work with [Kim Severson]. Just to be able to be a part of that is incredible. There are so many people who work so hard at this, and it’s an honor to be included. I never take that for granted,” said Hunsberger.

She has a busy spring planned, as Expedience is aimed for the Jersey Fresh CCI*** in May. Asked if she ever imagined she’d be planning two advanced horses’ schedules, she exclaimed, “No way! It’s an amazing privilege to have two sound, healthy, talented horses. I really know how special that is. I would never have predicted that. There’s always that doubt of, ‘Can I really do this?’ But everyone at Windchase has been so wonderful about helping me keep my chin up,” she said.

The Chestnut Mare That Started It

Melissa Hunsberger bought Expedience off the track at Charles Town, W.Va., seven years ago as a green-broke 3-year-old. Now, the mare is a confirmed advanced-level horse, with a clean round at the 2006 Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) to her resume.

“If you had told me five years ago that she was going to be an advanced horse, I would have said you were insane. But she’s one of those horses who just tries so hard for me. That’s been really neat,” Hunsberger said.

“She’s probably taught me the most about the relationship you can have with a horse. I trust her so much, and I really think she trusts me. She’s not inherently the boldest horse, and I think she’s brave because I ask her to be brave. She’s super-careful, and in show jumping she doesn’t want to touch the fences.”

When Hunsberger first started working with her, Expedience didn’t seem like a keeper. “I bought her as a resale project. I wasn’t able to get her sold, and I kept playing with her. She was good at novice and training, but when I moved her up to preliminary, I started getting eliminated and falling off. I really wanted to sell her. But she had a minor injury, and she was in her stall for a couple of months. When she came back from that, it was like she said to me, ‘I got it, Mom.’ And from then on, she’s been spectacular.”

Hunsberger also noted that her riding has changed throughout the time they’ve been together, which has certainly benefited their relationship and enhanced the trust they’ve developed.

“I got her when I was 17, and a lot of the problems that we have today—especially on the flat—come from that. I would bomb around and let her be on her head. I’m to blame for all that,” she admitted. “She tolerated me and my mistakes. She’s so forgiving—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done stupid stuff, and she just keeps going.”

Hunsberger was thrilled with Expedience’s clean round at Fair Hill, though “she probably won the award for the most memorable dressage test,” Hunsberger said wryly. “A banner was flapping in the high wind, and it was literally all I could do to keep myself in the ring. She jumped around great, and she’s aimed for Jersey Fresh this spring.”

Molly Sorge

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