Saturday, Jun. 1, 2024

Middle California Dressage Goes To Extremes For USPC Gold


The horses from Middle California Region had a 21⁄2-day trek to make it to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, for the U.S. Pony Club Championships, held July 24-27, but the dressage teams made it worth the trip, winning the overall training level championship and taking second in first level and above.
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The horses from Middle California Region had a 21⁄2-day trek to make it to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, for the U.S. Pony Club Championships, held July 24-27, but the dressage teams made it worth the trip, winning the overall training level championship and taking second in first level and above.

With Carolina leading going into the final day of competition, Kirstin Hill, Courtney Claunch, Hannah Rice and Kaitlin Sally from California delivered clutch performances despite rain delays and scheduling surprises to earn the gold with stable manager Ronnie Hodgkinson.

Sally, 16, and a C-2 from Black Oaks P.C., rode her lovely, black homebred Holsteiner-Oldenburg mare Phoebe to the second highest combined score of the competition (with Hill hot on her tail).

“I was really surprised with how well she handled everything for her age,” she said of the 7-year-old, who she started herself.

Having more than a four-hour trip from Arroyo Grande in the southern part of the region just to meet up with the horse transports to Kentucky, Phoebe earned the official honor of being the horse who had traveled the farthest to get to championships.

“Her biggest strengths are her presence and her happy attitude toward working,” said Sally, who has been working on higher-level movements with trainer Karen Cornelius in preparation to move up.

While Phoebe’s positive attitude made her long trip a breeze, Claunch’s 22-year-old Arabian, Sasha, earned kudos for being the oldest horse at championships. Claunch, who turned 17 while at Festival, began leasing Sasha three years ago because “he was the only horse available” at her barn, despite a random résumé that included 10 years of Western pleasure, followed by years of leases by various people, and not a lick of dressage.

The C-1 from Saratoga P.C. taught the old guy some new tricks—like bending—and he showed off those skills, as well as his still-fiery nature, at championships.

“The first day I was very nervous because it was Kentucky and championships, but in the first test we scored a 66 percent, and before that a 64 was our highest ever, except at qualifying rally,” said Claunch, of Los Altos.

“The second test was actually a disaster! Something set him off—and he’s an Arab—so he was bucking and wouldn’t halt [scoring a painful 49.6 percent]. I was in tears afterwards, and we were so nervous going into the next morning.”

The pair went on to earn a 71 percent in their freestyle and a 74 percent in their final test. No stranger to performing under the gun, Claunch had just passed her D-3 last June when she learned about the C-1 qualification requirements for championships.

“I worked all summer with jumping trainers, since jumping’s not really his strong point, and we passed my C-1 a month before rally in October,” she explained.

“This was all surreal, to know he’d just been a hacking horse, to see our dedication really paid off.”

Unexpected Challenges

Claunch and Hill earned the two top individual training-level awards for their freestyles, with Hill and her leased 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse, Limerick, topping the charts with an impressive 75.5 percent on their test, set to Led Zeppelin Celtic music.

After scoring solid 67 percents on both tests on Wednesday, Hill was nervous going into her freestyle, having worked so hard on its preparation, and opted for a very short warm-up in the heat.

“It felt like the ride of my life. I actually cried afterwards!” admitted Hill, 21, and a brand new C-3 as of this June.

Learning of her score from a teammate’s mother, Hill, who’d saved most of the money to attend, was ecstatic and immediately called her parents, who weren’t able to attend because of the expense of the trip.

“My mom put me on speakerphone so my dad could hear, and when I told them, my dad started to cry, and then my mom started crying, and then I started again!” she recalled.

Hill and Rice’s final rides were both scheduled for Friday morning, when thunderstorms rolled into the Horse Park, causing a 45-minute hold and unexpectedly abbreviated warm-ups.

“As soon as I got back down to the ring, the steward said I was on deck, so O.K., turbo warm-up! But with the rain he felt refreshed and more energetic, and I ended up getting a [70.74 percent] even though things seemed a little frantic,” said Hill, who has to give up the lease on Limerick this month. “We’re an unlikely pair—I’m 5’1” and he’s 16.3, but we had a really good bond. And I have a six-pack from riding him!”

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Rice, 12, and a C-1 from Montana, just made the qualification cut-off to ride at championships, but she handled a little adversity like a seasoned competitor to contribute to her team’s victory. Her 13-year-old, 15-hand buckskin Quarter Horse, who a friend found for them four years ago in a shipment of roping horses, anxiously paced his stall the first few days in Kentucky.

“He wore the nail heads off and pulled his shoe on Tuesday, right after the farrier had left for the day,” said Rice, who was able to get a shoe on him the next morning before their first ride.

“My musical freestyle was first, and when he gets anxious he gets a really big, extravagant stride, which added an extra 15 seconds of music onto each gait, so I had to improvise a lot during my test to try to make up for it,” said Rice, who trains with graduate HA Jenni (Bruno) Giannini and Nicole Perry.

“On Friday, we were ready to go into the ring when it started pouring. We don’t know much about his past, but we think ‘Pie’ grew up on the range. And in the warm-up, he kept stopping and turning his butt to the wind! Later, we only had 13 minutes to get into the arena, but he was actually much better than we were expecting.”

Unite And Conquer

A few weeks’ worth of emails and a common desire to compete in Kentucky was the only thing that bound together a scramble team composed of four regions across the country, but, undeterred, Samantha Britton, Michelle Spencer, Haley Dwight, Allie Archer and stable manager Theo Adams joined forces to win the regular division of the USPC show jumping championship.

“I was really nervous the first day because it was my first time at Horse III, but after the first course, the height didn’t seem so bad, and I thought our last course was our best,” said Archer, 19, of McPherson, Kan. “We were within 4 points [of the next team] the last day, but we didn’t realize that until later, which was probably good!”

Archer, a C-2 from Cimarron Region’s Meadowlark P.C., decided to take her 17-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse, Benvolio, to championships “kind of on a whim” after giving him the winter off while she rode for the Kentucky State Equestrian Team.

The rising sophomore is majoring in bioengineering/pre-vet and trains with John Staples.

Dwight’s decision to take her 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse, Gulliver, to show jumping championships was even more last-minute, as she’d been giving the gelding time off until a week and a half before.

“He had some foot inflammation from jumping on the hard ground because he’s a big guy—17.2 hands and stocky,” explained the 16-year-old C-3 from the San Francisco area. “He was really good here, but at the end he was starting to feel [tired].”

Dwight, a club mate of Hill’s from Middle California’s Portola Valley P.C., had qualified for show jumping and eventing, and chose which discipline she thought would be more doable a few weeks before.

Spencer, 18, of Ann Arbor, Mich., enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere of her team, having never ridden on a scramble team before. “Nobody was super-competitive. We all just said we’d have fun,” said the C-2 from Great Lakes’ Huron Valley P.C.

That relaxed take on the future has paid off before for Spencer, who rode Hope, her 12-year-old Thoroughbred cross of five years. She bought the former broodmare out of a field and taught her how to jump with trainer Jennifer Merrick-Brooks.

“She’d never really done anything, and I was pretty inexperienced,” she said. “But she loves to jump, so we just thought we’d see where it would take us.”

Britton and Adams both hail from the Sunshine Region but hadn’t had much time to get acquainted previously, as Britton, an 18-year-old C-3, just moved to the Orlando, Fla., area last year from New Zealand. A student of Blyth Tait’s, she is more of an eventer, but decided to give show jumping rally a try with her 12-year-old Thoroughbred-Clydesdale mare, Redwood Danger Mouse.

Partnered for the last four years, Britton, of Wekiva Basic P.C., and “Zena” have developed an excellent relationship that they showed off over the course of the competition. “She’s very nice to ride,” said Britton. “Though people perceive her to be grumpy.”

As stable manager, Adams, a 16-year-old C-2 from South Creek P.C., enjoyed the team dynamic this year, despite it being a random conglomeration of members. “I had a team of older girls. I’m usually the babysitter for the newbies, so this was a nice change,” she said. “Once we all got used to each other, it was a lot of fun.”

Sunshine Adds To Virginia Victory

Another Sunshine Region member, Kristina Ehmann, found a home on a scramble team with girls from the Virginia Region, and the three riders and stable manager Erica Jacquay combined just fine to earn the
training-level eventing championship, despite not having the luxury of a drop score.

Ehmann and her 7-year-old Trakehner, Got Milk, got the team off to a great start with a dressage score of 28.4 to add to Megan Behm and Christina McKitrick’s matching 36.8s.

The riders added a combined 2 time penalties on cross-country to 10 horse management points and Ehmann’s two rails in show jumping, and still had 9 points in hand over the second-placed team from Midsouth.

Purchased three years ago from Darren Chiacchia, the 17-hand Got Milk, a.k.a. “Edgar,” is usually impressive in dressage.

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“I was a little worried coming to Kentucky because I didn’t know my team, but they were really great,” said Ehmann, 17, of Belleview, Fla. “I was also a little nervous before cross-country because a few of the fences were a little big, and we had kind of a scary warm-up, but the course itself ended up being really good.”

McKitrick, 16, of Leesburg, Va., only added 1.6 time faults to her dressage score with Smooth Sailing, the 13-year-old Thorough-bred she’s had for four years.

The Difficult Run P.C. member wasn’t particularly impressed with their test and was pleasantly surprised by the score. “It took us a long time to get dressage down because he’s really long and lanky. Jumping is definitely his favorite,” she said.

Having moved up to preliminary two months ago, McKitrick and “Luka” didn’t find the cross-country course a huge challenge. “We got to go really fast; it was fun,” she said. “I was nervous for stadium though because the margin was so close.”

Fellow Difficult Run member, Behm, 18, of Great Falls, Va., has only been leasing Flying Advance, a 17-year-old Thorough-bred, from Siobhan O’Connor for about a year, but that didn’t stop them from finishing on their dressage score at championships.

“Dressage was great for us—I’m the first to admit I’m not a particularly talented dressage rider, and we had an unusually good test,” she said. “We just had a little trouble clicking at first, because I know he’s very good at dressage, and I refuse to believe that I don’t know what I’m doing! But it just suddenly came together here.

“We had a really awful warm-up for cross-country, but by the end we managed to get our heads on and had a great round. He just flew,” continued Behm, who trains with Karen Nutt. “The same for stadium; he was fantastic and didn’t look at anything.”

Projecting another two years leasing Flying Advance while her own horse recovers from a torn suspensory, Behm, a rising freshman at the College of William & Mary (Va.), is unsure what the future holds. “I honestly don’t know where I’m going with riding,” she said. “I’m just here because I love to ride, love to compete, and love to be on a horse.”

Tetrathlon Enjoys Record Participation

With 79 tetrathlon competitors at the U.S. Pony Club’s National Championship and Festival, dwarfing previous championship attendance, it’s clear the sport, which combines swimming, running and shooting with a show jumping-type riding test, is really hitting its stride.

Much of the growth can be attributed to the recent addition of the intermediate division, which provides a less daunting introduction to tetrathlon for newcomers aged 12 and older and rated D-3 and above.

With divisions traditionally separated into age groups—with older kids facing fence heights up to 3’7″ and longer swims and runs—there hadn’t been an attractive way for an older greenhorn to get involved. This year’s intermediate boys and girls divisions comprised well over half the overall participation.

“Intermediate is not as intimidating, and a lot of those kids are so enthusiastic, they come back later to compete in another division,” said tetrathlon organizer Alicia Henderson. “We have 70 kids coming for camp during Festival, and a third of them we’re teaching to swim.”

Tetrathlon shares a symbiotic relationship with the Olympic sport modern pentathlon, which adds fencing into the mix. Pony Club has been a vital breeding ground for future pentathletes, a trend fostered on both sides.

Several pentathlon coaches came to Festival to help with the tetrathlon workshop, and it’s not unusual to see Pony Clubbers working with them at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Alessandra Accinelli, 18, of Redwoods Pony Club in the Sierra Pacific Region, had that very opportunity a little more than a year ago. She put that training to good use in Kentucky, winning the senior girls championship with consistent placings, including a first in the shoot, which used to be her weakest phase.

“Last year at this time I was shooting 150 [out of 1,100 possible] and now I shot a 720,” she said, attributing the improvement to her work at the training camp and with shooting coach Cliff Hollandar.

When the horse Accinelli, of Novato, Calif., planned to ride came up lame, she lined up a pony to borrow at championships (her first in tetrathlon) but discovered an hour before her formal inspection that it wasn’t capable of jumping the course height. Fellow competitor Janey Barrett of Western New York Region graciously allowed her to double up on Jewel, her Appendix Quarter Horse, registered Paint mare. Accinelli placed fourth on the gray, while her owner won the phase, scoring 1,072.

“This was the cherry on top of a good season of training, but ultimately the reward is about doing better for yourself,” she said. “My goal actually was to win, but that’s not what it’s about. You can’t control what happens with other people, so it’s more about personal growth.”

Accinelli thanked District Commissioner and friend Pat Duffy and her husband Mike for their support, attributing Redwoods’ strong involvement in tetrathlon to Mike’s interest in the sport. Their club’s strong base was evident at championships as fellow Redwoods member Marisa Berger also won the junior girls division.

Stacey Reap

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