Meagan Nusz, 17, and her big, black gelding Pikeur’s Xstatic delivered the weekend surprise at the $25,000 Dallas Harvest Grand Prix on Nov. 6, conquering a formidable field of mostly veteran jumpers at the Las Colinas Equestrian Center in Irving, Texas. Among the nearly two dozen competitors was Nusz’ longtime idol Tracy Fenney, who rode Naboo, S&L Willie and Grace to second, third and seventh, respectively.
“Earlier in the day,” Nusz confessed, “I told my mom: ‘I am never going to beat Tracy Fenney, at least not at my age.’ So this night was especially exciting for me. I respect Tracy so much. She’s a wonderful rider, she has amazing horses, and she’s incredibly nice.”
Nusz–riding last–and six others, including Fenney on her three horses, mastered the preliminary round. In the jump-off, a slip on a slick patch by both S&L Willie and Grace cost Fenney precious time. And while Naboo had a dazzlingly fast round, Pikeur’s Xstatic and Nusz managed to shave slightly less than 2 seconds off Fenney’s time.
Although Nusz took every opportunity to tighten the turns on course, she said her horse’s stride won it for them. “We just covered a lot of ground, I guess,” said Nusz. “I wasn’t really trying to go super fast, because my trainer [Kevin Cleveland] is always telling me: ‘Just canter around the turns and make it as flowing as possible so that when it comes down to the clock there’s no problem.’ “
As Nusz entered the ring for the first round, she took a deep breath. “I told myself: ‘Just focus. You have plenty of years ahead to win one of these. Just go in, do your thing and do what you know.’ “
Nusz’ riding career started at age 5 with Texas trainer Melany Kirsch. But last winter, when the home-schooled high school junior turned her interests toward high-level jumping, she switched to Cleveland. Nusz flies several times each week from her home in The Woodlands, near Houston, to Dallas, to train with Cleveland.
Nusz’ mother, Terri, has supported her through the years, and her father, Tommy, accompanied her last January to Germany. There, with the help of Cleveland, they found Pikeur’s Xstatic, a 12-year-old, 16.3-hand Hanoverian.
Nusz and “Pikeur” competed at the North American Young Riders Championships in August, finishing 20th, on the sixth-placed Zone 7/8 team. Her first year with Pikeur–which included a fourth-placed finish on a Prix de States team at the Pennsylvania National–has been a get-acquainted period, said Nusz. She also owns two other show jumpers and is currently second in the MASCUP Rookie of the Year standings.
“Because Pikeur is German,” she said, “it’s a completely different ride than I was used to. You have to sit down instead of riding in a half seat; you have to use your leg and tell them when and where they’re going to leave the ground. It’s been an adjustment. We had a couple of bad shows before we started having good shows. It’s still up and down, but that’s just part of the game.
“There have been times when I’ve made the wrong decision on course,” Nusz added, “and Pikeur will just be like, ‘OK, I’ve got you, just hold on.’ And he’ll fix it. We do have a bond, and we respect each other.”
Fenney also had respect for her competitor. “I had three shots to win, and she just had one, but she beat me, and she earned that,” said Fenney. “My horses are all special, and they gave it their all. But Meagan was great, and more power to her. I just think all the kids who work as hard as she does at riding end up having solid goals in life, because they’ve developed good work ethics. The harder you work, the better you become.”
Gibson Overshadows The Competition
Carson Gibson is accomplishing her goals with Me & My Shadow, a large pony that Gibson acquired just after the Pony Finals (Va.) last August. “Shadow” and Gibson were champions in the large/small pony division at Dallas and earned Gibson the show’s grand pony hunter rider award. Gibson also scored a championship aboard her medium pony, Dr. Zeuss (a.k.a. “Frosty”).
Of Shadow, a 12-year-old Welsh-Thoroughbred bought from Bibby Farmer Hill and Don Stewart Jr., Gibson said: “I’m learning that I need to be straight to get the lead changes on her, but she’s really easy. She moves up and doesn’t need a lot of leg. Frosty [handed down from big sister Caroline] is perfect. He’ll do pretty much whatever I tell him to do–move up, slow down, whatever. At this show, I just sat up, kept my eye up and squeezed.”
Fifth-grader Gibson trains with Patty Roberts at Memorial Park Hunters in Houston, where the Gibson family lives during the week. On weekends, they retreat to their farm just north of the city and home to their horses and ponies.
Jana Rodes also keeps her horses, including breeding stock, at home, near Argyle, Texas. She rode Cha Cha to the tricolor in the adult amateur, 36-45, division. A 6-year-old, Thoroughbred gelding by Tobasco Cat, Cha Cha had a brief racing career before becoming an event horse.
“But he didn’t work out,” Rodes said, “because he wouldn’t jump ditches. Lucky for me, because he’s quite nice. His owners simply brought him down my driveway one day, thinking he might make a good hunter.”
After seeing how he used his back over the jumps, Rodes had a good hunch about him. “So I ended up getting him for my birthday last June,” she said.
The Dallas Harvest was the pair’s third show. “He’s taken a liking to the hunter world,” Rodes said. “He tests me a little to see what he can get away with, and he’s got an occasional buck in him. But overall he’s good-minded, straightforward and seems to want to please.”
Originally from Cincinnati, Rodes and husband Patrick moved to Texas in the late 1980s. Rodes trains with input from Patrick, and sometimes Trina Green.
Didi MacKenzie, who won the amateur-owner championship and grand champion amateur-owner trophy aboard Donchaknow, has had a banner year, not just with Donchaknow (“Noah”), but also with her champion hunters Linus and Titleist 8.
She’s owned Noah, a 9-year-old, appendix Quarter Horse gelding, for three years.
Before that, he was reserve national champion in the regular working hunters with Tracy Fenney.
“He did really well in the jumpers,” MacKenzie allowed, “but he was so pretty, Tracy moved him over to the hunters. He’s my confidence builder, because I know that when I get on him he’s always going to jump the jumps. Because he did the jumpers, he’s got a motor in him, but he’s got a great brain and he’s always there for me. I’m crazy about him.”
Noah, bottle-raised by Fenney as an orphan when his mother died just two days after his birth, is affectionately referred to as “Naughty Noah” on the Dallas-area farm that MacKenzie shares with her husband Kenny (who helps her train and also runs Quail Hollow Tack, a mobile store).
“He just likes to get into things,” said MacKenzie of Noah, “because he didn’t have a mother to discipline him.”
Abby Converse also admitted to owning a pampered horse. Her Classified was champion in the adult amateur, 18-35, division. Converse, 27, bought the Westphalian gelding in the spring of 2003 in Florida, where he’d been doing the 5-year-old young jumper classes.
“I watched him and thought he jumped great,” Converse recalled, “and that he’d make a good hunter. I had a grand prix horse at the time that I ended up trading for him.”
Classified’s transition from jumper to hunter, she said, was no problem. “He wanted to be a hunter. He’s very quiet and slow, which is a good thing because I don’t have to longe him. But I’m used to Thoroughbreds, who carry their own canter. I have to kick a lot!”
Still, Classified makes it down the lines because he’s 16.3 hands and has a long stride. “Next year we’ll move up to the amateur-owners and the first years,” said Converse. “He’s spoiled. He loves people, loves attention.”
Converse, who lives in the North Texas city of Denton, trains with Martien van der Hoeven at Marlac Farm. She also won the Southwest Adult Medal class on Pearl, owned by Steve Weder.
Weder also trains Erin Nelson, who captured the small junior hunter division on Everything Carolina, a 12-year-old warmblood that she’s owned for a year. “Lux” and Nelson had their first junior tricolor together at this show.
“He was calm both days,” said Nelson, a seventh-grader from Flower Mound, Texas, “because he’s used to showing here, and I guess we were both just on our A game this weekend.”
Lux used to get strong for Nelson, who wasn’t always able to get his lead changes. “But now we have that down,” she said. “He jumps really well, and I just fell in love with him the first time I rode him.”
She also discovered that he likes to eat Whoppers candy. “We figured that out on Halloween,” said Nelson.
Another Texas youngster with high goals is Alexa Wisz, who earned large junior hunter honors and won the WIHS Equitation Classic hunter phase class on Jakks. Aboard Jane, Wisz was modified junior/amateur jumper champion and Level 5 jumper reserve champion. Wisz owns Jakks and leases Jane, a 10-year-old Oldenburg, from her trainer, Matt Cyphert of Argyle, Texas.
Jakks, a 12-year-old, Dutch Warmblood gelding, came from California last summer. Wisz, who also shows her horse Zandro in the small juniors, rode Jakks in the WIHS class as a warm-up for the juniors. “I don’t usually do the equitation,” she said. “I just rode it like I would have ridden my junior hunter course, and I ended up having a good trip.”
Wisz said Cyphert, with whom she’s ridden for two years, boosts her confidence at shows. “He always says something positive, telling me what I did well and what I need to work on.” The ninth-grader from Dallas has been riding since she was 8.
Seeking The Heights
Next season presents a big transition for Debbie Bird, champion in the adult amateur, 46 and over, division aboard Livingston.
“My hope is to move up to amateur-owners,” said Bird, “but I’ve never done that division before. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m a little nervous too. I did the modified amateur-owners on ‘Stanley’ in Colorado last summer, and we were champion, so we’ll see how it goes. Stanley is so big [17.2 hands], 3’6″ is really where he should be jumping anyway.”
Bird bought the 10-year-old, warmblood gelding from Colleen McQuay last December. “Stanley’s size means that turning corners on him is like the difference between driving a Suburban and driving a Porsche,” she said. “But he’s got a huge stride, so getting down the lines is no problem.”
In addition to a smooth jump and comfortable canter, Bird just loves the wayher horse looks. “He’s just really cute, with his white face and all. He’s got a wonderful attitude, and I feel very fortunate to have him. I count him among my blessings every day. He’s definitely the best horse I’ve ever owned.”
A retired teacher who moved to Texas from Nebraska in 1996, Bird and her husband have a daughter in college and a 10-year-old son. Bird didn’t start riding hunt seat until she was in her 30s. But her trainer of seven years, Cyphert, helps boost her morale.
“He gives me lots of confidence that I can do it,” Bird said, “even if I’m doubting myself.”