As a 13-year-old horse crazy kid, Fylicia Barr didn’t have the budget for a made horse, so when she came across a $500 American Warmblood mare on Craigslist, she trekked west from her home in Olean, New York, to have a look.
What she found was a “completely feral” bay mare. Not even halter broke, Galloway Sunrise’s breeders were afraid of her and just wanted her gone.
“The first time I went to see her she kicked me,” Barr remembered. “They had put her in a field and hoped for the best. I fell in love as soon as I saw her.”
While perhaps not the right match for a young rider who’d never even heard of eventing, “Sunny” has come around, in her own way, and taken Barr all the way up the levels of the sport.
Now they’re tackling their first CCI*** together this weekend at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International in Elkton, Maryland.
“I loved that competitive spirit she has,” said Barr. “It didn’t always work in my favor while I was breaking her, but now that she’s matured it’s really made her the cross-country horse she is today.”
Barr, 23, grew up in 4-H and did a little bit of everything—English, western, barrel racing, reining, saddle seat, driving, equitation and jumpers.
When she brought 2-year-old Sunny home, she had a big task ahead of her.
“She was feral. Not in the way most people joke; she had not been handled by humans,” Barr said. “We treated her like you would a mustang. She lived in the round pen, and I brought her food, so I could create a bond with her. I tried to do a lot of natural horsemanship. The first time I ever went in the round pen with her, I remember she turned and chased me out of there with her ears pinned. I just scaled the fence as fast as I could! We knew at that point it was not going to be an easy road. She definitely put us through the wringer.”
Sunny had a couple of years “on the backburner,” which Barr thinks helped her in the long run since it gave her time to mature.
With help from local trainer Joe Backer, Sunny gradually went from being a rearer to a suitable riding horse. He introduced Barr to eventing about three years after she bought Sunny, and she’s never looked back.
“After my first time cross-country schooling I just completely caught the bug. It was over for me from there!” she said.
Barr tried a year of college but decided she wanted to make a go of it in the horse world.
She went to Aiken, South Carolina, to be a working student at Full Gallop Farm, then made her way to the eventing mecca in Pennsylvania. She worked for as many people as she could, mucking stalls, riding, grooming and just hoping to make connections and a few extra dollars.
While in Pennsylvania she met Sally Lofting, a former eventer who now focuses on dressage. Barr started with her as a working student, then an assistant trainer and opened her own business out of Lofting’s barn last year.
“Sally was the one to take my riding to the next level,” Barr said. “She’s been my mentor. I’m running my business out of her farm, so we’re still working together. She has a background in eventing and is specializing in dressage right now, so I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Barr has also worked with Phillip Dutton, who helped her make the move up to advanced last fall.
“He was instrumental in helping me,” she said. “My show jumping has always been tough with Sunny. She’s really a cross-country horse. She wasn’t always the most careful, and I wasn’t always the most accurate, and he really made her rideable. We’re still working on cleaning it up, but he put us in the right direction.”
Sunny, 10, who’s out of a Paint-Thoroughbred mare and by a Thoroughbred stallion (Duty Officer—Coco Chanel) took to eventing naturally, although the first few years were tough since Barr didn’t have a place to cross-country school near her hometown. Schooling water meant doing it at events, and it took some time for the mare to learn.
“This horse just has that fire inside of her,” said Barr. “She was incredible right from the beginning.”
The pair had their best finish to date at the Plantation Field International CIC*** (Pennsylvania) in September, placing third in a competitive class after galloping through the pouring rain and mud.
“She sees the flags, and it doesn’t matter,” said Barr. “I was actually trying to hold her back a little bit. She was almost a little too brave. She felt great. We’re really making big improvements in our show jumping. We just had one rail, and she felt great on the cross-country. If I do everything on my side we should be able to finish pretty close to our dressage score, if not on our dressage score [at Fair Hill].”
But while Sunny found her true calling on the cross-country course, she never became a pet in the barn.
“She’s really just a competitor. She’s not a horse that wants to snuggle; she’s not very personable,” said Barr. “We’re more like co-workers than best friends. She wants to go, and she wants to work every day, and she appreciates a carrot after her ride, but she’s not a horse that you can walk in and give a big hug to.”
Barr hopes to build a string of competition horses as she gets her business established, and her goal has always been the Land Rover Kentucky CCI****.
“I’m not sure we’ll be going next year, but hopefully the next year,” she said. “She is a cross-country horse, so my dream has been to run around the four-stars and see what she has. I would love to eventually make it overseas and compete on those big tracks.”
The Chronicle will be on site at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International all weekend to bring you news and photos from the fall’s premiere three-day event. Check back at coth.com all weekend and be sure to read the Nov. 5 print edition for much more.