Scan the entry list for the CIC* at Red Hills and you’ll see various purpose-bred or imported horses—Fernhills, Cooleys, FEs and more.
Watch them go, and they’re pretty amazing. But Sophia Middlebrook will tell you Sky Blue Dakota is just as amazing, though she never quite expected the Paint gelding to be tackling the notoriously tough cross-country course at Red Hills.
She and her longtime partner didn’t have the dressage score they wanted at Red Hills, but jumped clear and as fast as they’ve ever been on cross-country yesterday, and followed it up with one rail to finish 41st.
“I thought I would get him to training, but you just point him at stuff and he does it,” said Middlebrook.
“Spot” started life on the Paint circuit in western pleasure and halter classes, and Middlebrook bought him at an auction when she was 12 and he was 7.
Spot and Sophia Middlebrook have grown as a pair together. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.
They tried the Paint circuit for a little while, but then Middlebrook was introduced to eventing in her home state of Massachusetts and hasn’t looked back.
“He was really bad at it because he doesn’t like running around with all the other horses. I’d just get dumped everywhere,” she said of the gelding’s previous career.
Middlebrook, 19, started in eventing with Denise Goya at Scarlet Hill Farm. She wintered in Ocala, Fla., with the barn last year and met Sara Kozumplik Murphy and her husband, show jumper Brian Murphy, and has been a working student with them for the past year.
“I can tell in myself that my riding is better, and I understand the sport so much better because of it,” she said.
Spot, a now 14-year-old gelding, took to eventing right away, except for ditches, and the pair just completed their first preliminary last year. They finished their first CIC* at Morven Park (Va.) in October with no jumping penalties.
“He was young, and a young 7, and I was 12 and didn’t know anything either, so it was a lot of screaming at my horse and falling off and figuring it out,” said Middlebrook of their early years. “Sometimes it just clicks, and one year he just clicked, and he wasn’t a baby anymore, he was an adult. I never expected him to do this at all.
“We took him on his first cross-country school, and he just did everything,” she continued. “It was like, wow, it’s like he’s done this before. The only thing he did not handle was ditches—he hates ditches. I think he put me in every ditch in Area 1 when we first started. But he’s gotten over that, thankfully.”
The 15.2 hand Spot jumped confidently around Red Hills’ one-star course, something Kozumplik Murphy knew he could do.
Sophia Middlebrook and Sky Blue Dakota. Photo by Lindsay Berreth
“My husband’s a show jumper, and one of the first things he said to me was the horse was a very good jumper, so for him to say that, that’s a big statement, because he never, ever says that!” she said. “I’ve found that colored horses in general are careful jumpers, so it’s really great for teaching Sophie forward riding. You obviously have to rebalance and be on your proper line, but basically you’re going to ride into everything, and he’s going to back up and be very careful. He’s a smart horse, so she’s never going to get herself seriously hurt unless she falls off! He’s very trainable. You can see though, he’s got these little [mischievous] eyes, so you want to get on his good side. We give him lots of treats and pats. But he does his job, and he tries really hard.”
“I’m just so happy with him,” said Middlebrook. “This was a tough track when I was walking it. But he was just game.”
In the barn, Spot is very serious, but in the warm up he can get be a bit of a “bratty pony” because of his past dislike for crowded Paint shows.
“He’s hilarious,” said Middlebrook. “For such a colorful looking horse, he’s so serious, and you can’t really get a joke out of him! But he’s just easy, like a dog to have around.”
Middlebrook plans to contest the CCI* at Ocala with Spot as their swan song. She’s planning to send him to Goya’s farm to become a schoolmaster for young riders while she moves on to her next horse, South Park, who she’s competed a couple of times so far at training and preliminary.
“I’ve never really competed another horse except for him,” she said. “He’s my first horse. I always thought he would just sit in my backyard forever, but he’s going to be amazing horse for a kid.”
“I think it’s fun that he’ll hopefully go back to Denise’s barn and have another kid because that’s really what he excels at doing, and I think it’s important to not ask horses to do more than they can do,” said Kozumplik Murphy. “He’s done a super job, so now Sophie can move on to another horse to the next level with all the stuff he’s taught her.”