Lexington, Ky.—Sept. 1
Courtney Calnan had a lot of work to do when she first got her Arabian-Andalusian mare Little Black Dress (Carbonado MHF—Jayel Ariel) as a 6-year-old.
The horse was one of 50 that a breeder in Tennessee surrendered to the Arabian Rescue Mission in 2012 and was underfed. She was then adopted by Susie Lones, who sold her to local event trainer Erika Adams. “Harper” was backed at 3 and then received minimal training for Adams’ students before Calnan got her in 2015.
“She is the kindest horse I have ever been around in my entire life,” said Calnan. “We call her the black lab at our house. She loves everything, everyone—cats, dogs, people. My 2-year-old godson rode her in leadline when he was 18 months old as his first horse show, so she did that and did a training combined test at the same show. Her personality is great because she can go and do that kind of stuff.
“Very smart, she definitely has that part of the Arabian,” she continued. “Thinks through everything. There’s not anything that I’ve ever asked her to do that she’s been like ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”
But it took a while to get there. Harper had a lot of anxiety to work through after being passed around so frequently at a young age. But a pasture accident the following January that left Harper with an injury to a hind deep digital flexor tendon that required a year-long rehab turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“She couldn’t be on stall rest, so I had to do a little bit of alternative type rehab with her—lots of supervised turnout and lots of hacks and handwalking and that sort of thing,” she said. “I just really took my time and that has helped our bond and helped her be good in these situations or different types of things just because I took all my time, and she trusts me. I spent so much time with her.”
During Harper’s year off, Calnan would take her along when she went to teach a group of U.S. Pony Club horsemasters, teaching from the mare’s back or tying her to the trailer to give her the experience.
“She always wants everyone’s approval,” said Calnan. “People make fun of me when I’m on cross-country because I’m yelling so loud: ‘Good girl!’ But as soon as I do, her ears go forward and just gallops on. She gains a ton of confidence from. It. She’s not one that you could pressure into anything, lots of praise.”
Another unintended benefit of Harper’s year rehabbing is that Calnan spent that time working on dressage, and as a result she started working towards her USDF bronze medal, which they earned earlier this year.
“This weekend is actually the four-year anniversary from when I got her, and she did her first show here at [Jump Start Horse Trials (Kentucky)]. We got our bronze in May here at the Horse Park—we got to do it in the Rolex Stadium to get our bronze, so it’s really cool.”
Harper had a big fan club on hand to watch her compete in the novice rider division at the 2019 USEA American Eventing Championships. Terry Figueroa, who took her in at the Arabian Rescue Mission, was in town for an Egyptian Arabian show also taking place at the Kentucky Horse Park, so she caught the pair’s dressage test. Calnan’s dressage trainer Linda Strine stopped by to watch Harper go cross-country, as did Adams, who is competing this weekend herself. The only significant member in Harper’s journey not on hand was Lillian Heard, who is competing at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (England) next week.
“Lillian Heard has been a game changer for me,” said Calnan. “I didn’t really know anything about her when I got her number from a friend. I was heading to Aiken [South Carolina] with a group for a mini vacation and wanted to take a lesson with someone while I was there but didn’t feel that I was up to the level of the rest of the group. Richard Pickens gave Lillian’s number to a friend and said to call her. I’m so thankful she decided to take a call from a random girl from Kentucky.
“I scheduled one lesson with her and thought that’s all I’d take. I ended up going back every day the rest of the trip. She just clicked with my learning style and didn’t mind that I showed up with a somewhat rogue young horse who didn’t really even know her leads and was a ‘hot mess express.’ She has been perfect for the adult ammys in the area because not only is she is a very positive instructor but has been very open and honest about how every rider struggles with their mental game. She has given us tools to work through it and not let it be the barrier that holds us back.”
All of their support paid off when the pair finished ninth in their division and was the top-placing Arabian. Her team Crazy8 also won the novice Adult Team Challenge.
For all that Calnan has done to help Harper overcome her anxiety, Calnan says the mare has done just as much for her. Not too long before, Calnan retired her partner of 11 years and tried to start again with an off-the-track Thoroughbred, but their personalities didn’t click.
“In the summer of 2015 I decided it was time for him to find someone he was better suited for,” she said. “Around that same time I parted ways with my trainer. This series of events left me discouraged and ready to walk away from eventing and riding completely. As fate would have it, I had entered the Thoroughbred in Champagne Run Horse Trials [Kentucky] before he sold and couldn’t get my entry back. My saddle fitter, Kate Wooten, offered to send her pony up for me to ride in starter. I hadn’t sat on the pony until dressage warm-up and had never jumped her until show jumping warm-up. No one told me that this particular mare didn’t do water, so without knowing I kicked her around cross-country, and we ended up winning!
“The lady who had Harper at the time knew Kate’s pony well and together they decided that Harper needed to be mine,” she said. “The two mares are similarly quirky and need someone who understands them get the best from them. I honestly think I would have walked away from riding if it hadn’t been for Harper, fate and the wonderful ladies who brought us together.”
The Chronicle is on-site at the USEA American Eventing Championships bringing you coverage and beautiful photos from the competition.
Ride times and live scoring are here: https://eventing.startboxscoring.com/eventsr/aec/ht0819/
The schedule is available here: https://useventing.com/events-competitions/aec/aec-schedule-of-events