Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

The End Of Derby Finals Is Just The Beginning



In my last blog post, “Five Minutes To Give 100 Percent,” just a few short days ago, I was gearing up for the Section B Handy Round of the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships. I shared that I was excited to deliver an even better performance in the handy than Cassius and I had in the classic round, and I felt confident that we could and would do just that.

But of course, the only predictable thing about horse showing is the unpredictability. In the Section A Handy Round, we watched the class front-runner drop a rail and fall out of placing contention, and we watched as entries that came into the handy round at the bottom of the pack earned spots in the ribbons. Unfortunately, the outcome for Cassius and I more closely resembled the former.

We came around a turn to the second-to-last fence on course, and I think Cassius misread the oxer and jumped it more like a vertical, sending the top rail crashing down. At the moment, coming out of the ring, it was a heartbreaker. The only expectation that I set for myself and for Cassius was to give it our best, and a rail down will never feel like your best.


Cassius and I on course in the handy. Photo by Kimberly Loushin

Now though, more than 48 hours out from the end of our first Derby Finals, I’m able to look at things with a different perspective than when I first walked out of Rolex Stadium on Saturday evening.

I was reminded that just getting to be a part of the championships and a part of the Section B Handy Round was an accomplishment. I learned a lot, and Cassius did as well. Going into the first round, he was so much more hesitant and a little bit more on the muscle than he was in the handy; when he walked in on Saturday, he really took a deep breath and felt so good.

Cassius’s owner, Michelle Durpetti, also reminded me that only a year ago, the idea of bringing Cassius to Derby Finals was just a dream.



Michelle Durpetti (right) and I celebrating one of Cassius’ wins. Photo by Collin Pierson Photography

I’ve read a lot of blog posts on the Chronicle website, so I know this isn’t how it’s always done, but Michelle is not only Cassius’s owner, she’s like a sister to me. We’ve shared a lot on this road to the Derby Championships, so I thought it was only fitting that we share this blog post as well. Here are her—what I think are really well-articulated—thoughts on this past week:

From An Owner’s Perspective by Michelle Durpetti:

I remember when Caitlyn first brought up the idea that Cassius could be the real deal for Derby Finals. I said, “Do you honestly think we could get to Derby Finals!?”

To me, the people that do those things are not me. I love my horses, and they’re wonderful. They’re worth millions to me, but I haven’t spent millions on them. I admittedly sometimes feel like we get out-moneyed and like maybe we couldn’t play with the big guys at Derby Finals.

In all honestly, I’ve always been a little intimidated by the USHJA International Hunter Derbies because you have all of these beautiful riders like Jen Alfano, Amanda Steege, and Tori Colvin, and all of these owners that have these beautiful horses—John Ingram’s Cuba is just spectacular. You have all of these gorgeous horses, and then I think to myself, here I am, just some Midwest girl, and I think I can throw a horse in there with them? Are you serious?

But Caitlyn said to me, “I think we could really do these derbies, and I think we could get Cassius to Derby Finals.” So I said, “Okay, if you believe that, then I am behind you 100 percent.”


When she and Cassius walked into the ring to do their first round on Friday, I cried like a baby. I was just so incredibly proud of them. I’m so proud of the horse. I think he’s done eight International Hunter Derbies total, and there he was, walking into basically the hunter Olympics.

At that moment, regardless of how it was going to go, getting to be a part of that was so special. It’s something that goes beyond just the horse show world; getting to be a part of something in life where you sit down with someone, and you say, “Let’s try to do this. Let’s really stop at nothing within reason to make this goal happen,” and then you embark on it and see that goal come to fruition—when that goal is actually realized, standing there and taking it in is an incredible feeling.

Obviously, when the rail came down there was a sting of heartbreak as I’m watching Caitlyn in the ring, and my heart breaks for her because I know she has sacrificed and put so much into this horse. I’m standing there, and I’m watching this, and I’m just heartbroken for her heartbreak.

And then sometimes you have those brief moments where you think, “Maybe do I hang this goal up? Do I really just not have the pocketbook? Do I not have the ability? Am I overshooting for my horses? Should I maybe downsize my dreams a little bit?” But I quickly realize that’s not me, and that’s not Caitlyn. So you shake off that sting, and you go back out the next day and keep trying.


Michelle Durpetti and Caitlyn Shiels. Photo by Collin Pierson Photography

Cassius is only an 8-year-old, and a young 8-year-old, who still jumped beautifully in his first Derby Finals. What more can you ask for? That’s why he’s getting a nice few weeks off with lots of treats, and then we’ll be back at it. We reached the Derby Finals goal, but I really feel like this is just the beginning of his journey, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Born and raised in Sheffield, Mass., Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of eight. In 2013, Shiels joined the team at Canterbury Farm in Hampshire, Ill., as a trainer and rider, training hunter/jumper riders to compete on the local, regional and national level. Read all of her COTH blogs.




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