As a chilly drizzle fell in Hamilton, Virginia, on Oct. 20, the 10 finalists at the Virginia Field Hunter Championships prepared to tackle the individual test over an inviting but rain-slickened course. Professional rider Pam Cibula, aboard Fine Art, a horse she backed, started and trained as a staff horse, was confident her mare could handle the conditions. They’d finished second in 2018, and Cibula’s training program had exposed her to all types of trappy going.
“I really believe a horse needs to do it all,” said Cibula, of Madison, Virginia. “I appreciate a really fancy, expensive show horse, but if you can’t take it out for a trail ride or go have some fun—for me, I like a versatile horse.”
Cibula’s own equestrian career demonstrates that versatility. In addition to winning the field hunter championship for Bull Run Hunt, she was a member of the club’s overall high point team at hunt night competitions at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and Warrenton Horse Show (Virginia). She’s started youngsters and worked as a whipper-in, kennelman and exercise rider.
And in the show ring in 2019, she piloted Tortuga, owned by Brenda Madison, to ladies side-saddle championships at the Maryland Horse and Pony Show, the Harrisburg Classic Horse Show (Pennsylvania) and at major competitions across Virginia including the Middleburg Classic, Warrenton Horse Show, Lexington National Horse Show and the Lexington Spring Premiere. They finished second in the division nationally.
Horse Shows, Hunting And The Occasional Rodeo
Cibula grew up in Louisa County, Virginia, and competed Welsh ponies locally with her mother, Elizabeth Wilson, as her coach. In her early 20s, she began working for the hunt seat/stock seat power couple Sally and David Lamb at their Oakland Heights Farm in Orange, Virginia. Sally’s renowned horse sales and hunt livery business operates alongside David’s colt starting and public trail ride outfit. Cibula took advantage of the opportunity to learn from both the English and western approaches.
“David was a great teacher, and he has a great method of starting them,” she said. “And you know, Sally is a wonderful person with a huge heart, and a lot of tough love as well, just kind of ‘Get back on and go on,’ and so it was a great experience.”
Family and other work commitments took Cibula out of the area for a few years, but eventually she returned to central Virginia and the Lambs. Although she’d hunted a couple of times as a child, she gained a new appreciation for the value of teaching a horse to hunt as part of its overall training.
“A big thing for Sally is showing her horses at hunt nights at Warrenton and Harrisburg,” Cibula said, “so a lot of times I was taking the show horses out and making sure they were fully qualified to attend. They’d go out their minimum number of hunts at least, usually more, so I got a lot of experience in the hunt field.”
Sally’s expectation that horses be able to perform more than one job made a lasting impression. “These horses that [Sally] uses for shows are bona fide hunt horses, as well as they perform at the rodeos [held monthly in the summer at Oakland Heights] with the drill team,” said Cibula. “They sometimes occasionally have to go on a guided trail ride. These horses are very well-rounded.”
One of those horses is Fine Art, although getting the Hanoverian-Holsteiner cross to the well-rounded stage wasn’t an easy project. Sally received the mare as a questionable prospect. “As a 2-year-old, she was very long in the pastern, basically walked on her fetlocks, and the previous owner didn’t want her,” said Cibula. “So Sally said, ‘OK, I’ll take her and see what happens.’
“David helped me a little bit with some of the basic early stuff,” she continued. “She’d been a big pet, never had a saddle on her. The first couple of times I sat on her she was literally like a bronc coming out of the chute!”
But persistence and consistent training helped the mare both physically and mentally. “The more we worked her, the stronger she got, the more she came up in the pasterns,” Cibula said. “Her first six months were pulling up the rear on David’s trail rides, going up and down the mountain, and learning to be a useful, quiet trail horse.
“That fall I took her in one of Sally’s little shows, and she was champion in the pleasure division,” Cibula added. “I started really showing her the next year. We’ve had some successes. She’s been a very good horse. She’s kind of been my little unicorn.”
In addition to the Virginia field hunter title, they finished seventh in the working hunters in the competitive regional Battlefield Horse Shows Association this year and won the staff class at Warrenton’s hunt night in 2018.
Cibula credits the show ring experience with helping Fine Art stand out in that rainy final test in October. “Whatever is in front of her, she deals with,” she said. “And she’s cute; she’s a good mover. That’s where the showing comes in. She’s a legit staff horse, but she’s also a show horse, so she did her changes, she hit the distances really well, so that’s where I think the versatility comes in.”
From Starting Side-Saddle To National Champion
Cibula’s been the experienced rider turning prospects into made staff horses, but she was the greenie learning from a veteran on the 2019 U.S. Equestrian Federation premier circuit. She campaigned Tortuga to second place in the year-end USEF ladies side-saddle rankings. Cibula’s sister, Jill Wilson Anderson, rode the solid bay registered Paint gelding (Chippen–La Chic Fabuleux) to the overall title the year before.
“My sister Jill had been showing the horse,” said Cibula, “and when she was pregnant, she asked if I wanted to try. I had sat in a side-saddle maybe twice in my entire life, and so I think we started in February, going over there once a week; Jill would give me lessons on the horse, kind of got me started that way.”
Adjusting to riding aside was a challenge. “It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done on horseback, just getting started and getting comfortable with it,” Cibula said. “It definitely took some adjustment to think, ‘OK this is not that scary.’ Jumping was a little intimidating.”
With a patient horse and her own determination, the pair were champion or reserve at nearly every show they entered in 2019. “I had a lot of fun with it,” said Cibula. “That horse Tortuga is just a phenomenal horse.”
After a break this winter, Cibula and Tortuga will begin preparing for another season in the side-saddle division in 2020.
While she’s no longer regularly whipping-in, Cibula keeps busy in the hunt field and in the ring. She rides young horses a few days a week at Diana Dodge’s Nokomis Farm in Orange County, Virginia, exercises and hunts horses for Larry Levy from his property, the Hill, near Culpeper, Virginia, occasionally catch rides for Sally, and leads the popular Oakland Heights drill team.
So when the opportunity arises, she and Fine Art are ready to whip-in, hit the local shows and hunt night classes or just about anything else. “I can throw a western saddle on and trail ride her; I can staff off of her; I can go in the field; I put my daughter on her occasionally,” Cibula said.
“The ribbons are great, but I want an enjoyable horse that‘s just all-around handy and cool,” she added. “That’s much more important for me.”