When Josie Drummond sat down with her mom and trainer last season to discuss her 2023 goals, she offered an unexpected idea: Why not aim for USEF Pony Finals?
While that may not seem too outlandish a suggestion from a young rider who has spent five years developing her pony, Drummond and her partner AM Rising Star show on the USEF Arabian circuit, so swapping over to open shows was a big change.
Drummond, 18, Wellington, Florida, and “Gus” a 14.1 1⁄2-hand pure Arabian gelding (AM Good Oldboy+—AM Power With Honor) owned by Lori Cooper, already were successfully established competitors on the Arab circuit. They had won the reserve hunt seat equitation title at the Arabian & Half Arabian Youth National Championship (Oklahoma) in both 2021 and 2022; picked up blue in the training level, 15-18, dressage test there in 2021; and they also competed in hunter and sport horse in-hand classes at Arabian shows as well. But for 2023, Josie was ready for a change.
“We just wanted to do something new,” she recalled.
So they did just that.
Her trainer Gina Pengue got to work studying U.S. Equestrian Federation rated show rules, and Drummond put away her dressage saddle at Cooper’s Casperey Stables in Loxahatchee, Florida, while she and Gus focused on jumping. Little did they know their path to Pony Finals would be a chaotic squiggle instead of a straight line.
At their first show at the Venice Equestrian Tour (Florida), Drummond and Gus finished as reserve champions in their division, ostensibly qualifying them for Pony Finals. But then the teen and her mom, Angie Drummond, realized there was a problem with their points. Many phone calls to the USEF later, they learned that their Arabian pony measurement card didn’t count at the open pony hunters. So they had Gus re-measured and attended several more shows—including a few eye-opening competitions at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), which exposed them to the top of the sport—until they qualified again.
A few weeks before Pony Finals, their farrier switched up Gus’ shoes, causing him to go lame. While a veterinarian worked to get the pony sound, Josie lost out on precious practice time.
A week before the competition, Pengue fell off a horse she was trying, breaking her ankle in two places and forcing her to stay home. That’s when Cooper stepped in. Cooper, who owns the barn and the pony, previously had attended one open show to support Josie and Gus.
“[Cooper] said, ‘I don’t know anything about anything, but I’ll get you to Pony Finals no matter what,’ ” Angie recalled. “We’re like, ‘Yup, this fits with everything.’ ”
Cooper, who does teach some jumping students but mostly focuses on dressage, started studying the show format and the division rules, determined to help Josie meet her goal of showing at Pony Finals.
After showing in the model and under saddle classes at Pony Finals, Gus, 15, lay 67th in the large green division—a result no one from Casperey was upset about, knowing that their purebred Arabian didn’t have the hunter look judges were after. But on the final day of hunter competition, Josie and Gus marched around the over fences class for a round that scored a 76.75, a 76 and a 74. That was good enough to rocket the pair to the top of the leaderboard, where they stayed for over an hour.
“I came out [of the ring] crying,” Josie said. “Then Lori started crying. It was very emotional. We had Gina on FaceTime. [Cooper was] holding the phone as I walked out; we made eye contact, and she started crying.”
Josie took Gus back to the barn and kept an eye on the scores online. When the last rider went in the ring, Josie and Gus lay 10th over fences and 20th overall—both cut-offs for a ribbon. Josie knew the top-ranked ponies would go late, and she didn’t want to jinx her chances of getting a ribbon by going to the ring too early, so she stayed glued to her phone to check the scores. An error on the website meant that Josie and Gus were shown as finishing 11th and 21nd, so she stayed put at the barn. Then calls on her phone started coming through.
“Lori called me: ‘The [top] pony kicked out; you’re in. Get up here,’ ” Josie recalled. “But of course messages are delayed, and then she’s calling. And then we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it.’ ”
The awards ceremony paused to wait for Josie, while she trotted Gus on every patch of grass and slowed to walk on concrete to get from their stables up to the ring as quickly as possible. When she appeared on the opposite side of the Rolex Arena, kitty-corner from the in-gate, a starter ran across the ring to open gates and let her through the ornamental potted plants there.
“We keep saying it fits the whole story of her whole journey,” Angie said. “We had to qualify twice. He was lame. Gina got hurt. But here we are.”
For the team, her ribbons are the culmination of years of hard work. When she started riding Gus 4 1/2 years ago, the gelding was a beginner pony, and she was a beginner rider, and the two learned to do dressage and jump together. Josie does all her own grooming; she even taught herself to do hunter braids without pulling Gus’ long Arabian mane by watching YouTube videos. She got some funny looks when she longed her own pony at Pony Finals, but that’s just how she’s always done it.
“I can’t even believe it,” Pengue said. “Josie and Gus are an amazing pair, and the pony? I call him the most expensive pony in the world, because of his temperament and big heart. He’s so priceless. We all love him so much.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.