Less than three months into his new career as a hunter, former jumper Balko D’Elle is shining under Colorado-based junior rider Aedan Mooney. After earning good ribbons in the green hunter division and winning a USHJA National Hunter Derby this spring, the pair stepped up to earn the blue in just their second attempt at an international hunter derby, the $20,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, held Friday, July 8, at the Colorado Horse Park in Parker, Colorado.
Mooney, the winner of the 2021 Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, and “Balko” topped a field of 17 by tapping into his background as a 1.40-meter jumper to tackle rollbacks and high options with confidence.
“He felt the best he’s felt this whole circuit,” said Mooney, 17. “He was really willing to listen to my aids. He wanted to please me.”
“In the first round, we kind of kept it kind of conservative, just to keep all the rails up and get to the second round,” she added. “And then in the second round, the handy round, there was one that was quite a handy rollback that no one did. And knowing him, he’s a very handy horse and I knew he would be right with me. So we did it. He was super good. He was right there with me. He trusted me.”
Balko, a recently imported 11-year-old Selle Français gelding (Diamant De Semilly—Kachemire D’Elle, Allegreto) purchased by Carolyn Becker as a hunter prospect and investment horse, started his stateside show career with Mooney in late April at the Temecula Valley (California) horse show series.
“When we were in Temecula, Carolyn asked Aedan to ride him a little bit, and they really hit it off,” said Brannon Loomis Mooney, Aedan’s mother and trainer. “They were really successful in his first-ever hunter classes, and really took to it well. And then Carolyn asked if we would just take him and continue to develop him.”
“He’s just this uber-talented little guy,” she added. “I think he’s really kind of bonded with Aedan. He’s a horse you have to ask clearly, and then he just gives you everything.”
Balko’s experience in the jumper ring and his rideability allowed Aedan to take calculated risks in the derby, including the tight rollback and getting a forward ride to the last fence, a large, imposing-looking oxer filled with greenery.
“With Balko’s wonderful experience in the 1.40-meter jumpers, to him this was no big deal, and Aedan’s like, ‘I’m gonna gallop that jump,’ ” Brannon recounted. “It was just very, very smooth. So we were thrilled with that.”
Their successful weekend was marred by a fall Aedan took from another horse on the final day of the show, which left her with a concussion.
“She’s already gung-ho to get back in the ring,” her mother said. “But you know, hit your head, that’s very serious. You need to take the time.”
While Aedan recovers at home, Balko—who Aedan described as sweet but sassy—is getting some much-deserved rest after his biggest win to date.
This is the second year in the international derby ring for Aedan, a rising senior who attends high school online to allow her to ride and show around this country from her mother’s Capall Glen Farm in Golden. This year, they’ve traveled from Colorado to shows in California and New Mexico, and hope to return to California later this month so that Aedan and Balko can compete in the 3’6’’ small junior hunter, 16-17, division at the Adequan USEF Junior Hunter National Championship—West, coming up July 24-27 in San Juan Capistrano.
While Aedan doesn’t get the typical in-person high school experience, she said she’s found a group of good friends at Capall Glen and among the other junior riders she shows with throughout the country, aided by experiences like her participation in last year’s Emerging Athletes Program.
“I think that traveling a lot, you meet a lot of people you connect with at horse shows,” she said. “EAP was helpful because you got to meet people from all over the country. It was fun to connect that way, and the same thing with the [USHJA] Gold Star Clinic: You get to meet new people and bond over the horses, and it’s fun to hear about everyone’s background.”
When home in Golden, Aedan helps her mother run Capall Glen—something she’s done since Brannon first bought the farm eight years ago.
“When we first started, it was very small; Aedan was doing a little bit of everything—driving the Gator, cleaning stalls,” Brannon said. “When we first started, we didn’t have grooms, and she did a lot of horse care. And then of course, we built and grew and became a real show stable pretty rapidly. But Aedan can still do it all, and she does night-checks.”
Looking to the future, Aedan already has secured a spot on the riding team at Southern Methodist University in Texas, where she hopes to follow in the footsteps of her father, an engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, by majoring in environmental engineering.
She’ll likely ride Balko through the end of the year, and then he’ll be sold, Brannon said.
“It was clear to us from the first time Aedan sat on him how talented he was in the hunter ring—[he’s a] pretty incredible, versatile horse,” she said. “The plan is to really keep him through the end of the year, and keep developing him. Then I think eventually he’ll go on to his next wonderful home.”