The Royal always brings with it a mix of emotions. For many it marks the end of show season or the end of a rider’s junior exhibitor career. Home to two national equitation finals, as well as many other National Championship classes, it comes with an immense amount of pressure. But there is a lighthearted side to the Royal, too, and this is seen most clearly in the ever-popular Donkey Races, hosted by the UPHA Young Professionals, and a well-attended exhibitor’s party where tables are set up all along the vendor hall for exhibitors to mix and mingle.
This year’s show saw beautiful fall weather, and a number of touching presentations. Since Wednesday of the show was Veteran’s Day, announcer Peter Fenton introduced veteran and exhibitor Dr. Alan Raun to center ring for the opening ceremonies, and “Doc Raun” read the names of many professionals from the show horse industry who have served in the military, whether in the United States or other countries.
Another moving presentation took place on Thursday night, when Solomon Gallagos was presented with the UPHA Caretaker's Award. Through the years, Solomon has taken care of horses such as World’s Grand Champions CH Sky Watch, CH Wild Eyed And Wicked and CH Memories' Citation, along with many others. He received a standing ovation from the crowd.
A fairytale ending
Cameron Kay spent her entire equitation career hoping to be called back to the rail for a workout, but it never happened. That is, until her very last junior exhibitor equitation performance in the industry’s most prestigious equitation class, the USEF Medal Finals.
As always, the Medal Finals two patterns were difficult.
“Both were very intricate, with a lot of stop and go,” Cameron said.
The hardest part for her and her partner, CH-EQ Reedann’s Heir To Glory, or “Reed,” were the short distance canters.
“It's always hard to do, especially in this ring because it's so slick on the ground,” Cameron said. “There weren't many people that had perfect ones and I didn't have a perfect one.”
Cameron believes that is why the judges called for the workout in Phase 2.
“When we lined up after the first part of the class I was thinking that I was happy with whatever we got, because we’ve already accomplished way more than I ever thought we would. I was just taking in the moment while sitting on him. Then they called for the three-horse workout.”
Molly Codeanne and Courtney McGinnis were sent back to the rail along with Cameron, who could tell that Reed was worn-out from the grind of the long day.
“I knew he was a little tired but he kept going every second I asked him,” Cameron said.
In the end, she was named the winner, with Molly taking reserve and Courtney taking third. With this win, she clinched the final leg of the equitation Triple Crown.
“It was incredible today,” she said.
But in typical Cameron fashion, she talked and thought less about that and more about the fact that her junior exhibitor equitation career had come to a close.
“It's emotional,” she said. “I’ve been crying all day. I spent every waking hour at the barn training for this. I always had this to rely on and fall back on. It’s all I did.”
But she also knows that, if it had to come to close, there could be no better ending than this.
“It was a fairy tale ending,” she said.
Overcoming the odds
When Courtney McGinnis was named the UPHA Senior Challenge Cup National Champion, the entire show horse community understood just what that win meant to her. They had all watched her struggle through the loss of her horse CH-EQ Kiss Of The Zodiac or “Zodi,” and overcome this setback to return to the top ranks of equitation this year with a new partner, CH-EQ Imagine My Surprise, or “Leo.”
“I've been in this class five times now and each time it’s been so different,” Courtney said of the UPHA Challenge Cup. “Last year after my horse passed away I didn't think I'd be able to carry on. He was one of the most special horses I've ever owned.”
She lost Zodi right before the finals last fall, which left her trainers and parents scrambling to find a horse on which she could compete. She was grateful that they succeeded and she was able to show, but last year’s Royal was still shrouded in sadness for Courtney as she mourned the loss of Zodi. This year’s Royal was different. Zodi will never be far from her mind, but she had spent the whole show season becoming a team with her new partner Leo.
“The beginning of this year was a rollercoaster,” Courtney said. “We had some problems with bucking. You have a certain comfort level when you’re coming from showing a horse for six years, and he's completely different from Zodi.”
But by the time Louisville was over, Courtney began to feel like she and Leo had come to understand each other.
“Every horse I’ve ever had has taught me certain lessons, and I definitely think Leo has taught me, and made me a better rider,” Courtney said. “With Zodi it was memorization and perfection. With Leo it’s so much more than that. I trust him, but it’s different.”
Because of some of their past performances she was a little nervous going into the Challenge Cup Finals but, at the same time, she truly felt like they overcame those things.
“I just knew I was going to go in there and nail it,” Courtney said.
They did, and Courtney was in shock when she was named the National Champion out of a field of 24 riders.
“I can barely believe it,” she said. “And overcoming those obstacles makes it even more special.”
Her mother Bonnie was equally emotional.
“Tears of joy instead of tears of sadness felt really good,” she said. “We've had a long 14 months, but we are out for eternal glory.”
There were two other facts that made the win even more special: though Leo has won numerous championships and finals with multiple riders, this was his first UPHA Challenge Cup win, and it was also Courtney’s last year showing in junior exhibitor equitation.
What equitation is all about
Alayna Applegate’s horse was sold two days before Sugar Knoll Farm left for the Royal. This would usually be disappointing or problematic, but it turned out that the ten-year-old was in luck. Mocha’s Mudslide, or “Muddy,” a well-known equitation horse, was also for sale, was coming to the Royal, and had owners who were willing to let her show him instead.
“He’s a cool, cool horse,” said Alayna’s trainer, Shelley Fisher. “I'd seen him show for years and was going to look at him while he was out here anyway. He’s a horse I've always enjoyed watching show, so to see my kid get to show him was amazing.”
Muddy is owned by Milan Kordestani, and trained by Jennifer Dixon at JL Dixon Stables. Alayna had just one practice ride on him before trotting into the ring for Phase 1 of the UPHA Junior Challenge Cup National Championship.
Her mother, Brooke, was unusually relaxed throughout this process.
“It was a borrowed horse so she had nothing to lose going in,” Brooke said. “She was completely ready. Shelley had her prepared.”
Alayna, however, was nervous.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” she said. “I was very anxious all day.”
But she needn’t have worried. She had a good ride in the first phase, and an even better one in the second to be named the UPHA Junior Challenge Cup National Champion out of twelve riders.
“She was just thrilled to show in the finals,” Shelley said. “Making Top Ten was amazing. We had no expectations, and she’s only ten.”
But Alayna doesn’t think much about her age. She could’ve still shown in walk and trot this year, but decided to move up to canter classes anyway.
“She spent the whole year learning to canter and do patterns,” Shelley said. “She did not have a good Louisville, but she didn't let it get her down. She never gives up. She’s very focused and goal-oriented. She eats, sleeps and breathes this.”
This dedication is apparent with Alayna every day. Her grandfather built her a barn at home in Ewing, Kentucky, and each day after school she grooms and tacks horses for the riding students, and practices her own riding. It was all of this practicing that helped Alayna succeed at such a high level on an unfamiliar horse.
“That is what equitation is about,” Muddy’s trainer, Jennifer Dixon, said. “That's horsemanship.”
Tyler and Skylar: everyone’s favorite team
Skylar Rueff wasn’t used to the attention. She had experienced success in the show ring before, but her success this year with her new partner, the black park horse sensation, It’s Aerosmith, was something altogether different – he had a fan club.
This was Skylar’s first season with the horse they called “Tyler,” named for Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the group Aerosmith, and the pair has had unbelievable success, placing first or second in every one of their appearances at some of the toughest shows in the country.
Betsy Webb Stables trainer Jenn Holdren isn’t surprised. She is the one who chose the then three-year-old horse as Skylar’s new partner, and she saw great things in them from the beginning.
“I thought for a young horse he had a lot of things going for him,” Jenn said. “We tried him at the Fair, and for a three-year-old to let a 16-year-old girl ride him around that back arena, I felt he had the personality that would allow for a young rider.”
She felt Tyler and Skylar’s personalities meshed in other ways, too.
“He’s a horse that needs a little bit of direction for where he's going, but you have to be quiet enough to let him do his thing,” Jenn said. “Skylar is a quiet rider to begin with, so she was a good fit.”
But that doesn’t mean the road was easy for Skylar.
“It was difficult in the beginning,” Skylar said. “He’s different than all the other horses I've ridden.”
However, Skylar enjoys a good challenge, and she felt she had nothing to lose.
“The motto for the whole year was just to have fun and ride your horse,” Skylar said. “We would always just say, ‘he's four.’”
It was worth it, too, because Tyler was the most exciting horse she had ever ridden.
“Riding him is like you're floating,” Skylar said.
According to Jenn, he is this exciting every time you work him.
“Every day he comes out and gives that show horse effort,” Jenn said. “He’s a little bit of a class clown to be around, and for sure has that rock star personality. But the second you step on his back or jog him or line him he's all business, so we forgive his diva ways.”
But Skylar and Jenn weren’t the only ones to notice how exciting Tyler was; the crowd noticed, too.
“It was really cool, because after I started showing him people started to recognize him,” Skylar said. “I’ve never had attention like that before. That was a little more stressful this year, but fun too.”
Jenn feels the same way.
“He already had a following, but now he has a fan club,” she said. “It’s kind of neat to have a horse that has a reputation that everybody likes. It’s not something we’re really used to either, but everybody has been so supportive. I definitely feel fortunate to have him and have people that love him.”
This was Skylar’s first time showing at the Royal, and it was their last stop for the season. After such an amazing year, Skylar was hoping for one final successful show, and got this when they won the Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited Park qualifier and championship.
“I wanted to do my best, and hopefully win to end the season how I started and to show all my hard work has paid off,” Skylar said. “And I wanted to make my trainers proud with the opportunity I had to show this horse.”
Tomcat get dominate the Park Pleasure Classic Grand Championship
There were eighteen entries in the UPHA Park Pleasure Classic Grand Championship, and somehow the top two horses were both sired by the same stallion, the lovely (SA) Tomcat.
The champion, Fox Grape's Dandy Lion, is out of Callaway’s Carnation. He was owned and bred by Fox Grape Farms, and ridden by Steve Wheeler. Meanwhile, the reserve winner, Far Away Saloon Cat, is out of Undulata’s Ticket To Ride, bred by “Hoppy” Bennett and owned by Whispering Willows Farm.
This was only Dandy Lion’s second show ring appearance; his first was at Southern Saddlebred Fall Finale, where he won the UPHA Park Pleasure Classic and qualified for the finals at the Royal.
Saloon Cat, on the other hand, has had four show appearances before heading to the Royal, winning at Rock Creek and taking second at Kentucky Fall Classic, and third at both Kentucky Spring Premier and Mercer County.
Both are standout chestnuts with a lot of white, and both put in thrilling performances. The crowd cheered for Dandy Lion’s win, but cheered equally hard for Saloon Cat, as it was clear that, for both of these half siblings, the future is wide open.
Like father like daughter
Throughout the summer Alex Rudder urged her father, David, to let her show his horse Kalarama’s Prospero.
“All summer long Alex kept bugging me about riding and showing her,” David said. “She'd tease me about being able to ride her better than I could.”
When David finally relented in August, Alex’s performance didn’t land far from her promises; she rode “Prospero” to the Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited Show Pleasure 14-17 Division I World’s Championship at Louisville, with just a few practice rides behind her.
“They let me ride her a couple times at the barn and she just has an amazing feel to her,” Alex said. “She's a lot different than the other horses I’ve shown. You ride her off your snaffle and just keep her high.”
The pair followed up their Louisville win with two second place finishes at Southern Saddlebred Fall Finale, and then arrived at the Royal, where, for the first time, things didn’t go quite as planned.
“She didn't walk in the qualifier and we got dead last,” Alex said of their eighth place finish in the Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited Show Pleasure 14-17 Sec B class.
They barely made the cut for the championship class, but when they did head back into the ring, the pair completely turned things around, putting in an amazing performance and winning the class under the Kalarama banner.
“It was a really big accomplishment, and something that's not very easy to do,” David said of their comeback ride. “You don't see that often in any type of division.”
Since Prospero is just five and this was her first year in show pleasure, David is extremely impressed with what she and Alex have accomplished.
“Having shown the mare myself makes me even more proud and more appreciative of how great Alex does riding her,” David said.
And, in an interesting twist, David has not only ridden and shown Prospero, he also showed her sire, Calif First Night Out, as an amateur five-gaited horse many years ago.
Sharing this equestrian legacy with Alex is very special to him.
“Whether your kids are playing baseball, football or cheerleading, parents are always proud and enjoy it, but we all know what a special bond it is with horses and to be able to share it with your children is really extraordinary,” David said. “It's a lot of fun for Alex and her mom and I, and it’s lifetime memories for sure.”
A job well done
The Junior Five-Gaited class at the Royal was full of quality horses, but one game mare rose to the top of the field – Walterway’s Born To Be Wild, ridden by Merrill Murray.
Merrill has been more than a trainer or rider for this exciting filly they call “Elle,” as it was Merrill who purchased her when she was just a weanling, eventually breaking her to ride and also teaching her to slow-gait and rack. He was pleased to notice that the filly wore her ears every step of the way.
“She's gaited very well,” Merrill said. “She loves it.”
Merrill finds that Elle is laid back at home, but also very opinionated.
“She likes to eat and take a nap, and if you get her up before her nap is over in the morning she's not happy,” Merrill said. “She's kind of an alpha filly. You better be it or she will be it.”
In December of Elle’s two-year-old year, Grey Ridge Farm trainer Bret Day brought his customer Elizabeth Ghareeb on a horse-shopping trip to Merrill’s Merlin Farm. Elizabeth purchased Elle, and took the mare with her to Grey Ridge. But before Bret ever got her in the show ring, another Grey Ridge customer, Carroll Robertson Ray, purchased There’s Something About Mary at Louisville in 2014. She was also a young gaited mare, and this posed a bit of a problem for Bret.
“He called me after the Royal and said, ‘Merrill, I’m going to be in trouble next year because I have two fillies the same age; how would you like to take that filly back for Elizabeth and show her?’” Merrill said.
Merrill was happy to, and the results spoke for themselves. Elle made her show ring debut at Rock Creek, taking a second place finish in a strong class. She won the Junior Five-Gaited Mares class at Lexington, took third at Shelbyville in the Junior Five-Gaited Stake, won the Four-Year-Old Five-Gaited ASR Sweepstakes at Louisville, and won again at Kentucky Fall Classic and the Royal.
It was right before the Royal that Elle got a new owner, Autumn Hills Farm customer Laura Dozer-Elliott.
Elizabeth hadn’t been trying to sell the mare, but agreed to the sale, and so Elle’s new home will be at Steve and Tiffany Wheeler’s Autumn Hills Farm in Simpsonville, Kentucky.
“I'm sure the transition will be good,” Merrill said. “They are wonderful trainers.”
He is very proud of how far Elle has come since he first picked her as a weanling, and excited to see what she accomplishes in the future.
“It's so nice seeing them progress and move on for a lady and amateur,” Merrill said. “It gives me some satisfaction that I've done a good job.”
The wildest of workouts
Workouts provide some of the most exciting moments in the show horse industry, and when the workout is between two incredible gaited horses, the thrill only grows. This is exactly what happened in the Five-Gaited Junior Exhibitor Show Pleasure Championship at the Royal, when Take It From The Top and Agent Cool Blue were chosen out of thirteen entries to return to the rail and battle it out for first. It was wild. It was loud. And both riders had their work cut out for them.
Madeleine Wood was aboard Take It From The Top, and Clayton Stinnett was aboard Agent Cool Blue, who they call “Blue.” Clayton knew that Take It From The Top had won the qualifying class, but was determined to ride his hardest in the workout. Both horses blew off their feet during the first direction, so it all came down to the second. “I didn't know what was going on with her,” Clayton said.
“I didn't know if I was making a mistake and she wasn’t. I was just going to keep going and try to do my best the second way.”
But Clayton’s mother, Amy, had seen the bigger picture, and she knew it was still anybody’s game.
“We all had the same advice for him when they reversed – keep riding!” she said.
Clayton did, and in the end he and Blue were named the champions. It was Clayton’s first victory pass at the Royal, something impressive in its own right, but even more so for someone who only began riding four years ago.
“I started riding Saddlebreds since I was nine,” Amy said. “There's nothing better than to share my love of Saddlebreds with my children. Emilea has ridden since she was little, but Clayton wasn't really interested in lessons until he was about ten.”
When he did begin riding though, his natural talent was evident, and it was no different when he began riding Blue. Though Blue was his first gaited horse, Clayton made the transition look easy. The pair won their second time out at the Chattanooga-Cleveland Charity Horse Show, and then went on to win at Lexington. Later that summer they were named the Junior Exhibitor Five-Gaited Show Pleasure Reserve World’s Champions under the Kalarama banner.
Clayton has always wanted to show a gaited horse, and he has enjoyed every moment with Blue.
“He's just the same horse every time you hop on him and he gives it his all,” Clayton said.
Amy, too, knows the horse has a big heart, and that is why she felt confident when Clayton and Blue were called for the workout.
“I had shown Blue in a number of large gaited pleasure classes and I knew he’d never quit, so I knew Clayton would have plenty of horse for the workout,” she said.
At the same time, she was very aware of the level of competition they were stepping into.
“I looked around and it was basically Louisville quality horses,” Amy said. “Any ribbon in that class was going to be good.”
With their Royal win behind them, Clayton and Blue are now done for the year, and as the holidays approach, the Stinetts have much to be thankful for.
“I’m very, very grateful for the horse, and the team that put him in the ring,” Amy said.
A sister act for the Pattersons
Rob and Jan Patterson’s triplets – Sophie, Maddie and Spencer – had a love of horses from an early age.
“They would gallop around the house from the time they were little,” Rob said. “I kept thinking it was a phase they would get out of.”
But eventually Rob and Jan had to admit that it wasn’t a phase, so when their babysitter gave them a tip on a local barn, they signed the kids up for lessons at a place called Pepper Hill Farm.
“I am a pilot and I was on a trip to China three years ago,” Rob said. “I came back from the trip and Jan said, ‘I've got all the Christmas shopping done.’ When I asked what she got them she said, ‘I got them a horse.’”
The horse, Lethal Weapon Four, carried the kids through the beginning of their riding career, and now serves as a lesson horse at Pepper Hill. But it didn’t take long for trainer Erica Savary to notice that Sophie had a very natural ability with horses, so she encouraged the Pattersons to purchase another horse – one that she could compete with on a higher level.
They drove to Ohio, Missouri and Illinois to look at horses, and finally ended up buying CH-EQ A Sweet Sensation, a celebrated equitation horse known to most of the show world as “Chema.” However, Chema didn’t impress Rob during their initial meeting.
“When I first saw Chema I thought, ‘I'm not buying that horse,’” he said.
But he put his faith in Erica and made the purchase anyway. It wasn’t until signing up to have Sophie’s class recorded by Richfield Video at one of Sophie’s first shows, that he realized how well-known Chema really was.
“They asked for the horse’s name and I said it, and the woman next to me said, ‘Oh, Chema. My daughter won on Chema when she was seven,’” Rob said. “Apparently the horse is well known. The smartest thing I ever did was listen and do whatever Erica tells me.”
The admiration Rob has for Erica is mutual; Erica thinks as much of the Pattersons as they do of her.
“They've been riding with me now about four years and they've been a great family,” Erica said. “Anything you ask them to do, they do with all they can.”
Their faith in Erica has paid off. With Chema as her partner, and in her first year out of academy, Sophie took first or second at Mid-America Spring Fling, Oshkosh Charity and ASAW Summerfun, a strong fourth place at Louisville, and qualified for the UPHA Junior Challenge Cup National Championship.
Meanwhile, Maddie, who suffers from learning disabilities due to a traumatic brain injury in utero, was riding as well, working at the barn and honing her skills in the saddle.
“Maddie loves being around the barn, and we love having her in the barn because of the environment and how warm the people are with her,” Rob said. “She sweeps and cleans out the stalls, and there are a lot of good life’s lessons there.”
Maddie often accompanies Sophie to shows, but there aren’t many places where she is able to get in the ring and compete. But this year, with Sophie and Chema qualified for the UPHA Junior Challenge Cup National Championship and Maddie able to show in the UPHA Exceptional Challenge Cup National Championship, it just made sense to take both sisters to the Royal to compete in their respective finals. When they did, the results were incredible.
Sophie’s final was first, and she blocked everything else out and rode her way to the Reserve National Championship.
“I kind of just did my thing and had a blast with it, and then having the reserve champion ribbon was amazing, especially because all my friends and family were in the stands,” she said.
Then it was Maddie’s turn.
“It’s painful because you know she's worked for two years looking forward for this thing,” Rob said. “She said, ‘I think I'm going to win,’ and she's been saying that for a year. I was trying to temper her expectations so she wasn’t disappointed.”
Maddie’s rail work was good, but Rob knew her serpentine wasn’t as good as the ones she could do at home. When they began to announce the winners, Rob was confused when the results were broken down into Physically Challenged and Non-Physically Challenged.
“They broke it down into categories and we weren’t sure what it meant,” he said. “Being blissfully ignorant makes your lows lower and highs higher.”
In the end, Maddie was named the Overall National Champion, and her entire family couldn’t have been happier for her.
“It makes me really happy to know that she can really succeed in something that she loves to do,” Sophie said through her tears.
The Pattersons are incredibly grateful to have been pointed toward Erica all those years ago.
“One of the reasons we’re with Erica is that the range she is able to teach and teach effectively is ideal for our situation,” Rob said. There is simply nothing else that can replace the benefit both Maddie and Sophie derive from the environment that Erica has created at Pepper Hill.”