Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Darci Phelps never imaged that she’s end up galloping across a sandy cross-country course in southern California years later. With the drive to try something new, the help of diligent trainers, the unwavering support of her mother and the willingness of her stunning reining mare, it became possible.
Phelps and her homebred paint Daisy Duke crossed the finish flags earlier this spring at the Galway Downs Horse Trials under the optimum time, officially marking their Training level debut a success two years after their transition to eventing.
Darci Phelps and Daisy. Photo courtesy of Phelps.
It started when a neighbor asked her to exercise a horse for her. “When I first started riding English it was because of the lady I was riding for. I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do that!’” Phelps recalled. “It’s all Western out there. Growing up on the farm you always jump piles of sticks, and buckets and barrels, but I wanted to do something more exciting.”
In 2015, Phelps decided she wanted to try something more exciting. She gave up her Western saddle and moved hundreds of miles west for the opportunity to jump. A nurse by trade, Phelps said the move was completely riding focused.
She’s ended up in Oxnard, Calif., a location she picked to be close to family. “I picked California because my aunt lives in Grass Valley, so I could be close to family because I didn’t know if anyone else would be coming with me,” she explained. Fortunately, her mother made the trek as well. “She’s my right-hand person. I couldn’t do it without her.”
Photo by Captured Moment Photography.
The pair left the start box at their first horse trial almost exactly two years ago, and have completed 13 events since at Beginner Novice, Novice and now Training level across California venues such as Galway Downs, Twin Rivers and Fresno County Horse Park. “It’s a whole different world for me because I’m from South Dakota. The level of competition is different also out here,” she said.
Since her big move, Phelps has landed in four-star eventer, Bunnie Sexton’s coaching program, and her evening career has blossomed since the start of their partnership. “She’s given me the confidence that I can do it. She’s given the confidence that yes, you and your horse are athletic enough. You are a good enough rider to do this,” she smiled. “I feel like it’s an honor to get to ride with someone like Bunnie. It’s something that I never even dreamed would be possible. You can come out of dressage ready to cry and she’s always there smiling.”
Phelps has made the transition with her own Daisy Duke, a 13-year-old Paint mare by Buckeye’s Old Dust and out of Phelp’s Western Pleasure mare, Joker’s Brandi. She and her homebred have done a little bit of everything from barrel racing to western pleasure to reining, and now she’s made the switch to eventing too. “I think she loves it!” Phelps grinned. “I think she enjoys the jumping. She likes to be able to open up [on cross-country.”
USEA/Shelby Allen Photo.
But like many lifelong eventers, the pair sees the first phase as their weakest. “The biggest challenge is the dressage, but I think a lot of people struggle in that department,” Phelps said. “[Daisy] is conformationally challenged,” Phelps laughed. “She’s a downhill Paint, so to be up and rocked on her haunches is more difficult. She’s thicker too, so suppleness is something that we’ve been working on. When I reined on her she had a loose rein and low headset the whole pattern, so that’s probably been the most challenging part, learning the connection.”
Phelps moved farther west to pursue her interest in jumping, and stayed for the excitement of cross-country. “For me it’s the thrill,” she smiled. “The adrenaline is over the top compared to barrels.” She says her ascent into the sport was especial sweet because of her fellow competitors. “One of the things I really have enjoyed is that I feel like everybody here helps each other out. I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with Bunnie and help her out in the three-stars, and It amazes me that you think you’re by yourself and all of the sudden you have a whole herd of people helping you with your horse,” she explained.
USEA/Shelby Allen Photo.
She and Daisy have enjoyed a storied relationship together, beginning with the paint’s foaling at Phelp’s family farm in 2004. “My mom called me when I was on the way to school saying, ‘turn around you’re calling in sick we’ve got a baby on the ground!’” Phelps recalled. “She’s been pretty much everything to me. She does whatever I ask her to. She’s team sorted and herded cows, barrel, western pleasure. She does trail rides out in the black hills where we ride from 8 to 10 hours a day. She rides bareback. She rides triple. She’s just been a great horse,” she smiled.
Now completely hooked on the sport, Phelps is also bringing along her next eventing prospect, 2-year-old, Sandro Street. The Oldenburg gelding (Sandro Song x Mia) participated in the USEA Future Event Horse Series in 2016 as a yearling, always posting 70+ scores and winning a class at Twin Rivers in September.
The sky’s the limit now for converted-eventer Phelps. Her immediate goals include sharpening the dressage with Daisy and introducing her new youngster to the sport. If you see a flashy paint mare with a striking blaze tearing across an Area VI cross-country field, make sure you cheer her on!