In the final USEA Classic Series event of 2022, three horse and rider pairs rode their way to the top of the podium in the Training, Novice, and Beginner Novice 3-Day divisions offered during the Ram Tap Horse Park Horse Trials which took place November 18-20 in Fresno, California.
In the Training Three-Day, it was Charlotte Freeman riding her 5-year-old Oldenburg mare Graceland’s Ladera (Libero Star x Rittersporn) who rose to the top of the pack. Freeman grew up eventing on the East Coast in days of the original long-format, so she is no stranger to the necessities that come along with preparing for and participating in a USEA Classic Series event. The pair led their division from start to finish to end their weekend on the same score that they started on, a 40.4.
“I was lucky enough to get to ride in and groom for friends at long-format three-days back then,” shared the Graduate “A” Pony Clubber. “Pony Club definitely provided a solid foundation of horse management that served me well as a young rider and now as an adult. After college, I took a decade off from riding to work and live around the world while also doing two stints of graduate school, but when I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, while also working full-time, I decided to use my new-found free time to get back into riding. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area by that time and was delighted to discover the wonderful eventing and Pony Club community here!”
Upon getting back in the tack, Freeman was able to snag the ride on a few of her friend’s horses, but the itch to be a horse owner once again crept back in. “My trainer, Alexis Helffrich, said he had the perfect horse in mind: a spicy little three-year-old mare bred by Peggy & Chuck Moore at Graceland Equestrian Center where Alexis bases his business. She was full of talent and sass, so he thought we'd be a great match - and he was right! She has a ton of attitude and can be quite a handful, but she loves her job and makes me laugh out loud every day. It's the best way to recover from a stressful day at work.”
Freeman has been competing Ladera at USEA events since 2021 where the mare got her first taste of competition in a USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) event while also giving her first Beginner Novice a go during the Twin Rivers Summer H.T. The mare would go on to win the FEH 4-Year-Old West Coast Championship later that fall and moved up to competing in the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) program this year as a 5-year-old. After introducing Ladera to the Training level, Freeman wanted a way to continue the mare’s education at the level.
“I think the long-format is a great education for horses and riders and I was thrilled to find that the USEA had reintroduced the long-format at the lower levels when I returned to eventing a few years ago. Ladera moved up to Training level in September and did two Training Level events plus the Dutta Corp. USEA YEH 5-Year-Old West Coast Championships this fall before Ram Tap. I was already qualified at Preliminary, so she only needed two Training Level events to qualify for the Training Three-Day. I wouldn't take many five-year-olds to a three-day, but Ladera is a cross-country machine and super easy to get fit, so it felt like a great way to wrap up her season before she gets a few months off over the winter to relax in the field and finish growing.”
Freeman felt that the steeplechase phase was a great opportunity to allow Ladera to work on her gallop while working through her natural competition adrenaline, ultimately allowing her to relax and find a nice rhythm to the jumps. She also found that the long-format helped take a bit of the mare’s edge off on Sunday, giving Freeman a more soft and rideable feel going into the final phase of the competition. “It was like Saturday took the edge off her sass without taking the wind out of her sails” she joked.
“I really enjoyed spending extra time in the saddle with Ladera, going on long walk hacks to build her base fitness, and I feel like we both learned a lot about each other,” Freeman said of the experience overall of participating in the Training Three-Day with her young horse. “That being said, I may have put a bit too much effort into her fitness since she was pretty hot and unrideable in the dressage test and ended up getting the worst score we’ve ever had! Oh well - live and learn!”
Sofia Seto rode Nicole Peterson’s 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Armi to the win in the Novice Three-Day division. Their dressage score of 33.3 placed them in third initially, but the pair’s consistent efforts across each phase moved them up one placing at a time to ultimately seal the deal at the end of the weekend.
Seto, who has always been “a little bit obsessed with horses,” finally traded in her Breyer horses for riding lessons which eventually turned into Seto half-leasing a horse and getting more serious about her riding. Getting into eventing was a bit of fate as her trainer, Tori Traube, and the other half-leaser of her horse were both eventers. She competed for the first time in 2019 and from then on was in love with the sport.
“Armi’s owner is currently a college student, so she put him in Tori’s program to be leased out,” commented Seto. “I started half-leasing Armi in November of 2021 and the Ram Tap H.T. a year ago was our first event together. I had only been riding him for about a month at that point, but something just clicked for us and we ended up winning our division! Even though my barn went on lockdown because of EHV and we weren’t able to compete very much this year, we were able to have a very successful move up to Novice and are looking towards a move up to Training next season. Armi is such a hard-working and honest horse and I feel so lucky to have so much trust in him.”
After competing in the Beginner Novice Three-Day at Ram Tap in 2021, Seto knew that the 2022 event was a must-have on her competition calendar. “I competed in the Beginner Novice Three-Day last year with my previous lease horse and it was so cool to get to do jogs and the full endurance phase. Last year, I made an error with my watch that resulted in a lot of time penalties in Phase C, so I made it a goal going into the Three-Day this year to end on my dressage score. It was an incredibly fun way to end the season and it was so rewarding to end the season on such a good note.”
Seto felt as though the endurance phases set Armi up for success going into Phase D. “He gets really excited out on cross-country, so doing the roads and tracks also settled him and made him more willing to listen to my cues.”
While the competition itself was a huge highlight for Seto, she felt like the preparation ahead of time was especially meaningful as well. “I really enjoyed training for the Three-Day. Doing the conditioning sets really helped me improve my own fitness along with Armi’s. I even achieved my goal of winning the Best Conditioned Award this year, although Tori did joke that I got him slightly too fit. I think that our conditioning for the Three-Day and our practice with speed will definitely make the move up to Training next year much smoother.”
“For anyone thinking about doing a Three-Day, I’d say go for it!” shared Seto. “It’s a great educational experience and a great way to improve both your fitness and your partnership with your horse. I want to thank all of the organizers, vets, judges, and volunteers at Ram Tap that made this weekend run so smoothly. I really appreciate all of the educational opportunities that were offered at the event to help prepare us as competitors.”
And the youngest winner of the weekend was 12-year-old Kennedy Wiklund who navigated her 16-year-old Morgan mare Galaxy Girl (Indiana Ikard x Promtime Memories) to the win in the Beginner Novice Three-Day division at Ram Tap. The pair held their lead all weekend long, adding no faults to their dressage score of 37.2 to secure the win.
Wiklund got an early start to her riding career. “When I was five years old my grandma wanted to go on a trail ride in Hawaii,” she shared. “To prevent me from freaking out during this experience, she signed me up for horseback riding lessons at a local barn in our area. As I continued to progress in my riding I switched barns and continued doing hunter/jumper shows. We had to switch barns again and that was when I did my first horse trial at Woodside Horse Park at the Intro level.”
The young rider describes “GiGi” as her unicorn. After her family surprised her with the “super pony” in March of 2020, the pair have grown together from the Intro level to the Beginner Novice level. “We have created a trustful partnership over the last two and a half years,” she said. “The best part are the fun bareback rides, sitting down in the pasture together, and laughing when she does her silly smiles. I believe this is my heart horse who will never be leaving my side because there is no other horse out there that is better than her. We were confident and conditioned enough to compete in our first three-day at Ram Tap to end the 2022 season with our blue ribbon for first place.”
The Beginner Novice Classic Series event at Ram Tap was both Wiklund and GiGi’s first time participating in a traditional long-format event. Wiklund was excited for the both of them to gain more experience and share many more smiles together.
“My pony to got to experience her first three-day and I got to be able to see how fit she needed to be,” commented Wiklund. “In all this, she became more and more bombproof with more experience completing endurance day and beyond.”
Wiklund shared that of all of the phases of the competition, the endurance day was her favorite. “Instead of just watching, I was actually able to do it and experience it. Watching it makes the whole thing so easy. Doing it gives you the whole adrenaline experience and actually makes you see how hard it is. Talking to the vets and feeling the correct pace throughout all four phases gives you so many benefits in knowing your horse and what they need.”
Looking for a little advice going into your first USEA Classic Series event? Wiklund has some sage advice. “Always be on time to keep the nightmare of getting eliminated over a silly mistake happening. Thankfully in my experience, they were nice enough to let it slide and in the end, it taught me a big lesson. It is also extremely important to not only condition myself but also my partner in this adventure for the work.”
Wiklund concluded, “Having a great barn family and trainer makes the whole weekend a lot more fun and enjoyable with even more memories being made. During my ten-minute box, they were all there to support me and make sure both me and GiGi were taken care of in the best possible way.”
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