Jun 11, 2024

How a Former Hunter and Her Quarter Horse are Aiming for the 2024 USEA Young Event Horse Championships

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Daija Sams and Direct Flight. Christine Quinn Photography photo

Daija Sams always jokes that the biggest mistake her parents made was signing her up for an equestrian summer camp. “I was 7 or 8, and my parents loved to put my brother and I in random summer camps to get us out of their hair a little bit and let us try new things,” reflected the now 23-year-old Aiken, South Carolina, resident. “And of course, horses were the one thing I stuck with and I just ran with it.”

She grew up riding in the hunter/jumper world and in 4-H, and by the time Sams was able to drive herself, she really buckled down in the sport. So much so, that she chose a two-year program at a college nearby which offered an IHSA team and studies focusing on equine training and business. It was there that she connected with the then 2-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Direct Flight (The Mile High Club x Miss Velvet Brown), or "Pilot."

“We had a colt starting class, and mid-semester the colt I had previously been working with sold, so I had to start over with a new horse. The people who run the class are Quarter Horse breeders, so they pulled Pilot out of their field for me,” she said. “I had to start from ground zero. He had never been handled before so I had to hand-feed him out of a bucket for two weeks. It was a total ‘trust the process’ moment.”

Sams has put in all the work with Pilot from ground zero. Photo courtesy of Daija Sams

By the time her class had ended, Sams couldn’t imagine a life without Pilot.

“I put in all of this sweat equity, and I couldn’t imagine walking away from him,” she said looking back. “At the time, I was still doing the hunters, and I thought he would be a cute hunter under saddle or derby-type horse, so I bought him and continued to put all of the work into him.”

Sams then decided to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, to continue her education with Pilot at her side, but found that her heart was tugging her in a different direction. That's when she saw a Facebook post advertising a barn manager position for Shannon Riley’s Infinity Sport Horse program in Aiken. While she had never dabbled in the world of eventing before, she felt like her horse knowledge made her a great candidate for the role, so she applied, and she got the job. As her time with Riley continued, her role evolved into a riding position and eventually into her position now as assistant trainer.

“It is nice—I absolutely love doing groundwork, so when we have a new horse come in, I do all the groundwork with them. I have fallen in love with working with all of the Thoroughbreds that come off the track into our program," she said.

Riley gave Sams the opportunity to ride along with her to clinics that she was participating in with high-profile eventers such as Phillip Dutton or Ariel Grald.

“I had no idea who they were, but I was just so excited for the opportunity to go and watch,” she said with a laugh. As much as she enjoyed learning about the sport, she was adamant that she wasn’t going to transition from hunter life, but Riley had other plans.

“We went cross-country schooling, and Shannon was giving lessons, and I was just along for the ride, but she looked at me and said, ‘I really don’t have time, I need you to get on this horse and school it!’ ” she recalled.

Sams began working with the horses in Riley’s program at a more extensive level. It was a great way for her to continue riding as Pilot was overcoming a minor pasture injury that required some downtime. She wound up leasing one of the horses in Riley’s sales program for a short period of time and catch-riding a few others. She even took Cheryl Sackler’s 6-year-old Knabstrupper mare named Phantom’s Mist (by Sartor), and completed her first-ever USEA-recognized event in April of this year.

Once Pilot was cleared to begin light work in late 2023, Sams began bringing the now 5-year-old gelding back into work.

“I tried very hard to play around in the hunter rings with him, but Shannon looked at me and said, ‘Look, your horse does not want to be a hunter.’ I was convinced otherwise, but then we took him cross-country schooling for the first time, and he had the time of his life. Shannon was very happy.”

The pair completed their first USEA-recognized event at Sporting Days Farm (Aiken, South Carolina) in April, and then Sams got what she called a crazy idea.

“I texted Shannon one day and asked, ‘What do you think of us trying to go the Young Event Horse track with him,” she said. “And she was so excited, so we made that our goal.”

Sams geared Pilot up for the qualifier at The Vista in Aiken, South Carolina, where the pair scored a 75.8, which qualified them for the 2024 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. The duo now have a new goal for this season.

Sams and Pilot pose for a photo after qualifying for the USEA YEH Championships. Photo courtesy of Daija Sams

“Oh yeah, we are doing the championship!” she said with excitement. “Shannon made him a whole show plan, so this summer is going to be pretty busy with fun shows.”

Looking big-picture, Sams hopes to compete at Bromont in the coming years and hopefully apply for the MARS Bromont Rising U25 Grant. Having big goals is what fuels her fire, but it can also add a bit of internal pressure as well.

“I will text my mom and just be shocked by how much all of these people believe in me wholeheartedly and that I can accomplish these things," she said. "I believe I can too, but there is always a little extra pressure that I have on myself because I am very much a perfectionist—I don’t want to mess up and disappoint everyone. I don’t care about the ribbons; I don’t care about the placings. I just care about doing well in my eyes. I don’t come from a place of wealth, so I have absolutely worked my butt off for everything that I have now. I know I am good enough, I am just still very much green at eventing, so that is the thing that messes with my head the most. I actually finally started having fun showing again at the YEH qualifier, and now that we have hit that milestone, I am ready to focus on the Championships.”

Seeing Pilot succeed in his new career has brought Sams a lot of joy, especially seeing as she's brought him along from an unhandled 2-year-old.

“I have to try and remind myself that I started this horse—I have done everything on my own. Shannon has sat on him maybe five times," she said. "I don’t think I would be where I am without him. He is probably going to be the one that makes my professional career, so you could say I truly owe my entire career to this horse.”

About the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Program

The Young Event Horse (YEH) Program was first established in 2004 as an eventing talent search. Much like similar programs in Europe, the YEH program was designed to identify young horses aged four- and five-years-old, that possess the talent and disposition to, with proper training, excel at the uppermost levels of the sport. The ultimate goal of the program is to distinguish horses with the potential to compete at the four- and five-star levels, but many fine horses that excel at the lower levels are also showcased by the program.

The YEH program provides an opportunity for breeders and owners to exhibit the potential of their young horses while encouraging the breeding and development of top event horses for the future. The program rewards horses who are educated and prepared in a correct and progressive manner. At qualifying events, youngsters complete a dressage test and a jumping/galloping/general impression phase. At Championships, young horses are also evaluated on their conformation in addition to the dressage test and jumping/galloping/general impression phase. Click here to learn more about the Young Event Horse Program.

The USEA would like to thank ARMA, Bates Saddles, Capital Square, HorseWeek, Kerrits, Parker Equine Insurance, SmartPak, Standlee, and The Jockey Club for sponsoring the Young Event Horse Program. Additionally, the USEA would like to thank The Dutta Corp., Title Sponsor of the Young Event Horse Championships.

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