In the fall of 2019, 7-year-old Collins Zgutowicz started her first pony partnership with Buck (show name: Bucks Well Spent). The former cart horse-turned-eventer spent almost three years teaching Zgutowicz the ropes at Pre-Amoeba, Amoeba, Tadpole, and Starter, gently reminding her to actually hold her reins and steer on the cross-country course, to wait patiently before two-pointing in the show jumping ring, and to effectively and precisely use her leg in the dressage ring. Zgutowicz and Buck bonded during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the barn being a sanctuary during mask mandates and canceled after-school activities.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2022; Zgutowicz, now 10 and at least seven inches taller, was facing the reality of needing to find a new pony partner. Zgutowicz's older sister Madison Zgutowicz had recently also made the switch from one partner to another. Madison and Vista (USEA name: My Valentine) had made their Beginner Novice debut at Stableview (Aiken, South Carolina) and had their 2022 sights set on the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) qualifications. Collins, the younger of the two by 13 months, was desperate not to be left behind by her sister.
Collins’ trainers started prospecting and identifying potential partners for Collins. It was a tricky match to make because many of the prospects were young ambitious horses, but they didn’t have the miles or the record at Beginner Novice, nor the patience to forgive Collins if she made mistakes.
As the spring turned to summer, Collins’ AEC qualification dreams waned. There weren’t many show opportunities left to earn the qualifications needed for the trip to Rebecca Farm (Kalispell, Montana), especially without a suitable partner even identified.
With so much attention focused on prospecting outside of the barn, Collins’ trainer Meg Bowers and Go With It Farm owner Halliea Milner realized that there was a potential match emerging within the barn. A former western barrel racing Appaloosa gelding named Justin had come to Go With It Farm with an injury.
After rehabbing him and teaching him to jump, Justin was emerging as a real dressage star with lots of scope and desire to please. While not the tried-and-true Beginner Novice packer that she was originally looking for, Collins agreed to give him a chance. True to his USEA name, Justin Time, Justin won Collins over in June 2022 after a successful week together at cross-country camp in Aiken.
Through happenstance, it was announced in June that there would be a festival Beginner Novice division offered at the 2022 AEC. It was the opportunity that Collins had been waiting for! In August, Go With It Farm sent Bowers, Milner, two trailers, seven horses, portable water tanks, and endless snacks on a five-day cross-country drive from Sandy Springs, Georgia, to Kalispell. Go With It Farm competitors and their families caravanned to Montana, spending a week together at the amazing Rebecca Farm.
Collins and Justin had only competed in two USEA-recognized horse trials prior to the AEC, so they were definitely underdogs. Not one to give up or give in, Collins walked her dressage test over and over, cementing in her mind those incredibly important 2 1/2 minutes of her life. After achieving her and Justin’s lowest dressage score to date, Collins focused her attention on the next day’s challenge—the cross-country course—which was the phase she was most nervous about.
Collins and Justin, in their two horse trials together, had yet to finish clear on the cross-country course. Family members in Montana and friends back home watched Collins and Justin on the video livestream, holding their breath as they made their way through the Teepee Village, over the carrot jump, and down the rolling hills. Collins’ mother, Laura Zgutowicz, sprinted to the end of the course; out of breath and too nervous to ask how it went, she looked up and saw the show photographer capturing a moment that said it all; Collins was high-fiving Bowers and Millner with a huge smile on her face.
She and Justin had zero jump penalties on the cross-country course. The youngest competitor at the weekend's event and her new pony partner had just achieved their dream. “I knew he could do it, mom,” Collins confidently announced.
With Montana now in the rearview mirror, Collins and Justin have taken the winter to hone their skills and strengthen their bond. They have big Beginner Novice dreams for 2023…see you in Kentucky for the AEC!
The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Lindsay Berreth to be featured.
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