It all started when the McFall family sat down to dinner together in January. Jen and Earl McFall, who own and operate Dragonfire Farm in Wilton, California, have a daughter, Taylor, who is turning 16 in April. “Your 16th birthday is kind of a big one and we don’t usually make a very big deal about birthdays,” Jen said, “but she is turning 16, so I asked her, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ I figured it would be something like she wants to go to Hawaii or do something like that.”
But Taylor knew exactly what she wanted, and it wasn’t a trip to Hawaii. “The first thing I said was that I want to go Preliminary before I turn 16, and I turn 16 in April,” she said. “The big problem, though, was how I was actually going to do that . . . we needed a horse for me to ride.”
For the last year and a half, Taylor has been producing Simple Dreams DF (Dragonfire Kirin x Highland Empress), aka Pixie, a 6-year-old Morgan/Irish Sport Horse mare owned and bred by her parents at Dragonfire. “I’ve been training Pixie her whole life and she’s going Training level, but she’s not ready for a Preliminary,” Taylor explained.
Prior to competing with Pixie, Taylor had gotten her start in eventing on a Connemara pony named Kilbarry Prince that her family had been leasing. When the lease was coming to an end and Jen told Taylor he would be going back to his home, Taylor hatched a plan to purchase Prince by herself. She raised money by cleaning tack, washing trucks, and selling homemade horse cookies. After several months of hard work she had raised enough money to make an offer on Prince, which his owner at the time, Leslie Lee, accepted.
The wheels in Jen’s brain started turning, and she thought that maybe her horse, High Times, aka Billy, was the perfect solution to their quandary. “I really wasn’t planning on doing anything big with Billy this spring because I’m bringing him back off an injury and I didn’t think I’d have him fit enough to do Kentucky, so I thought in my head, ‘Well, why doesn’t she just do it on Billy?’”
High Times (Hunter x Gerda I), the High Times Syndicate’s 15-year-old Holsteiner gelding, is Jen’s two-time Kentucky Three-Day Event partner. Jen produced Billy up the levels, starting with the Young Event Horse classes as a 5-year-old all the way to the five-star level, competing at events including the Fair Hill International CCI3*, the Jersey Fresh International CCI3*, the Rebecca Farm CCI3*, and the Blenheim Palace CCI3*.
Even if Taylor rode Billy in her first Preliminary level event, that didn’t leave much time for her to get her last two qualifying rounds at Training level and run a Preliminary level event, all before April. “We picked Twin Rivers because it was the last show that was before her birthday,” Jen explained. “It worked out just perfect because she needed two more Training level qualifiers and there was still a Galway to do and a Fresno to do for her to get those qualifications.”
With just five weeks to go until the Twin Rivers Winter Horse Trials, Jen decided it was time to see if Taylor and Billy would make a good match. “She really hadn’t ridden him very much – she’s done a couple trot sets for me, stuff like that. The only time she jumped him was one time I had her hop on him and do a grid, that was it.”
Dragonfire had traveled to the Fresno County Horse Park (FCHP) for their combined test at the end of January and Jen sprung it on Taylor that she would ride Billy that weekend. “We were already at Fresno when my mom said, ‘Why don’t you take Billy for a show jump round to see if you can ride him?’” Taylor said. “I’ve ridden him at home before, but I’ve never done a full course. I did my first show jumping course on him at Training height and it actually went really well – we went clear! After that my mom said, ‘Alright, I trust you. If you want to try hard, I think you can qualify and go Preliminary on him before your birthday. I think you’re ready and you’re capable.’”
“She was so cute,” Jen recalled. “She’s such a stoic kid – she never cries – but when we told her she just started bawling and we said, ‘Is that a yes?’”
“Taylor and Billy get along really well which is funny because when she was a little kid they kind of had a love-hate relationship – I think they were sort of jealous of each other,” Jen said. “He used to want to bite her all the time, and she hated him. She told me recently, ‘I was never sure which one of us you liked better,’ but it’s funny because now she’s totally in love with him. I think she understands why I like him so well now.”
With a plan in place to get Taylor to her first Preliminary in time for her 16thbirthday, she and Billy competed in their first USEA recognized event just one week after the FCHP Combined Test at the Galway Downs Winter Horse Trials in Temecula, California. “It didn’t start out the best because the dressage warmup is right next to cross-country,” Taylor admitted. “He was totally wild – he was ready to go out of the start box. But we ended the show in fifth place!”
Two weeks after that, the pair was back at Fresno County Horse Park for a full horse trials where they competed in the Junior Training division, jumping double clean in both phases to finish in first place on their dressage score of 25. “We did way better at our second show together! We had a bit more preparation.” Taylor laughed. “We stayed in first the whole weekend, which was a first for me. I feel like I’m not that good at dressage so that was a big accomplishment for me.”
Qualifiers behind them, Taylor and Billy were headed to the Twin Rivers Winter Horse Trials for her first Preliminary competition. “We had another kind of spicy dressage round, and we ended up in 20thplace after dressage,” Taylor recalled. “It was a one-day at Twin, so we did show jumping in our cross-country tack and then went straight out to cross-country. I went out on cross-country and it was the most amazing, fun, thrilling ride of my life. I had so much fun. I was worried that I’d be scared and forget my course, but it was a total blast. By the end of the show we’d moved all the way up to second place! That was pretty astonishing, but I was more just happy with the fact that I was able to have so much fun at my first Preliminary and not be scared because I was riding such an experienced horse.”
Now that she’s accomplished her first Preliminary event, what’s next for Taylor and Billy? Well, the obvious answer to many is the North American Youth Championships at The Event at Rebecca Farm in July. “This has all been so sudden and spur of the moment and a little bit flying by the seat of our pants, but seeing how they’ve done so well, a lot of people have asked if she’s going to try to do Young Riders on him this year,” said Jen. “We’ve put in the paperwork – she’s going to keep riding him and start working that way.”
“All this time I’ve been spending at the lower levels has given me a lot of experience, so I feel very ready,” Taylor added. “The next show I’ve entered is Galway – I’m going to do the CCI2*-S at the end of March because I need that to qualify for Young Riders. Still, I’m thinking one show at a time!”
“I feel really happy because it’s an amazing 16th birthday present,” Taylor concluded. “It means that my mom trusts me as a rider and thinks I’m capable. If she thinks I’m good enough to ride her horse, then I must be good in her eyes, which is definitely a confidence booster.”
“The biggest thing for me, I think, is it’s really fun to see her see her on a horse that has all the ability to take her where she wants to go,” Jen said. “I think she is a really good rider, such a natural. It’s really fun to see her on a horse that’s ready for her and what she wants to do.”
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