The Ram Tap Horse Park Horse Trials hosted the final USEA Classic Series Event of the year this past weekend in Fresno, California. The event offered three traditional long-format divisions at the Beginner Novice, Novice, and Training levels. Meet the final USEA Classic Series champions of 2024 below.
The Novice Three-Day champion Christine Poulos is no stranger to the USEA Classic Series with this past weekend at Ram Tap marking her sixth time participating in a traditional long-format event during her 20 years eventing. This was her first time, however, competing with her new partner Quality Beach (Beach Ball x Elley’s Next in Line), an 8-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding whom she just purchased a year ago. While she normally rides with Alexis Helffrich at Cheval Training in Castro Valley, California, Poulos decided to make a trip to the East Coast to go shopping and enlisted the help of Shannon Lilley to help her.
“Oddly enough, ‘Leo’ was not even the horse I went to try,” shared Poulos. “I just fell in love with him on the first ride. He's like riding a couch, soft and comfortable. You could happily hang out on him all day. And he has the best personality– he's totally the ham of the barn.”
Poulos was navigating some residual fears from previous falls off other horses, but Leo seemed to be the perfect cure.
“In the beginning, he was perfectly happy to lope around like a hunter with me, and as we've asked more and more of him, he's stepped up every time. He's smart and a little lazy, but when you ask he's right there. I've shown him in six shows this year, and have come first or second in five of them. He loves his job and loves to show. He puts on some extra sparkle when you enter the ring.”
She decided that a three-day would be a great way to conclude their first season together, but she also wanted to support the efforts being made to keep the Classic Series going on the West Coast.
“Terry Hilst and Kim Goto Miner have done an amazing job with the events at Ram Tap, and they've put a ton of work into running the three-day series, so I really wanted to show up for them.”
Poulos was proud that both the preparation for the event and the competition itself really helped solidify their partnership and build their confidence as a team.
“As I mentioned, Leo is a little lazy, so the fitness work was not his favorite job,” said Poulos. “We're blessed at our barn to have trails and hills to work on so Leo and I have spent a lot of time together on the trail building trust in one another as we did our fitness work. At the event, the steeplechase was really a turning point. Leo's gallop is so powerful that I was a little uncomfortable with it, but on Saturday I decided to just trust him and go. Initially, I was worried that his lazy side would come out and we'd lope around like a hunter, but instead, he lit up and really galloped around the course showing a whole new gear. That made our actual Phase D cross-country run feel amazing. Everything was easy and out of stride. I'm excited to carry that on as we go forward in our partnership. That was my favorite part of the competition.”
While preparing for a long-format does require a lot more from an eventer in terms of preparation and time spent at the barn, Poulos highly recommends that everyone give it a try.
“Even though it can be a lot of work and coordination, the partnership you build with your horse, and your fellow competitors, is totally worth it. I think that's why I keep coming back and doing them again and again.”
If you are considering moving up to the FEI levels, Poulos also says competing in a Classic Series event is a great way to prepare.
“Not only does it offer a taste of what eventing used to be, but it's also a great way to prep if you think you are going to do an FEI event in the future. Get the experience here in a learning environment and then go take it to your FEI event.”
Kate Flaherty and her 11-year-old Cheval Canadian gelding Eli’s Coming (Sorybook Kurt William-Elite x Storms Aglo) led the Beginner Novice Three-Day from start to finish, concluding their weekend on their dressage score of 21.7.
Flaherty, who recently celebrated her 65th birthday, started riding as a child in a hunter/jumper barn.
“I took lots of lessons, but I also turned into a barn rat with a small pack of like-minded kids,” she shared. “We would wait until the trainer left and get out the ponies, hop on bareback, and jump anything we could get them to jump. It was awful horsemanship, but that was the start of a good independent seat.”
At 15, Flaherty took a break from riding. She finished school, attended college, and began developing her first career as a television news producer in the early 80’s. There, she met an adult rider who evented, and her interest was piqued.
“Once I understood that dressage was the only subjective component and that you could win on a mustang if you could get it done, I was hooked,” she said.
Making the work-life balance happen was a struggle for Flaherty initially.
“Having my own money to do the sport was crucial, and after a ten-year career as a journalist I went to law school,” she reflected. “Balancing being a trial lawyer with an eventing hobby took some serious juggling, but I managed to ride and show enough to do well at times with my Trakehner/draft cross Irish Sun. I became genuinely obsessed with the sport.”
She bought Eli’s Coming from John Hartley of Storybook Horse Farm in Oregon in 2016 when she was in her mid-50s and the young gelding was just 4. She liked his small stature and sassy, but game attitude. With the help of her trainer Olivia Loicano of OKL Eventing, the duo moved up from Starter level to Beginner Novice.
“We’ve never had a cross-country jump penalty, but he can be so difficult on course that an observer would wonder how we are both still alive,” joked Flaherty. “He is spooky and opinionated, and bucks hard as an expression of his strong opinions. He can run off the track into the bushes out of exuberance, but he’ll also jump from a standstill. After seven years of this, we finally moved up to do two Novice events this fall, but we haven’t made the cross-country time yet. Currently, I can have speed or control, but not both at the same time. We have work to do, and with Olivia’s guidance, I think we’ll get there.”
Flaherty felt like the Classic format was the perfect opportunity to continue developing Eli’s career as an event horse.
“Doing the Classic Three-Day Novice dressage test really played to his strengths,” she said. “I was also hoping the endurance phases would help him settle once we got onto cross country, but it didn’t work out that way because he is now so fit. He was still a beast on cross-country, zigging and zagging and being generally goofy. I accept that this is who he is, and I just have to up my game to ride what I have. We did manage to canter down the steep hill at Ram Tap, which had been a major goal.”
The roads and tracks phase, however, did help Eli immensely.
“It was so good for him to be exposed to roads and tracks, and have to keep it together as we trotted and cantered in the fields, passing dogs in yards and kids playing and other things that would previously cause a meltdown.”
Once the weekend was completed, Flaherty knew she had a new goal she wanted to work towards.
“My goal is now a Novice Classic Three-Day. This is my new favorite thing.”
Both Poulos and Flaherty were extremely complimentary of the Ram Tap team for hosting such a wonderful event.
“Please appreciate how much work this is for the show organizers,” said Flaherty. “If I thought putting a horse trial together was hard, this is an order of magnitude harder. Ram Tap Horse Park and Kim Goto-Miner pulled all of the right people together who were committed to a successful experience for the riders. They were so graciously patient with questions and explanations about every aspect of the event. I was profoundly grateful for their willingness to put this on.”
One last Classic Series champion pair was crowned at Ram Tap with Michelle Wagner topping the Training Three-Day division aboard her 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Hillview Quality Control (O.B.O.S. Quality 004 x KEC Clover Faradiya).
Macyn Wolpert and her pony 18-year-old Sport Pony Hallelujah were set to attend the Pine Top Intermediate Horse Trials (Thomson, Georgia) on Feb. 11 with cross-county day happily occurring on Wolpert’s 12th birthday.
There aren’t many riders who can say they competed at five of the world’s seven five-star events in 2023, but the 2023 World Equestrian Brands USEA Rider of the Year Boyd Martin can. With nine starts across the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, Longines Luhmühlen Horse Trials (Germany), Defender Burghley Horse Trials (England), MARS Maryland 5 Star, and Pau (France), Martin earned five top-5 finishes.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation has announced the combinations selected to compete in the 2024 USEF Futures Team Challenge at the Carolina International CCI and Horse Trials, from March 14-17 in Raeford, North Carolina. The Challenge is designed to replicate the experience of competing within a team environment and thus is a training opportunity embedded within an existing competition at the CCI3* and CCI4* levels.
Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.