What better way to draw the competition season to a close than with a win in a USEA Classic Series division? Three competitors did just that on the weekend of November 17-18 at the Fresno Horse Park in Fresno, California.
The Fresno Training Three-Day champion Barbara Slaughter was always interested in eventing, but it wasn’t until after her son went off to college 11 years ago that she was able to get her start. “I began with lessons and a half lease at a local barn. A few Beginner Novice events later, I was hooked and set a goal of Preliminary in four years,” Slaughter reflected. “But first, I needed a horse. The leased horse had a heart of gold but not scope enough beyond Novice.” So the horse shopping began.
Six months of horse shopping later with trainer Alexis Helffrich and Slaughter happened upon the Quarter Horse cross gelding Catchy One-Liner known as Diego around the barn. “He was just under 5 and had been barely started over cross rails by a woman who mostly did western,” shared Slaughter. “Diego kept knocking the tiny cross rails so I figured Alexis would say pass, but something made him want to feel the engine. In six months of horse shopping, Diego was the only one Alexis got on himself. All it took was one big jump and Alexis said, ‘buy that horse or I will.’ It hasn't been straightforward but I've learned a lot.” While Slaughter comments that there are a lot of great qualities about the dun gelding, he can also be a bit reactive and a pretty impressive buck.
“I've had more broken bones, surgeries, and hospital stays than I like to admit,” she commented. “At one point, my family held an intervention because they worried I'd die. I was a better rider than in the earlier days, but Diego's antics still felt unpredictable and dangerous. For my family, I needed to figure it out or sell him.”
With some coaching from Warwick Schiller, Slaughter and Diego were able to put their relationship on a much better path by improving Slaughter’s listening skills and helping her to better understand Diego’s emotional needs. “When I get on, I let him go wherever he wants at first. After a bit, I ask him to start following my lead. It sounds corny, but it gives him a sense of control over his life and he's willing to work after that. Often people practically roll their eyes when I say he's anxious - they think I'm simply projecting my own fear because if you don't know the signs, he appears calm. But my safety depends on helping him to stay mindful, not checked out, and not explosive. I believe he trusts me more now too. He feels heard and has choices.”
The duo began down a more positive path in their relationship, but some out-of-the-ordinary stops at jumps recently had Slaughter puzzled. “During the recent October Woodside CCI2* he stopped twice in stadium at two different jumps,” Slaughter said. “He's never done that! Alexis pointed out I wasn't riding him forward enough, but it felt like I was nagging and spurring. I asked myself why I was pushing him to jump if he doesn't want to anymore. He's 16 years old. I wondered if it was time to retire him from upper levels? I then had him checked by a vet and was told he was in pain. I felt terrible, but it wasn't a surprise. After hyaluronic acid/steroid injections, he feels pretty game again.” Wanting to ease back a bit and rebuild their confidence together, Slaughter decided that the Training Three-Day at the Fresno County Horse Park H.T. was the perfect way to compete and try something new. “I did a Training Three-Day many years ago and recalled that there were parts of it that would help me get Diego on a roll. I thought this would be a little different than what we've been doing and lots of fun for a year-end experience. It was!”
Slaughter thinks the classic long format allowed Diego to get his jiggles out on the first day and then focus on the job when the time came. While she commented that he was a bit anxious to be away from the barn in roads and tracks and reacted to some dogs jumping against a chain-link fence in a nearby residential neighborhood, she stayed mindful and used the long-format to work any barn sourness and spookiness out of Diego’s system. “Once I had him forward-thinking, he was more than ready to do the job on Phase D. I wonder how many other horse/rider pairs there are out there who could be more successful on long format than short for reasons like this,” Slaughter shared.
In addition to helping her horse work through common issues, Slaughter loves the environment at a long-format event. “You get the feeling like you're just as important as one of your idols doing a four or five-star. Putting all the A thru D phases together made the total experience. There's an excitement and formality of it all, with the jogs and everything, that makes it feel special. The organizers at Fresno did a really admirable job at the footing and giving us fresh and interesting courses.”
Despite Diego's concerns earlier in the competition, the pair added just 5.2 time penalties in Phase D to their dressage score of 33.8. The pair earned the top spot on the podium after executing a double-clear effort in show jumping to finish on a score of 39.0.
For those interested in giving a long-format event a try, Slaughter recommends starting early. “Do a Beginner Novice or Novice Three-Day the first chance you get. I wish it was available when I was at those levels because I think it gives you perspective on the purpose, components, and everything that goes into a successful eventing competition. Be sure to sign up for the practice sessions for dressage on the long court and steeplechase. Most of us don't ever have a chance to practice these things. The long format will stretch you without being beyond your level.”
In the Novice Three-Day, it was Maddie Berry and her 8-year-old Selle Francais gelding SPF Vision Quest (Querdolan Vitarel x Schoennsgreen Hanni) who brought home the blue ribbon. Berry is a bit of a dark horse in her family as the only person who has ever ridden. “My mom said I've loved horses my whole life. Every time there was a pony ride available I was on it. When I was in first grade my grandmother bought me a package of five riding lessons and the rest is history. I got exposed to eventing through Pony Club and did my first competition in 2017.”
Her partnership with “Quest” is fairly new. She purchased the gray gelding from Starting Point Farms in Georgia where he had competed up to Preliminary. He arrived in California on September 1st, but the new pair couldn’t get to work right away due to the air quality as a result of the California forest fires. Berry took that as an opportunity to bond with Quest through long works, groundwork, and embarking on the most important journey of all: discovering what his favorite treat was. The answer? Fig Newtons and bananas.
“Quest is hard-working and kind,” Berry shared. “He is very friendly, loves dogs, people, horses, and treats. Our first event was the October Woodside Horse Trials. My goal going into the event was to get to know Quest and have fun. My goal was met plus we won first place in the Junior Novice division - my first blue ribbon! He has really helped my confidence with show jumping. We each have strengths in different areas of eventing which makes for a great partnership.”
After experiencing her first USEA Classic Series event by helping out her friends earlier this summer at Rebecca Farm in the 10-minute box, Berry knew she wanted to give the classic long-format a try. She and Quest had great experiences at their first two events together, so she decided to close out their season with the Novice Three-Day at Fresno.
Looking back on their weekend, Berry’s favorite part was the steeplechase. “I love the feeling of galloping Quest. The steeplechase portion was a great warm-up. I found that Quest was much more keen and ready for cross country after that.”
Berry also reflected that she enjoyed the long-format dressage test in the larger dressage court as well. The pair earned good marks from the judges to start their weekend out on a score of 31.6 and just added one rail in show jumping to that number to top the field with a 35.6.
As they prepared for and competed in the three-day, Berry found that she was getting to know Quest on a whole new level and she encourages other newer partnerships to try it together too! “It's a fun experience for you and your horse. Having the four phases of endurance tells you a lot about your horse. I learned that Quest catches his breath quickly but takes a good sponging to cool down.”
She also commented that the team who put on the three-day at Fresno was extremely helpful and helped make the experience a great one. “I appreciated the opportunity to participate in the practice jogs and steeplechase. It showed that people wanted me to teach me and make this a good experience.”
Finishing on their dressage score of 37.9 to secure the win in the Beginner Novice Three-Day was Kaitlyn Shade and Amanda Blake’s 12-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Kaweah Barry Moon (Master Kaweah x Katrinkita). While they started their weekend out in fifth after dressage, their double-clear efforts in the endurance and jumping phases launched them up the leaderboard to secure the win.
Shade got her start in eventing when she was 11 and quickly fell in love with the sport. While her grandmother bought “Ringo” in 2016, Shade didn’t partner with the gelding until 2020. “He was a young inexperienced Quarter Horse with minimal jump training,” Shade shared. “We had a rough start, but after many falls and eliminations, we finished our first Beginner Novice in February of 2021. Since then we have completed and ribboned in several different horse parks around California.”
With a Novice move-up on the calendar in 2022, Shade and her trainer decided that a classic long-format event would be a great way to wrap up the 2021 season and challenge the partnership in a new way before moving up the levels. While Shade had a great time competing in the traditional format, she felt Ringo had equally as good of a time as well!
“I feel Ringo benefitted from the experience by facing new obstacles and testing his endurance. We truly found out how much he loves his job as an event horse,” she said.
Considering giving a classic long-format competition a try in 2022? Shade encourages you to do so! “Do it! The amount of experience and knowledge gained is invaluable. It’s a great way to add a challenge while still being able to see the progress that you and your horse have made.”
Shade describes her experience in the Beginner Novice Three-Day at Fresno as one she will never forget. “I came to the event just wanting to finish hoping to be included in the victory lap. I never thought I’d be leading the lap."
About the USEA Classic Series
The USEA Classic Series keeps the spirit of the classic long format three-day events alive for Beginner Novice through the Preliminary levels. Competitors can experience the rush of endurance day, including roads and tracks, steeplechase, the vet box, and cross-country, as well as participate in formal veterinary inspections and educational activities with experts on the ins and outs of competing in a long format three-day event. Riders who compete in a USEA Classic Series event during the year will have the chance to win a variety of prizes at the events from USEA sponsors. Click here to learn more about the USEA Classic Series.
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