Sep 01, 2023

Training Champions are Overcome with Emotion at USEA AEC

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff | Press Release
Susan Gallagher and HH Rockstar, winners of the USEA Training Rider Championship. USEA/Meagan DeLisle photos

Lexington, Ky.—September 1— There were smiles all around as the four Training Championships at the 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds came to a close on Friday.

USEA Training Rider Championship

Being named the USEA Training Rider Champion had a lot more meaning to this year’s leading rider Susan Gallagher (Millwood, Virginia). It was longtime trainer Packy McGaughan who helped Gallagher find her winning mount, the 13-year-old German Sport Horse gelding HH Rockstar (Chacco-Blue x Cherly Z). As many in the eventing community already know, McGaughan died suddenly in 2020.

“Packy was more important to me as a friend than a trainer,” shared Gallagher. “But he was a great trainer. And he rides with me still all the time. It’s been a really long journey to get here. This is our first AEC, and I think between the travel to get there when they're on the West Coast and my schedule, and sound horses, you know, it just took a long time to come together.”

Gallagher noted that she has been aiming to mark the AEC off her bucket list for 10 years. It was a goal she was thrilled to accomplish in McGaughan’s memory.

"A lot of things remind me of him, being here,” she said full of emotion. “So it's nice. I mean, this was one of our goals. So it's really great to see it happen. It's surreal.”

While show jumping was the phase that secured their win, Gallagher had a different standout phase.

“The cross-country was a favorite part of being here," she said. "I thought the course was amazing. It was challenging enough with nothing new; it was just confirmatory, and you had to go fast and positive. And that feels like a championship course to me.”

Zea Palthey and Resdret.

Zea Palthey (Turnbridge, Vermont) and her 12-year-old Canadian Warmblood gelding Resdret (Rimbaud x JM Rockstar) remained consistent all week long, holding onto their fourth-place position through the first two phases. A double-clear round in show jumping, however, would launch them up to second.

“Oh wow, it feels amazing,” commented Palthey. “I didn't come to the AEC thinking, 'Oh, I’m gonna be competitive.' It's my first year coming to the AEC. I've qualified a couple of times, and then today I just kept seeing those rails coming down. I wasn't really thinking about it [being in the top three], I was focused on my horse coming into show jumping.”

Palthey’s partner gave her a little bit of a “good sign” before going into the ring.

“He bucked right before I started," she said "My horse is a little bit notorious for being a little cheeky. Once he did that buck, I was like, 'I'm gonna be fine. We're gonna be okay.' Because when he behaves, I get complacent and then we get in trouble. So it was amazing.”

Alexandria Wehrman and Captain Yondou.

Making one of the largest move-ups of the weekend was Liverpool, California, native Alexandria Wehrman and her 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding Captain Yondu who, after dressage, sat in 14th. A double-clear effort on cross-country saw them move up to ninth, but Wehrman had no inclination that she would be in the top three after the final phase today.

“I didn't expect this, but I think that I finally have a good horse to compete on, and I've got some amazing trainers back at home in California," she said. "I'm just grateful to be up here. I mean, it's all so new to me. Every step has been so exciting.”

As rails fell down one after another, Wehrman’s name kept moving up on the leaderboard until she finally settled in third place on her dressage score of 30.8.

Morgan Hiller and Jammie Thompson’s 20-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Silly Wabbit (Close Up x Tweals Princess) were named the Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP) Champion for this division. Reserve honors were awarded to Addison Kasley and her 13-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Very Tasteful (Irish Road x Most Delicious).

Also awarded in this division was the Adult Pony Rider Award in Memory of Avery Dudasch. This award is presented to the highest-placed Adult Rider on a pony in the Beginner Novice, Novice, and Training rider and Amateur divisions at the AEC. The award honors the memory of Avery Dudasch, who showed tremendous courage and grace in her battle with cancer. Avery passed at the tender age of 11, but the memory of her short, bright life lives on in her pony, Gracefully Dun, who is now ridden and competed by Avery’s mother, Vicki Dudasch. This year’s Training Rider Adult Pony Rider Award recipient was presented to Tonya Cummins Amato riding her 12-year-old Connemara stallion Get Smart (Wylde Wytch Éclipse x Fairyhill Queen).

USEA Training Amateur Championship

Stephanie Letarte and GarryNDruig Albie.

Stephanie Letarte of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, started the competition week in the lead. As she crossed the finish timers in show jumping aboard her 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Irish Sport Horse cross GarryNDruig Albie (VDL Arkansas x Diamond Abbey), a big smile was plastered across her face because she knew she was going to end her weekend in the lead as well.

“Oh my gosh, it's just unreal,” said an elated Letarte after her round had completed. “That horse is just amazing. And I am so lucky. Like he's the horse of like, 10,000 lifetimes. It's amazing, I’m really excited.”

This marks Letarte’s first visit to the AEC and her first-ever win at the Training level. “I don't know if I can come back,” she said in jest. “It’s just so cool. I mean, it's such a great atmosphere. It's such a fun show. I'm so so happy to be here.”

Going into the final phase in the lead can put on a bit of pressure, especially in Letarte’s case where she did not have a rail in hand. But rather than focus on the competitive aspect of the weekend, Letarte had another thing at the front of her mind: keeping it fun. She attributes her success this week to that mentality.

As for her future with “Albie,” Letarte has hopes of competing in a few more Training level events this year and then evaluating where they are at this winter. With Albie’s age in mind, her plan is to just “take it one day at a time.”

While Letarte had never met her fellow podium-finishers before, you would have never known it. She and second-place finisher Amanda Smith and third-place finisher Lisa Hickey were there cheering one another on, swapping hugs and sharing congratulations as if they were lifelong friends, and they may be after having such an experience together at the AEC.

Amanda Smith and Tug of War.

Kentucky local Amanda Smith also maintained her placing all weekend long, only adding 2.8 seconds of time in show jumping to their dressage score throughout the week. For Smith, this week wasn’t so much about the competition initially, but more about the experience.

“It's been an amazing week,” she shared. “I said to my coach, [Martha Lambert] a couple of weeks ago, ‘I'm just coming for the party, to have a good time!’ And it's just been a wonderful few days. I've been working with this horse for three years and just love the journey and love the partnership.”

For Smith, this week was a bit of a redemption after she and her 9-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Tug of War (Majestic Warrior x Gaslight Gossip) had a few rails down at their last AEC experience.

“I've had him for just a few years and he's just incredible,” said Smith. “He's all heart. He's super bold. Just an incredible partner, he wants to please, and he loves the job. It's been amazing.”

Smith noted that she wouldn’t be here without the support of her trainer, Martha Lambert, whom Smith greeted with a huge celebratory hug after the awards ceremony.

Lisa Hickey and Blackjack.

Finishing in third in a national championship isn’t a half-bad way to commemorate your first-ever trip to the Kentucky Horse Park, and that is just what Lisa Hickey (Saint Charles, Illinois) and her 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Blackjack got to experience this weekend. Hickey described the experience overall as an honor and shared that it has been a long journey to get to this point.

“I've had him for four years, and at the start I couldn't get around a Novice course,” shared Hickey. “We were eliminated at Novice two years ago. I hooked up with Karl Slezak who I actually bought the horse from. He's 9 now, but I bought him when he was 4-coming-5. Five was a terrible year for him and for me! A lot of temper tantrums. But we’ve come so far even from this winter. It's like a dream come true. Like where our partnership is, it's everything.”

Laura Crowl and her 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Dinner at Malones placed fourth overall and were awarded the TIP Champion ribbon and cooler for this division. Kirsten Miles and her 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Wisencrazi (Wiseman’s Ferry x Crazi) claimed Reserve Champion TIP honors.

USEA Training Horse Championship

Jane Jennings and SF Vancouver 2.

“I can't believe it, I feel so great, especially being here at this venue. It means even more. And because this has so much history and significance.”

If you believe in kismet and that some things are simply meant to be, it will be no surprise that Jane Jennings (Aiken, South Carolina) and SF Vancouver 2 (Validation S x Nanna) are the USEA Training Horse Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park this weekend.

Jennings rode in the AEC when it was in North Carolina but today’s win was extra special for many reasons.

“When I went to the Athens Olympics to help my late friend Amy Tryon, I sat next to Sheilagh Costello on the plane, and she was telling me, ‘I want to start an eventing championship and have it at the Horse Park’ so I am just thrilled that her dream came to fruition, and I'm here, it's been so many years later, so it's really special.”

Although their recent prep for this weekend has been relatively smooth (this is their third win in a row), getting here has been a completely different story, and only thanks to a team of dedicated vets that diagnosed and treated the 8-year-old German Sport Horse gelding for a very rare inner ear infection.

“Dr. Emily Setlakwe at Tryon Equine Hospital helped me identify what the situation was, and she was paramount in his recovery. But before that, we sent him to New Bolton to Amy Johnson, and they did a CT scan so we were able to treat it, and he's here and making a huge comeback.”

Treatment consisted of “a two-month course of minocycline. And then I took him back to try on for an evaluation, and they said another two months, so four months total on very expensive antibiotics. But the second two months really made a big difference in his recovery.”

During this time Jennings didn’t ride “Teddy,” aside from some light hacking at the end of the third month. “I gave him lots of turnout. I just wanted to make sure because he was acting very odd. We didn't know if this was actually going to solve the problem," she said.

It was something of a last-minute decision to even bring him at all this weekend, but she decided he was feeling so good, going so well, and plus, “He loves to show!”

Their Friday morning leading up to the final phase was also not without incident: Jennings had to change a flat trailer tire on the highway en route to the Horse Park, “And then I went to go take the trailer in this morning for the appointment to get it fixed there's a second flat tire! So it was a bit frazzled this morning, but I got it taken care of, and then I came back to the barns and got on.”

Funnily enough, the last time Jane had a flat tire was also on the way to the AEC a different year, and she said she’s so good at changing them now that she was excited to help another competitor coming from the AEC change hers!

Andrew McConnon and Connery Cooper Z.

Andrew McConnon (Vass, North Carolina) connected with Jeanne Shigo’s 6-year-old Zangersheide gelding Connery Cooper Z (Cornado II Z x Zindyloma) just a year ago after purchasing him off of a video and importing him from Europe. At that point in his career, the horse had never evented before, but McConnon got him immersed into the world upon arrival.

“He’s done several Training-level events and won nearly all of them, which is nice," he said. "He’s just a really consistent, steady horse and one that's been really fun to produce.”

Buying a horse off of a video can seem scary, but McConnon says it all comes down to trusting your gut.

“We watch horses all the time, at horse shows and at home, and I think not overthinking it too much," he explained. "If you see something that you really like, then make that move. That's what I did with him. I thought there was something special about him.”

Rachel Miles and Cooley Keystone.

Rachel Miles and her 6-year-old British Sport Horse gelding Cooley Keystone worked their way up from fourth after dressage to third overall in the USEA Training Horse Championship. They concluded their weekend on their dressage score of 29.5.

Emma Jones’ 13-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Union Jack (Sun King x Star Punch) was the highest-placed Thoroughbred who received TIP Champion honors. Katherine Robinson piloted Judy McQuiad’s 8-year-old Thoroughbred mare Pale Fire (Pamplemousse x Thankfully) to Reserve TIP Champion honors.

USEA Training Junior Championship

Marina Cassou and Castleturvin Mungo.

Is there anything more thrilling than winning a national championship from start to finish on your dressage score? For Lancaster, Pennsylvania, resident Marina Cassou, it was a dream come true aboard her mother Beatrice’s 14-year-old Connemara gelding Castleturvin Mungo. Especially since Cassou shared that when she got him four years ago, he didn’t even know how to canter.

“I don't have any words,” said a joy-filled Cassou. “Two years ago, I competed Novice here, and we did not do well at all. This year, my goal was not to win, but to do well, and I was not expecting this.”

Cassou, who normally trains with Lillian Heard, hitched a ride with Fylicia Barr and gained a whole new barn family this week as well. Her newfound eventing crew were lined up outside the Rolex Arena on pins and needles as she jumped around her course and were in tears for their young friend when she jumped the last jump clear.

“Coming into show jumping I was feeling a ton of pressure because Mongo likes to knock rails down, but he put on an amazing round,” she shared. The pair aim to make a move up to Modified in the future.

Tessa Geven and Caheradoo Jack.

Cataula, Georgia’s Tessa Geven and Kathleen Amos’ 6-year-old Irish Sport Horse Caheradoo Jack (Jack’s Delight x Caheradoo Echo) inched up from third to second after their trip around the Rolex Stadium on Friday afternoon.

“My week at AEC has been an amazing experience,” commented Geven. “I've been here a few times, and I believe every time I've competed I've placed. I loved the cross-country course, it was challenging. And my horse, Coheradoo Jack, has been so honest, the whole week. He's really been listening and trying his best for me, so I'm really happy with him.

Kaylianna McMorris and Fernhill Future Star.

Hailing from Fox River Grove, Illinois, Kaylianna McMorris and Michael McMorris’ 7-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Fernhill Future Star (Future Trend x Lady Douglas) also moved up one spot in the rankings to end the week in the top three of the USEA Training Junior Championship. They called their championship week to a close on the same score they started on earlier this week, a 31.0.

“I felt pressure, but usually my horse is pretty careful with the jumps and we've practiced a lot for this week,” said McMorris. “So we felt ready and he felt very game when we got into the warm up. I've had him for three years this October. And when I got him, he had just been imported from Ireland. He was four years old and he had done nothing with eventing. He's come a really long way since then.”

A fourth-place finish for Leeci Rowsell and Caty Nolan’s 19-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Man of Conviction (Civilisation x Red Regal) would earn them the Champion TIP ribbon and cooler. Meadow Carani and Julie Carani’s 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding The Alchemist (Domestic Dispute x Star Punch) received the title of Reserve TIP Champion.

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About the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC)

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC), presented by Nutrena Feeds, is the pinnacle of the sport at the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of combinations from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2021 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and now stands as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held Aug. 29—Sept. 3 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

The USEA would like to thank Presenting Sponsor: Nutrena Feeds; Advanced Final Title Sponsor: Adequan; Platinum Level Sponsor: Bates Saddles; Gold Level Sponsors: Capital Square, Horse & Country, Parker Equine Insurance, Smartpak, Standlee; Silver Level Sponsors: Auburn Labs, Ecogold, Kerrits, The Jockey Club; Bronze Level Sponsors: 70 Degrees, Athletux, Black Petticoat, The Chronicle of the Horse, Devoucoux, D.G. Stackhouse and Ellis, Dubarry of Ireland, Equestrian Team Apparel, Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Horseware Ireland, Majyk Equipe, Retired Racehorse Project, Ride EquiSafe; Contributing Level Sponsor: CrossCountry App, Georgetown – Scott County Tourism, Lexmark, L.V. Harkness, Mountain Horse, Mrs. Pastures Cookies, #WeRideTogether; Prize Level Sponsors: Coach Daniel Stewart, EquiFit, Equilab, Equiluxe Tack, Equine Essentials, Equine Pulse Performance, FarmVet, Achieve Equine/FLAIR Equine Nasal Strips, Horses 4 Your Consideration, Hound & Hare, I Love My Horse Eventing Boutique, Jack’s Favorites, Jane Heart Jewelry, Kinetic Equine Services, LeMieux, Levade Kentucky, Mare Modern Goods, OneTouch Fly Spray, Parkmore Supplements, Practical Horseman, Sidelines Magazine, Spy Coast Farm, Strides for Equality Equestrians, and VTO Saddlery.

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