Riding: Closing 2018

It came full circle. The season beginning and ending on the world stage.

Making a fifth consecutive appearance at the Nationals, in Las Vegas, was a fitting reward for an outstanding riding season. Their excellence was quite evident. In their first appearance, in 2014, “we were quite green then,” Deborah recalled. “It showed in our riding. We were rather inconsistent. Ride well here, kind of middling there. The poor moments, a few. Most fortunately, we improved along the way.” 

Each season has its own expectations. “They can become greater, or fewer,” Elizabeth remarked. “Success, much or little, has a way of doing that. A rider needs to keep their own expectations in check, making them non-factors.” Tara added, “The pressure, to achieve this or that, can be overwhelming. Trust yourself, trust your horse. The rest will follow in due course.” Fluorishing under the instruction of Mark and Trish, they’ve earned their equestrian spurs many times over.

“Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara, their intangibles are insane,” Trish has raved of her charges. She had no doubt they’d be riding at this level. “You will not find another rider, at any level, who will outwork or outstudy them. Their attention to detail is second to none. It shows in their riding. A new wrinkle here. A refinement there. An adjustment on the fly.” The professionals, they have taken notice too.

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The best competing with the best. Strong riding at its best. Fast. Crisp. Precise. Disciplined. Strong fundamentals. The fastest horse, or an aggressive riding line, does not necessarily ensure a place high on the leader board. Or, a place on the winner’s podium. Opening night could not come soon enough.

A field consisting mostly of professionals and a few top amateurs were invited to ride the FEI events. The 45 riders included defending 2017 World Cup Las Vegas winner Richard Spooner (USA), East Coast sub-league contender Molly Ashe Cawley (USA), Georgina Bloomberg (USA) and Nayel Nassar (EGY). Among the amateurs, my daughters were fortunate to be invited once again. They were coming off strong performances in a highly competitive season.

The excitement. The anticipation. The sights, the sounds. The pageantry. They permeated every corner of the equestrian center. The riders were eager to compete on the FEI courses laid out by Anthony D’Ambrosio (USA). His courses, noted for their technical features, include tight turns, bending lines and smooth transitions while showcasing the power and agility of the horse.

The first event was the $35,000 FEI 1.45m Blenheim Jumper Classic. Using a power and speed format, the short jumper course had bending lines, two combinations and technical inside turns. The fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins. Richard Spooner, riding 13th in the start order, smoked the course with a blistering 23.18 sec on board Arthos R. Known for his “Master of Faster” pace, Richard made it look easy – Arthos jumped easy, smooth turns, smooth transitions. Molly Ashe Cawley finished second at 24.26 sec and Nayel Nassar finished third at 24.74 sec. If this first event was an indicator, this meet was going to require every rider give their very best effort. Finishing lower on the leader board, my daughters swept the 11th (Elizabeth), 12th (Tara) and 13th (Deborah) places with good times but with one rail down (4 penalty points).

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Attention soon focused on the $40,000 FEI 1.50m Las Vegas National Welcome Jumper Speed Classic. It would qualify the 30 rider field for the World Cup event. In previous years, the FEI occasionally granted wild card entries into World Cup events. This season, they dropped the practice entirely. A rider had to make the elimination cut to make the field. Where the cut line is set, a variety of factors, from course design to competitiveness to the number of qualifiers, determine its placement.

Nicole Shahinian-Simpson (USA), riding third in the start order, took the early lead at 63.54 sec. While riding early has some disadvantages, she established a strong time on the speed course. Nicole’s lead was holding firm. While other riders chipped away at her time, they were taking penalty points for pulled rails in the process. Georgina Bloomberg turned in a very solid ride, finishing second at 64.07 sec. Elizabeth rode next. She was quietly putting together the best ride of the evening. Very precise, very patient. A slight brush with a top rail on a double combination fence dropped one end. Though her ride seemed to have a very deliberate pace, Elizabeth had a blazing fast time of 60.08 sec. Deborah and Tara rode back to back three spots later. They were riding the course much like Elizabeth, precise and patiently. Both had brushes with a top rail also, but at different points in the course. Deborah finished at 62.84 sec, Tara at 63.67 sec. What mattered was that all three would advance into the World Cup event on Saturday night.

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World Cup Day had arrived. The first order of business was the FEI riders’ meeting. The day’s schedule was reviewed, times noted. Practice times were slotted according to bib number; the walkthrough of the course build would begin at 4:00 pm. The last piece of business was the blind draw for start positions. It’s the one part of a riders’ meeting that becomes semi-raucous. The FEI officials tried to keep the decorum serious. The banter among the riders was less serious, from “What start position did you draw?” to “They’re using the bingo drum from the casino.” It was a matter of staying loose, staying relaxed. After all, a whole day had to unwind first.

assembling the course for the World Cup – Las Vegas qualifier

Shortly after 4:00 pm, the course build was open for the rider walkthrough. The track was fast, the turns were tight, the transitions challenging. The footing and lighting perfect. While my girls evaluated the course together, they found their quiet spaces to set their riding lines. Since D’Ambrosio was using power and speed designs, it was determining which options would best fit the course layout. Riding from middle start positions, my girls would have time to watch the course develop. Deborah would ride just before intermission, Elizabeth and Tara after.

The riders and their horses were warmly greeted during the opening ceremonies. The excitement level was very electric, very Las Vegas in every sense. The course, a highly technical 13 fence, 16 effort design. The field, a mix of veteran professionals and young, fast-rising talent. For the winner, a qualifying entry into the World Cup Finals in Gothenberg, Sweden. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

The world stage was ready. Jennifer Gates (USA) had the unenviable task of riding first. She kept Monaco on a rhythmic pace throughout the course. Finishing with a clear round, Jen was the rider to catch. The next four riders to follow also used a rhythmic pace, but were pulling rails. They wouldn’t be joining Jen in the jump-off round. Harley Brown (AUS), riding sixth with Mylord Cornet, finished with a clear round. Though nearly two seconds off Jen’s time, his clear round assured there would be a jump-off.

With Deborah riding from the 14th start position, the seven riders before her rode the course with a rhythmic pace also. They finished with times in the 73-76 second range, along with penalty points for downed rails. They filled places lower on the leader board. It was time for Deborah and Comet to ride the course. Starting their turn in a rhythmic pace, they stepped up the tempo. Coming out of fence 6, a pulled rail and a stumbled landing, they managed to recover. Once in the exit area, Comet was limping noticeably. Dismounted, Deborah walked him into the holding area. An exam by one of the FEI veterinarians said Comet likely had a sprain in his left front leg. An ultrasound confirmed the sprain injury. They finished at 74.23/4 penalty points.

Though concerned for Comet, Elizabeth and Tara continued with their warm-ups during intermission. Among the first three riders coming out of intermission, they had to focus on their own rides.

practice time: Elizabeth with Lilith waiting for their turn

The first rider after intermission, Elizabeth began in a precise, patient manner but with a stepped-up tempo. To make the jump-off, Elizabeth decided the best approach was to be fractionally ahead of the fastest time at each split. Her approach was paying dividends; with Elizabeth ahead at the splits, she was on track to have the fastest time over the course. On 9A, it was a slight brush of the top rail that brought down one end. The fault was like her qualifying ride in the Speed Classic, an end of a top rail down. When she finished the course, Elizabeth owned the fastest time on the course. Though, she didn’t make it into the jump-off with the four penalty points, her 69.57 sec time had turned heads. She was cheered for a beautiful ride.

Laura Tidball (CAN) was the next rider. A former Olympian (1988), Laura was having an evening not to remember. Three rails down, a slower time. She gave a nice pat to Concetto Son for a good effort. It was now Tara’s turn. Joining the jump-off was her aim. Like Elizabeth and Deborah, Tara was having a good meet too. Staying precise, staying patient. Having the fastest time wasn’t important, it was knowing when to be fast. Over the first third of the course, Tara established a half-second lead over Elizabeth’s time. Somewhere over the second third, her time lead evaporated, falling a full three seconds behind Elizabeth’s over this section of the course. While it seemed Tara had Cameron clearing the second top rail over fence 11, he gave it a slight rub. Rail down. It was so close. They finished at 74.84/4 penalty points.

Kristen Vanderveen (USA), who followed Tara, rode clear. Then, Wilhelm Genn (GER), Richard Spooner and Nayel Nassar each rode clear, setting the field for the jump-off. Riding the jump-off is a mix of strategy and risk taking, but most of all, trusting your horse. Over a shortened section of the course, the fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins the jump-off and the event.

If there were favorites going into the jump-off, it had to be Nayel Nassar and Richard Spooner. Riding a short jumper course, there is no one better than Richard. Also, as the defending champion in the jump-off, winning back-to-back carries plenty of motivation and incentive. Nayel, simply, he was riding hot, having won the three World Cup qualifiers coming into Las Vegas (Sacramento, Del Mar, and Thermal). He was riding well here too. Richard dropped a top rail trying a slice on fence 3, the next to last fence on the jump-off course. Nayel, riding last, was riding behind Richard’s time. Crossing fence 3, Nayel slightly rubbed the top rail. Rather than falling, the top rail bounced in place. Another win for Nayel, and second for the day.

Elizabeth finished 7th, Deborah 10th and Tara 11th.

A respectable finish by any measure.

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Side Notes

Deborah spent the night with Comet after his injury, fearing the worst as he slept. A few of the other riders dropped by to check on the both of them, which was very kind of them. Having the hardest moment, though, were Francie and Ali Nilforshun. Francie, on board Clarinius, the 12 year old gelding collapsed and passed away in the exit area shortly after completing the course. They were having a very good meet. Tara knows this feeling all too well herself about losing a horse in competition. It is believed Clarinius died from a heart seizure.

In the morning, Comet was airlifted by FedEx to Colorado, accompanied by Deborah. Met at the FedEx terminal, at Denver International Airport, by Mark and Trish, and Andrea, Comet was transported to the veterinary hospital at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for further evaluation. Dr. Kennerly, our horse veterinarian, met them to perform the more extensive orthopedic evaluation. The ligament in his front left leg, near the knee, was sprained. If not for his physical strength, Comet likely would have broken down. And, the outcome could have been very different.

Since then, Comet has recovered nicely. His extended rehabilitation and training program is nearly complete. Comet is scheduled to return to competition in June. Until Comet’s return, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman is Deborah’s #1 while five year old Odyssey continues with his qualification program.



North Ranch: The First Year

A maze of boxes, small and large, filled every corner of the house. The furniture wrapped with heavy plastic. The first night, studio chairs and sleeping bags. A fast food dinner. With Christmas a few days away, Amanda had cut and decorated a 7-foot spruce as her housewarming gift.

before the boxes: empty view of the kitchen, living room and dining area

The next morning, the dining room table and its chairs were unwrapped. Our food, transferred from their dry ice chilled coolers and boxes into the refrigerator. Cookware, tableware and china unpacked. Bed frames and mattresses moved near to their respective rooms. More moving of boxes to roll out the Oriental area rugs.

boxes and furniture: the living room and front room maze

On Christmas day, much of the furniture remained wrapped. Each of our lives, and the rest of our household, in carefully labeled boxes. The girls and I quickly unwrapped some of the furniture and hastily arranged it near the fireplace. The kits were ever appreciative, able to take a proper nap after playing among the boxes.

Over the months, we have rearranged the furniture a few times to find that certain symmetry and intimacy that says “we are settled.” Similarly, we’ve also rearranged our bedrooms to find that more private, more intimate setting.

Whether it is moving a 50-pound bale of premium hay in the cold, or mucking a horse stall with biting flies on a hot day. Each day, every day, begins long before sunrise, ends long after sunset. We have loved every minute of the ranching life.

The horse riding, our daughters have loved the extra time. Their horses are their lives. They have become better riders for the experience.

As the song goes …

“These are the moments
I know all I need is this
I’ve found all I’ve waited for,
And I could not ask for more”


“I Could Not Ask For More” – music and lyrics by Diane Warren.

Riding: The Nationals

Beginning their season on the world stage, they are ending their season on the world stage.

graphic courtesy of Blenheim EquiSports

They are the Nationals in Las Vegas. Part of the World Cup tour, the CSI4* rated show is the most important show of their season. The stage is larger. The expectations are greater. The anticipation higher. The field of riders they are competing with, in the World Cup qualifier, are among the best professionals in the world. Yet, “it is no different from any other show,” my daughters have said. “It is about riding, giving your best.”

“A rider must fully trust themselves and their horse,” Trish says of competing at this level. Having competed on the world stage herself, Trish speaks from experience. “The girls, they can compete with anyone. They have the intangibles.” With no guarantee of success, “they are unafraid,” Trish adds. “Count them among the best in the world.”

training day sunset: quiet moment between Tara and Cameron (RRC, Oct 27 2018)

They are ready. Their horses are ready.

Ride now, ride forever

Colorado In Fall: Coming Home

A warm hearth awaits, along with stories and tales to be told.

Dino and Pebbles were first, when they were baby kittens in 1989. Then, it was Egypt in 2005. On the equine front, Cara and Magician came in 2003. There’s something about October, something about the fall season, when it is time to come home.

Soon, another October addition will come.

Tara riding then two-year old Shelby (Double N Ranch, TX – May 2016)

Shelby is destined be Tara’s future show jumping horse. In the two years since Tara’s first ride with Shelby, the paint has undergone a growth spurt and now stands at 17.3 hands tall. At four years old, Nicole says he’s going to be a talented one. Shelby is jumping at the one meter level. Nicole believes his time has arrived to learn and develop with a talented rider. For Tara, Shelby reminds her so much of Jasper.

With Shelby, Tara notes, “Second chances rarely come. We’re going to make a good run at being the best.”

Sonrisa de Santa Fe

If you’ve visited Andalusia, festivals and ferías are the norm during the summer months. The sonrisa weeks are many. Generally, the ferías are connected to celebrating patron saints while the festivals are more connected to celebrating the regional culture like dance and music. On most evenings, it is not uncommon to find a sevillanas parade. In Seville, the annual exhibition featuring the Andalusian PRE draws many horse aficionados. The stallions and mares, very striking. The foals, off-the-scale cuteness.

A few of the traditions carried over to the New World. The festivals and ferías were fewer but incorporating traditions from the native cultures – Native American Indian, Aztec, Mayan and Incan. Horses made an impression in the American Southwest, particularly in the northward migration of Spanish missions into California, New Mexico and Texas. Equine bloodlines, from PRE thoroughbreds to quarterhorse to pack, were highly valued.

The revival of equestrian sports in New Mexico has included adding some of the festive sonrisa traditions. It may not be Seville, but the influence and atmosphere is undeniable.

equestrian review: Simeon Krestrel, Sonrisa de Santa Fe (Jul 2018)

When EquiCenter de Santa Fe closed their doors in 2009, it seemed equine sports in Santa Fe, and New Mexico, was finished forever. The fallout from the 2007-08 economic downturn was devastating. Riders were leaving the sport in droves, often selling their horses at “best offer” rates. So few competed in 2008, many sponsors left for other venues. Those riders who chose to compete opted to ride in Colorado where the equestrian scene had more stability.

Guy McElvain and his business partner, Brian Gonzales, entered a bid to buy the bankrupt equestrian center. Brian’s wife, Phyllis, had the more difficult task of rebuilding the thin equestrian ranks in New Mexico, and attracting riders from elsewhere to give the Grand Prix de Santa Fe another chance. Sponsors were initially, and rightfully, reticent. To change minds, they had to bring perspective, knowledge and expertise to the table. Guy, a respected adult-amateur rider, businessman and horse rancher. Phyllis, an experienced horse show planner and organizer. Brian, respected businessman and avid horseman. Also, their deep community and familial ties in Santa Fe aided in attracting investors and sponsorships.

After six years of planning and work, August 2015 signaled their new beginning with two shows, Sonrisa Week and the Grand Prix de Santa Fe, at the renamed equicenter, HIPICO Santa Fe. The two, smaller A-rated shows did well enough to expand the two shows into a four-show summer series in July and August 2016. Though overlapping with the Summer In The Rockies series in the Denver area, there are differences. The Summer In The Rockies series feature the large AA-rated shows, with the ability to attract riders, including top amateurs and professionals, from across the nation. The Santa Fe series with smaller A-rated shows, similarly aims to attract top amateurs, and possibly a few professionals. The difference maker, the uniquely Santa Fe atmosphere against a majestic southwest backdrop.

Invited since 2015, my daughters have struggled fitting the Santa Fe shows into their show schedule. A choice had to be made: compete with some of the best talent on the AA-circuit in Iowa or compete in a series in the process of regaining their footing in the equestrian world. The choice was easy, Iowa. Phyllis understood emerging talent riders need to compete with increasingly better talent to move to the next level.

With an already tight calendar, my girls committed to riding a private charity invitational over the Labor Day Weekend. In making the commitment, they also added Sonrisa Week to their show schedule, and tightening their calendar further.

USHJA Hunter Derby: Marianne, fellow RRC member, on the course (Sonrisa Week, Jul 2018)

warm-up session: Tara and Candace before the USHJA hunter derby (Sonrisa Week, Jul 2018)

During the mixer on opening night, Phyllis acknowledged several top amateurs riding Sonrisa Week – including a few she had been wooing for 2-3 years. After introducing the new faces that arrived during the day, Phyllis invited them to say a few words, if they had any. Elizabeth raised her hand. “We had wanted to come here for awhile, and we finally made it,” she began. “Someone said this could be the beginning of a tremendous legacy.” Pausing for the brief applause, Elizabeth finished, “I think that’s what you said, Brian.” He nodded yes to much laughter in the tent. “May everyone ride their best and ride well.”

The girls rode extremely well, continuing their incredible run this season.

NOTE: If you haven’t experienced an A-rated hunter/jumper show, please watch the video found here.


Riding: In The Southland

It was a short turnaround. Four days to be precise. Time enough for laundry. To prepare for a new set of shows. Knowing and choosing which horses will compete the best.

dressage moves: Elizabeth and Secret Agent Man warming up (North Ranch, Mar 2018)

“It is keeping yourself and your horses in a daily routine,” is how my daughters describe the four weeks away from home. Their June calendar, at first glance, appears busy. Practice, events and times marked for every day of the four show weeks, and in between. Their notebooks are filled with notes and observations on every hoof beat taken in practice, and in the show ring, this season. And, making sure they and their horses are ready for travel. “Preparation and organization are key, attention to detail required. But, you need to be practical and resourceful.”

warm-up: Elizabeth and Brie before the $15,000 Grand Prix qualifier (San Juan Capistrano, April 2018)

The four show weeks in San Juan Capistrano are well attended with riders from every skill level. Around 350-400 riders and nearly 850-900 horses compete every week, with a few calling it home for the month. “Each day is taken as they come. keeping it simple and relaxed makes for a better experience.” The four weeks may seem long. Large shows, though, have a way of making the days pass rather quickly.

While the first show week ended Sunday afternoon (Jun 10) with the last rider finishing the final event, my daughters had a short workout with their horses in one of the practice rings. It is not too early to look ahead to the next show week, which begins on Wednesday (Jun 13).

It is the equestrian way of life.

Deborah and Comet: the late afternoon workout (San Juan Capistrano, June 2018)


Riding: Grand Prix of Texas

Over the past four years, their riding season would begin in Texas. It made sense to begin here. Quality riders, from emerging talent to top amateurs to professionals. The shows are very competitive. The hospitality always inviting. The setting helped my daughters to develop in a highly competitive sport, and hone their skills and professionalism.

Tara and Cameron in 1.35 m GP Qualifier (Tyler, TX – May 2014)

When the four-show series concluded last year, the show managers were hinting of a change. It would be more than a refresh of the schedule and the adding of more sponsors. They wanted to make the shows more exciting and more entertaining. There were whispers of competing head-to-head with the more prestigious shows found in the Midwest, SoCal, Virginia and Kentucky. It would involve attracting top-level riders and expanding the audience base. Additionally, they would be competing head-to-head with the Texas rodeo season. A tall order by any measure.

With the new associations and commitments firmed, the new show series was announced. The Grand Prix of Texas consists of three Grand Prix events. The three-event, total-point series would begin in Tyler (Week One), move to Fort Worth (Week Two), then end in Dallas on Memorial Day. While riding three Grand Prix events in nine days sound daunting, in addition to other events, it isn’t in practice. It is a matter of knowing your horse, and a matter of the rider being prepared for the next event.

graphic courtesy of Southbound Shows®

Not beginning their season here, it has a different feel for my daughters. This series, though, comes at the right time for them. It is about stepping outside their comfort zone as it is about making adjustments.

The new championship, the quest begins on Saturday.

Tara and Cameron: 1.45/1.50 m Grand Prix warm-up (Tyler, TX – May 2017)