4 of Our Favorite Stories from #AEC2023

Tackling American Eventing Championships is no task for the fainthearted, as perhaps more than any other event the sheer volume of wonderful stories is overwhelming (in a good way!). During my time in Kentucky, I picked out a few of my favorite short stories to share with you — a true collection of #goeventing from the greatest sport in the land!

From Eventing Newbie to AEC Competitor

Photo courtesy of Sierra Lesny.

It’s not every day you go off to championships sans coach. Personally, I always found it difficult to go to a big competition without one, but I also always aspired to have a certain level of independence and capability so that I wouldn’t panic if I found myself at the warm-up without anyone to tell me what I was doing wrong.

When Sierra Lesny earned her qualifications for AEC, she began making plans to compete Edy Rameika’s Sebastian in her first-ever championship. A year ago, Sierra wasn’t familiar with the sport of eventing, having spent most of her time in the hunter/jumper realm before earning the 2022 Ever So Sweet Scholarship from Strides for Equality Equestrians. Thanks to the tutelage from Sara Kozumplik, Sierra quickly found herself with “the bug” and racking up competitive results that would eventually pave the way for her first trip to AEC.

Things would get a little off the rails here, though, after Sara suffered a broken foot and ankle in a fall in the show jumping at Fair Hill last month. The plans laid out by the team at Sara’s Overlook Farm changed, and soon Sierra found herself as the last woman standing and en route to Kentucky solo.

She was far from alone, however, with the full support of her grandparents, along with her husband bolstering her and Sebastian as they tackled the Training Rider Championship at AEC. Never one to leave her students without help, Sara also stepped up and helped Sierra via FaceTime lessons as the competition got underway. This team effort was rewarded with a lead following the dressage, where Sierra and Sebastian scored a 24.2.

Sadly, Sierra and Sebastian’s week would come to a premature close after parting ways on cross country. It was a blip Sierra already had a plan to work on by the time she made her way back to the barn (and by the time Sebastian went on a nice jaunt across the Kentucky Bluegrass, bless him), and despite the disappointment of the ending it was difficult not to feel a sense of pride in all Sierra has accomplished in such a short time. It’s one of the truly incredible elements of the Ever So Sweet Scholarship, the idea of introducing our sport to new individuals who may not have otherwise gotten a leg up to give it a try for themselves. After concluding her time with the scholarship, Sierra joined Sara’s team as a full-time member and is now fully immersed in eventing — just the way we like it!

Applications for the Winter 2023 Ever So Sweet Scholarship are currently open — you can apply for your chance to win here.

An Epic Engagement

Surprise! Photo used with permission from Three Redheads and a Moose Photography.

It wouldn’t be AEC without at least one engagement, and for John Schneider of Kansas City, MO, a trip to Kentucky Horse Park was the perfect setting for an important question. John is a certified horse-husband-to-be, having taken many trips to competitions with Area IV’s Hadley White. In 2017, Hadley brought John to his first Kentucky Three-Day Event, and from that point on he knew it would be the idea spot to pop the question.

John’s plans began in earnest several months ago, after Hadley had earned her qualifications to compete at AEC at the Novice level with her off-track Thoroughbred, Marvelous Mrs. Hazel. “I knew I wanted to ask her at Kentucky because it was such a special place, and horses have been such a big part of our lives,” John said. His plans involved a specially made hoof pad in the shape of a heart with “Will You Marry Me?” inscribed on it, made by Hadley’s longtime farrier Stan Tracz. Then, a special photoshoot had to be arranged, timed for earlier in the week before Hadley’s competition was in full swing.

“I was completely surprised!” Hadley, who admits she’s nearly impossible to surprise. “I wasn’t sure what was happening when the photographer asked me to check Hazel’s feet because she’d stepped in mud.”

Hadley and Hazel went on to finish their first-ever AEC in the top 25 of a very competitive Novice Amateur championship — the extra bit of bling she’s bringing home certainly makes it a winning weekend!

A Long Trek Worth Taking

Southern California-based Katy Robinson knew a trek to Kentucky would be a big trip, but the upsides were numerous. Here was an opportunity to take her horses east for a jaunt around a different track with a different course designer before they were ready to tackle the big 4* and, eventually, 5* tracks. “So often we go east when we’re doing a big four-star or a five-star,” Katy said. “And this just seemed like an ideal scenario to get in that practice without it being a high-pressure atmosphere like Kentucky.”

So with the support of client Stacia Lloyd and friend/coach Emilee Libby, Katy packed her trailer and set off for the long three-day trek to the Bluegrass State. It helped that Area VI initiated a lottery award for this AEC, distributing grants of at least $1,000 to offset costs of stabling and entries for competitors from the area who were competing at AEC. “It became more of a no-brainer to take advantage of this opportunity before the jumps get all big and scary!” Katy laughed.

The trip would prove to be worthwhile in more than one way: here, Katy also received some well-deserved validation that the production she’s put into her young off-track Thoroughbred, Teki to the Limit, is paying off. She and “Teki” finished tenth, moving up from 22nd after dressage in the Bates Intermediate Championship with two fast and clear jumping rounds. Teki, who shares a sire with her other upper-level horse Outrageous Dance, has been in Katy’s program since the mare was five (she’s eight now), though she’s been in Katy’s network since she came off the track at three. Through happenstance, Katy wound up trading another Thoroughbred in her program for Teki, and the rest is, as they say, history.

“She’s just been such a game horse to produce,” Katy described, noting how professional the mare has become as she’s learned more and more about her job as an event horse. “She showed up at the Horse Park and I took her out for her first hack and she seemed to just figure out why she was there. She just came out of her stall every day completely in tune with me and almost to have this premonition of what she was there for. After the award ceremony, she jigged all the way back to the barn and turned into a total terrorist after that — as if to say, ‘Alright I’m off the clock!'”

It’s proof that making the big trips does pay off and is a great way to get out of one’s comfort zone. While not everyone found the trip to AEC to be feasible, the efforts of committees like Area VI to help offset costs made this trek doable for Katy, and it’s helping her continue to build her own confidence in her system. “I look back at my career and think ‘man, if I had gotten comfortable being uncomfortable with in new courses, new course designers…’ — that’s what I would’ve changed.”

A Movie-Worthy Comeback

Tonya Cummins Amato sports the vest her parents bought for her when she was 15 years old. Photo by Sally Spickard.

On August 14, 2022, Tonya Cummins Amato was riding a young horse on cross country and quickly found herself on the wrong side of the horse. “He was 17 hands and 1400 pounds, and down we went,” she described. “The last thing I remember is seeing his elbow, and because we fell together my vest didn’t go off.” As a result, Tonya broke seven ribs, broke her back in eight places, broke her scapula, and had a small brain bleed.

Following some time out of the saddle, Tonya swung a leg back over on April 1 (“of course it was April Fool’s Day!”) of this year. She chose to ride the horse she would eventually bring to AEC, the Connemara stallion Get Smart who is a big part of her breeding program at home in Ontario. “Just being here again is just incredible,” Tonya said, beaming with adrenaline after a double clear cross country ride. “He’s just awesome — he’s so cool.”

The icing on the cake? Tonya still wears the cross country vest her parents bought for her when she was 15 years old — in fact, she credits the vest with saving her life in the fall last year. Naturally, she donned it for this run, which you can watch in helmet cam version in the embedded video below (click here if the video does not display in your browser):

Watch my rockstar stallion- Get Smart in action on cross country at the 2023 AEC's
Thanks Hannah Jungling and Bryce Jungling for letting us borrow your Go Pro camera.

Posted by Tonya Cummins Amato on Thursday, August 31, 2023

As much as I loved these stories, I know I missed out on so many of your stories from #AEC2023! If you’ve got a tale to share, tip us by emailing [email protected].

#AEC2023 (Lexington, KY): [Website] [Final Results] [Live Stream Replay] [EN’s Coverage]

EN’s coverage of #AEC2023 is brought to you by hometown hero Kentucky Performance Products and Ocala Horse Properties.

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