The competition and the temperature heated up on Saturday as six Novice divisions came to a conclusion at the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds.
USEA Novice Amateur Championship
The giant Novice Amateur division saw the most drama in the final phase. In the end Allison Icenogle and her own Fernhill Revelation climbed from fourth place overnight to be crowned Champions, finishing on their dressage score of 27.9. “I was not expecting this at all,” she exclaimed afterwards. “This is my first time here so I was shocked even after the dressage results!”
By first time here Icenogle means both the Horse Park and the AEC, but her horse is decidedly more seasoned; the 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse was campaigned up to the four-star level by Phillip Dutton, and Icenogle has been riding him for about two and a half years. “He’s just been amazing; everything I do with him he does amazingly. I’ve got my silver medal in dressage on him, and I ride him in Pony Club, and it’s been awesome every step of the way.”
Where some riders might struggle taking over an established ride from a top professional, that has not been Icenogle’s experience, “Really, it’s just a dream come true. I went out and looked at him, rode him for the first time and fell in love with him,” she said.
Although she insists it has been pretty much smooth sailing all the way, Icenogle will admit that it’s taken some time to adjust to Fernhill Revelation’s size; he’s 17.1-hands. Her family has a Fjord farm in Southwest Wisconsin so she’s used to riding small Norwegian ponies.
Supreme confidence in her relationship with her horse didn’t preclude her getting nervous before her cross-country rounds. “Terribly so, and he does too actually so we both are nervous wrecks going into the start box,” she said. But as it turned out, “It was a really fun course, and he did amazing with it; we didn’t have any issues. So that was my favorite part.”
Walking down the chute into the Rolex Arena before the final phase was a bit nerve-wracking for Icenogle. “I’ve seen Rolex over the years,” she said. “I’ve been watching it since like 2008 so getting to ride in this arena is amazing!”
USEA Novice Rider Championship
A double-clear round in the Rolex Arena saw Madeline Bletzacker (Galena, Ohio) move up one place to take the Novice Rider Championship on her own Danish Warmblood gelding Landtino S (Solos Lantinus x Chess S), “a failed dressage horse” but a former hunter derby winner, USEA Horse of the Year and now AEC Champion.
At 23 years young, it’s taken Landtino S a while to get here and to step out of the shadow of Bletzacker’s other horse. At 67 years equally young Bletzacker admits she might be nearing the sunset of her competitive career too. “He’s just been a really great horse but it did take a long time to get him to acclimate to the dressage. He has squealed and kicked out more than five times in dressage over the years! I am so excited because I’m like, almost at the end of my career. Like every day I feel like ‘Am I done?’ My horses are 23 and 15, I just feel like this is a great pinnacle for my career.”
Bletzacker honed her horsemanship skills on the racecourse and gained valuable experience retraining Thoroughbreds, “I have worked at the track for 25 years. 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “So I was a slave to horses all that time.”
It was a helpful hunter/jumper judge, “back in the ‘80s,” she said, who suggested to her that one of her off-track Thoroughbreds might be better suited to the eventing scene than the show ring, and Bletzacker’s been hooked ever since.
USEA Novice Junior Championship
Emerson Padgett (Akron, Ohio) has only been riding her 7-year-old Selle Français MSH Giant Jac’ka (Quebracho Semilly x Loupaline Du Haul) since December, but they’ve established enough of a partnership to clinch the win in the Novice Junior Championship, leading from start to finish and adding nothing to their dressage score. “It’s really exciting!” Emerson said after her victory gallop, “He was just so good, and it was a really fun weekend, and this is just like the cherry on top for it to be so successful.”
The win was a lovely surprise even though Emerson knew her horse was capable of putting three good scores on the board, “I mean, I don’t think anybody ever expects it to happen!” she said. “It was still very exciting. And I don’t think it’s even hit me yet. I don’t think I’ve taken it in yet. I think doing the victory lap was like, ‘Oh wow, this has actually happened!’”
Emerson said she’s received a lot of help from her trainers Robin Walker and Kara Andrew who were here this weekend, “I wouldn’t be here without them; they’ve helped me so much. They helped me find ‘Jack,’ and they’ve helped us the entire way.” A big group from her barn were also at the Horse Park this weekend, as well as her naturally proud mother and grandmother.
Emerson didn’t have a rail in hand over second-placed Caroline Burkhardt and Stonehaven’s Dream who had jumped clear, but she kept a cool head and duly delivered the goods. “I was focusing on my warm up and just was more focused on the atmosphere that we’re going into and just thinking about my course, and I was trying to kind of focus on myself and then just see what happened.”
She did allow herself a moment to appreciate her surroundings right before she entered the Rolex Arena. “Oh, gosh,” she gasped. “It’s so cool! I mean, you watch so many big people ride here that it’s just so amazing to be here in such a big atmosphere, and all the horses jumped so much better in there; it was so much fun!”
Future plans this year include “probably some more events in the fall and just to really practice all of our skills, some jumper shows and just enjoy him!”
Plus, she added, “He’s just so fun to be around, and it’s a plus that he’s so talented, and he’s just such a good horse. It’s fun to do whatever with him.
USEA Novice Master Amateur Championship
Jane Musselman (Loiusville, Kentucky) has twice gone into the final phase of the AEC in the lead, twice at the Horse Park, and both times it didn’t go her way. Today, the third time was a charm: Engapore (Singapore x Orize), a 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood jumped a beautiful clear round that would have won an equitation class, and they were crowned Novice Master Amateur Champions.
“I think talking to all my friends, just trying to relax and trust my horse, trust that he can go there and do this” was what made the difference this time, Jane opined, “and he was so rideable today so that made it easier!”
Musselman trains with Martha Lambert and sometimes with Phillip Dutton who gave her a little advice and wished her luck, “He’s been busy too so Martha mostly helped me this weekend!” she said.
To finally make it onto the podium feels “So good! It’s so nice that it’s here at home!” Musselman’s parents live in Lexington, and it was her mother’s 70th birthday so there’ll be a double celebration at dinner in Lexington tonight.
USEA Novice Junior 15 & Under Championship
The top 3 in this division remained the same throughout the weekend as all three combinations aced their tests each day. Maybe overnight leader, 12-year-old Kendal Fansler (Clarkesville, Maryland) manifested her win, but she had predicted the day before that show jumping should be a breeze for her Connemara-cross Delilah’s Boy, and indeed it was. “It was so much fun!” Fansler beamed after her win. “He definitely saved my butt on some of the fences but he was awesome!”
Making time has not been a problem for this pair in either of the jumping phases, in fact sometimes they’ve had to struggle with the opposite, “My coach [John Secan] told me to not cut any of the turns because if I’m slicing them I’ll probably get a rail, and to make sure I keep my rhythm the whole time,” she said. Kendal did both, and the trophy was hers!
Phillip Dutton, Sharon White, and Liz Halliday are Fansler’s eventing heroes, and she watched all three show jump in the Advanced Championship finale Friday evening. “They were awesome!” Perhaps she got a taste for what it might feel like to ride in the higher divisions, or even Land Rover Kentucky one day as she waited her turn in the chute to the big arena, “It felt very professional”, she agreed.
Delilah’s Boy, a hand-me-down from Fansler’s cousin, Emma Whitaker after she outgrew him, can look forward to a short vacation, “I will make sure he’s very cooled off today, and I’ll give him probably a week off because he worked very hard. And then we’ll just continue showing.”
From Maryland, Fansler has another ride Sunday, and when I ask if she’ll be first in line for Whitaker’s current horse, HSH Golden Boy, currently lying third in the Beginner Novice Championship she chuckles, “I don’t think she’s going to outgrow that one!”
USEA Novice Horse Championship
The newly crowned USEA Novice Horse Champion found his way to local rider Elissa Gibbs’ barn as a 4-year-old without her having ridden him; she bought him on the recommendation of Liz Halliday, but she discovered pretty quickly that her new purchase could jump. “The first day he came I put him in the round pen, and he just trotted out over the eight-foot wall and found a friend in a paddock and started grazing. He just trotted straight over it!”
Scope is clearly not an issue for this stunning gray horse but the win today is bittersweet for Gibbs whose business is “finding very good quality young horses and bringing them up and and then sending them to their forever person.” Unsurprisingly there is already a buyer lined up for this one, but Gibbs says she gets a lot of joy watching them thrive in their new homes and following them at competitions.
“I don’t think at this point I’m going to run Advanced again, but I like to ride really top class horses,” she elaborated, “and I like to keep them for a couple of years so you really really know who they are and where they’re meant to be.”
However, her other ride in this division, the ex-racehorse Enjoy The Journey who finished 21st is rather special, she shares, and rather less valuable than the winner, and she thinks he’s probably a keeper. After a castration and a slow start because “he did not understand show-jumping, he was terrified of it,” she said with a laugh, something clicked, “I left the start box for the first time on cross-country on him and whew….the way just galloped and jumped the first fence, I knew then this horse was just never leaving!”
Once she’d made that decision she asked Avery Whisman’s family for permission, an emotional Gibbs remembers, and then changed the horse’s name to memorialize “a very special student of mine who switched from eventing to being a jockey and passed away earlier this year.”
Gibbs has competed at the AEC every time they’ve been in Lexington but this is her first win. “I think it’s special to win at home because your peers are around, and your business is here. It’s good for business to do well, it makes your clients believe in you and that you know what they’re doing. And they can come and watch you. I’ve got a whole big group up there,” she gestures into the Rolex Arena grandstands, “all watching, cheering, getting drunk, and having a great time!”