Skylar Powell Reflects on a Bittersweet National Championship

Feb 16, 2023

Champion Western Pleasure Gazali VC (Aria Gazalt x VC Couture), owned by Maria Danieli, Bellevue, Washington, and shown by Skylar Powell.


by Denise Hearst

Of all the superb classes at the 2022 Nationals, perhaps the most poignant were the championships won by Skylar and Colby Powell after the loss of their mother, the beloved LaRae Fletcher Powell, in the summer.

We talked with Skylar about pushing through the heartbreak and winning his first National Championship in the main ring: U.S. National Champion Western Pleasure with Maria Danieli’s 2013 stallion Gazali VC (Aria Egzalt x VC Couture by Da Vinci FM).

“Gazali came to us from Keith Krichke as a three-year-old,” says Skylar. “I thought he could be exactly what Maria wanted, with time. I trained him but my mom showed him until he was in the bridle. As a young horse he was freaky athletic. And that sucker could buck. That’s one of the reasons I rode him most of the time. The first month we had the horse, one of the guys just barely hit the side of the barn with the tractor when I was riding him, and he came unglued. It was all I could do to stay on. He hasn’t done that in a long time, but he can still get a little worried about the crowds and all the clapping at shows.”

Gazali won Top Tens in the 2017 AWPA Futurity and 2016 U.S. National Western Pleasure Futurity, as well as Championships at the Youth and Midsummer Nationals, but 2022 was his first time in open western pleasure at Nationals. “In 2021 I showed him open for the first time at Scottsdale, and he was second in his cuts,” says Skylar. “He was still learning how to do the hand gallop so we skipped Nationals that year. But in 2022, when we were Reserve Champion at Scottsdale, the owner was on board for Nationals – and that was the only show he was going to do for the rest of the year. So he was just mine all year, which was nice.”

Minutes before the 2022 U.S. Nationals’ western pleasure finals, Skylar was feeling confident about Gazali’s chances. “I wasn’t planning on going in first, but I had this little voice in my head,” he says. “He warmed up so well, and everything was working the way it should – he came back from the hand gallop great, and everything felt right. Normally Brett Becker or somebody is lined up at the gate ready to go in first, but nobody was there so I just popped him there, ‘OK, we’re going in first.’ I think my mom told me to do that. My mom pretty much rode that class for me, because I can’t remember much of it. I think I touched him once in the entire class and that’s when we reversed. He shut down so well from the hand gallop, which is what he didn’t do at Scottsdale, but at Nationals I just asked him to come back and he was like ‘OK.’ He was just there the whole time. It was so nice. He handled the crowd great during the class. He was so calm and soft. It’s a different feeling when your horse is right there and you don’t have to work that hard. You’re going past the judges and instead of being tight, hoping that it looks good, you can just put your hand out there and go ‘Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good.’ It was one of those classes where everything worked just the right way.

“I was pretty emotional in the line up because he was so good. I was the last one called for Top Ten, and then they had the video presentation for the late Ty Wallis, in whose name the perpetual Western Pleasure trophy was being presented. There was so much build up, and I knew exactly how the Wallis family was feeling because we went through almost the exact same thing…so it was an emotional moment.

“Brett and I were Top Ten at Scottsdale, and he was the one I thought I needed to get past, because that’s a really nice horse. So when they called Brett for Reserve I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest. I was waiting there and sweating like crazy. When they called my name and everyone freaked out, I just kind of lost it. That was my first Championship in that arena. It was something that I’ve been working toward for a long time. I’ve had some good ones but you never think you’re going to break through that ceiling until you really feel like you have the one.

“After Scottsdale 2022 getting Gazali ready was all mom and I talked about. We felt like he had a good shot. He wasn’t perfect at Scottsdale and we were still second. When I rode that horse every day, we made sure that she was there. All these little details needed to be put together. At Nationals I put a ton of pressure on myself because Colby had won the purebred AWPA and was Reserve in the Half-Arabian AWPA, and I wanted to win one for my mom, too. I wanted to do it for her after all we had talked about, and how she thought we could do it. It was one of those moments that I’m never going to forget.”

We asked Skylar how the family and clients were able to push through the shock and grief after LaRae died midway through Midsummer Nationals. “It’s just what we know how to do,” he says. “I showed two reiners the day after it happened. I got them through the class but they weren’t that good because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

“We started to push through that. Each day got a little easier. We got into a routine, knowing what we needed to do and how to do it. The couple of kids I had were in the top two, and a couple of amateurs were top two, and we had a bunch of champions in the reining and the ranch classes. And the girls that my mom helped in the showmanship won, which was emotional.

“The only other option was to sit there feeing sorry for yourself, and pack up and go home. Mom would not have let us do that. So we just powered through it. Everybody had a hard time showing their first couple of times at Midsummer. But pushing through is what helped us get ready for Nationals. We all wanted to be as sharp as possible for my mom.”

The Powell family has commissioned a trophy in LaRae’s name for the purebred Junior Western Horse, because, as Skylar says, “Mom is the only person to ever win that in a snaffle…and she probably always will be, because no one is going to have the guts to put a good one in a snaffle!”

Something tells us that the trophy will feature the Powell name again one day.

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