by Morgan Moore

Photos by Suzanne Sturgill and Cookie Serletic

2016 U.S. Sport Horse Nationals

I returned from the huddle around the scoreboard to the liver chestnut stallion that was standing in the sea of people and horses in the warm-up arena under the overcast skies of Nampa, Idaho. The suspense hung on the shoulders of owners, trainers, and handlers alike in the pen. This is how it always is during the in-hand goes. A seemingly simple five-minute presentation spirals into hours waiting for each horse to go, the scores to post, and the results to be announced. Some handlers rush off to other arenas, some horses trot back and forth between divisions, but many stand in the warm-up waiting for the news. While Sport Horse Nationals is certainly known for the performance divisions, the in-hand classes draw large (sometimes more than 30) groups of competitive equines.

“He’s in and he’s currently leading,” I said to the women, trainer Wendye Gardiner and owner/breeder Tracy Vann, standing next to the perfectly groomed and conditioned stallion.

Tracy turned and looked at me wide-eyed, “Are you sure?” she whispered.

“I’m sure, he’s definitely Top Ten. Too many scores are posted for him not to earn his ribbon, but there’s a lot of goes left until we know exactly where he falls.”

Tears welled up in her big, brown eyes and she began to sob out of disbelief, excitement, and hope. She was rigid, in shock, but stroked Vanguard Mordechai’s (Cavu Malachi x Promise Lawshaysa by Lawmoss) face again and again.

Tracy has spent 34 years breeding Arabian horses and this moment at the 2016 Sport Horse Nationals marked the first time a horse she both bred and owned has ever earned a National title. Tracy gives up almost every luxury for the benefit of her horses. In fact, she lived in a self-described “shack” for years before adopting a singlewide on her 300-acre property in Oklahoma. There is not a penny spent that is not in consideration of her program. She saves, sometimes for years, to be able to compete here or there, all the while sticking to her vision of the ideal Arabian horse. It seemed luck never followed her on her trips to National competition until this year. Injuries or life obstacles seemed to thwart her success each time her horses came close to nabbing a national win under her ownership.

As time ticked by, her stallion stayed in the lead as scores trickled in. Eventually he captured the Sport Horse Stallions Dressage Type Championship as well as a Reserve Championship in Sport Horse Stallions Hunter Type. Tracy half-stumbled, shocked and in awe into the arena for his win photo. All the years of her faithful dedication to her horses was rewarded in this moment. Vanguard Mordechai went on to win two titles with Tracy as well: Arabian Sport Horse Stallion Dressage Type ATH Champion and Top Ten Sport Horse Stallions Hunter Type ATH.

This story, while in many ways unique, is one of many lifelong journeys you will hear about the path to the maroon ribbons and red roses at Sport Horse Nationals. While the class may only be a minute or so (if you are in the jumper division), the path to Idaho can take years of preparation, vision, and dedication.

The incredible part about Sport Horse Nationals is that there is no “formula” to success. Some come with trainers, some without. Some spend years training their horse for a class while others may have only prepped a month. You will find many exhibitors crossing over from their primary focus of competing in all-breed dressage, jumping, and hunter events while others only compete in the Arabian ring. There are junior riders mixed in among adult exhibitors. Some horses are body clipped, other show with a healthy coat of winter hair that sprung up early. There are preservation-bred horses of all phenotypes represented along with domestic-bred horses. This show embraces all “looks” and pedigree-types of quality Arabian athletes. This is a diverse group of horses and people coming together to compete with the same goals/hope in mind: an Arabian Sport Horse National title.

RSA Talk Ofthe Street (TTT Omaran x HAAP Nicole), as her name indicates, is a special horse. If you have seen her you will not forget her. She is a vibrant, chestnut mare with heavy roaning across her body, a huge belly spot, wide blaze, and a strawberry flaxen mane and tail. She’s a purebred, but a rather unusual one. Her path to nationals is as unique as her coat color as she is an amateur bred, owned, trained, and shown horse. This year, RSA Talk Ofthe Street competed and was named National Reserve Champion in the 14.2 & Under Regular Working Hunter class.

RSA Talk Ofthe Street is her owner/breeder’s first purebred foal. Adding to the uniqueness of her story is the fact that her rider Jacq Hollandsworth is also an amateur, not a trainer, and the trio have teamed up on their journey to roses. “It’s been an incredible journey to be a part of this mare’s life from conception to National Reserve Champion!” says Jacqueline Raysik. “She had a late start to her saddle career, being started on trails in the fall of 2012 as a seven-year-old and then moving into the hands of Jacq Hollandsworth, who has been her rider for nearly the past four years.”

While Raysik knows their path is certainly one less traveled, she feels the sport horse ring has more than embraced her on her path. “In my personal experience, I have shown in main ring and open as well as sport horse, I have never experienced a feeling of being unwelcome or that I didn’t belong. I enjoy the fact that, for me at least, being a ‘little guy’ has never been looked down upon,” she says.

This year at Sport Horse Nationals, in keeping with the tradition of expanding and improving the show offerings, new classes were offered. Two added significant prize money opportunities to exhibitors that resulted in big turnouts: the Young Horse Dressage Materiale class and the Antares $2,500 Hunter Derby Exhibition class.

For those not familiar with these divisions, they were devised to mirror the all-breed competition offerings for young horses and the typically prize money heavy hunter derby courses.

The $2,500 Hunter Derby Exhibition class was shown over two rounds. The first round featured a full hunter course of fences and served as the elimination round where horses competed at the height they had competed at in previous classes (2´6˝, 2´9˝ or 3´0˝). The second round was similar to a “Handy Hunter” course, which featured fewer fences with specified maneuvers (rollbacks, trot jumps, opening/closing a gate from a horse’s back). This year’s incredible line-up had 18 entries that navigated the courses beautifully with the champion and reserve titles being won by rider Julia Werner-Mahoney. Julia piloted Intruders Nobella (WL Intruder x Bon Voyage) to the National Championship and Czantiago (*Granizar x Pascion S) to the Reserve Championship.

The young horse dressage class drew an even bigger crowd of 27 entries. The Half-Arabian Dressage First Level class adopted the USEF Four-Year-Old Young Horse test and the in-hand “jog out” process used in the all-breed venue. The jog required the horses to trot for the judges for soundness and turned into quite the event! Handlers dressed in a variety of clothes from fashionable to horse show chic, everyone presented their horses in style. The power-packed line-up was eventually captured by the incredible Half-Arabian Quinault Bey (Quick Silver Bey x First Lady), owned by Debra Bridges.

“I don’t think a day went by that we didn’t have a thought about Sport Horse Nationals,” says Bridges. “This is a competitive show with so many talented horses and riders. The very best come to win and you’d better be prepared for it!” Their story together has been rather abbreviated in the sense that this was Quinault Bey’s first year of showing under saddle and first time competing at the national level. She found the dazzling five-year-old chestnut gelding online and purchased him in October of 2014. “I had been looking for over six months on various sale sites for an Arabian sport horse. One evening I went online to a popular Arabian sales site that I literally checked on daily, and Quinault Bey came up. I knew the moment I saw his picture that he was the one I was searching for. To make a long story short I called the trainer, looked at some video of him, then made an offer that they accepted that same day. The rest is history. He has been a gift to my life. I still can’t believe I own this beautiful animal!”

“Quin,” as Debra calls him, didn’t just capture the Championship in the Young Horse Dressage class, but also Championships in Half-Arabian Sport Horse Gelding Hunter Type ATH, Breeders Sweepstakes Young Dressage Horse First Level Dressage, the Reserve Championship in Half-Arabian Sport Horse Gelding Dressgae Type ATH, Reserve Champion Half-Arabian Dressage Training Level Junior Horse, Top Ten Half-Arabian Sport Horse Gelding Dressage Type ATH and Top Ten Half-Arabian Dressage Training Level. With so many accomplishments for such a young horse the prospect of improving upon their Sport Horse Nationals trip is daunting. “I really don’t know if we could duplicate what we did this year,” she says. “We are working now on 2018 in Nampa, Idaho. I have already set goals for myself and I hope I can accomplish them. Riding Quinault and with Trisha Kerwin’s training I’d say I have a pretty good chance! By far the best days of my week are my training days. Driving up to the barn in Salem, Utah, and seeing Quin out in the grassy fields with his buddies enjoying his free time, and knowing he is all mine is just a great feeling!”

This year was also a year of firsts in other arenas. For the first time since the inception of Sport Horse Nationals, the same rider/horse combination won both the Open Jumpers and ATR Jumpers: 13-year-old Kayla Long and her Half-Arabian mount Khall Me Luna (Khomotion x CD Sahara Desert). Despite Khall Me Luna’s pony stature, this incredible team out-maneuvered a field of trainers, seasoned amateurs, and much bigger horses to win two impressive classes. To add to the pair’s unique accomplishments, the team helped capture the silver team medal at the Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, in August as well.

Back in the main ring, the driving classes were well represented by horses both seasoned to the ring and newcomers alike. VPF Nite Reign (Royal Knightfyre x Mas Knight Wind) won the championship in the highly competitive and crowd-favorite Gambler’s Choice Carriage Pleasure Driving class. This class requires drivers to select a route to yield the highest number of points through obstacles (marked with cones and tennis balls) with varying points for each obstacle based on degree of difficulty. Incredibly, VPF Nite Reign was champion in 2015 and 2014 and won his third set of roses in this class this year.

Many horses cross over from one division to the next at the show. It is not uncommon to find a horse competing in over fences, in-hand, dressage, and even an under saddle class at the same show. Many horses cross between National shows as well. Many skills learned in the sport horse arenas translate well to other areas of competition. Also, many of the qualities that make an in-hand horse excel in the sport horse arena can be carried over to main ring halter in areas where the scorecards reward horses for quality conformation.

One such horse is the incredibly beautiful grey gelding Saaber Al Shahania (*Marwan Al Shaqab x MFA Annies Song) who participated in three of the four National shows offered by the Arabian Horse Association this year. Saaber Al Shahania, owned by Lorne Robertson, won eight titles at Canadian Nationals (including one Championship and three Reserve Championships) in Sport Horse Under Saddle, Sport Horse Gelding In-Hand, and Sport Horse Show Hack. He followed up his wins with four more Top Ten titles at Sport Horse Nationals in Dressage Training Level Junior Horse, Sport Horse In-Hand, and Sport Horse Show Hack. His final titles were captured at the U.S. National Championships where he earned Top Tens in both the gelding halter AAOTH and senior gelding in-hand open championship.

Next year Sport Horse Nationals returns to the east coast in Raleigh, North Carolina. Without question, many aspiring exhibitors have already begun to dream and prepare for the next Nationals show where the Arabian community will pay homage to the versatile, beautiful, and talented athletes that compete in our sport horse divisions.