Tuesday morning marked the highly-anticipated commencement of the 2018 USEF Pony Finals, presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, at the Kentucky Horse Park, with nearly 200 ponies and their junior riders taking center stage in the first two divisions of the week. The most celebrated event of its kind for pony riders in the United States, the USEF Pony Finals is a three-phase competition judging the pony’s conformation, way of moving and jumping ability.
After the first two rounds of competition for the Large Regular Pony Hunters, Kat Fuqua and Brighton emerged as the early leaders by impressively earning blue ribbons in both the model and hack ahead of 146 fellow contenders. Besting the field in the Small Green Pony Hunters, Clara Propp and With Love will ride last over fences Wednesday as the initial frontrunners in their division.
Though Fuqua and her own Brighton have only been paired together for one short month, their short relationship did not detract from their performance in the Walnut Ring as the pair consistently impressed the judges panel in the Large Regular Pony Hunters. Under the tutelage of trainer Michael Newman of Aubrey Hill Equestrian in Pace, Florida, the 11-year-old rider and chestnut pony collected scores of 260.23 in the model and 281.42 in the hack to solidify their place atop the leaderboard headed into the final portion of competition Wednesday.
“I first saw the pony about three years ago as a green pony and he was very impressive for a green pony. We just didn’t have anyone in the position [to ride him] at the time, but we have always loved this pony,” shared Newman.
No stranger to the winner’s circle, Brighton carried Claire Campbell to a similar lead in the division after day one of the 2017 USEF Pony Finals with a cumulative score of 512.62, and this year the pony improved on his performance to stand an even better chance of sweeping the division with total marks of 541.65 headed into day two.
Despite their new partnership, Fuqua and Brighton have already developed quite the bond, ““I’m so happy riding him. It’s much fun to ride him. In the barn he is super cuddly, loves getting treats, and he is really friendly. [In the model today] he was really good, but he really wanted treats the whole time.”
Chasing Fuqua and Brighton’s commanding early lead, Chandler Wilks and Ashley Vail Aycox’s Valentino currently sit in the reserve spot with 534.56 points, while Caroline Passarelli piloted another Fuqua-owned mount, Chic In Time, to third position overall. Sitting in fourth is Brynn Kuhnell and D’Artagnan, owned by Simply Ponies, LLC, trailed by Ava Aguilar and Sienna Gustafson’s Imagine That rounding out the top five slots.
In the Small Green Pony Hunters, Clara Propp began her day on a high note, winning the model with Aquitaine Equine’s With Love to the tune of 265.98 points from the judges. In the flat portion of the division, fellow bow-clad rider Omi Enkin and her own Happiness nabbed the first prize with a score of 258.00, but Propp and With Love’s third place marks of 254.50 were enough to propel the 11-year-old from Canada and her grey pony to the top of the overall scorecard.
Boasting a composite score of 520.48, Propp and With Love currently sit 10 points ahead of the next-closest competitors, Enkin and Happiness with 510.20 points, headed into the over fences final phase.
“She is so sweet,” shared Propp. “She is so kind and… rubs up against you and will nuzzle you. She was so great today. She acted great and everything went well. She was the best that she could have been.”
Propp’s trainer, Briane Goutal, shared her thoughts on her first experience at Pony Finals: “This is my first time coming to Pony Finals. I never came when I was kid. It was never on our schedule when we were training with Peter Lutz, but I’m glad to be here now because it’s an amazing experience and I have a great couple of ponies and riders with me. This is my first time training ponies, but all of my students are fantastic riders and students. They’re all in it for the right reasons, so it has been wonderful.”
Currently sitting in third place, Helen Ryan and Town Line Equestrian, LLC’s Charming will attempt to usurp the leaders Wednesday, with owner-rider Jordan Gibbs and Show Off hot on their tails less than one point behind. Vanessa Mazzoli and her own Partly Cloudy clinched fifth place to close out the top contenders after day one.
Both Fuqua and Propp will aim to maintain momentum during Wednesday’s over fences portion of competition as the last to ride in their respective divisions. The Large Regular and Small Green Pony Hunters will crown champions following the third phase of competition, with the overall division champions eligible to be crowned as either the Regular or Green Grand Champions at the end of the week should their scores hold as the highest of the three size-based divisions.
The 2018 USEF Pony Finals, presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, will continue through Sunday, Aug. 12. The nation’s best young pony riders will be tested in Small, Medium and Large classes of both Regular Hunter and Green Hunter divisions in the Walnut Ring, and the Alltech Arena will play host to Pony Jumper competition Thursday through Saturday. Sunday’s feature will be the Pony Medal Finals, one of the week’s highlight events.