By Jennifer M. Keeler

In the spring of 2010, Ruth Shirkey of Livermore, Cal. couldn’t be more excited. The Hanoverian mare Heiress B was about to foal, and Shirkey had purchased the Weltmeyer baby she was carrying in utero from breeder Cheryl Johnson.

“I was really hoping for a black colt,” Shirkey remembered. “When the ‘big day’ came, the breeder called and said, ‘The good news is that the foal is black. The bad news is that it’s a filly.’ She said that if I didn’t want her, to just let them know because they actually wanted to keep her. So I thought about it for a day and decided I still wanted her, primarily because I really, really wanted a foal by Weltmeyer. So of course in hindsight it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

At the time, there was no way Shirkey could know that her momentary disappointment would turn into a dream come true. That filly, now nine years old and named Wyleigh Princess, has since carried Shirkey to win a multitude of Great American Insurance Group/United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Region 7 and California Dressage Society (CDS) championships, and next month the pair will embark on the trip of a lifetime to the 2019 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®.

“I try to remember to take time to reflect over the wonderful times we’ve had together over the last nine years and that one crucial decision that I made to purchase this foal before it was even born,” says Shirkey. “I honestly don’t think I fully grasp the magnitude of all of it, but I try to remind myself all the time how lucky I am, and how much she impresses me every single day.”

This will be Shirkey’s first trip to Kentucky, but she’s known from the first announcement of the US Dressage Finals plans almost a decade ago that it was something she wanted to be a part of. Once the event kicked off in 2013, Shirkey declared and qualified every year with her previous horse Womanizer and later with Wyleigh Princess, but readily admits that the 2,000-mile one-way trip was just too intimidating at the time. But this year would be different, and after once again earning top placings at the Region 7 Championships held September 19-22 in Rancho Murieta, the pair will finally compete in the Prix St. Georges, Intermediaire I, and Intermediaire I Freestyle Adult Amateur divisions at the Finals.

“Why is this the year? Two things happened,” explained Shirkey, who works as a tax accountant when not in the saddle. “The first was that early in the season I was working to qualify for the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions at Lamplight, but we just missed the cutoff. I had already actively planned to make this big trip across the country, so when Lamplight didn’t happen, I thought, ‘Well, why not try the Finals?’

“The second factor is that my friends Kevin and Ericka Reinig went to the Finals last year from here in northern California and were very enthusiastic about their experience there,” she continued. “In fact, they were hoping to qualify to return (and have now done so), so we’re now planning to all travel together. Having that connection and going with someone who has done this before, who knows where to go and where to stop overnight, makes all the difference.”

Joining Shirkey on her journey will be her husband Eric Drew, and friends from across the country including Wyleigh’s breeder will join them at the Kentucky Horse Park to cheer the team on. “Eric’s and my dream has always been to drive across the country to visit all the national parks, and while we won’t be able to do that this time because of the horse on the trailer, but we’ll still get to see a good portion of the country together,” Shirkey laughed. “Of course there’s some trepidation involved with a trip like this, but we’re very enthusiastic about all of this. I’ve never been to Kentucky but always wanted to go. I used to watch the Kentucky Derby as a child and wanted to ride in the Kentucky Three-Day Event as a young equestrian. I’d love to get the chance to see some of the big Thoroughbred farms while we’re there and of course the Kentucky Horse Park itself, and just take it all in.”

Despite all the excitement surrounding the Finals, ultimately for Shirkey her focus will be on the competition itself. “It’s the chance to ride head-to-head against all the people I see on the Horse of the Year standings each year and see how we compare. I know it’s going to be very tough competition and actually that’s just what I’m looking for,” she explained. “By embracing this experience at the Finals, I hope to be able to push ourselves in our performance and take that confidence to the next level, whether it be making the cut for the Festival of Champions next year or moving up to Grand Prix in the future.”

And when it finally comes time to canter down centerline in the Alltech Arena, Shirkey knows she can count on her trusted partner. “Wyleigh always rises to the occasion especially in competition, and that trust in her is something so valuable for me to carry into the Finals,” Shirkey said. “We’re at a point in our relationship now where we know we’re going to be there for each other regardless of the circumstances.

“She really told me she was ready to face this challenge when we were at this year’s Regionals. Between the USDF and CDS championship classes, we had had six rides in four days and were both tired. That last day I went in the stall to get her ready and held the bridle up to her mouth and just stood there and waited, asking her if she was willing to go out one more time. I didn’t put my finger in her mouth, nothing – I let her make the decision – it was the first time I’ve ever done that. She chewed for a second and opened her mouth. I was just dumbstruck at her willingness to go with me, for whatever I asked. I think about that moment and just get goosebumps.”

Things have a funny way of working out, and Shirkey appreciates every moment as she and Wyleigh now prepare for Kentucky. “I do believe you have to keep your mind open to the opportunities that come along,” she concluded. “From that very first choice I made to keep my filly, to now, when the door closed on the Festival of Champions but has opened for the US Dressage Finals. This has been a special journey with Wyleigh and we took our time together, and of course there are so many things that can go wrong in this life with horses, but to say that I won the lottery with this mare would be an understatement.”

The Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships are now underway! Don’t miss your chance to qualify for the US Dressage Finals – submit your declaration today at www.usdressagefinals.com, and thenremember to submit your nomination (the next step of the qualifying process) immediately following your Regional Championship show!

The US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® is a unique national head-to-head competition which offers a wealth of championship titles and over $100,000 in prize money, all while showcasing adult amateur and open riders from across the country in Training Level to Grand Prix. This year’s event will be held November 7-10 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. To learn more about the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, download competition information, declare and nominate for the Finals, and sign up to receive news and updates, visit the official event website at www.usdressagefinals.com.

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