By Yellow Horse Marketing for the US Dressage Finals

Every day, people make a multitude of small decisions that in the moment may seem relatively insignificant, but sometimes the culmination of those choices can be life changing. As was the case for Ruth Shirkey when she made the fortuitous decision to purchase a Hanoverian foal in utero, and again nearly a decade later to pack up a truck, camper and horse trailer and drive four days across the country from California with her husband to chase a dream in Kentucky.

Now competing with the nation’s best at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, held November 7-10 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the former Navy fighter jet pilot turned tax accountant and two-time cancer survivor rode that now nine-year-old mare named Wyleigh Princess to the biggest victory of their career in the Intermediate I Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship. Riding for Region 7, they finished on a top score of 73.900%, a personal best for the pair (watch their winning ride HERE, and read more about Shirkey and her mount in the Why I Love the Finals series on YourDressage.org HERE).

“It was a bit inauspicious this morning because she was not in a big mood to come out and play,” said Shirkey of her U.S. bred Hanoverian (Weltmeyer x Heiress B by His Highness, bred by Cheryl Johnson). “When we started the warm-up I was not quite sure what we were going to get, so I was very careful. I thought ‘whatever we do, I will keep my fundamentals together,’ and sure enough, we started the canter work and it paid off. I felt I had a sufficient amount of confidence in Wyleigh that she would stay with me during the experience and she was, so I thought ‘let’s go now’ and she took off. It’s just so exciting. It was a wonderful ride and she loves that Alltech Arena.”

Bonnie Canter of Hockley, Texas (Region 9) and her Connemara/Hanoverian cross mare Fifinella GCF (Fred Astaire x South Ridge Bliss by South Ridge Duncan’s Honor, bred in the U.S. by Sharon Garner) earned their second Reserve Championship title in as many days with a score of 72.333%. “I wasn’t even going to do the freestyle, but because she’s spooky I needed to get her in the Alltech Arena before my Prix St. Georges test tomorrow,” Canter laughed. “My husband Doug has been extremely supportive through all of this, and this freestyle thing was his idea. I’m not at all musically inclined but we took a suggestion for an Aladdin score and my husband spliced it all together, so it was a homegrown project and funny enough it paid off.”

Tarjan Proves to Be Unbeatable in Grand Prix Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship

Alice Tarjan riding Candescent. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

First down centerline in the Alltech Arena for the Grand Prix Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship, Alice Tarjan of Oldwick, N.J. (Region 8) and her nine-year-old Hanoverian mare Candescent (Christ x Farina by Falkenstern II) set a whopping score of 77.775% that could not be caught to claim their third straight victory of this year’s Finals, this time earning the Calaveras County Perpetual Trophy (presented by Olva Stewart Pharo).

“Today was better than yesterday,” said Tarjan. “As I’ve mentioned we’ve been trying to work on the harmony and riding with less tension. I’ve got to encourage more confidence in the work, but today was good – she was right on my aids and holding herself together well.”

Friday’s Grand Prix Adult Amateur Reserve Champion Kristin Herzing of Harrisburg, Pa. (Region 1) and her Hanoverian gelding Gentleman (Grusus x Rumpelstilzchen by Raphael, bred in the U.S. by Kathryn and Jeffrey Nesbit) earned their second reserve title of the week with 70.317%.

“So I got a new freestyle for Regionals with Paul Simon music that I loved, and Gentleman hated it!” she laughed. “We got in the ring and he wouldn’t do it, as if saying ‘this is not my jam!’ He likes his routine, so for today I said ‘I’ll put on your music- whatever makes you happy,’ and he said ‘thank you!’ I just live to make him happy, whatever it takes.”

Canter Earns Top Honors in First Level Adult Amateur Championship

Bonnie Canter riding Franziska. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

After being the bridesmaid so far this week with two Reserve Championships earned aboard her small tour horse, Bonnie Canter of Hockley, Texas (Region 9) finally made it to the top of the podium with a winning score of 75.370% aboard her youngster Franziska, a five-year-old Hanoverian mare (Franziskus x Wempy by Weltmeyer).

“I bought her off a video from a farmer in Germany – she was affordable, small (which I like), and had a gorgeous hindleg,” Canter remembered. “She’s got a really gentle nature and you just fall in love with her. She also has a super rhythm and she floats along which gives a really nice picture. She’s comfortable doing the First Level work and she’s a happy girl.”

Former Finals champion and fellow Region 9 rider Ashlee Watts of College Station, Texas also found success with a rising star in her seven-year-old Westphalian mare Ricarda (Riccio x Samira by Sure Hit, bred in the U.S. by Westphalians for USA LLC) as they earned 75.231% for Reserve honors. “I actually bought her when I was at Finals two years ago and picked her up on my way home,” said Watts. “Today she was amazing. She was perfectly on my aids and didn’t do one thing wrong.”

Ronin Proves Much the Best in First Level Open Championship

Martin Kuhn of New Berlin, Ill. (Region 4) and the six-year-old Hanoverian gelding Ronin (Romanov Blue Hor x Something Royal by Sir Donnerhall I, bred in the U.S. by Marcia Boeing) were a tough pair to beat at last year’s US Dressage Finals, winning both the 2018 Training Level Open and First Level Open Freestyle divisions. Their successful partnership has only continued to blossom as they returned to Lexington to cruise to victory in the First Level Open Championship with 77.130%. “He continues to be a real delight to train,” said Kuhn of his mount, who he owns with wife Kathryn Fleming-Kuhn. “He’s probably the most talented horse we’ve had to work with and to bring along. He’s just a pleasure to work with.”

However, Kuhn’s proudest moment was not winning the championship title itself, but watching his student Jenna Upchurch of Chesterfield, Mo. (Region 4) claim Reserve honors aboard her own six-year-old Oldenburg gelding Dante Divino (Dante Weltino x Force Majeure by Furst Romancier) with 74.954%. “We’ve competed against each other a couple times, but it’s fun to compete against him and do so well,” Upchurch said of her coach. “There’s nobody I’d rather come in second to.”

Krossen Rides to Second Level Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship Victory

Alexandra Krossen riding Nicene. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

Alexandra Krossen of Basking Ridge, N.J. (Region 8) has a long history with her mount Nicene, a 14-year-old Oldenburg mare (Nimbus x Pamela by Portofino), owned and bred in the U.S. by Krossen’s longtime trainer Heather Mason. Together since the day the foal was born and through earning two titles at last year’s Finals, the pair once again returned to the winner’s circle by earning victory in the Second Level Adult Amateur Freestyle with 71.256%.

“This year she had great trot work and her canter work was strong too,” said Krossen. “She’s quite a funny mare. I was there when she was born, and she has scarred me for life with some of her behavior being a little redhead child. She has a firecracker personality behind her, but when you get into the ring she is all business. She’s been amazing to ride and train, and I feel very lucky for that opportunity.”

Finals newcomer Tara Denke of Makato, Minn. (Region 4) and her 11-year-old Friesian mare Bella (Anton 343 x Whitney C by Ludse 305, bred by in the U.S. by Todd and Tina Watson) were thrilled to find themselves as Reserve Champions with 70.578%. “We had an amazing ride today. This was our first visit to the Finals and I decided to give it our all,” Denke explained. “We had a beautiful extended canter, and it was so uphill I felt like I was charging into battle. It is so special to get an invitation to the Finals. I feel like if you earn that invitation you can’t possibly turn it down!”

Kuhn Wins Second Title of the Day in Second Level Open Freestyle Championship

Martin Kuhn of New Berlin, Ill. (Region 4) and his and his wife Kathryn’s Hanoverian gelding Ronin (Romanov Blue Hor x Something Royal by Sir Donnerhall I, bred in the U.S. by Marcia Boeing) were first down centerline in Saturday’s Second Level Open Freestyle Championship, and despite a few rough spots were able to trot to victory with 76.000% for their second victory of the day.

“After a few bobbles in the beginning, we got back on track,” said Kuhn. “We had a really good simple change and the counter canter was much better than our practice ride where he did a flying change (a clean flying change, but that doesn’t count yet!). Overall, I was very pleased despite the rocky start.”

Donna Gatchell of Nokesville, Va. (Region 1) and Margaret Groom’s six-year-old 14.3-hand Weser-Ems mare Reflection (Ridley x Royal Beauty by Farmer, bred in the U.S. by Chris Rush) earned Reserve honors for their First Level freestyle at last year’s Finals, and recycled the same music to move up to Second Level and once again be crowned as Reserve Champions with 72.556%. “She was actually a bit spooky going into the ring, so I had to ride the first few movements conservatively,” Gatchell said of her mount. “But when she relaxed, she was actually really good and I was on my music, so overall I was really happy with the ride.”

Tarjan Earns Two Top Spots in Third Level Adult Amateur Championship

Alice Tarjan riding Fairouz. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

Already a three-time Finals champion this year at the Grand Prix level, Alice Tarjan of Oldwick, N.J. (Region 8) traded in her shadbelly for a short coat and promptly trotted right back down victory lane over a huge field of 35 rivals in the Third Level Adult Amateur Championship. Presenting two up-and-coming youngsters, Tarjan not only claimed top honors with her six-year-old Oldenburg mare Fairouz (Franziskus x Diva by Don Frederico) with 72.792%, but also Reserve with a score of 72.125% earned aboard stablemate Serenade MF, a six-year old Hanoverian mare (Sir Donnerhall x Duet MF by Don Principe) who was bred in the U.S. by by Maryanna Haymon.

“I brought my Third Level horses here for them to get some valuable experience in this type of environment,” Tarjan explained. “They’ve never been to a facility like this, so I thought it would be a good prep for the future. They’ve both gone through the young horse program and are similar in that they are both solid horses with good gaits, but they’re very different to ride. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.”

Reflecting on her successful week, Tarjan was especially appreciative for all of the volunteers who donated their time so that riders like her could have a chance to compete. “God bless all the volunteers out there. Thank you so much!” she exclaimed. “It was a frigid couple of days, and the crossing guards have a really thankless job but without them you would be run over, so thank you to all of them for standing out there to keep us safe. All of the volunteers have smiles on their faces, and they are my heroes!”

Earley Returns to Finals to Win Fourth Level Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship

Tricia Earley riding San Angelo. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

Last year, Region 9 competitor Tricia Earley came to Lexington not only as a Finals first-timer but also as a relative newcomer to the sport of dressage. Despite her inexperience, she and her Oldenburg gelding San Angelo (San Remo x Weltfee by Welton) returned home to Aledo, Texas as Third Level Adult Amateur Freestyle champions (read more about Earley in the Why I Love the Finals series on YourDressage.org HERE). Now as Finals veterans, the pair returned to the Kentucky Horse Park and once again emerged victorious, this time in the Fourth Level Adult Amateur Freestyle Championship with 72.367%.

“My horse actually loves the cold weather – he’s done with Texas heat,” Earley laughed. “So he was a little more up and through today. Our music uses a string version of Imagine Dragons and Ed Sheeran which I think suits him because he’s an elegant mover. Last year I was kind of a deer in the headlights coming here. This time I knew what to expect and I knew what it was like to win, so there was a little bit of added pressure because I really wanted to win again, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Coming to the Finals for his first time this year was Stephen Ruggiero of Coventry, Conn. (Region 8), who rode his 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding Dream Works (Danone I x Hollywood by Hohenstein) to a close second with 71.556%. “We had a fantastic ride and our pirouettes and tempi’s were some of the best we’ve done,” said Ruggiero. “We’re very happy to be here and we hope to be back again next year.”

Lipp Tops the Field in Fourth Level Open Championship

Karen Lipp riding Infinity. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

Just a day after earning reserve honors in the Third Level Open division, Karen Lipp of Ball Ground, Ga. (Region 3) and her six-year-old KWPN gelding Infinity (by Dreamboy) returned to the ring to earn a top score of 70.139% in the Fourth Level Open Championship as the only combination to score above 70 percent. Lipp was not only excited about the day’s performance, but also with her mount’s potential for the future. “The more he does the better he is, and he was more relaxed today. He’s a young horse but he enjoyed the challenge of it, and he’s willing to try everything I ask him to do,” she explained. “When I tried him as a four-year-old, I knew within a minute that I had to have him. I jokingly like to tell people that I’m that great, but he’s so good and easy to train. I’m super fortunate to have him.”

After escaping wildfires near his home in Penngrove, Cal., Region 7’s Brain Hafner drove two horses across the country to attend his first edition of the Finals. His efforts were rewarded when he score 69.074% to claim Reserve Championship honors board his 10-year-old KWPN mare Enjoy Point J (Westpoint x Invisible by Wagenaar). “My mare was really with it as far as rideability and consistency and she put in a really good test. I was really happy with how she did today,” Hafner noted.

Au Revoir Tops All Rivals in Intermediate I Open Freestyle Championship

Heather McCarthy of Prairie Grove, Ill. (qualified in Region 2) has won a wall full of Finals championship ribbons over the years with Sandi Chohany’s eight-year-old Oldenburg gelding Au Revoir (Ampere x Lara by Liberty M) from First through Fourth Levels, and on Saturday the pair continued to add to their resume by earning a hard-fought victory in the Intermediate I Open Freestyle Championship with 74.450% (watch their winning ride HERE).

“Today he was magnificent,” McCarthy said of her mount. “Angela [Jackson] was the first ride of the day and I saw her score a 73% and thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose now, I’ve got to go big!’ So I really pushed for everything and left it all out there. It was probably the best test I’ve ever had with him.”

Friday’s Intermediate I Open champions Angela Jackson of Henderson, Ky. (Region 2) and her homebred nine-year-old Zweibrucker gelding Figaro H (Fantasmic x Romina H by River H) almost hung on for the win, but ultimately had to settle for Reserve honors with 73.867%. “Just like yesterday, we had another good ride – he was right with me,” she explained. “This freestyle was made for a green horse and we never upped the difficulty from last year, and I think the judges saw a horse that was capable of more so it’s time to up our game. But I could not be more happy with him.”

A Family Affair in Grand Prix Open Freestyle Championship

James Koford riding Adiah HP. Photo by SusanJStickle.com

Crowd favorites James Koford of Winston-Salem, N.C. (Region 1) and the 12-year-old Friesian Sporthorse Adiah HP (Nico x Marije ANT by Anton, owned and bred in the U.S. by Sherry Koella) know how to put on a show, and once again they did not disappoint as they danced their way to thunderous applause and a top score of 75.108% with a unanimous victory under all three judges in the Grand Prix Open Freestyle Championship, claiming the Jazzman Perpetual Trophy (presented by Donna Richardson) for the third year in a row (watch their winning ride HERE).

“She’s quite a performer. She loves the music and she loves the crowd. When I’m warming up she keeps trying to go into the ring before it’s time. It’s so rare and so special to have a horse that loves to go into the show ring like that,” Koford said.

After she earned Reserve honors in the Intermediate II Open division earlier in the week, Kristin Wasemiller-Knutson of Oklahoma City (Region 9) remarked that she hoped to give Koford a run for his money in the Grand Prix classes, especially since she was riding Adiah HP’s talented younger half-sister Vashti (10-year-old Trakehner/KWPN/Friesian cross mare [Nico x Thekla by Onassis] bred in the U.S. by Sherry Koella). And she obviously meant it as the pair finished in Reserve with a score of 72.358%, evoking a cascade of cheers from the audience before even giving their final salute.

“I am super happy with the ride,” Wasemiller-Knutson said, also pleased that her Grinch Who Stole Christmas freestyle was a hit with the crowd. “I wanted to do something with a Christmas theme and this was my chance to do that. I did the choreography and the music myself, and we only put it together three weeks ago.”

Not only was Koford beaming with pride over his mount Adiah HP, he was thrilled to see her younger half-sister Vashti take the Reserve Champion title. Watching two of Nico’s offspring sweep the class meant a lot to Koford and breeder, Koella. “Their sire has produced so many Grand Prix horses, but he had a short breeding career because he died in a barn fire,” Koford remarked. “It’s amazing to see the talented horses he has produced.”

Watch archived streaming videos of Championship classes on the USEF Network HERE. Championship competition resumes Sunday – follow the action through updates on the USDF Facebook page and the US Dressage Finals website, as well as watch live online streaming on the USEF Network. To learn more about the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, download competition information, review day sheets and results, and read daily news releases, visit the official event website at http://www.usdressagefinals.com.

To see the coverage from the fourth day of competition click here.

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