Horse Training

A David Among Goliaths: Part 2

September 14, 2010

This reining reject is shining in the world of three-day eventing.

Smart Sonofa Chic sails over a cross-country jump. Photo courtesy of Jeff Nye.

By Jeannie Blancq in America’s Horse

This is the last of a two-part series. Need to review part one?

When Emily Plant and her horse, Smart Sonofa Chic, aka “Tommy,” competed in their first beginner novice event, “He did great in dressage,” she says.

“It was his first time on a cross-country course. For the first three jumps, he was like, ‘What is going on?’ and then he was like ‘Oh, my God, this is awesome!’ He skipped around and had so much fun. He was clean cross-country and clean stadium, and we ended up third.”In late October, Emily decided it was time for an even larger show, Hagyard’s Midsouth Three-Day Event and Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse Park. They moved up to novice level, and Tommy proved he was meant for bigger and better things, this time taking first in a large field of competitors.

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“We had an awesome dressage test,” Emily says. “We were tied for second or third after dressage. After cross-country, we were tied for first. We had a clean stadium round where he saved me. I got in the ring and had some moments where I just forgot how to ride. I basically steered; that’s how he was on cross-country, too. We ended up winning, and I didn’t have to kick, cluck, pull or anything. He just went around.”

Going into their third event, Emily decided to move Tommy up to training level. Although they placed 11th, they were tied for the fastest training cross-country round of all the training divisions, with no jumping faults and no time faults, showing that the little horse could keep pace with the big guys. At their next training level event, Tommy proved to be worth his weight in gold when he placed first, winning the division.

When it came time for preliminary level, something Emily had done many times in her eventing career, she knew it would be a true test for Tommy. In “prelim,” the obstacles aren’t just bigger, but the challenges that are posed to each horse and rider pair at each jump require more thought and quicker decisions. Although the rider is allowed to walk the course ahead of time, the horse has never seen it before, and at prelim, the optimum time for completion is much shorter, so horse and rider must quicken their pace.

In 2007, 7,445 horses competed in prelim-level events in the country, and only 17 of those were Quarter Horses, according to the United States Eventing Association. At the intermediate level, of the 2,481 horses that competed, three were Quarter Horses. And 1,134 competed at the advanced level, of which two were Quarter Horses.

In late September 2007, with just a month left in the show season, Emily and Tommy realized a dream when they successfully completed their first prelim. With 12 entries in their division, they ended up sixth after dressage and third after show jumping.

Due to the drought in Kentucky over the summer, Emily opted to take it slow on the cross-country course and earned some serious time faults, leaving her in fifth place overall.

“It was like eventing in a parking lot,” says Emily, who is very aware of some of the pitfalls of the sport. “You always have to worry about the horse’s well-being, and weather can play a huge part in your success regardless of how ready your horse is. Very hard ground, just like very wet ground, can make for difficult going.”

In October 2007, the pair successfully completed their final event of the year at prelim level. The course was a true test of both Tommy and Emily’s abilities, but Tommy was able to prove his merit. They finished in 10th place at the same event they won in 2006 at the novice level.

The little guy loves to jump, and his favorite phase is undoubtedly cross-country, Emily says. Tommy is also excelling with another young rider, showing her the ropes at the novice level.

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He is easily recognizable among the other eventing horses, but not just because of his size. People are constantly commenting on his extraordinarily long and full tail and asking about his distinctive Babcock Ranch brand. So far, Emily has not come across another Babcock Ranch horse in the evening world. Her husband, who had never ridden before the gelding joined the family, enjoys frequent rides on Tommy, who is an excellent babysitter.

“He is such a special horse,” Emily says. “He lets anybody ride him. He will do basically anything I ask of him.”

There is a satisfaction that Emily has felt throughout this whole process.

“You get something from knowing you did it all yourself,” she says. “I am definitely an overachiever. It’s a constant challenge to me, and I love being the only one responsible for my mistakes or my successes. Of course, there are people there to help me, but I know that everything that Tommy does is because of me. Even if he misbehaves, it is my fault – it is not him. That’s the challenge in it, knowing there is never anybody else to blame. I am totally responsible for what happens.”

Emily and her trainer joke about how lucky she is to have a horse that can have a week off and is then saddled up and is the same great horse. However, no horse is perfect, and Emily has had to get accustomed to a few little quirks.

“He is the most sensitive horse I have ever been on,” she says. “You cannot carry a whip while riding him on the flat. He gets upset, like you’ve really hurt his feelings. He also listens to every word you say – I swear he understands English. Even if he’s at a full gallop, all you have to do is say ‘Whoa,’ and he slows right down. But he does not like to get yelled at or spoken to in a harsh tone.

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“Sometimes I wonder if I am insane aiming this horse for upper-level eventing,” she continues. “He doesn’t really know how to gallop, not like a Thoroughbred. He is little and is not built for eventing. He is downhill and basically has no withers. The faith that I have in him and the trust and the relationship that we have overcome all of that.

“I think people sometimes place more emphasis on Thoroughbreds because they think only Thoroughbreds can be athletic,” Emily says. “The joy of having a horse that is so easy to deal with, is never wild and gets along with everybody is a real treat. It is like having a dog that you can ride. The real athletic, wild ones are fun; they’re a big challenge, and they’re very impressive-looking and fancy. Having one that is just charming, sweet and calm is a real treat.”

It’s so much of a treat that Emily and her eventing barn mates joke about driving to Montana to get a trailer-load of Quarter Horse “reining rejects” because of their temperament.

“You can’t make a Thoroughbred have a temperament like this,” Emily says.