Sierra Lutheran pair earn national equestrian honors
Their shared ancestry to the rich equestrian tradition found in the United Kingdom offers natural synergy to the horsemanship tradition they have in common, but that’s where the trail and spoils split for Kailey Fitzpatrick and Riley McHenry.
The Gardnerville teens, who have been in the saddle and competing for most of their lives, have enjoyed strong success for a number of years on their respective competition circuits of show jumping and endurance riding. Recently, each took a quantum leap by garnering national attention in her individual series, and, in the process, noteworthy distinction to the local equestrian community.
Fitzpatrick, 14, won three Reserve National Championship titles on three different horses earlier this month at the Canadian Nationals. Outside the arena, McHenry, 14, was one of only 99 riders out of an opening field of 184 entries, to complete the grueling 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride from Tahoe to Auburn.
One vaults obstacles for time and judges, while the other seeks to outlast and outdistance herself from competition. But what the two Sierra Lutheran High School freshmen and longtime friends have in common is a love of the sport they uniquely champion.
“It was a blast,” Fitzpatrick commented about the competition. “I’ve been to a lot of horse shows, ridden many horses, but this was by far the most fun. Not because I won Reserve National Champion, but because it was an enjoyable ride.”
The qualification process for riders to be eligible for the nationals requires candidates to earn a certain number of points at local and regional shows to be eligible to show at the highest level of competition, which is the nationals. For most, qualifying in one division on one horse would be satisfaction enough. Fitzpatrick qualified in three divisions on three different horses.
“I got three Reserve National Champions on (horses), Strat, Verano, and Zorro, which is a very high honour to earn in the Arabian horse world. I have shown at the Canadian Nationals several times before, and although I have won National Top Ten Honors several times, I have never won the top 2 highest placings. This is the equivalent of a Silver Medal at the Olympics.”
The home of the 1960 Winter Olympics is where McHenry found herself two weeks ago as the youngest competitor out of just under 200 riders to enter the 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride that runs from Tahoe to Auburn.
“The start is dark, dusty, and crazy as almost 200 horses get ready to take off on a wild adventure.
“You climb over the top of Squaw Valley Ski area and out into the wild of the Granite Chief wilderness. The total elevation climbed is over 15,000 feet and you descend over 22,000 feet. Much of the route passes through single track trails and rugged remote mountains.”
Like those competing in arena-based equestrian events, endurance riders must also meet qualifying standards to compete.
“To ride in Tevis you must have 300 competitive miles and be at least 12 years old,” said McHenry, who is already a veteran rider with 1,515 miles ridden on the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), which represents the competitive circuit.
The uniqueness of their equestrian pursuits also extends to the individual cultures native to each of these competitive styles, adding to the richness of the sport.
“At Arabian horse shows, you can compete in a variety of divisions,” Fitzpatrick explained. “In fact, the Arabian horse can do anything; they are so versatile. This is a large factor to what makes them the best breed of horse, in my opinion.”
“Some of the small towns that you do pass through throw giant parties,” McHenry shared about the Tevis Cup culture. “And just the number of people who come out to watch the riders come through. It is a very old western tradition since 1955.”
But reaching such rarified air, literally and figuratively, is not for the faint of heart, and not without its challenges.
“With Strat, I had no idea what was going to happen, because he was new, and at the previous horse show, we had run into several problems, so we had to hope for the best when we showed him in Canada, but it turned out to be great,” Fitzpatrick recalled.
For McHenry and Breezy, the opportunities were found in contending with natural surroundings, such as “Forging the American River in the middle of the night, looking down steep canyons to see how far you have climbed, and riding in the complete darkness with straight steep drop offs to the side.”
The path to the summit for each of the riders is paved with the same grit and determination found in the practice arena, and on dusty tails, respectively. And their aspirations match as well with McHenry pointing toward the World Equestrian Games and Fitzpatrick toward becoming a national champion at Nationals.
However, what gives these two incredibly talented riders the best opportunity to reach their goals lies in their unique outlook on riding and competing.
“One of the most important things about showing horses is what it gives you,” Fitzpatrick opined. “It gives you discipline, patience, bravery, and overall, a good attitude.” Filled with all these same qualities, McHenry added, “I love it. All of it!”