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We Ask the Industry: What Did You Learn from Your First Horse?

As the saying goes, “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”…when it comes to first horses, most of us did a lot of learning. Everyone loves to win, but there is so much that goes into winning that the public eye never sees.

Behind many of today’s champions are years of hitting the dirt during every lesson, dealing with horses with less than agreeable attitudes, scraping together pennies to go to just one more show that year, because you know this time you’ve got it. Those years are often a considerable element in what makes a rider who they are. With every horse you ride, you learn something new, which you will bring with you when you ride future horses.

Here is what some of today’s competitors have to say about their first horses and the lessons they carry with them in their riding.

Carey Nowacek – My first horse was a pony named Saturday Knight, and I showed him in the local hunter jumper shows. He loved to show but was very naughty at home. I can’t remember a lesson, at the beginning, where I stayed on his back the entire time. He would even get my trainer off by randomly coming to a complete stop and her flying over the front of him. I learned a lot from him, though. Being eight years old, my mom thought I would give up riding after having such a hard time with him, but I feel he did the opposite for me. I learned never to give up, work hard, and everything will fall into place. Saturday taught me how to ride and, most of all, to love and trust the process.

Johnna Letchworth – Growing up, I was extremely fortunate to be able to ride so many different horses. When I was little, my mom rescued a pony, Joey and boy did he teach me the meaning of “when you fall, you always get back up.” My parents made me promise that every time he bucked me off, I’d get back on. When they felt like I had finally paid my dues with Joey, my mom surprised me with a POA pony named “Little Britches Lady,” aka Kitty. She was not your average pony. She did every class and excelled at all of them. We even went to the POA World Championships one year. Kitty taught me how to trust horses and that when you put in the time and effort, good things happen. Every horse that was put in my path had a purpose for me. I would not be where I am today without each one.

Scott Reinartz – My first horse’s barn name was Codie. I took her on a trail ride with some friends. We rode down to a river to cool off and get the horses a drink. We were riding down the stream and hit a drop off. Everyone’s horses just swam through and kept walking. Well, when we hit the drop off my mare just sunk. She went completely underwater, I had to pull her around so she could touch bottom literally. It was the scariest thing I had experienced. We walked along the river’s edge until we found the next trail. Lessons I learned from my first horse I’m sure are like lessons you learn with your first child. I learned that not all horses swim; you must work hard and be one hundred percent committed to having a horse. I learned horses could be the most forgiving creatures, and they do communicate with us at some level. I learned it takes a lot of dedication to show and to celebrate the little accomplishments. I learned they are happiest when you give them love, brushing, and treats.

Kathy Tobin – My first horse was a paint, “Bubble Gum.” She was so hard to catch. We’d have to bring a bucket of grain and even that didn’t work. She eventually had a foal, Tutti Fruiti. My friend and I halter broke her by using a push pull method – one pulled the lead rope the other pushed her butt. I don’t know how we didn’t get kicked. Then, as a long yearling, we decided to break her to ride. We only rode bareback so we’d get her close to the fence and hop on. Luckily, she didn’t buck too hard but we got right back on. It took just a few times before we could walk around the pen. Then, our parents found out because we bragged about it and that was the end of our breaking out. I guess the mom taught me perseverance to keep trying to catch her and her foal taught me if you get bucked off you get right back on again and don’t brag. How we survived, I’ll never know.

Nicole Barnes – In true horse-crazy kid style, I made my way through hunter pony lessons and jumping summer camp at an early age before I was introduced to quarter horses and showing. My first show horse was named Alittle Dude Will Do. I got naming rights and settled on “Easy,” though he did not always live up to his name. Under the guidance of Dianne Eppers with assistants Jenny Burton and Valerie Eppers, I started showing in Hunter Under Saddle classes. My third show ever was the Quarter Horse Congress in 1996 when I was just eight years old. Looking back, it’s hard to remember all the highs or lows, but there are a few distinct memories. One day, while working at home with Dianne, I was not able to get my correct lead. Each time I didn’t get it, I owed her $1. I’m not sure if I did pay her, but I owed her a lot by the end of that day! Another memory is when we won our first Quarter Horse Congress championship in 11 & Under Showmanship. He was 16.1, and I was a peanut holding on the end of that shank, but letting go was not an option. I think that is my biggest take away from this horse, never to give up. There were wins and lots of fun learning the horse show ropes while accompanied by my grandparents and family, but it was instilled early to keep going, find a different way, kick with the other leg. No matter what, I knew I loved horse showing from the beginning. I guess you could say that he made me a lifer in this industry.

Ali Hubbell – The first AQHA horse I showed was Divination, aka Big Red. I leased him for a year then bought him. He was the first horse I bought on my own. My parents thought I was crazy to buy him because he wasn’t the easiest horse. I ended up putting my car up as collateral and getting a personal loan to buy him. It was the best decision ever. He was spooky. He was tough. He didn’t know any of the classes I wanted to show in. Sounds perfect right? Even though we had those things against us, he had the biggest heart and tried so hard. I learned so much from him. We ended up winning the Novice Amateur Showmanship at the Congress in 2011. This horse taught me how to trust and how to be a showman. I can never thank him enough for all that he taught me.

Beth Case – The first horse I showed at the Congress in the open taught me to use a longe line. He bucked me off twice before I finally gave in and admitted he needed to be longed. I thought “he’s good-minded, I’ll just ride it out”… wrong. Good minded horses still get fresh.


Natalia DeVencenty – I got my first pony on my fifth birthday; his name was Dream A Little Dream. He was a 12-hand grey pony that I fell in love with the second he walked out of the barn with a big purple bow on him. He took care of me from the cross rails to the short stirrup division until I was 8. He gave me the confidence I needed at the time and fueled the fire of a horse-crazy little girl. As all little ponies do, he taught me that no matter how many times you hit the dirt, you get right back on and keep trying. He also showed me how to trust wholeheartedly and enjoy every second. Dreamer was a part of the family for 13 years and taught us all countless lessons, including how to catch him when he broke through the fence to get to the alfalfa fields.

Jenna Dempze – My first horse was already a seasoned show horse when he came into my life. He was 14, had been there and done that, was bombproof, and he was tough. My parents could not have found a better first horse for me than him. He knew how much to test me without putting me in the wrong spot. One of my favorite memories was a lesson I took from my instructor at the time; I think I was 10 and insisted on riding bareback. After each lesson, we worked a horsemanship pattern. I bet I fell off six times trying to lope the circle in the pattern. My horse knew precisely what he was doing and did his thing until I figured out how to balance and successfully navigate the pattern. He wasn’t the smoothest or the fanciest mover, but he truly taught me how to ride.

Shana Ray – My first horse was a devilish, painted pony named Stormy. My grandparents borrowed her for me from some friends when I was just three years old. Stormy was hard to catch, even in her stall, which was lesson number one for me… get out of the way; those back legs move quick. Our daily rides didn’t go much better. I rode her down the lane out behind the barn. Stormy would wait until we were at the furthest point away from the barn to buck me off. Of course, she would run as fast as she could back to the barn. When you’re three years old, that’s a long walk while crying and stomping. My grandparents would make sure I was okay and then tell me to quit my crying and get back on that pony. This is where the other lessons come in. Perseverance is critical, you’ve got to keep trying, that’s how we get better. My love for horses runs deep because even after that devilish pony named Stormy, I stuck with horses forever.

Sydney Burdick – I didn’t get my first horse until I was 13. Her name was Kerrie, and she was the “red mare” we all know. As a young rider, she was able to push me around and do whatever she wanted. It was hard, but I loved that horse so much. We only ever went to local open shows, and we didn’t always place well, but she was the perfect first horse. She was by no means a push-button horse, and that’s what I needed at the time. I firmly believe every rider needs to have the “red mare” experience. There were times when I felt like giving up because it just was too hard, but I never did. Though our rides were often frustrating, we would never end on a wrong note even if that meant walking around the arena for half an hour to cool down. I think that’s what ended up making us a better team. I learned that one of the worst feelings is getting out of the saddle and thinking to myself, “I wish I could’ve done something different” and being frustrated with it. Sometimes that means doing something you’re already good at to feel like you’ve been productive and can put your horse away less frustrated.

Paige Kemper – The first horse that I felt was really mine was named Apollo, or MagnificentConclusion. My parents got him when I was still in the walk-trot division. I was tiny, and he was a giant teddy bear who had a lazy jog and would never hurt a fly. Apollo was a fantastic first show horse. He taught me an incredible amount of responsibility and accountability. If I neglected my duties towards Apollo, whether it was caring for him, blanketing, or practicing, my parents noticed. I noticed that if I neglected practice, Apollo wasn’t going to perform to the standard I knew he could have. I learned that ignoring practice would always lead to disappointments in the show pen. Not only did he teach me about the responsibility necessary for competing, but he also taught me a lot about how to ride. I had to be stronger and more deliberate with him than I had ever been before because I was so small, and he was so lazy. Apollo was an integral stepping stone for me into successfully competing in the industry and going on to compete for the Oklahoma State Equestrian team. I wouldn’t have asked for anyone different for my first show horse than Apollo.

Ally Fink – My first horse was a paint gelding named Oh Good Heavens, or “Cody.” I got him for my 13th Birthday. He was a fantastic first horse, and I learned so much from him, but the main thing that he taught me was confidence. I had never had a horse before him, and because of this, I was very nervous whenever I showed. He also started my obsession with western riding. He was a fantastic lead changer and, since having him, western riding has become my favorite class. Together, we won three Pinto World Championships and the Novice High Point at the Pinto World Show. The year, I won these awards with Cody was my first world show ever, and it brought out a new competitive side of me that I did not have before. I sold Cody two years after buying him because I bought a more advanced horse. Unfortunately, Cody passed away four years ago, but he lived a wonderful life and taught so many people so many lessons.

Victoria Leen – My first horse, “Zee” came to me when I was 14 years old. He taught me the foundations of everything I have come to know as a rider today. He took me to my first world championship with PtHA back in 2015 where we won my first buckle ever and walked out with a reserve title. I’d asked my parents for a horse since I was around two years old, and when there were no lesson horses at my barn fit to take me where I wanted to go, my parents investigated leasing/purchasing. At the time I got him, I had only done a couple of open local shows. When he came, not only did I get my first horse, but I also got my first pieces of tack: bridle, English saddle, western saddle, saddle pads, girths and cinches, brushes, etc. It was a dream come true for me at the time, and it resembled the start of my journey into breed shows and working towards the goal of winning a world championship one day. Zee served as an essential step along the way to my successes in APHA and now in AQHA, and I will be forever grateful for him.

Lilly Verhage – I got my first horse when I was eleven. I had been leasing a horse in the barn, and later, once I began to show, I finally got my own. She was a 15hh, black and white mare named “Bebe” (Ima Adorable Asset). Bebe was the most stereotypical mare you could imagine, with her pinned back ears as her signature look. But she also had over ten years of showing experience and could do just about anything you asked of her. Although she could do it all, it didn’t always look pretty. She was older and a lot smaller than most of the horses out there. Due to her being this way, all I had to my advantage was to focus on the details. Although it doesn’t always seem like the most crucial thing, details truly matter in horse showing. I would spend the night before and the morning of the shows making sure that we were spotless. I would chalk her legs and make sure there was not a single hair out of place. Bebe taught me that sometimes you won’t have the fanciest horse in the pen, but you still must go out there and show off everything you’ve got to the best of your abilities.

About the Author: Anna Marie Verhage is a full-time student at Elgin Community College and a seasoned, successful competitor on the APHA circuit. In 2019, Anna Marie is looking forward to showing on the APHA circuit with her show partner of four years, All But Zipped.