Three Planes and a Car

Cover Story: Junior Rider McKenna Norris- See this story and more in the 2017 Young Horse Issue by CLICKING HERE!


Riding takes courage. Riding takes commitment. Riding takes working with what you have. For junior rider McKenna Norris, riding means three planes and a car.

McKenna lives in Sun Valley, Idaho, and is a senior at the Wood River High School. Like many other seventeen year olds, she juggles the demands of schoolwork, college preparation, and her commitment to equestrian sport. The difference is that McKenna keeps her horses in Santa Rosa, California. For her to ride, she takes three planes and a car to get to the barn. Sun Valley to Salt Lake, Salt Lake to Portland, Portland to Santa Rosa. And then, a car trip.

In the winter of 2017, McKenna left her home at 6 am on Thursday mornings to arrive in Thermal, CA on Thursday afternoons. With virtually no practice sessions, she walked into the show ring against the best on the West Coast. Focused and determined, she deftly balances a 3.8 GPA, AP courses, and college applications with top level horsemanship. Why travel 1000 miles to ride? Because McKenna has a plan; she has a vision; she has a mission. And, she has always worked with what she has.


Norris grew up riding Quarter Horses and Arabians. Born in Washington state, McKenna was introduced to Quarter Horses by her mother Kelli, who competed at a national level on the Quarter Horse show circuit. McKenna began her riding career exclusively in a Western saddle and participated in reining and hack competitions. She saw an Arabian horse in a field, fell in love with it, and brought it into her life to train, eventually competing successfully on the Arabian show circuit. Even as a kid, McKenna hit her target- going around, through, or over any obstacles in her path.

At the age twelve, she and her family moved to Sun Valley, Idaho. No more Quarter Horse or Arabian shows, no breed circuits. McKenna decided that it was time to choose between dressage and jumping. “Dressage looked very difficult, and I don’t have long legs,” she laughs. “So, I went with jumping.” She found a local barn and began her jumping career. No prior experience? No problem. No formal training in how to jump? No worries. What is our modern “how-to” source? YouTube, of course!

McKenna Norris taught herself the mechanics of jumping by studying it on her computer. She watched YouTube videos, George Morris clinic videos, instructional videos- anything that would teach her the skill of jumping. She watched and listened, backed up the video, and watched and listened again. Locating a local barn, McKenna began her metamorphosis into a hunter/jumper rider. She knew the methodology of jumping a horse and it was up to her to learn the feel of jumping a horse. Again, fuelled by initiative and drive, she honed her skills. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she explains. “But, I kept learning.” Soon, her skill level as a hunter rider elevated to competing on the “A’ show circuit in the Pacific Northwest on her hunters.

Next on the Norris agenda: equitation. Once again acting as her own advocate, she searched for equitation horses to lease. Her investigation led her to message California trainer, Julie Young of Silver Bay Stables. The two had met previously when McKenna was in California researching “colleges around good barns,” as she puts it. She saw an interesting equitation horse of Julie’s and arranged to travel to California to try him. The horse trial was a moment of providence.

“In the first lesson I had with Julie, I knew that I could learn from her. I fell in love with her program and how she treated the horses. A week of riding with her taught me so much.” McKenna worked with Julie as she tried the horse, Carinus. Never daunted, she stepped up not only to show him, but to win the THIS medal out of 47 entries at the prestigious Menlo Charity Horse Show. Quite a debut!

“When I went to try horses, and actually experienced [Julie’s] teaching, it was a mind opening experience and I had to move down there!” McKenna exclaims. For most young riders, the additional burden of travel on top of the demands of a traditional school would prove too weighty. For Norris, it is just another brick to place in the roadbed of her journey toward the top of the junior hunter/jumper world.

Julie Young brings a unique resume to the business. She spent a great deal of her equestrian career as a top vaulting competitor and coach. Vaulting is often described as gymnastics on horseback. It demands a high degree of horsemanship and athleticism. As a child, Julie began in the hunter/jumper discipline, but moved to vaulting as horse shows became too expensive. “Hunter/jumper became too costly, so I concentrated on vaulting, which I could do for $100 per month. I took advantage of the opportunity and gave it 110%.” Young participated in the World Equestrian Games as both a competitor and coach. She draws many parallels between the two sports. “ Vaulting is about athleticism, balance, and fitness. It is driven by the mental side of sport, much like the hunter/jumper discipline.” Like McKenna, Julie had the experience of little practice between competitions. “I can identify with [McKenna.] I had no horse at home and could only practice at meets. It’s about focus. When she is home, she needs to focus on being a senior in high school. When she is at the barn, she focuses on riding.” She encourages McKenna to make the most of where she is, and not to stress about where she isn’t.

Young explains the development of her successful relationship with Norris. “Mckenna has a great deal of underlying talent. When I first taught her, a lot of pieces that most kids develop through lessons and horse shows were missing.” Blessed with a great sense of rhythm and feel, McKenna only lacked saddle time and ring experience. Julie credits McKenna’s horse, Carinus, as instrumental to her rapid success. “He is a good teacher and gives her tremendous confidence and feel.” McKenna’s hunters, Overdressed and Epic, have been reaping the rewards of Carinus’ teachings with numerous tri-colors.

Silver Bay Stables in Santa Rosa, California is a small, unique business. Young imports a substantial number of horses for clients and sales. She enjoys “Americanizing” the imports for the hunter, jumper, and equitation rings. She shows them to achieve solid consistency and endeavors to match them well with their next rider. With few clients owning multiple horses, Young is able to provide individualized, tailored training programs. Julie’s skills in transitioning horses from one job to the next is another key reason why McKenna specifically commutes a long distance to Silver Bay Stables. With the assistance of Julie, she is learning to identify, purchase, and develop horses that have the potential to become successful in the top echelons of both the equitation and junior hunter rings. This spring, she traveled with Julie and her parents to Europe to participate in her own horse selection process and to learn the business of importing horses and Americanizing them for resale.

How does the team handle the inherent difficulty of not riding between horse shows? Julie and McKenna both participate in formulating a program for her horses. “I know how [McKenna] wants them so that she can just get on and go,” Young explains. “We spend a lot of time discussing how they are going and what needs improvement. We discuss how they feel physically, what bits to use, and each round they have.” McKenna has learned to stave off nerves by keeping expectations low. “I tell myself that it is just one round, and there is always another horse show. I had to get used to not riding, being home with just schoolwork, and flying out to ride. I just had to get used to it.”

In addition to mapping show and travel schedules for herself and her horses, McKenna is also responsible for budgeting expenses. On a regular basis, she presents a detailed cost sheet to her parents. Blessed with the opportunity to ride at this level, the young rider is keenly aware of the financial commitment involved. From training to travel to cost, she is involved in every aspect of her riding experience.

Desire is the catalyst for commitment. But, it is motivation and determination that propel you to the unrelenting pursuit of a goal, regardless of logistics or geography. Resourceful, talented, and self reliant, McKenna Norris is a force. Three planes and a car.

See this story and more in the 2017 Young Horse Issue by CLICKING HERE!


About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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