BY CAROLINE NICKOLAUS, PHELPS MEDIA GROUP
Almost all trainers would agree on the importance of a solid horse-and-rider combination, and some would even argue that having a suitable partnership is half the battle when it comes to creating a winning team in the show ring. The ability to match the right horse or pony to a rider is something that takes skill and experience on the trainer’s part, but when done correctly, riders ultimately become more confident, advance their technique, and are able to hone their skills on a mount with whom they feel comfortable and can trust.
Gary Duffy, owner and trainer at Little Brook Farms based in Saratoga, New York, and Wellington, Florida, has mastered the art of finding suitable horses and ponies for his students, leading them to earn winning titles and championships at some of the most prestigious horse shows across the country. “With a new student, I first evaluate them in a lesson or during a trial period and I put together what I think might work best for them as individuals,” Duffy said.
“I pay attention to how they approach an animal,” Duffy continued. “Some riders say, ‘I don’t want to jump that high or I don’t want to do this because I don’t feel comfortable.’ I just work through what their comfort zone is and then I put together a plan for them and say, ‘This is what I think will work. Let’s try it.’”
Savonna Adell, one of Little Brook Farms’ top riders who competes in the Pony and Junior Hunter divisions, is a prime example of Duffy’s precise matchmaking skills. Her growth as a rider and many accomplishments prove how vital it is to have the correct horse and rider combination. The 12-year-old Michigan native has been training under the team at Little Brook Farms since 2017 and travels to Florida each weekend in the winter to ride and compete.
Adell has taken the pony divisions by storm with her mounts including Sportin’ Around, Laugh Out Loud, and Spellbound. Most recently, the young athlete made her mark in the Junior Hunter and National Hunter Derby ranks with Redeemed, a Holsteiner mare by Cassini. In addition to riding her own, she also catch rides other people”s ponies and horses.
“In the beginning, I knew Savonna was a little on the timid side, so I got her a pony that I knew was going to jump around the ring and be a confidence-builder to help get her to the next level,’ Duffy recalled.
Sportin’ Around, a chestnut gelding that Savonna has ridden for one year, showed her the ropes in the competitive Medium Pony Hunter division and instilled confidence, particularly in the handy rounds.
“Savonna didn’t think she could ever do a handy course and now she is probably one of the best handy riders. That is through the confidence she gained riding ‘Sport,’ who we leased for her first,” Duffy said.
He continued, “When she rode ‘Sport,’ he was a genius in the handy and what she was able to learn from him she carried over to Laugh Out Loud. ‘Sport’ made her a believer in the inside turns and trot jumps and the economy of the handy course that is required nowadays.”
“All of my ponies have taught me so much, especially ‘Sport.’ He is so fun to ride and now the handy rounds are one of my favorite things to do,” Savonna said.
In addition to Sportin’ Around, Savonna has continued to flourish with Laugh Out Loud, which she also shows in the Medium Pony Hunters.
“It was a good match. They were not a winning combination right off the bat, but now they are flourishing together. Savonna is confident and she believes in what I tell her to do and the abilities of herself and the animal,” Duffy said.
The next stepping stone for Savonna was Spellbound, which she piloted in the Children’s Large Pony Hunter division during the Winter Equestrian Festival. The accomplished pair moved up to the Large Pony Hunter division during the ESP Spring Series in Wellington, Florida, and claimed the division’s circuit championship..
“Spellbound was the next level for Savonna. He is a very fancy pony – a very good mover, a great jumper, and he is the quality level that I wanted Savonna to move up to,” Duffy noted.
Duffy also noted the importance of leasing a horse or pony first before purchasing it to ensure that the match is a good one.
“I usually advise my clients to lease a pony before we purchase it because I want to make sure that combination is going to be compatible,” Duffy said. “We will either do a lease with an option to buy or we will go ahead and continue to lease if I think that that animal is going to teach them enough that I can bring them to the next animal, which would be more quality, have better movement and is a better jumper.”
Although it is extremely rewarding for Duffy to see that pairing riders with the right ponies pays off, witnessing the growth and development of his riders is more important to him. Duffy enjoys seeing his riders grow into knowledgeable, well-rounded athletes that truly care for their four-legged partners.
“It is important that they work with the animals back in the barn, at the ring, and really know each pony’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and quirks. I’m more interested in having a very good student learning from me who is going to be like a sponge rather than someone who just wants to walk to the ring and get on and win,” Duffy explained. “I enjoy riders who want to learn and get better.”
“I feel that these animals teach the kids confidence and technique. Now, Savonna has a good riding technique and we are trying to make her rounds that much smoother,” he said.
“I’m glad that Savonna is such a hardworking student,” Duffy said. “That is important because we knew she was a really good rider, but she had to learn confidence. It was like someone going from a private school to college — they have to become good students. In private school, they’re all in the same boat. In college, they’re put into a group of people from all over the country and have to rise to the occasion.”
Savonna has learned many things from Duffy both in and out of the saddle. She believes in her mounts and their abilities, but most of all she has faith in herself that she can bring out the best in each animal.
Duffy said, “Now, it’s the big picture. At times, it is good for them to be a big fish in a little pond, but they do need to go in the ocean now and again.”