BY SISSY WICKES
For some riders, December 1 and the end of their junior riding careers is like the click of a locked door. Closed, never to be walked through again. It is a date that many of our young equestrians dread: amateur means old, no more equitation, no more barn camaraderie. For Isabella Littlejohn, aging out is certainly bittersweet, but not the end of her equestrian life. The seventeen year old rider is looking forward to achieving her next goal: NCAA Equestrian. Littlejohn faces the crescendo of her last equitation finals and indoor hunter shows while keeping her eye on the future. The young Texan hopes to be accepted into a college offering NCAA Equestrian- the next step on her riding path.
Isabella has been tagging along to the barn with her mother, Nancy, since she was a toddler. With persistence, she convinced her mother to let her first sit on a horse, then go on to take lessons, and the stage was set. Nancy and Isabella began to travel together on the show circuit from Texas to New York before Isabella attended first grade. The family, including Isabella’s father, Erik, became seasoned road warriors- an experience that knit them together. Nancy recalls, “Going to shows together is a special time. All of the hours in the car, the traveling all over the country, the hotel rooms- it gives you a lot of time with each other.” In addition to family closeness, Nancy appreciates the positive effect that horse showing has had on Isabella as a person. “I think riding is so valuable in the lessons of commitment and responsibility that it provides.” She attributes Isabella’s self- motivation and ability to balance riding and academics as skills learned as
a competitive rider.
As every equestrian family understands, riding at any level requires a significant commitment of time, money, and personal investment. Every horse show day is a long day- from pre-dawn alarms to hour after hour at the ring to bleary- eyed drives home. The upside for the Littlejohn’s is the common experience that riding offers. As a family, they travel the country and experience the inevitable roller coaster of competition together. Good days in the ring to disappointments, horses going from healthy to injured, easy travel to messy- it all became part of the composite of Isabella’s young life. Nancy and Erik believe absolutely in the value of the equestrian experience. “Riding led Isabella to discover the value of hard work as a necessary part of success. There is no cutting corners with riding,” Nancy explains. “It has also made her humble and appreciative of every opportunity that she has. She is great at balancing one hundred things because that, too, is part of riding and traveling to shows.”
Riding is the passion of Isabella’s life. She attends a local school in Texas and has had a traditional academic path throughout her riding career. The demands of a brick and mortar school for an athlete that travels extensively are substantial. To Isabella, it has meant learning to work in any space available and planning out her time. She takes her homework on the road and makes sure she makes deadlines. Proms, football games, and school functions are all enjoyed when her show schedule permits. Nancy describes “ a good mixtures of lives” for her daughter between her riding career and her home life. “We have tried to keep a normal school schedule for her so that she can experience as much as possible with her friends at home.”
Isabella is enthusiastic about the effects of riding on her life. “It taught me so many things as a young person. I was taking care of a horse as a five year old! It teaches you responsibility at such a young age and it teaches you to be accountable for your own actions. At some point, you cannot blame your horse, another person, or something else.” Additionally, the young equestrian describes an understanding of being part of an intricate, well-oiled machine that develops, delivers, and enhances her equestrian success. “There are so many people that contribute to my riding. It makes me realize that nothing is completely because of me. If I have a great day or do something good, it is not just about me, but all of the people who have helped me get there.”
Isabella has had a fun, successful junior career- which included commandeering two of her mother’s adult hunters, Rockaway and Loxley. In both cases, Isabella was in need of a Junior Hunter and trainer Archie Cox suggested that she try Nancy’s horses. Isabella laughs, “Yes, I ended up with two of my mother’s three foot horses, and they both just killed it in the Juniors!” She began to ride Rockaway after purchasing her horse of a lifetime, Splendid. “When we bought Splendid, he was green and I was green, so we needed a horse for me to transition up to the Junior Hunters. Rockaway stepped up and has been a rock star ever since.” In 2018, Littlejohn and Rockaway garnered top ribbons in the Large Junior Hunter division at the Devon Horse Show as well as numerous championships across the country.
Loxley got the call to step up after Isabella’s beloved mount, Splendid, had to undergo colic surgery in March, 2018. She explains, “I was at a show and Loxley happened to be there, which was rare because he doesn’t show much. I asked if I could ride him and I loved him. We got him measured and showed him that weekend.” Isabella found her stride with Loxley quickly and the pair was champion that week, thereby qualifying for USEF Junior Hunter Finals. “We did Junior Hunter Finals as our third show. It was his first time on a grass field, so he was a bit green, but a real trooper.” Isabella and Loxley went on to have a fabulous summer together. “We started saying that 88 was his lucky number,’” she laughs, “because that is the score that he got most often. It went from zero to great really quickly, and now he’s one of Archie’s favorites.”
The Littlejohn family will head east to participate in the indoor circuit with Rockaway in the Large Junior Hunters and Isabella in equitation finals. The significance of this last journey together to indoors is not lost on them. Isabella sighs,” It will be bittersweet. I am sad that we will be selling every horse except for Splendid. I am sure I will keep showing, but at a different level. I really hope that I can start competitive riding at college next fall and will stay home this winter and enjoy the rest of my senior year. Not doing nine weeks in Thermal gives me time at home.”
Isabella feels the same pressure to do well this final year as she has in previous years. “I put pressure on myself,” she states. “My parents are so supportive and help me when I get upset about not doing well. My mother especially helps me to not get stuck in the negative and move on. I know to trust my horses and ride the way I know how to ride. But mostly, I don’t want to let down my horses and Archie. I owe so much to them.” The young rider credits her coach for her success. “He transformed me as a rider. I went from good to being competitive on a national level. He taught me what it takes to win and gave me the skill set to do it.”
Littlejohn aspires to achieve a NCEA team berth. “I look forward to the social aspect of riding that NCEA provides. It is an individual sport, so to be able to ride and join a team with a great group of girls is so exciting. It is like being on a soccer team where you win and lose as a group and are committed to each other.” She will explore her options this year and hopes to be invited to one of the NCAA Equestrian schools next fall.
As the family gears up for their final indoor tour, they will watch their daughter compete for the last time as a junior rider under the tutelage of Archie Cox. Yet, as one door closes, another may open on the collegiate scene where rooting at shows is at another level. Trust that this family will not applaud a round for the last time in 2018, but will move on to the next equestrian adventure with Isabella Littlejohn.
About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist, an autism advocate and Editor of The Plaid Horse. 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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