Kentucky Calling: Laila Murad’s Journey to Pony Finals

Laila Murad & Out of the Blue at Giants Steps Charity Classic 2019, Sonoma Horse Park

The very first signs that Laila Murad was eager to ride came at the local farmer’s market. Each Saturday, without fail, the then-3-year-old Laila was unswervingly drawn to the ponies at the Marin Country Mart near her home in Tiburon, CA. After a year without outgrowing the weekly ritual, Laila had her parents convinced she should begin formal riding lessons. 

“At that point, Laila was 4, and we thought maybe she should have a proper lesson,” says Bahya Murad, Laila’s mom. “We tried many different activities —ballet, gymnastics, soccer, tennis, swimming, piano, lacrosse…one by one, they all fell by the wayside. Riding was the only activity she was keen to do.”

After two years working on the basics at Patrick Seaton Stables, Laila’s eyes were opened to horse shows when she joined the show team to watch and spend the day at Sonoma Horse Park. And with that, Laila caught the horse show bug as well.

A Winning Start

With her first pony, Can’t Deny It (“Cappi”), 6-year-old Laila made her own horse show debut at Sonoma Horse Park in September 2017.

“We went to the show thinking she was doing Leadline,” said Murad. “But once we were there, Laila was entered in the crossrails division. She had never done a course before; she couldn’t remember which way to go. Everyone was cheering her on and telling her which jump to do next. She ended up with an 8th place ribbon in the under saddle, which was very special. From that experience, Laila knew she really wanted to show and took riding more seriously.”

Laila’s next pony, Captain Jack (“Jack”), brought the young rider through the ranks from the crossrail division to the Small Pony Hunter division. In September 2018, at their first show together, they were champion in the crossrail division. The pair moved up to the Short Stirrup and then again up to the Children’s Pony Hunters and Small Pony Hunters in April 2019, championship ribbons following each step of their way.

Shortly thereafter, the lease was ending on Captain Jack, and Laila was ready to move up to the medium division. 

Traci Brooks of Balmoral had just the right pony for her: Out of the Blue (“Nova”).

“We got Nova about five years ago for one of our kids,” Brooks says of the medium pony gelding. “We bought him from a trainer friend in Ohio. We needed a special pony because our client was small and needed a pony with great temperament. Nova knows his job. He’s very brave and confident in himself which makes his rider also feel very confident.”

To gain additional miles, Laila also leased the medium pony Farmore Good as Gold (“Aiden”) to campaign alongside Nova. Switching to the Medium Pony Hunters and showing in August within a few days of acquiring Nova and leasing Aiden provided a learning curve for Laila. So she was particularly excited to win blue ribbons with Aiden in the Small/Medium Children’s Hunter division, and with Nova in the medium ponies at Menlo Charity Horse Show in August 2019, as well as winning the $500 Pony Hunter Classic with Aiden and taking 3rd with Nova at Paso Robles Horse Park in November.

Ticket To Ride

By the start of the 2020 season, Laila set the goal of qualifying for Pony Finals. Despite a slight setback in December recovering from a wrist injury, Laila began her winter season at the Desert International Horse Park, earning reserve champion in the medium Ponies with Nova during week two and qualifying for Pony Finals. The pair were again reserve champion during week four and were the mid-circuit reserve champion.

Laila also fit in a week at the Murieta Winter Classic in February with both Aiden and Nova. She won the $1,500 derby challenge with Aiden and finished 3rd with Nova. It was the perfect ending to Laila’s lease with Aiden.

“I do get very nervous, but then I try to take a deep breath and I feel calmer,” says Laila. “I watch everyone’s rounds.”

“It helps that, at the barn, she trains with a variety of riders and that everyone is supportive of one another,” adds Murad. “She was the youngest on the show team, and that challenged her.”

When the 2020 season unexpectedly shut down due to the Coronavirus, Laila wasn’t sure she would be able to attend Pony Finals. But once the invitation arrived in June, Laila and her parents made the decision to honor her goal. 

“It wasn’t a simple decision. Laila hadn’t been riding in over two months because of the shelter-in-place order, and we needed to change plans many times to conform to state COVID guidelines and ensure we were keeping our family and others safe. We knew Laila would be going to Pony Finals with Traci Brooks so we decided to move down to L.A. to train at Balmoral in final preparation.” 

“Traci and Carleton Brooks’ reputation precedes them. They are amazing trainers with great experience and understanding of horses and riders. Traci teaches in a way that really helps Laila understand what she is learning and when Carleton speaks, you just listen,” Murad says. “There is so much combined knowledge and wisdom in their teaching which truly makes them a dream team! Balmoral Farms is also a beautiful facility with two barns, one in Agoura Hills and one in the heart of Brentwood, where Laila trained. You can’t even tell it’s there and it feels like an oasis nested in the middle of houses. The horses are amazingly cared for and riders get to be in a beautiful setting”.

For a few weeks in June and July, Brooks worked with Laila on the three phases that she would compete in at Pony Finals: the model, the hack, and the over fences.

“First, we worked on scores in the under saddle,” says Brooks. “For instance, Laila would trot past me, and I would say, ‘That’s a [score of] 75. How would you make it an 85?’ There are three judges in every class, so, specific to the under saddle, a judge is always looking at you. We’ll talk about how to manage that and how to get seen.”

“Pony Finals can be nerve wracking, and the kids get worked up,” Brooks adds. “The first year is especially challenging. The kids can forget the course or forget to count strides or to go straight. I work on making that automatic. I’m trying to give Laila a visual and a feeling of what it will be like and what to expect.”

“Our plan was to go for Laila to have the experience,” says Murad. “There were no expectations.”

And for Laila, the joy of riding goes beyond the excitement of winning blue ribbons. More important, she says, is the bond with your ponies and trainers, your barn family, and the friendships from the shows.

Unfortunately, Pony Finals were canceled in 2020. “Laila showed at the Kentucky Summer Classic and had a great round in the mediums in the morning. But by afternoon, we got a call from Traci telling us Pony Finals were canceled. Laila was very disappointed but we were grateful for the learning experience and that Laila had a chance to see and show at the Kentucky Horse Park.”

Two weeks later, after a quarantine at home in Tiburon, Laila moved back to L.A. to train and try to qualify for Pony Finals 2021. She went home for a couple of months for training with Ray Texel after the Desert International Horse Park Sunshine Series in November, before relocating to La Quinta for the Desert Circuit in January. Once school resumed in-person after mid-Desert Circuit in March, Laila went back to her hometown of Tiburon, training with Texel on her new jumper Alfonsine Manciaise (“Alfie”), acquired from Gut Einhaus in Wellington, FL. Laila also leased Cover Girl (“Carmen”) to help her transition to jumpers and traveled to horse shows to meet up with Brooks and Nova.

Laila and Nova earned champion in January 2021 at week 2 of Desert International Horse Park qualifying for Pony Finals 2021 and reserve champion at Memorial Day Classic in May at Hansen Dam Horse Park. 

“I’ve been to different horse shows, and I’ve made friends from different cities and states that I probably wouldn’t have made if I didn’t ride,” says Laila, now 10 years old. “It’s been great fun meeting other riders and we’ve created a good group of pony friends. I’m looking forward to continuing that and being at Pony Finals with my Balmoral teammates and friends from different barns, especially since I’m hoping to fully transition to horses afterwards.” 

“We’ve had a strong Zone 10 medium division this season. Sometimes you do well, and other times your friends do better. I don’t see myself as the best rider but I feel I work hard at it and I can be a rider that adds to the ring. At the end of the day, we all laugh and celebrate being at the horse show with a boba or an Italian soda. Because of my age, I can still be in ponies for a few more years, and I know there is more for me to accomplish and learn; however, I would like to try something different and I’m very excited about jumpers.” 

Laila & Captain Jack, HMI Equestrian Challenge 2018

Photos by Katie Browne Photography, Cathrin Cammett Photgraphy, Alden Corrigan Media,
GrandPix Photography, McCool Photography, Shawn McMillen, Sara Shier Photography & Bahya Murad

Laila Murad’s Results

  • May 12, 2018: Champion, Crossrails Hunter, Jack, SHP Spring Classic, Sonoma Horse Park
  • May 13, 2018: Champion, Crossrails Equitation, Jack, SHP Spring Classic, Sonoma Horse Park
  • May 19, 2018: Reserve Champion, Short Stirrup, Jack, HMI Equestrian Challenge, Sonoma Horse Park
  • July 1, 2018: Reserve Champion, Short Stirrup, Jack, Bay Area Summer Festival, Horsepark at Woodside
  • September 15, 2018: Champion, Short Stirrup, Jack, Strides and Tides, Sonoma Horse Park
  • February 3, 2019: Champion, Short Stirrup, Jack, Hits Horse Shows Week II, Desert International Horse Park, Thermal
  • February 10, 2019: Champion, Children Hunter Pony, Jack, Hits Horse Shows Week III, Desert International Horse Park, Thermal
  • April 19, 2019: Champion, Small Pony Hunter, Jack, Paso Robles Spring Classics, Paso Robles Horse Park
  • November 10, 2019: Champion, $500 Pony Hunter Classic, Aiden (& 3rd with Nova), Paso Park Oak Tree Classic, Paso Robles Horse Park
  • Laila ended her 2019 season with a Zone 10 4th Place with Nova and 9th Place with Aiden in USHJA’s Horse Zone of the Year in the Medium Hunter Pony
  • January 26, 2020: Reserve Champion, Medium Hunter Pony, Nova, Desert Circuit II, Desert International Horse Park, Thermal
  • February 9, 2020: Reserve Champion, Medium Hunter Pony and Mid-Circuit Reserve Champion, Nova, Desert Circuit IV, Desert International Horse Park, Thermal
  • February 19, 2020: Champion, $1500 Derby Challenge with Aiden and 3rd with Nova, Northern Winter Classic, Murieta Equestrian Center
  • Laila ended her 2020 season with a Zone 10 3rd Place with Nova in USHJA’s Horse Zone of the Year in the Medium Hunter Pony
  • January 26, 2020: Reserve Champion, Medium Hunter Pony, Nova, Desert Circuit
  • January 24, 2021: Champion, Medium Hunter Pony, Nova, Desert Circuit II, Desert International Horse Park
  • May 30, 2021: Reserve Champion, Medium Hunter Pony, Nova, Memorial Day Classic, Hansen Dam Horse Park

*This story was originally published in the August 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!