By Catie Staszak Media for Heritage Farm
Erin Morera arrived at the 2021 USEF Pony Finals with the utmost preparation. But while the 15-year-old Heritage Farm rider entered the event boasting a long list of wins aboard GC Ponies’ Nominee and her own Tresoro, the combinations were largely untested.
You didn’t hear Morera’s name announced in Wellington, FL, where many riders spend their winter seasons. Instead, she earned her Pony Finals qualifications on the New York winter circuit at venues like Old Salem, The Pines and Gardnertown. With the Devon Horse Show’s cancellation, she spent the spring near home as well, jumping instead at Saratoga.
“Erin had a lot of success with [Nominee and Tresoro], but she hadn’t really been up against the top-tier ponies you’d see at WEF, and with Devon getting cancelled, Pony Finals was really the first time on both of those ponies that she’d been against that many top ponies,” said Heritage Farm trainer Dottie Barnwell Areson.
But Morera’s hard work at home was about to pay off. She and Nominee not only rode to the Reserve Championship in the Large Pony Hunter division, but they would also earn the coveted Overall Grand Pony Hunter Reserve Championship. She and Tresoro finished third overall in the Large Green Pony Hunters.
“We always go [to a championship] hoping it’s going to go well,” Barnwell Areson said, “but [with Erin] never having been in that kind of situation, it was hard to know how she was going to handle the nerves of it all. We had high hopes, but she definitely exceeded expectations.”
Barnwell Areson, who has worked at Heritage for the last 15 years, remains at the operation’s Katona, NY base in the winter, working with riders unable to migrate to Wellington for the winter circuit. The group has affectionately dubbed themselves, the “Winter Warriors,” training and showing through the cold temperatures and inclement weather of the northeast winter season.
The Winter Warriors, many child and pony riders, shined on the championship stage this summer. In addition to Morera’s big moments, Tasia Bumbolow and Varsity Blues finished 18th overall and 16th over fences in the Large Green Pony Hunters at Pony Finals. Mimi Maddock, who did make the trip to Wellington over the winter, made the callback in the USEF Pony Medal Final, finishing 18th overall with Qualen’s Got Magic. McKayla Brombach, who meets up with Heritage at various shows throughout the year, rode to runner-up honors in that event aboard California Dreamin’. Kayla Bumbolow, meanwhile, made her Pony Finals debut.
“It’s a real moment for the kids to have that feeling of having to go in and put the round in,” Barnwell Areson said. “You don’t have extra chances; there’s no warm-up round in the ring. You have one moment, one chance, and it’s such a great exercise in being able to handle those nerves, to handle that pressure.
“It’s so important to have that before you do [the USEF Medal Final], before doing those things on horses,” she continued. “The only way you get good at handling the emotional part of that is to practice, and you can’t duplicate it at a normal horse show. You have to go to championships and do them to get used to how it feels.”
Audrey Geren got her first taste of a championship just a couple weeks after Pony Finals. In the Connecticut Hunter Jumper Association (CHJA) Pre-Children’s Medal Final, held at the Fairfield County Hunt Club, Geren rode to the win aboard Olivia Golden LLC’s Indigo Girl.
“Audrey is a young rider that came to us just this spring,” Barnwell Areson said. “She had only shown in the Short Stirrup a handful of times and had very limited show mileage. We wanted to establish a goal for her that would make her feel like she was working for something that was also within reach. That’s where the CHJA finals are such a great options.”
After watching junior rider Hanna Dolan ride her own Cool to a win in the day’s CHJA Master’s Medal Final, Geren rode to a victory of her own. Ruby Boeding also rode to a top five finish, securing fourth honors aboard Grace Finerman’s Carlsson.
“Seeing the older kids [at Heritage] creates that real wanting to win that class,” Barnwell Areson said. “It gives them that opportunity to practice that at such a young age and at a manageable level. It’s really great preparation for championships that come later on.”
Heritage Farm has committed itself to developing riders from the very beginning stages of their careers, and the operation boasts a program with riders competing in both the short stirrup and the grand prix ring. With program graduates like Lillie Keenan coming up with Heritage through all the grades, it’s a system that has proven to work.
“There’s something to be said about starting out at the highest level and maintaining it,” Barnwell Areson said. “Eight-year-old Kayla Bumbolow knows how to do a haunches-in and a half-pass. It’s something that will make the rest of her career so much easier. It gives you more opportunities to focus on the tiny details when you learn all those other skills when you’re young.”
Barnwell Areson attests, while Heritage is achieving great success with its current group of junior riders, the future also looks especially bright.
“We’re really fortunate to have a lot of depth at the moment,” she said. “It’s no different showing in in the CHJA when you want to be the Pre-Children’s Medal Final winner or when you’re at Lillie Keenan’s level on Nations Cup teams. It’s the same pressure to want to deliver the right round at the right moment. We’re instilling that ability at as young of an age as we can.”