BY April Bilodeau
Most junior riders competing at the top of the circuit have followed a specific plan: Start in the Pony Hunters, then move up to the 3’ to 3’3” classes, followed by the 3’6” equitation and beyond.
But for 15-year-old Ella Dalton, that path looked a little different.
In 2017, she attended her first USEF rated horse show, showing in the Walk-Trot aboard a pony named Prince Charming. Her next rated show wasn’t until 2021 where she competed in the 2’ equitation and hunters.
While attending HITS Thermal, Dalton was exposed to just how much opportunity there was for her in the horse world.
“Going from the smaller shows on the west coast to Thermal was an eye opening experience,” Dalton tells The Plaid Horse. “It really showed me just how many fantastic events these upper level horse shows have.”
So with the support of her father, Matt Dalton, they made the decision to pursue a more serious path as a junior rider—and on a fast-tracked timeline.
“We would walk into these arenas and we just never knew anything like this existed,” says Matt. “It was really exciting for us to see all of the possibilities.”
Dalton began riding at Granite Bay Farm in Thousand Oaks, CA, in May 2022. Under the training of Katie Hauss, Lindsay Stefanko, and Alex Dirickson, Dalton has made her way up the divisions and started showing in the 3’3” hunters, equitation, and 1.20 m jumpers, even showing at Capital Challenge in 2022 aboard her horse Cristageno.
After attending her first major final, she set the goal to qualify for more indoor finals in 2023. With that goal in mind, she began showing almost every weekend, rotating divisions and horses for each show.
From the Walk-Trot to the Big Time
Today, Dalton owns seven horses, each one serving a certain purpose for her riding. During the week, she will go to school and then ride the ones who are at home for the week, taking the ones at the show into the ring on the weekends.
Her hard work and dedication has paid off as she placed third overall at the 2023 Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter National Championship – West in the Large Junior Hunter 3’3” 15 and Under division. In the fall, she plans to compete at Capital Challenge, the National Horse Show, and Harrisburg. She is also qualified for the The Hamel Foundation NHS 3’3” Medal. In the equitation, she’ll be showing her horse, Vondel DH Z.
In addition to her third place ribbon at Junior Hunter Finals, she also won the Sportsmanship Award.
“I was equally as proud of that as I was of the third place,” says Lindsay Stefanko.
Dalton’s longer-term goal is to qualify for the 3’6” equitation finals, and she hopes to compete in college as well. Post-graduate, Dalton hopes to open up her very own barn.
Gratitude for Her Team
While Dalton naturally possesses talent and dedication, she and her father are quick to recognize the many people that stand in her corner and make it all possible.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” says Dalton. “I don’t do this on my own.” She and her father express great appreciation to her trainers for not only their tutelage but also for giving up most weekends to be up early at a horse show. The veterinarians, grooms, horse transporters, and braiders have all made it possible for Dalton to succeed in the way that she has.
To repay those that give her so much, Dalton tries to do her part around the barn by helping out and learning wherever she can.
“I try to be involved as much as possible,” says Dalton. “My advice to all riders would be to go to the barn as much as they can, even if they aren’t riding. Just to help and bond with the horses is great!”
Trainer Katie Hauss has taken notice of her student’s hard work. “She’s really dedicated to the sport and very passionate about it,” says Hauss. “She knew that at her age she was a little behind the curve with the “A” circuit shows, so we put her on a fast track and she committed to it.”
Parenting on the Circuit
Before Dalton was involved with horses, her father, Matt Dalton, didn’t know much about them.
“Originally, I got into it because I love my daughter and I love spending time with her,” says Matt. Quickly, he recognized the less apparent benefit of the horses.
“I love animals, but I never spent much time with horses,” he says. “They’re just such fantastic animals.”
Now a regular attendee at almost every one of Ella’s horse shows, Matt appreciates watching his daughter learn and develop not only as a rider but as a person.
“These are life-long lessons that she’s learning. She’s learning the value of courage, personal responsibility, and accountability,” he says.
“Personally, I couldn’t care less about the blue ribbons. It’s when I see her finish last and congratulate the winner, or when she wins and supports those that finish below her, that’s what makes me the most proud.”
“I encourage her to be just a little bit better each day in all aspects of her life,” he adds. “I believe these small, incremental changes have a large cumulative effect over time. This is a commitment in both time and finances, but the experience it provides our children is invaluable, at whatever level is feasible.”
“There are great people and families involved in the sport,” says Matt. “They are good, like-minded, family-oriented individuals who want the best for their sons and daughters. What better environment for your children?”