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Development speeds up with the move from the hunters to the jumpers
2023-07-20
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Let’s call it a post-Covid jump start.

As usual, there is plenty on the go at Foothills Farm, even more so as the Rick Smith Memorial Trillium Show draws near (July 21st – 23rd in Chelmsford).

So while there is plenty to get long-time coach/rider Cathy Inch excited, it is the transition being made by a handful of her more youthful participants this summer that has her particularly stoked.

“You have a group of kids at this level that when they go in a jump-off, they go in it to win it,” said Inch. “They are fast – and they are feeding off one another. Their desire to be top at what they are doing is pretty amazing.”

Ella Palladino may have been the trail-blazer among the young guns, but Inch is equally as anxious to see how the development plays out for the likes of Holly Heikkila, Adrian Cecchetto, Adrianna Whynott and others.

Some joined the Foothills folks in spending some time, last winter, in Florida, building a base for the move from the hunter to jumper circuit on a more consistent basis, while others have focused their efforts solely on the summer months’ training.

(brief explanation: where hunter events require horses to clear various obstacles on the course, judges are marking based on rider ability, horse ability and style; jumper events, by comparison, are speed-oriented, timed with faults – knocking down parts of a jump or failing to clear a jump – the only other factors in play)

“I love the jumpers a lot more – it’s so much more exciting,” said Heikkila.

Apparently, the well-spoken 13 year-old is quite the quick study.

“She walked into the jumper circuit with a bang,” said Inch. “She had a great Florida, she’s continued and had a great spring. She’s ahead of schedule.”

Not surprisingly, the mutual-admiration society in this particular tandem runs very much in both directions. “Cathy is great at knowing the horse and knowing what you (the rider) are good at too, so she will tell me which jumps to speed to and which to slow down.”

“She will tell you which leg, which reign to focus on – and if you do it properly, things should go well.”

While Inch is certainly at the forefront of the teachings at Foothills, she has recently welcomed back former rider Kelly Gravelle, making a return to coaching in part due to the interest that her daughter, Jorja (15 years old) has shown in the sport. Well that and the fact that the Cathy – Kelly partnership is a formidable one.

“I’ve been teaching since I was about 14,” said Gravelle, who stepped away for school, travel and family at various times, making her way back most recently after a ten year hiatus. “I am not afraid of the difficult horses; some people are more nervous. I could always ride all of the horses: the show horses, the ones that came in for training.”

“The other thing is that I like the homework better than the showing,” Gravelle noted. “Cathy and I work well together because she would take some kids to the horse shows and I would be at home, training the kids that weren’t showing that weekend.”

Both women, however, share that common bond of the love of teaching, with Gravelle able to easily outline the riders that she really tends to gravitate to. “I appreciate when the kids’ priority is the horse – the love of the horse – more than anything,” she said. “If they build a relationship with the horse, I find they are far more successful.”

That might go a long way towards explaining the rapid rise that Heikkila has enjoyed.

“Number one for me is the horses,” stated the junior ambassador with the OHJA (Ontario Hunter Jumper Association) a little later that evening. “You get to develop a bond with them that is super special. It’s just an incredible experience that I am very grateful for.”

Soon-to-be teenager Adrian Cecchetto is hoping to extend that bond for a lifetime, his sights currently set on becoming a veterinarian. “I just love being around animals, any kind – but I think it would be easier for me to start on horses, just because I have been around them my entire life.”

“I am very calm around them.”

Cecchetto has also taken advantage of visits the vets might make to Foothills in order to get an early start on his studies. “I learned how to count a heartbeat,” he explained. “The front leg has a little shoulder and you put your fingers right in between there. A normal heartbeat is around ten or eleven.”

Of course, the majority of his time is actually spent on his riding skills – and given that he is joining Heikkila and others in jumper competitions this summer, it is one area that he certainly does not want to short change.

“With hunter, you can take it a lot slower and use your room,” said Cecchetto. “You have a lot of room to get yourself back after a jump. Jumpers is about jump, land, go. It’s a lot of balance that you have to learn, get yourself back up easily, a lot of control.”

Come the weekend, the end result of their efforts will be on display, albeit at an event that has a slightly different vibe than most of the other horse shows these young riders will experience.

“It’s just a celebration of Rick,” suggested Inch, thankful for this annual opportunity to share the party with so many equestrian folks who knew Smith all too well. “It’s a lot of fun; the air is just different.”

“The numbers are bigger, but I think it’s more about the atmosphere that is so representative of what Rick was all about.”

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