After judging the National Academy Championship Horse Show last year, Mark Bodnar came away with a single goal: Bring some of his own riders back to compete.
Bodnar, a trainer at Merriehill Farm in Marengo, said the goal was to give his riders a broader exposure to the sport.
“I saw what a special event it was,” Bodnar said. “As soon as I came home, I said, ‘Let’s put some riders together and give them a goal to achieve.’ ”
Merriehill sent four riders to the national horse show Nov. 1 to 3 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Jessica Gundelach of Marengo, Katie Haberkorn (Huntley) and Allie Clutter (Roscoe) advanced through all three rounds of competition to qualify for the national finals round. Zachary Wallace of Algonquin, who has been riding horses just over a year, made it into the semifinal round.
Haberkorn and Gundelach competed in the 13- to 14-year-old division, Wallace in the 11-12 division and Clutter in the 7-8 division. In the finals, Gundelach finished sixth in pleasure and ninth in equitation. Haberkorn was 10th in pleasure and eighth in equitation.
Bodnar said it was a deep and competitive event with the best riders in the country. Outside of the competition, however, it was more of a friendly, learning experience for the riders.
This year, the show donated $25,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. In its 14th year, the show has donated more than $200,000 to the charity.
“It was very much a family atmosphere,” Bodnar said. “All the barns raised money for St. Jude’s.”
Gundelach won two qualifying rounds in the pleasure and equitation competition. Pleasure is centered on how the horse performs, and equitation focuses on the rider.
Competing in a national event was a little overwhelming at first because of the number of competitors, Gundelach said.
“There was a lot of people in the ring with you, and you had to find your own spot on the rail,” Gundelach said. “I jumped right in with what I learned in my lessons.”
Gundelach said she prefers competing in pleasure, and found it easier to lead her horse.
“I can get the best out of my horse easier than I can get the best out of myself,” Gundelach said. “For pleasure, you have to have OK equitation. It has to be functional. You don’t have to focus on everything and be perfect.”
For her fifth birthday, Gundelach received riding lessons as a gift.
“When I was little, I was at my grandma’s house and there was a horse farm across the street,” Gundelach said. “I always wanted to take riding lessons.
Gundelach soon caught the competitive bug and realized that, as much as she liked riding, it was much more fun when she was going up against other riders.
“My favorite part is competing,” Gundelach said. “I’m really competitive and I like to see how I do against other people.”
• Rob Smith is a sports writer for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.