Chemistry and connection—it’s vital to all great relationships. However, what about the relationship between horse and rider? We’ve all seen that moment captured as they move effortlessly together—the magic as they share that strong connection, moving as one.
Three Valley teens understand that connection—a special relationship between horse and rider is critical to competitive show jumping—one built on strong ethics of hard work, endless hours of practice, dedication, and skill. Emma Coulthard, Macy Mitchell and McKenna Norris all thrive on that irresistible smell of the arena: part sweat, part fly spray and part dream-come-true.
“It takes years to build essential relationship ingredients between a horse and rider,” said 16-year-old WRHS junior McKenna Norris, who began riding at age 3. “I have a photo of me when I was a couple months old in diapers on my mom’s quarter horse with her in a Western saddle, so there was never a time horses haven’t been a part of my life.”
Norris, who maintains a 3.8 grade point average, grew up in Seattle, but for the past five years has called Sun Valley home. She takes her sport seriously with her eye on qualifying for the Olympics.
“You build a relationship with an animal that doesn’t speak, so you have to communicate with your hands and your body,” Norris offered, as she groomed her horse Socke (pronounced Saki). Socke seemed quite familiar and pleased with his owner as she fed him hard candy peppermints. “You learn responsibility because you have to learn how to feed it, take care of it, and understand how to do the right things when it gets injured.”
Norris has competed in the quarter horse, Arabian, and currently in the hunter jumper circuit. During her time in the Arabian circuit, Norris was U.S and Canadian national champion. She currently competes in the junior hunters, junior medals, and international derbies. She takes four classes in school every day to get out at noon, including two classes online. This is all done so she can ride both her horses, Spanky and Socke, Tuesday through Saturday, year-round.
“A horse that weighs 1,000 pounds and not only allows you to sit on its back, but is actually prepared to work with you because it wants to work with you, that tells you it’s a pretty special relationship,” Norris explained. “But, if a horse doesn’t want to cooperate with you, well, let’s just say it’s not going to go well!”
Norris got sidetracked last season with a late start in competition due to a pulmonary embolism: a blood clot in her right lung. “I was out for three and a half months and missed the biggest horse show of the season. It hurt me in the point situation,” she said.
But Norris made up for lost time, having already qualified this year with her junior hunter for the West Coast Championships in Sonoma, and is planning to qualify her equitation horse to go back east for Nationals. For those unfamiliar with equestrian competition terminology, hunter horses are judged solely on style, movement, and conformation as they navigate a jumping course. Judging in jumper competitions is more objective—based on faults, rails down and time to complete the course.-
“It’s all worth it when you overcome the ups and downs because there are ‘lots of downs,’” said Norris. “But it makes you stronger and you really appreciate the success and reward—all of the hard work pays off.”
“I’ve been riding since I was 5. It’s become such a huge part of my life. I’m here at the barn six days a week,” said 17-year-old WRHS senior Macy Mitchell, saddling up her Irish sport horse, Ringo, at Sagebrush Stables in Hailey. Ringo seemed to tower over his young owner.
“I could never find a sport that I enjoyed, and I tried several. I knew I loved animals, so when my mom said, ‘I’m done trying to figure out a sport you like,’ I said I wanted to ride horses. At that moment, she knew she was in trouble!”
Mitchell recalled the moment she met Ringo. “We just connected; I can’t really explain that. He certainly wasn’t the easiest horse. For about three years we battled with him, teaching him lead changes, changing from hunters to jumpers, then back again to hunters, but it’s all been worth it to see what we’ve accomplished together in and out of the show arena.”
And accomplished she is: Mitchell is a 4-star United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) high school athlete and qualified for the Regional 3’6” Junior Hunter Championships in Del Mar, Calif., in 2014, 2015, and 2016 on Ringo. She also qualified, competed and led the team to a silver medal in 2014 in the Children’s Regional Jumper Championships in Sacramento, Calif., on her jumper Kantos.
“Competition is intense. There’s a lot going on between you and your horse in the ring when you compete. You have to remember and maneuver the jumping course, and also ask your horse what you want from him with hand and leg signals only.”
Mitchell is conscious of the financial commitment required in her sport, as well as the necessary dedication that comes with it. With maturity beyond her years, Mitchell observed, “If you are one of those people who complains about having to do something, this sport is not for you. No one talks about cleaning their stalls and scooping up horse poop, picking out their hooves, or tending them when they’re sick. You have to come here and know that this is what you want to do, or you’re not going to go anywhere.”
Veteran horse trainer Teresa Englehart works with both Mitchell and Norris. “I’ve known both girls a long time—Macy since she was about 4—and they’re extremely talented, driven and dedicated. They are super role models for our young riders. For the girls to accomplish their goals, they have to travel to a lot to horse shows, and it’s very challenging (coming) from the Sun Valley area. The nearest ‘A-rated’ show is in Bend, Oregon, and you have to haul horses, all the equipment and the riders at least an eight-hour distance away.”
“This is definitely a huge commitment of five to six days a week,” offered Kelly Mitchell, Macy’s mom. “Both Macy and McKenna travel to horse shows in Canada, Southern California, and even Washington and Oregon. They juggle school and sacrifice their social life. School is that much harder because they have to fit it in as a priority, but it’s such a great joy seeing them do the things they love.”
Emma Coulthard grew up in Las Vegas, and her riding career began at the age of 5. “I remember pretty clearly: my mom got me a pony for my birthday party, and I would not get off. Ever since then I’ve been addicted,” Coulthard said with characteristic enthusiasm. Coulthard moved to Idaho in the third grade and is currently a junior attending Community School in Sun Valley.
“My mom didn’t think I would stick with it this long. It’s every day going to the barn. You think that you’re only going to be there for a little bit, but I always end up spending the whole day.”
For much of the year Emma trained out of Seattle, Wash., heading to the airport every other weekend to ride her jumper, Stormy. “I felt that training out of the Valley might give me more opportunity,” she said. “Missing school here is difficult, but they allow me to make up the time and are very creative with my schedule.”
“Emma is a talented rider and super dedicated,” said trainer Jen Koval. “Committing to flying here twice a month tells me that. She wants to learn and improve her riding skills, and she has.”
In February 2016, Coulthard and her mare were awarded Reserve Champion Modified Jumpers, in a class of 75 competitors at the HITS Desert Horse Park in Thermal, Calif., where competitors were drawn from across the U.S. It was a highly competitive jumper field in which the fastest time with no faults took the blue ribbon.
In late 2015, Coulthard also finished at the top of the field in Thermal, and was awarded both Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion in her jumper class.
“It’s figuring out our partnership,” said Coulthard. “You’re communicating non-verbally with this huge animal. You’re asking a horse to jump over seven fences in a row as fast as you can, along with doing crazy turns. You have to be a unit, for sure.
“My ultimate goal is to do the big stuff—Grand Prix jumping. I’m not quite there,” she said. A beat later, she added with a confident grin, “Yet!”