With a piece of hay dangling from his sleepy lips, a horse named Nezma dozes in the corner of his stall. It’s a warm October morning in a tented stable set high on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. Nezma’s ears swivel and his head pops up when Uriel Chartrand-Ardail, 17, enters the stall. Uriel pats Nezma on his dappled gray rump. The horse shakes his black mane and reaches his pink nose out to nudge his rider, as if to say, “Good morning to you, too.”
It’s time for the pair’s first lesson after two weeks off. Uriel and Nezma (along with the other 62 horses and 46 performers) arrived in the Washington area this month to perform in “Odysseo.” The show, staged by a Canadian company named Cavalia, is a live performance under a white tent that’s as tall as a 12-story building and longer than a football field.
Uriel grew up performing in a circus in Las Vegas. “I love working with horses,” he says. “Nezma is a real smart guy. He’s super curious, and he’s awfully nice.”
Aboard Nezma (or Garuda or Pom-Pon, the other horses he works with) Uriel performs high-speed, backward and sideways vaults. On his own two feet, Uriel bounces, somersaults and flies in aerial acrobatics.
Working as an acrobat and a performance rider means hours of early-morning training with the horses and shows that run late into the night. (He was home-schooled but has now finished high school.) In between, he lifts weights and does push-ups to increase his strength, polishes his boots and cleans his tack (or equipment), including his saddle and bridle, the horse’s buckled leather headgear.
“I’ve been an acrobat all my life,” Uriel says. “Working with horses has opened me up to a whole different world. I love the friendship; that’s my favorite part.”
Emy Ferrell says nothing else in the world gives you the feeling that horses do. “A horse is your friend,” the ninth-grader from Berryville, Virginia, says. “My pony, Pippi Longstocking, kind of reads my mind.”
Emy, who started riding at 2 years old, and Pippi are the same age: 14. They ride trails, take lessons and compete at horse shows. Emy’s favorite thing to do with Pippi in the fall is fox hunting. Fox hunting is a traditional equestrian sport (that’s a sport with horses) that involves hours of galloping over the countryside. (The fox usually gets away.) As October heads into November, “swirls of leaves come down while we’re riding,” Emy says. “And in the winter there’s snow on the ground, and you have to put five layers of clothes on.”
The night before a fox hunt, Emy bathes Pippi, cleans her tack, sweeps out the trailer that her parents use to get Pippi to and from the event, then prepares the jacket, shirt and tie she will wear. On the day of the hunt, she gets up at a “ridiculously early hour.” On other days, Emy helps her dad, who is the master (or leader) of the Blue Ridge Hunt, to clear the trails of overgrown brush and fallen logs.
“It’s a lot,” Emy says, “but no matter how many hours I put into my pony, it’s the greatest feeling when you’re out riding.”
Fifth-grader Colin Smith hasn’t won a steeplechase race yet, but he’ll get another chance to do so on October 24, when he saddles up at the Washington International Horse Show. There, the 10-year-old plans to compete in the hoof-pounding, earth-shaking Shetland Pony Steeplechase, a race that will include jumps. Colin, who says he has been riding as long as he can remember, will ride a pony named Olney Farms Phunny.
“Phunny is very fast and a very good jumper,” Colin says. “At times, he can be strong and spirited, but most of the time I can handle it.”
So how does this junior jockey prepare for a race? To get Phunny fit for the race, Colin will ride up and down hills to improve the pony’s fitness. Weekdays, he goes to the barn straight from Sacred Heart School in Glyndon, Maryland. He also helps his mom, a horse trainer. While she’s giving lessons, Colin assists, grooming and tacking horses. He also helps train the 11 ponies at their barn.
Work at the barn can be quiet sometimes, Colin says. But when you’re riding fast and furious over jumps, he says, “the pony life can turn a quiet day into an ‘oomph’ day.”
Four years ago, a horse who was near death arrived at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Maryland. Staff and volunteers worked hard to bring Chino back to good health. Months later, the horse was ready to be adopted.
Emily Benton, who was 14 years old at the time, had asked her parents if she could adopt a rescue horse. The Linthicum, Maryland, girl knew it would be a lot of work to adopt a horse that didn’t have much training. But when she met Chino at Days End, they clicked.
“Chino came from a bad situation,” she says. “I wanted to make his life better.”
After adopting Chino, Emily visited the barn where she kept him almost every day. She did chores — feeding 19 horses, cleaning their stalls and doing other work — in exchange for riding lessons. It wasn’t long before she and Chino competed in their first horse show. These days, the college freshman juggles classes with riding time. She still competes during the summer and works in the barn to pay for her lessons.
“I don’t mind the dirty work,” she says. “And I like the challenge of training my own horse more than having a ready-to-go horse. I had to work for it.”
— Kitson Jazynka
See horses in action
Washington International Horse Show
Where: Verizon Center, 601 F Street NW.
When: October 22-27. October 26 is Kids’ Day, when the horse show hosts a free family-friendly event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
How much: For other daytime activities, kids age 12 and younger get in free, age 13 and older $15; for evening performances, age 12 and younger $10-$50; age 13 and older $20-$60.
For more information: A parent can call 202-525-3679 or go to www.wihs.org.
Where: The Plateau at National Harbor, 201 Harborview Avenue, National Harbor.
When: Through October 27.
How much: Ages 2 to 12 $34.50-$109.50; ages 13 to 17 $44.50-$139.50; adults $49.50-$149.50.
For more information: A parent can call 866-999-8111 or go to www.cavalia.net.