Eventer Mia Farley Focuses on Phelps’ Show Jumping

Eventer Mia Farley shares exercises she’s working on to improve Phelps’ show-jumping ahead of Kentucky.

By Sally Spickard

CCI5* Rider Mia Farley
CCI5* eventer Mia Phelps and the Thoroughbred Phelps were both five-star rookies when they competed in the 2023 Maryland 5 Star last fall. ©Amy K. Dragoo

As much as we’d all love to purchase a future five-star horse for just a single dollar, that scenario doesn’t always pan out, even with the best of intentions.

But the plucky off-track Thoroughbred, Phelps (Tiznow–Boom Town Gal, by Cactus Ridge), changed hands for exactly that amount to be owned by U.S. Olympic individual gold medalist David O’Connor. Because of this, though, the prospect of the gelding eventually reaching the top of the sport of eventing was not the first thought in anyone’s mind. The transaction was more of a formality. Phelps had been purchased off the track by Joanie Morris and later transferred to O’Connor as a sale prospect.

The only issue was, try as they might, Phelps wouldn’t sell.

So instead, Phelps was put into training with young professional Mia Farley, who has ridden under the tutelage of O’Connor and his wife, Karen O’Connor, since she moved from her hometown in southern California to Virginia in 2018.

Phelps: ‘Ticking All the Boxes’

Phelps would be among the first horses Farley took out in her education as a producer of young horses. This skill is something she’s since cultivated an affinity and natural feel for. She started Phelps at the Novice level at Hunt Club Fams in Virginia in the summer of 2018 and brought him out for his first FEI event at the CCI2*-S level at Great Meadow International in Virginia the following summer.

It’s difficult to “know” that a horse is destined for the upper levels early on, but as Farley describes Phelps, “he just kept ticking all the boxes and getting better” as he traveled up the levels. But even as he kept progressing, the expectations of him were kept low and realistic. “No one ever expected him to be a four-star horse or a five-star horse,” she says. “He’s always been sort of an underdog.”

Perhaps it is the absence of lofty expectations that allowed Phelps to flourish, benefitting from a knowledgeable and sensible owner in O’Connor and an empathetic rider in Farley. As he moved into the three-star and four-star levels of the sport, he began to collect increasingly competitive results. In 2022, Farley and Phelps finished on the podium in the CCI4*-L at Morven Park in Virginia, planting themselves firmly on the radar as potential players to take the next step up.

CCI5* Rider Mia Farley
Farley and Phelps were the only competitors at the Maryland 5 Star CCI5* to go clear inside the optimum time. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Farley and Phelps’ First Five-Star

That next step up came at the MARS Maryland 5 Star in October of 2023. To this point in her career, Farley had been partnered with several horses that eventually took her to the four-star level. But she had not yet reached that ultimate goal of contesting a five-star event. Both she and Phelps would be “rookies” for the experience. Consequently, as a result the nerves were rampant. But Farley jokingly says she was mostly “in denial” leading up to her first five-star centerline.

The duo impressed at Maryland, securing a fifth-place finish and the sole cross-country round that was clear inside the optimum time. It was result that validated the effort that goes into producing a horse that can actually compete at this level, and one that surprised even Farley herself.

“Obviously I knew we were ready—we were entered for a reason, but it was not in my plan to finish top five,” Farley says. “I made jokes like that would be nice but I didn’t expect it to happen. Even still to this day, I have sort of a similar mindset. We went, we were ready, we needed to test ourselves at that level and it went well. Now it’s a bit the same for Kentucky where we’ll give it another shot.”

Gaining Confidence in Show Jumping

Despite the competitive success Phelps and Farley have seen, the horse’s biggest struggle has been show jumping. With that in mind, Farley has been working on helping Phelps gain more strength and confidence in this phase.

“He would get a little anxious because he knows what the job is when he goes in, and if he had one down it would sometimes snowball because he felt like he was screwing up,” she says. This year, touch wood, Farley says she can feel that practice beginning to pay off. She hopes she can carry that forward to the upcoming Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by MARS Equestrian, April 25-28, 2024, in Lexington.

“My focus this winter—obviously for a long time—has been show jumping with Phelps, getting him stronger on the flat, and I think there’s potential that he could be a better show jumper. Training wise we haven’t changed that much. He’s sensitive and we don’t want to put too much change in his life—he likes his routine.”

CCI5* Rider Mia Farley
Farley and Phelps had two rails down in the show-jumping phase of the Maryland 5 Star, which dropped them from third after cross-country to fifth place. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Connecting Flatwork with Jumping

To help with Phelps’ show jumping, Farley practices connecting the flatwork with jumping in her training at home. She doesn’t do a lot of gymnastic or grid jumping—an exercise often credited with tidying up a horse’s show-jumping form. That’s because she feels it can often trigger tension and anxiety for Phelps. Instead, she primarily focuses on increasing his strength on the flat and working to give him the best ride possible over the show jumps. She notes that implementing canter pirouette work has helped her engage the horse’s hocks and build strength that’s necessary for clearing the big, delicate fences.

“I’ll do a course and I’ll do a transition of a small circle, whether it’s a working pirouette or simply changing his canter or his pace,” she explained. “I also use big ground lines [set 3 or 4 feet in front of the fence] and/or a cavalletti placed in front of the fence to encourage him to create a nice shape. With some of my warmbloods, I can ride them forward to the base and they will jump up and over, but Phelps is not bred or built to do that, so he needs a bit more space to get the right shape.”

A Favorite Jumping Exercise

Phelps also noted that she trains at home in a pelham bit. She has discovered that this helps him hold his shape through a course. But at shows she switches to a snaffle and uses a following hand and body to emulate the practice at home.

“It’s a little tough for me because I always feel like I want to be pretty and have a good position. And it doesn’t always feel so ‘pretty’ when I ride him that way. But that is what being effective is. It’s not always the prettiest.”

One of Farley’s favorite exercises for improving show jumping involves placing a cavalletti in front of an oxer. This again helps Phelps “learn how to really push off the ground instead of bracing off the ground. You can feel and see a difference when you put a cavalletti down, and now it’s my job to emulate that in the ring. I try to imagine that the cavalletti is there as a big ground line.”

Kentucky Prep

Farley started the new season with a run at the Intermediate level at Rocking Horse in Florida. This was followed by a CCI4*-S run at Bouckaert Equestrian in Georgia. In her preparation for Kentucky, Farley most recently won the Advanced/Intermediate division at Bouckaert Equestrian. Farley bases in Florida during the winter with her longtime partner, Woods Baughman. She will be moving to Lexington, Kentucky, for the summer season just before competing at Kentucky. She’s also competing six horses at the Ocala International Festival of Eventing, Florida, the weekend before Kentucky. “It’s so I don’t overthink it too much,” she laughed.

An underdog story is one that resonates across disciplines and experience levels. This includes the story of a former racehorse taking on the most difficult challenge eventing has to offer. Farley enjoys the process of producing a horse, and that enjoyment is apparent in her relationship with Phelps. She describes him as very workmanlike, not overly affected by atmosphere and very mentally stable.

Farley says she’s learning as a competitor that she gets very stressed before the long formats. But once she’s at the event, the stress goes away. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Handling Nerves

As for how she’s feeling ahead of what will be her second five-star competition, Farley chuckles. She points out Baughman, who’s sitting next to her in the truck during the interview. “Woods jokes that I get a bit ‘slappy’ when I’m nervous.”

“It’s funny because I’m learning as a competitor that I get very stressed out before long formats,” she observed. “But luckily, I don’t think I really bring too much to the barn. Some days I don’t feel well enough and I want to give the horses my best self. So if I don’t feel that way, I’ll give them a bit of an easier day like a trot set or a hack. And at Maryland—and I’m hoping I can do the same at Kentucky—once I got there, I was very quiet. All that stress went away. It was like, ‘I’m here now, so I’ll just do this and give it my best.’”

Thanks to Cosequin for our coverage of the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event. It includes rider interviews, competition reports, horse spotlights, photos, videos and more.

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