When Jessica West took Orion’s Diamond Ace to their first show together, he dumped her 20 feet from the first jump. “I didn’t like him at all,” remembers Jessica, who was 12 at the time. “I just kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to ride this pony.’”
But with some encouragement, Jessica didn’t give up—and her reward has been a six-year-long partnership with the 14.1-hand Connemara/Quarter Horse who has defied her expectations. The team has made four trips to the USEF Pony Finals and captured countless championships in both the hunter and equitation arenas. However, more important than any ribbon are the life lessons Ace taught Jessica along the way.
When Jessica first met Ace in 2012, no one was expecting big things. The plan was to lease him for a year so Jessica could gain confidence and experience and then she would move on to a new partner. Ace came with miles in the pony jumper ring, including several trips to the USEF Pony Finals with his owner Rachel Dahl. But in the years between, Ace’s enthusiasm for jumping had waned a little.
So Jessica worked hard to ride accurately and to find just the right rhythm in the canter. Ace started to learn that he could take his time to the jumps and Jessica began to believe in her nontraditional hunter mount with the tree freeze-branded on his hip. “We really started to bond,” she says.
Jessica and Ace competed at top shows near their home in Mooresville, North Carolina, but found they were often just out of the ribbons. “He has such a nice rhythm and is pleasant to watch jump, but he’s very much like a sewing machine in his movement and his conformation is not great,” says Jessica. “So we didn’t always do well in the model or hack.”
They shifted their focus to what Ace did do well—deliver solid, consistent rounds over fences—knowing that his nontraditional movement was less likely to catch a hunter judge’s eye on the flat. All the pieces clicked in 2016 when Ace was crowned the champion of the Blue Ridge Hunter/Jumper Association’s 2-foot-6–3-foot hunter derby series, which was open to all ages of rider and types of horse. He is the only pony to ever win this honor. “If we were consistent and nice in our first round and had a good score, then in our handy round, Ace’s jumper experience and pony size paid off,” says Jessica, who recalls being able to smoothly execute inside turns that were too difficult for larger-strided animals. “He thrived in the derbies. It was the perfect mix of jumpers and hunters.”
That same year, the pair qualified for the USEF Pony Finals in both the pony medal and the large pony hunters for the second year in a row, making Ace just one of a handful of ponies to compete at this prestigious championship in all three rings during his career.
But despite this success, Ace still had his detractors. “I would accomplish something and people would say he wasn’t good enough,” says Jessica. “But I’m super competitive, I liked this pony and I was determined.”
The following year, Jessica and Ace were called back for the second round in the medal championship at the Pony Finals, which required a hand gallop. “I went in super confident and just went right to it,” says Jessica. “When I came out, my smile was the biggest it’s ever been.” She ended up in seventh place.
Jessica, 18, is nearing the end of her junior years and will head to college in the fall. Ace, 19, will return home to his owner, whose 1-year-old daughter will hopefully take Ace’s reins one day. Jessica has no regrets about sticking it out with a pony who still gallops up to the gate to greet her with a whinny.
“It is not always bad to have the underdog,” says Jessica. “He taught me to never give up. You have to be willing to take risks. It’s either going to work or it’s not, but you never know until you try.”
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.