For many junior riders in the United States, this is the first week in months that they are not preparing for a horse show. And while last week marked the close of the biggest, and final, year of 17-year-old Kelli Cruciotti’s junior career, she’s only taking a short break before jumping back into the fray as a professional.
In May, Cruciotti, of Elizabeth, Colorado put her name on the map when she became the youngest winner ever of the historic $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix at the Devon Horse Show. The class, which just her second career grand prix start, wasn’t one she expected to go clean in, much less win, but it was the beginning of an auspicious grand prix career for the junior rider. Fast-forward to this October, and Cruciotti added a coveted equitation final win to her resume with her first place finish in the 2015 Pessoa/U.S. Hunter Seat Equitation Medal Final at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show.
We caught up with this newly-minted professional (as of January 1st, 2016) and emerging grand prix star as she took a moment to reflect on the versatility required to win in two very different rings, who she counts among her most influential mentors, and how she sees the time spent on hands-on horse care in the barn pay off in the ring.
Q: To say that this year has been big is an understatement. Now that indoors is a wrap and you have some time to breathe, how would you sum it all up?
A: I’m really just so thankful for my entire team that worked so hard this year. All of the rest couldn’t have happened with out everyone’s input and work and time. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people, not the least of who is my mom Cindy Cruciotti, Peter Wylde, Don Stewart.
And the horses, they were in such top form this year. I have two very good equitation horses and three jumpers. Every time I took them to an important show or a big class they were always there for me. A big thank you to them would sum it all up.
Q: To people who might not know you as well, can you describe your background, your hometown and your barn?
A: I was born in California, my mom had a training business there for 25 years. We moved out to Colorado in 2004. I was still little at the time, but we’d always dreamed about owning our own barn, and we were lucky enough to have that dream come true and build our own farm in Elizabeth, Colorado, Serenity Farm Show Stables. So I’ve been lucky to live on the property (our house is just up the driveway from the barn) and have access to a lot of horses to practice on. We have 50 horses on the property – we have our hands full!
Q: Let’s talk about your second grand prix start ever, which was also your first grand prix win at the Devon Horse Show back in May. That unquestionably put you on the map!
A: It was amazing. It was kind of funny because I’d done junior weekend, the equitation and junior jumpers, and then I stayed for senior week and the grand prix. I was riding around in the warmup with Mclain and these other big riders and thinking ‘why am I doing this class, I’m so out of my league here.’ When I walked the course and told myself I’d be happy with a nice four fault round. And then, I don’t know what it was about that night but Chamonix was incredible. I don’t think I could have made her touch a rail.
It was such a shock to actually win that class, it gave me confidence for myself and my horse for the rest of the year, knowing that I could do classes like that. It didn’t change my plan for the rest of the year but it definitely gave me confidence.
Q: How does that Devon win compare to the achievement of winning the USEF Medal?
A: They’re so different. Devon was more of a surprise for me, because I hadn’t done that level at all. It was new for me and the shock of winning a class like that was so exciting. Compared to the medal final win – that was something I’d be working on my whole junior career. I’d first competed in a medal final six years before. So for that to come true was pretty amazing, not only for me but also for everyone around me who worked so hard for it. They’re both so different but both amazing.
Q: There are not many junior riders who’ve won a rated grand prix and an equitation medal in the same year. Describe how that speaks to your versatility as a rider.
A: With my mom especially, her belief is that if you have a solid start in the equitation and use it as a stepping-stone into the higher-level jumpers, it should be a very easy transition. And that has been my foundation.
I think having that and being exposed to such a good found so early and growing up doing the equitation was really a big benefit. Our American style of riding translates into the higher levels, you see it in our top American riders, in McLain, Beezie, Kent, and of course Peter Wylde. Having that solid foundation is so fundamental.
Q: Speaking of Peter Wylde, during the last two years he’s been one of your most vocal cheerleaders. What’s it been like to work with him?
A: He is such a great supporter of me and my mom and our program. His information has been such an asset to our team. Being an equitation winner and an Olympic Gold Medalist. He has so much insight into the experience and what the you need to do the big classes. When you walk a course and he instinctively knows what number you should do, what track, he’s always one-step ahead because he has so much experience at that level. And when you’re walking the course and saying the fences look really big and he says they’re not that big, you’re fine. Well, it means a lot to hear that.
Q: As far as mentors go, your mother Cindy Cruciotti has been with you every step of the way. What does her support mean to you?
A: She really has, most of the credit goes to her. Since I started riding when I was five years old she’s been my trainer. She has so much depth and knowledge of equitation, hunters and jumpers. She’s always been my inspiration and has so many things to teach. It’s about the care of the horses and putting them first. You can do it and the horses can be happy and you can really have a great partnership with all the horses you ride. And I think you can really see it in the ring when you have a great partnership with them. My mom has taught me that and she is my total inspiration.
Q: You’ve said that you spend a lot of time in the barn, does that mean that you’ve got a hands on approach to the care of your horses? How does that translate to the ring?
A: Yes, I live in the barn 24/7. When you do it yourself and you’re always on the horse’s side, you have a greater respect for what they do for you. They’re not just horses in our stables, they become part of our family. And they really try for you. Every time I go in the ring they give me 100%, and it’s really special to me to know everything about them and their quirks. It’s about how your horse feels in the morning, what their favorite treat is… those are the things that build a strong partnership. It’s really rewarding to have a big result like Devon and a medal finals, and to know that your partnership showed.
Q: It seems that the writing is on the wall that you’ll take this step out of the juniors and move into being a professional. Is that the case?
A: Yes, I’m excited to start working under my mom as a professional. I’ll be working at the stable in Colorado and in Florida. I’m very lucky to have this position and opportunity to work here, and I’m looking forward to the future.
“It’s about how your horse feels in the morning, what their favorite treat is… those are the things that build a strong partnership. It’s really rewarding to have a big result like Devon and a medal finals, and to know that your partnership showed.”
Q: Are you able to take a deep breath now and have a break from showing?
A: A little bit. You take a deep breath and take a step back and realize – wow, we were gone since July. We just kind of kept going. But now, we’ll maybe take a couple days off and then it’s back to work. The horses will have a nice vacation and time to be horses again, they’re not showing again until Florida. The only break I have is a couple of days to go to Washington to see my brother. When I get back we’ll get ready for Florida.
Q: What will be your 2016 goals?
A: Really just to continue with the horses that I have, and add to the string with some younger horses. I want to start doing some of the young horse classes, I’ve always been really interested in doing that. And I want to make the Artisan Farms Under 25 Grand Prix Series a priority, and hopefully start jumping some Saturday nights. After that, hopefully I can apply for some Nations Cup teams. Have the opportunity to represent the US team is a big goal.
We leave on the 15th of December for Florida, and we rent a farm there for three months. After that, it’s a bit up in the air, but I’m hoping to get the opportunity to go show in Europe. I’ve never been there to show, and it’s one of my dreams.
Q: How will you use the lessons you’ve learned this year?
A: Obviously that having that solid foundation in the equitation is a good springboard into being a professional. Coming off the wins, it will definitely help me, but it’s almost like starting all over again. When I was a junior I had to work hard and build up my name and now being a professional it’s almost the same. I need to keep working hard to build up my name as a professional. But I’m really looking forward to it, to entering classes I’ve never jumped and shows I’ve never done.I’m excited to see what the future holds.