hen Emma Kurtz made the decision to not ride her veteran partner Carl at the 2018 ASPCA Maclay Finals, she lost the fairytale ending to her junior career. But fairytale endings are not what this kid is about.
“You can’t get too caught up in the ribbons,” Emma says. “Anything can happen on any given day. It takes a lot of luck honestly. You can’t get too down over a red ribbon or a blue ribbon or whatever.”
A wise and insightful comment from a girl who clearly has her priorities in line.
Originally owned by Redfield Farm and recently purchased by longtime leasee Dr. Betsee Parker, Emma has had the ride on Carl for two years – so it was a natural choice to bring him along on her final “road to the Maclay”.
At 18 years old, this was Emma’s fifth and final appearance at the Maclay Finals, and it was to be her last class as a junior rider. But when Carl started taking wrong steps in the warm-up arena, Emma chose horsemanship over ribbons.
Emma and Carl. Photo by Sportfot.
“Carl is the best horse,” says Amanda Lyerly, owner of Madison Hills Farm in Ohio where Emma rides and trains. “He never puts a foot wrong and is so solid that we didn’t have a backup plan. When we did the warm-up, he kept landing split behind. He wasn’t visibly lame, but Emma is very in tune with him and said something isn’t right. She is just that kind of kid who wouldn’t want to ride him if it wasn’t right.”
With no second string horse and no plan, Amanda and Emma had to act fast. “I was walking the course without knowing if I had a horse to ride,” Emma says without giving a hint of how stressful it must have been.
As fate would have it, Missy Clark and John Brennan of North Run brought along a back-up horse, Cris Van De Helle, for another rider. With time quickly running out, Amanda was able to secure the ride for Emma at the last minute.
“It’s amazing how the horse community pulls together when you need something,” Amanda says. “Emma catch rides a lot, but riding in your last junior Final on a horse you got just a few hours before, well that’s a whole new kind of pressure.”
Emma and Cris Van De Helle. Photo by Phelps Media Group/National Horse Show.
Cassandra Kahle, a professional rider and trainer at Redfield Farm, knows what a difficult decision it was for Emma to not ride Carl.
“She rides that horse so beautifully, and they know each other so well. I would have loved to see her ride her last show on Carl,” Cassandra says. “But as horses go, they always choose the worst time to get injured. In the long run, it was the right call. She had a lot more pressure than the other riders.”
Pressure is nothing new for Emma. Riding since the age of five, she has had an illustrious junior career complete with numerous championships and wins. This year alone she placed fourth in the Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund Equitation Finals at the Washington International Horse Show, placed 10th in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals, individual fourth and team gold at the FEI North American Youth Championships, and she was the overall Grand Junior Hunter Champion at Capital Challenge. she also won Best Junior Rider at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and the Large Junior Hunter 16-17 Championship at the Washington International Horse Show.
Most, if not all, of these wins have been on catch rides.
“I love it,” Emma says. “Catch riding is nice because it keeps you on your toes. The horses are all so different, and you never really know what’s going to happen. That’s really fun for me.”
Emma and her NAYC mount, Pippi. Photo by Sportfot.
The Maclay Finals course proved difficult for all the riders – even the top juniors with extensive track records. “I thought the second round was really tricky. For Emma to have to counter canter, trot a jump, and hand gallop on a horse she doesn’t know, she really rode [Cris Van De Helle] fantastic,” Cassandra says.
Emma has a natural feel and understanding for horses. “She has a softness about her. You never see what she’s doing,” Amanda explains.
Emma’s innate talent, professionalism, and ability to stay cool under pressure were put to the test this past year: her main coach, Michael Rheinheimer, Amanda’s business partner and fiancée, passed away unexpectedly in December. “They worked really well together and had a special bond. It was really hard for her not to have him around,” Amanda says.
But like the determined fighter she has shown to be, the tragedy pushed Emma to work even harder. At her final show as a junior rider, she and Cris Van De Helle ultimately placed sixth out of 175 competitors at Maclay Finals.
“If it’s possible, it made me want it more,” Emma says. “He always wanted me to win a Final. I was like, I gotta do it for Mike. And I didn’t win, but I was top 10 in all three [Washington, Medal Final, Maclay]. I know he would have loved to have been there.”
Emma and Cris Van De Helle. Photo by Sportfot.
Following her final round in the equitation ring, Emma returned to Auburn University where she’s in the middle of her freshman year and considering studying business or law.
“Her whole life has been riding,” Amanda says. “Now she’s having fun being a normal kid and having a normal life.”
Enjoying time as a “normal” college student is certainly well deserved, but she’s not one to be out of the saddle. Emma is shifting her focus from her junior career to one as a student athlete with Auburn’s nationally ranked equestrian team. The team has had a stellar undefeated season so far and are currently ranked first in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association.
Perhaps Emma has created her own fairytale after all.
Emma (right) and Alexandra Pielet walk a course together. Photo by Sportfot.
Feature image of Emma and Carl by Sportfot.