Callie Jones didn’t plan on becoming a breakout young dressage star. In fact, for much of her youth, she had dreams of making a name for herself as a show jumper. But as fate would have it, Callie’s future would include major equestrian accomplishments sans course maps and time faults. Fast forward eight years since her foray into the new discipline, and Callie’s time spent in the dressage manege has paid off. She now has an individual gold medal from the Adequan® FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC), won the U.S. Equestrian Young Rider Dressage National Championship, and served on a Nations Cup team during the USEF Dressage European Young Rider Tour.
Callie’s introduction to horses mirrors the experience of so many young girls: she was immediately hooked when her parents let her go on a trail ride for her seventh birthday. Lessons at a local barn followed suit. “My parents agreed because they thought it wouldn’t last long,” Callie says. (How many times have we heard that before?) “I loved it from day one. I was nine when I did my first show; I started in cross-rails and went up from there. I truly thought jumping was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
After her first horse sustained a career-ending injury, Callie went on the hunt for her next mount. That’s when she met dressage trainer Angela Hecker-Jackson. “I still wanted to jump because that’s what I loved to do, but I rode in a clinic with Angela. That’s when she told me, ‘I can see that you have a true talent for dressage.’ She encouraged me to come and train with her and it went from there,” Callie says.
Paving a New Path
So what was it that pulled this tenacious young rider away from the adrenaline-pumping thrill of show jumping to the more sedate, artistic discipline of dressage? “I really love the connection and partnership you have with a horse in dressage,” she says. “You truly have to be totally with your horse. Each ride you have, the connection grows. It’s amazing what you can do. Each day I learn something new; it’s a never-ending journey, and I really enjoy it.”
"To ride at this level you can’t ride a mediocre test every single time and be competitive."
Angela’s faith in Callie’s natural talent has helped develop her skills quickly. “Having someone tell you, ‘I can see you going far’, as a 12- or 13-year-old, it’s hard to believe,” Callie says. “Having someone believe in you all these years – it’s amazing. She’s pushed me beyond my comfort zone and has guided me through every obstacle I’ve come across. She’s so much more than just a riding teacher for me.”
Nevertheless, Callie didn’t have an easy path to her 2018 success. Her early years pursuing dressage were punctuated by horse injuries. She first made the junior division at the NAYC a goal with the horse she bought from Angela’s father, but the mare sustained an injury that made it impossible to go in 2013. The next year, she leased a horse and tried out but didn’t make the team. Then, in 2015, that same leased horse had health problems, sidelining her goals once again.
“That was a very frustrating time for me,” Callie recalls. “But looking back on it, I’m blessed that I got to learn from those two horses who taught me so much. Those horses and experiences were all a part of getting me to where I am today.”
With the goal of competing at NAYC on the forefront of her mind, Callie bought Don Philippo, a jet-black Hanoverian, as an eight-year-old with third level experience. Her family has always been very supportive of her riding, but Callie had a budget to adhere to, so a younger horse fit the bill. “I wanted a horse I could bring up the levels, to learn with and really build a connection with,” she says. She bought ‘Phil’ in March of 2016 and by July was representing Region 2 in the junior division of the NAYC.
“We knew it was a long shot because he’d just started third level, but he was so smart and he learned very quickly,” she says. “Fortunately, we made the team and it was a great experience. From there, we just have been able to learn together, which I have really enjoyed. I can’t even explain how much he has taught me; it’s incredible. He’s definitely my best friend.”
In 2017, the pair moved up to the young rider division and qualified for the NAYC again. But this time they didn’t leave empty-handed; Region 2 took home the silver medal.
Riding With Risk
Callie approached 2018 with a new goal in mind: to compete in Europe. When she was named to the USEF Dressage Young Rider European Tour, that dream came finally true. The team of young riders competed at CDIs in Compiègne (France), at the hallowed ground of Aachen (Germany), and in a Nations Cup at Hagen (Germany).
“My best tests were at Aachen,” Callie says. “We scored over 70 percent, which was so exciting for me. Hagen actually wasn’t our best show. I had some very big lows there, but it was a learning experience and I took away so much from it that I can’t complain or be upset about it.
“Being [in Europe] and watching the caliber of riding was a true eye-opener for me,” Callie continues. “The riders over there are amazing. They start doing FEI pony classes when they’re 10 or 11, and they blossom from there. But the thing is that it was really cool to see that they make mistakes, too. They’re not afraid to take risks, and it really pays off for them. Even if they make a mistake in the test, they’re still scoring above 70 percent every time because they’re riding outside of the box and taking the risks. That was truly inspiring for me to see. I thought, ‘Oh, to be competitive, you have to take the risk.’ It's really helped me grow as a rider because to ride at this level you can’t ride a mediocre test every single time and be competitive.”
Photo by Susan Stickle.
Callie vowed to ride with risk for the rest of her 2018 and reaped the rewards. She gave Phil a vacation following the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in late August. “He had a really exciting and big year last year, so I felt he deserved a little time to recoup and relax,” she says.
While Phil was having some downtime, Angela let Callie ride her own horse, Figaro. “It’s been amazing; he’s teaching me so much,” Callie says. Although she won’t be based in Florida for the winter circuit, Callie is focusing on her agri-business degree at Murray State University in her home state of Kentucky. But in January, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pack up and go to Wellington, Fla., as a participant in U.S. Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic.
“It was an exciting time and I learned so much. I really enjoy watching other riders, especially in clinics, because I love seeing how other riders problem-solve and work through issues that they may be having at the time,” she says. “This really helps me because I might be having the same issue and I can take away new ideas or techniques and carry them over to my riding. That is why I love participating in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic. I not only get to ride, but I also get to watch some of the top juniors and young riders ride with different clinicians, and I always take away new exercises that I can use in my daily riding.”
Following his well-deserved break, Phil is back in work preparing for the 2019 season ahead, so Callie commutes the two hours back and forth from school to Angela’s farm every weekend to ride. Instead of the typical spring break entailing big parties and beach weeks, Callie will compete in Wellington with the hope of defending her gold medal at NAYC this summer.
“I’m looking forward to NAYC this year because winning last year did boost my confidence, but I have to continue working hard. I can’t slack off and miss a lesson because there’s always going to be tough competition.”
Look out U25 grands prix – Callie and Phil are coming for you in 2020.
Written by Molly Sorge for Jump Media.
Feature photo by Susan Stickle.
Written by Editorial Staff
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