Last weekend at the United States Eventing Association's (USEA) Annual Meeting and Convention in Florida, Norfolk Hunt Club (MA) member Julie Wheeler received the Charles Owen Technical Merit Award. Results from ten horse trials around the country are analyzed to identify the adult and junior riders with the overall best scores. The award was created to reward safe, consistent riding at Training level. Wheeler and junior Zoe Schroeder of Illinois each received a voucher towards a new helmet.
Wheeler and Sailfin, a Thoroughbred she bought at Suffolk Downs racetrack in 2012 and retrained with Wood's help, in Norfolk's seaside country near South Dartmouth, MA. Photo by Kathie Davenport.
Wheeler, a small animal relief veterinarian from Thompson, Connecticut, is a lifelong equestrian who got her start at her grandparents' Fairview Akers (sic), a working class boarding, lesson and summer camp facility in Medway, MA. She started hunting with Norfolk on a leadline on Chocolate Chip, a pony she describes as "straight outta Thelwell," and was in the field on her own at nine, in addition to competing in local shows. While she was interested in eventing, she didn't have any connections in Area I, and college, vet school, work and two daughters kept her out of the saddle for more than a decade.
By chance in 1995, Wheeler was assigned to jump judge at the New England Hunter Trials with Jim Gornall, a well-known professional eventing trainer and course designer. He was able to connect her with the regional combined training community, and under the guidance of Beth O'Rourke and later Suzi Gornall, Jim's wife, she was able to achieve her goal of contesting horse trials. Wheeler said, "I realized that foxhunting helped to prepare me for the experience of galloping cross country, with the added challenge (or benefit- depending on who you ask) of going solo." With her partner, Rich Wood, she continues actively to hunt, event, and compete in hunter trials and paces around New England and in Aiken during the winter. She and Wood are often on horses they select and produce themselves.
Wheeler and Wood in the field. Suzanne Adams photo.
Coming full circle to the New England Hunter Trials this fall, 21 years after meeting Gornall, Wheeler earned the prestigious Badger Trophy for highest-scoring lady rider in the 4' Heard Cup Division. Walking the course, she said, "There were three concerns on the course: a 3'10" flat topped coop/table, a 3'6" (at least) stone wall bounce combination and a 4' log pile. The Heard Cup started late. The nausea persisted. The coop table was the second fence. I decided that if we could just get over that one, we would make it. We did. There was a crowd gathered near each of these terrible jumps. Although I was dimly aware of the crowd's presence, it made me feel like I was 'big time.' It reminded me of the crowds that gather around the most impressive jumps on the international courses. I will never compete at them, but now I feel like have." She and fellow Norfolk member Mike Paparo, who won the division, together brought home the Appleton Cup for two horses from the same hunt achieving the highest aggregate score under different riders.
Wheeler and Paparo with their trophies from October's New England Hunter Trials. Suzan Bater photo.
When she and Wood have the opportunity, they take lessons with Irish-born professional, Eric Horgan. Wheeler and her OTTB, Sailfin, hope to continue hunting and to move up to Preliminary in 2017. "If I did not ride (and jump), I would probably surf, because finding the perfect distance is like finding the perfect wave, but without sharks."
At the USEA convention, the Technical Merit Award was presented by Charles Owen Managing Director, Roy Burek, who is also the company founder's grandson.