Park Ridge girl has a blue-ribbon feel for ponies
On a wall rack in the bedroom of her Park Ridge home is where little Caroline Sather keeps the ribbons she's won riding her pony, Moon.
Caroline's going to need a bigger wall rack. Maybe a bigger room.
A competitive rider for a little over a year, she and her 17-year-old small (12.1 hands) pony, full name Clovermeade Bunnymoon, will compete among some 600 entries from across the nation at the United States Equestrian Foundation Pony Finals at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington Aug. 8-14.
An incoming fourth grader at Plato Academy in Des Plaines, Caroline will turn 9 years old on Aug. 12. She competes against riders up to 18 years old.
This past week she and Moon limbered up with a successful show at Equifest, held July 27-31 at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne. That's near the duo's training grounds at Kinvarra Farm in St. Charles, Moon's full-time home.
They finished sixth in the United States Hunter Jumper Association Pony Hunter Derby Championship on July 29, first in Equifest's Pony Hunter Classic, and also won the Small Pony Hunter category.
These events are competitions similar to what we see in the Summer Olympics. Included are "Handy" rounds, in which judges assess how nimbly the team can trot, halt, reverse and perform other maneuvers.
Caroline's Equifest results increased her riding haul to 26 first-place ribbons and 8 titles in the Small Pony Hunter division, in which she is ranked No. 1 in Illinois.
"I've done well," she said.
"Did you know that equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete equally? There isn't a men's and a women's division. It's a very interesting industry," said Caroline, like the curious Constructivist Plato Academy student that she is.
"There are a lot of things I like about it. I like the riding, but I also like taking care of the horse and grooming it. I also learned how to body clip -- it basically means to shave it. The hair just keeps growing, and since they are show ponies, you have to clip them," she said.
Her 11-year-old brother, Henry, an incoming sixth grader at Northridge Prep in Niles, also rides. On his pony, the older and larger Mister Valentino -- which the siblings shared until Moon arrived in July 2021 -- at Equifest Henry won a Short Stirrup class and placed in all of his classes.
"We had no idea it would become such a focus for the family," said Stacey Sather, their mother, a 1990 graduate of Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.
Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it might not be.
To alleviate boredom, the Sathers (who include the kids' father, Damon Sather, previously the family's sole experienced rider after growing up on a Minnesota farm) considered getting a dog.
They started researching breeds, which led to watching dog shows, and eventually to welcoming Sadie, an English Springer Spaniel, into their Park Ridge home.
In the process, Caroline asked her mother what other animals show in competition. Stacey said horses do as well. That meant watching horse videos.
"And I said, 'I want to do that,'" Caroline recalled.
She started riding at age 7 at Kinvarra in February 2021. Under trainer and Kinvarra owner Janet Sassmannshausen, Caroline started competing in Short Stirrup and Children's Pony divisions beginning in May 2021, before graduating to the Pony Hunter Division on Moon to start this show year last December.
The grade-schooler is in hip-boot deep.
Neighbors may well wonder what the heck is going on when they see the girl on all fours in the backyard, bounding over one of last year's Christmas presents, six miniature horse jumps.
"The weird thing is, I can jump on all fours but I can't jump on two feet," she said.
"I wanted to move like a horse, and it helps me understand the movement -- and I taught myself to do it, with a little help from my dog."
And a lot of help from Sassmannshausen.
"She's just got very natural talent. That makes it really fun to work with her. She's got a good feel, the horses love her," said Sassmannshausen, who started Olympic gold medalist Chris Kappler on his way at Kinvarra.
"We can teach a lot of things, but you can't teach feel."
Perhaps the horses love Caroline Sather because aside from directing them on their rounds, and clipping their coat, she mucks the Kinvarra stalls, helps around the barn and shadows the house veterinarian and the farrier, the person who deals with horses' hooves and shoes.
It makes her parents' 90-minute round trip four to five times a week well worth it.
"The care of the animal is equally, if not more, important," Stacey Sather said. "That's the other part that we see is incredibly valuable."
After her Equifest success, Sassmannshausen said Caroline has "progressed quite a bit." But the Pony Finals in Lexington, where she'll be showing in a nationally rated division in the heart of horse country, is a different animal.
"You've got riders riding longer than Caroline's been alive. It's been fun to see them come along so quickly, but she holds her own against some of the more experienced riders. It's been a fun year for her," Stacey said.
"I would just like to get in the top 12, and have a good time," Caroline said.