Backwards ride wins Aussie freestyle reining title


A remarkable performance by Australian Dan James and Smart Little Elan put the combination at the top of the podium with a score of 227.0 at the World Freestyle Championship at the Kentucky Reining Cup at the weekend.

Dan James ride Smart Little Elan in the Freestyle event at the Kentucky Reining Cup in Lexington.
Dan James ride Smart Little Elan in the Freestyle event at the Kentucky Reining Cup in Lexington.

In a night full of costumes and music, James’ performance brought the crowd to their feet as he performed all the spins, stops, run-downs and lead changes bareback, and then while seated backwards.

As if that weren’t enough, he also dismounted at one point and sent the chestnut spinning on his own with a wave of his hand.

His costume was a mirror image of that worn by Johnny Depp in the film The Lone Ranger, and his music featured both the classic theme and music from the film. “Growing up as a kid I wanted to be a movie horse trainer,” said James of the inspiration for his performance.

However, James admitted that learning to ride the horse backwards was trickier than he anticipated. “For a little while I spent more time picking myself off the ground than riding,” said James. “They say that the key to horsemanship is keeping the horse between you and the earth, but I didn’t do much of that.”

Drake Johnson, aboard Sonic Chic Dream, and Rocky Dare, aboard Bruce and Sue Kuryloski’s Squeaky Clean Genes, tied with a score of 226 for the silver medal at the event, held at the Kentucky Horse Park in conjunction with Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Dan James and Smart Little Elan.
Dan James and Smart Little Elan.

Dare is known for his own daring performances, but even he admits riding backwards isn’t on his bucket list. “In my younger days I might have tried riding backwards, but not today,” he said.

Dare’s been riding his mare since she was a two-year-old. His routine was inspired by his grandchildren, who also played a role in his performance. Last year Dare performed to Psy’s Gangnam Style, which became a favorite for his grandchildren.

“I said I can’t just do Gangnam Style all the time,” he said. Dare’s wife provided the solution, by framing a bedtime story of kids having their dreams come true – in this case a return to the “Gangnam Style” performance.

Johnson has also been working with his horse for many years, although he was originally owned and competed by a youth student. “He’s really kind of a special horse, and I’ve been lucky to do some nice things on him. He just has a lot of personality. It’s really kind of a neat connection to have with a horse,” he said.

James is new to the sport of reining, but his victory has made his path clear. “It’s been a helluva experience. It’s definitely lit a fire under me to keep on doing this. It’s an amazing event,” he said.

In addition to the victors this evening, Pete Kyle brought the house to its feet when he unsaddled his champion mare A Ruf Gal at the end of their performance, signaling her retirement from competition. A clearly emotional Kyle hugged his longtime partner and waved to the crowd as the packed house gave them a standing ovation.

Dan James puts Smart Little Elan into a spin.
Dan James puts Smart Little Elan into a spin.

Shawn Flarida rode Michell Kimball’s Spooks Gotta Whiz to win Sunday’s Kentucky Reining Cup,  scoring 452.5 to win the title for the third consecutive year.

Mandy McCutcheon was a close second (449.0) aboard father Tim McQuay’s Yellow Jersey, and third was Jordan Larson (448.0) with Heritage Farm’s HF Mobster. This competition also served as the selection trial for the squad for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, in August.

Shawn Flarida and Spooks Gotta Whiz, winner of the Kentucky Reining Cup.
Shawn Flarida and Spooks Gotta Whiz, winner of the Kentucky Reining Cup. © Waltenberrryn

“He’s just a nice horse,” said Flarida.  “He showed good both times [this weekend]. I had bobbles in both patterns – missed my first stop a little bit today, but he gives his full heart every time he shows. You can go as fast as you want; he’s just a great horse.”

Mandy McCutchedon and Yellow Jersey, second in the Kentucky Reining Cup.
Mandy McCutchedon and Yellow Jersey, second in the Kentucky Reining Cup. © Waltenberry

McCutcheon, who is no stranger to top reining competition but hasn’t made a previous World Games squad, admitted she felt the added pressure. “This is all new territory for me,” said. “[The selection trial] made me nervous. But the next part is just fun. To be able to ride a horse like this, and for my parents to give me this opportunity, is pretty generous.”

Earlier in the week Larson wasn’t feeling too confident of his chances, after his horse became a bit dehydrated, but the pair recovered to score well. “I had a rough week,” he admitted. “I didn’t get to ride him much, but he went in there and took care of me. I’m so thrilled to be here-it’s a great horse with a great owner, and I’m looking forward to France.”

Joining these three on the squad will be the newly minted US citizen, Italian-born Andrea Fappani, who is qualified with two of his horses: Silver Spurs Equine’s Smoking Whiz (446.5, for fourthplace) and Custom Cash Advance (445.0, for fifth place).

Because Fappani can’t ride more than one horse at the Games, the other two squad members will be Troy Heikes on Denise Bixler’s Lil Gun Dunit (442.0) and Tom McCutcheon with Jennifer Marley’s Dun Git A Nicadual (440.5). Tom is a team veteran, but Heikes and Fappani, like Mandy and Larson, is new to the Games.

Mandy McCutcheon has garnered a lot of titles over her career, and now she can now add one more – the first woman to make a US reining squad.

Lise Yervasi  and Dolano Glory Rey CT won the para-reining competition at the Kentucky Reining Cup.
Lise Yervasi and Dolano Glory Rey CT won the para-reining competition at the Kentucky Reining Cup. © Waltenberry

On Saturday, para-reining made its debut at the Kentucky Reining Cup. Five riders with disabilities – most of them from the world of para-dressage – contested the class. Lise Yervasi came out the victor, scoring 72.00 aboard Lexi Stoval’s Dolano Glory Rey CT. Dale Dedrick came second with a 70.5 aboard Dan James’ Smart Little Elan, and Holly Jacobson with Tamra Kyle’s Zins Smart Wrangler was third with 70.0.

Para-reining is a new class with in the sport of reining, but it is quickly catching on.

“This was challenging because it is so new to us,” said class organizer and FEI reining competitor Lisa Coulter. “We just weren’t sure how the horses would respond to these riders – we had no framework to work from, but it was amazing how these horses responded and adapted. These horses suit a lot of riders because they’re shorter and smaller-strided.”

“I’m a grade 1b in [para-dressage],” said Dedrick. “So I only walk and trot. I have not cantered a horse in more than 18 months, and I was a little leery about the idea of a canter test, but [competition manager] Brad Ettleman said, ‘Oh no, the Western lope is more comfortable, you’ll like it.’ And then [James] and his horse Top Gun convinced me to try it and it was great.”

Yervasi is an experienced competitor in horse sports, but the new requirements made her a bit nervous. “The very long, slow walk in was really hard. It’s hard to be patient and keep your nerves in check all the way to the center. ”

But Yervasi is now sold on her new discipline and hopes it expands to other venues. “This horse was incredible. These horses are so nicely trained. I really enjoyed the reining and thought it suited my disability quite well. The trot is hard for me in [para-dressage], but the [loping] was not so hard.”

“These horses are so mentally stable and are trying so hard to work with the riders,” said Jacobson. “Plus the clothes are way more fun.”

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2 thoughts on “Backwards ride wins Aussie freestyle reining title

  • April 29, 2014 at 11:47 am

    If no one in their right mind would think to ride in ‘blackface’ why would it be acceptable to dress up like a native american when you aren’t one?

    The thing that bothered me even more than that was the way the horse looked like it was choking on the bit during the slide-stop. If you have to pull that hard to stop a reigning horse that it looks like it’s gagging on the bit, you’re not doing it right.

  • April 30, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    “The love beat of two hearts”

    As I watched from the stands I felt I could hear two heart’s entering the arena here, each step that they take I can now clearly hear for those two heart’s there both joined together for the love that they share, as one beating heart for all to hear.

    I’m truly one that was able to hear when those two became as one . Thank you for that wonderful performance


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