Young Rancho Santa Fe equestrian shines at National Pony Finals


By Karen Billing

Young Rancho Santa Fe equestrian Jillian Stuart, 10, recently finished 14th overall in her class at the National Pony Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

Jillian competed in a field of 107 at the Aug. 7-12 competition and is currently number one in Zone 10 (California and Nevada) and is in the top 50 in the country on her small pony hunter Prima Ballerina.

As a family, the Stuarts traveled to Kentucky for the biggest competition of Jillian’s young career.

“I get nervous for big shows like Pony Finals,” Jillian admits.

“She didn’t show it,” said her trainer Alicia Saxton. “She was all business when she walked in that ring She was a superstar, I was a wreck!”

To qualify for Kentucky, Jillian had to be a champion or a reserve champion of an “AA” rated show or champion at an “A” rated show. Jillian had done both, multiple times, and set a goal for herself to finish in the top 15.

She had to go 81st out of 107 small ponies so it was a long wait to compete.

“It made me a lot less nervous just watching them all because some made mistakes,” Jillian said. “The good rides helped me know what I was supposed to do.”

When she landed her last jump, she knew right away she had performed well.

“I was like ‘Did this really just happen?’” Jillian said.

Saxton said Jillian did what she was supposed to do, stayed calm and executed really well. When she finished, she had a huge smile on her face and gave Maddie a joyful pat.

At the National Pony Finals, Jillian was also the high point recipient in the Welsh Pony and Cob Society in the small pony hunter division and also took fourth place high point winner for the Virginia Bred Pony Association, which is awarded to ponies of all sizes.

Jillian was 5 years old when she first rode, following the path of her sisters Savannah and Mikayla. She first started training in Las Vegas before the family moved to Rancho Santa Fe and she rode at Fairbanks Ranch. In February 2007, she started working with Saxton.

Jillian became serious about competition when she got her pony Prima Ballerina, also known as Maddie. She moved from county shows to “A” rated shows, doing one or two shows a month.

She rides four days a week with Alicia, working out issues from her show program, doing flatwork, jumps, exercises and going on “hacks” or free rides.

“Jillian works very hard, she’s a very good listener and she has a very natural way of working with the ponies and the horses,” said Saxton. “She just fits. A lot of times if kids are naturals, they don’t listen as well but she’s able to do both. She’s become quite the coveted [rider] on the show circuit with catch ponies.”

By catch ponies, Saxton is referring to when owners seek Jillian out to show their ponies. Jillian gets booked very quickly at shows at Del Mar Horse Park, San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Viejo and Palm Springs to name just a few and is ranked sixth with one of her catch ponies, Small Gift.

Jillian’s ability to get to know new horses and train them is impressive, Saxton said. While some parents may opt to purchase ponies ready to go for their children, Jillian prefers “green ponies” that she can work with and train.

“That’s not a common ability for most kids,” said Saxton. “It’s not typical for a kid to have a green pony and be successful.”

The competitive season will end in November and Maddie has been sold so Jillian will soon begin working with her new pony, Snapple, whose show name is Keep Dreaming.

Previously Jillian had been training with Alicia at a private barn but her family recently completed an arena and stables at their home. Maddie was kept right outside her front door as Snapple will be now.

Jillian said she likes to spend about two hours a day visiting her ponies and at night she always goes to say goodnight to them.

As Snapple is so new Jillian is still tentative about her goals, just hoping that the pony will be a perfect fit for her. For now Jillian will focus on training her and continue on her goal to just keep riding.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to stop,” said Jillian of riding and competing.

Mom Candace agreed, “It’s in her blood.”