It was a night full of costumes and music, but a remarkable performance by Australian Dan James and Smart Little Elan put him at the top of the podium with a score of 227 at the World Freestyle Championship at the Kentucky Reining Cup. 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.
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."
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 2-year-old. His routine was inspired by his grandchildren, who also played a roll 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 tonight 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.
Earlier in the day, a very special competition made its debut at the Kentucky Reining Cup-para-reining. Five riders with disabilities-most of them from the world of para-dressage-contested the class. Lise Yervasi came out the victor, scoring 72 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.
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."
Held at the Kentucky Horse Park, in conjunction with Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the Kentucky Reining Cup is a dynamic and exciting event that presents Reining at the highest possible level, drawing top competitors and elite-level horses from around the globe.