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The Brandywine Valley Draws Young Riders From Across the Nation


There is a light wind pushing a damp chill around—the weather hangovers from yesterday’s rainstorm—as dawn breaks at Blue Hill Farm. Inside a long horse barn, one of several buildings carved into the hillside along Powell Road, the mucking out of stalls has almost been completed. 

In a brightly lit office off to one side, a young man and two women dressed in riding gear are chatting about their coming day’s activities when they are joined by the farm’s two owners who are also the young people’s coaches in residence—Missy Ransehousen and her mother, Jessica. The Ransehousen women have excelled in equestrian competition for years. Missy counts among her many achievements being the national 1988 Young Rider Gold Medalist, and her mother is a veteran of three US Olympic riding teams—Rome, Tokyo and Seoul—and is a five-time winner of the annual national dressage championship.

Simply put, the three students are here because they want what the Ransehousens have already achieved—and perhaps, in their secret thoughts, even more. In a region legendary for its championship horses and internationally competitive riders, the scene at Blue Hill Farm is played out each morning in dozens of stables and training centers across the Brandywine region.

Annie Yeager

Annie Yeager

Being a young rider on the eventing championship track is not easy. It begins with born skills combined with a competitive spirit. That means a willingness to train hard daily and hopefully have the luck to come across the right horse to form a competitive partnership. And, frankly, the money to afford it all, which can at times mean an almost poverty-level subsistence.

Like many of the riders who train in Pennsylvania, all three Blue Hill trainees come from somewhere else. Madeline Backus, the youngest of the three riders at 19, rode in her native Colorado before arriving at Blue Hill in 2013. David Ziegler, a 22-year-old Canadian, has been working with the Ransehousens since 2011, and Jessica Pye, a 29-year-old Texan, came to Blue Hill last year. All three do eventing, also known as horse trials, a combination of show jumping, cross country and dressage, which is Ziegler’s specialty. All three have had early success in various competitions across the country.

“People who specialize in dressage are generally Type A,” laughs Ziegler, a tall, handsome young man who enjoyed playing basketball in high school before tearing a tendon. “My parents told me to go ride for a year. It’s turned into four.” Backus played clarinet in high school and got into riding early because her mother is also a horse trainer and riding instructor. Pye says all her extra time these days is spent working for her master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology at the University of North Texas.

Their mornings officially start at 7am with the tending of the horses and much of the rest of the day is spent on horseback. At Blue Hill, everything wraps up around 4:30pm. “It a lifestyle you have to enjoy,” Ziegler says, “working all day and on call 24 hours.”

“One of the things you learn early is that riding gives you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Pye says. “But it’s addictive. You don’t want to let go.” In eventing and dressage, the highs are not all from winning events, and the lows don’t all come from not bringing home a medal. Both Pye and Backus have had problems in recent years in getting the right horse and keeping it injury-free. 

While sympathetic to their maladies, Pye refers to horses that can’t compete as “pasture ornaments.” Backus complains that a few years ago when she wanted to start moving up, “My eventing horse decided he didn’t like eventing. I had a sort of pause then.” Indeed, finding the right horse is often a continuing quest, perhaps even more difficult than finding the right mate in life. And a rider for life may have to repeat the search two or three times. 

“Usually a horse is ready to start training at around age 4,” says Erin Sylvester, who both teaches and trains at her 95-acre Lily Bridge Farm in Cochranville. “If there are no hiccups, they reach the eventing levels at around 8 or 9,” she says, and then they enter their peak performance period in the years after. Recently, Sylvester, herself a relatively young rider, retired her 15-year-old gelding No Boundaries, who had reached the four-star level of competition and was the 2014 United States Eventing Association’s Horse of the Year.

Sylvester moved to the area from her native Massachusetts in 2003 to attend the University of Delaware. Now she teaches 12 to15 young riders at Lily Bridge and, in the winters, in South Carolina. “Four or five of them have real potential to make a mark in their early 20s,” she says. The primary riding goal—even more so than the Olympics—is the Rolex competition. Plus, Sylvester says, the World Equestrian Games, the biggest outside the US.

Skylar McKenna followed by sister Nina.

To win these competitions, it helps to be built correctly, she says. “The perfect riding body,” she explains, “is to have leg length that is longer than the torso. This proportion helps with balance, which is important both in jumping and with dressage.” In addition to having the perfect riding body, having the right attitude is equally important to being a champion rider, especially for riders on the rugged steeplechase and point-to-point racing circuit.

Annie Yeager, a 23-year-old rider who moved from Minnesota took the Grand National Steeplechase Championship in April 2015 in Maryland, even though she had trained in eventing as a teenager. “I’ve been relatively injury free,” the petite Yeager says, discounting a broken collarbone and sternum, the result of a nasty fall. “Injuries generally happen when you’re not committed to the jump. Indecision is what causes you to get hurt.”

Yeager chatted about her experiences on a Saturday morning in March before starting the day’s work as a rider at Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s farm in the rolling countryside west of Unionville, where about 85 horses are stabled. She will ride eight horses today in training for Sheppard before leaving at midday to chase foxes nearby with members of the Cheshire Hunt. “I also like to keep in shape by running and doing hot yoga,” she says.

Yeager has been working as a freelancer for Sheppard for the last three years while competing in races on weekends and attending classes in her spare time at the University of Delaware, where she is majoring in women and gender studies. “We’ll be racing every weekend through the end of May,” she says. Minnesota is not known for its horse riding culture, but Yeager got interested “when my dad gave my mom 10 riding lessons for her 35th birthday, and I tagged along.”

Young Skylar McKenna, 13, has been tagging along to the stables for as long as she remembers, as she comes from Chester County steeple chasing and fox hunting royalty. Her grandfather is Louis “Paddy” Neilson, a former champion rider and currently whipper-in for the Cheshire Hunt. Her mother, Paddy’s daughter Kathy, is a top trainer, as is Skylar’s father Todd McKenna. Her Aunt Sanna Neilson won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times.

“I have my own horse, and I’ve been riding since I was about 10,” Skylar says. Although there are years of riding before her, she says, “I’m thinking about becoming a trainer when I grow up.”

In hunt country, new generations of young riders are always readying to replace their mentors.