It was just plain ugly.
The picture Baby Bert made as he ambled up to the crazily colored jumps at the famed HITS Saugerties show this summer was about as ungainly as a jumping round could be.
While all the other competitive horses swept in with elevated canters and expertly set themselves down on the other side, Bert practically slunk in, looking so closely as he approached an obstacle, that he went over each one with his head between his knees!
“On our first trip around, he went over every single jump that way,” says Jillian Shults, his rider and part owner. “A lot of horses who are nervous about a new experience might try to power through the whole jumps course, but not Bert. He slowed way down and then just hopped over it. It was not a pretty picture.”
But for Shults, their performance was a thing of beauty. They did it with only six months of jumper experience under their belts. And what the first three days in June told her was that no matter how ungainly Bert looked, he was not frazzled —he went with without spooking, without getting too strong, and best of all, without pulling her through at a panicky gallop.
Race name: Baby Bert
Sire: Albert the Great
Dam: She’s Got Class
Foal date: 2003“Normally a nervous horse might try to power through the course, and the last thing I needed to do was to try to hang on to a horse that was running away with me,” she says.
And once the pair got used to it, they hit their stride.
They returned to compete in another set of 3-3 child adult jumpers in the last week of August and started to place! Pitted against 80 other horse and rider teams, they got a 10th and an 11th place.
Not bad for their first time at a major horse show.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to show at Saugerties. It’s such a huge atmosphere, and you’ve got Grand Prix riders competing there,” she says. “But, I went into it with the attitude that I was there to learn, not win.”
Still a college student herself, Shults is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in communications at St. Lawrence University in New York as she plans for her ongoing lessons with Bert.
Already a pro at trail riding, and an enthusiastic cross-country eventer—Bert won a small event at Plumbrook Pony Club in October— her horse will be enrolled in dressage lessons and, with luck, entered in many more shows to come.
But two years ago, Bert was out in a field and in between jobs. That’s when Shults’ father Tim, who knew his daughter was looking to change from Western to English riding, learned of the horse through a family friend.
Taking a horse who her grandmother was dead set against, an animal she predicted would be a “big, crazy Thoroughbred,” and showing him to be a horse who will go for it, and win the grandmother over in the process, has been one of Shults’ greatest achievements.
“When I got him, my plan was to shape him up and sell him,” she says. “But he is just too kind. He is a once-in-a-lifetime horse who lets me make mistakes on him, and takes it all in stride.”
She adds, “He’s kind of a cocky horse and seems to think it’s pointless to flat along. He rolls his eyes when he’s asked to trot. But when he starts jumping,” she says, “he becomes big and bright and just loves it.”
Now her grandmother loves Bert so much she even tried riding him one day, and he is Shults’ best friend to take along for the ride.
“I’ve hauled him everywhere in my trailers, even eight hours up to Saugerties, twice,” she says. “When I took him back for the second time, it was like he was a different horse. It took him a day to recognize the place, and he went into the ring a confident horse.”
Those ugly first few jumps are now just a funny memory; a point in time to think about and smile as her horse shows he can jump confidently and roundly.
“When he gets in the show ring now, he just knows that’s his job,” she says. “He’s amazing. The joke among my friends is, ‘If you can’t ride Bert, you need to pick a different hobby.’ He’ll do anything, and he doesn’t bat an eye.”