Saddle up: Local equestrians compete at national event

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In a fateful mix-up, two local girls received golden tickets, but to what they didn’t know.

It was only later, in September, that equestrians Ashley Vaught, 15, of Zionsville and Samuelle Leerkamp, 11, of Indianapolis discovered the golden tickets were invitations to the 2021 United States Hunter Jumper Association National Championship in Las Vegas.

Leerkamp, whose family lives in Broad Ripple but is moving to Zionsville, placed first in multiple events, surprising even herself. But her attendance wasn’t originally planned. Her golden ticket was initially intended for Vaught.

Three years ago, Leerkamp and Vaught met in Zionsville at Canterbury Manor Stables, which offers equestrian lessons and camps. Vaught taught Leerkamp, helping her during lessons at the stables, and the two became friends. Vaught mentored Leerkamp through her first month leasing a horse, Rooster (Be Sorta Bad!). The girls have since become Zionsville Equestrian Team Big/Little Sisters on the ZEQ equestrian team.

“Over time, we started to bond together as a group with everyone there,” Leerkamp said. “We all get along. She started training me a little bit extra and my friend Emma to help us with more technical stuff, and we really got to bond there because it was just us.”

Ashley Vaught, left, and Samuelle Leerkamp stand in the winner’s circle at the the 2021 United States Hunter Jumper Association National Championship in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Heather Vaught)

Both girls competed in trials during the summer and performed well.

“Apparently, the (Indiana Hunter Jumper Association) reports their scores, which we honestly didn’t know about because we are very green, very new in the horse show world,” Leerkamp’s mother, Deborah Jacobs, said.

Later in the year, a surprise awaited Leerkamp. Another girl told Leerkamp she finished in the top five of Indiana’s competition zone, and that Leerkamp had earned a “golden ticket.”

“We didn’t know what it was, so we had to research,” Jacobs said. “We asked some of the local trainers. They had never heard of it, so we had to keep looking and tried to figure it out.”

Leerkamp’s family, by chance, found the golden ticket in their spam email folder.

“At first, I had no idea how I got the golden ticket or what it was about,” Leerkamp said.

After two days of research, Leerkamp’s family discovered the ticket was an invitation to the USHJA National Championship. However, Vaught was listed as the trial winner. As it turned out, during trials Vaught scored higher than Leerkamp, which earned her a berth at the national championship. But because of a miscounting of points in the IHJA’s system, a golden ticket was instead sent to Leerkamp, who finished second.

When the mistake was discovered, Vaught received her invitation, and officials honored Veerkamp’s invitation, as well, meaning the girls could go to Las Vegas together.

But Leerkamp found out her trainer, Sandra Brady from Canterbury stables, and her leased horse, Be Sorta Bad, couldn’t travel because of its age. The Leerkamp family exhausted all possible resources in finding a trainer and a horse to compete at the national championships before hiring trainer Emily Farmer and her assistant trainer, Catherine Blessing, at Keepsake stables, another barn, in Sheridan, where Leerkamp trains. The trainers offered one of their horses, Idol of Kings, to Leerkamp. After securing a horse, Leerkamp trained daily for 40 days to prepare for the competition.

“I was nervous and excited at the same time because I had never been to a show like that,” Leerkamp said. “And it was nerve-wracking to be there. I honestly did not expect to get one ribbon there. I just wanted to be there for the experience.”

Leerkamp finished first in the champion tricolor in the USHJA Affiliate 0.7-meter Children’s Jumpers division. Vaught finished fourth.

“It was kind of like Christmas came early,” Leerkamp said of the experience. “It was really like a dream come true.”

What made Leerkamp’s experience extra special was the time she got to spend with her friend Vaught.

“It definitely made me feel more comfortable to be there with someone that I knew fairly well,” Leerkamp said. “It made me feel like we were in it together and we were both going through the same thing because we were nervous, and it was our first time.”

Samuelle Leerkamp, atop Idol of Kings, pauses at the championship.

A love for animals

Samuelle Leerkamp’s love for the sport started on her eighth birthday, when she was given a Groupon from her uncle for a free horseback riding lesson.

“I was pretty excited because I really like animals, in general,” Leerkamp said. “But it wasn’t exactly horses that I was into, it was all animals. So, I was really excited to have the experience, but I had no clue I’d keep going with horseback riding and that I’d stick with it. I just really liked being able to share an experience with an animal, and I really enjoyed learning how to control and really have a bond with an animal that I could have a connection with.”


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